THE POETRY OF
FOR THE ARTS
THE POETRY OF
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves great art.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary
organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It has embarked
on an ambitious plan to bring the best poetry before the largest possible audiences.
National Endowment for the Arts
1 1 00 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Robinson JefFers, "Rock and Hawk," from The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Copyright 1935 and
© 1963 by Donnan JefFers and Garth Jeffers. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.
Excerpts cited from letters are from The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una
Jeffers, edited by James Karman (forthcoming, Stanford University Press).
Jeffers, Robinson. The Double Axe and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1948.
. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Vols. 1-5. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1988-2001.
. The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Stanford, CA
Stanford University Press, 2003.
Jeffers, Una. "How Carmel Won Hearts of the Jeffers Family," The CarmelPine Cone (April 19, 1940): 9.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writer: James Karman, Emeritus Professor of English and Religious Studies, California State
Editor: Erika Koss for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC
Special thanks to Steve Young of the Poetry Foundation, and to Alex Vardamis, Elliot Ruchowitz-
Roberts, and Joan Hendrickson of the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation.
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: © Greg Probst/Corbis.
Page 1: Dana Gioia, image by Vance Jacobs; John Barr, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation.
Inside back cover: Photo by Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Poetry of Place 4
Lesson Two: Historical Criticism 5
Lesson Three: Biographical Criticism
and the Speaker of a Poem 6
Lesson Four: Word Choice and the Value of a Dictionary 7
Lesson Five: Poetry and Ideas 8
Lesson Six: Eco-Criticism l )
Lesson Seven: Rhythm 10
Lesson Light: Symbols 1 1
Lesson Nine: Allusions 12
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Poet? 1 3
Essay Topics 1 \
Glossary 1 5
I [andoui One Jeffers's [nhumanism l(->
1 [andout Two: Idlers and the ( Central ( California ( Coast 17
Handout Ihice: Rock and 1 lawk 1 8
I caching Resources 19
XC II Standards 20
Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.
This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the sea-wind
Lets no tree grow,
Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon's
Realist eyes and act
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast dow
Nor success make proud.
— ROBINSON JEFFERS
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National Endowment for the Arts
Welcome to The Big Read, an initiative from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American culture, The Big Read
hopes to unite communities through great literature, as well as inspire students to
become lifelong readers.
The National Endowment for the Arts joins the Poetry Foundation to create a new
program to celebrate great American poets and the historic sites associated with
their lives and works. By honoring these writers and literary landmarks, we hope
both to bring poetry to a broader audience and to help preserve and promote local
cultural heritage and history.
This Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to introduce students to the poetry
of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers's poems are emotionally direct, magnificently musical,
and philosophically profound. No one has ever written more powerfully about the
natural beauty of the American West. Determined to write a truthful poetry purged
of ephemeral things, Jeffers cultivated a style at once lyrical and tough-minded.
Each lesson has five components: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing
exercises, vocabulary words, and homework assignments. In addition, we have
suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background information
about the poems, the historical period, and the author. All lessons dovetail with the
state language arts standards required in the poetry genre.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with booklists,
timelines, and historical information. We hope these educational materials allow
you to have fun with your students while introducing them to the work of a great
From the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, we wish you an exciting and productive
d^Su^ H^ 6k ,
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FOCUS: Poetry of Place
Activities: Discuss the influence of place — Central
California — on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Use
a map of California to locate specific places in these
poems. Write an essay or poem about your setting
Homework: Read the introduction to Jeffers from the
Reader's Guide (p. 3) and Jeffers's biography (pp. 4-6).
Read three poems by Jeffers: "Night Without Sleep,"
"The Answer," and "The Day Is a Poem." Write a
paragraph describing the mood of one of the poems.
FOCUS: Historical Criticism
Activities: Discuss the historical context of Jeffers's life
and poetry. Look at his attitude toward World War II
through three of his poems. Write a response.
Homework: Read "Jeffers and California" (pp. 8-9)
and "Tor House and Hawk Tower" (pp. 1 0-1 I) from
the Reader's Guide. Read two poems by Jeffers: "The
Stone Axe" and "Oh Lovely Rock."
Jeffers's poems remain protected by copyright, but may
be printed from the Poetry Foundation's Web site:
www.poetryfoundation.org. Go to the Poetry Tool and
search by the poet's name, or each poem's title. All the
poems cited in this guide are available on this Web site.
FOCUS: Biographical Criticism and the Speaker
of a Poem
Activities: Discuss the ways in which understanding
Jeffers's life enriches the reader's appreciation. Discuss
the speaker of "The Stone Axe," which is not Jeffers.
Write an essay.
Homework: Read "Inscription for a Gravestone" and
"The Deer Lay Down Their Bones."
FOCUS: Word Choice and the Value of the Dictionary
Activities: Consider the value of understanding a
word's varied meanings. Look up words from today's
poems. Write an essay that describes Jeffers's tone,
syntax, and diction.
Homework: Read Handout One, "Jeffers's Inhumanism."
