In 1954, the year before his death, Stevens was asked to define his major theme. His clear, direct statement might have been taken from almost any of his earlier critics’ analyses. His work, he said,suggests the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfillment. In the creation of any such fiction, poetry would have a vital significance. There are many poems relating to the interactions between reality and the imagination, which are to be regarded as marginal to this central theme.
From his earliest work in Trend and Poetry to the last few poems before his death, Stevens explored the relationships between the mind and the world, sometimes setting the greater value on the imagination, verging on Romanticism, and sometimes on the actual. His final position is an attempt to balance or reconcile the two.
Stevens’s first poems tend to glorify the imagination. In their energetic mental gymnastics, the poems of Harmonium astound by their virtuosity and their intellectual energy. It is these poems that prompted Stevens’s earliest critics to call him a “dandy.” Beneath the glittery surface of these early poems, however, is the first elaboration of the dynamic that would occupy him for a lifetime: the nature of the struggle between mind and world, as mind seeks to encompass and world resists.
The Harmonium poems return to several central propositions, including the failure of religion to satisfy the mind in the modern world, the split between human consciousness and unconscious nature, and the need for imagination to somehow replace the failed gods. The problematic role of the imagination is expounded in the various poems. The difficulty is that the mind must not simply transform reality into whatever it desires or thinks should be, but it must also enhance the world’s reality through creative perception. The overall theme of Stevens’s work might be described as a search for an aesthetic for his time, one which would fill the spiritual vacuum of people’s lives. (Later in the poet’s work, the aesthetic and the spiritual merge.) “The Comedian as the Letter C” traces the stages of discovery and disillusion in the travels of the naïve truth seeker; this early long poem explores how the mind grapples with reality and is finally consumed by it. Harmonium is dominated by images of the tropical and exotic, and its techniques include Poundian Imagism and orientalism.
Stevens’s second collection, Ideas of Order, deals with the same themes, but the meditative component becomes stronger, while the imagery becomes less dense and physical. The opening poem abandons the southern paradise of Harmonium for a tougher northern landscape. This move north represents Stevens’s desire for more involvement with the real: “My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime/ Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in clouds,” he says. The negative, or at least critical, reviews of Ideas of Order caused him to engage even more directly with the realities of the Depression which his critics accused him of neglecting. His next collections, Owl’s Clover and The Man with the Blue Guitar, are essentially apologies for art in troubled times. He develops also his theories of heroism and the heroic, a preoccupation perhaps originally linked to questions of World War I but which remains a major issue throughout the collections of his middle period.
After these collections come his most sustained discursive poems on the relationship between mind and world. His later poems describe an energetic search for a world both imagined and real, and they reflect reading of philosophy as well as poetry and poetics: His description of the grasp for experiential truth parallels the phenomenological theories of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers. The poems illustrate the irony of creative perception: To perceive anything is to impose an order on it and so limit it. These limitations must then be recognized as falsifications and swept away so that reality may be reinvented afresh. Thus the mind is constantly creating and de-creating the world, and to keep this reinvention in force is the creative artist’s joy and taxing duty.
Stevens’s last collections are preoccupied with the search for a poetry to replace religion, poetry as what he called “the supreme fiction.” For Stevens, the act of creation, not the product, is the art. His poetry is concerned with the way the mind engages with reality to perceive and thus represent it. The ultimate poetry itself, as he indicates in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” must be abstract, must change, and must provide pleasure. (Originally he had planned a fourth section for this long poem, “It Must Be Human.”) His very last poems tend toward the mystical, raising the possibility that the truth so long sought may also be looking for the seeker: “Presence of an External Master of Knowledge” suggests this, as do some sections of “The Rock.”
Stylistically, Stevens’s work is powerful in its use of images of the sacred to describe the endeavors of the imagination. The tone of Stevens’s work is often both exalted and elegiac: It is an elegy for the lost metaphysic, and it exalts and ennobles the search for a replacement. The later poems in particular are declamatory, using rhetorical balances and antitheses to build to a powerful conclusion which is, in his own words, “venerable and articulate and complete.” His earliest poems are sometimes rhymed, sometimes blank verse, and sometimes melodic free verse.
