The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Saturday Afternoon at Tor House

Tor House in the summertime. Photo courtesy of the Tor House Foundation

Arriving at Tor House, the rugged home poet Robinson Jeffers (1887?1962) built stone by stone, the first thing you notice is it?s out of place with the other houses in this Carmel, California neighborhood. When our guide noted that the Jeffers descendants sold the home to the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Trust in 1979 for $250,000, the locals on the tour laughed. Homes here start in the millions these days. The irony that a place built by a man who cherished privacy and abhorred real estate developers is now crowded by posh suburban homes was not lost on Jeffers. In the 1950s, he saw what had been his 5.5 acres on its way to becoming an exclusive neighborhood, and wrote about it in his poem Carmel Point, an excerpt of which is below.

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of surburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it

While the rustic Tor House might stand out from neighbors, it fits perfectly with its natural surroundings, the Pacific coast. Once you?re inside Tor House, it?s easy to ?unhumanize? your own views a little and imagine what the view must have been like with only the rocks and ocean. In fact, the home itself is the perfect introduction to Jeffers' work. He would write in the morning and work on the house in the afternoon and the place features prominently in most of his poetry. It?s the protagonist of poems such as Tor House and For Una, and the setting for many more. For example, in Rock and Hawk, you can look out the window and see the rock where the hawk that inspired the poem would land.

Tor House. Photo courtesy of the Tor House Foundation

When Jeffers and his wife Una began work on Tor House in 1914, theirs was one of the only houses in the newly incorporated city of Carmel. The couple had wanted to live in Dorset, England, but WWI spoiled their plans. The rocky Pacific shores of Carmel reminded them of the English coastline and they decided to settle here in nature and far away from other people.

It was a bohemian project. Jeffers incorporated slate from billiard tables for a pathway, ballast from ships for garden benches, and art from friends. The day Thomas Hardy (a native of Dorset) died, Robinson chiseled Hardy?s name and date of death into a stone in the living room. Quotations such as ?Bien faire et laissez dire? (Live well and let them talk) are inscribed over door frames, and ?Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt? (Lovers construct their own dreams) is over the fireplace. A sculpture from John Singer Sargent?s home sits in the garden.

At Tor House, the Jeffers would settle and raise twin sons, Donnan and Garth. Though intensely private, Jeffers? fame, and the growth of Carmel, led to visitors. In an unsuccessful attempt to fend them off, Jeffers kept a placard on the gate, ?Not home before 4 p.m.? After four, he would reluctantly entertain guests, mostly artists, some of whom were famous, such as Ansel Adams (a Carmel neighbor), Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Charles Lindbergh, George Gershwin, and Charlie Chaplin.

The outstanding feature of Tor House would be Hawk Tower. A passionate reader of William Butler Yeats, Jeffers shared a love for Celtic towers such as Yeats? Ben Bulben, so he built his own. Named in honor of a hawk who visited daily during construction, Hawk Tower contains secret passageways and an idyllic view of the coast.

Tours are given every Friday and Saturday, but must be booked in advance. If you love Jeffers, poetry, or bohemian architecture, pay a visit---before the swell and ebb of time dissolves all.

In the meantime, the best place to start with any trip to Tor House would be Jeffers? own description.

Tor House

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.

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