Read Jeffers's poems "Credo" and "The Place for No
FOCUS: Poetry and Ideas
Activities: Discuss Jeffers's philosophy of life, which
he called "Inhumanism." Discuss the application of a
1 934 Jeffers letter to today's poems. Write a personal
Homework: Read Handout Two, "Jeffers and the
Central California Coast" Read Jeffers's poems "The
Purse-Seine" and "The Coast-Road."
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Activities: Discuss Eco-Criticism, and Jeffers's
celebration of the Monterey-Carmel-Big Sur coast.
Research the construction of California's Highway
One. Write a response.
Homework: Read "Continent's End" and
Activities: Discuss Jeffers's use of rhythm. Consider
the tempo at which poems should be read aloud.
Write an essay.
Homework: Read Jeffers's poems "Hurt Hawks" and
"Rock and Hawk." Then read Handout Three, "Rock
Activities: Analyze two major symbols in Jeffers's
poetry: stones and hawks. Write V\ essay that
discusses the "almost religious feeling" Jeffers had
Homework: Read "To the House." "Hooded Night. -
and "Shine, Republic." and list the references they
Activities: Examine important allusions in Jeffers's
poetry that draw on religion, Egyptian history, and
American history. Write an essay which explains how
three allusions contribute to the meaning of "Shine.
Homework: Read Jeffers's poems "To the Stone-
Cutters" and "Love the Wild Swan." Read "Jeffers and
Culture" (p. 14) in the Reader's Guide.
FOCUS: What Makes a Great Poet'
Activities: Explore the qualities of a great poet
Discuss what Jeffers's poetry can teach about the
concerns of his generation. Write a short essay that
explains one central theme or major feature of his
Homework: Write a paragraph about Jeffers's legacy
in the twenty-first century.
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1. A personal signature,
especially that of a sovereign
2. A hand gesture for conveying
a command or message
From "Carmel Point"
To mar, spoil, or disfigure
Milch cow, n.
A cow kept for milk
From the earliest period or
state; exuding original purity
Begin each days lesson by reading the poems aloud in class.
For some poets, the place where they live is an essential element of their
work. In William Wordsworth's poetry, for instance, we encounter the
beautiful Lake District of England, and in Robert Frost's we experience the
New England countryside. Such poets look closely at the living landscape
around them, seeking to capture the sights, sounds, and human drama
To understand the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, one must know where he
lived. In 1941, in a rare public lecture, Jeffers described the rocky coast
where he lived as "not only the scene of my narrative verse but also the chief
actor in it." Assuming that many people in the Washington, DC, audience
had never seen Carmel, California, or its surrounding area, Jeffers offered
some descriptive details. "The mountains," he said, "rise sheer from the
ocean; they are cut by deep gorges and are heavy with brush and forest.
Remember, this is Central, not Southern California. There are no orange-
groves here, and no oil-wells, and Los Angeles is far away. These mountains
pasture a few cattle and many deer; hawk and vulture, eagle and heron fly
here, as well as the sea-birds and shore-birds; and there are clouds and sea-
fog in summer, and fine storms in winter."
Read "Carmel Point," "Bixby's Landing," and "Hands" aloud with your class. Using
a map of California, locate Carmel, Bixby Landing, and Tassajara Creek, and study
the Monterey County coastline. Have students draw an illustration of the general
landscape, using the poems as their inspiration. Students will then research some
images and see if they are similar to the illustrations. Did the poems clearly
capture what students found in the images?
What does Jeffers see in these three settings? In "Hands" and "Bixby's Landing,"
what do the hand prints and the cable car have in common? What message might
Ask students to think about the place where they live. Identify its most
prominent features. What words describe its distinctive mood? Using Jeffers for
inspiration, have students write an essay or poem about their home. To extend
the exercise, have them add an interesting character to the setting.
In the Reader's Guide, read the introduction to Jeffers on page 3 and his
biography on pages 4-6. Read three poems by Jeffers: "Night Without Sleep,'
"The Answer," and "The Day Is a Poem." Make a list of all the historical
references in these poems.
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From "Night Without Sleep'
1. A descent of water over a
steep surface; a waterfall
2. Any furious rush of water
Lying crosswise or across
A rushing, violent stream
Knowing as much as possible about when a poet lived can be as important
as knowing where he or she lived. To fully appreciate a play by Sophocles,
a grasp of ancient Greek history is helpful. In the same way, the more
one knows about Medieval Italy or Elizabethan England, the better for
an understanding of Dante or Shakespeare. This approach to literature is
called historical criticism. Readers who favor it study literary works and their
authors within their social, cultural, and intellectual settings.
Robinson Jeffers was born in 1887 and died in 1962. During this period,
scientific discoveries, technological inventions, and artistic revolutions
touched every aspect of life in America. After their marriage in August
1913, Robinson and Una Jeffers hoped to live in England tor a while. Before
they could finalize their plans, World War I began in Europe, and they
were forced to remain in America. The monumental loss of life during
both World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) affected the
art and literature of this period, leading — as was the case at times with
Jeffers's work — to expressions of bitterness, nihilism, and pessimism. In the
Readers Guide, Dana Gioia explains that Jeffers "saw the pollution of the
environment, the destruction of other species, the squandering of natural
resources, the recurrent urge to war, and the violent squalor of cities as the
inevitable result of a species out of harmony with its own world.
