ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 20

 - Wallace Stevens (cont.)


Marie Borroff guest-lectures on Wallace Stevens’s late seasonal poem, “The Auroras of Autumn.” The poem is considered sequentially, beginning with Stevens’s mythology of the three serpents in section one and concluding with an examination of the beauty of the world, as Stevens conceives of it, in sections eight through ten. The poet’s optimism and fundamental belief in the power of imagination to divest death of its power is repeatedly demonstrated. The poem’s final sections are shown to exemplify characteristically Stevensian conceptions of peace and happiness in the face of death.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 20 - Wallace Stevens (cont.)

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: I have in the chairman’s office down the hall two photographs. One is of the Yale English Department in 1924, and there are a number of distinguished gentlemen casually posed in it; distinguished scholars but all gentlemen. Come by and take a look at it sometime. I also have a photograph from 1967 in which there are more distinguished gentlemen, less casually posed; in fact, arrayed in a sort of phalanx, and seated in the middle of these men is one woman, Marie Borroff. Marie is our guest lecturer today and I’m delighted to have her here. She has been a member of this English Department and a distinguished member of this English Department for a long time. She is a medievalist, a scholar of modern poetry, a translator of Middle English poetry, a poet herself; and she views poetry – or I think of you, Marie, as holding a sense of poetry as a long tradition that reaches back to the origins of our language and is alive with us today, and that writing about it, writing it, and translating it are your activities, and also teaching it. And Marie is one of our best and most revered teachers in the history of this department. So, it’s a really wonderful honor for me to get to give the stage and the microphone to Marie Borroff. Would you please welcome her.

Chapter 2. Wallace Stevens Poem: “Gubbinal” [00:02:10]

Professor Marie Borroff: Thank you Lanny. I’m getting over a virus, so I hope my voice won’t be too scratchy. I have some water to help.

I think of it as, it’s really all the same thing: Beowulf, Galloway, Chaucer, Milton, Wallace Stevens – it’s all the same thing, in a sense. I want to begin this morning with a little poem that you may never have heard of, or read, by Wallace Stevens called “Gubbinal” (g-u-b-b-i-n-a-l). And if you have the poems of Stevens here you can look at it, if you want, though it doesn’t matter. I’m going to tell you it.

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say,
Have it your way. The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers, That animal eye,
Is just what you say. That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way. The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

In this poem, the voice of the imagination in Stevens’s concept of the Imagination – with a capital l – speaks, and it addresses a “you” that views the world without imagination; that is, you – the “you” of the poem – you take the sun for granted. You aren’t excited by seeing it, by the thought of it, by the fact that it has risen on this particular day and you hope it’s going to rise again tomorrow. You don’t feel, as Stevens puts it in another poem, “the sun comes up like news from Africa.” And that’s how one with the imagination at work feels about the sun. Imagination, as Stevens conceives of it, is the incessant stream of language emanating from the human consciousness as we live, expressing both the state of the world at a given time and its own state, both of which states are constantly changing. Our inner state changes. Our inner weather changes, as the outer weather of the world changes and as the seasons change.

The work of the imagination, as represented in “Gubbinal,” is the generation of metaphors. The sun is a “strange flower,” a “tuft of jungle feathers,” an “animal eye,” a “savage of fire,” and a “seed.” And one thing that’s important about this to notice is the rapidity with which one metaphor gives way to another metaphor. You don’t stick with one; you don’t have a definitive one that is it. You go on. And if the poem were longer there’d be more metaphors still. The mind is in motion, as the world also is in motion.

Implicit in this poem also is Stevens’s particular concept of happiness. Without the imagination, the poem says, “the world is ugly / and the people are sad.” And we can turn this statement on its head and say, with equal validity, from Steven’s point of view, with the imagination. When the vital imagination is in residence and at work, the world is splendid, exciting, and the people are happy. Note that happiness has nothing to do with personal fortune, with the fact that you’ve been accepted by Harvard Medical School or you performed brilliantly on the basketball court or the football field, or got the date you were hoping to get. Happiness is internal, independent, self-starting, but also shared, communal, human.

