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Robinson Jeffers was born on January 10, 1887, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a town which is now part of Pittsburgh. His father, a professor of Old Testament literature and Biblical history at Western Theology Seminary in Pittsburgh, supervised Jeffers’s education, and Robinson began to learn Greek at the age of five. His early lessons were soon followed by travel in Europe, which included schooling at Zurich, Leipzig, and Geneva. When the family moved to California, Jeffers, at age sixteen, entered Occidental College as a junior. He graduated at eighteen.
Jeffers immediately entered graduate school as a student of literature at the University of Southern California where, in a class on Faust, he met another strong influence on his intellectual development: Una Call Kuster, who would later become his wife. By the spring of 1906, he was back in Switzerland studying philosophy, Old English, French literary history, Dante, Spanish Romantic poetry, and the history of the Roman Empire. Returning to USC in September 1907, he was admitted to the university’s medical school. The last of his formal education took place at the University of Washington, where he studied forestry.
After marrying in 1913, Jeffers and Kuster moved to Carmel, California and, in 1919, Jeffers began building a stone cottage on land overlooking Carmel Bay and facing Point Lobos. Near the cottage, he built a forty-foot stone tower. Both the structures and the location figure strongly in Jeffers’s life and poetry. Jeffers’s verse, much of which is set in the Carmel / Big Sur region, celebrates the awesome beauty of coastal hills and ravines. His poetry often praises “the beauty of things” in this setting, but it also emphasizes his belief that such splendor demands tragedy.
Jeffers brought a great knowledge of literature, religion, philosophy, language, myth, and science to his poetry. One of his favorite themes was the intense, rugged beauty of the landscape set in opposition to the degraded and introverted condition of modern man. Strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of individualism, Jeffers believed that human beings had developed a self-centered view of the world, and felt passionately that they should learn to have greater respect for the rest of creation.
Many of Jeffers’s narrative poems also use incidents of rape, incest, or adultery to express moral despair. The Woman at Point Sur (Liveright, 1927) deals with a minister driven mad by his conflicting desires. The title poem of Cawdor and Other Poems (Liveright, 1928) is based on the myth of Phaedra. In Thurso’s Landing (Liveright, 1932), Jeffers reveals, perhaps more than in any of his other collections, his abhorrence of modern civilization.
During the late 1930s and the 1940s, Jeffers’s genius was judged to have faded, and many of his references to current events and figures (Hitler, Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Pearl Harbor, for instance) raised questions about his patriotism during a world war. The Double Axe (Random House, 1948) even appeared with a disclaimer from the publisher. However, Jeffers’s adaptation of Euripedes’s Medea (Random House, 1946) was a great success when it was produced in New York in 1948.
Robinson Jeffers died in 1962.