Read the quote from Jeffers cited on the inside back cover of this Teacher's
Guide. The subtitle to Jeffers's "The Day Is a Poem" is "September 19. 1939," the
morning of a pivotal Hitler speech at Danzig. Ask students to consider the poem's
final lines — "The day is a poem: but too much / Like one of Jeffers's. crusted with
blood and barbaric omens, / Painful to excess, inhuman as a hawk's cry." Ask
students to consider how poetry can respond to profound historical events.
"Night Without Sleep" and "The Answer" were written by Jeffers just before
World War II. What do the poems reveal about his response to that gathering
In the midst of a whirlwind, where does Jeffers find calm' Select one of the
poems from this lesson and write an essay about Jeffers's response to danger Do
you agree or disagree with his strategy?
Have students read two essays from the Reader's Guide: "Jeffers and California'
(pp. 8-9) and "Tor House and Hawk Tower" (pp 10-11). then two poems by
Jeffers. "The Stone Axe" and "Oh Lovely Rock." Who is the speaker in each of
these poems ; How do you know'
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From "Oh Lovely Rock "
A sheer, steep cliff
To mat or press together
A wearing down or away
When we read Walt Whitman s Leaves of Grass, we know we are
encountering the poet himself. Likewise, when Emily Dickinson says of
a poem, "This is my letter to the world," we can surmise she is expressing
her own thoughts. In such instances, one key to understanding an authors
work lies in understanding the author's life. Many of Jeffers's poems
contain autobiographical elements as well. In "Night Without Sleep" Jeffers
presumably shares his own experience, and in "The Day Is a Poem" he
refers to himself directly.
Biographical criticism considers the ways age, race, gender, family, education,
and economic status inform poetry. A critic might also examine how the
poem reflects personality characteristics, life experiences, and psychological
dynamics. These critics need to be careful, however, because poets often
invent characters, adopt personas, and speak through narrative voices not
The speaker of "The Stone Axe" is not Jeffers. The speaker of "Oh Lovely Rock,"
on the other hand, is Jeffers. Though Jeffers himself appears as the "I" in only
one of the poems, both contain biographical information about him. Ask students
to discuss what the poems reveal about Jeffers's beliefs, values, and personality.
Identify the clues provided in each poem that help determine the narrative point
The stone in "The Stone Axe" is small enough to be held in the hand; the rock
in "Oh Lovely Rock" is as large as a mountainside. Despite this difference in
size, the two entities have something in common: what? Have students write
a one-page essay that considers this question, explaining the ways in which the
understanding of this similarity brings a clearer view of Jeffers's life, beliefs, and
Read "Inscription for a Gravestone" and "The Deer Lay Down Their Bones."
What words or images does Jeffers use to describe the cycle of life and death?
What do you notice about the words and tone he uses to describe the cycle of
life and death?
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the Value of
Words are to a poet what clay is to a sculptor or paint to a painter: the basic
material of his or her art. Poets see the shape of words, listen closely to their
sound, feel their weight. Poets also understand the meaning of words; thev
are sensitive to their specific denotative applications and to their unlimited
connotative power. In the hands of a skillh.il poet, words bring thoughts
and feelings to life.
Before a poem can be appreciated for its deeper meanings, it must first be
read literally. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Nature, "Even- word . . . if
traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.
Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind\
transgression, the crossing of a line ; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow"
Students should look up even commonly used words to understand better
the careful, conscious choices poets make. Several words from each lessons
assigned poems are already defined in the color margins of this Teachers
From "Inscription for a
A tangle; something snarled
A device used for detecting an
A substance separated from a
solution; a product or outcome
of a process
Ask the class as a whole to identify three words from Jeffers's "Inscription for
a Gravestone" and three words from "The Deer Lay Down Their Bones" that
seem especially intriguing. Then divide the class into four groups. With one
poem and one reference work assigned to each group, ask the students to look
up the chosen words in an unabridged dictionary, an etymological dictionary, a
thesaurus, and the Oxford English Dictionary. Have each group report its findings to
the class as a whole.
Ask students to consider how knowledge of the exact meaning of these words
adds to both the literal and symbolic reading of these poems. Have them replace
their three words with new words. Is this difficult or easy'
Jeffers's father was a Biblical scholar, church historian, and professor of ancient
languages. Jeffers himself was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, .it
least with regard to broad academic training. As a young boy. he learned French.
German, Greek, and Latin. Jeffers's knowledge of etymology and language
expanded his ability to play with syntax, and as a result, his dicbon — linguistic
style as determined by word choice — is highly developed. When students read
a Jeffers poem, do they see evidence of his education' Have students write an
essay that describes the general tone of his voice, as well as the syntax and diction
in his poems "Inscription for a Gravestone" and "The Deer Lay Down Their
Read Handout One. "Jeffers's Inhumanism ." Then read Jeffers's poems "Credo"
and "The Place for No Story." Ask students to consider their initial response to
the world without humans that Jeffers describes.
