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Presented at the 1992 annual meeting of the Western Literature Association by Mick McAllister.
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Mick McAllister. "The Contagion of Consciousness: Robinson Jeffers' Moral Universe". At Wanderer's Well http://www.dancingbadger.com/contagionf.htm (March, 2001).
Summary: A reading of Thurso's Landing and the companion piece "Margrave", focussed on the moral dimensions of the poem. Both poems operate in the moral universe Jeffers' called "inhumanism," but they are less "inhumane" than they might seem.
March, 2001: If this essay had ever been published in print, it would have been dedicated to my son Jeof, a polymath who, I have told people for many years, is proof, in combining the best of myself and his mother, that evolution works. In 1991, he surprised me on my birthday with a first edition of Thurso's Landing. Although I had been a devotee of Jeffers' work since I started college, I had not read some of the rarer long works. When I decided to write on "Margrave" for the 1992 WLA, I went back to the original reprinting in Thurso's Landing rather than to the Selected Poems, where I had first read it. And when I found myself struggling with the meaning of the shorter poem, I went back to the title poem and discovered there a larger moral puzzle, a knot of oblique thinking on the topic of suicide and murder. A biographer might look for a link between this theme and the Jeffers' brief, tragic relationship with the poisonous Mabel Dodge Lujan, but the chronology is wrong. Whatever the cause, the two poems examined a common ethical theme, and I found that the one illuminated the other. Had it not been for Jeof's generous gift, this book by his secret namesake, I might not have found the connexion.
1. Though Jeffers is not remembered as a dramatist and disavowed drama as a genre ("I know nothing of the theater," he wrote in reply to a request from Albert Camus that he adapt one of Camus' plays for the American stage Ridgeway, 335n), his adaptation of Euripides' Medea is one of the most celebrated translations in the American repertory, and his versions of the Orestia and the Nibelungenlied (The Tower Beyond Tragedy and At the Birth of an Age, respectively) are often singled out by Jeffers scholars as his best long work.
2. In a letter to his friend Benjamin de Casseres (September 21, 1927), Jeffers responded to the negative criticism by observing, "...people come and ask me what it means. They'd think I was comparing it with its betters if I should ask them in return what King Lear means: so all I can do is to look grim and assure them that my hero was crazy but I am not" (Ridgeway 122).
3. "'Tamar' seemed to my later thought to have a tendency to romanticize unmoral freedom," he wrote to Mark Van Doren (August 5, 1927), quoting his earlier letter to James Rorty (Ridgeway 115).
4. Though this surely would be an ironic position to take in regard to a poet who is often dismissed as tiresomely didactic....
5. And "Roan Stallion." See the Van Doren/Rorty letter passim (Ridgeway, 160).
6. For instance, either we don't know why Tamar destroys her entire family, or it is because her brother decides to go off to war, which he does because he doesn't want to continue his incestuous relationship with her. Similarly perverse actions of destruction occur all through the narratives, the most famous being Medea's murder of her children (not Jeffers' invention, of course, but he didn't choose to adapt Prometheus Bound).
7. His last word on the subject is poems in Hungerford and Other Poems and The Beginning and the End that examine suicide as the resolution to his pain after the death of his wife Una.
8. Jeffers relates elsewhere that the incident of the poem is biographical.
9. Bloom offers persuasive evidence that this apperception exists in the indigenous religions, such as Mormonism, Christian Science, and Southern Baptism. He is most direct in his discussion of the theology of the Southern Baptists, who describe the communion of believer and God as "walking alone with Jesus."
10. One of Jeffers' most horrifyingly dispassionate poems, "The Inquisitors," pictures godlike Titans examining humans with the objectivity of children plucking limbs from bugs to see if they bleed and concluding, as the children often do, that both the action and the object are too boring to pursue.
11. I am thinking here of "wergild." In Old English warrior societies, a murderer "paid" for his crime literally, by moneys or indenture to the "owner" of the victim. Our legal system of vengence has ignored this variant of retribution for centuries, even to the illogical point of "punishing" a burglar and not forcing him to restore the household goods of the victim.
12. In the Ridgeway letters, there is a passing reference to a kidnapping that may have inspired the poem. Certainly Margrave's Sadean naturalistic justification for both the crime and his request for commutation to life imprisonment are reminiscent of the Leopold-Loeb incident.