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R O B E R T Z A L L E R Drexel University Land and Value: The Ecology of Robinson Jeffers Robinson Jeffers, who gained fame in the 1920s and 1930s as a poet of sexual excess and a prophet of cultural decline, has reemerged since the 1960s as an icon of the ecology movement. But as Jeffers treatment of sexu­ ality and violence was widely misunderstood in the 1930s, so his nuanced and complex view of m an’s relation to the natural world is in danger of over-simplification today. When Jeffers, a transplanted Easterner, trekked up to Carmel by coach with his wife U na in 1914, the mystique of the California wild had already been established by writers and naturalists such as John Fremont, Richard Henry Dana, John Muir, Clarence King, Jack London, and Mary Austin, the last-named a later friend and correspondent of the Jefferses. M uir’s struggle to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from damming, the first great battle of modem American environmentalism, had just been lost. Jeffers’ generation were no longer pioneers, but developers and exurbanites in search of picturesque real estate.1 Jeffers himself had a wide prospect at Tor House, the stone dwelling and tower he built overlooking Point Lobos. He took pride in being a homesteader; “O ur love,” he wrote to Una, “is different from the love of people that live in apartments.” Property taxes eventually forced him and the family to sell off most of the original property, leaving room only for the house and the tower. The latter, deprived of space, was reduced to a sub­ urban eccentricity rather than the wild reminder of the bardic coasts of Ireland he and U na had meant it to be; but something of its ruggedness remains. So do the trees that he planted by hand and which continue to enhance the value of the subdivisions. Jeffers’ verse, too, took space and solitude for its element. No other poet is so dependent on physical am plitude; no other poet’s verse takes up so much sheer room : 10 Western American Literature In the purple light, heavy with redwood, the slopes drop seaward, Headlong convexities of forest, drawn in together to the steep ravine. Below, on the sea-cliff, A lonely clearing; a little field of corn by the streamside; a roof under spared trees. Then the ocean Like a great stone someone has cut to a sharp edge and polished to shining. Beyond it, the fountain And furnace of incredible light flowing up from the sunk sun. In the little clearing a woman Is punishing a horse. . . . (“Apology for Bad Dreams” ) Here is the prototypic Jeffers scene: a wild, Edenic landscape at the edge of the world; a dwarfed habitation; a brutal episode. The landscape at once reduces and reflects the woman’s act, the little horror focusing its latent purposiveness and violence. Its grandeur is the impassive face of natural process, of the incessant tides of energy within atom and star. The woman’s cruelty is an infinitesimal but at the same time unique expression of this primal force; she both sullies the landscape and releases it. The relation of human activity to natural process is thus problematic in Jeffers; unlike other forms of energy, it is subject to creaturely will. It therefore requires mediation, a function performed here by the suffering horse. Horses appear frequently in Jeffers’ pastoral, most notably in “Roan Stallion,” where the horse becomes an emblem of natural power. The pres­ ence of horses is more muted but no less significant in the long narrative poem “Give Your Heart to the Hawks.” Its protagonist, Lance Fraser, has killed his brother after discovering him with his wife at a beach party: The tide is fallen, the steep ribbon of the beach was but little wider. But the sea was become so flattened that no waves flashed. Enormous peace of the sea, white quiet of the cliff. And at their angle and focus a few faint specks of humanity happy in liquor or released in sleep, But Lance alone. Then noises like the cries of a woman screaming, bird after bird of sharp-colored...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 9-20
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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