The Loving Shepherdess

In The Loving Shepherdess, Robinson Jeffers strives to make his best case against “the good shepherd” of Christian godly love. The core idea seems to be that universal love tends to inhibit happiness. Unfortunately, the story is so visibly contrived that it fails utterly to engage as story.

This narrative—or fable—also pushes the notion that every comfort or pleasure brings with it double its own weight in suffering. Clare Walker believes this doctrine from the outset:

Through the shut lids of my eyes while the sweet fire
Poured through my body: I knew that some dreadful pain would pay for such joy. … [1]

Later, it seems that every time Clare finds pasture or shelter for her flock, her flock suffers a tragedy. Does God love her? Does he reward her all-embracing love? Quite the contrary; but again, the lesson is forced, and not terribly coherent.

The Loving Shepherdess also strives to stitch up several of Jeffers’ previous narratives while traveling up the coast. The lion’s share of the story proceeds from Big Sur up the coast road to the Carmel River. During this leg of the journey it visits some of the key sites of The Women at Point Sur, Cawdor, and Tamar.

The location of “Cawdor’s canyon” is established shortly after this retrospective fable parts ways with Onorio Vasquez and his campfire, leaving one to wonder whether the canyon featured in Cawdor was intended to have a real world location when Jeffers conceived it.

The case of the Tamar site at Point Lobos is odd because the poet mentions “the house” without mentioning that it is not Tamar’s house (the house of the story had been destroyed). I’ll have to assume it isn’t one of those ghost houses that magically rebuild themselves, though then again, such a house of eternal recurrence might just suit that particular story.

When the shepherdess is finished with Tamar, she then hurries up the Carmel River Valley, across the Santa Lucia Range, through the Salinas Valley, over the Diablo Range, and finally north through the San Joaquin Valley to the San Joaquin River, but this itinerary is misleading. Most of the story occurs between the town of Big Sur and the canyon of Bixby Creek. Over a third of the story occurs in the vicinity of a campfire under Mill Creek [2] Bridge.

As much as anything, Shepherdess acts as a kind of epilogue to The Women at Point Sur, as though more than enough verses had not already been spent on that overwrought drama. Enough of that had already been enough, and so these words of Onorio Vasquez seem particularly apropos:

        … I want to hear nothing
Of what there was at Point Sur. … [3]

This is only a fictional character speaking, but Onorio Vasquez is not just another character. In this narrative he sounds very much like a dramatic mouthpiece for the author, so when he says he’s heard enough about something, the author might just agree.

Vasquez is the same character as the confused seer of The Women of Point Sur, but this Onorio Vasquez is not really the same person. He has grown up quite a bit since Point Sur. He is practical, helpful, realistic, and philosophical. He is surprisingly educated. He may not be able to understand his own visions, but he does seem to grasp Edwin Hubble’s discovery of remote galaxies. He is a little bit too grand to believe, even moreso when one considers his dubious past.

Vasquez would go on to play a part in yet another narrative, Give Your Heart to the Hawks, in which he provides a vision of the end of that story without attempting to interpret the vision. Perhaps there is a message about life in that.

Vasquez, recognized as Indian-Spanish by Clare Walker [4] and Spanish-Indian by the narrator of Give Your Heart to the Hawks, [5] describes himself as “only a sort of Indian” in the one narrative [6] and “we are much Indian” in the other.[7] As Vasquez matured from 1927 to 1929 and 1933, he established himself as the most sustained character of Jeffers’ repertoire—other than the poet himself, and one of the most sympathetic characters to the poet.

The fires are not so violent, destructive, or surreal in this narrative, rather, more than of a third of this poem takes place in the vicinity of a harmless campfire.

The campfire is started and tended by Onorio Vasquez in an effort to help the hungry and hypothermic Clare Walker keep warm. Perhaps the poet is suggesting that all the warmth of heart in the world won’t do one any good in a winter rain.

You love … / Not one person but all, does it warm your winter? [8]

While warming herself by the fire, Clare Walker recollects another sort of fire:

When I was with Charlie in the hollow near the madrones,
      I felt a pleasure like a sweet fire …

Through the shut lids of my eyes while the sweet fire
Poured through my body … [9]

Later, sitting by the same campfire, Onorio Vasquez reflects upon the fires of the cosmos, and the one great fire which consists of a great universal web of light:

But Vasquez laughed aloud, for the earth was a grain of dust circling the fire,
And the fire itself but a spark, among innumerable sparks. [10]

Here “sparks” represent stars, like the stars Jeffers referred to in his 1925 poem Night. The difference here is that Vasquez sees all these sparks as woven together by their light, forming one great universal fire. Where Jeffers had sung formerly of the ascendency of darkness and death, here Vasquez sees light everywhere, a sign that the fire is inescapable, and in turn, that life also is inescapable and ubiquitous, that death is but a fantasy.

This musing was based upon the discovery by Edwin Hubble of galaxies beyond our galaxy, first reported in the New York Times in November 1924. Jeffers had surely been briefed on the discovery by his younger brother Hamilton, an accomplished astronomer.


[1] The Loving Shepherdess, Section IX (SP 339)

[2] Now known as Bixby Creek. The bridge in the poem is some distance inland on the old road, not to be confused with picturesque Bixby Creek Bridge on California Highway 1.

[3] The Loving Shepherdess, Section VI; SP 318

[4] The Loving Shepherdess, Section IV; SP 313

[5] Give Your Heart to the Hawks, Section XII; SP 468

[6] The Loving Shepherdess, Section IV; SP 313

[7] Give Your Heart to the Hawks, Section XII; SP 470

[8] The Loving Shepherdess, Section VII; SP 328

[9] The Loving Shepherdess, Section IX (SP 338, 339)

[10] The Loving Shepherdess, Section XI (SP 351)