ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 19

 - Wallace Stevens


Wallace Stevens is considered as an unapologetically Romantic poet of imagination. His search for meaning in a universe without religion in “Sunday Morning” is likened to Crane’s energetic quest for meaning and symbol. In “The Poems of Our Climate,” Stevens’s desire to reduce poetry to essential terms, and then his countering resistance to this impulse, are explored. Finally, “The Man on the Dump” is considered as a typically Stevensian search for truth in specifically linguistic terms.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 19 - Wallace Stevens

Chapter 1. Introduction: Wallace Stevens [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: On Wednesday, I would like you to come having read one of Stevens’s longer poems. It’s not too long but it’s a little longer: “The Auroras of Autumn,” which is a wonderful poem. It’s not exactly timely at this moment but please come having thought about it. As you read it, think about images that you find in the poem of stars, of the theater, of mother and father; the poem is full of both.

A friend asked me the other day, “Are there any happy poets?” Well, of course no, there really aren’t, or at least not any that are any good. No, that’s not true. In fact, as I think about the syllabus, Williams is a happy poet. He calls himself the “happy genius” of his household in that little poem, “Danse Russe,” where he’s talking about running around the house naked. Marianne Moore, I think, in many ways is a happy poet. But no poet is so happy as Wallace Stevens. And Stevens is happy in the sense that he is a comic poet. And that doesn’t mean that you’re going to laugh a lot while you read Wallace Stevens, though you might sometimes. And he can be silly, though that’s perhaps not his strongest vein.

Stevens is a comic poet in the sense, in the generic sense of a poet in whom and for whom and with whom the world always comes right. The world is right and good. It is a regenerative, exhilarating, endlessly consoling and meaningful place to dwell. And Stevens is, you know, really as I read him every year, I like him more and more, and he becomes more and more important. Stevens gives us, really, a comprehensive view of the world and one in which poetry and imagination have central roles to play. Imagination: that’s an important word in Stevens. It’s a word he takes right out of British romanticism and the long tradition of romantic poetry. And Stevens is, though in complex ways, like Hart Crane, a defiantly romantic modern poet.

Stevens’s poetry, like Moore’s, like Crane’s – to some extent like Frost’s – is always, in a sense, meta-poetry. That is, well, he shares with these poets, as with certain others on our syllabus, the sense that poetry has to always involve an investigation into its own rules: how it works, what it does, what it’s capable of, what its potential uses are; and that all these are in a sense open and available to re-definition at a fundamental level. He says – There’s a sort of wonderful set of adages or epigrams or statements at the back of your book which come from Stevens’s “Adagia.” One of those statements is “all poetry is experimental poetry.” And there’s a sense in any Stevens poem that Stevens is experimenting and is going in some new direction, not just at the beginning of the poem but throughout the poem. That’s how it proceeds. You could compare this idea to Williams’s interest in newness and a sense of life as “always subversive of life preceding.” It’s a related idea for Stevens.

In his poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” which is a little essay on the subject of what is modern poetry, Stevens says, “It has / to construct a new stage.” And it not only has to construct that new stage, it has to “be on it,” too. And there’s a way in which Stevens’s poems are both creating a new space in which to speak, and they’re speaking from there. These two things are going on at once. Stevens also says in that set of “Adagia” – and there are wonderful, provocative ones throughout, “A poem is a pheasant,” for one – he also says, “Poetry is a means of redemption.” That’s on page 972. “Poetry is a means of redemption.” He meant it, he meant it. For Stevens, poetry stands in the place that religion once did. Other poets that we’ve read this semester look to poetry to serve different functions of religion, I think. Eliot is concerned with ritual and community and ways in which poetry might establish these, constitute these. Moore is the most, well, with Eliot, the most serious Christian; is concerned with poetry as a model for ethical action, as a kind of guide for conduct in the world. And poetry models for her what she calls “love” or “hope” or striving or “doing hard things.”

