Wallace Stevens’ poetry is replete with examples of this effort to understand and articulate the poet as creator of things and meaning…
Wallace Stevens wrote in a letter to a friend that “[a]fter all, I like Rhine wine, blue grapes, good cheese… etc., as much as I like supreme fiction,” (Letters, 431) Despite this protest, Stevens’ cosmopolitan tastes have not spared him from charges of nihilism—and this “supreme fiction” and its ontological implications are at the root of the problem. Stevens’ first volume of poetry Harmonium is widely argued to be a pronouncement of ontological nihilism—that is, an emptying out of, or inability to believe in, the being of the world around him. There is, for example, his famous poem “The Snow Man,” which concludes, “the listener who listens in the snow and nothing himself beholds nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.”(8) Or take “Nuances of a Theme by Williams” where Stevens commands a star to “shine like bronze, / That reflects neither my face nor any inner part / of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing.”(14) These poems evince a barrier between the human subject and the natural world, a barrier that voids the natural object of any human meaning.
Meaning and being are always inseparable for human consciousness. The inescapable human desire for classification—a desire Stevens himself called the “blessed rage for order”—marshals our experience of being into a concept of meaning. So for example there is an object one perceives which immediately creates the impetus to classify it. If we have trouble with the classification, we can’t help but turn back to the existing thing and try again. We call it a double-take. The charge of nihilism is rooted in Stevens’ resistance to taking the object of his perception at face value in a kind of ontological literalism. And perhaps there is some truth in the charge of nihilism that we could root in his rejection of the puritanical culture of his childhood, a culture that saw the figurative or the imaginative as unreliable at best, and possibly even a threat to the faith.
But while the charges of nihilism do correspond with his refusal of literalism, Stevens was not prepared to believe in nothing. Rather, Stevens directed his belief toward the artifice of his imagination—something he would come to call his “supreme fiction.” Much of Stevens’ poetry unfolds as an effort to create a real world out of words, a supreme fiction. As early as his first book Harmonium, in which Stevens pronounces the emptiness of the physical senses, he provides an alternative: “the magnificent cause of being, / The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world.”(19) In a letter to Henry Church, he wrote of a conversation with a student in which he states the position simply.
I said that I thought that we had reached a point at which we could no longer really believe in anything unless we recognized that it was a fiction. The student said that that was an impossibility, that there was no such thing as believing in something that one knew was not true. It is obvious, however, that we are doing that all the time. (Letters, 430)
His 1936 book Ideas of Order, takes up the theme in his famous poem “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The poem describes a female character who weaves together with her song the entire world that she inhabits.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude. She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone, Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. (106)
The poem resolves itself that meaning in the world exists only through the artificer’s song. Stevens’ language is as precise as ever, employing the word artificer to combine etymologically the concepts of art and making. The art in this poem is not reduced to a pretty and meaningless trinket, but rather, the song is the art that summons reality into existence. The central female character of “The Idea of Order at Key West” is the creator and investor of meaning in the world; we might say that she has replaced God as the “maker.” We understand what this means for Stevens as the creator of the poem in the first place.
Each of Wallace Stevens’ several volumes of poetry is replete with examples of this effort to understand and articulate the poet as creator of things and meaning. In his third volume, The Man with the Blue Guitar, Stevens employs the image of a blue guitar as a symbol for the imagination, the organ that does the making. The title poem circles the idea of imaginative creation in thirty-three tortured stanzas that attack and re-attack how this creation works. “‘You do not play things as they are.’ / The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar’” (135) or again, “things are as I think they are / and say they are on the blue guitar” (148). In his fourth volume, Parts of a World, we can read even the title of the book as suggesting Stevens’ project. Parts of a World is a collection of poems, a book of words that, according to the title, claims to compose some piece of reality, some parts of the world. The implication is once again that words carry the freight of creating reality. In the first poem of the volume, “Parochial Theme,” Stevens writes “There’s no such thing as life…. Piece the world together, boys, but not with your hands” (177). Presumably Stevens means to piece together the world with words, the henchmen of the imagination, as he does throughout this volume. Stevens’ effort continues throughout Transport to Summer as for example in the poem “Certain Phenomena of Sound” in which he is explicit in describing the relationship between the word or name, and the thing. “You were created of your name, the word / Is that of which you were the personage. / There is no life except in the word of it” (257). This passage with its vocabulary of the “word” and “creation” might remind us of the beginning of the Gospel of John, on which more to follow. I don’t think we’re wrong to hear scriptural undercurrents here, but in entirely human terms, these lines invest a great power into the human capacity for speech.
But doubt and fatigue begin to creep into Stevens’ voice by the time we reach his 1950 collection The Auroras of Autumn. In “This Solitude of Cataracts” Stevens expresses dissatisfaction with the imagination for what seems the first time.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest
In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be, Just to know how it would feel.(366)
A “permanent realization” is not the robust creative activity of the imagination we find throughout Stevens work. It is more passive than his “Piece the world together, boys” (“Parochial Theme” 177). He is tired of the wild ducks and fictive mountains, these draining flights of the imagination. Stevens questions the sustainability of a world in which all truths depend upon the individual to create them. For the world in which the imagination is the root of all meaning and existence, for the “mind to rest” would mean a catastrophic disintegration of life, and Stevens begins to admit the pressure that this places upon the artist. His language assumes new notes expressing fatigue, a desire for peace, and perhaps even a yearning for an external voice to join his imagination’s monologue.
