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Robinson Jeffers: The Poet and Stone Mason of Tor House

By Victor A. Walsh

Carmel by the Sea was a wild, sparsely populated place when the California poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una arrived in 1914. Drawn to the rugged coastline that reminded them of West Britain, the young couple bought five large, undeveloped lots on a rocky, wind-battered promontory just south of the village at Carmel Point, which they called ‘Standing Stones.’

Over the next decade from 1918 to 1925, Jeffers would hire an Irish stonemason and build the family’s two-story stone cottage and a forty-foot Celtic tower enclosed by sturdy walls all made from granite boulders. He named the cottage Tor House, Gaelic for the craggy knoll on which it was built, and the tower after a hawk which flew overhead daily and then disappeared the day it was completed.

This wild, craggy spot at the Continent’s End was unlike any other place that the widely traveled poet had seen. Jeffers called it “our inevitable place.” Buffeted by winds and storms, Tor House would become the couple’s sanctuary, providing a setting for a life of simplicity, harmony, and creativity. Except for vacations to the British Isles in 1929, 1937 and 1948, periodic visits to the art colony of Taos during the 1930s, and a reading tour in 1941 at the Library of Congress, they never left.

“Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions,” Jeffers wrote in 1938. “Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white seagulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life.”

This past November with stormy skies and heavy seas looming on the horizon, I visited Tor House with Marleen Fouché, my photographer. My intention, as a mason who works on adobes, was to see, listen, and touch this primeval place of stones—the only words that come to mind—to understand the force of Jeffers words, his spiritual connections to the land itself, and nothing else. Not his poetry or verse or place in American letters.

We arrived at the Visitor Center at about 9:30 on a wet, overcast Saturday morning. Built of granite and brick by Jeffers’ son Donnan in the ’50s, it’s operated by the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, which also manages the historic site. Historic photographs of Jeffers, his family, and the landscape line the rear interior wall, and they reveal the range and depth of his interests and environmental concerns, from landscaping, gardening and wildlife to exploring Indian antiquities and the natural world around him.

The tour began promptly at 10 a.m., limited to the two of us and four others. Our guide, Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, the Foundation’s first vice-president and a poet with a bushy graying beard and thick scarf draped around his shoulders, led us through the gardens to the rear stone cottage built by Jeffers in 1918-1920.

It stands on a dramatic barren outcrop. In the brooding sea-gray light, the cottage, set low-to-the-ground to withstand winter storms and flanked by an imposing granite courtyard wall, reminds me of a compact English Tudor barn. It’s both part of, yet apart from nature.

Once inside, Ruchowitz-Roberts motions for us to sit down in the front living room. He begins to read from Jeffers’ “November Surf.”

…Each November great waves awake and are drawn
Like smoking mountains bright from the west
And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness: then suddenly
The old granite forgets half a year’s filth:…
Idlers washed off in a winter ecstasy…

After the reading, he pauses, saying in a soft voice: “Jeffers is so powerful as a writer that you can almost touch his words.” And that is exactly the point: There’s a flint-sharp, lyrical beauty to his verse and prose. It’s as if this wild, craggy place with the mist lifting off the windows is speaking through Jeffers’ words as Ruchowitz-Roberts recites them.

Sitting on the seat of Una’s old Steinway baby grand piano, I look around the room at the wood-paneled walls, the soot on the stone fireplace, and up at the low ceiling. It resembles the Hobbit House. It’s cramped and dimly lit by the morning sunlight filtering through a large window overlooking the ocean. A little reading nook, an alcove with an old sea captain’s desk, sits snugly in front of a window on the far side. Opposite it is a steep set of stairs that leads through a hatch to the attic above, where Jeffers is believed to have written most of his work.

Jeffers led a “very privileged childhood,” says Ruchowitz-Roberts. Born on January 12, 1887, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he had lived in Europe, gone to private schools, graduated from Occidental College, and later majored in medicine at the University of Southern California. He was fluent in French, German and Spanish, read Greek and Latin, and was exceptionally well-schooled in the Classical Age, but his discovery of Carmel Point would change his destiny.

“It was the source of Jeffers’ inspiration,” Ruchowitz-Roberts tells the group. “He began to look at life from a very different perspective—as man not apart.” Living by the sea in relative solitude had convinced Robinson and Una that civilization detaches human beings from the larger scheme of an impersonal cosmos.

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Jeffers, “Carmel Point”, 1938

The modern age, Jeffers believed, represented the final and fullest phase of humanity’s separation from the natural world. When Highway 1 was constructed along the coast between Carmel and Big Sur, Jeffers wrote a poem entitled “The Coast-Road,” in which he decries what is being lost in the name of progress.