For Stevens, poetry takes over another dimension of religious experience. Poetry takes over Christianity’s traditional concern with redemption, and with redemption – with questions about the afterlife, paradise – the transcendental. How can culture imagine the transcendental in a non-transcendental world? How can it imagine the metaphysical in a non-metaphysical world? How can we have Heaven if we don’t have God? These are all questions in Stevens’s poetry. He answers them in ways that put him on Hart Crane’s side of the debate with Eliot. In The Waste Land, the decay of sacred authority; this is a crisis of community, of meaning; language has lost its meaning. For Crane, this condition, rather than a crisis, is an opportunity, an opportunity for poetry to “lend a myth to God.” Eliot is disturbed to see God as something constructed, something linguistic, something we might lend a myth to; only lend it, in the sense that we’re going to have to get it back. For Crane, for Stevens, God always was a myth, a metaphor, and metaphors can and need to be exchanged and renewed all the time. In this, Crane and Stevens are very close together.

Chapter 2. Wallace Stevens Poem: “Sunday Morning” [00:09:22]

Let’s look at an early poem of Wallace Stevens, an early grand poem called “Sunday Morning,” the first one in your Stevens’s selection. It’s on page 237. “Sunday Morning” was published in Poetry magazine in 1915, which is to say, it’s contemporary with Prufrock, roughly contemporary with Marianne Moore’s “A Grave”; both poems that appeared in Poetry, too. Let’s read this first stanza.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug [all these things] mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe, [“that old catastrophe” being the
As a calm darkens among water-lights. [Or if it’s not the crucifixion, it’s
the Fall.]
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

This is a poem about not going to church, about doing something else with Sunday morning. It announces or it takes for granted really a great change in culture, a change in the cultural order where Sunday morning is no longer spent, or need not necessarily always be spent, at church. Stevens is writing about, in some ways, the end of the Christian Era. Of course, it’s gone on but in a different form from what it had been. You could think about how little this poem is like a poem on a similar theme in Yeats, such as “The Second Coming,” where the end of Christianity is an apocalyptic event and there’s some “rough beast” “slouching towards Bethlehem.” Instead, in Stevens the power of the past, the Christian Era, simply dissipates – poof! – dissolves in the circumstances that he’s describing.

What is a peignoir? I think Stevens likes the French word. This is a dressing gown. We have a female figure here presented to us in a space of domestic bourgeois luxury, with comfort and complacency even, with coffee and oranges, and a cockatoo. Whether that cockatoo is actually a bird or a design in the rug, critics have disagreed; you can make that bird what you like. This female presence that we’re introduced to is a figure for the poet, an unnamed “she” that the poem will be about. She, embodying poetic sensibility, poetic thinking and poetic impulses, seems to place poetry in this space of domestic comfort, seems to identify poetry with the feminine, with a female perspective, and with consumption, with fine imported goods, as you will find elsewhere in Stevens. She identifies a life of ease with the imagination. Stevens’s poetry, like Yeats’s in certain ways, though on very different terms, or even like Eliot’s, presents us with a number of very powerful female figures with whom the poet identifies his own creativity. This is an important one. And there’s an aspect of Stevens that’s gendered as feminine, you could say. It’s that aspect of Stevens that identifies with poetry as a space apart from the masculine world of work. Contrast this with Frost who identifies poetry with subjective freedom, a space apart from objective necessity, what Frost is always responding to.

Stevens maintains a complex attitude, however, towards this identification of poetry with aspects of culture that are gendered as female. There’s a macho strain in Stevens too, often a hyperbolic and somewhat comic one in which Stevens is identifying with giants, big men. And I’ll talk more about that two lectures from now. In this poem, I think, well, possibly warding off the anxiety of identifying poetry so clearly and strongly with the female, Stevens includes in stanza seven, on pages 239 to 240, a kind of parodic celebration of masculinity:

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.

And so on. This is another vein of Stevens’s imagination and it’s here in this poem in, again, almost hyperbolic comic form.

