Finding His Form

A consistent prosody is … so insignificant a part of what makes good English poetry, that I find that I do not myself care very much whether some good poetry be consistent in its versification or not: indeed I think I have liked some verses better because they do not scan, and thus displease pedants. — Robert Bridges 1

The prosody of Robinson Jeffers is not easy to summarize in a few words, if only because it varies. Perhaps it can be summed up as a blend of accentual verse and enjambed prose. I say “prose” because we have recordings of Jeffers reciting his verse as though it were prose, heeding punctuation (commas, periods, etc.) more than line breaks, and with little rhythmic flow. Alternatively, we could “kill the author” and address the work on its own terms, without any regard to how the poet recited it, or even what he said about it.

The body of Jeffers’ verse exists well within the spectrum of free verse, though the earnest tone and deliberate pace of much of Jeffers’ poetry strives against any sense of freeness. With all due respect and reverence for the vitality of Whitman and Ginsberg, Jeffers does not leap, howl, or yawp. His verse aspires to be free in the sense that Nature Herself is free: in a flowing, orderly sense.

Ever since an obscure student at Jeffers’ alma mater first tried to cram the poet into a golden nutshell (as extolled by yet another Occidental grad, Lawrence Clark Powell), efforts have been made by a few Jeffers enthusiasts to distance Jeffers from the “free verse” category. They generally do so as apologists, thinking they are redeeming the reputation of the poet by distancing him from the likes of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Such efforts seem silly and irrelevant. Whether his verse was free or not depends more on how one defines “free” than on any quality intrinsic to the verse, and even then, the freeness of Jeffers’ verse varies from poem to poem. Readers should be more interested in discussing the extent to which the prosody of a particular poem enhances or degrades the experience of reciting that particular poem.

In “Robinson Jeffers: The Man & His Work” (1934), Lawrence Clark Powell began his analysis of Jeffers’ prosody by pointing out that Jeffers “abandons rhyme,” and proceeded to say that lack of rhyme was “perhaps the most important thing to notice” about Jeffers’ prosody, but then Powell dropped the point quite abruptly without any attempt to support it with evidence.

Unrhymed verse was nothing new when Robinson Jeffers was young, but it had gained favor with American poets of late. Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot were all writing unrhymed verse of various kinds. Some wrote in blank verse, some in free verse. Some blended rhymed and unrhymed verse. Some applied rhyme in subtle ways. For more and more readers, rhyme was a self-indulgent diversion, a flowery, Victorian extravagance, and a distraction from the essential image—or spirit—of the poem. To some, rhyme may have even seemed un-American.

Robinson Jeffers, in contrast, clung to rhyme. At age 32 he dabbled in blank verse, writing as though he were casting rhyme aside forever, but only momentarily. He didn't embrace unrhymed verse until more than a year later, and even then his work retained the musicality of alliteration in places.2 That would fade with time.

Lawrence Clark Powell’s primary focus was on the accentual (or stressed) style of Jeffers’ verse. This was a form that many 19th Century poets had touched upon, among them Coleridge, Shelley, Arnold, Morris, Meredith, Swinburne, and Bridges. Gerard Manley Hopkins had brought the form to the fore, calling his variation of it “sprung rhythm.” But Hopkins was unknown until his friend Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of the British Empire from 1913 to 1930, published Hopkins’ work posthumously in 1918. Bridges had already written an essay in which he discussed accentual verse at length. For instance:

The omission of an initial unaccented syllable from the line produces no awkwardness: hearer and reader alike are indifferent as to the number of syllables which go to make the line; nor, as each line as read, can they say how many syllables have gone to make it. But if a stress be omitted, they perceive the rhythm to be unsatisfactory, and readily detect the awkwardness of the false metrical stresses which they passed over in the syllabic verse. This is stressed or accentual verse.3

Bridges argued that “accentual” or “stressed” verse was the verbal form that Chaucer, Milton, and even Shakespeare had slipped into their metrics. Bridges’ appeal to a purported prosody of the past, often attributed to the native authenticity of Anglo-Saxon verse, would have easily captured Jeffers’ imagination, though the “stressed verse” movement was largely a product of the contrasting liberalism and racial loyalties of Victorian England.

Robert Bridges published his essay on accentual verse in 1893 and 1901, and finally to a broader audience in 1921. The publication of G.M. Hopkins’ dancing rhythms in 1918 would render Bridges’ thesis more appealing, though meter itself was quickly becoming an anachronism, particularly in America. This was more than a year before Robinson Jeffers adopted stressed verse, which he would come to call “rolling stresses.”

Several modern poets have caught Coleridge’s and Bridges’ thought, or found it out for themselves, ...

— R. J., Letter to Herbert Klein

Here Jeffers stops short of saying whether he’d caught someone’s thought or discovered the form for himself.

Though Robert Bridges advocated for stressed verse in English poetry, he was opposed to “free verse.” He explained his position on the subject in his 1922 essay “Humdrum and Harum-Scarum: A Lecture on Free Verse.” 4

Robinson Jeffers appeared to begin to write unrhymed, alliterated verse in 1920. He wrote a few poems with a long verse / short verse pattern, and these resemble the form that would come to characterize Jeffers’ lyric poems. The apparent stress pattern for these early poems was not perfectly regular, but this doesn’t distinguish them categorically from Jeffers’ later work.

