The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

“Credences of Summer” is a blank-verse poem divided into ten sections, or cantos, of three five-line stanzas each. The title suggests a set of “truths” or declarations about this season; to Stevens summer was the epitome of the year’s natural fullness, and it is often associated in his poetry with the creative process. This process, as described in canto VII of the poem, is a three-stage or “thrice concentred” activity. “Credences of Summer” is arranged accordingly, with cantos I through III devoted to the moment of experience that the individual artist or writer wishes to express in art or poetry. His cantos IV through VI describe the ordering of that moment in the artist’s consciousness; cantos VII through IX are devoted to the finished articulation or rendering in art of that experience. Canto X, like the final sections in many of Stevens’s longer meditative poems, serves as a coda that reiterates the imaginative process which the poem as a whole defines and exemplifies.

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Canto I sets the poem’s tone of contemplation with the pun on the word “broods” and with the declaration that at midsummer “the mind lays by its trouble,” repeated with the addition of “and considers” in the next line. This moment of contemplation begins the poetic act—what Stevens called elsewhere the “act of the mind.” Full of sensation, this moment will be accorded the mind’s full attention, without “evasion” (canto II). The poet must look at a subject directly, not relying on the words or prescriptions of others, nor even on the poet’s own previous perceptions: “Look at it in its essential barrenness/ And say this, this is the centre that I seek.” Once the experience itself has been identified, it assumes an essential importance, becoming a “tower more precious than the view beyond” (canto III). For the duration of the moment, the creative intelligence satisfies itself with the directness and immediacy of sensory experience.

Canto IV illustrates the difficulty of ordering or understanding such experience, here represented by the harvested hay fields of Oley (Pennsylvania). The poet admits that reality tends to resist attempts to order it—for example, language’s attempts to render in rational discourse one’s most visceral experiences. Therefore he calls for a language that will be more than mere “secondary sounds” describing experience. In canto V he aims at a poetry that “contains” reality “without souvenir.” That is, he would dispense with the devices and systems of the past in his own apprehension of the moment, hoping to compose a poetry that enriches rather than merely embellishes or decorates: “stripped of remembrance, it displays its strength.”

The third and final phase of the poetic act, in cantos VII through IX, involves the satisfactory articulation of experience. Each canto in this phase presents a kind of “poet figure” who will “proclaim/ The meaning of the capture, this hard prize” called understanding. Then and only then, the poet argues, will one have arrived at a fully experienced reality. In canto VII the singers fill this role. In canto VIII the “trumpet of morning” sounds its “resounding cry,” and in canto IX the “Soft, civil bird” of morning heralds “the spirit of the arranged”—the power of the poet’s art to express experience in a way meaningful to others.

The final canto of “Credences of Summer” recapitulates the three-part process that has been in evidence throughout the poem, but here it is the “inhuman author” of summer itself that meditates like the “mind” of canto I, and that finds an “appropriate habit” or ordering principle as in canto V, and that then “completes” reality rather than succeeding merely in decorating it.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

Stevens employs a highly formal structure and an elevated diction throughout “Credences of Summer,” lending the poem’s language a pronouncement-like gravity. His use of literary allusion and symbolism strengthens the tone of seemingly incontrovertible rhetoric in the poem.

First, the division of the poem into numbered cantos suggests an orderly argument as opposed to an impassioned lyrical poem such as an ode or sonnet. The blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) allows Stevens a rhythmic flexibility that approaches prose discourse at times, furthering the reader’s sense of being in the presence of an eminently reasonable, thoughtful persona speculating on the mind’s ability to comprehend the phenomena of human experience. The diction heightens this effect; highly wrought terms abound: “infuriations,” “inhalations,” “apogee,” “ancientness,” and “clairvoyance.” Elsewhere Stevens resorts to foreignisms: douceurs, tristesses. The long compound and complex sentences reinforce the formality. (No fewer than half a dozen sentences here extend to a five-line stanza or more, with the poem’s final sentence stretching across three stanzas in all.)

In a poem that urges the mind to dispense with received metaphors and accepted systems of perceiving the world, it is ironic that Stevens should make such use of literary allusion. With his opening line—“Now in midsummer come and all fools slaughtered”—Stevens invokes the famous opening lines of Richard of Gloucester in William Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York.” A few lines later it is Hamlet’s “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” as well as the gloomy Dane’s divided self that one can hear echoed: “There is nothing more inscribed nor thought nor felt/ And this must comfort the heart’s core against/ Its false disasters.” Indeed, in the poem’s insistence on seizing the moment of experience many critics have pointed out that “Credences of Summer” bears out Edgar’s advice in King Lear that “ripeness is all.”

Another influence is Walt Whitman, whose poems of ecstatic merging with natural phenomena are recalled repeatedly in “Credences of Summer.” In this “folk-land [of] mostly marriage-hymns,” Stevens places a hearty Whitmanesque character “[w]ho reads no book” and whose “ruddy ancientness/ Absorbs the ruddy summer” (canto III).

Symbol is another of Stevens’s main devices. The Whitmansque old man, the “bristling soldier,” the hermit, the king and his princes, the characters garbed in summer’s motley—these are, to varying degrees, representative of human perspectives or ways of ordering reality. Against these traditional figures, Stevens seems to prefer poet-figures of a more rudimentary sort: the unidentified singers in the wood, the trumpet of morning, the brown-breasted robin. Opposite these, Stevens symbolizes physical reality as whatever is ultimately irreducible: “The rock [that] cannot be broken. It is the truth” (canto VI).

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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.

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