In 1914, Robinson Jeffers got his first look at the rock and surf of Carmel, at the American continent’s western edge, where he saw his destiny. There, like a bird of prey at the “very turn of the world,” Jeffers clenched his talons deep into the granite. Warning off visitors with a thicket of “No Trespassing” signs, the poet perched there for more than half a century, gazing with a fierce eye on the Pacific Ocean, setting down his vision in words (many of them) until the day he died. Through his writing, he crafted an identity for this wild piece of the West Coast.
“When the stagecoach topped the hill from Monterey,” Jeffers wrote of first sighting Carmel, “and we looked down through pines and sea-fogs on Carmel Bay, it was evident that we had come without knowing it to our inevitable place.” Two things made Robinson Jeffers: Carmel and his wife, Una, who was by his side in the stagecoach. By all accounts, the pre-Carmel Jeffers didn’t show many signs of poetic promise. His father was a theology professor at Western Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his youth was spent on education (he studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew and even some modern languages) and little else.
Jeffers spread his wings somewhat while obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles, then dabbling in languages, literature and medicine at the University of Southern California, but he was still unformed as a writer when he and Una moved to Carmel. Certainly the greatest thing that he took from his sojourn in Southern California was Una, the wife of a wealthy Los Angeles lawyer, whom he met when she was a student at the University of Southern California. The two became lovers, scandal ensued, and, in 1913, Jeffers wound up with his prize. The entire course of Jeffers’ poetry would have been altered had he and Una moved to England as they planned. But World War I reared its head and the Jeffers family decided to go north.
The Jefferses soon bought property on a point in Carmel that was being used for a golf course. It was as rocky as a New England pasture. They built a small stone cottage next to a granite “tor” (a Gaelic word for a rocky outcropping), which is why the residence today is called Tor House. Knowing nothing of building, the young couple hired a contractor. But while construction was underway, Jeffers got involved. Over the next few decades, Tor House expanded into several buildings, all of them stone. Jeffers built them all, with some help, eventually, from his sons. He hauled the stones up from the sea that broke in front of the house. Clearly a man who needed toil, he also planted over 2,000 eucalyptus and cypress trees along the headland, on the property that he and Una began accumulating.
He had begun writing poetry by that time, but until he started working with the granite his poetry was undistinguished. He judged himself to be too influenced by the poets he had studied; just a “verse-writer,” not a “writer of verse.” But the labor he did with his hands had a positive effect upon his verse. Like a stone wall, the left edges of his poems are as straight as a plumb line, while the right edges are rough. Within the poem every word is carefully chosen for its heft and shape. No chink is left unfilled. Just like a builder with stone, he selected the words that settled together strongly.
Jeffers did not toil long in obscurity. His first published poem was the 72 page epic, “Tamar,” originally printed in an edition of 500 copies at his own expense in 1917. The East Coast printer who got the job was so intrigued by the poem that he gave copies to two influential critics. And thus, quickly, a reputation was born.
The calm and large
Pacific surge heavy with summer rolling southeast from a far
Battered to foam among the stumps of granite below.
Tamar watched it swing up the little fjords and fountain
Not angrily in the blowholes; a gray vapor
Breathed up among the buttressed writhings of the cypress trunks
And branches swollen with blood-red lichen.
Jeffers “got” the relationship between the ocean and the land in a way that was simple but profound. The power of the poetry derived from the relentless battering of the sea against Monterey’s granite coast and the resistance of the stone. Both boulder and sea were living and wild, nature in her pure form. If he had ended up at Walden Pond instead, writing to the sound of gentle ripples lapping at a sandy shore, Jeffers might just have become a fine building contractor. Big Sur’s extreme wildness propelled his vision.
