“Connoisseur of Chaos” is a short poem divided into five boldly numbered stanzas of very loose blank verse—unrhymed lines, each with five stresses. While II, III, and IV are full stanzas of ten to twelve lines, the opening and closing units (I and V) do not work as stanzas so much as brief propositions of only two and three lines.
Stanza I, in fact, is an opening gambit consisting of two ruthlessly opposing propositions, as if this connoisseur (an expert in chaos) is beginning a logical proof: A, any violent order is finally merely disorder; and B, any great disorder is really a kind of order. The mind-tease of A and B can be illustrated endlessly, and the rest of the poem seems, at first, to be an attempt to illustrate the point.
Stanza II contains more propositions, but now readers have several “if x, then y” proposals cast in material of a rather whimsical nature—if flowers are bright in both Connecticut and in South Africa, which obviously they are, the speaker states, then there is an essential unity in the world. Disorder is really orderly if the big picture is considered.
Yet in stanzas III and IV the speaker damns this sense of order as being perhaps too easy, even sentimental. Things fall apart when readers remember how “squamous” (encrusted) human minds become when confronted with all the squirming facts in a world that can never be ordered. Finding illustration or lovely order in the world is not enough to endure a realization of vastly limited human perception. There are things in this part of the poem which indicate that humans in the twentieth century are at an impasse. The speaker uses a collective voice which states the impossibility of returning to a simpler world order—to the “old order,” say, of the church. Because that order seems violent—forced and even destructive—it is strongly implied that the way orthodoxy or institutions attempt to impose order leads to repression and war. The knowledge that old orders end badly almost forces an acceptance that all new orders will have a similar fate. Despair is the result. Each human attempt at making sense of life falls into “the immense disorder of truths,” as if dropping into an abyss. By implication, the contemporary world will end there as well.
One last time the speaker makes a proposal: What if the disorder of truths itself should ever become so largely perceived, by minds with unvested interests, that another great order is suddenly perceived? The result is “the pensive man”—a person who can live with ideas and not fall hopelessly into despair when order is again elusive.
The connoisseur abandons his argument in stanza V and gives one last teasing set of lines. He gives up his propositions for a quick image of the one-in-the-many paradox.
An important device, almost a trick, in this poem is in the extralogical jump from the cold, unpromising propositions of “A” and “B” to the lovely matched brevity of the eagle image at the end. Readers have to make a violent connection between those cold, opening propositions and that lovely closing image.
Wallace Stevens helps by putting rather proselike, longer stanzas in the middle of his poem. There are many repetitions of Stevens’s “if [x is true]and it is” in these longer stanzas. He perhaps does this in order to provide a strongly implied “therefore.” This is the language of logical argument; it is also the impasse out of which the poem must find its way. If readers hear how...
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prosaic and logical Stevens sounds in his sentence structures, they may also hear this “if/then/therefore” language suddenly given up with a kind of shrug—“Well” (IV, line 1).
Up to this point, the connoisseur has not been the kind of speaker who uses conversational shrugs. In adopting more relaxed phrases from this point, he also abandons the collective “we” in favor of the personal “I.” He locates himself in an intimate way by declaring, almost out of nowhere, that it is April as he writes and that the wind is blowing after days of constant rain. This relaxing of the language and mood is part of the poem’s formal strategy. A mock-pedantic tone has been set up and then discarded so that readers might be given something linguistically fresh, if still puzzling, at the end. Section V is yet another proposition, but it comes from an entirely different realm from that of the propositions given at the beginning.
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Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.
Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.