Archive for the ‘Wallace Stevens’ Category

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Death Is The Mother Of Beauty – Christian Wiman

September 17, 2013
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ve always been struck — haunted, really — by Wallace Stevens’ phrase, in his great poem “Sunday Morning,” “Death is the mother of beauty.” [See yesterday's post, link above.] Like that Robert Bringhurst poem I quoted in a previous post, Stevens’ line was practically tattooed on my brain for years; it was a kind of credo by which I lived. Or, as “Postolka” makes clear, almost lived.

It’s the old carpe diem cry, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. etc. Except that Stevens, unlike Horace and Herrick, isn’t encouraging haste and excess in the face of time slipping from one’s grasp. “Sunday Morning,” right from its famous first lines, is all about slowness and deliberation, about savoring experience:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

No, Stevens believed that a concentration on death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live — until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.

The view, it turned out, was quite different. From the moment I learned I had cancer — on my thirty-ninth birthday, from a curt voice mail message — not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated. I can still feel how far away everything — the people walking on the street beyond the window, the books on the shelf, my wife smiling up at me in the moment before I told her — suddenly seemed. And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me — which, paradoxically, went hand in hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain.

It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things. At some point I realized that for all my literary talk of the piquancy and poignancy that mortality imparts to immediate experience, part of my enjoyment of life had always been an unconscious assumption of its continuity.

Not necessarily a continuity of reality itself — the moment does pass, of course — but a continuity in memory at least, and a future that the act of memory implies (there must be somewhere from which to remember). Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.

“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”

In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.

Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives — indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time — then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?

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From A Window

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

I wrote this poem a few months after getting my diagnosis. Nothing was planned or deliberate about it. I didn’t have the realization that an experience of reality can open into an experience of divinity and then go write a poem to illustrate my feelings. No, it was quite the reverse: I wrote the poem one day out of anguish, emptiness, grief — and it exploded into joy. I sought refuge in the half-conscious play of language and was rescued by a weave of meaning I never meant to make.

The poem taught me something, and one of the things it taught me was that if you do not “think” of God, in whatever way you find to do that, if God has no relation to your experience, if God is not in your experience, then experience is always an end in itself, and always, I think, a dead end.

Not only does experience open into nothing else, but that ulterior awareness, that spirit-cleansing whiff of the ultimate, never comes into the concrete details of existence either. You can certainly enjoy life like this; you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that life remains merely something to be enjoyed, and that not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, mute.

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“From a Window” was one of a handful of poems I wrote after my diagnosis that gave me some sense of purchase and promise: the terrible vagueness of things was dispelled for a moment and I could see where I was standing, and could feel a way forward. (Feel a way forward: if someone had asked me at the time if I believed in an afterlife, I would have said no.

Yet my poems kept conjuring their eccentric heavens, kept prodding me toward new ways of understanding that verb “believe.”) It was puzzling, then, and troubling, to find myself as time went on writing poems that seemed to give up the gains I had made, seemed not simply devoid of divinity, but to relish that fact:

It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,

to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air-stagger toward you

and like a delicate helicopter
hover above your knee
until it finds you to be

not sweet but at least
not flinching, its hair-legs
on the hair of your leg

silvering
a coolness through you
like a soul of nerve.

Not only is there no God in this poem, the very possibility is pushed roughly to the side. And yet I felt some saving otherness everywhere in me and around me when I wrote it. There is no possibility of heaven in this poem; indeed there is an implicit contempt for the notion. And yet I felt — during that brief marriage of word and world that poetry is — projected into dimensions of existence I could never have imagined before writing the poem, or could only have imagined but never felt.

Can there be such a thing as an anti-devotional devotional poem? Hopkins and Herbert both thought that God circumscribed imagination, that faith required drawing certain lines inside of their own minds that they dared not cross, or if they crossed (for they certainly did), then they whipped themselves for it afterward. I understand the dilemma but disagree with the solution. If faith requires you to foreclose on an inspiration, surely it is not faith.

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The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it might seem. There is something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes disturbing intrusions into, and extensions of, reality.

But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God, but of being subjected to God — our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.

It follows that any notion of God that is static is — since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge — blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.” One part of that truth, for even the most devout among us, is the void of godlessness — and sometimes, mysteriously, the joy of that void.

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The same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness.

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The gods are back, companions. Right now they have just entered this life; but the words that revoke them, whispered underneath the words that reveal them, have also appeared that we might suffer together.
René Char

Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.

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Sunday Morning — Wallace Stevens

September 16, 2013
Every passage in the poem is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence.

Every passage in the poem is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence.

1

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
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.

2

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
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?
Divinity must live within herself:
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 measure destined for her soul.

3

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

4

She says, ‘I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

5

She says, ‘But in contentment 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. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

6

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

7

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.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

8

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.’
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.
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.

J. Hillis Miller from Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers:
If the natural activity of the mind is to make unreal representations, these are still representations of the material world. “The clouds preceded us / There was a muddy centre before we breathed”; matter is prior to mind and in some sense determines it.

So, in “Sunday Morning,” the lady’s experience of the dissolution of the gods leaves her living in a world of exquisite particulars, the physical realities of the new world: “Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; / Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness.” This physical world, an endless round of birth, death, and the seasons, is more lasting than any interpretation of it.

Religions, myths, philosophies, and cultures are all fictions and pass away, but “April’s green endures.” “Sunday Morning” is Stevens’ most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture, the culture of those who are “wholly human” and know themselves.

This humanism is based on man’s knowledge that “the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” There is “nothing else”–the alternatives are to be nothing or to accept a fiction. To discover that there never has been any celestial world is a joyful liberation, and man says of himself: “This happy creature–It is he that invented the Gods. It is he that put into their mouths the only words they have ever spoken!”

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act:
“This final movement of the poem, in contrast to the stasis of its beginning, is bridged by a passage at the very middle of the poem:

nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endured; or will endure
Like her remembrance of wakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

Taken it itself, the passage is truly beautiful. In autumn, when the swallows are sweeping through the air, gathering for their flight away from “their warm fields,” the woman experiences a desire “for June and evening,” for the time when she could take for granted the presence of “awakened birds” the next morning.

Thus the joy of “June and evening” which she desires and the joy of “April’s green” are torn by the poignancy of her sense that what she desires is absent and that the birds in autumn are about to be gone. The fixed spread of the cockatoo’s wings upon a rug has been transformed to a true consummation, the spread of the swallow’s wing as it reaches the peak of its upward movement.

Implicit in this consummation is her recollection of birds that were just beginning to fly, wakened birds, testing “the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings”; and ominous in this consummation is her sense that it will be followed by the movement at the end of the poem, a movement “Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

Every passage in the poem, for that matter, is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence. It is Death that

makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

These maidens have been caught up in the dreamy daze of the immediate present, very like the woman who was taking her “late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.” They sat upon the grass, their arms about their knees, gazing at the grass at their feet, relinquished after they had gathered it or simply because they are forgetting it in their dreaminess.

The shiver of the willow, however, brings the chill death into their presence and even the sun turns cold with the imminence of death. Unlike the woman in her sunny chair, they are ripe for love, they will taste not late oranges but new plums and pears offered them by their lovers, and they will “stray impassioned in the littering leaves,” loving and loveable because feeling their oneness with “the leaves of sure obliteration.”

Even the chant of the ring of supple and turbulent men, expressing their boisterous devotion to the sun, is quite different from any primitivism or barbarism based upon a mere acceptance of sensual indulgence as an ultimate good. Their devotion to the sun, unlike the comforts of the sun cherished by the woman in her sunny chair, is dependent on their mutual sense of frailty, on their constant sense that they will perish, on their feeling that their strength is as fragile, as delicate, as transient, as the dew upon their feet. They chant in orgy, it is true; but a part of their chant is the echoing hills “That choir among themselves long afterward.” And those choirs of dying echoes establish a oneness between the men with their chant and the pigeons in their descent “Downward to darkness on extended wings.”

Mutlu Konuk Blasing in American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms.
Stevens’s search for a rhetoric more than fiction and a nature less than an external fate begins with “Sunday Morning” and its realignment of the Emersonian and romantic dualities. The poem mourns at once the loss of Christian and romantic mythologies, which offer versions of the same fusion of temporal and eternal realities. “Sunday Morning” does not judge religion to be a fiction and Christ to be but a man in order to exhort us to a species of nature worship.

For Stevens portrays the world of sense impressions as a fantastic play of surfaces. The painterly interior, the various trees and fruits, “April’s green,” and the cockatoo, swallows, and pigeons — birds represented, literary, or “observed” — all become equally phantasmal, passing like “things in some procession of the dead.” In these terms, the sun-worshippers of stanza 7 reduce to mere “personae of summer” (CP, 377 ), their bookish status reinforced by Biblical imagery, for pantheism would be as foreign as the religion of Palestine when the sky itself is “isolated” and appears as alien as the “icy Elysee” (CP, 56) seems to a temporal speaker.

The poem proceeds by contrasting the surfaces and the depths of things: the surfaces of nature — its false flicks and forms, its rhetoric — contrast with its depths, which turn out to be internal to the subject. A “wide water” silently flows below the welter of visible and audible phenomena, and, in contrast to the sensory experience of surfaces, this archetypal river of the unconscious carries the truth of “blood.” The river of meditation courses to death — the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre” — and to erotic reveries of “supple and turbulent” men; Christian and romantic mythologies only code its natural course.

Thus Stevens dislocates the Emersonian alignment of nature with fate and the mind with freedom. The imagistic contrast of light and dark in the first stanza corresponds to the thematic contrast of freedom and fate, life and death, rhetoric and truth, the claims of the life of the senses and the life of the mind. It is nature and its sensuous attractions that are free, and their extravagant, ornamental “rhetoric” cannot satisfy the mind. For the mind and its course of meditation give us access to the truth of Eros and Thanatos.