If Stevens is anxious about identifying poetry with the feminine, I think that’s because, in a sense, as Stevens sets things up here at this early point in his career, all poets are women poets on Sunday morning. Poetry can only be written on Sunday morning or on the weekend or after hours, at the end of the workday. These are the spaces in which in his life poetry exists, but more generally these are the sort of cultural spaces, the times, that Stevens identifies poetry with. Here in this poem, Stevens is brooding on the bourgeois image of the earthly paradise; that is, what it’s like to have a nice home and some free time in it. It’s a poem that Stevens wrote in his twenties, in the earliest phase of his career. Like Eliot, like Frost, Stevens went to Harvard. All these modern poets went to Harvard. He was from early on divided in his ambitions between poetry and the law, a securely masculine pursuit. Stevens tried journalism briefly in New York and a legal practice before eventually he entered the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in our state, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming a national authority on surety bonds and leading an extraordinary divided life: a life in which poetry was identified with leisure and repose.

There’s a kind of sybaritic quality to Stevens’s imagination. He luxuriates. In another one of those “Adagia” he says, “A poem is a café.” And so it is, in Stevens’s case. Poetry represents a kind of release from objective disciplines, including the nineteenth-century Protestant injunctions to refuse private pleasures, to save for a future life, perhaps a life beyond life, an afterlife. This is the “Puritanism” that Crane objects to early in his career and fights against. And Stevens, too, is here in a more cautious way struggling against it. On page 238, in the second stanza of this poem, he says, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?”

Why should she give her spirit, her imaginative investments, her hopes to the dead? Here, suggesting both the dead Jesus and also a future life beyond life that Christianity would look towards. Stevens is imagining earth itself as where bounty is given and where it should be bestowed. It’s where we are. And he’ll go on and describe it in this stanza:

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven? [No, divinity can’t be
off somewhere else. It can’t be beyond life.]
Divinity must live within herself: [And what form does it take there?]
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

Here, divinity must live within the person in her subjectivity, a subjectivity that’s modeled on and represented as a version of the sensual encounter with the seasons, which are themselves revolving and balanced and cyclical: “the bough of summer and the winter branch.” To say that paradise must be here on earth is also to say that it must include death and dying, a world of change, a world that’s always, in a sense, passing out of existence. And Stevens says in stanza five:

… “But in contentment [she says, he says with her] I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires.

Yes. Paradise, if it is to exist on earth, must include death in it. And as the poem moves towards its close, that’s what Stevens imagines for us. It’s also, well, it’s a scene that he leaves us with in the eighth stanza. It’s a scene of a world of plenty, a beautiful world but also a world which, for these reasons, includes death in it. Let’s look at that. It returns to the opening lines of the poem, and then the camera pans out to give a view of the landscape and the world around us:

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”

The tomb is empty. Jesus is not a presence for us. And now Stevens moves for the first time in the poem out of that third person, “she,” to speak in the first person plural.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

“We live in an old chaos of the sun”: we live in a world that is material. It exists as a set of rocks, blasted across the universe, that the sun structures and radiates. Even as Stevens makes this declaration, characteristic of him is the resistance to residing in any one formulation. So, he’ll say one thing and then he’ll say another, “or,” and notice this pattern here where he, in fact, gives us two “or”s. “Old dependency of day and night”: That’s another way of imaging our world where day and night, these essential contraries, these essential natural forms, are dependent on each other, are constituting each other continuously. We are dependent on them; they are dependent on each other. We exist “or” – perhaps – in “island solitude.” Here the world, the globe, this natural space, this earthly paradise, is an island, and a solitary one, one without God out there, in a condition Stevens will call “unsponsored” and therefore free. “Of that wide water, inescapable,” where that wide water that was first introduced to us in the first stanza of the poem, becomes a kind of image for a silence in the world, which is the silence of a lack of, I think, divine language. From these generalizations, Stevens then moves to these particulars:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Stevens’s approach, finally, is not to generalize about the world but to describe it; to not tell us how things should be or might be or were, but rather how they are; how they are now and at this moment. Stevens evokes the world in a state of fullness, of ripeness. Those berries are ripening, there’re deer walking on the mountains. That present tense that he’s using evokes action that is ongoing, is present. And yet all these essential satisfactions that he evokes are colored by evening. Pleasure here is shadowed by death, not unhappily, but it is the color of the environment, of the evening. The birds, they make a downward movement, and yet their wings are extended. Their undulations are ambiguous in that sense, much as the “dependency of day and night” is itself ambiguous. You could contrast those birds with Hart Crane’s ascending seagull at the beginning of “The Bridge.” This is a different image. Stevens is here trying to image for us a non-transcendental, secular vision of the world.