One of Stevens’ late poems captures perfectly the fatigue of an older man faced with the necessity of creating and sustaining all of reality with his own imagination. The first of the two letters that comprise Stevens’ poem “Two Letters” is the poet’s argument, after a lifetime of gestation, against the sole supremacy and significance of the imagination. The dominant tenor of his language here is the desire for peace that we began to see in The Auroras of Autumn. The poem is short and captures in its entirety the conclusion at which Stevens has arrived.
Even if there had been a crescent moon
On every cloud-tip over the heavens,
Drenching the evening with crystals’ light,
One would have wanted more—more—more—
Some true interior to which to return,
A home against one’s self, a darkness,
An ease in which to live a moment’s life,
The moment of life’s love and fortune,
Free from everything else, fee above all from thought.
It would have been like lighting a candle,
Like leaning on the table, shading one’s eyes,
And hearing a tale one wanted intensely to hear,
As if we were all seated together again
And one of us spoke and all of us believed
What we heard and the light, though little, was enough. (468-9)
The first stanza shows us how good the imagination can be. With his usual flare Stevens gives us the heavens with crystal light and a cascade of crescent moons, an irresistible invitation to the imagination. But no: It’s not enough any more. The “true interior” could be the imagination, but it is certainly a less ostentatious version of it than we have come to expect from Stevens. “A home against one’s self” sounds like a retreat from the omnipresent self in a world in which one’s own imagination creates all of reality. It is as if the usual work of his own imagination has become deafeningly loud to Stevens, and he seeks to get indoors somehow, away from the noise and constant activity.
For Stevens, his own thought and imaginings had always been the most real parts of the world. One can imagine that, whether in his long walk to the office in Hartford, or the bland boardrooms of his insurance company, his thought was like a brilliantly colored buoy bobbing in a sea of gray. A desire to be free from thought marks a sharp turn in his manner of writing.
Freedom from thought, freedom from hearing his own interminable story of existence emerges here as an intense desire to hear another’s story, and to believe something that someone else has to say. It is unclear what exactly sparked this change in Stevens. He appears to have lived in a world where the mundane everyday presence of others was ambiguous, or at least less real than his own imaginings, and he seems finally to have found the name for that world: lonely. He desires simply to sit at a table with others that he knows are real, with light that is not shed only from his imagination, and to believe in something other than himself.
It would be an overstatement, however, to claim that Stevens entirely discredits the imagination. Even in “Two Letters” the imagination remains important; the poet simply wants more than imagination alone. As the British philosopher and Inkling Owen Barfield describes in his book The Rediscovery of Meaning, “Mere perception—perception without imagination—is the sword thrust between spirit and matter” (170). It is not that Stevens resigned himself to a kind of materialism at the end of his life, but rather, through his uniquely robust exercise of the imagination, he perceived and pursued a new possibility involving the interdependency of language, the imagination, and the “real” world. This interdependency corresponds to a concept of participation developed by Barfield in his 1957 book Saving the Appearances. Barfield argues that matter and mind interact to create the real—much the same as in Coleridge’s favored metaphor of the aeolian harp. The wind is matter, the harp is the imagination, and music is the reality that results from the participation of the two. For Barfield, it is the imagination that sculpts existence into shape, and Stevens’ late poetry shows him incline toward this more participatory ontology.
There seems to be one important consequence of Stevens’ shift in his understanding of the imagination at the end of his life. Previously, Stevens was the creator of his own reality, but in removing himself as the center and source of meaning, he created the opportunity for something, or someone, else to take the central position. His purported conversion to Catholicism at the end of his life indeed corroborates this reorientation. In the Church, Stevens would have found an invitation to cultivate the imagination as a means with which to know God and to practice his faith. From Thomas Aquinas, the seminal medieval Catholic philosopher: “Therefore it is clear that for the intellect to understand actually, not only when it acquires new knowledge, but also when it uses knowledge already acquired, there is need for the act of the imagination” (809). Of course, Stevens was very familiar with Aquinas. His “Les Plus Belles Pages” (222) includes Aquinas as a character, and he writes in a note on the poem “Aquinas is… a figure of great modern interest, whose special force seems to come from the interaction between his prodigious logic and his prodigious love of god” (867). Indeed, the interpenetration of the world and the imagination are subjects in common between the two, and Stevens was obviously conversant with Aquinas’ position.
We mentioned the Gospel of John earlier, and I think it likely that Stevens found attractive a faith whose central tenet involves word becoming flesh. Throughout his life Stevens’ poetry attempted that particular feat: “the word is the making of the world, / …It is a world of words to the end of it” (“Description Without Place”, 301) that John records as simply, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-14). It is not difficult to see Stevens’ secular version of the word / world nexus resolving into the Catholic understanding as his faith in his own imagination tempered. It must have seemed a victory to Stevens to have named so precisely, in so many assays over all those years of writing, what became at the end of his life a conviction.
Judging by a chronological reading of his poetry, after a lifetime of thinking it through, and trying again and again, Stevens stepped down as the sole creator of his universe to occupy the position of a participator, in the Barfieldian sense. It became Stevens’ conviction that while the imagination was at the heart of creating and sustaining the world, it was not there alone, but rather was like one seated at a table listening, “And one of us spoke and all of us believed / What we heard and the light, though little, was enough” (“Two Letters”, 469).
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Aquinas, Thomas. Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis. New York: Random House, 1945.
Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1984
—The Rediscovery of Meaning: And Other Essays. San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 2006.
Beckett, Lucy. Wallace Stevens. London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Frye, Northrop. The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Jarraway, David R. Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief; Metaphysician in the Dark. Baton Rouge, London: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens: A Biography. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986
Santayana, George. Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911
Stevens, Holly. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1996.
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1997.