In Stevens’s realignment, the mind alone knows nature: an undomesticated nature that is more than “a widow’s bird” (CP, 18) is accessible only in the meditation of the “virile” poet. When Stevens announces, “Death is the mother of beauty,” he is talking not only about the changes in nature that constitute its rhetorical appeal to the senses — senses equipped to register and take pleasure in change — but about the truth of the mind.

For the seasonal repetitions of nature are temporal changes and intimate death only to the human consciousness, and these temporal changes open up the mental space of remembrance and anticipation, of memory and desire (stanza 4), of poetry and its measures. Death is the mother of the imagination — of the mind and memory, the “muttering” that engenders “myths” in the “burning bosom” of a destructive mother. The final stanza reaffirms this alignment:

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. [CP, 70]

Our dependence on the “chaos” of natural processes, our “freedom” from sponsoring deities, and our being constituted “of that wide water” are grammatical appositives and substantive equivalents. The “wide water” is the “wide water” of stanza 1 — the inseparable and inescapable concourse of Eros, death, and meditation that constitutes us and our freedom.

In linking the mind with death, Stevens is able to displace the terms of the Emersonian debate: freedom and fate are no longer aligned with the subject and object. Stevens’s existential project is to show that our freedom is our fate, our discourse is our nature, our imagination is our destruction.

“Sunday Morning” also marks the beginning of Stevens’s stylistic development beyond the reductive dichotomy of rhetoric and meters that arrested Emerson’s growth as a poet. In Stevens, the discursive and the Orphic modes are not polar opposites but inflections of the same conventional, exoteric, poetic voice. The range and flexibility of Stevens’s diction and blank verse enable him to incorporate the course of nature and the discourse of the mind in the same internal monologue.

In the first stanza of “Sunday Morning,” for example, he signals the shift from observation to meditation with a switch in diction from polysyllabic, Latinate words to one- or two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words; with vocalic modulations from front or “light” vowels to back or “dark” vowels; with metrical variations like the increased use of trochees and spondees; and with an insistence on alliteration, assonance, and repetition:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
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. [CP, 66-67]

The fatal truth has been internalized as an inflection of a poetic language that traces the course of an explicitly eccentric and inherently rhetorical meditation.

The language of “Sunday Morning” remains nostalgic, however, and Stevens has difficulty in developing a form that does not rely on the “magnificent measure” (CP, 13) of the English romantics yet can register the truth of rhetoric, the centrality of an explicitly eccentric poetic language. His development of a language both exoteric and central leads through an excessively rhetorical style that remains merely exoteric and thus is ironic about its decorative excesses. “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” for example, engages this issue.

Isabel G. MacCaffrey writes that the methodology of the poem, as well as its subject, addresses the “relationship between opaque, visceral depths and dazzling verbal surfaces,” and she suggests that the poem rejects its own rhetoric as “inadequate, bombastic, bland, or self-deceiving,” so that another, counter “meaning” can be apprehended “behind the words,” which is the “wordless world” of Eros and Thanatos. Stevens’s rejection of his own rhetoricity comes in the lines,

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords. [CP, 17 ]

which pass judgment, in Harold Bloom’s words, on “all amorous diction.” Nevertheless, however inadequate it may be to Eros, rhetoric remains the necessary substitution by which love becomes love, for even the chords of the frog’s mating call are natural substitutions for the “foremost law”:

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth

The “foremost law” is itself apprehended in and as substitution. If we are fated, we are fated to substitute one thing for another, to remain at the edge, and to play with words — “le monocle de mon oncle” — stringing together metaphoric or phonetic substitutions. For the poem demonstrates that no one language is more natural or less rhetorical than another.

Janet McCann From Wallace Stevens Revisited: “The Celestial Possible.”
“Sunday Morning” offers one of Stevens’s first substitutes for Christianity: natural religion, or paganism. Stevens said very little about this poem after writing it, other than to note in 1928 that “the poem is simply an expression of paganism” (LWS, 250) and later, in 1944, to indicate that Hi Simons was correct in assuming that the poem suggests “a naturalistic religion as a substitute for supernaturalism” (LWS, 464).

Stevens tended to dismiss questions about or interpretations of this poem. His offhandedness about what remains perhaps his most anthologized work may suggest that he thought the poem’s interpretation to be clear and obvious. His dismissiveness may also have implied that the poem’s propositions did not preoccupy him further or later. And yet they clearly did: the “Sunday Morning” questions recur in various guises on through the writing of his last work.

One of the more traditional in form of Stevens’s poems, “Sunday Morning” consists of blank-verse sections of varying lengths. The poem develops as an argument between two voices: the tentative, questioning tones of the woman, whose enjoyment of the pleasures of this world is cut by the awareness of death, and another, more authoritative voice that seeks to reassure her that the world is enough to satisfy, that in fact it is all the satisfaction there is. . . .

In the first section, the woman is enjoying “complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” (CP, 66), but the very enjoyment of life leads her to realize its transience, to remember her church–which she is nor attending at the time–and to allow fear and guilt to disturb her pleasure.

The second section picks up the argument with the other voice, which asks, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?” Should not this world provide compensation for the lost heaven? She should embrace her own divinity, the other voice suggests, and let herself be a mirror of the nature that engendered her and of which she is a part, one with nature, she should not try to separate herself from it and redefine herself as something unnatural or supernatural.

The third section takes up the history of divinity, tracing godhead from the totally inhuman Jove through the partly human Jesus to the fully human god suggested by the poem. To invest the human with the divine would make earth into paradise, the sky becoming fully our own rather than a division between earth and heaven. The fourth section returns to the woman’s perspective. She is not entirely willing to accept the argument because she realizes that the paradise offered is not permanent.

The other voice then assures her that there is a permanence, a permanence of the human, although not of the individual. To her claim in part 5 that she needs individual continuity, the other voice offers the consolation that “Death is the mother of beauty” (CP, 69): the cycle of ripening, fruition, and decay causes desire, which would not exist without the realization of transience. The sixth section hypothesizes a static heaven in which the ripe fruit never falls; such a place would be boring, not beautiful. Only change causes beauty, and change entails beginnings and endings; hence, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

The alternative to Christianity is suggested in part 7–”a ring of men” chanting “their boisterous devotion to the sun” (CP, 70). Human energy should recognize the source of nature’s energy as kin; this recognition would reestablish the participation of humans in nature, which is not so much mystical as actual. This argument is presented as a conclusive one, and the woman accepts it.

Her recognition that Jesus is a historical figure and that she is alone, a part of “unsponsored” nature, frees her from the prison in which her traditional beliefs had locked her, The conclusion, a merging of the woman’s perception with that of the other voice, is a Wordsworth-like picture of the sweet earth, with overtones of an elegy for the notion of personal immortality.

The joined voices proclaim that we are no different from the “casual flocks of pigeons” (CP, 70) whose flight is not patterned but casual, and whose indecipherable movements or “ambiguous undulations” (CP, 70) are nevertheless a form of untranslatable language, a kind of inscription or self-definition that is natural rather than superimposed. Stevens’s later work is preoccupied with the notion that true order must be found in nature rather than forced on it, but he later finds orders different from the simple natural rhythms.

This poem uses the figure of the woman to work through the objections to the discarding of Christianity. Stevens himself is both the woman and her opponent. “Sunday Morning” is the first full presentation of Stevens’s lifelong central motif, the search for a sustaining fiction. But the answers he provides are clearly problematic to him as well as to the reader.

Parts 7 and 8 both seem to be conclusions, but they do not cohere. “Boisterous devotion” characterizes part 7: the reborn pagan males seek to merge with the life source, yielding their individuality to its larger identity. Part 8, however, is muted. The lushness of nature affords no participation mystique but rather suggests isolation and separation.

The freedom the woman has won by relinquishing her Christian faith provides no real compensation except a sense of the vulnerability of all nature. Stevens allowed Harriet Monroe to publish the poem with part 7 last, embedding part 8 earlier in the narrative (LWS, 183-84). It would seem that be did not know exactly where he wanted the poem to go or how seriously he wanted the paganism to be taken. Paganism does offer a form of transcendence, whereas simple identification with the natural cycles does not. His choice of elegy over energy seems to negate the scene of the sun worshipers, which then appears artificial and contrived in contrast with the poem’s ending.

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Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock — Wallace Stevens

July 29, 2013
Stevens also describes “an old sailor” in order to contrast the sailor’s way of life with the inhabitants of the houses by contrasting the different dreams that both have and their different personas. The “people” of the houses, Stevens writes, are not going “to dream of baboons and periwinkles,” unlike the sailor who in his dreams “catches tigers/in red weather.”

Stevens also describes “an old sailor” in order to contrast the sailor’s way of life with the inhabitants of the houses by contrasting the different dreams that both have and their different personas. The “people” of the houses, Stevens writes, are not going “to dream of baboons and periwinkles,” unlike the sailor who in his dreams “catches tigers/in red weather.”

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

 

In his poem, “Disillusionment of Ten O’ Clock” poet Wallace Stevens observes and comments upon the empty and meaningless lives that many people lead. Stevens accomplishes this through the use of repetition and comparison, and more importantly metaphysical and artistic imagery.

Throughout the first part- a shift occurring between lines 11 and 12 –words with negative connotations are used to build the empty and disillusioned tone that emanates through the poem and to set the context of the poem. The poem begins with Stevens describing the setting as houses “haunted/By white night-gowns.” The use of “haunted” implies the existence of ghosts or other otherworldly beings in the houses. Since Stevens does not mean that actual ghosts abide in the houses, by implying that they do he is suggesting that the human inhabitants of the houses hold traits that people associate with ghosts: cold, empty and dead. The ghost imagery is furthered by the second line where the haunting figures are “white night-gowns,” which are usually rather ghostly attires.

