Tamar

Completed in 1923, before Robinson Jeffers was discovered, the mid-length narrative poem Tamar is the poem that—more than any other—made Robinson Jeffers famous. Essentially a story about a young woman’s descent from mere narcissism into comprehensive hatred, it is one of Jeffers’ most artful expressions of his Inhumanist philosophy.

The story begins with a horse and rider tumbling down a Point Lobos cliff into the surf. The horse dies, but the rider, one Lee Cauldwell, lies half-dead in the surf. Lee is rescued and nursed back to health by his sister Tamar. As Cauldwell recovers, he experiences a rebirth. Like Jeffers himself, Cauldwell spurns the years he’s wasted on wild living and turns his heart to the beauty of things (Sect. I; SP 27–8):

A wonderful day of peace and pleasant weakness
Brought home to his heart the beauty of things. “O Tamar
I've thrown away years like rubbish. …”

Cauldwell’s father suggests that he get off the ranch and attend a local dance, throwing in some humor and warning his son that too much time on the ranch is not healthy (Sect. II; SP 31):

I hear that there’s a dance at Motley’s Landing Saturday. You'll be riding
Down the coast, Lee. Don’t kill the horse, have a good time.

… better dance your pony down the cliffs again than close
Young life into a little box; …”

Lee isn’t interested in dances. He’s had enough of such wasteful living. He wants to spend more time with his sister (Sect. II; SP 30):

… to show her some new beauty of canyon wildflowers, water / Dashing its ferns, or oaktrees thrusting elbows at the wind, blackoaks smoldering with foliage …

But his sister is beautiful, certainly by her own estimation. One day down in the hole of Mal Paso Creek, she is moved by the beauty of her own reflection (Sect. III; SP 33):

                                       … Meanwhile Tamar
Uneasily dipped her wrists, and crouching in the leaf-grown bank
Saw her breasts in the dark mirror, she trembled backward
From a long ripple and timidly wading entered
The quiet translucence to the thighs. White-shining
Slender and virgin pillar, desire in water
Unhidden and half reflected among the interbranching ripples,
Arched with alder, over-woven with willow.
Ah Tamar, stricken with strange fever and feeling
Her own desirableness, half-innocent Tamar …

Whereas Lee had wished to share the beauty of nature with Tamar, Tamar is inspired, so to speak, to share her own beauty with him. Here we find the inhuman and human beauty both allied and juxtaposed. Tamar plots to draw Lee down to the water with her. Jeffers wonders whether the land made her the way she is (Sect. III; SP 33):

… Was it the wild rock coast
Of her breeding, and the reckless wind
In the beaten trees and the gaunt booming crashes
Of breakers under the rocks, or rather the amplitude
And wing-subduing immense earth-ending water
That moves all the west taught her this freedom? …

Jeffers didn’t go into much detail in the poem Tamar about how Tamar might have been influenced by the beautiful Point Lobos landscape, but he would better explain himself a couple years later in Apology for Bad Dreams. Jeffers claimed therein to believe that beautiful places invite tragedy. It is an odd belief, though it ought to surprise no one, as beauty is a kind of power. For Jeffers, beauty may have been the ultimate form of power. There may be a parallel here in the beauty of Tamar, which she admires in Mal Paso Creek. There she sees her own beauty reflected in the beauty of the mountain stream. Her beauty, like the beauty of the land—the beauty of God, invites tragedy. Tamar is liberated and empowered by the inhuman landscape while she uses her human beauty to wield power over a few humans.

Quite a broad range of interpretations have been applied to Tamar. Principally, it is a story about human narcissism, response to beauty, and desire. It is a difficult poem to follow, and little can be said for sure about it, except perhaps that Tamar has her desire—whatever that might be.

The trouble begins when Tamar is moved to passion by the reflection of her naked body in Mal Paso Creek. Pressed on by this desire, she manipulates her brother Lee into sexual intercourse with her. This, then, is for Tamar an act of self-infatuation. Lee, representing Jeffers in a sense, loves his sister and wants to share the beauty of things with her, but he is not free of sexual desire and so succumbs to his sister’s narcissistic temptation.

In the later poem Apology for Bad Dreams, Tamar simply states, “I have my desire.” (SP 143) This moment of self-love is the seed of that desire, but it will blossom into a more destructive passion, a passion for power.