Chapter 3. Wallace Stevens Volume: The Auroras of Autumn [00:06:34]

The work of the imagination, for Stevens, is the same as the writing of poetry: the generation of poetry on a small scale, as in “Gubbinal” and many other such, or on a large mythical scale, as in “The Auroras of Autumn.” A lot of Stevens’s early poems are called, by him, anecdotes. Now, an anecdote, if you go back to the etymology of the word, is something unpublished. It’s like a draft. And what Stevens would do – He lived in Hartford, as you probably know. He worked in a big insurance company, it was very successful, and he would walk every morning – he was a great walker – from his home in West Hartford to his office in downtown Hartford. As he walked, he would write poems, poems would come to him. He once said, “I never like anything that doesn’t fly in at me through the window.” He’d get to the office, he’d call on his secretary, and he’d dictate the poems he had thought of on the way to the office on separate sheets. She would give him the poems, he’d put them in a desk drawer, and then in about a month he’d go through what was in the drawer and throw some of them away and keep some. And the ones he kept would go into whatever book it was that he was writing. Oh to have his wastebaskets, is what I say!

I dare to think that Stevens would have liked, or at least approved of the idea of, the first stanza of a poem I wrote many years ago, when I was getting up early enough in March to see the sun rise: “Black rim, pale dawn, now as to rolling drums, sun, your great signal comes to bid me on.” But Stevens said it less pretentiously and better. He wrote:

The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man. … [I’m skipping a little.]
Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
Run away. That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.

And if you can think of the sun as a brave man, you’re well into Stevens, I think.

I’m sure Stevens would have liked a story that I’m about to tell you. When I was teaching Stevens years ago, among other poets in my course in twentieth-century poetry, I was walking on campus one day and I ran into one of my students, and we were just reading Stevens then. And I said to him, “Well, how are you? How goes it, how are things?” He said, “Oh, I’m fine.” He said, “All my friends are depressed, but when I hear how depressed they are, I look at them and I think, ‘Have it your way, the world is ugly and the people are sad.’” And Stevens would have liked that because Stevens said that, strangely, that poetry should make us happy, should help to make us happy.

He also said – this is rather hard to swallow perhaps for someone who’s been struggling with “The Auroras of Autumn” or “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” or any of the other big ones – people should enjoy poetry the way a child enjoys snow. And that is true. In reading Stevens, especially reading the little poems, I always say you shouldn’t worry about a poem. You should read on and find one that tickles you, that you like, and make a mark there and return to that poem later and read it again; though, it’s also important, I know, to study Stevens, to study especially the large poems, the big creations.

“The Auroras of Autumn” exists in a sequence of seasonal poems, large-scale seasonal poems that Stevens wrote. The earliest one, in seasonal terms, is “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, and that is a poem of the spring. And if you read it you’ll see a lot of things that are associated with spring in Connecticut. You’ll see the forget-me-not in bloom, though he calls it the myosotis, not to be sentimental about it. You’ll hear about forsythia; you’ll hear about yellow and the blue sky. It’s a spring poem. Then comes “Credences of Summer,” and then comes “The Auroras of Autumn.”

Now, these poems go chronologically, seasonally, but they also go chronologically in Stevens’s own life. He is older as he writes each one of them. When he wrote “The Auroras of Autumn,” he was in his seventies. And this is the first of the poems in which the idea of death comes in, dauntingly, the idea of human death; because one thing that autumn is is the season that presages winter, winter death, the death of the landscape in New England, and ultimately the death of the individual human being. And that threat comes into the poem and is faced in the poem.

Now, I want to go back to the beginning of the poem – so if you have a copy of it you could look at the beginning – and go very quickly through, say, sections one through seven maybe, because I’m going to end by talking about sections nine and ten and something about section eight. In the poem, we see the imagination in its work as the creator of myth. This has always been true of human culture. There have always been great myths of the world: the myth that the world rests on a turtle, or the myth of creation, how the world was created or how the animals first came. And Stevens toys with mythical creation in the poem.

In particular, in section one, he writes three different myths, one of which succeeds to the other, in true Stevensian fashion, because an essence of the world, as Stevens thinks about it, is change, as I intimated earlier. It’s hard to imagine Stevens living anywhere but in a temperate climate where there are seasons. It’s hard to think of him as living in the tropics or in Antarctica because he’s a man of the seasons, a man of the weather. He writes a lot about the weather. One of his poems begins, “Lights out. Shades up. / A look at the weather”: let’s see what the weather is tonight, on this particular night.