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"No man was ever yet a great poet," said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "without
being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom
and fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions,
emotions, language." Exceptional poets can pursue their craft without
aspiring to greatness, as Coleridge defines it here, but the greatest poets
through the ages are distinguished by their willingness to confront life's
biggest questions: Does God (or do the gods) exist? What is the purpose of
life? What happens when we die?
Jeffers called his philosophy of life "Inhumanism." On page 10 of the
Reader's Guide, an important excerpt is cited from a 1934 Jeffers letter to
Sister Mary Jane Power, which gives students a summary of this philosophy.
From "The Place for No
Barely sufficient in amount or
Distinguished; exalted; magnificent
Have students read Jeffers's poems "Credo" and "The Place for No Story."
With these in mind, along with information contained in Handout One from
this guide, ask students to explain the essence of Jeffers's Inhumanism. What are
some of the consequences, whether good or bad, of his ideas for human self-
understanding? Is Jeffers's philosophy optimistic, pessimistic, or realistic? Discuss
the relevance of Jeffers's letter to these two poems.
In the poems assigned for this lesson, Jeffers writes of a world without humans.
Have students write a one-page essay that responds to these questions: What
would the world gain if humans no longer existed? What would the world
lose? Ask students to return to the poems from Lesson Two, considering how
historical context might provide another dimension to their answer.
Read Handout Two, "Jeffers and the Central California Coast." Read Jeffers's
poems "The Purse-Seine" and "The Coast-Road." What role does nature in
general, and California in particular, play in each of these poems?
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Eco-criticism is a relatively new approach to literature. Arising in a time
of environmental crisis, eco-criticism is primarily concerned with the
relationship between humans and the natural world. In particular, it
pays attention to the attitudes of the authors and to the precepts of the
cultures to which they belong. With works such as Walden; or, Life in
the Woods (1854) by Henry David Thoreau, the aim of eco-criticism is
both diagnostic and prescriptive. Readers who make use of this approach
identify attitudes, ideas, and behavior that are harmful to people and the
environment; they also identify sources of wisdom, help, and healing.
Jeffers is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the modern environmental
movement in America. His celebration of the beautv of the Monterey-
Carmel-Big Sur coast was rooted in concern about population growth, air
pollution, urban sprawl, resource depletion, animal habitat destruction, and
other detrimental effects of modern civilization on nature.
From "The Purse-Seine"
A fishing net that hangs vertically in
Radiating or emitting light
Lawlessness; political and social
An uncontrollable outburst of
emotion or fear, characterized by
irrationality, laughter, weeping, etc.
Ask students to look at the poems they have read thus far. How do they
embrace a spirit of environmentalism and a concern about pollution?
Using the poems assigned for this lesson, discuss the following questions
In "The Purse-Seine." Jeffers draws a comparison between fish caught in nets and
people living in cities. Is the comparison valid ;
In "The Coast-Road." jeffers refers to the construction of Highway One through
Big Sur. Students from California may be familiar with this highway, but still may
benefit from researching its construction. Either way. how do students feel about
the anger of the horseman in the poem? Is his anger justified'
^ Writing Exercise
When Jeffers looked at the conventional relationship between humans and
nature, what did he see? Have students write an essay that summarizes his
insights, using specific poems to support their ideas.
Have students read Jefferss poems "Continent's End" and "Gray Weather."
asking them to notice the rhythms of each poem. Ask three students to be ready
to read aloud for the Discussion Activity of Lesson Seven
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A poem's meaning can be found within its structural, stylistic, and
verbal components. One such component is rhythm, long regarded as
a distinguishing feature of verse. Rhythm is created by the pattern of
stressed and unstressed syllables in a poetic line. Metrical poetry follows a
predetermined pattern (such as iambic pentameter, which has five regular
beats in a ten-syllable Xme);free verse is open to rhythmic invention.
When reading or reciting poetry, rhythm can also be influenced by a
variety of other factors, including rhyme (when present), tempo, cadence,
Jeffers occasionally wrote poems that employed traditional rhythms. Most
of his work, however, obeyed rhythmic laws of his own devising. Read
aloud this statement by Jeffers: "My feeling is for the number of beats to
the line; there is a quantitative element too in which the unstressed syllables
have part; the rhythm from many sources — physics — biology — the beat of
blood, the tidal environments of life to which life is formed — also a desire
for singing emphasis that prose does not have."
From "Continent's End"
A broad, deep rolling of the sea due
to a distant storm or gale
The act of moving from one country
or region to another
Ask students to discuss how Jeffers's statement on rhythm helps them
understand his poems "Continent's End" and "Gray Weather."
Ask the three previously chosen students to take turns reading either
"Continent's End" or "Gray Weather" out loud — one student should read fast,
one at normal speed, and one slowly. Which tempo sounds right? Why?
To further explore this, use the NEA's Poetry Out Loud Web site
(www.neapoetryoutloud.org) as a resource and stage a recitation
contest in your classroom.
In the last lines of "Continent's End," Jeffers identifies the ultimate source of his
sense of rhythm. What is it? Look at your own writing. What is the ultimate
source of your own rhythms? What do people commonly feel, hear, or see that
might contribute to a shared sense of rhythmic repetition? Have students write a
brief essay that compares Jeffers's rhythm to other sources.