Chapter 3. Wallace Stevens Poem: “The Poems of Our Climate” [00:30:27]

Let’s look ahead to another poem, “The Poems of Our Climate” on page 252, another poem exploring the idea of paradise. Stevens means here in that title, “The Poems of Our Climate,” America, our culture, our environment, our situation. It’s a poem that you might read alongside a poem like “England” by Marianne Moore. He also means the poems of our time or our moment. And our time or our moment for Stevens is defined as a climate, as a kind of environment rather than some other kind of overarching way of understanding or defining the present moment. It’s not, as the poem unfolds, a question about nature so much as about culture. Stevens will here explore one of his recurrent impulses; that is, to renew poetry by simplifying terms, by getting down to some essentials, some primary elements. If Stevens is a sensualist, he’s also a kind of ascetic. He can be both and even finds, I suppose, a kind of sensual asceticism, and this poem exemplifies that.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return. [We still don’t have a main
verb yet.]
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

This is Stevens exploring another version of secularity, of the secular, giving us a poetry it seems, as he starts, not of ideas but of things, as Williams might approve. It is a world of white. You can understand the impulse here as a version of the reduction to nakedness or the reduction to primary terms that Imagism seeks to accomplish. And these are, in a sense, precisely images that Stevens is presenting to us, almost as a kind of still-life there: that clear water in a brilliant bowl and the pink and white carnations, where that word “carnation” – from the Latin, meaning flesh – evokes the colors of the body and of blood and of flesh, and yet those qualities are here held in a kind of suspension that contains them and treats them coolly and arranges them and it’s unsatisfying to Stevens. The moment he has created this still life, he starts to want to get rid of it. He says:

Say even that this complete simplicity [that I’ve just produced here]
Stripped one [in fact, of the heat, of the flesh] of all one’s torments,
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made if fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

And again, this is characteristic of Stevens and his imagination. If he said one thing, he will now try something else. He will now turn his strategy in another direction. He continues here affirming powers of mind:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

The “never-resting mind” always wants more. Even as it wants to get down to primary terms, it then wants more again. Paradise is “the imperfect,” “the imperfect” meaning, again, Stevens is always playing on Latin, I think; the imperfect is the incompleted, the not finished, the ongoing. And, too, there are tinges in that word “imperfect” of corruption, of fallenness, of flaws, as Stevens will go on to say. The imperfect is something that’s not cold but “hot,” as people are hot, hot with desire. It’s the heat of desire that shows itself, as Stevens says, in “flawed words and stubborn sounds.”

Stevens affirms the “never-resting mind” but above all he affirms a kind of continuing impulse and demand to speak, to find “flawed words and stubborn sounds.” Over the course of the poem, Stevens moves from a still world to a world in action, and he moves from a world that’s visual to a world that is verbal, that’s linguistic. Here and elsewhere in Stevens, language is the privileged medium of human desire and aspiration. It’s what gives us “delight,” his word here; it gives us pleasure, and in this sense it remains – language does – on the side of leisure and of play rather than of discipline and work. And yet, also note the implications of those adjectives. “Flawed”: “flawed” implies craft, some kind of making, I think. And “stubborn”: “stubborn” suggests perseverance, discipline; perhaps surprisingly, a kind of continuing will to, well, not to rest and to go on speaking.

Chapter 4. Wallace Stevens Poem: “The Man on the Dump” [00:38:54]

These values that emerge in this poem are, well, recurrent in Stevens. You’ll find him exploring them, celebrating them elsewhere. Let’s go forward to the poem called “The Man on the Dump,” on page 254, for another poem, again, exploring and affirming certain capacities of language. This is Stevens at play in the landscape of The Waste Land, if you like. Stevens in a letter explains that on his way to work – he walked to work from West Hartford to downtown – he would observe, during the Depression, a man on the dump and composed this poem prompted by him.

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon
Blanche [of course she’s Blanche, it’s the white moon]
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho… The dump is full
Of images [just like The Waste Land]. Days pass like papers from a
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Estonia: the tiger chest, for tea.