Also, the fact that the figures are wearing “white” suggests a dullness in their lives- or lack thereof. Stevens continues to stress the importance of the lack of color in lines 3 to 9. Stevens repeats the words “none” and “not” which advance the negative and dark tone. The speaker states what colors the night-gowns are not- “none are green… purple with green…. green with yellow… yellow with blue…”- to stress that they lack color and- since color often symbolizes passion and life –meaning. Since the night-gowns symbolize the inhabitants of the houses, one can say that it is the inhabitants of the houses that live the meaningless lives. The use of the ghostly imagery in the first two lines and in the lines up to line 12 sets the tone of the poem and begins to characterize its inhabitants.

Stevens also describes “an old sailor” in order to contrast the sailor’s way of life with the inhabitants of the houses by contrasting the different dreams that both have and their different personas. The “people” of the houses, Stevens writes, are not going “to dream of baboons and periwinkles,” unlike the sailor who in his dreams “catches tigers/in red weather.” The people not dreaming about baboons and periwinkles suggests that they are incapable of enjoying the beauty and exotic appeal of the two items.

The sailor, on the other hand, is the only one in the poem who dreams of color and unusual situations. The vibrant “red weather” in the sailor’s dreams contrasts the pale “white night-gowns” of the houses’ inhabitants. Also, the connotative meaning held in describing the character as an “old sailor” gives the impression that the man is well traveled and has experienced much in his life, unlike the residents of the houses who spend their time, even their dreams, inside of their houses. While the sailor is able to escape the house that he is physically in through means of his dreams, the houses’ residents are incapable of doing so and thus lead dull and uninteresting lives.

In describing the “houses” and the “people” that abide in them, poet Wallace Stevens comments on the hollow lives led by assumedly many people but gives hope in showing that not everyone is lost to this passionless life. Stevens ends on a relatively positive and hopeful note suggesting that all one needs to do to escape living a drab life is use ones imagination and have an open mind.
From http://dariosava.blogspot.com

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Protected: Luisa’s Encaged Soul — Derek Jeter

January 10, 2013

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“Gray Room” (1917) by Wallace Stevens

May 3, 2011

René Magritte, The Lovers, France, 1928

“Gray Room” (1917) by Wallace Stevens

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl–
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you…
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.

One of the main things Stevens seems to say here is that the real life of men (within their furiously beating hearts) is of a richer mythical and heroic quality.

One can see the principle at work in Tolkien’s characterizations. Much that in an ordinary novel would have been done by “character delineation” is in the Tolkienian world done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit:

“The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And man as a whole, man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book Eomer rashly contrasts “the green earth” with “legends.” Aragorn replies that the green earth itself is “a mighty matter of legend.”
C. S. Lewis, The Dethronement Of Power

“The value of the myth” Lewis continues, “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by “the veil of familiarity.” The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it real meat. This is what the occupant of the gray room doesn’t see but what is undeniably in her heart.”

“If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror,” he advised, “by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.” We break out of the gray rooms into our real hearts. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. Lord of the Rings applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth or seeing them in the light of eternal Christian truths, we see them more clearly. Could this be done in any other way?

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens

February 16, 2011

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

A startling if not disturbing beginning: a massive white landscape where the bird is a black speck and within the black speck, an eye – two zooms of the mind’s camera — one seems a repetition of the original view: the white sclera with a black pupil; like Aunt Jemima holding up a box with a picture of Aunt Jemima on it or the matryoshka doll where one is nested in the next. We have gone from the expansiveness of twenty snowy mountains to the solitude of the singular eye. But the eye is moving. It must be focused on something… The oddity here is such a massive landscape with nothing moving except the eye. It’s unreal, if not unsettling.  

II

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The first person appears, perhaps recounting a memory or is he reacting to the earlier landscape of the first stanza . We know the expression of being of two minds but here Stevens takes the familiar and introduces THREE minds, which we would rarely ever think about. Does it mean three choices? No, he gives us the image of three blackbirds in a tree. Each blackbird corresponding to a different state of mind, perhaps? Will they startle and all fly away at once?

III

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

In the haiku parties of ancient Japan you had to rhyme or pun on the images of the previous haiku. To digress, a haiku by Basho and eight variations:

Shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi-iru semi-no-koe
Quiet and rock drilling in cicada’s voice

Amidst the quiet a cicada’s cry penetrates into the rock.

How quiet –
locust-shrill
pierces rock   (13)

How still it is!
Cicadas
burning in the sun
Drilling into rock . . .   (3)

>From silent temple,
voice of a lone cicada
penetrates rock walls.   (2)

 silence itself is
in the rock saturated
are cicada sounds   (4)

So still:into rocks it pierces –
the locust-shrill   (8)

So still . . .
into the rocks it pierces,
the cicada-shrill.

The blackbird’s flight is carried by the wind, the bird “whirls”. Its flight is like “pantomime,” a drama played out through soundless motion. More juxtaposition:we move from winter to autumn, yet another haiku like transformation. But it’s only a small part of the play, something remains hidden like the object of the bird’s focus in stanza  one.

IV

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Another radical jump. In terms of a Christian anthropology, the sexual differentiation of mankind into man and woman is much more than a purely biological fact for the purpose of procreation. The biology is unconnected with what is truly human in mankind. In it there is accomplished that intrinsic relation of the human being to a Thou, which inherently constitutes him or her as human, the very basis of our personhood . . The likeness to God, the imago dei is, with regards to sexuality, prior to it, not identical with it.

This relation immediately expresses itself in and as relation also to others, which is realized in a privileged way through relation to another who is the same kind of being as myself, but differently: man and woman share a common humanity in the different ways termed male/masculine and female/feminine. Yet we are all part of nature, so even man woman and blackbird can be at one: atonement (at one ment) nothing alienated from the other. 

V

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

A farther stretch, more abstract and symbolic but following on the “at one ment” of the previous stanza , the speaker is of two minds now (stanza  II) whether to prefer inflections to innuendos – a seemingly paradoxical choice but delicately related in the mind of any wordsmith. Both involve an alteration of sorts. An “inflection” is a sound that changes in tone. Birdcalls are full of inflections although blackbirds are noticeably harsh in their calls. Maybe I have the wrong blackbirds in my mind. See George Harrison for the singing variety.

An “innuendo” is a hint or suggestion, an oblique allusion, something implied but not stated outright but usually derogatory. The silence “just after” the bird whistle is like an “innuendo” because you can still hear the whistle in your head even as the sound has died away – it lingers, like the shock of the derogatory. The “at-one-ment” seems over now, a split, a suggestion of falling away.

 VI

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

Suddenly all the images are informed by a mood. The dagger like crystals, a throwback to an image of modern glass, an incessant movement back and forth (like the eye of the blackbird in stanza  I?) now transformed to the shadow of the blackbird moving to and fro behind the glass and icicles. Mood is obscure to us, why do we feel the way we do? We are once removed from any reason or image – is the mood caused by the “indecipherable cause” in the shadow or is the mood, traced in the shadow an indecipherable cause? Being human is at once to be impenetrable to ourselves. Only God knows us and, with faith, we know him. By ourselves we know nothing.

VII

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

“Haddam,” a vaguely Biblical name also the name of a town between Steven’s Hartford and New Haven. He faults the men of Haddam (men of Adam?) for imagining “golden birds,” while the blackbird is right there in front of them at the very feet of the women that surround them. Are these people who chase wealth, an empty idea, and neglect reality? The thinness alludes to a spiritual poverty. Golden birds are elusive, blackbirds don’t spook because of people.

VIII

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

Like the golden birds of Haddam the speaker knows the elevated rhetoric and rhythms of classical poetry – filled with noble thoughts and compelling beauty. At the same time he knows that the pedestrian blackbird also plays a part in all that. But he only seems to be aware of an “involvement,” there seems little in the way of real knowledge.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

The horizon can be likened to a circle surrounding us. The bird passes out of sight when it clears the horizon. Horizons are all relative – the bird’s horizon is one of many. Since stanza  one every view of the blackbird has included the blackbird – this is the first showing the absence of the blackbird.

 X

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

Blackbirds flying In a green light, blackbirds in spring, a sharp break with the previous seasons of winter and autumn in the poem. Bawds of euphony: a bawd is a woman who keeps a brothel; a madam, someone who arranges for someone else to buy pleasure, the Japanese called prostitution “Selling Spring”(baishun – not sure if Stevens knew that or not, but he was a connoisseur of Japanese and Chinese art) – someone who reduces a complex beauty (love, blackbirds in a field of green light) to a cheap pleasure. Even they would cry out sharply if confronted with an epiphany of beauty, a zen moment of satori. Is it a cry of pleasure or pain – or is the line thinly drawn?

XI

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

A sharp break with the character of the poem, the “I” is now a “He.” Observing himself on the move in the third person, the man becomes afraid when he sees the in the shadow of his coach (“equipage”) blackbirds. Glass harkens back to the stanza  VI, the icicles now a fear piercing. The shadows are the mood, now of fear. Blackbirds are long a symbol of death. I lived for many years in Japan and a folk image of the farmers who surrounded me was that on the day of someone’s death, blackbirds would circle the home of the deceased. “See the blackbirds around Ohashi’s farmhouse. The old woman died today.” And sure enough, there they were. I still remember my neighbors there.

XII

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

The river is moving. Spring is approaching, the river is free of ice, the blackbirds must be on the move, flying. We are back in an all natural environment, away from the human preoccupations of the past stanzas. Subtly, a move from the past to the present.