Read two poems by Jeffers: "Hurt Hawks" and "Rock and Hawk." Then read
Handout Three, "Rock and Hawk," in this guide. Look up the word "hawk" in
a dictionary of symbols, or use several websites to find information about hawk
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Fluency with a language involves mastering the literal definitions of words
and acquiring a sense of their symbolic associations. Poets are especially
adept at this. They use words to convey many meanings at once. Symbols
are interpretative keys to a text. Poets often use symbols that present ideas
and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, a specific object will
be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract concept. The repeated
appearance of an object suggests a non-literal or figurative meaning
attached to the object — above and beyond face value. Symbols are
sometimes found right in a poems title.
Personal symbolism arises from a poets own life; cultural symbolism draws
on associations known to a group (which can be as small as a family or as
large as a civilization); archetypal symbolism is universal and timeless.
Handout Three in this guide gives an in-depth look at Jefferss interest in
rocks and hawks, specifically in light of Hawk Tower — a structure he built
for his wife, Una. Use this class period to analyze Jefferss use of two of his
major symbols: stones and hawks.
From "Hurt Hawks"
Fearless; courageous; bold
Unrestrained; unbridled; severe
Not to be appeased or pacified;
Divide the class into groups, asking them to share the results of their research on
hawk symbolism. What relevance does this have for students' understanding of
"Hurt Hawks" and "Rock and Hawk"? Ask them to connect this with Handout
Three, and with other poems they have read byjeffers such as "Oh Lovely Rock"
and "Carmel Point."
Jeffers once referred to the hawk as his "totem bird" and said that he had an
"almost religious feeling" about hawks. What evidence do students see of this in
the assigned poems? Explain in a one-page essay, citing specific passages in the
text that develop extended meanings through the symbolism of the hawk and /or
Read "To the House." "Hooded Night." and "Shine. Republic " List the references
they contain to religious rituals, historical events, important places, and famous
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Most poets have an audience in mind when they write — an audience that
will understand and appreciate their work. In endeavoring to communicate
with that audience, poets sometimes use overt or subtle references —
allusions — to tap shared cultural memories, or to enlarge the scope of their
work. When, for instance, poets allude to a person, image, or event in
Homer s Iliad or the Bible, they presume readers will be familiar with those
texts. In the same way, poets amplify the scope of their work by connecting
images and ideas to outside sources. By using such words as "Trojan horse,"
"Jezebel," or "Gettysburg," poets direct attention to wider, yet still familiar,
circles of meaning.
Jeffers's verse dramas such as The Tower Beyond Tragedy, Dear Judas, At the
Beginning of an Age, Medea, and The Cretan Woman drew upon ancient
Greece, the Bible, and medieval Europe for inspiration. But even his shorter
lyric poems interrogate the Western tradition as a whole and illuminate
modern life, often using allusions from literature, history, science, and
From "To the House"
A fortified place; a stronghold
A multitude or great number;
Hardness or strength imparted by
treatment with heat, cold, or water
In "To the House," a poem written during the construction of Tor House,
Jeffers refers to baptism, a traditional Christian ritual. He also compares the
Pacific Ocean (both the expanse of water and the vast basin which holds it) to
a baptismal font. Have students discuss the meaning of these allusions: Are they
familiar? What do they mean? What function do they serve in this poem?
In "Hooded Night," Jeffers refers to ancient Egypt and its pyramids. How, in a
simple and economical way, do these allusions help him make his point? Jeffers
also compares "the Versailles peace" to the "final unridiculous peace" of the
Carmel coast. At the time the poem was written (in the 1920s), most people
would have known what Jeffers had in mind. Can that be said for readers of
today? Have students research what happened at Versailles.
"Shine, Republic" situates American history within the context of Western
civilization as a whole. Have students choose three allusions (from among
the Roman Republic, the Greek victory at Marathon, America's battle for
independence at Concord, George Washington, Martin Luther, Tacitus, Aeschylus
[Eschylus], or Julius Caesar), and explain their contribution to the meaning of
the poem in a short essay. If students were writing a poem about the value of
freedom in America, what allusions would they use?
Read Jeffers's poems "To the Stone-Cutters" and "Love the Wild Swan." Also
read "Jeffers and Culture" (p. 14) in the Reader's Guide.
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a Great Poet?
Poets articulate and explore the mystery of daily life in the context of
the human struggle for meaning, purpose, and value. The writers voice,
style, and symbols inform the themes of the work. A great poem is a work
of art that affects many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges
assumptions, and breaks new ground.
Robinson Jeffers once said: "Poetry has been regarded as a refuge from life,
where dreams may heal the wounds of reality; and as an ornament of life;
and as a diversion, mere troubadour amusement; and poetry has been in
fact refuge and ornament and diversion, but poetry in its higher condition
is none of these; not a refuge but an intensification, not an ornament but
essential, not a diversion but an incitement . . .