In the first section of “The Auroras of Autumn,” there are three different myths, one of which succeeds to another with equal validity. They are three myths about serpents. First, we have the cosmic serpent: “the bodiless. / His head is air.” I’m reading from the beginning of the section. “Beneath his tip at night / Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.” Clearly there he is talking about the dawning of stars at night, “eyes open and fixed on us in every sky.” So, this is a huge cosmic serpent that he is imagining. He’s imagining the heavens as presided over by a great serpent which may well have something to do with a constellation named Draco (d-r-a-c-o), which is “dragon” or “snake.”

Then we throw that one away, and Stevens says “Or is this another…?” An “or” in Stevens always has to be answered or responded to by saying, yes: this is another one, let’s have another one; we’ve just had one, let’s throw that one out and have another one. The stale has to always be thrown out. So now, we get a terrestrial serpent, on a huge scale. “This is where the serpent lives”; you could underline that. At the beginning of the poem, “This is where the serpent lives.” Well, that’s in line one. Now we’re in line seven: “This is where the serpent lives. This is his nest, / these fields, these hills, these tinted distances, / and the pines above and along and beside the sea.” So here, we have a serpent that is a terrestrial myth, a myth of the whole, encompassing the whole landscape.

And finally, almost at the end, “his meditations in the ferns,” can you find that? It’s the next-to-last tercet of that section – “his” is clearly “the serpent’s” meditations: “His meditations in the ferns, / when he moved so slightly to make sure of sun / made us no less as sure.” And here is a third serpent, and this is a local serpent, a particular serpent, a serpent visualized in sensory terms. “We saw in his head / black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal / The moving grass, the Indian in his glade.” The Indian in his glade, the Indian’s glade; that is, the native of the soil.

In this section we find one of the great opposites in Stevens, the great oppositions between pairs. Imagination and reality is, of course, one or Imagination with a capital I, versus imagination with a lowercase i; an imagination that sort of produces little fancies. But here, we have a strange opposition, which is rather idiosyncratic with Stevens, between abstraction and – not between the abstract and the concrete, but between the abstract and the particular, the local. And with that, very often characteristically in Stevens, there comes a flash of the sensory, a detail of color: “black beaded,” the black-beaded head of the snake; a particular glade in New England where Native Americans once lived – “the Indian in his glade” – the recognition of that.

So, this opening section of the poem demonstrates the imagination at work as a generator of myths. And one myth succeeds to another myth. There’s the cosmic serpent, the terrestrial serpent, and the local serpent, the particular serpent, the serpent that we see right there, on a particular day.

Now, something happens that’s characteristically Stevensian, and it occurs at the beginning of section two. And this is something that not everyone agrees on but this is how I interpret it. What I’m giving you is my interpretation of the poem, which you have to take for better or for worse for the moment. “Farewell to an idea…” I take this to be the discarding of an achieved idea and the moving on to something else. So, what Stevens is saying farewell to is the whole serpent mythology: cosmic, terrestrial, and all. And from that we turn to something different. We turn to seasonal change, the change from summer to autumn.

And another important Stevensian opposition comes into play in this section, and that is the opposition between whiteness and color or, as Stevens often calls it, “candor.” “Candor,” as you may know, is whiteness, and if we were true to our Latin etymologies, all candidates would wear white robes; of course, it’s a little hard to imagine some of them in a white robe. At any rate, “candor” is abstract, white. He also uses the word “blank” in this section: “the man who is walking turns blankly on the sand.” In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” the poem begins with whiteness and moves from whiteness, from that ever-early candor, to its late plural; from the abstract to the particular, multifarious plural. Here summer is stale; it’s over, it has happened, so now it’s time to throw it out and move on to something else, namely autumn, and the whiteness is visualized as a landscape: “A cabin stands, / deserted on a beach.” And it’s the sort of summer cabin that we all, most of us, probably know: a white beach and a white cabin, probably a white fence and maybe a white enclosure for a shower that you can take after you’ve swum. It’s summer.

…The flowers against the wall
Are white… Reminding… of a white
That was different, something else, last year
Or before. …
[And now the wind is beginning to blow. Summer is over.] The wind is
blowing the sand across the floor. Here being visible is being white,
Is being of the solid of white, the accomplishment
Of an extremist in an exercise… The season changes. A cold wind chills the beach.
The long lines of it grow longer, emptier,
A darkness gathers though it does not fall And the whiteness grows less vivid on the wall.

