Wallace Stevens

First Warmth

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,

As a questioner about reality,

A countryman of all the bones of the world?

Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes

Part of the major reality, part of

An appreciation of a reality;

And thus an elevation, as if I lived

With something I could touch, touch every way.



Let Be Be Finale of Seem

The conflict between “seeming” and “being” is, for Stevens, a problem of endless contradictions.  It is not a struggle over academic nuances of semantics, but rather the central perilous paradox of existence.  The word “see”, contained wholly in the word “seem” is at the root of this dilemma which goes beyond the aural similarity of the two words, for if seeing is merely seeming it is not (or at least ought not to be) believing.  In a world where we cannot trust our senses this problem becomes, then, the problem of what to believe and what, if anything, the world around us means if reality is merely a subjective experience.

The death of reality as the tangible ruler of human behavior is a bitter experience; especially when the preferred rival is a monarch such as “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the embodiment of human appetite.  The cold corpse which represents reality in this poem is a rather unattractive old woman, but its hideousness is ignored and its wake is a tawdry affair announcing the supremacy of creamy indulgence in illusory excess.  The presence of the remains is a reminder not of the harshness of reality or the imminence of death, but of the absolute impotence and irrelevance of these things, “they come to show how cold she is and dumb.”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

“Be” is finale of “seem” just as the corpse is the main character of this vaudeville act masquerading as a funeral: It is powerless and ineffectual, just part of the show.  The “lamp” is left to “affix its beam” as if any kind of close scrutiny were irrelevant.  One might just as well turn the lights out, seeing is no longer an important activity.

Seeing is, on the other hand, of extreme importance to “The Snow Man,” for he is an individual of complete reality: one for whom “seeing” and “being” are one and the same.  The perils of an observation too firmly rooted in its subject are here clearly revealed.

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.

Having a “mind of winter” means, in this case, having a head of snow.  It is the price that must be paid to “regard,” to “behold,” to really see the lyric scene.  In this poem, as often in others, Stevens uses an image of the wind, “the same wind that is blowing in the same bare place.”  This enigmatic wind is an archetypal reference to the inspiration which informs his poetry and stirs the “few leaves” that are the pages he has created.  The fact that it is a “bare place” through which the wind blows this time suggests that, contrary to what one might think, his art is not aided when he becomes what he beholds.  The Snow Man is “nothing himself” through being too much something else, but it is exactly by virtue of this fact that he can be said to behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”  It is a terrifying trade‑off.

Winter is again the setting when Stevens confronts the struggle between being and seeming in “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself:” 

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry–It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Here we are at the “earliest ending of winter,” one of the phrases which illustrates Stevens’ preoccupation with ends as well as winter.  The “scrawny cry from outside seemed like a sound in his mind,” and is described as “A bird’s cry, at daylight or before, in the early March wind.”  It is significant that this cry is so decidedly from “outside,” as if the poet’s art were a bird, touched by the morning wind of inspiration, calling to him from outside himself.  The brilliance of the morning sun, ending both the night and the winter is the elemental force behind the call to the poet.  The bird is a “chorister whose c [or see] preceded the choir.”  This new dawn, with its “choral rings,” which evoke images of both sight and sound, brings a call which awakens and a vision which inspires.  It is the creation of the poet’s art within him that is “like a new knowledge of reality.”

There is something about the stripped‑down bareness of winter, the cold, clear, blank whiteness of it that makes it ideal for an exploration of this issue, and Stevens exploits it time after time.  For Stevens, winter may be said to have “Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed the evilly compounded vital I [or eye] and made it fresh in a world of white,” as in “The Poems of Our Climate.” 

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations–one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

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

And “The Plain Sense of Things” is what we return to “after the leaves have fallen:” 

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savior.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as necessity requires.

These images continue in what is probably Stevens’ last poem, “Of Mere Being:” 

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

The palm in this poem is an oasis on the other side of the desert, life on the other side of death.  It stands somewhere “on the edge of space,” “at the end of the mind,” in a place “Of Mere Being.”  The palm is inhabited, once again, by a bird.  Perhaps it is the same bird of the sun from the previous poem, for this bird is described as fiery and gold feathered. 

This phoenix image again suggests an image of art, its song “without human meaning” presenting the conflict between “meaning” and “being” that inhabits the work of any great artist who dies leaving his work behind.  MacLeish’s famous fiat, “a poem should not mean but be” is called to mind, but it seems a pale and empty pronouncement now.  Simple being is what this bird is all about finally, but for all its gaudiness, it seems somehow insufficient.

Stevens’ poetry is the one part of him that he can be sure is immortal, though it may have no “human meaning,” no “human feeling” without the author.  But Stevens asserts that it is not “meaning,” not “reason that makes us happy or unhappy:” meaning is the exercise in subjectivity that distorts being, and makes it only seeming.  “Mere being” may be short of the mark as a symbol of the final state of consciousness in some ways but it has clear appeal over even the most profound seeming.  Stevens reveals, in this decorous final image on the brink of mindlessness, the synergistic end result of the convergence of the life force that animates his work with that “same wind blowing through that same bare place.” This parting image, with all of those others in the preceding parade will continue to be.  And that is in no way insignificant.


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