XIII

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Further tense changes highlight the blackbird in an eternal pose. The day is so dark and cloudy that it looks like evening in the afternoon. Snow was falling and it will continue into the night. Stevens is mixing up tenses and time– we don’t really know when it will stop snowing. The snow is an immense backdrop to the day, like twenty snowy mountains. The blackbird sits in the cedar limbs. Is it motionless? A cyle is complete. But as the clock has turned (plus one) and we have considered the blackbird: a “shadow” that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation; between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the man’s mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood — man’s response to nature(stanza vi); between the men of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their empty realities (stanza vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird shadows (stanza xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony; it is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions; our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes – the blackbird is our “line of vision” (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of “three minds (stanza ii). The blackbird is by no means all – it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow – but though only a small part, it is transformed into the determining focus of relation. Helen Vender summed it up that way and I twisted some of her words around to suit my interpretations here. Sorry, Helen.  

We are still left though with the nagging thought, often said of any poetry or work of art: Well, what of it? “Throughout this development of scientific thought, one result has remained constant. In no field of experiment has science been able to reveal any purpose in the universe. Always, men have hoped that by investigating the mechanism, the organism and the dream, science would discover the use of the mechanism, the goal of the evolving organism, the interpretation of the dream. . .always the priests and philosophers. . .have tried to retire into the area in which science was not yet at work, saying: “The purpose is not in matter, it is in life; the purpose is not in life, it is in the soul.” But there is no room now for further retreat; science has penetrated the last defenses, and once again it has brought back no news of a purpose, but only a system of working. And men are asking in desperation: is existence, then, without meaning or purpose? . . . Indeed the despair is unfounded and the whole quarrel between science and philosophy a quarrel about nothing. The silence of science about purpose is certainly not a coincidence, but neither is it a proof that purpose does not exist.” (Dorothy L Sayers – A Statement Of Faith, 1941). Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, perhaps

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Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: To Henry Church by Wallace Stevens

December 9, 2010

And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.
Wallace Stevens

This always struck me as one of the finest love poems I have ever read and double surprise that it is written simply for a friend and not for a lover. In the previous post I presented one of Steven’s most obscure, difficult poems – one that Harold Bloom called “the least accessible of Stevens’ major poems.”

Joseph Riddel saw “The Owl and the Sarcophagus” as an expression of the loss of faith, “the mythology of modern death, purged of transcendence.” I take exception to the latter. For me Stevens has always shown that while he may write about “the mythology of modern death” to whom he may have felt he lost his friend Henry Church, he never loses his faith. The secularist academics always seem quick to offer this reading. But this poem above tells us something of the friend that Stevens was mourning the death of in The Owl. The Owl and the Sarcophagus becomes more obscure if you haven’t read this dedication of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.

Simone Weil drew a distinction between the different modes of God’s presence. “The presence of God,” says Weil, “should be understood in two ways. As Creator, God is present in everything that exists as soon as it exists. The presence for which God needs the cooperation of the creature is the presence of God, not as Creator but as Spirit. The first presence is the presence of creation. The second is the presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace).

Stevens read Gravity and Grace and some interpreters (James Lindroth here) have seen his embracing of Weil’s notion of de-creation as a subtext in “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven.”

“The powerful final triad of the poem’s final canto brings Stevens’ drama of de-creation to an emphatic close through a second extraordinary evocation of Weil’s hidden God:

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.

In this canto, as in the poem as a whole, Stevens employs figures of incompletion and emptiness, “dead candles at the window” (31.5), “Mr. Blank” (31.9), a woman’s canceled note (31.15), to mark the world of time and prepare for its renunciation. And if the black shepherd’s approach can be discerned in the evening’s “spectrum of violet” (31.14), so too does the earlier figure of the “fire-forms” (316), like that of the “blessed beams from out a blessed bush” of canto XVII, announce the uncreated and prepare for the final triad’s disclosure of God.

In these last lines, not only does Stevens invoke Weil’s God as Creator, her “presence of creation,” through the Biblical figure of Adam’s creation inhering in the “shade that traverses / A dust”; he also invokes Weil’s hidden God, God as Spirit, God as the “presence of de-creation” , in the paradoxical figure of the force behind creation, the “force that traverses a shade.” For Stevens, as for Weil, reality and God are one, and with these mystical hints of the spiritual fullness awaiting the de-created self the poem ends.”

As he wrestles with expressing the “Mythology of Modern Death” in The Owl and the Sarcophagus” Stevens creates a monumental image of modern death:

Adorned with cryptic stones and sliding shines,
An immaculate personage in nothingness,
With the whole spirit sparkling in its cloth,

Generations of the imagination piled
In the manner of its stitchings, of its thread,
In the weaving round the wonder of its need,

And the first flowers upon it, an alphabet
By which to spell out holy doom and end,
A bee for the remembering of happiness.

Peace stood with our last blood adorned, last mind,
Damasked in the originals of green,
A thousand begettings of the broken bold.

This is that figure stationed at our end,
Always, in brilliance, fatal, final, formed
Out of our lives to keep us in our death,

To watch us in the summer of Cyclops
Underground, a king as candle by our beds
In a robe that is our glory as he guards.

And is the King “watching us as a candle by our beds,” “in a robe that is our glory he guards” not an image of Christ or a “mystical hint of the spiritual fullness awaiting the de-created self?”

I’m no professional interpreter of Stevens but I always sense the God presence in Stevens’ poems.

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The Owl in the Sarcophagus — Wallace Stevens

December 7, 2010



I
Two forms move among the dead, high sleep
Who by his highness quiets them, high peace
Upon whose shoulders even the heavens rest,

Two brothers. And a third form, she that says
Good-by in the darkness, speaking quietly there,
To those that cannot say good-by themselves.

These forms are visible to the eye that needs,
Needs out of the whole necessity of sight.
The third form speaks, because the ear repeats,

Without a voice, inventions of farewell.
These forms are not abortive figures, rocks,
Impenetrable symbols, motionless. They move

About the night. They live without our light,
In an element not the heaviness of time,
In which reality is prodigy.

There sleep the brother is the father, too,
And peace is cousin by a hundred names
And she that in the syllable between life

And death cries quickly, in a flash of voice,
Keep you, keep you, I am gone, oh keep you as
My memory, is the mother of us all,

The earthly mother and the mother of
The dead. Only the thought of those dark three
Is dark, thought of the forms of dark desire.

II
There came a day, there was a day–one day
A man walked living among the forms of thought
To see their lustre truly as it is

And in harmonious prodigy to be,
A while, conceiving his passage as into a time
That of itself stood still, perennial,

Less time than place, less place than thought of place
And, if of substance, a likeness of the earth,
That by resemblance twanged him through and through,

Releasing an abysmal melody,
A meeting, an emerging in the light,
A dazzle of remembrance and of sight.

III
There he saw well the foldings in the height
Of sleep, the whiteness folded into less,
Like many robings, as moving masses are,

As a moving mountain is, moving through day
And night, colored from distances, central
Where luminous agitations come to rest,

In an ever-changing, calmest unity,
The unique composure, harshest streakings joined
In a vanishing-vanished violet that wraps round

The giant body the meanings of its folds,
The weaving and the crinkling and the vex,
As on water of an afternoon in the wind

After the wind has passed. Sleep realized
Was the whiteness that is the ultimate intellect,
A diamond jubilance beyond the fire,

That gives its power to the wild-ringed eye.
Then he breathed deeply the deep atmosphere
Of sleep, the accomplished, the fulfilling air.

IV
There peace, the godolphin and fellow, estranged, estranged,
Hewn in their middle as the beam of leaves,
The prince of shither-shade and tinsel lights,

Stood flourishing the world. The brilliant height
And hollow of him by its brilliance calmed,
Its brightness burned the way good solace seethes.

This was peace after death, the brother of sleep,
The inhuman brother so much like, so near,
Yet vested in a foreign absolute,

Adorned with cryptic stones and sliding shines,
An immaculate personage in nothingness,
With the whole spirit sparkling in its cloth,

Generations of the imagination piled
In the manner of its stitchings, of its thread,
In the weaving round the wonder of its need,

And the first flowers upon it, an alphabet
By which to spell out holy doom and end,
A bee for the remembering of happiness.

Peace stood with our last blood adorned, last mind,
Damasked in the originals of green,
A thousand begettings of the broken bold.

This is that figure stationed at our end,
Always, in brilliance, fatal, final, formed
Out of our lives to keep us in our death,

To watch us in the summer of Cyclops
Underground, a king as candle by our beds
In a robe that is our glory as he guards.

V
But she that says good-by losing in self
The sense of self, rosed out of prestiges
Of rose, stood tall in self not symbol, quick

And potent, an influence felt instead of seen.
She spoke with backward gestures of her hand.
She held men closely with discovery,

Almost as speed discovers, in the way
Invisible change discovers what is changed,
In the way what was has ceased to be what is.

It was not her look but a knowledge that she had.
She was a self that knew, an inner thing,
Subtler than look’s declaiming, although she moved

With a sad splendor, beyond artifice,
Impassioned by the knowledge that she had,
There on the edges of oblivion.

O exhalation, O fling without a sleeve
And motion outward, reddened and resolved
From sight, in the silence that follows her last word–

VI
This is the mythology of modern death
And these, in their mufflings, monsters of elegy,
Of their own marvel made, of pity made,

Compounded and compounded, life by life,
These are death’s own supremest images,
The pure perfections of parental space,

The children of a desire that is the will,
Even of death, the beings of the mind
In the light-bound space of the mind, the floreate flare…

It is a child that sings itself to sleep,
The mind, among the creatures that it makes,
The people, those by which it lives and dies.

 

Stevens wrote “The Owl in the Sarcophagus” while he was in an elegiac frame of mind after the death of his closest friend Henry Church. Church, heir to the Arm & Hammer baking soda fortune and a wealthy expatriate patron of the arts, was also a poet and publisher of the influential French quarterly Mesures. The Churches returned to America during the war years. He contributed to Princeton’s Creative Arts Program and provided money for the symposium held there in 1941 where Stevens read his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.”

