Connoisseur of Chaos

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

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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 despair over reaching impasses in everyday thinking is related to Stevens’s sense of his times. Not stated here, but lying behind the dilemma of the poem, is the following address to the collective “we” at the center of this poem: Living in an age of advanced linguistic and psycholinguistic studies, findings have made people aware of what has been called an imprisonment in language.

The connoisseur/speaker strives for a way out of the impasse. One way is for the connoisseur to play with the independent domains of art and science and turn those domains on their heads. Late in the poem he likens his “A” and “B” propositional thinking, which initially got him started, to that which is rigid, “statuary, posed/ For a vista in the Louvre.” Science can lead straight to the prison house if discoverers begin to worship their own discoveries. The discoveries themselves become museum pieces.

To find the domain of truth which is only possible in art, Stevens eschews museums for something more fleeting—for “things chalked on the sidewalk.” The chalk, associated with a scientist doing complex mathematical proofs, is placed in the hands of the poet (“the pensive man”), whose blackboard is the exposed, vulnerable sidewalk slate where proofs are temporary.

The pensive man is the other side of the pedantic-sounding speaker, the connoisseur of chaos. Both modes of being—pensive and pedantic—can exist in the same mind. Most people have “A” and “B ” ways of thinking. Such thinking must be integrated; it must become consonant with all other ways of thinking. Only the pensive man, the person perhaps ready to give up every proposition he ever chalks, has the ability to see an eagle float in the sky and...

(This entire section contains 751 words.)

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to perceive that one bird as part of a huge scheme. Implied is the idea that the eagle’s nest is only briefly available as an order, and a vision of God is presented here in Stevens’s near-religious wording. The meaning in this Imagist ending is all created by implication: The mind presumably returns to doubt, in the same way the mind goes back and forth between a certainty of huge orders and disorders. From this sense of all that is out there, all poetry springs. Hence the mind is not defeated by chaos, whose vastness the mind cannot begin to fathom. Poets and their readers have in them the courage and the vision to be the connoisseurs of chaos. The vast spheres of chaos will never be tapped, but neither will the sheer human verve to think on chaos and make it one of life’s richest experiences.