From "To the Stone-Cutters'
The state of being forgotten
To lose layers; to wear away
Without thought or regard;
In "To the Stone-Cutters" and "Love the Wild Swan," Jeffers expresses both
humility and pride in regard to his work. Discuss the thoughts about poetry that
inspire these emotions.
Read the Jeffers quote above to the class. Can students think of examples of
other poems (or lyrics of popular songs) that provide refuge, ornament, or
diversion? Do they agree with Jeffers that poetry can offer more than that? What
does he mean by such words as "intensification." "essential." and "incitement"?
Are these, in fact, characteristics of great poetry? Can students provide examples
of poems that possess these characteristics? Based on his own criteria, is Jeffers a
These ten lessons have highlighted only some of Jeffers's poems and beliefs. Have
students write a short essay that explains one central theme or major feature of
his work. Discuss the theme or feature in detail, referring to specific quotations
from more than two poems to support the argument. Which poem illustrates
the theme or feature most effectively? Why ;
Jeffers directs our attention to the nobility and beauty of nature. Have students
write a paragraph describing Jeffers's legacy in the twenty-fust century
National Endowment for th< the big read • 13
The writing exercises in this guide provide possible essay topics, as do the eight Discussion
Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as
long as they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are provided below.
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis — that is, an argument or
interpretation — about the poem or poems in question. This statement or thesis should be focused,
with clear reasons to support its conclusion. The thesis and supporting evidence should be backed
by references to the text.
1 . If a newspaper editor asked you to write an
article called "Robinson Jeffers: A Poet for
Our Time," what would you say? Combine
quotations from Jeffers's poems with your own
analysis in a persuasive essay that explains how
and why Jeffers speaks to us today.
2. Philosophers and poets wrestle with life's
biggest questions: Does God (or do the gods)
exist? What is the purpose of human life?
What happens when we die? With the poems
you have read as a resource, write an essay in
which you discuss Jeffers's responses to these
three questions. What, specifically, did he say
about these issues?
3. As a poet concerned with environmental
issues, Jeffers looked closely at humankind's
relation to the natural world. What was the
essence of his message? Discuss the problems
he identified and the solutions he proposed.
Optional exercise: Research the impact that
Jeffers and his contemporaries — Ansel Adams
and Edward Weston — had on environmental
issues affecting California's central coastline.
4. With the central coast of California as the
primary setting for his work, Jeffers is highly
regarded as a regional poet Because of
his concern for issues important to people
everywhere, Jeffers is also appreciated for
his universality. Write an essay in which you
discuss these two aspects of Jeffers's work.
Select and discuss three poems: one that
emphasizes his regionalism, one that reveals his
universality, and one that expresses both.
5. What is the central message and specific
context of the poem "Hands"? Compose an
essay that explains how this message suits the
imagery. Discuss the reappearance of these
ideas in other works by Jeffers. Optional
exercise: Research the Native American tribes
from California, and offer a historical reading of
| 4 • THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
A glossary of some of the poetic terms used in the lessons is listed below."
Allusion: A brief, sometimes indirect reference in a
text to a person, place, or thing.
Biographical Criticism: The practice of analyzing a
literary work by using knowledge of the author's
life to gain insight.
Diction: Word choice or vocabulary that refers
to the class of words that an author decides is
appropriate to use in a particular work.
Eco<riticism: This relatively new approach to
literature is primarily concerned with the
relationship between humans and the natural
Free verse: From the French vers libre. Free verse
describes poetry that organizes its lines without
meter. It may be rhymed, but it usually is not.
Historical Criticism: The practice of analyzing a
literary work by investigating the social, cultural,
and intellectual context that produced it.
Meter: A systematic rhythmic pattern of stresses
Open form: Verse that has no set formal
scheme — no meter, rhyme, or even set stanzaic
pattern. Open form is always in free verse.
Persona: Latin for "mask."A fictitious speaker
created by the poet.
Rhythm: The pattern of stresses and pauses in a
Stanza: A unit of two or more lines of verse
with space breaks before and after, the stanza is
poetry's equivalent to a paragraph in prose.
Stress (or accent): A greater amount of force
given to one syllable in speaking than is given to
Symbol: A person, place, or thing in a narrative
or poem that suggest meanings beyond its literal
Theme: The central thought of the poem. A
short work may have a single obvious theme, but
longer works can contain multiple themes.
Tone: The attitude toward a subject conveyed in
a literary work. Tone may be playful, sarcastic,
ironic, sad, solemn, or any other possible attitude.
*Most literary definitions, both here and in the lessons, are taken from An Introduction to Poetry (I Ith edition), edited b> '
Dana Gioia. or Handbook of Literary Terms, edited by X J Kennedy. Dana Gioia. and MarV Bauertem (2005)
National Endowment for tin
THE BIG READ • | 5
The word "humanism" refers to a broad set of
ideas and values that emphasize the importance,
dignity, and beauty of humankind. Leonardo
da Vinci's famous drawing of a man with
outstretched limbs inscribed within a circle and a
square captures the essence of the term. So does
a statement by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a
contemporary of Da Vinci. In all the world, he
said, "there is nothing to be seen more wonderful
than man." In the Western tradition, the belief that
humans are the center of creation is affirmed by
the Bible, which says humans were made in God's
image, that people were given dominion over all
other creatures, and that God provided a path to
salvation by coming to Earth in human form.
