Jeffers in Tor House

Robinson Jeffers was born on this day in 1887. Jeffers lived on and often wrote about the California coast, and is regarded by many as “the father of environmental poetry.” He was popular enough to be on the cover of Time magazine, though he attracted controversy for his pacifism and his philosophy of “Inhumanism,” which advocated “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” Jeffers’s Tor House is today a popular stop for both literary travelers and environmentalists; below are the opening lines of his “Tor House”:

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant….

His relationship with his wife is prominent in many of his poems; in “For Una,” the marriage is linked to the other most prevalent and famous image in his poetry and life, the “Hawk Tower” he added to Tor House:

I built her a tower when I was young –
Sometime she will die –
I built it with my hands, I hung
Stones in the sky.

Old but still strong I climb the stone –
Sometime she will die –
Climb the steep rough steps alone,
And weep in the sky….

The poem was written in the early days of WWII, and these opening lines soon give way to visions of death and despair: “It is not Europe alone that is falling / Into blood and fire. / Decline and fall have been dancing in all men’s souls/ For a long while.” In his concluding lines, Jeffers returns to Una, and the moment:

…To-night, dear,
Let’s forget all that, that and the war,
And enisle ourselves a little beyond time,
You with this Irish whiskey, I with red wine
While the stars go over the sleepless ocean,
And sometimes after midnight I’ll pluck you a wreath
Of chosen ones; we’ll talk about love and death,
Rock-solid themes, old and deep as the sea,
Admit nothing more timely, nothing less real
While the stars go over the timeless ocean,
And when they vanish we’ll have spent the night well.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.