Again and again in “The Auroras of Autumn,” we have some sort of reassuring or splendid or restful vision, and then comes some sort of threat, “a cold wind.” In one of the sections the wind knocks “like a rifle-butt against the door.” And this poem was written during the decade of World War Two, so violence, death, and the coming of winter are linked implicitly in the poem with the idea of war, the death of war.

And then, we go to a single man who is always the vehicle of the imagination. In the end, the imagination has to reside in the consciousness of the individual, of each one of us, although from it we can project a great cosmic imagination – an unmoved mover, a generator of images – as Stevens does later in the poem. So here, we have our hero, the individual man, the man imagining:

The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand.
He observes how the north is always enlarging the change, With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green,
The color of ice and fire and solitude.

So here, what happens is very much like what happens to white light when it’s put through a prism and broken up into the colors of the rainbow. This is what happens in the beginning of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and it’s what happens here. The whiteness of summer breaks up into the prismatic colors of the auroras of autumn.

Now, you probably have never seen them. I’ve never seen the auroras of autumn, but I happen to know a man who was at Yale, living on the old campus in the early 1940s, and he told me that he remembered coming out of where he lived at night onto the old campus, and looking up and seeing the Aurora Borealis, in color. It could happen then. I’ve seen it in Maine in the summer sky, but as I’ve seen it, it’s been white and dark. And what you see are white pulsations in the sky. They’re very beautiful and they’re very wonderful. But it’s been many, many years since I saw any colors in the auroras. Nonetheless, this is what he’s writing about, the Aurora Borealis in its colors.

Section three, here again, “Farewell to an idea…” Away with the cabin, away with the man walking on the sand. Now, we move to something else, and what we move to in the next few sections are myths, large-scale myths: first the myth of the mother, the earth mother, let’s say, or the sky mother; the mother as nurturing, as warm, as tender; the mother who could perhaps be symbolized by summer, by a balmy, beneficent summer day, or by the warmth of the sun on a summer day. Then we get the father, the myth of the father, and this is the kind of, well, let’s say the Jove-like or Zeus-like being: the man who presides over the heavens. But first, we have the mother. The mother “…gives transparence to their present peace. / She makes that gentler that can gentle be.”

But here again, as over and over, as I said earlier, in this poem, the concept of something warm, gentle, and reassuring gives way to some sort of threat – the coming of cold, the wind, the darkness, and finally the wind “like a rifle-butt” at the end of the poem.

Boreal night [I’m toward the end of section three here]
Will look like frost as it approaches them, And to the mother as she falls asleep.
And as they say goodnight, goodnight. Upstairs
The windows will be lighted, not the rooms.

What does that mean? That means that they’ve turned off the lights and gone to bed. Nonetheless, there are lights appearing in the windows, and what can they be but the lights of the Aurora Borealis that shine in the windows of the house? Even though the light doesn’t come from within the house, it comes from the heavens.

A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round
And knock like a rifle-butt against the door.
The wind will command them with invincible sound.”

So, this is the temporary, reassuring togetherness; I hate that word but I can’t avoid it really in this section. This is where we were all together with the mother, and all was well, and it was summer. But it can’t last; it never lasts; something more, something less welcome takes its place.

Section four, “Farewell to an idea…” Leave the mother behind; we’ve had her. Now, we move to the father. “The father sits / in space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard.” He is not a warm, nurturing kind of presence. His regard, his gaze is bleak. And then we have this curious image: “as one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes.” I think that alludes to the word “ambush.” He has a power that is held in check, as when someone is ambushed. The strength is there and is not yet let out.

“He says no to no”: that’s an affirmation. “He says yes to yes”: that’s an affirmation. “He says yes to no”: that is an affirmation. He always affirms; he never denies. And he affirms something new and then something new and then something new, as signified by “in saying yes he says farewell”; that is, when you accept and affirm the new idea, the new imaginative construction, you have said farewell to the one that preceded it, as he has done earlier in the poem – farewell to the idea of the cabin, farewell to the idea of the mother.