As he developed his rhetorical, meditative style, he drifted toward a form of three-line stanzas of flexible blank verse. This form allowed him to develop theory discursively and illustrate it at once. A major characteristic of Stevens’s work is the tentativity of his conclusions; “as” and “as if” appear frequently, as he approaches a position and then retreats from its finality. Although Stevens’s work is filled with references to incompleteness, fragmentation, and inconclusiveness, its power and its appeal to succeeding generations of poets and readers come, in part, from the sense that the entire work is a single poem. Stevens at first intended to call his volume of collected poems The Whole of Harmonium; its “notes” form a letter, and its parts cohere.
First published: 1915 (expanded version, 1922; collected in Harmonium, 1923)
Type of work: Poem
The faded promises of Christianity should be replaced by full participation in this world; one can reclaim one’s own godhead by accepting that the only permanence is change.
“Sunday Morning” is an exploration of the position that religious piety should be replaced by a fully lived life. Part of the poem was published in 1915, but the whole was not printed until Harmonium came out. In its final form, “Sunday Morning” is a series of ten fifteen-line stanzas of blank verse. The argument of the poem is just that: an argument between a woman, who feels guilty about not going to church and enjoying “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” instead, and another voice, presumably that of the poet, which tries to persuade her to give up her attachment to dead things and dead ideas. The focus alternates from what is happening in her mind—her objections and preoccupations—and his answers to her.
The woman is interrupted in her enjoyment of the “complacencies of the peignoir” by reflections on death and religion that remind her that the pleasant particulars of the moment are only transitory. Then the other voice asks, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?” No divinity is worthwhile if it comes “only in silent shadows and dreams.” One should worship where one lives: within and as part of nature. The woman should accept her own divinity as part and reflection of nature.
The woman’s interlocutor then thinks about the development of godhood, from Jove, who was fully inhuman, through Christ, who was partly human, to the new god appropriate to the present, who would be wholly human. With a fully human god, heaven and earth would merge. The woman thinks about this before asking, more or less, how this system can explain away death. He responds that life is more eternal than anything promises of immortality could provide:
There is not any haunt of prophecy,. . . . . . . . . . . . .Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palmRemote on heaven’s hill, that has enduredAs April’s green endures; or will endureLike her remembrance of awakened birdsOr her desire for June and evening.
The woman, though, is interested in personal immortality, which the speaker claims would not even be desirable, because, in the poem’s most famous line, “Death is the mother of beauty.” There is no ripeness without rot, and change, not stasis, brings fulfillment. The speaker imagines a static Paradise and the boredom that it would bring.
He then considers a possible symbol for the new perspective that life in the world would bring; it would not be a religion exactly but a religion substitute. A sun-worship image presents itself, the sun being the symbol of the real, of natural force. The people would dance naked to the sun, an image of energetic life-expending and celebrating. The woman finally accepts the speaker’s proposition hearing
A voice that cries, “The tomb in PalestineIs not the porch of spirits lingering,It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
Accepting the “unsponsored” and isolated (“island”) human situation, she recovers her freedom to live as part of the natural world, described in the conclusion in terms reminiscent of Romantic poet William Wordsworth:
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quailWhistle about us their spontaneous cries;Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness.
Human beings are like the pigeons of the closing lines, whose lives are indecipherable but beautiful in their vulnerability:
casual flocks of pigeons makeAmbiguous undulations as they sink,Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The woman has progressed from an exaggerated seizing of experience to submission to it, and the change shows a growth in understanding. Stevens returns to the theme of this poem again and again throughout his poetic career.
“Anecdote of the Jar”
First published: 1919 (collected in Harmonium, 1923)
Type of work: Poem
Placing an object in the midst of a landscape rearranges the landscape.
Perhaps the most frequently anthologized of Stevens’s poems, “Anecdote of the Jar” reflects Stevens’s preoccupation with appearances or surfaces. “The world is measured by the eye,” he said in one of his many...
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