Cawdor is a 20th Century California retelling of a Greek classic, which gives it critical gravitas, to be sure. On the other hand, Cawdor seems conceptually modest, perhaps a result of the poor critical reception of the megalomaniacal Women at Point Sur. This conservative turn may be meritorious in that it shows Jeffers turning to the art of storytelling in lieu of more grandiose prophetic or philosophical ambitions.
I say that it seems conceptually modest, though Jeffers has done an admirable job of weaving the thinking of Apology for Bad Dreams into the old tale.
The story of Hippolytus and Phaedra is a story of Aphrodite’s jealousy of a man’s celibacy, that is, her jealousy of his power over her charms, and to Jeffers, over the passions. In a confrontation between the sober but severe celibacy of Artemis and the passionate sexuality of Aphrodite, Aphrodite ultimately wins, though perhaps not in the manner that she would prefer. The gist of the tale is that for one to resist Aphrodite—that is, sexual love—can only lead to one’s own destruction—even if one remains celibate. Love will find a way, even if she has to kill to do so.
Fera, Jeffers’ Phaedra, enters his telling of the story from a wildfire, suggesting that she represents more than just a desperate young woman.
When Fera emerges from the fire at John Cawdor’s ranch, her first order of business is to ask for Hood Cawdor, the rancher’s second son. This ought to seem odd for a girl seeking refuge from a fire. She has probably run into the young man on occasion, but she knows from whom she seeks refuge: John Cawdor, the eponymous father of the young man whom she seeks. What business does this girl have with Hood Cawdor? According to the Hippolytus myth, she has been sent from Aphrodite to seduce the young man, whether she knows it or not. We need not mean this in a strictly literal sense. To say that Fera is “sent from Aphrodite,” is simply a way of saying that her beauty is intrinsically intoxicating, yet there is something godlike about her:
Waiting for him, flushed with the west in her face,
The purple hills at her knees and the full moon at her thigh, … 1
Fera’s jealous beauty is here merged with the beauty of the inhuman, what is out of Jeffers’ domain often called “nature.” She, coming out of the fiery throat of a canyon represents for Jeffers the terrible beauty of the land.
Old blind man your girl’s beautiful, I saw her come down the canyon / Like a fawn out of the fire. 2
The use of Hippolytus, renamed in the present story to “Hood” as a hunter and a sexually incorruptible child of the land (as was Hippolytus, celibate acolyte of Artemis), is appealing and pertinent.
… He love the deer. 3
What man is incorruptible? Ask John Cawdor. No man, it seemed, was more unswayable than he, yet he was no match for Aphrodite. In subtle contrast, Hood Cawdor may very well be Jeffers’ ideal man: a natural man, a non-reflective hunter, a human stand-in for a hawk. In any case he ties the story to the land, and Jeffers’ use of the character is, at last, faithful to the Greek tragedy as well as to the human condition.
Though Hood Cawdor is the Hippolytus of this tale, the title of the story is as much or more a reference to his father who is in most respects the kind of capable rancher that Jeffers very much admired. John Cawdor knows the land better even than his son the hunter:
But Cawdor, although unsure and thence in his times
Violent toward human nature, was never taken
Asleep by the acts of nature outside; he knew
His hills as if he had nerves under the grass, … 4
Cawdor is wise to the world. Like Jeffers, Cawdor has no love for civilization or society, and he is not tempted by wealth. He is merciless and hard, but not deceitful;5 yet Cawdor does have one weakness: the charms of Aphrodite. In letting her into his home, Cawdor will open the gates of destruction, not primarily for him, but more for the immaculate hunter on whom Aphrodite preys. She is the greater predator: to Hood Cawdor as hawk, she is eagle.
The site of Cawdor’s canyon is established in the narrative that followed it, The Loving Shepherdess, a poem with a somewhat ambiguous geography. However, the canyon depicted in Cawdor is clearly imaginary. Richard K. Hughey and Boon Hughey, in their Jeffers Country Revisited: Beauty Without Price, were convinced that the prominence named “the Rock” in the poem was imaginary, modeled from Moro Rock in the Kaweah watershed of the Sierra Nevada, a place that clearly left a mark on Jeffers:
I saw on the Sierras, up the Kaweah Valley above the Moro Rock, the mountain redwoods / Like red towers on the slopes of snow; about their bases grew a bushery of Christmas green, / Firs and pines to be monuments for pilgrimage / In Europe; … but these are underwood; they are only a shrubbery about the boles of the trees.6
If indeed it is established that the stated setting of a poem does not actually match the actual location that the poet specifies, can we say that “Cawdor’s canyon” can be identified with any actual location? Thus we find ourselves forced to conclude that “Jeffers Country” is a semi-fictional place.
Out of the Fire
As though taking up where The Women at Point Sur left off—almost post-apocalyptically, Cawdor begins with a great wildfire that consumes many miles of countryside, foreshadowing, perhaps, a different sort of fire to come.