Tamar, now pregnant, is somewhat proud of her sin, as it represents a kind of transcendence over human law. She needs to justify her pregnancy, so she tempts her brother’s friend Will to rape her. This act of self-victimization and liberation only confirms her sense of authority over men. Tamar discovers, however, that she’s not the only one in the house that has accomplished such acts of dark transcendence. Indeed, her acts seem little more than repetitions of past events. She faces Nietzsche’s question about eternal recurrence, and appears to fail the test:

                                 ”It makes me nothing,
My darling sin a shadow and me a doll on wires,”
Thought Tamar with one half her spirit; and the other half said,
“Poor lies, words without meaning. …” (Section IV; SP 38)

                                 Tamar, finding no hope,
Slid back on passion, she had sought counsel of the dead
And found half-scornful pity and found her sin
Fore-dated; … (Section V; SP 41)

She is somewhat put aback by the discovery, and remains partly in denial. Self-hatred blossoms into something more social, or rather anti-social. She begins to plot to destroy her family.

… her self-hatred / Reflecting itself abroad burned back against her, all the world growing hateful, both her lovers / Hateful, but the intolerably masculine sun hatefullest of all. (SP 49)

Tamar believes that God wants to destroy her sinful family:

“It is God / Who is tired of the house that thousand-leggers crawl about in, where an idiot sleeps beside a ghost-seer, / A doting old man sleeps with dead women …” (VI; SP 55)

To Tamar, only fire can cleanse the house of its sin:

“Nothing would ever clean them But fire” (SP 56)

She lights a candle as a slow-burning fuse in her bedroom, then later, from a distance, prays thus: [1]

     … “O strong and clean and terrible
Spirit and not father punish the hateful house.
Fire eat the walls and roofs, drive the red beast
Through every wormhole of the rotting timbers
And into the woods and into the stable, show them,
These liars, that you are alive.” … (SP 57)

But she has forced the spirit’s hand. She is the one who lit the fire. God does not obey her by giving her what she desires. Instead, the spirit of the place dominates her (SP 52–3). Tamar is made to dance against her will, she is sexually assaulted by spirits, her child and her fire are extinguished, and only she and her room are scarred. “Everybody but me has luck with fire,” she complains (SP 68). She seems to be conflating fire with God. Perhaps Jeffers is as well.

Tamar can’t seem to accomplish any destruction on her own, confessing that she has “no luck with fire.” The “wild God of the world,” the “spirit of the place,” and the aboriginal ghosts of the place all seem to work against Tamar’s plan, but Tamar has one effective power: a power over men. She can manipulate people to achieve her ends for her, but even when Tamar seems to finally succeed in inspiring destruction, doubt remains of her agency. Is she as influential as she supposes, or is she simply a plaything of the dark beauty of Point Lobos—that is, the beauty of God? (SP 142)

This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places, /… here the granite cliff the gaunt cypresses crown / Demands what victim? …
This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places: and like the passionate spirit of humanity / Pain for its bread …

In the end the house is cleansed. It is burned down, but not by an arsonist. The fire is lighted in an act of innocent adoration by Tamar’s idiot aunt. The act is entirely irrational, and yet the cleansing is achieved just the same. The wild God of the world is no plaything of the human intellect, but rather it guides all intellects—normal or abnormal—to their ends.

In Apology for Bad Dreams, we meet Tamar as a fire spirit, a personification of desire (SP 143):

… white as the half moon at midnight / Someone flamelike passed me, saying, “I am Tamar Cauldwell, I have my desire,”

Here Tamar embodies what Jeffers calls “the passionate spirit of humanity,” but that spirit, according to Apology, is stoked by the land. Does Tamar represent the sickness of human narcissism, or is she just a plaything of greater forces? Perhaps some of both.

After Tamar passes by the poet in Apology, we hear the voice of the sea return to call for cyclic conflagration (ekpyrosis): [2]

Then the voice of the sea returned, when she had gone by, … Beautiful country burn again, Point Pinos down to the Sur Rivers / Burn as before with bitter wonders, land and ocean and the Carmel water.

Perhaps the voice of the poet is intended rather than that of the sea. It is hard to be sure, but the message remains the same: God wants the cycle to continue. Perhaps Tamar can sense that, and perhaps her desire reflects the universal will. This should not be conflated with enlightenment, however. In Jeffers’ terms, Tamar is anything but enlightened. Yes, she is doing God’s will, but that is no sign of enlightenment or inner peace. It would be a mistake to call her evil, neither is she an Inhumanist heroine. If anyone in the story represents Jeffers, it is Tamar’s brother Lee, but that doesn’t make Lee a hero. It just makes him more sympathetic.