If Stevens celebrates desire, celebrates consumption and sensual pleasure, as he does, well, that makes a certain amount of garbage. That makes a certain amount of waste. If you are constantly seeking new ways of phrasing and understanding the world, you’re going to have to be getting rid of the ones you just had, the ones that you were just using. And the dump is an image of this, which Stevens confronts here with a certain kind of irritation, playful but not so far, I think, from despair. The dump is a place of old poetry, and, of course, Stevens’s own poetry doesn’t want to end up there. Or maybe it does, since Stevens is able to find in the dump a certain kind of regenerative power:

The freshness of night [any poet knows] has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.

Maybe it’s just all air, these poems. Stevens is talking about the problem of cliché. He’s talking about, well, the way in which any formulation dies, becomes frozen, becomes a bouquet you must throw out. This is a condition in The Waste Land that Eliot profoundly mistrusts. Stevens, on the other hand, sees in it a potential for a vision of the self that is consoling and is powerful. Stevens generates, as the poem goes on, an image of the poet as a man on the dump, one who “beats an old tin can” and makes stubborn sounds, which are, if you like, sounds of his own stubbornness. Stevens is willing, as Eliot is not, to make belief be a personal thing, to be something that each of us constructs out of our own will and our own powers of speech. As the poem develops, Stevens goes through a kind of a gesture of throwing things out; a kind of reduction to primary terms that is like “The Poems of Our Climate,” as around line 21 or so he says:

Now in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox) [you know all the names],
Between that disgust and this [and I think there is disgust in the poem],
between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The trash.

And as one rejects the trash, as one gets down to some kind of primary whiteness, some kind of fresh seeing of the world, we then start to see the moon in perhaps different terms, not merely as “Blanche,” some old lady from poems from the past, but perhaps in some new terms. Stevens says:

That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires [even this ugliness is
Everything is shed; the moon comes up then as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) [you have to see it freshly] and you see
[because you’re seeing freshly now]
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky. One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself…

That you want to get near, that you need to get near? Stevens is willing to say yes, whereas Eliot is, as I say, frightened of this prospect.

… as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among the mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

It’s a wonderful poem that’s on the verge of nonsense, that’s on the verge of a kind of personal language that, as I say, is an apocalyptic thing in The Waste Land but is here a source of energy and power and play for Stevens. Stevens is not afraid of nonsense, he’s not afraid of idiosyncrasy of expression. He is willing to play with words. Linguistic play puts Stevens in touch with a kind of primal poetic resource. Stevens understands truth as something that is linguistic; it’s something constructed in and through language. It is therefore perishable. It is also for the same reason renewable.

Look at that last line. “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” “The the,” if you prefer. That last sentence fragment, “The the,” what is that? Is that an answer or a clarification to the question, “Where was it one first heard of the truth?” In other words, where did this idea of truth come from to begin with? Where did you get that idea? Why do you want it? You want it because it is something that you have heard about; it is something that has been spoken of. It has come to us as language has framed it. “The the”: the definite article. It’s the definite article that makes the truth the truth. Otherwise, it would be merely only what? A truth. That is, to indicate and declare truth in its singularity, to give it this status – that is a linguistic act. The truth is the function, as Stevens understands it, of a certain linguistic capacity: in this case a verbal formula which takes priority ultimately over any specific content or doctrine, any truth. In that sense, the truth lies in “The the.”

“The the” is here representative of the human capacity for declaration, for statement, a specifically verbal and linguistic power. The truth that it represents is not in any sense a final term, a last word, a doctrine, a particular content of any kind. Instead, it points to a way of thinking, a medium of thought, a medium of thought and desire, a process which is a process of naming or, as Stevens would also call it in “Of Modern Poetry”, an “act of finding.” This is what language does in Stevens. It creates the world; it finds the world; it constructs the world through such elementary terms as the definite article.

Well, we’ll hear more about the implications of this perspective on experience next time and following.

[end of transcript]


Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate,” 1942. From the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens, copyright (c) 1954 by Wallace Stevens and renewed 1982 by Holly Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

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