Church had returned to live in postwar France where he died suddenly on April 4, 1947 — Good Friday. Harold Bloom calls “The Owl” “the least accessible of Stevens’ major poems.” Joseph Riddel and others see it as an expression of the loss of faith, “the mythology of modern death, purged of transcendence.”

Understanding isn’t something that belongs to reason. Understanding comes to pass as an outward sign of inward grace. The feeling of union and bliss I get while reading “The Owl in the Sarcophagus” is intuitive. Delight springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns that phonetic utterance excites in me. Poetry of the magnitude of “The Owl” comes into being as a running parallel to religious faith — a light unto the world that a reader may experience as distinguishing glory.

In “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” Stevens says: “The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure, are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them, for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration, which is only within the power of the acutest poet to give.”

What Louis Zukofsky admired most in Stevens’ writing was the words, not the style-the matter, not the manner. Zukofsky said he read Harmonium constantly. Marianne Moore speaks of Stevens’ adjectives as having the force of verbs. For me, immense perspectives of the eye occur in phonically unexpected word order. “This is form gulping after formlessness—.” Often a line is a poem in itself:

O exhalation, O fling without a sleeve

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree or in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. It’s a sense of self- identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.
Choir answers to Choir: Notes on Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens by Susan Howe

This seems to be a good a place as any to introduce to my blog readers a blog that I follow called Shirt of Flame by Heather King.  Ms. King has published a couple of memoirs you can find here along with a representative piece of her writing that I enjoyed recently.

The reason I bring it up here and now is that upon reading the lines above: Understanding isn’t something that belongs to reason. Understanding comes to pass as an outward sign of inward grace, I thought of her. Heather is graced with a wonderful gift and her understandings can become your own if you follow along.

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The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

July 16, 2010

One must have a mind of winter...

The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Stevens utilizes several shifts in point of view. Stanza one is “One must have a mind of winter,” referring to the snowman or the speaker regarding himself as a mind in/of nature. The line, “And have been cold a long time” (line 4), mirrors that first line in that both are suggesting that one must become numb to grasp the mind of nature in order to see the landscape as it is from nature’s point of view. 

“Everything in nature has its life and history determined by its timeless pattern, plan or essence; with the human it is the reverse.  Roses can no more be un-rosy than a triangle scan be non-triangular; but humans [God bless us] can be inhuman. Man’s essence does not determine his existence but his existence determines his essence. We determine our nature, our character, our personality, by the free choices in our existence, our life, our career in time, our history.”
Peter Kreeft

So for the human thinker who is introduced in the third stanza needs “not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the sound of a few leaves.” Stevens says that the sound of wind that humans find so miserable, is the same wind “that is blowing in the same bare place” (line 12). In this line, and the line that follows, Stevens draws a direct connection between humans and nature in that they exist on the same Earth, in the same conditions, however these conditions differ greatly due to human condition and imagination.

The last stanza introduces a marvelous scramble: Regarding himself as nothing, the mind of nature, the snowman mind of the perfect perceptual eye, the human (now identified as the listener in the snow) beholds the “nothing that is not there” and the “nothing that is.” It takes the human mind stripped all imagination and human feeling to conceive of that pregnant nothing that the holy spirit fills, to see the something that lies beyond the heart of nothing.

The poem suggests to me that nature is what it is because of human imagination: We are of this world and yet are never at home in it. The numerous shifts the point of view that mark the poem create a series of  unbreakable links between the human and the mind of nature. Perhaps one cannot exist without the other or needs to let the other exist.

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Simone Weil and Wallace Stevens: The Notion of De-creation as Subtext in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” — JAMES R. LINDROTH

June 18, 2010
 
 

Wallace Stevens

 

I was amazed to read this essay. For the longest time I had associated Stevens with my new-age past. After my conversion to Catholicism I became drawn to the mystical writings of Simone Weil (several posts here). Until Professor Lindroth made the connection I had never imagined that Stevens had also been drawn to her and that his poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” could be seen as a response to many of the writings in Gravity and Grace which he had been influenced by. This is a complex essay and a difficult read. Probably only of interest to those of you who share my fascination with Weil and Stevens. Stevens’ “strong religious concern[s]” are still batted about in the secular university. Needless to say while I was growing up, this was never considered. I had always considered him a factor in my conversion and have been cheered by others seeing the religious significance of his poetry.

Wallace Stevens’ deathbed conversion to an orthodox Christian faith, reported by Peter Brazeau in Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (1983), has been met with cynicism by James K. Guimond, among others, who speaks of it as a “final insurance policy” and with outright denial by his daughter Holly. Yet Stevens’ correspondence with Sister M. Bernetta Quinn, (See particularly the letters dated 7 April 1948 and 21 Dec. 1951; in the first, Stevens remarks on the striking similarity of their minds, after which he asserts that he does “seek a center” and expects “to go on seeking it”; in the second, he expressly states his belief in God, although not “the same God in whom” he believed as “a boy.” Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens (NY: Knopf, 1977) 584, 735.)

His reading of Simone Weil toward the end of his life, (Stevens, who died in 1955, was 68 when Weil’s La Pesanteur et La Grace was published; he draws upon this 1947 edition for his essay “The Relations between Poetry and Painting,” originally read at the Museum of Modem Art in 1951 and subsequently published in his The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (NY:Knopf, 1951) 159-76) and the corpus of Stevens’ poetry, particularly the late poems, bears witness to a strong religious concern often commented upon by his critics.

Although most, like Milton J. Bates in his authoritative new biography, find it subordinate to and ultimately subsumed by his poetic theory. In Bates’ final judgment that “Stevens effaced himself before the Supreme Imagination” in the way that “Eliot effaced himself before the Supreme Being,” Bates is representative of those critics who reject the notion that what ultimately became most important for Stevens was the quest for Weil’s uncreated reality, although the emphasis on the effacement of self is very close to Weil’s notion of de-creation. However, unlike “The Man with the Blue Guitar” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” earlier poems to which it is frequently compared, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” composed in 1949 just prior to Stevens’ seventieth birthday, contains a subtext echoing Simone Weil’s religious meditations and displaying a spiritual ascesis in accord with the poet’s final religious act.

It is not only fitting that Wallace Stevens should be drawn to Simone Weil, a figure whose belief presents a religious paradox as problematic as his own, but that Weil’s mystical notion of de-creation should provide a key to the understanding of one of Stevens’ most difficult and, at the same time, most religious poems. Weil’s meditations on de-creation appear in her notebooks and were included in Gustave Thibon’s selections from these notebooks, published under the title La Pesanteur et La Grace (Gravity and Grace) 1947, two years before the composition of the Stevens poem. It is to the selection that Stevens refers in The Necessary Angel, and it is from this selection that he draws the notion of de-creation to emphasize the absolute value of artistic effort in his consideration of poetry’s relationship with painting.

“Simone Weil in La Pesanteur et La Grace,” says Stevens, citing the edition by its complete French title, “has a chapter on what she calls de-creation. She says that de-creation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness. In this essay, “The Relations between Poetry and Painting,” Stevens only appropriates Weil’s notion of de-creation for the purposes of his familiar aesthetic argument that in the modern world the poet functions as a substitute for God. Still, from the standpoint of his late poetry in general and more particularly as it applies to “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens’ acknowledgment of a full familiarity with the Weil text becomes critically significant, as does the undeniable sympathy between the two as religious thinkers. If Weil’s mystical notion of the de-creation of self is a pertinent idea for Stevens in his later years, so are the correlative notions of spiritual gravity, a hidden God, affliction, and the renunciation of time.

De-creation, as postulated by Weil in Gravity and Grace, is making “something created pass into the uncreated,” and to this she opposes the notion of destruction, making “something created pass into nothingness,” which she calls a “blameworthy substitute for de-creation” (Gravity and Grace 28). For Weil, the uncreated, another term for reality, is identified with God, and the passage from the created to the uncreated is not a fall into nothingness but the attainment of God. Yet this attainment of God, through de-creation, depends on the individual’s willingness to become nothing, to detach himself from sense life, and ultimately even from a “belief in the prolongation of life,” robbing “death of its purpose” of allowing the individual to attain divine being (Gravity and Grace 33).

Within this mystical formulation, one’s greatest enemy is the world of appearances to which one clings in a desperate effort to prolong life. “Appearance clings to being,” asserts Weil, “and pain alone can tear them from each other. For whoever is in possession of being there can be no appearance. Appearance chains being down” (Gravity and Grace, 34). Here, Weil’s chain metaphor emphatically evokes her notion of spiritual gravity, the force that binds one to the created world of appearance and time. Creation says Weil is composed of the descending movement of gravity to escape gravity’s pull the individual ‘must necessarily turn to something other than himself, since it is a question of being delivered from self’ (Gravity and Grace, 3) Paradoxically, and it is a paradox fully explored by Stevens in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”; time, our enemy in the conventional sense, becomes our salvation, since time “in its course tears appearance from being and being from appearance, by violence. Time makes it manifest that it is not eternity” (Gravity and Grace 34).

Weil’s notions of de-creation and spiritual gravity manifest themselves in the Stevens poem through two informing impulses. The first of these is the poet’s stated intention the need to strip created reality of all illusion ‘Here,” declares Stevens of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven:

“My interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. It is not a question of grim reality but plain reality.” The poem’s second informing impulse is the desire to embrace uncreated reality. This double movement produces a subtle text continually questioning the poet’s relationship to the phenomenal world of appearances, and an even subtler subtext presenting our relationship to the noumenal (vocab: In the philosophy of Kant, an object as it is in itself independent of the mind, as opposed to a phenomenon), to uncreated spiritual reality — to God.