The use of fire as catalyst for this tragic chain of events (though other factors preceded it) ties the story commendably to the land. Fera (Phaedra, Greek, meaning “bright”; and perhaps unintentionally Farrah, Persian, meaning “divine glory”) is shown as coming out of the fire, which is not a good omen:
... but the girl Fera
Coming ragged and courageous out of the fire 7
Later, the story climaxes with fire, as Cawdor kills his son after bursting blindly through his son’s campfire:
... For Cawdor blindly / Came through the fire; ... / So that the body leaped and struck while the mind / Astonished with hatred stood still. There had been no choice, / nor from the first any form of intention. / He saw Hood's body roll away from the fire / Like a thing with no hands; ... 8
“Well, I have killed my son,” mourns the rancher.9 Though Hood Cawdor is murdered at his father’s hand, his father is only a puppet for the actual killer, Fera, who takes the appearance of fire while she recounts the murder in less literal terms:
... Her face distorted itself and seemed to reflect flame, like the white smoke / Of a hidden fire of green wood shining at night, twisting as it rises ... Her face writhed like the shining smoke …
Fera is associated with fire in a number of places throughout the story. In one case, Cawdor’s daughter Michal sees Fera’s “back and shoulder flowing into lines like fire …” 10 A little later, Fera laments to Hood Cawdor, “I am in a dream, between blackness and fire, …” 11 and then complains that the fire “has taken / Me too, …” 12 and soon after, “we have only one thing left to do, Hood, / One burning thing under the sun. …” 13 Later yet she protests, perhaps implicating the futility of the passions, “we came from the fire only to fail, …” 14
Jeffers recognizes Fera’s power, but he does not trust her or admire her, associating her with the “false earnestness / Of passionate life.” 15
Thus it is that Fera, coming out of the fire, relating to fire, and acting by fire, is the embodiment of passion, both as object and subject. She inspires passion, but even more, she expresses it—an agent of the Goddess of Love.
… and she cried and said: / “I wish the little rivers under the laughing kingfishers in every canyon were fire, and the ocean / Fire, and my heart not afraid to go down. ...” 16
Fera loves fire, just as Venus has been reported to have been the wife of Vulcan, if not Mars. Her beloved kingfishers recall an earlier passage wherein a kingfisher laughs at man’s powerlessness before passion:
Blue kingfisher laughing laughing in the lit boughs
Over lonely water, …
The man who’d not be seduced, not in hot youth, …
Now in his cooled and craglike years
Has humbled himself to beg pleasure: …
Laugh kingfisher, laugh, … 17
Again, as in Apology for Bad Dreams, we witness a stated desire for all waters to become fire. This ties Fera’s desire to Tamar’s desire. This hardly seems to be a mere rehashing of old fire-tropes. The present story, like the original, seems to be warning us that the passions cannot ultimately be overcome, not at last without the payment of some terrible penalty.
The Caged Hunter
The subtheme of the caged eagle is pertinent to Jeffers’ philosophy. Human life, to Jeffers, is a net loss with regard to the joy vs. suffering balance sheet. In line with this belief, Jeffers sees death as peace, or in Buddhist terms, Nirvana. The caged eagle continues to take life, squirrel by squirrel, quite miserably, until it is liberated by a bullet. Fera is also in a kind of cage, and she takes lives of her own. Jeffers hints at the parallel between the two by having Hood Cawdor break each of their wings with a rifle shot. They might be distinguished as follows: whereas the eagle is, like Hood, a predator. Fera, symbolized by fire, is more of a merciless destroyer. These two: predator and destroyer, hawk and fire, accompany each other throughout Jeffers’ work, particularly from 1927 onward.
When the eagle is finally released, its death dream is markedly unlike the biological death-dream of Fera’s father. The man's death dream is one of decomposition:
... Oh very gently, as the first weak breath of the wind in a wood: the storm still far, / The leaves are stirred faintly to a gentle whispering: the nerve-cells, by what would soon destroy them, were stirred / To a gentle whispering. ... 18
Though the man’s decomposition is merely corporeal, yet it is a kind of salvation.19
In contrast, the eagle’s dream is a divine vision. This is clearly not a naturalistic passage but a mystical one, very much in line with the anthropomorphic mysticism of the short, two-part poem Hurt Hawks, a poem that was written at about the same time. In the end, the great eagle snags the tranquility of death in its divine talons:
... The great unreal talons took peace for prey / Exultantly, their death beyond death; stooped upward, and struck / Peace like a white fawn in a dell of fire.20
Thick with Shells
Something like an Indian graveyard-haunting simmered through Jeffers’ works from Tamar to Cawdor. In Tamar we meet the spirits of deceased Indians who for many past generations dined on the shore at Lobos as they did on the site of Jeffers’ home. The spirits insist that Tamar perform a dance for them. Tamar refuses to dance, but she—as reluctant shaman—is powerless to resist them.21
In Apology for Bad Dreams, in reference to Tamar, we meet the deceased spirits of Tor House:
All the soil is thick with shells, the tide-rock feasts of a dead people. / Here the granite flanks are scarred with ancient fire, the ghosts of the tribe / Crouch in the nights beside the ghost of a fire, … 22
Finally, in Cawdor, the setting is a shelf above the sea where, just as at Tor House, Indians once dined on abalone. Fera Martial observes:
All this black soil’s full of their shells, the Indians brought up.23
Cawdor, knowing the soil better than anyone, reflects:
“There were people here before us, “ he said, “and others will come / After our time. These poor flints were their knives, wherever you dig you find them, …” 24
But Cawdor being a more naturalistic poem than Tamar, we meet several living Indians, among them one who has given Cawdor a child, and another who resembles an eagle in the most important sense.