In unrhymed, stressed verse, Jeffers found a form suitable to his values and temperament. Though neither of these components of Jeffers’ prosody was new, and though the stress patterns in his verse were far from regular, his composite style was distinct, as no other poet had written so much unrhymed, stressed verse since Matthew Arnold. More important than this distinctness, though, and more important than any measure of originality, was the fact that Jeffers had found a prosody that suited his Calvinistic reverence for nature; a style that would permit him to liberate his verse without forsaking his identity as a craftsman and a classicist.

Jeffers had little in particular to say about the prosody of his work, though he did claim that his poems had a “metrical” foundation. Like Bridges, he didn’t seem fond of the “free verse” category. The variability and flexibility of his “meter” may perhaps have been the reason for his reticence to speak on the matter. It’s hard to find a consistent rule for his work. This can be observed in Powell’s recognition that even the idea of “stressed verse” fails to capture much of Jeffers’ narrative verse.

The lines of the narratives are less regular. ... there are whole stretches in which the verse is free in the sense which most critics have maintained all of Jeffers’ verse is free.

But even though many of Jeffers’ short poems appear to be more regular, still we can tell by the recordings we have of the poet's recitals that they were far from regular in their actual spoken rhythms, at least in terms of how the poet himself vocalized them. This is more true for poems with verses broken by punctuation.

Oh Lovely Rock is a telling example. This poem’s line-breaks rarely align with Jeffers' pauses. Only 5 of the 17 verse-breaks can be discerned by the poet's recital. The eye sees 18 verses (with cross-stanza breaks joined), but the ear hears 37. As for the oral stress pattern, here's what my ear hears:

7-9-2-3-13

6-6-6-6-2-5-7-5-3-5-3-7-6-2-3-5-10-2-4-7-3-5-4-6-2-5-3-4-5-4-5-2

We hear a run of four 6-stress verses, and then a bit later, a 5-3-5-3 pattern, but that's about it. Everything else seems so free as to seem random, arbitrary, and the stresses exhibit a tendency to cluster in runs of two or three syllables, in ways that are hard to attribute to the words themselves. It seems stresses are often applied arbitrarily by the reciter.

Other good examples of this variability are: Hurt Hawks, The Day is a Poem, and Night Without Sleep.

One can of course count the stresses by line and find more regularity, but if the poet himself does not heed those line breaks when reciting, and if he places extended pauses mid-verse, and if that stress-per-line pattern is based on stresses that cannot be derived from normal speech patterns (but rather the poet's own peculiar speech patterns) can those stress-counts say much about the actual sound of the poem?

The question nags us: Is this truly stressed verse, or is it more a system for versifying prose? Was Jeffers simply inserting line breaks wherever he hit a desired stress count? When we look at the lyric that Powell chooses for an example, The Maid’s Thought, we find a poem with as much punctuation within lines as it has at the end of lines. How should we delineate the verses for the purpose of actual recitation? The stress pattern that Powell sees is this:

5-3-5-3-5-3 ... 5-3-8-3-5-3

But stress is not an exact science. Having the benefit of having heard Jeffers recite his work, I would add a few stresses:

5-4-6-4-5-3 ... 5-3-8-4-5-3

I can't say that I see a dominant 5-3 pattern. Whether Jeffers intended to give the impression of a dominant 5-3 rhythm is hard to say for sure. With so many short lines in the poem, it's unlikely that he intended a 5-4 rhythm. Perhaps he cut his verses according to the stresses of ordinary speech but then vocalized them with his own vocal patterns.

But this goes beyond stress. Jeffers’ dual inclination while vocalizing to run line into line and pause mid-line would lead me to expect a pattern more like this:

1-4-3-4-8-3-8 ... 10-2-3-2-3-12

Again, I'm inclined to suggest that listening to Jeffers recite this poem would give the hearer no indication of the written verse boundaries.

Powell states that he provides “a few examples of Jeffers’ stress-prosody,” but he only provides two. The second is an excerpt from Cawdor. Powell states that the excerpt indicates a 10-5 pattern. Without getting into the differences in stress that my ear detects, I find this a remarkable example with respect to punctuation. Only one verse in the excerpt (the final one) ends with a punctuation mark, but the excerpt features 17 mid-verse punctuation marks! Can we possibly believe that this excerpt sounds anything like it looks?

One final observation: 2 of those 17 mid-verse punctuation marks could be seen as ending verses if we treat the verse at the end of a stanza as a whole verse, but Jeffers heavily indents the following, stanza-initiating verse, as if to indicate that the two verses at stanza-breaks should be regarded as one. But why does he do this? Surely he does not intend these two lines to be vocalized as one verse, particularly with the first line ending in a full stop! This is one further indication that Jeffers’ verses are not prosodic verses.

We know from biographical material that Robinson Jeffers did not like to recite poetry, particularly his own. He read tirelessly to his sons, but he didn't read poetry to them. He was a somber, earnest man. It's been reported that he didn't even enjoy music very much. Should we then conclude that he was a poet more of visual than verbal verse? Absolutely not. There are genuine rhythms, or rather ebbs and swells, to Jeffers’ poetry, but they are not stress-prosody rhythms. Jeffers’ “rolling stresses”, what there is of it, is little more than a broad generalization, but Jeffers’ prosody is genuine. It might be best described as “organic,” but perhaps the best summation of Jeffers’ prosody is that it defies classification.

 


[1] “Milton’s Prosody,” Appendix J: On the Rules of the Common Lighter Stress-Rhythms, and the English Accentual Hexameter, 1901, Page 99

[2] Examples: Salmon Fishing and the conclusion of Tamar. Powell, pp. 123–5

[3] ibid, page 112

[4] Published in both the North American Review and the London Mercury, November 1922.

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