Attending to the first movement alone has invariably led critics to reductive interpretations some dismissing the poem as an aging poet’s cry of despair over the loss of imagination; others finding a saving ballast in what they mistakenly judge to be the old Stevens’ renewed affirmation of the sense world Helen Vendler, for instance, invoking “Dejection An Ode,” sees the Stevens poem as a “long expansion of Coleridge’s disjunction before the moon and the stars,” the depression of the poet experiencing the “metabolic depletion” of age.  In a similar fashion, Harold Bloom, although rejecting Vendler’s interpretation of the poem as a “portrayal of dessication,” is equally reductive in his insistence that the poem is a Whitmanian celebration of sense life and that the final canto presents reality as “the solipsistic recognition of privileged moments, sudden perfections of sense, flakes of fire, fluttering things having distinct shapes.”[Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976) 336]

At the heart of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is neither “metabolic depletion” nor celebratory “solipsism” but, as is the case with Weil’s meditations, the notion of ascetic denial leading to spiritual life, to being, to God. Like Weil, Stevens raises the ordinary to a mystical level where the drama of de-creation is presented in terms of the shedding of appearances, the renunciation of the created in time, the acceptance of nothingness: “The dilapidation of dilapidations” (16.3), “total leafless-ness” (16.18), “The dominant blank” (17.7).

As a major obstacle to de-creation, Weil postulates spiritual gravity, the pull exerted by the world of appearances (Gravity and Grace 45-48). “Weil,” says Eric O. Springsted, commenting on this aspect of de-creation, “contended that our natural attachment to our terrestrial existence is weighty and constitutes a sort of spiritual gravity to which we are constantly subject. Consequently, she argued that as long as we remain subject to this gravity there is no way from man to God” (Springsted, Christus Mediator, 117).and it is in the exact middle of the poem, Cantos XV, XVI, and XVII, that Stevens gives his most compelling evidence of this spiritual gravity at work.

Canto XV, for example, places the drama of de-creation against a rain-drenched landscape where the rain heightens man’s awareness of the sense world, drawing him to it and away from the spiritual:

He preserves himself against the repugnant rain
By an instinct for a rainless land, the self
Of his self, come at upon wide delvings of wings.

The instinct for heaven had its counterpart:
The instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room,
The gay tournamonde as of a single world

In which he is and as and is are one.
For its counterpart a kind of counterpoint
Irked the wet wallows of the water-spout.

The rain kept falling loudly in the trees
And on the ground. The hibernal dark that hung
In primavera, the shadow of bare rock,

Becomes the rock of autumn, glittering,
Ponderable source of each imponderable,
The weight we lift with the finger of a dream,

The heaviness we lighten by light will,
By the hand of desire, faint, sensitive, the soft
Touch and trouble of the touch of the actual hand.

Because of his “instinct for heaven,” the protagonist in this drama of de-creation finds the rain “repugnant” rather than refreshing, and he “preserves himself against” it by “an instinct for a rainless land.” Against the backdrop of this rainless land, the biblical desert of purification, Stevens situates the protagonist’s “self / Of his self:,” the hidden “I” spoken of by Weil (“My ‘I’ is hidden for me . . . it is on the side of God, it is in God, it is God” [Gravity And Grace 33]); and the discovery of this hidden “I” is accompanied by the traditional sign of contact with the holy, the “wide delving of wings. But this is poetic drama, not platitude, and set against the man’s “Instinct for heaven” is an equally powerful “Instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room, / The gay tournamonde as of a single world / In which he is and as and is are one.”

“Tournamonde,” providing as it does a strong echo of Weil’s notion of spiritual gravity, is central here, and in a letter to Herbert Weinstock, his editor at Knopf, Stevens gives the following explanation of the word. “Tournamonde,” Stevens says, “is a neologism. For me it creates an image of a world in which things revolve and the word is therefore appropriate in the collocation of is and as. . . I think the word justifies itself in the sense of conveying an immediate, even though rather vague, meaning.” If the movement to God’s spiritual reality is outward, away from the apparent self and the created world, the movement here is centripetal and inward, in which the man revolves in tighter and tighter circles of the illusory self. It is not the joy of God that attracts but the gaiety of appearances, the world whose constant movement creates the illusion of being where “is” and “as” are the same.

Canto XVI heightens the drama of de-creation with further evidence of the pull of gravity emanating from creation and time:

Among time’s images, there is not one
Of this present, the venerable mask above
The dilapidation of dilapidations.

The oldest-newest day is the newest alone.
The oldest-newest night does not creak by,
With lanterns, like a celestial ancientness.

Silently it heaves its youthful sleep from the sea
The Oklahoman—the Italian blue
Beyond the horizon with its masculine,

Their eyes closed, in a young palaver of lips.
And yet the wind whimpers oldly of old age
In the western night. The venerable mask,

In this perfection, occasionally speaks
And something of death’s poverty is heard.
This should be tragedy’s most moving face.

It is a bough in the electric light
And exhalations in the eaves, so little
To indicate the total leaflessness.

The opening of this canto presents one of time’s most powerfully attractive images in the spectacle of the natural world continually renewing itself, but it is the figures of youth and old age, renewal and exhaustion, birth and death that give it its dramatic structure. Moreover, subtending the canto’s entire drama is the notion of nudity, the total purity achieved, according to Weil, at only two points of existence: birth and death (Gravity and Grace 32),

Death, an emphatic point of nudity for Weil and Stevens alike, is suggested by the “dilapidation of dilapidations” and by the late-autumn tree bereft of its leaves, reduced from the image of fecundity to the bare line of “a bough in the electric light,” to “total leaflessness.” The second point of nudity, birth, is suggested by the two paradoxes of the “oldest-newest day” and the “oldest-newest night”; or rather the two points intersect, since as the day dies the night is born as “Silently it heaves its youthful sleep from the sea” and encroaches on “The Ok1ahoman — the Italian blue” disappearing beyond the mind’s horizon. This symbolic intersection of birth and death resonates with and reinforces a similar intersection in canto XV where Stevens juxtaposes winter, the season of death, with spring, the season of new life, through “The hibernal dark that” hangs “In primavera.”

Moreover, in both cantos XV and XVI, the opposites of youth and age, renewal and exhaustion, birth and death combine in a metamorphic process resulting in a denudation of existence synonymous with Weil’s notion of de-creation. In canto XV, the darkness of winter already present in the spring landscape in the “shadow of rock” is transformed into the “rock of autumn”; in canto XVI, the “masculine” light of the “oldest-newest day” retreating from the implicitly feminine darkness of the “oldest-newest night” is metamorphosed into the asexual, barren “electric light” illuminating the once youthful lips and eyes (“Their eyes closed, in a young palaver of lips”) now shrunk into “The venerable mask” of age. Finally, both cantos conclude with emphatic symbols of existence stripped bare: the “rock of autumn” and “total leaflessness.”

A major part of the drama of de-creation derives from Weil’s postulating a God who “could create only by hiding himself’ (GG 33) with the consequence that “God and the supernatural are hidden and formless in the universe” (Gravity and Grace 49: As Gustave Thibon points out in a comment on a related text, “contact with supernatural reality is first felt as an experience of nothingness” since “God does not exist in the same way as created things which form the only object of experience for our natural faculties” (Gravity and Grace 19n) Stevens meditates on the hiddeness of uncreated reality throughout “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” but a particularly clear example of such meditation presents itself in canto XVII where Weil’s absent God, the hidden holiness, is poetically evoked as “The dominant blank, the unapproachable:

The color is almost the color of comedy,
Not quite. It comes to the point and at the point,
It falls. The strength at the centre is serious.

Perhaps instead of failing it reflects
As a serious strength rejects pin-idleness.
A blank underlies the trials of device,

The dominant blank, the unapproachable.
This is the mirror of the high serious:
Blue verdured into a damask’s lofty symbol,

Gold easings and ouncings and fluctuations of thread
And beetling of belts and lights of general stones,
Like blessed beams from out a blessed bush

Or the wasted figurations of the wastes
Of night, time and the imagination,
Saved and beholden, in a robe of rays.

These fitful sayings are, also, of tragedy:
The serious reflection is composed
Neither of comic nor tragic but of commonplace.

In discussing Weil’s argument that perfect love of God is possible “only in actual affliction” and His “total absence,” Eric O. Springsted, in Christus Mediator: Platonic Mediation in the Thought of Simone Weil, points to Weil’s emphasis on parallel notions in Saint John of the Cross and Plato. Springsted emphasizes Weil’s singling out of “two periods of void” described in Plato’s “Cave Analogy,” two periods, which in Well’s words, “correspond exactly to the two dark nights described by Saint John of the Cross.” The first of these occurs “when one is unchained and walks out of the cave without being able to use his customary, but illusory, bearings”; the second occurs “when one emerges from the cave and is blinded by the light”

If Stevens evokes the hidden God through “The dominant blank” and the problematic of affliction through his opening rejection of comedy, he also, like Weil, reinforces these notions with imagery drawn from the Bible, the literature of mysticism, and Plato. For example, Stevens’ “wasted figurations of the wastes / Of night” evokes not only the Old Testament prophet’s desert of purification and Christ’s agony in the garden but the mystic’s dark night of the soul. Moreover, drawing upon the imagery of Plato’s cave and upon the Old Testament figure of the Burning Bush, Stevens renders the relation between uncreated and created reality as light reflected in darkness, and at the same time hints at the hidden God suddenly revealed in a “robe of rays.”

These major themes of Weil — de-creation of self in and through time, the pull of gravity exerted on the spirit by the world of appearances, affliction that leads to a freeing of the spirit, and a God who is hidden—resonate throughout “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” with the world of appearances receiving particularly strong emphasis in its opening cantos. Canto I, a meditation on spiritual gravity, first postulates a Platonic world of appearances and then suggests the way in which man under the force of this gravity produces an illusory God fashioned on the model of self:

The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience.
Of this, A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet –

As part of the never-ending meditation,
Part of the question that is a giant himself:
Of what is this house composed if not of the sun,

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,

Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first–
A recent imagining of reality,

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring; up-springing and inevitable,
A large poem for a larger audience,

As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.