I too
Believe that the life of me n who ride horses, herders of cattle on the
mountain pasture, plowers of remote
Rock-narrowed farms in poverty and freedom, is a good life.
Is what will come and destroy it, a rich and vulgar and bewildered
civilization dying at the core.

From the living room, the tour moves through the other rooms—a tiny guestroom facing the sea, a closet-size bathroom, the converted kitchen—and the dining room addition that Jeffers finished in 1930. The two attic rooms, where Jeffers and Una and their twins, Donnan and Garth, slept, are presently closed to the public.

The sunlight, streaming through two large windows in the guestroom, casts a warm glow across the large double bed. It dominates the room—so much so that there is scarcely any place for us to stand.

Jeffers describes the bed’s purpose in his poem “The Bed by the Window.”

I chose the bed down stairs by the sea window for a good death-bed
When we built the house; it is ready waiting,
Unused by some guest in a twelve month, who hardly suspects
Its latter purpose.

“Jeffers did die in this bed (on January 20, 1962)—the same bed in which Una had died twelve years earlier,” says Ruchowitz-Roberts. “On the day he died, it snowed, but the big news was the golf tournament in Carmel, not Jeffers’ death. There was no memorial service or funeral.” He was cremated and his ashes were buried with Una’s beneath a yew tree in the courtyard.

Jeffers, reserved and brooding, and Una, voluble and gregarious, although temperamentally different, had been nearly inseparable companions and intellectual soul-mates for forty years. Her death from cancer crushed him. She had collected many of the local traditions, stories and legends that later became the thematic subtexts for many of his California poems. As mother, cook, and housekeeper, she had been the center of their cherished life at Tor House. As its gatekeeper, Una had kept the public and press at bay, especially when Jeffers’ fame soared from the mid ’20s to the mid ’30s. In April 1932, he made the front cover of Time and Vanity Fair.

“Una saved him from his dark side, and Jeffers had a very, very dark side that included attempted suicide, depression, and self-hatred,” explains Ruckowitz-Roberts.

The dining room is neither cramped nor somber like the other rooms. With its thick, boulder-sized granite walls, floor-to-ceiling fireplace and chimney, vaulted ceiling and loft, it resembles a country inn.

“Tor House is like a medieval cathedral. Everywhere you look, there is an artifact embedded in stone or an inscription written on the wood that tells a story,” says Ruckowitz-Roberts, pointing at the long narwhal tusk and the French flintlock mounted on the granite wall above one of the windows.

Robinson and Una used the spacious room to entertain guests, including such intellectuals and artists as Sinclair Lewis, Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney, Edgar Lee Masters, Martha Graham, D. H. Lawrence, Lincoln Steffens, George Gershwin, Edward Weston, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The cottage originally had piped-in water, but no gas, electricity, or telephone service until the 1940s. Walking through the rooms and later standing beyond the protective sea walls, I could imagine Jeffers’ world, its connections to the land and the sea. In my mind, I see the family foraging for driftwood along the shoreline; lighting fires early to warm the walls; reading by candle light or an oil lamp, and eating meals quickly to keep the food from going cold. In the evening darkness, they could hear the breaking waves echoing off the headlands, the long mournful cries of coyotes, or the wind rattling the windows.

Surrounded by cypress and pine groves, many planted by the poet, and moors and meadows where cattle grazed, Tor House became a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. Signs were posted on the trees warning hunters:

No shooting, no camping.
This shore is privately owned to the ocean.
Do not leave papers or other filth.
Jeffers

Carmel Point left an indelible mark on Jeffers and Una. Jeffers, in turn, left the stones. Visitors in a “handful of lifetimes,” he says in the poem “Tor House,” “…will find some remnant.”

…Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone…
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite,…

Hawk Tower stands in the drizzling rain as if part of some ancient medieval fortress. The smooth, wet granite stones glisten in the autumn light. On the keystone above the entrance to it are carved the letters ‘U’ above and ‘RJ’ below signifying that the four-story structure had been built for Una.

“Not only did Jeffers build the tower, but the tower built Jeffers,” Vince Huth, the executive director the Foundation, tells me. “It took him four years (1920-1924) to build it, and he did it without plans or designs.”

