Friday, March 02, 2012

Bohemian Love: Una and Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers was the first poet to introduce the idea of wild and untamed California spaces to a national audience. The "California Poet," Jeffers was especially fond of the rugged coastline just north of Big Sur.

Robinson Jeffers smokes a pipe
In 1914, Robinson (or Robin, as he liked to be called) and his wife Una moved to Carmel. It was an escape: The two had met and become lovers while Una was married. Their affair was so scandalous it became news in the Los Angeles Times.

Una Jeffers before her marriage to Robinson
And no wonder. While Jeffers was tall, slight, and brooding, Una was a beauty, "rounded headed and wild eyed with wonder and delight." She was his disciplinarian and his muse. Her small writing desk was positioned directly one floor down from his, and when she heard him wandering their loft, she'd rap on the ceiling to tell him to get back to work. He must have liked and needed the encouragement, because it was after meeting Una that he produced his greatest work.

Una's writing desk. Photo by Susan Grey
Una inspired him in other ways. After one tragically still born daughter, Una gave birth to twin boys. The couple bought land on Carmel Point and began to build a cottage and tower from granite boulders that he pulled from the shore.

Tor House photo c/o Robinson Jeffers Association
Robinson built Hawk Tower as a gift for Una. She kept her favorite objects there: Photos, bits of plant and dried flowers, her musical instruments. She was a "tower woman." She felt a deep affinity with women in Irish ballads "who leaned from stone towers over tossing seas." Una also had a deep appreciation for the magical. She loved unicorns, and tiny porcelain figurines, woven tapestries, and other mementos with unicorn symbolism can be found tucked into the nooks and crannies of her home.

Vintage Hawk Tower photo c/o Robinson Jeffers Association
I'm sure Una had talent that ranged beyond inspiring her husband. Maybe she could have been a poet too, or a musician, or a painter. Instead she devoted herself to her husband and children and her home. She kept chickens, she gardened, she brewed amber colored wine.

I thought I'd be most inspired by the Tower at Tor House with its hidden staircase and views of the sea. Everyone dreams of a room of their own, right? But my favorite room in the house was the kitchen. It isn't the original kitchen Una cooked in -- that was narrow and small -- but it's a room she still spent time in. And it's easy to understand why: Views of rocks and sea, a fireplace big enough for a cauldron, redwood walls painted with cheerful inspiration quotes, a large table.

Photo of Una and Robinson Jeffers & family from Ordinary Times
I could just picture myself on a writer's retreat, reading the paper and writing at the table with big cups of coffee for fuel and long walks on the shore in the afternoons.

Una's friendly ghost is easily felt throughout Tor House, and I'm intrigued by this beautiful woman. Her deep love for the outdoors and for cooking, books, and music is so inspiring. I know she was so much more than Robinson Jeffers' muse, but I'm intrigued by the idea that without her, Tor House, Hawk Tower, and Jeffers' poetry might not have existed.

Una guarded her husband's "'sacred quietness' like a lioness." Who took care of her?

* You can find out more information about touring Tor House here. Quotes taken from Of Una Jeffers by Edith Greenan and "He Built Her a Tower' by F. Older.


alanachernila said...

Oh, I love this. I was just in Carmel for the first time last fall for a wedding, and despite the swarms of tourists on the coast, I could feel the wildness. This post brings me right into a place I've never been, but feels so familiar.

Megan Taylor said...

I think I need that writing desk!

nicole said...

Yes please - tell me more! :)

dana said...

I love Robinson Jeffers, especially "The Vulture." What an interesting post!