Alongside the caged eagle, Jesus Acanna, the Indian ranch hand, is depicted as though he possesses that hawk-consciousness that Jeffers so valorized:
... Jesus Acanna / From under the low cloud of the oak-boughs, his opaque eyes / And Indian silence watched Fera come up the hill, ... / Dark aboriginal eyes, / the Indian's and the coast-range eagle's, like eyes / Of this dark earth watching our alien blood / Pass and perform its vanities, watched them to the far oaks.25
The Indian, with a Spanish name as was generally the case, happens to be Christened “Jesus.” This is a common Spanish and Mexican name (it was the name of my hiking partner’s father), but the name may possibly point to Acanna’s kinship with Jeffers’ symbol of liberation and even salvation, the bird of prey.
Acanna covets Hood Cawdor’s rifle, not as though he would possibly steal it, but in such a manner that he reveals his hunter-nature, again suggesting that he represents the capacity of a man to possess hawk-consciousness (SP 234):
But after the oaks had hidden them Acanna / Covetously examined the hunter’s rifle / Left behind, leaning against the lichened fence / Of the older graves. It was very desirable. He sighed / And set it back in its place.
This theme will be revisited in our discussion of The Summit Redwood.
Cawdor appears to have become Robinson Jeffers’ most highly esteemed narrative of late, though Jeffers himself only included about 4% of Cawdor in his Selected Poetry (1938), as the poet appeared to hold The Women at Point Sur (1927) and Thurso's Landing (1932) in higher regard. He also granted higher honors to Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1933), Tamar (1924), and the Loving Shepherdess (1929) by including the entirety of each of these in his 1938 collection.
More recently, Tim Hunt and Albert Gelpi each included Cawdor in their (respective) 2001 and 2003 anthologies. Between these two 21st Century collections, only Tamar, Give Your Heart to the Hawks, and the Loving Shepherdess appeared from among Jeffers’ other longer pre-1941 narratives, each but once, whereas Cawdor was so honored twice. Cawdor has clearly emerged as a favorite.
 Cawdor, Section III; SP 199
 Cawdor, Section I; SP 188
 Cawdor, Section V; SP 213
 Cawdor, Section IV; SP 203
 Cawdor, Section I; SP 188
 Contrast. CP 1:403
 Cawdor, Section I (SP 184)
 Cawdor, Section X (SP 249)
 Cawdor, Section X (SP 250)
 Cawdor, Section IV (SP 205)
 Cawdor, Section V (SP 207)
 SP 208
 SP 209
 Cawdor, Section VI (SP 218)
 Cawdor, Section VII (SP 224)
 Cawdor, Section XIV (SP 279)
 Cawdor, Section I (SP 190)
 Cawdor, Section VII; SP 222–3
 Cawdor, Section VII; SP 224
 Cawdor, Section XV; SP 286
 Tamar, Section VI; SP 52
 Apology for Bad Dreams, SP 143
 Cawdor, Section I; SP 185
 Cawdor, Section XVI; SP 292
 Cawdor, Section VIII; SP 233
Section IV: The Storm
... the redwoods, not shaken / By common storms, bowed themselves over; their voice and not the ocean's was the great throat of the gorge / That roared it full, taking all the storm's other / Noises like little fish in a net. (SP 203)
Section VII: Old Martial's Death
... Certainly he'd not betray / The flaming-minded girl his own simplicity ...
Section VIII: The Burial
... Dark aboriginal eyes, / the Indian's and the coast-range eagle's, like eyes / Of this dark earth watching our alien blood / Pass and perform its vanities, watched them to the far oaks. / But after the oaks had hidden them Acanna / Covetously examined the hunter's rifle / Left behind, leaning against the lichened fence / Of the older graves. It was very desirable. He sighed / And set it back in its place.
Section IX: The Shooting
Not one of them, now that Fera was gone, / Had any more than generic relation to the dead; they were merely man contemplating man's end, / Feeling some want of ceremony.