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J e f f e r s , R e x r o t h , a n d t h e T r o p e o f H e l l e n i s m R o b e r t Z a l l e r In the Saturday Review of Literature for August 10, 1957, Kenneth Rexroth launched an attack on Robinson Jeffers that is storied in the annals of American literary invective. ‘“ In my opinion,’” Rexroth wrote, ‘“Jeffers’ verse is shoddy and pretentious and the philosophizing is nothing but posturing. His reworkings of Greek tragic plots make me shudder at their vulgarity’” (in Vardamis 224). Jeffers shrugged in reply: “I . . . remain mosquito-proof” (in Ridgeway 362). Later, he wondered whether he had somehow given offense. “So many people I have insulted by not answering their letters,” he wrote to Radcliffe Squires, “and I blame myself” (in Ridgeway 363). Rexroth’s attack does have the tone of a wounded admirer, or at any rate of a frustrated rival, and it is an unfortunate blot on his repu­ tation. This is all the more so in that his debt to Jeffers— particularly in his lyric meditations, his resort to the perspectives of modem science, and his long, digressive narratives— is obvious. In the last analysis, indeed, he appears to have been far more Jeffers’s disciple than was William Everson, who modestly professed to be (Brother Antoninus 3). Rexroth’s classicism in particular suggests an interesting dialogue with Jeffers’s. Jeffers’s interest in Greek culture and drama is a critical element in his career. From “The Tower beyond Tragedy,” his rework­ ing of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, to The Cretan Woman, his stage adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytus and his last completed major work, his preoccu­ pation with the legacy of Hellenism was continuous. In Cawdor he refash­ ioned the Hippolytus legend as a modem narrative of the California coast; in “The Humanist’s Tragedy” he reworked Euripides’ The Bacchae, and in At the Fall of an Age he treated the saga of Helen of Troy’s legendary death in Egypt as a symbol of the passing of Mycenaean culture. He retold the story of Medea twice, first in the California narrative Solstice and, a decade later, in his adaptation of Euripides’ play for the actress Judith Anderson. Beyond these overt reinventions, however, Jeffers’s large-scale compositions are structurally indebted to Greek prototypes. As Robert Brophy notes, [T]he dramas of Jeffers are calculated to witness to the underly­ ing pattern of life, as the Dionysian festival plays also did.... In 1 5 4 WAL 3 6 . 2 S U M M E R 2 0 0 1 order to dramatize his version of reality as cycle, ritual pattern, and fatal momentum, Jeffers pitted Dionysian force against Apollonian resistance, active against passive, revolutionary against reactionary, mercurial against stolid. For this reason his heroines are often cast in a startling, fury-like mold ... whereas his heroes are almost always impassive victims, identified with familial “house” or with civilization itself. (286, 287, 288) Jeffers cannot, of course, be confined to his sources; they are spring­ boards for his imagination, even when he follows them relatively closely, as in his adaptation of Medea. In “The Tower beyond Tragedy” he wrenches the Oresteia almost out of recognition, expanding certain scenes, curtailing or eliminating others, and creating finally an utterly new work whose theme is not, as in Aeschylus, the reconciliation of a blood feud by civic justice but the transcendence of cultural norms and taboos through transgressive violence and personal expiation. Jeffers cuts through the first half of Agamemnon, with its elaborate scenepainting and choral exchanges, to begin with the arrival of the King, his reception by Clytemnestra, and his murder, revealed not by Cassandra, but by Clytemnestra herself. This is followed by a tense con­ frontation between the Queen and the city, including Agamemnon’s troops. Greek tragic protocol does not permit the chorus to intervene directly in the action of the drama, but Jeffers, bound by no such con­ vention, creates an extended scene in which Clytemnestra holds Argos at bay while Agamemnon’s ghost, investing the seer Cassandra, cries...


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pp. 153-169
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