Apology for Bad Dreams is a poem about that same God of place, and there’s more fire to be found in it. There are the fires of the land’s extinct inhabitants, the fire used by God to forge and mutilate man, and at last, the fire that the poet identifies with the ways of God:

I have seen these ways of God: I know of no reason / For fire and change and torture and the old returnings. (SP 144)

In Apology, Jeffers finds himself utterly perplexed and powerless before this God. All he can think to do is craft a victim and burn a sacrifice in a way that will at least not involve physical pain. Tamar would be the first and truest of Jeffers’ burnt offerings.

There are, of course, other interpretations. The poem’s complexity, its dark tone, its spirituo-sexual violence, and also its explosive popularity—short-lived though it was, have encouraged a variety of readings. One of the more well-published readings would have us believe that Tamar is—or symbolizes—a nature goddess. This seems to be a way of rendering Tamar Cauldwell’s destructive, manipulative behavior in a positive light, but the image is contrary to the facts of the narrative, for Tamar has no power over nature, nor does she have any power over the dead. Her power, where she has any, is over living men. For this Tamar can hardly be regarded as some kind of nature goddess or Inhumanist exemplar. She is more likely the worst of human introversion resolving itself in its own demolition.

 

Primal Fire

This employment of fire as an image of a divinity was not introduced first in Tamar. It had been with Jeffers as early as 1921, when it appeared in To the Rock that Will Be a Cornerstone of the House:

Wing-prints of ancient weathers long at peace, and older scars of primal fire,[3]

The primal fire also appears at the conclusion of the poem Continent’s End (completed in 1922), where Jeffers speaks of a fire that creates both humanity and the sea (SP 25):

Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both
our tones flow from the older fountain.

Though it is reasonable to interpret this primal fire as the first stage of our planet’s evolution, it is also reasonable to see it as a symbol for a deeper first cause (these verses were published before there was any notion of a big bang in modern cosmology, but the idea that the universe began with fire was nothing new—particularly to any student of Heraclitus and the Stoics).

And [Heraclitus] likewise affirms that a judgment of the world and all things in it takes place by fire, expressing himself thus: “Now, the thunderbolt pilots all things,” that is, directs them, meaning by the thunderbolt everlasting fire. But he also asserts that this fire is endued with intelligence, and a cause of the management of the Universe, and he denominates it craving and satiety. Now craving is, according to him, the arrangement of the world, whereas satiety its destruction. “For,” says he, “the fire, coming upon the earth, will judge and seize all things.”

— Hippolytus of Rome[4]

 

Spirit of Clear Fire

It is curious that the first mention of “fire” in Tamar is reminiscent of Melville’s Moby-Dick:

… visions gathered on that house Like corposant fire on the hoar mastheads of a ship wandering strange waters (SP 42)

A similar reference to corposant fire in Moby-Dick is directly associated with what might be called a fire-worship service led by Captain Ahab.

Tamar prays to her fire-deity; Ahab prays to his:

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; … Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”[5]

As a whaler, Ahab is in the business of bringing fire to man from the sea, in the form of whale oil.

Ahab and Tamar have more than fire in common. For instance, Tamar hunts her house (family, society) just as Ahab hunts his whale (God). In both cases, God is a deity of destruction, whether of Tamar’s house as it sways down into its flames, or of Ahab’s ship as it spirals into the yawning, watery vortex. Tamar exhibits a power over men, but a corresponding impotence with fire, and she is destroyed in the end. Ahab knows all along that he is powerless, but he defies God just the same, and so he is destroyed in his act of defiance.

In another sense, Tamar resembles Fedallah, Ahab’s ghostly, fire-worshiping spirit-guide.

Both protagonists are in some sense superhuman yet utterly mortal. Both exhibit a flash of enlightenment, yet it is a tragic, destructive vision in both cases. Both stories end in utter chaos and annihilation.

 


[1] The fact that she is addressing God is established by the context. Immediately before the prayer, she says “Why, now He speaks …” (pronoun capitalized).

[2] Apology for Bad Dreams, Section III (SP 143)

[3] Tamar, To the Rock that Will Be a Cornerstone to the House (SP 21)

[4] Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies, Translated by J.H. MacMahon. “Thunder” changed to “thunderbolt,” following Kahn, “The Art and Thought of Heraclitus.”

[5] Melville. “The Candles,” Moby-Dick.

 

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Tamar is included in the following anthology:

  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt.

 

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