Up The Road: Robinson Jeffers

Nov 29, 2017

Today we head up the road to Tor House, a striking hand-built stone home that harks back to a time when artists, photographers and other “seacoast bohemians” called Carmel home because it was beautiful, wild, isolated — not at all civilized enough for polite society. Not incidentally, it was also crazy-cheap.

Open-minded poets, writers and other oddballs were the community’s original movers and shakers, in fact — most of them shaken up and out of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Robinson Jeffers, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and Jack London were some of Carmel’s literary lights.

By Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeffers was reclusive, generally aloof from other coastal bohemians, though Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin and other celebrities would visit him at the family home. Close friends included D. H. Lawrence, Edgar Lee Masters and George Sterling, who all appreciated his natural dramatic sense. On the day Jeffers died here, January 20, 1962, it snowed — a rare event along any stretch of California’s coast.

Pricey, exclusive, even snowy Carmel was far in the future when Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una arrived in 1914. Jeffers soon built their medieval-looking granite home, Tor House, and its stunning Hawk Tower, on what was then a barren, rocky knoll above Carmel Bay. He hauled the huge stones up from the beach below with horse teams. The manual labor, he said, cleared his mind, and “my fingers had the art to make stone love stone.” Jeffers apprenticed himself to a local stone mason to learn that art, which he practiced the rest of his life. While he worked he also constructed an overall “inhuman” philosophy, and honed his skill as a poet. He would write in the morning and build in the afternoon. Here’s Robinson Jeffers, in “The Beauty of Things”:

To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things – earth,
stone and water,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars –
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts,
frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality –
For man’s half dream; man, you might say, is nature
dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant – to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the
intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

Those few words say so much about Jeffers. About his belief that humanity is immensely self-centered and generally indifferent to “the astonishing beauty of things.” About his philosophy of “inhumanism,” meaning not that we humans should try to be inhuman — we manage just fine there, after all — but that we should understand the world — the universe — to be inhuman, to be beyond human, larger and more important than human. That the world and its waters, stones and stars have value beyond any human perspective.

Tor House
Credit Harvey Barrison

Tor House, a stone Tudor-style barn, is low to the ground — to weather winter storms — with two bedrooms in the attic, a main floor guest room, living room, small kitchen and bathroom. In 1920 Jeffers started on Hawk Tower, complete with hidden interior staircase, as a retreat for Una, who had a thing for Irish towers. After finishing the tower Jeffers added a dining room to the original cottage. After World War II he began a new wing, an addition his son, Donnan, eventually completed. Tor House is open for small-group tours on Fridays and Saturdays, by advance reservation, and for other special events throughout the year.

For more on Jeffers’ life and times read the literary biography “Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California” by James Karman, Chico State professor emeritus.