Tor House is a beautiful poem. Among Jeffers’ poems, this was one of those that has echoed through me with strong sensation of subconscious presence. The poem features some of the most beautiful wording, I think, that Jeffers ever wrote:
… Orion in December / Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
In a sense, this poem represents the strongest link between the poet and his stone muse. As such, it ought not be taken lightly. Yet there is a strain of boasting and self-mythologizing here that troubles me. He instructs the reader to look for evidence of his workmanship in the remnants of stonework and boasts, “my fingers had the art / To make stone love stone.”
One fact that should be remembered in this context is that the house that Robinson Jeffers lived in was mostly built by hands other than his. The cottage where he slept, wrote, and died was built by a hired stonemason. Jeffers helped with the construction of the cottage as an apprentice, not as a skilled craftsman. The cottage took under three months to complete, and Jeffers didn’t sign onto the project until after it had begun. At the time of the writing of this poem (1927–28), the 1919 cottage was all there was to Tor House. Two or three years later, he would complete an addition to the house where he and his family would later eat their meals. He would certainly have reason to boast of the marvelous work he did on that dining hall. Further, he might well boast of his construction of the garage, which much later was converted to a kitchen by his son Donnan, but hey: it was a garage—for his car.
Most of all, Jeffers could honestly boast of his tower, but again, it was a detached structure where no one slept, prepared meals, ate, or bathed. As with the garage and the dining hall, there was no plumbing in the tower. It could hardly be called a home. For the most part, Jeffers did not even write in the tower.
The claim to have made “stone love stone” might be seen by some to be an exaggeration. I recall showing the house and tower once to a man who identified himself as a stonemason. He reluctantly mentioned afterward, after I prodded him to speak freely, that he’d noticed small stones had been inserted in many places to fill gaps, that not being regarded as a sound practice among stonemasons. I’m no stonemason so I don’t know, but what the man said makes sense. When one cannot find a stone that fits, it is time to consider cutting stone.
All that said, one can still say that the portions that Jeffers completed can be distinguished because he generally fitted stones well, so in this regard the poem is faithful to reality.
This poem may claim by its title to be about a house, but it is more a self-congratulatory song about the poet. It also boasts of the many trees that the poet planted:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few / May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, … but fire and the axe are devils.
Though he calls this planting a “forest,” it would be more accurate to call it a privacy hedge:
When the animals Christ is rumored to have died for drew in,
… I planted trees eastward, …
In actuality, Jeffers did not wait long after purchasing the property to plant his cypress hedge, reminiscent of a hedge his father had planted to keep his own home and family shielded from the encroachment of other people.
He was not the first planter of trees in Carmel. The town went tree-crazy long before Jeffers began to plant his hedge. There was actually a forestry station in the town. But Australians? If Jeffers was concerned about the threat of fire, perhaps he should not have planted eucalyptus trees, an exotic with a dubious reputation in California, particularly with regard to combustibility. Jeffers planted trees of several species, most of which were native to the surrounding area, but none native to Carmel Point itself.
Though as young trees they did act as a kind of hedge, they would cease to block off the neighbors as they grew tall and lanky, and they would spoil the image of the poem rather quickly. Before too many years, there would be no Orion “strung in the throat of the valley,” because the high canopy would block the view. But I suppose that Orion will return, when the “devils” fire and axe may one day restore Carmel Point to its natural condition.
Again, I do feel this is a beautiful poem, but it is factually dubious, and perhaps worse, too self-congratulatory. Facts may be ignored with license, but boasting is just boasting.
Still, it should be pointed out that much the point of the poem is the decline and disappearance of a man’s labors. Ultimately, he is applying his theme of decline toward his own strivings. That warrants commendation. The closing reference to the author’s ghost may smell of narcissism to some, but at least the ghost is depicted as hidden (note that this is countered decades later in the poem Vulture).
The full text of Tor House is posted elsewhere online.
Tor House has been included only in Jeffers anthologies:
- The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, 2003; ed. Albert Gelpi
- The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
- Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers Random House, 1987, ed. Robert Hass
- Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965