The construction had been inspired by the round tower at Drumcliffe, the final resting place of William Butler Yeats, Una’s favorite poet. Like the builders of the Egyptian pyramids, Jeffers used inclined ramps and a block and tackle system to move larger stones from the shore, to set them in the foundation, and to raise them as the wall rose. Some of the granite boulders weighed as much as 400 pounds and were as thick as six feet.

Entering the tower is a journey of revelations. The ground level is entombed in stone. Cold, dark, and seemingly impregnable, it is called “The Dungeon”. From the tiny entry room, a narrow ‘secret’ stair winds its way up to Una’s room on the second story.

The main room has Jeffers’ writing table and heavy worn black chair. The Roman arch above the window—the massive stones angled and wedged into the wall to support the opening—testifies to his masonry skills.

The group follows Ruchowitz-Roberts, climbing up a steep, narrow, rain-wet exterior stairway that winds around the tower like a corkscrew to Una’s room. There are no handrails. This room, where she sometimes slept, has two small Gothic-arched windows, and an alcove formed from an oriel window overlooking the ocean. Jeffers embellished the niches with emblems of feminine power—a Babylonian tile inscribed with a cuneiform prayer to the goddess Ishtar and the stone head of the dancing girl from an Angkor temple in Cambodia—as a tribute to Una’s passionate nature.

Re-entering the tower, we climb to the third-story. It has an open platform protected by battlements and a small turret on the far side. A carved sandstone hawk graces the keystone over the main tower’s door.

The top of the tower offers a commanding view of the jagged shoreline and boundless sea. “Jeffers came up here often in the evening with a glass of wine to look at the stars; his only light being from his cigarette,” says Ruchowitz-Roberts.

What motivated Jeffers to build Tor House and Hawk Tower? It was more than an expression of love to Una and family or even finding a refuge in a place of unfathomable beauty.

“The work allowed him to lead a balanced life, a life of the mind and a life with his hands,” says Huth. “He wrote in the morning and worked on the buildings and walls in the afternoon.”

Working with his hands—he never used power tools—intensified his experience of life and brought him closer to an ecological and purposeful view of the earth. “He realized some kinship (with the granite) and became aware of strengths in himself unknown before,” Una later recalled. “There came to him a kind of awakening such as adolescents and religious converts are said to experience.”

The kinship that he felt extended the reach of his consciousness beyond the animals, birds, and plants that he cherished to the very heart of matter. He marveled at the hard, cold feel of the wave-worn granite, but more importantly, at its antiquity predating the dawn of mankind.

In a poem entitled “To The Stone-Cutters,” he declares that the stones will outlast humankind.

…The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart;
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

Jeffers’ body of work, unlike that of any other American poet, is rooted to a specific place. The transforming effect of the Carmel-Big Sur landscape on him and Una is undeniable. “Something utterly wild had crept into his mind and marked his features,” recalled the naturalist Loren Eisley in Not Man Apart, published in 1965 by the Sierra Club. “…The sea-beaten coast, the fierce freedom of its hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him. It was one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background that I know in literature.”

The landscape, its geology, its people and their stories—many collected by Una—gave Jeffers’ work “a rare spiritual intensity”, in the words of his biographer James Karman. They provided the settings and universal and often tragic themes of family conflict, human cruelty, death, suicide, rape, and mankind’s cosmic insignificance found in long narrative poems like Roan Stallion, Cawdor, Thurso’s Landing, and The Women at Point Sur, and shorter lyrics such as “The Silent Shepherds” and “Hurt Hawks”.

Jeffers and Una saw in the ranchers, farm hands, old vaqueros, and drifters echoes of both ancient Ireland and ancient Greece in the way they lived on the land and how they depended on and continually betrayed one another.

Jeffers held to a very dark view of humanity and attributed many of humanity’s flaws, especially arrogance and cruelty, to the development of a crass modernizing culture. All around, he saw a changing rural society that disinherited people, stripping them of their land and independence, to make room for expanding towns, paved roads, and other modern things.

“I wish they’d let the poor old road be. I don’t like improvements,” says the lame farmer Reave Thurso as he watches a road crew far below him dynamite a seemingly impregnable gorge along the new coast highway. “Why not?” asks his wife, “They bring in the world; We’re well without it,” he replies. And so it was with Robinson Jeffers.

Today, Tor House and Hawk Tower are hemmed in by multi-million dollar, secluded Tudor style homes—a trend that began in Jeffers’ later years when financial necessity forced him to sell much of his property. The meadows no longer exist, and the stands of cypress and pines that he planted are nearly gone. But the sea and the ancient granite boulders atop the craggy knoll still remain, where the poet-turned-stone mason found his destiny as a man not apart.

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