“He leaps from heaven to heaven, more rapidly / than bad angels leap from heaven to hell in flames.” This is clearly an allusion to the Christian myth, and I’m going to bring up the Christian myth later, toward the end of what I’m saying about the poem. You perhaps have read, if you’re English majors, you may have read Paradise Lost. So, you’ve read about how the bad angels leap from Heaven to Hell. They’re driven out by the powers of God and his Son. So, the father leaps; that is, his imagination, the cosmic imagination, the large scale imagination that he personifies, is hugely vital and capable of leaping from one concept to another, from one heaven to another, and from one myth to another.

Now, I meant to say a little earlier and I will say now, that I think, though I couldn’t substantiate it from this place alone, that toward the end of section three – the mother as she falls asleep, “and as they say good-night, good-night” – I consider that one of a number of allusions in the poem to the play Hamlet. There’s a lot of theater. Theater is one of the motifs of the poem, and I haven’t time to go into that in detail, but you see it again and again. And one of the things that happens in the poem is that a company of actors comes, as happens in Hamlet and Hamlet welcomes them. And “Good night, good night, good night sweet ladies, good night sweet ladies, good night, good night,” I think it alludes to that. Eliot quotes that; I think it’s in The Waste Land that he does it. So the masks – the actors come in company. Now, I’m at section four, toward the end of that section. “The actors approach in company in their masks.” These are not human actors. This is a superhuman drama that is being played, and the father is inviting them. And then there’s a very eloquent invocation of the father as the master, the master of the maze.

Master O master seated by the fire
And yet in space and motionless and yet
Of motion the ever-brightening origin,
Profound, and yet the king and yet the crown,
Look at this present throne. What company
In masks can choir it with the naked wind?

How can we celebrate? How can there be a theatrical celebration of the world when the wind is blowing and autumn is coming and darkness is coming? To call the master the origin of motion – motionless and yet the origin of motion – is to go back to concepts of God: the divine as the unmoved mover, a term applied to the Christian God and sometimes to other divinities. So, once again, we have an allusion to religion, which is nonetheless not part of a religious presentation.

In section five, the mother and the father give a party. I don’t happen to like this section very much. I don’t think Stevens really succeeds in jazzing it up the way he tries to. The children laugh. I don’t like the negresses who dance:

…like curious ripenesses
of pattern… …[T]he musicians make insidious tones,
Clawing the sing-song of their instruments.
The children laugh and jangle a tinny time.

Well, he’s trying very hard to jazz it up but for me it doesn’t quite work. Nonetheless, this is what it is. This is the party that the world stages for us, as we look out; the party of spring or the party of the colors of autumn leaves, and it’s a kind of symbolic representation of that. “…[T]he musicians strike the instinctive poem” and so on. This then is Chatillon. You find that’s three stanzas, three tercets from the end of that section. I believe that Chatillon is used here as the name of a great chateau in France. There is such a chateau. So, it is a palace, a castle, where there could be a splendid party with dancers and with music. “This then is Chatillon or as you please. / We stand in the tumult of the festival.” The world is a kind of tumultuous festival at times that goes on around us, let’s say, on an autumn day when the trees are very bright in color and the wind is blowing and the sky is blue and the leaves are drifting from the trees. It’s the tumult of a festival. But all of a sudden:

What festival? This loud, disordered, mooch?
These hospitaliers? These brute-like guests?
These musicians dubbing at a tragedy, A-dub, a-dub, which is made up of this:
That there are no lines to speak? There is no play.
Or, the persons act one merely by being here.

So, once again, we have affirmation and then comes threat, then comes denial. There really is no play, there is no theater. It’s only something that we imagine. But then immediately, as if to prove its validity and its vitality, the great imagination speaks in section six and utters at the beginning of that section one of the most eloquent tributes to the beauty of the cosmos that I know in poetry, in which an amazing telescoping of time takes place. What do they call it? Fast-forward photography? Perhaps you’ve seen one where the flower grows up and is seen blooming. Here, we see geology in fast forward, we see mountains rising and falling like water, like waves.

It is a theatre floating through the clouds,
Itself a cloud, although of misted rock
And mountains running like water, wave on wave Through waves of light. It is of cloud, transformed again [a cloud,
transformed again] idly, the way
A season changes color, to no end, Except the lavishing of itself in change,
As light changes yellow into gold, and gold
To its opal elements, and fires delight, Splashed wide-wise because it likes magnificence
And the solemn pleasures of magnificent space.