Later, a maturing Jeffers spoke of the Big Sur area:
The coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places,
(The quiet ones ask for greater suffering: but here the granite cliff the gaunt
Demands what victim? The dykes of red lava and black what Titan? The
hills like pointed flames
Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the sun, what
(“Apology for Bad Dreams,” 1925)
Was he speaking of the power of Big Sur to turn people insane? It is possible. He and Una were aware of the many characters who roamed the area, haunted or crazy, and of the legends that surrounded it. It could also be that he wasn’t speaking about others but about himself, coming to grips with a beauty so great that it demanded a sacrifice. A few lines further, he admonishes himself: “Better invent than suffer.” But again, does that mean he needed to be engaged in some activity (endless writing and building of stone walls) in order to keep sane? Or did he believe he must write poems as one writes spells, to protect himself and his family from what Big Sur demanded? No one knows. The poem, all 121 lines of it, is a tantalizing cipher. Written when he was beginning to hit his stride, it is now looked at as the key to understanding his later works, even as it resists interpretation.
Jeffers focused most of his writing career on the settings of Big Sur and Carmel. He made so much of a connection with the place that he seemed almost able to bend time, to step out of the twentieth century. When they first broke ground for Tor House, he and Una discovered that the ground was littered with abalone shells—a sure sign that the Indians had inhabited that point of land long before they did.
All the soil is thick with shells, the tide-rock feasts of a
Here the granite flanks are scarred with ancient fire
(“Apology for Bad Dreams,” 1925)
When the couple first moved to Carmel, shepherds still traversed the hills and valleys of Big Sur much as in ancient Greek times. As a student of the classics, Jeffers must have been delighted. He extolled that lifestyle in his poetry, and at home he and his family tried to live that kind of simple life, too. Tor House was primitive inside, heated by fireplaces, lit by candles, for a long time without electricity. The lingering smell of woodsmoke is one of the striking things about the house. It smells like a building that was built in the 18th century—not the 20th.
In one poem, Jeffers revealed his deepest muse. He described it as the “eye that watched before there was an ocean.” This eye was both “older and harder than life and more impartial,” a force that came from the beginning of time. But it is difficult to imagine Jeffers’ success without the presence of Una. The eye that watched before there was an ocean represented all that was forbidding about Jeffers, who had a craggy face that looked as though it too had been hewn from granite. Una’s face was soft, more rounded. She was a vibrant Irish woman who injected liveliness into the atmosphere, something that had been lacking in his Calvinist upbringing. Furthermore, Una was his earthly guide and goad—the one who drove him on when he wavered. For example: he followed a schedule of writing in the morning and building in the afternoon. His writing desk was on the second floor of Tor House. Una’s writing desk, where she kept up with her correspondence, was directly below his, on the first floor. When writing, Jeffers paced. Thus, Una knew that if she did not hear his treading footsteps, the flow had stopped. She would grab a broom handle that she kept handy and rap it on the ceiling to spur him on.
Una also inspired Jeffers to build a tower next to Tor House, for their two boys to play in. He worked on this tower for four years—an amazingly short time, considering that he had no formal engineering training, no advanced equipment, and no help. Shaded by some of the surviving cypresses and eucalyptus trees, it remains the most impressive feature of the property.
At first Jeffers tried to build a round tower, but he soon realized that he didn’t have the skill. What he erected instead has three floors with a main set of stairs and a secret staircase that leads from the first floor to a second floor room that was for Una. From there, a set of stone steps leads up to a landing, and from there to a parapet at the top, with a shard of the Great Wall of China set into the stone.
Robinson Jeffers ascended to this parapet every night to look at the scene before going to bed. He describes it in “Margrave” like this:
On the small, marble-paved platform
On the turret on the head of the tower
Watching the night deepen.
I feel the rock-edge of the continent
Reel eastward with me below the broad stars
He named the tower Hawk Tower because he said that a hawk came every day while he was building it and landed on the stones. This was not the only mystic occurrence during his tenure in Carmel. Una, an admirer of William Butler Yeats (who also owned a tower, in Ireland), was as much of a believer in spiritualism as Yeats. Yeats and his wife practiced automatic writing, during which she went into a trance and believed that her hand was guided by spirits. It seems that Una, and Jeffers, though he was a trained scientist, shared an enthusiasm for probing the spirit world. One of the surprises of the main house is a skull (what Jeffers liked to call a “human brain vault”) the couple kept in a hidden alcove under the stairs, presumably for séances.