Robinson Jeffers questioned all this. As
extraordinary as humans might be, from his
perspective they are not qualitatively superior to
other beings, they are not essential to the universe,
and they are not the special concern of a man-like
God. Jeffers's philosophy of life, which he called
"Inhumanism," provides a key to understanding
many of his poems.
Jeffers believed in the primacy of the natural
world. In a universe as vast and old as ours, with
its "innumerable swirls of innumerable stars,"
our planet is no more than "a particle of dust by
a sand-grain sun, lost in a nameless cove of the
shores of a continent." Nevertheless, when the scale
of measurement is altered, Earth itself is immense,
with a history spanning billions of years and with
oceans and continents covering thousands of miles.
Looked at more closely, the diverse environments
of earth brim with flora and fauna. On a flower-
covered hillside, a single bee collecting pollen
belongs to a web of life that connects all to all,
According to Jeffers, however, most people are
blind to the outer, larger world — especially
people dependent upon the conveniences of
modern civilization, such as manufactured
foods, engineered landscapes, and technological
inventions. Much of his work was designed to
alert readers to the mental and spiritual danger
of human self-centeredness, to awaken them to
an order of beauty and truth beyond the human
realm. As he explains in a preface to The Double
Axe (1948), Inhumanism involves "a shifting of
emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection
of human solipsism and recognition of the
transhuman magnificence." Thinking of the many
rewards such a shift provides, Jeffers says:
It seems time that our race began to think as an
adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby
or insane person. This manner of thought and
feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist,
though two or three people have said so and
may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a
means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it
has objective truth and human value. It offers a
reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead
of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism
and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for
the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to
admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.
| 6 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Jeffers and the Central California Coast
When Robinson and Una fefrers firsi arrived
in Carmel, they lived in a log cabin near the
sea. As new K weds, they enjoyed quiet days
together. "There was housework and continual
woodchopping," Una recollects in an essay written
tor a local newspaper, hut most of their time was
spent reading, writing, and studying the landscape.
"We bought simple textbooks on flowers, shells,
buds, and stars and used them," Una says. "We
explored the village street by street, followed the
traces or the moccasin trail through the forest, and
dreamed around the crumbling walls about the
old mission. When we walked up from the shore
at sunset scarfs of smoke drifting up from hidden
chimneys foretold our own happy supper and
evening by the fire."
Soon, they decided to venture farther afield.
Boarding a stagecoach at dawn one day, they rode
with the mail down the coast to the Big Sur post
office and general store. "It was night before we
arrived," Robinson Jeffers says of the experience
in his preface to Jeffers Country (1971), "and every
mile of the forty had been enchanted. We, and our
dog, were the only passengers on the mail-stage; we
were young and in love, perhaps that contributed to
the enchantment. And the coast had displayed all
its winter magic for us: drifts of silver rain through
great gorges, clouds dragging on the summits,
storm on the rock shore, sacred calm under the
Along the way, they listened as the stage driver told
stories about the wild countryside and the people
who lived there. They stopped at Point Lobos and
watched the sea lions. At Soberanes Creek, they
s.iw cypress trees blown over in a recent storm. A
ruined lumbermill stood on Notleys Landing. In
Mill Creek Canyon, they passed under a suspended
cable once used in a defunct limekiln operation.
When they stopped at a lonely farmhouse to
change horses, they heard abotit an old man dying
a slow death inside. Further along, they came to a
place where a wagon had flipped over some time
before. Its cargo, the bodies of people drowned
in a shipwreck, had spilled down a steep slope;
no one knew if all had been recovered. When
they reached the Sur River, they passed an albino
redwood. Finally, they reached the end of the road,
where they spent the night in a cabin set among
the redwoods. Their dog "lay at the bed-foot and
snarled all night long, terrified by the noises of the
water and the forest odors."
Eventually, Point Lobos would serve as the setting
for Tamar (1924), Jeffers's breakthrough poem; the
suspended cable became a key element of Thurso's
Landing (1932); and a dying old man figured
prominently in The Women at Point Sur (1927).
Each story grew "like a plant from some particular
canyon or promontory, some particular relationship
of rock and water, wood, grass and mountain." But
all that was in the future. All Jeffers knew, as he fell
asleep in the cabin that night, was that he had been
changed by the journey. The Monterey-Carmel-Big
Sur coast was a part of him, and he belonged to it.
When he awoke the next day, he understood his
vocation: to speak for the landscape and to capture
its mysterious beauty in verse.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • | 7
Rock and Hawk
A vast legacy of symbolism stands behind both
"rock" and "hawk" as independent entities, but it is
their conjunction that interests Jeffers in his poem,
"Rock and Hawk." "Here is a symbol," Jeffers says,
of the two together. For him, the hawk represents
"bright power," "fierce consciousness," and the
readiness to act. The gray boulder, on the other
hand, represents "dark peace," mysticism, and utter
quietude. Together the two create what students
of symbolism call a coincidentia oppositorum,
a coincidence of opposites — such as male and
female, light and dark, hot and cold.