And then human history is seen fast forwarding, as the section goes on:

A capitol,
It may be, is emerging or has just
Collapsed. [A civilization has come as a mountain has come and has
collapsed.] The denouement has to be postponed…

But now, once again, the all-importance of the hero, the human hero, that is, the imagining mind, is affirmed.

This is nothing until in a single man contained,
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house On flames. [That’s the aurora, in other words, the Aurora Borealis.] The
scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.

In section seven, Stevens visualizes autumn as, let’s say, a mythical hypothesis. Suppose that there is a cosmic imagination that imagines the whole show, an imagination that imagines the passing of the seasons, that imagines the earth, the solar system, the whole cosmos. Suppose that maybe there is. Let’s imagine that there is. So, the answer to the questions are always “yes.”

Is there an imagination that sits enthroned
As grim as it is benevolent, the just
And the unjust, which in the midst of summer stops To imagine winter? [Yes there is, why not?] When the leaves are dead,
Does it take its place in the north and unfold itself,
Goat-leaper, crystalled and luminous, sitting
In highest night?

Here – and I have no time to go into this aspect of the poem, which is another one like the theater and then the Hamlet allusions that I think are there – this is part of the astronomical motifs in the poem. There’s a great deal about the stars. I mentioned Draco in the first section as possibly underlying the celestial serpents, a great big constellation that is across the sky for us, for us in New England. And here the goat-leaper is the constellation Capricorn. Capricorn means “goat horn,” as you know. And you may also know that Capricorn begins in the zodiac on the twenty-second of December, which is to say immediately after the winter solstice. So, the constellation Capricorn takes over, comes in, at what Stevens at the end of the poem calls “in winter’s nick,” in the nick of winter just as the solstice comes and the constellation Capricorn becomes the dominant constellation of the zodiac.

But now we can’t stay solemn, the mood has to change. And so we get, at the end of this section, a change from destiny to slight caprice with, I think, an allusion to the word Capricorn. And you may know that the capri element has to do with leaping, so the leaping from Heaven to Hell is associated with that.

It must change from destiny to slight caprice.
And thus its jetted tragedy, its stele And shape and mournful making move to find
What must unmake it and, at last, what can
Say, a flippant communication under the moon.

So, all this is thrown away and what we have is “a flippant communication,” something flippant. But that is the way Stevens’s imagination works on a large scale.

“The Auroras of Autumn” is not architectonically structured as, say, something like the odes of Keats and Shelley are, like “Adonais” or “The Ode on Melancholy” or “The Ode on a Grecian Urn.” That is to say, it does not move by logical stages to a climax at the end that incorporates and is founded on what has gone before. Rather, it is structured, if structure is the word, as I’ve been telling you. You go from one thing to another. You go from one thing to its opposite. You go from something solemn to something flippant. You go from summer to autumn. You go from day to night, from the warmth of the mother to the threat of death and darkness.

Nonetheless, it does move – the poem does move, toward what I would call a culmination; not an architectonic or structural climax, but a kind of emotional climax. And this happens in the next to last section, section nine, and it’s predicated on the assertion of innocence at the beginning of section eight. And I should say, in case I don’t have time to do justice to it at the end, that in section ten the whole thing falls apart. We discard the whole thing, and it all becomes fragmentary, and the mythical creations become trivial and we get an ending that is completely unsatisfactory to those of us who love resonant, rhetorical endings. It’s just not like that and we can’t look in Stevens for that kind of ending.

The term “innocence” is another term, like “imagination,” that has to be thought of in its Stevensian sense. The opposite of innocence, for Stevens, is either guilt or malice. Now, you probably know, you may know, that the origin of the word “innocence,” the root, Latin root of the word “innocence” is a Latin verb meaning to harm: noceo. So, “innocence,” literally is “unharmingness.” The affirmation of innocence that comes to the speaker in section eight arises, in a sense, from all that has gone before; that is, from the myth-making of the early sections because, as we think back on them, it’s obvious that Stevens’s overarching myths, his great cosmic myths – the mother, the father, the celestial imagination that imagines the whole world and the passage of the zodiac – none of that has anything to do with revealed religion or particularly with the Christianity that we, most of us, know so much about.

