Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The thematic thrust of this poem is in its demonstration of using poetry to make a leap from one realm of thinking to another. Stevens had a very long career as a poet, and he never tired of composing poems which get at the nature of what it means to think poetically. Thinking poetically is not whimsical for Stevens; it is separate, but no less real than other ways of thinking. “Connoisseur of Chaos” is a poem about Poetry with a capital P—the aesthetics of human experience and what Stevens called the “Supreme Fiction.” The persona in this particular poem (the cold-eyed pedant) speaks convincingly of a possible impasse leading to despair in Western twentieth century thinking if people did not have access to poetry’s truths. Stevens thought it might be a despair which cuts deeper than anything previously experienced in the history of humankind. During the poet’s life, emerging areas of scientific discovery—of non-Euclidean mathematics, to offer only one example—made uncertainty the only certainty in the universe. Science prevented a return to the confidence of Sir Isaac Newton’s so-called laws of nature, which once explained much about the physical world while enabling people to imagine a god having set those laws into motion. That order had been deposed. The poem suggests that many experience the bliss and then the horror in the vastly limited powers of everyday perception. The speaker himself is skilled at illustrating how language encourages him to make gorgeous order (nonsense?) of the world. He states, in effect, “I can make all the lovely correspondences in life and nature seem ‘as pleasant as port.’ ” Stevens is making fun of his own task as a poet quite possibly immersed in mere pleasantries. Even ordinary use of language forces those who speak it into analogies they do not wish to make. Some of...

(The entire section is 751 words.)