Beyond Tragedy Robinson Jeffers' Transcendental Nihilism

Wilkinson, R.T.
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
It is at present unfashionable to like Robinson Jeffers. His poetic career has suffered one of the quickest declines in the history of literature. Once thought a major American poet (equaled only by Eliot in his time), now he is relegated to a lower rung of the ladder (the one with the legend, exaggerated reputation) along with Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandberg. Admittedly Jeffers draws to himself a great deal of justified suspicion. In an age when irony is one of the prime poetic tools, if Jeffers uses it at all, he is woefully heavy-handed with it. He is a neo-Romantic who does not parody himself (self-parody, if intentional, can often bring forth applause from the critics; but to be serious about one’s Romantic ideas is close to poetic treason). Too often his verse is bombastic; in fact, one might go so far as to characterize his style by calling it bombastic; Jeffers has a great deal of the old-fashioned orator in him. He is as much of a word-sot as Dylan Thomas without Thomas’ (or Joyce’s) total commitment to the word. But, strangely enough, critics feel far more uncomfortable with Jeffers than they do with Lindsay or Sandberg. The latter have their place, and though it may be a small place, it is secure in our literature. But the critic must always be justifying his opinion as to the low place of Jeffers. No matter how berated Jeffers is, his troubling presence seems never completely done awayswith. His work remains, to puzzle and distract, and to which poets and critics turn time and time again, attempting each time to end their concern with it for good. Therefore I feel justified in returning myself to Jeffers (for whom at one time I had an immoderate enthusiasm) and to one of his most neglected, best works. Jeffers wrote several verse dramas during his career, the most famous being the highly successful, Medea. But it is much more a translation of Euripides than was the early narrative-drama-poem The Tower Beyond Tragedy, in which Jeffers confronted the myth of the house of Atreus as if he were the first to confront it, as if it had been made especially for him. This retreatment of the Orestia of Aeschylus is entirely Jeffers’, perhaps his finest single work, and certainly the most uncluttered, complete presentation of his ideas. For this reason and for the reason that there has been no extended study of The Tower Beyond Tragedy (though many agree as to its power and its worth) I have undertaken the study with an eye on looking into the ideas of nihilism and inhumanism, two terms especially associated with Jeffers, and used by him in a sense quite different than by anyone else. I have looked extensively into the criticism of Jeffers’ work in order to attain a wider familiarity with his work and the critical reaction to it, but, with a few exceptions have decided to make this an almost completely independent study, feeling it would be of more value, there having been little recent critical concern for Jeffers.
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