As we think back, it’s obvious that there’s nothing in them about a benevolent God, a God who watches over us, a God who comforts us and who will reward us if we are virtuous. There’s nothing about that. The Imagination, with a capital I, the cosmic Imagination is as grim as it is benevolent. The world is as grim as it is benevolent. We have the benevolence of summer but, always after it, the darkening of autumn and the grimness and cold of winter. And humanly, we have the change from youth to the midst of life to finally the coming of death. And that possibility, that inevitability, is faced, at the end of the poem.

So, what is innocent here is the world. The world is innocent. It means us no harm; it is not malicious. If there’s no God who benevolently watches over us, there’s also no God who judges us or who consigns us to damnation. So, we can live in the world in this state of innocence without what Stevens eloquently calls – and I hope you’ll check it out again after this – “the enigma of the guilty dream”: Christianity. We don’t understand it. It’s a riddle; it’s the guilty dream, but it’s a dream like all other dreams. The world operates impersonally, it means us no harm.

Now, I’m going to read toward the end of section eight:

So, then, these lights [these lights are the Aurora Borealis, which he’s
referred to by the phrase “these lights” several times in the poem] are not
a spell of light,
A saying out of a cloud, but innocence.
An innocence of the earth and no false sign Or symbol of malice. That we partake thereof,
Lie down like children in this holiness,
As if, awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep…

I haven’t time to go on, but in section nine, Stevens picks up on this and says: “We were as Danes in Denmark all day long / …hale-hearted landsmen”; we were brothers. And here, we have the play Hamlet again. As you remember in Hamlet, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. And here the world is Denmark and there’s something wholesome in the state of Denmark. And what is wholesome is us and the world and the beauty of the world, even though that beauty eventually gives way to darkness and cold.

“Shall we be found hanging in the trees next spring?” This is toward the end of section nine. People interpret this differently, and I think the word “hanging” is misleading, but I read it as meaning: are we going to come back in the spring as the leaves come back in the spring? And we’re not. Human life is a single trajectory and has a single spring, summer, and winter, and loss in such a world is permanent. But in this world we have the splendor of the world, if we can simply see it, if we can allow ourselves to see it without preconceptions. We can see “the stars… putting on their glittering belts.” This reminds me of the constellation Orion which has a glittering belt and a dagger hanging from it. “They throw around their shoulders cloaks that flash / like a great shadow’s last embellishment.”

But now suddenly there’s a change; there’s a drop in the rhetoric to the utmost simplicity of language. The last tercet, three-line stanza, of section nine: “It may come tomorrow in the simplest word, / almost as part of innocence, almost, / almost as the tenderest and the truest part.” “It,” I am quite certain, is death. And Hamlet speaks memorable and extremely simple words when he is about to die. He’s about to fight a duel in which he’s going to be poisoned, and Horatio, his friend, is concerned and fears his death. And Hamlet says, “Tush, it’s nothing. If it be not today, it will be tomorrow, and if it be not tomorrow it will be today, and if it be not now, it will come.” And that, I think, is what is being echoed, in a sense, here: “It may come tomorrow in the simplest word.” Death is almost as a part of innocence, almost as the tenderest and truest part.

Well, I can say only a few words about section ten. As I say, everything goes to hell in section ten. All the great concepts are discarded. But in section ten, we do return to the concept of happiness in Stevens. We are, humanity is, an unhappy people in a happy world; that is to say, we live in a world in which there is splendor and vitality and the sun is like a jungle tuft of feathers and like an animal eye, but we’re unhappy because we lack the faculty of imagination, as the “you” does in the short poem. The cosmic imagination meditates the whole thing, the history of humanity, and all of our fates. At the very end of the poem the mother reappears in degraded form as a “harridan,” which means kind of an ugly, untidy old crone, and “a haggling of wind and weather.” The splendors of the aurora have come to that, “by theses lights, / like a blaze of summer straw, in winter’s nick.” That’s the last metaphor for the Aurora Borealis. “Winter’s nick” is the solstice; the coming of Capricorn, the constellation, and the auroras are like “a blaze of… straw” in the midst of all that. Not a very grand image, but for Stevens this is what we have, and this is enough. And I think in a poem like “The Auroras of Autumn,” he manages to convince us, at least temporarily, that it is enough.

Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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