- Foundation Stones: Robinson Jeffers and Poetry in the North of Ireland
1. Ignoring the Foundations
Robinson Jeffers seems doomed, despite the vigor of his lyric verse and the unconventionality of his longer work, to be deliberately overlooked. Not enough to reintroduce into literature the threnody of sex and violence that had been one of its core functions since Shakespeare, since Euripides; not enough to set his face against Modernism, or Gongorism as he would have it, when it was all the Mallarméan, Eliotian rage; not enough to espouse a whole raft, the whole raft, of countercultural obsessions, anti-war, anti-military-industrial, anti-commercial, anti-field-sports, anti-day-trippers, anti-the-despoliation-of-the-ecology and pro-the-simple-life, pro-Celtic-music and pro-mysticism; not enough to have been largely re-ignored when all his eccentricities subsequently became normative, mainstream. He also manages to play a significant part in excavating the landscape that was to become “poetry from the North of Ireland,” one of the most overexamined literary categories of recent years for a host of reasons, only to have his role in that renaissance quietly, and surely not deliberately, ignored all over again. The work he created over a wet summer in a tiny cottage in the Glens of Antrim in 1929 is easily identifiable: so the failure to probe its influence on that region’s leading poets of the ensuing 40 years is indeed striking, but easily rectified.
To measure Jeffers’s influence, one need only look at the first distinctly northern-Irish poets to attract public attention in the period after the Jeffers sojourn there: effectively the first such poets per se, [End Page 413] as the northern state had only come into existence in 1922, as the last six counties of Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Poets from that geographic region had simply, prior to the “Troubles” of 1916–1922, been thought of, and regarded themselves, as Irish poets.
The divided nature of the new entity, with its inbuilt majority of Unionists (almost all Protestants), and sizeable minority of disaffected Catholic Irish Nationalists (who had not fully abandoned their dream of an independent, secular, non-British, and culturally Gaelic Ireland), makes it seem only fair that the first two poets to attract notice in the newly separated “North” should be one of each party. John Hewitt (1907–1987) and John Montague (1928–2016) are viewed in local tribal terms as “representing” the two traditions, Unionist and Nationalist respectively, that their families came from. Between them, these two “cleared the way” (to adapt a Montague poem title) for a younger generation, in what came to be regarded as a literary renaissance of which Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) would become the official ambassador.
The question is to what extent Jeffers, no mean stonemason himself, “opened ground” (to borrow the title of one of Heaney’s Selected Poems) to dig foundations, and indeed actually laid foundation stones for what was to come, although the stones themselves were all very much in situ and may have merely required pointing out by a poet. It is not the biblical case that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”: merely that in admiring the architecture it is easy to forget who was around when they started digging the foundations.
2. An American in the Glens of Antrim
Jeffers’s presence in County Antrim in the North of Ireland in 1929 was not noted publicly, in that he didn’t arrive as a celebrity visiting literary giants, and has not been much remembered since 1929 either in literary or local terms. His photo would appear on Time magazine’s cover within a year or two of the visit, though it is not known how [End Page 414] many subscribed in the Glens of Antrim and whether, if so, they recognised the taciturn Californian who had sojourned in Knocknacarry’s Dromore Cottage.
Writing since college days, Jeffers had, by the mid-1920s, begun to attract serious attention with epic narratives, parables, sub-Hellenic tragedies of strange and wild settler families on the central Californian coast, stories set in the...