One of the most famous symbols of such
conjunctions is that of the Chinese yin-yang: two
forms, one dark and one light, enclosed within
a circle. A wavy line between the forms suggests
a flowing reciprocity, as if the two emerge from
and dissolve into each other. The dark half (yiri)
contains a dot of light in its center, and the light
half (yang) contains a dot of dark; each, therefore,
holds a portion of the other.
In Jeffers's poem, the rock is the yin element.
It stands for Earth, matter, physical reality: the
bodily dimension of existence. It also signifies
endurance, stability, and persistence through time.
The hawk represents the yang element. It stands
for sky, air, ethereal reality: the spiritual dimension
of existence. The hawk also signifies force, speed,
and the necessity of change. As for consciousness,
one of Jeffers's concerns in this poem, the rock
symbolizes "knowing" (a profound understanding
of fundamental truth), while the hawk symbolizes
"seeing" (an immediate grasp of the way things
are). Both, Jeffers suggests, are essential to
The poem "Rock and Hawk" might also contain
autobiographical symbolism. Throughout his
work, Jeffers acknowledges his own stone-like
personality. In one poem he refers to stones as "old
comrades;" in another, he calls them his "older
brothers." Jeffers identified with the hardness
and quietness of stones; he appreciated their
imperturbability. Also throughout his work, Jeffers
refers to the hawk-like qualities of his wife, Una.
He admired her bright intellect, fierce loyalties,
and active engagement with the world. "My nature
is cold and undiscriminating," he once said. "She
excited and focused it, gave it eyes and nerves
and sympathies — She is more like a woman in
a Scotch ballad, passionate, untamed and rather
heroic — or like a falcon — than like any ordinary
Together, Robinson and Una formed a balanced
whole, a fruitful conjunction of opposites. Alone
each contained a portion of the other, like the light
and dark dots in the yin-yang symbol. For Jeffers,
as an artist, this meant that part of his personality
was hawk-like. In one poem, he refers to a falcon as
"the bird with dark plumes in my blood."
With Jeffers's work as a stonemason in mind, one
should also remember that "tower" can be used
as a verb, specifically in reference to the upward
flight of a hawk as it prepares for a strike. When
it reaches the top of its tower, it targets its quarry,
and then, with a sudden downward rush, lets go.
"Hawk Tower," in this regard, is not simply a static
name for an edifice built by Jeffers. It is a climb
toward heaven with wing-beats made of stone.
I 8 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers
There are four paperback collections containing selected
poetry of Robinson Jeffers, two published by Stanford
University Press. The Wild God of the World: An Anthology
of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Albert Gelpi, also contains the
long poem "Cawdor" (2003). Tim Hunt edited a longer
anthology, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, in 2001.
The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, also edited by Hunt, is
a five-volume collection published between 1988 and 2002.
Anthologies with Selected Poems of Jeffers,
Including Introductions and Biographies
Gioia, Dana, Chryss Yost, and Jack Hicks, eds. California
Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley, CA:
Heyday Books, 2004.
Gioia, Dana, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, eds. Twentieth-
Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. New
York: McGraw Hill. 2004.
Visit the Poetry Tool at www.poetryfoundauon.org for a
for a biography and bibliography of Jeffers, along with many
of his poems.
Tor House and Hawk Tower in Carmel, California
The Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, affiliated
with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is a
nonprofit organization of volunteer members established
in 1978 to acquire, maintain, and provide for public access
to Tor House, Hawk Tower, and the surrounding gardens.
The Foundation sponsors events and publishes material
designed to preserve and extend the cultural and literary
legacy of Robinson Jeffers, poet of California. Tours can be
scheduled in advance.
Selected Books about Jeffers and His Poetry
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and
Amencan Culture. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1 99 1
Greenan, Edith. Of Una Jeffers: A Memoir. Ed. James Karman.
Ashland. OR: Story Line Press. 1 998
Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Rev. ed.
Ashland. OR: Story Line Press. 200 1 .
Karman, James, ed. Stones of the Sur. Poetry by Robinson
Jeffers, Photographs by Moriey baer. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press. 2001.
Zaller, Robert, ed. Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers.
Newark. DE: University of Delaware Press. 1991.
National Endowment tor the
THE BIG READ ■ I 9
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards'
1 . Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-
letter correspondence, sentence structure,
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit
their purpose and audience.
Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literacy communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop
your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
"Poetry should represent the whole
mind; if part of the mind is occupied
unhappily, so much the worse. And no
use postponing poetry to a time when
these storms may have passed, for I
think we have but seen a beginning of
them; the calm to look for is the calm
at the whirlwind's heart."
— ROBINSON JH HRs
N AT I O N A L
FOR THE ARTS
'One light is left us: the beauty
of things, not men;
The immense beauty of the world,
not the human world.
Look — and without imagination, desire
nor dream — directly
At the mountains and sea. Are they
from his poem "De Rerum Virtute"
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. Jejfers educational
materials are made possible through the generous
support of the Poetry Foundation.
A great nation deserves great art.