The house that a poet’s passion built
Robinson Jeffers was among the most ruggedly Promethean of 20th century poets, but every dawdling personal pleasure he denied himself in his flinty gaze at “boiling stars,” soaring hawks and insufferable mankind seemed to find its way into Tor House and Hawk Tower, the Carmel family compound he finished in 1924 after five years of hauling granite boulders out of the sea -- first as a stonemason’s apprentice, then alone with block and tackle.
Wrestling with 300-pound rocks distracted Jeffers from chafing self-doubt over a small body of poems that was competent but undistinguished and guilt over staying home with his wife and two young boys while his generation went off to fight in World War I. The house became the answer to his anguish.
Outwardly, Tor House -- and its nearby Hawk Tower -- appears the rough extension of Jeffers, with its stubborn, thickly cobbled walls of Santa Lucian rock on a seaside bluff. The poet saw himself not just at the continent’s edge but also at the brooding, turbulent edge of history and human limit. When he gazed at the Pacific, he didn’t see anything on the other side except oblivion.
But the spell the house and tower exert on visitors is completely unexpected. Jeffers had one great love in his life, his wife Una -- a smart and spirited beauty in whom he met his match. For whatever these structures of stone answer about him, they are his ardent, monumental tribute to their life together.
More often than not, monuments hold dead air, spiritual emptiness. But the house, snug as a clipper ship’s cabin, feels as though Jeffers and Una have just taken their two kids down to the beach and left a note on the door saying, “Back soon. Make yourself at home.” No velvet ropes. No gift shop jammed with postcards, chimes, New Age loop tapes, T-shirts and vials of patchouli oil.
None of the redwood-lined rooms is off limits. In the high-ceilinged dining room is a long table that seated, at various times, such luminaries as Irving Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Leopold Stokowski, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
At one end is a minstrel gallery where Una imagined musicians could play, and on the other a tall fireplace built from white stones taken from the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Over it hang a two-man Chinese rifle, a Japanese rifle and an Arctic whale tusk curved into a huge scimitar. An 1847 Irish spinning wheel stands in a corner. Mottoes are hand-carved into the crossbeams, including Edmund Spenser’s “Sleep after toyle, port after stormye seas, Ease after warre, death after life, Does greatly please,” and, in French, “Do well and let ‘em talk.”
Una’s Steinway piano dominates the low-ceilinged living room and stands next to an old leather rocking chair that, even empty, tilts appreciatively toward forgotten music, a dark fireplace and a missionary organ tucked into a corner by the door. Her Celtic songbook, marked with Jeffers’ doodles, is open on the piano.
Just off the living room is the bedroom, where the family huddled to read poetry on Carmel’s bone-chilling winter nights. Jeffers’ own 1887 infant cradle takes its modest place in one corner. The white fireplace is still scorched from years of use. Outside, the muffled surf still pounds below like some unending quarrel. Point Lobos fingers out to the sea on your left. On your immediate right stands a towering cypress, sculpted by sea winds.
“People keep coming here from all over because it’s such a great story,” says Alex Vardamis, a retired professor of comparative literature who is president of the Tor House Foundation (the complex is a national historic landmark). “It’s where a major poet lived and worked, it’s an architectural wonder and it’s a great love story. Una was full of passion, music, energy. He called her his eyes and ears. She was as vivacious as he was taciturn. She watched and protected him. She even kept a .22 rifle to scare young ladies away.”
Highly intelligent and unconventional, Una Call Kuster was married to a prominent L.A. attorney when she met Jeffers in 1905, three years her junior and a fellow student at USC. Their relationship -- described by Una as “one of those fatal attractions that happened unplanned and undesired” -- rocked the city’s narrow social world. Eventually the scandal drove them from Southern California to Carmel and their stone house on the sea.
Throughout the English garden of lunaria bushes, foxglove and blue-and-white love-in-the-mist flowers are inlaid rocks, fossils, masks that include a ceramic fragment from the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a stone from Lord Byron’s Newstead Abbey, pre-Columbian terra-cotta heads, a piece of marble from Hadrian’s villa -- items brought from their travels or received as gifts. There’s a statue of Cupid on a dolphin from John Singer Sargent’s home in London and a Celtic cross from a tombstone in Donegal, Ireland.
The brick path to the seawall is lined with abalone shells that give off a pearly glow. The house was built over a Costanoan tribal campground; abalones were a staple of Indian diet and artifact. Not far north was a sacred fertility altar stone, against which Costanoan women pressed their backs while giving birth. Robinson’s and Una’s ashes are buried under a corner yew tree in an unmarked grave; she died in 1950 and he survived her by 12 years. If you stand on the seaward side and look back, you’ll see a single arterial stem bearing a red blossom in front of the spot where the tree’s heart would be if it had one.
Una clung to her Irish heritage. The three-story, 40-foot Hawk Tower, the likes of which dot the Irish landscape (and from which Stephen Daedalus sauntered into his day in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) was built for her and contains her furniture, desk, music, and Celtic and medieval memorabilia. It gave her the privacy to write lively, observant prose equal to her husband’s. On the outside, the tower may appear to be a rough phallic symbol, but inside, it feels like a protective maternal embrace.
Tor House isn’t an architectural wonder in the wondrous or grandiose sense. If you weren’t looking in the right direction, you could easily miss it as you drove along residential Ocean View Avenue. Except for the tender beauty of the garden, a first glance makes you think of functionally organized rubble, standoffish buildings notable for the maverick will that built them. But soon the sense of it overtakes you, the uncanny mix of the primal -- “the bones of the sea,” as Jeffers put it, brought ashore to make a house -- and the detailed intimacy of thought and feeling, everything with which a poet’s eye and a man and a woman’s love can appoint a place uniquely theirs. The twin themes of Jeffers’ work and life are everywhere in it. He said that a stone made a good pillow for visions. And of his work he wrote:
” ... It is curious that flower-soft verse
Is sometimes harder than granite, tougher than a steel cable, more alive than life.”
Altogether, that’s Tor House.
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A celebration of Tor House
The annual Tor House Fall Festival takes place Friday through Sunday and includes tours, a poetry walk and seminars. Reservations and accommodations are difficult to book this late.
Regular Tor House docent-led tours take place hourly on Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with groups limited to six (no children under 12). The Tor House and Hawk Tower are at 26304 Ocean View Ave. in Carmel. Reservations: (831) 624-1813; Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.torhouse.org.
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