Jeffers believed in the notion that he was part of some life flow that transcended his own mortality. And, as his poetry became inseparable from the stone and ocean, so too did his fate and his home and his poetry get intertwined. They built the house on a spot where Indians had lived. But the connection did not end there. When they later dug the foundation for the fireplace in the kitchen, they found that the Indians had had their fire pit in the exact same spot. Those coast Indians, who spoke of a fabulous city called Esalen, which no settlers ever found, had disappeared from the land long ago. But they remained alive to Jeffers and to others, who felt the presence of the Indians in the hills of Big Sur.
Other legendary creatures appeared to him as well. In one poem, he described, in careful detail, a merman he had seen one day, waist-deep in the water in front of the house.
Unmistakably human and unmistakably a sea-beast: he
Submerged and never came up again,
While we stood watching.
(“The World’s Wonders,” 1951)
Una also filled a space in his personal mythology. On one of the rafters in the only first floor bedroom, he inscribed a quotation from Spenser’s Faerie Queene:
Sleep after toil
Port after stormy seas
Ease after Warre
Death after Life does
Like Vergil of Dante’s Inferno, the main character of Spenser’s allegory was accompanied by a guide. Spenser’s guide at one time prevented him from committing suicide. That guide’s name happened to be Una. It is likely that Jeffers’ Una performed the same service for him as well, as he went through several dark times.
The bedroom with the inscription was rarely used but not completely off limits. In fact, Jeffers wrote a poem about the bed in there. In it, he revealed that he had chosen that bed, which had a view out across the grass and rocks to the ocean, as a “good death-bed.” He viewed its occasional use by overnight guests as somewhat of a private joke. One day, he wrote, while lying in that bed he would be called to death by a “patient daemon” behind a “screen of sea-rock and sky.”
By 1931, Robinson Jeffers had appeared on the cover of Time and was widely read and studied. But the advent of World War II affected him deeply. In 1941, the war entered America’s shores—in the Pacific, no less—with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jeffers’ first poetic reaction, called “West Coast Blackout,” was completed three days later. As the war dragged on Jeffers was thrown off kilter by the horrors of war.
In 1943 he wrote to a friend that “months have gone by like drops of water, and it isn’t because I am particularly occupied with anything. Writing verses and usually burning them, and cutting firewood and heaving stones, with Time and the newspapers for anesthetic in the evenings.”
By 1948, Jeffers had rallied, of sorts, with a book of verse called The Double Axe. In it, he was very specific about causes and effects, only this time his subjects were not mankind and Big Sur so much as they were a warlike America, her behavior and future. Jeffers wrote in one of the Double Axe poems: “Truly men hate the truth; they’d liefer / Meet a tiger on the road.” And in the book of verse he seemed determined not to sugarcoat the facts as he saw them. “Unhappy country,” he wrote, “what wings you have…Unhappy, eagle wings and bleak, chicken brain.” Random House had its doubts that the public wanted to hear Jeffers’ opinions just then. They published the book with a disclaimer. In the analysis of poet William Everson, Jeffers’ “descent into the political arena was an unmitigated disaster. For one thing, political poetry itself was then out of fashion…. Moreover, in 1948 the nation at large was enjoying an interval of rare self-esteem. Victory had proved American justice and she stood before the world as the savior of mankind….Into this bland, complacent atmosphere Jeffers’ book dropped like a bomb (a stink bomb, many thought).
The Double Axe, which was savaged by many critics, including the ones at Time, Jeffers’ erstwhile anesthetic, and one-time admirer, marked the beginning of his swift slide into disrepute. Jeffers, who had once been treated like a prophet and visionary, felt America’s cold shoulder. In 1950 Jeffers lost Una to cancer. He was left alone with his convictions in his stone house and tower, and only the sea hadn’t changed.
In 1962 he died, just as he had predicted, in the good deathbed by the seaside window, 30 years after he published the poem about it. And on that day in Carmel it snowed—a rare, almost unheard-of occurrence. Like the shells that the Jeffers family discovered when building their house on the land that so moved him, his poetry seems to be preserved under the creepers and undergrowth, waiting to be revealed again in the light of a different day. The presence of Jeffers himself still remains in the rough granite and the lingering smell of woodsmoke of Tor House, beyond which ebbs and flows the startlingly blue Carmel surf.