Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like much of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer” is deeply philosophical, concerned with the processes by which the human mind perceives and comes to understand the external “reality” it is at once separable from and itself a part of. Critics have cited several themes extending from this concern.

First, the poem can be read as a kind of prologue to Stevens’s more famous “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” in which the poet proposes that the creation of literary art should have a force equal to nature’s creative powers. “Credences of Summer” thus concerns the effects of a poet’s creation upon the individual consciousness. Because people tend to perceive the world through the images, metaphors, and symbols (“fictions,” as Stevens conceives them) with which artists, philosophers, and theologians have supplied them, the poet’s task is to examine how such fictions or constructs of the mind are employed, eventually providing new fictions with which people can apprehend the world around them.

Other critics have pointed to the sense of crisis in the poem, suggesting that “Credences of Summer” expresses the poet’s own doubts about his creative powers as he entered the latter stages of his literary career. Images of slaughter and of catastrophe begin the poem, which proceeds to invoke other terms of finality that may be read as spiritual or intellectual fatigue: the final mountain, last choirs, last sounds, and so on.

Steering between the extremes of a “supreme fiction” and a barren imagination, one might see the poem as a successful treatment of the problem that confronts any writer, that of expressing in a fulfilling way the experience of “being.” Stevens once claimed that the chief difference between philosophers and poets was that philosophers sought to prove they existed while poets enjoyed their own existence. If so, then the sensory richness and rhetorical force with which “Credences of Summer” captures such a moment of accord between mind and matter, language and experience, can be cited as sufficient evidence of Stevens’s credo. As Thomas Hines puts it in The Later Poetry of Wallace Stevens, “Few poems in modern literature so thoroughly meditate the meaning of fulfillment, ripeness, and completed desire.[It] shows the full value of the continuity of the creative process and how the projected fulfillment comes true in the completed vision of summer.”