Starting with the “eye’s plain version” dramatically contrasted to the “experience” of transcendence, then focusing his attention on the first of these, Stevens ponders the material world as manifested in the houses and streets of New Haven and offers the possibility that these creations of light are illusions lacking substance, “Dark things without a double.” This pessimistic questioning of created reality leads to a second question that, displacing the first, relates the material site of existence to the “crude collops” coming together in the imagination as an androgynous “mythological form” with “great bosom, beard, and being.”

The figure of the giant, with his great height but also his great weight, dramatically displays man operating under the force of gravity, first dismissing plain reality because he is not the uncreated self supporting it and then filling the “dominant blank” of the absent God with one of his own making. In each case, the figure of the giant, Polyphemus translated to Plato’s cave, emphasizes the obscured vision of the questioner and implies an ultimately unsatisfactory answer to the question of being. Stevens demonstrates his emphatic rejection of this second “giant,” the anthropomorphic god of mythology, in canto XXIV where this god in the guise of “The statue of Jove” is blown up “among the boomy clouds.” This can be construed as a de-creative act in that it conforms to Weil’s notion that we must empty ourselves of “false divinity” (Gravity and Grace, 30); Jove as an anthropomorphic divinity modeled on self is an emphatic example of such falseness. Leonora Woodman sees this as a “token of Stevens’ repeated effort to banish mistaken forms of the divine” (Woodman, Stanza My Stone, 109)

“The reality of the world,” Weil asserts, is “the reality of the self which we transfer to things. It has nothing to do with independent reality. That is only perceptible through total detachment.” Having examined New Haven, the material site of existence, as appearance and reflection, Stevens in canto II meditates on Weil’s notion of the world as an extension of self

Suppose these houses are composed of ourselves,
So that they become an impalpable town, full of
Impalpable bells, transparencies of sound,

Sounding in transparent dwellings of the self,
Impalpable habitations that seem to move
In the movement of the colors of the mind,

The far-fire flowing and the dim-coned bells
Coming together in a sense in which we are poised,
Without regard to time or where we are,

In the perpetual reference, object
Of the perpetual meditation, point
Of the enduring, visionary Jove,

Obscure, in colors whether of the sun
Or mind, uncertain in the clearest bells,
The spirit’s speeches, the indefinite,

Confused illuminations and sonorities,
So much ourselves, we cannot tell apart
The idea and the bearer-being of the idea.

If one answer to the question of being lies in the direction of Plato’s shadow-world of appearances, and another in the direction of the god of mythology, still a third looks to external reality as spiritualized self. On one hand, this version of reality has the advantage of freeing the self from limitations of “time” and space; it has a second advantage of situating the self at the metaphysical center. From this central point of intersection issue the “transparencies of sound” and the “colors of the mind” that come “together” as the impalpable town the way the “crude collops” came together as “mythological form.” The disadvantages are that although situated at the metaphysical center and poised between created reality and the “visionary love” of the uncreated, the self has in Weil’s sense transferred its reality to the reality of the created world with the effect of confusion. Subject-object distinctions vanish; and in “the indefinite, I Confused illuminations and sonorities” that result “The idea,” the “Impalpable town,” the “transparent dwellings of self” can no longer be distinguished from “the bearer-being of the idea.”

Turning from the versions of created reality postulated in the first two cantos, Stevens, in canto III, further heightens the drama of de-creation by directing his attention to the hidden holiness to be discovered through affliction and selfless love:

The point of vision and desire arc the same.
It is to the hero Qf midnight that we pray
On a hill of stones to make beau mont thereof.

If it is misery that infuriates our love,
If the black of night stands glistening on beau mont,
Then, ancientest saint ablaze with ancientest truth,

Say next to holiness is the will thereto,
And next to love is the desire for love,
The desire for its celestial ease in the heart,

Which nothing can frustrate, that most secure,
Unlike love in possession of that which was
To be possessed and is, But this cannot

Possess. It is desire, set deep in the eye,
Behind all actual seeing, in the actual scene,
In the street, in a room, on a carpet or a wall,

Always in emptiness that would be filled,
In denial that cannot contain its blood,
A porcelain, as yet in the bats thereof

In drawing a distinction between the actualities of holiness and love and their potentialities, Stevens places the same weight as Weil on possession and the need to relinquish possession if divine holiness and divine love are to be attained.

Weil’s paradoxical distinction between being and having is echoed in Stevens’s distinction, which in its elaboration situates desire “Behind all actual seeing” and raises its value above that of actual possession. For Weil, only “having,” Stevens’s “possession,” belongs to man situated in the ordinary world; or as Weil puts it: “Being does not belong to man, only having. The being of man is situated behind the curtain, on the supernatural side…The curtain is human misery: there was a curtain even for Christ” (GG 33-34). For Stevens and Weil alike, the divine, true holiness and true love, lie behind the curtain. Stevens alternately examines and embraces, wraps himself in, and steps through this curtain of the ordinary. Or as Stevens expresses it in the last two triads of canto III, behind the “actual scene,” the “street,” the “room,” the “carpet,” the “wall,” there is always the “emptiness that would be filled” and that can only be filled by being.

As the drama of de-creation unfolds in canto III, the afflicted Christ, “the hero of midnight…On a hill of stones,” displaces the self at the point of intersection between “vision and desire,” between the created and uncreated. The imagery conflates two figures central to the notion of the afflicted Christ: the figure of Christ as “the hero of midnight” undergoing the nightlong agony in the garden of Gethsemane; and the crucified Christ “On a hill of stones,” on Calvary. In his suffering, the afflicted Christ is the avatar of holiness and sainthood and in this sense becomes “ancientest saint ablaze with ancientest truth” whose holiness not only transforms the “hill of stones” into the “beau mont” but who embodies in his humanity the desire for the “celestial ease” of God’s love, “which nothing can frustrate.”

Stevens returns to Weil’s notion of affliction in canto XIX with the introduction of”A figure like Ecclesiast” (19.16). In this Old Testament guise, the afflicted Christ functions as a bridge to uncreated reality, although the imagery providing the backdrop against which the figure appears is more emphatically that of Plato’s cave rather than Calvary. A dominant figure of affliction emerges in two images: things not only shrouded in darkness but lying “Prostrate” (19.3) in the reflected light of the moon; and the transformation of daylight splendor into the privately sterile, the “public green turned private gray” (19.4).

Negative changes wrought by time reinforce the sense of affliction, as the “man who was the axis of his time” (19.9) is reduced to the “infantines” of the original “Image” (19.10). “What is the radial aspect of this place,” asks the afflicted speaker, “This present colony of a colony / Of colonies, a sense in the changing sense / Of things?” (19.13-16). In his affliction, the speaker looks to a “figure like Ecclesiast,” the embodiment of Old Testament wisdom in regard to suffering resulting from the depredations of time and the insubstantiality of created reality: “A figure Like Ecclesiast, / Rugged and luminous, chants in the dark / A text that is an I answer, although obscure” (19.16-18).

If the hero of midnight and a figure like Ecclesiast point toward Weil’s notions of the uncreated and of affliction that leads to a freeing of the spirit, two other of Stevens’s chief dramatis personae, Professor Eucalyptus and the black shepherd, restage Weil’s drama of de-creation with renewed vigor, as they show the self torn from gravity’s pull by the assault of time and death. Through Professor Eucalyptus, Stevens refocuses attention on the world of appearances, and in canto XIV where Stevens first introduces him and canto XXII where he returns, Professor Eucalyptus provides another powerful example of man operating under the force of Weil’s spiritual gravity

In the first of these two cantos, Professor Eucalyptus seeks God not in the realm of the transcendent but “In New Haven with an eye that does not look / Beyond the object” (14.3-4); more particularly “He seeks / God in the object itself, without much choice” (14.6-7). Caught by this powerful attraction to the created yet longing to discover the uncreated, professor Eucalyptus presents a theological paradox echoing those of Weil. On one hand, filled with self he freely proclaims his own divinity in the “commodious adjective” (14 8), the paradisal parlance” (14 13) that substitutes god-like word for plain thing. On the other hand, he achieves partial de-creation, release from gravity’s pull, through an “Indifference of the eye” that remains “Indifferent to what it sees.” (14.15-16) This neutrality of vision, if not of speech, sets up the possibility of a bridge to the uncreated through the unsparing presentation of its opposite, not “grim / Reality but reality grimly seen” (14.11-12).

With the return of Professor Eucalyptus in canto XXII, the philosopher and the poet conduct parallel searches “For reality” (22 2), in the philosopher’s case the “search / For an interior made exterior” and in the poet’s the search “for the same exterior made / Interior” (22.4-6). Like Professor Eucalyptus in canto XIV, the poet presents a paradox in that he demonstrates the powerful force of spiritual gravity through his emphasis on recreation of the here-and-now and at the same time discovers through this recreation a bridge to the uncreated. Intimated in “breathless things broodingly a breath / With the inhalations of original cold / And of original earliness” (22 6-8), the uncreated prompts the poet “To re-create” (22 12), to search” (22 14) a possible for its possibilities” (22 18).

Just as in canto XIV, where “The tink-tonk / Of the rain” serves as a bridge to an ‘essence not yet well perceived (14 16-18), here it is “the evening star, /The most ancient light in the most ancient sky” (22 14-15) that serves as such a bridge. In a similar manner, Professor Eucalyptus, the philosopher operating under the force of gravity and self, is like his natural namesake “The dry eucalyptus” that seeks “god in the rainy r cloud” (14.1). Moreover, as symbolic comment on the Professor’s search  for God, the eucalyptus suggests the hidden flower of spirit still enclosed within its base material covering, and paradoxically this spirit will emerge g not with spring rain as is the case in the natural world but only when / total leaflessness, Weil’s de-creation of self, has been achieved

The introduction of the black shepherd in canto XXI further  intensifies the drama of de-creation, since through his meditation on the black shepherd’s approach, Stevens, like Weil, stresses the painful rending of self from the world of appearance and necessity through the twin assaults of time and death “Necessity,” for Weil, “is the screen set between God and us so that we can be,” and she declares that it “Is for us to pierce through the screen so that we can cease to be” (Gravity and Grace 28). Stevens turns his attention to this “will of necessity, the will of wills” (21.3) with the appearance of the black shepherd, but as a prelude canto XX evokes New Haven and the individual self assaulted by what Weil calls “Time’s violence” (Gravity and Grace 134):

The imaginative transcripts were like clouds,
Today; and the transcripts of feeling, impossible
To distinguish. The town was a residuum,

A neuter shedding shapes in an absolute.
Yet the transcripts of it when it was blue remain,
And the shapes that it took in feeling, the persons that

It became, the nameless, flitting characters –
These actors still walk in a twilight muttering lines.
It may be that they mingle, clouds and men, in the air

Or street or about the corners of a man,
Who sits thinking in the corners of a room.
In this chamber the pure sphere escapes the impure

Because the thinker himself escapes. And yet
To have evaded clouds and men leaves him
A naked being with a naked will

And everything to make. He may evade
Even his own will and in his nakedness
Inhabit the hypnosis of that sphere.

Under the force of necessity’s will, the apparently solid forms constituting New Haven vanish until the town becomes “a residuum, / A neuter shedding shapes in an absolute” and its even more substantial inhabitants partially dematerialize into “nameless, flitting characters” dimly seen and faintly heard as they “walk in a twilight muttering lines.”

In response to time’s assault, the man withdraws from the world into his “chamber,” into the “corners of a room,” into the self where “the pure sphere escapes the impure / Because the thinker himself escapes.” Transformed through partial de-creation into “A naked being with a naked will,” the protagonist through his emphasis on the imagination shows himself to be still under the influence of gravity. “The imagination,” says Weil, “is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass,” and this is the role of the imagination here (Gravity and Grace, 16). Instead of inciting the protagonist to acts of further de-creation, the void (because it leaves “everything to make”) becomes a test for the imagination, gravity’s call for recreation in resistance to de-creation. The canto con-eludes by reemphasizing, as a possible alternative to the self drawn by gravity into time’s process of recreation, the earlier escape of self into the Platonic ideality of “the pure sphere”: “He may evade / Even his own will and in his nakedness / Inhabit the hypnosis of that sphere” (20.16-18).

Now, as the black shepherd looms up at the edges of the dominant blank, Stevens, in canto XXI, considers still another possibility:

But he may not.
He may not evade his will,
Nor the wills of other men; and he cannot evade
The will of necessity, the will of wills –

Romanza out of the black shepherd’s isle,
Like the constant sound of the water of the sea
In the hearing of the shepherd and his black forms,

Out of the isle, but not of any isle.
Close to the senses there lies another isle
And there the senses give and nothing take,

The opposite of Cythére, an isolation
At the center, the object of the will, this place,
The things around — the alternative romanza

Out of the surfaces, the windows, the walls,
The bricks grown brittle in time’s poverty,
The clear. A celestial mode is paramount,

If only in the branches sweeping in the rain:
The two romanzas, the distant and the near,
Arc a single voice in the boo-ha of the wind.

Emanating from the black shepherd’s isle and “In the hearing of the shepherd and his black forms,” the sound of necessity is the sound di death’s approach. This sound strips away the illusory pleasures of Cythére, and draws attention to a contrapuntal sound, “an alternate romanza,” emanating from “an isolation at the center.” An end result of a decreative process spurred by “time’s poverty,” this “isolation at the center” affirms Weil’s paradox that time aids de-creation by “tearing appearance from being and being from appearance” (Gravity and Grace, 34). If the black shepherd defines one limit of creation and naked being another, the sounds of death and isolation marking these limits are contrapuntal; but paradoxically, like the decreative process in which the self gains the uncreated through annihilation, these opposites merge into the single voice” of “A celestial mode” that “is paramount.”

In their turn, Professor Eucalyptus, the hero of midnight, and the black shepherd evoke Weil’s notions of spiritual gravity, salvational affliction, and time’s violent rending of the self from the world of appearance and necessity. They also make it possible to discern Weil’s drama of de-creation in the otherwise perplexing roles of Alpha and Omega, the “Immaculate interpreters” of canto VI:

Reality is the beginning not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,
Of dense investiture, with luminous vassals.

It is the infant A standing on infant legs,
Not twisted, stooping, polymathic Z,
He that kneels always on the edge of space

In the pallid perceptions of its distances.
Alpha fears men or else Omega’s men
Or else his prolongations of the human.

These characters are around us in the scene.
For one it is enough; for one it is not;
For neither is it profound absentia,

Since both alike appoint themselves the choice
Custodians of the glory of the scene,
The immaculate interpreters of life.

But that’s the difference: in the end and the way
To the end. Alpha continues to begin.
Omega is refreshed at every end.

Omega, whose “dense investiture” suggests the weight of the human and whose “twisted” shape testifies to the force of gravity’s pull, is, like Professor Eucalyptus, tied to the thingness of things. As “Custodians of the glory of the scene” and the “Immaculate interpreters of life” both characters, despite their apparent differences in that Alpha is “the infant A standing on infant legs” and Omega the “stooping, polymathic Z,” demonstrate a similar inability to become disentangled from the created.

However, considered in another way, Alpha and Omega present a demonstration of Weil’s distinction between the different modes of God’s presence. “The presence of God,” says Weil, “should be understood in two ways. As Creator, God is present in everything that exists as soon as it exists. The presence for which God needs the cooperation of the creature is the presence of God, not as Creator but as Spirit. The first presence is the presence of creation. The second is the presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace, 33). Stevens, through his personification of Alpha and Omega, Greek letters traditionally understood as signifying God, offers a strong echo of Weil. Not only does he evoke the created world through symbolic types, he also presents a poetic figure of God’s presence.in the created and subtending it. The figure is that of created reality as a circle closed at the point where Alpha and Omega meet: “But that’s the difference: in the end and the way / To the end. Alpha continues to begin. / Omega is refreshed at every end.”

From the standpoint of God’s support of it, created reality, as is suggested in Alpha’s continuing “to begin” and Omega’s being “refreshed at every end,” is continuously created, and in this sense “Reality is a beginning not the end, / Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega.” But for Stevens, as for Weil, this manifestation of God’s presence is not to be confused with God as Spirit, the Spirit behind the dominant blank, the “profound absentia” to which creation points.

“Time,” says Weil, “is an image of eternity, but it is also a substitute for eternity” (Gravity and Grace, 18); and for Weil and Stevens alike, the Spirit behind the dominant blank can be attained only through the renunciation of time. In the final cantos of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens presents the most emphatic example of Weil’s link between the renunciation of time and spiritual ascesis. The penultimate canto, canto XXX, in preparation for this final renunciation, opens with a scene whose barrenness powerfully echoes that of “The dilapidation of dilapidations,” “total leaflessness,” “The dominant blank”:

The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen.
The robins are là-bas, the squirrels, in tree-caves,
Huddle together in the knowledge of squirrels.

The wind has blown the silence of summer away.
It buzzes beyond the horizon or in the ground:
In mud under ponds, where the sky used to be reflected.

The barrenness that appears is exposing.
It is not part of what is absent, a halt
For farewells, a sad hanging on for remembrances.

It is a coming on and a coming forth.
The pines that were fans and fragrances emerge,
Staked solidly in a gusty grappling with rocks.

The glass of the air becomes an element – 
It was something imagined that has been washed away.
A clearness has returned. It stands restored.

It is not an empty clearness, a bottomless sight.
It is a visibility of thought,
In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.

Unlike Omega’s men who attach themselves to the past with their prolongations of the human, the protagonist rejects any such “sad hanging on for remembrances,” any “halt / For farewells.” Rather the “barrenness” of the present moment readies the de-created self for a final renunciation of time and for the approach of the uncreated: “The barrenness that appears is exposing”; “It is a coming on and a coming forth.” Within the context of barrenness the de-creation of self hurries toward completion as it finds its own relation to the uncreated repeated in the upward movement of the pines in their “grappling with the rocks” and in the transparency replacing the darkness of the cave with its flickering reflections:

“The glass of the air becomes an element — / It was something imagined that has been washed away. / A clearness has returned.” What is exposed is an Argus-eyed reality: “It is a visibility of thought, / In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.” At the conclusion of this penultimate canto, then, the hidden God stands revealed and the passage from the created to the un-created, Weil’s de-creation, is all but finished.

The powerful final triad of the poem’s final canto brings Stevens’ drama of de-creation to an emphatic close through a second extraordinary evocation of Weil’s hidden God:

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.

In this canto, as in the poem as a whole, Stevens employs figures of incompletion and emptiness, “dead candles at the window” (31.5), “Mr. Blank” (31.9), a woman’s canceled note (31.15), to mark the world of time and prepare for its renunciation. And if the black shepherd’s approach can be discerned in the evening’s “spectrum of violet” (31.14), so too does the earlier figure of the “fire-forms” (316), like that of the “blessed beams from out a blessed bush” of canto XVII, announce the uncreated and prepare for the final triad’s disclosure of God. In these last lines, not only does Stevens invoke Weil’s God as Creator, her “presence of creation” (UG 33), through the Biblical figure of Adam’s creation inhering in the “shade that traverses / A dust”; he also invokes Weil’s hidden God, God as Spirit, God as the “presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace 33), in the paradoxical figure of the force behind creation, the “force that traverses a shade.” For Stevens, as for Weil, reality and God are one, and with these mystical hints of the spiritual fullness awaiting the de-created self the poem ends.

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