Themes and Meanings

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Like many of Stevens’s poems, “Farewell Without a Guitar” does not yield its secrets easily and does not resolve readily into neat thematic packages. Stevens’s approach to poetry was complex and subtle. He viewed the creation of poetry as humankind’s supreme imaginative act, a necessary response to and reaction against the prosaic routine of daily life. He believed people had to escape into the world of supreme fiction, where alone their higher functions could realize themselves.

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“Farewell Without a Guitar” is one of those fictions, a verbal construction built from experience but far transcending it, if only because it is devoid of personal emotional pettiness. Because it is one of those fictions, it is a song that needs no music; it occupies a region above and beyond the material, hence beyond music. Stevens considered his “song” a pure composition, in which an emotional impasse will never be resolved but will pass into the timeless level of the imagination. This is what it means to create beauty, to preserve a moment in eternity.

This is exactly what this poem accomplishes. It presents four different polarized images reflecting and capturing identical emotional tensions. Stevens shows four versions of the same opposed feelings, those of the departing male and the rejecting female, although the situation primarily focuses on the male’s perceptions and feelings.

The first image is spring and fall, presented counterpoised: Spring finds its natural end in fall, and fall resolves the promise of spring. Joined in this paired image, they are raised beyond time, caught in a warp that leaves them eternally reflecting each other. The second image is the Aragonese storm scene, with the head-hanging riderless horse and the reminiscence of the rider. Like the previous image, this resolves past and present in a timeless equipoise. Imagining the horse, the reader recalls the rider. Thinking of the rider, the reader projects ahead to the time when the saddle will be empty. Each pole of the image reflects and contains the other; past and present exist simultaneously in the image.

The third image depicts the process directly, thus reinforcing the practice with the concept. Stevens introduces the “reflections and repetitions” that “are a final construction/ Like glass and sun.” In this disclosure, Stevens explains the technical basis of the poem. By abstracting these polar sequences from the order of time, he presents them as mirror images, each projecting and receiving the other. These images are true reciprocals: glass and sun reverberate, echo, pulse, vibrate, regenerate each other. They translate a temporal sequence into permanence.

The final image recapitulates and encapsulates the series. It is the opposition-resolution of “male reality/ And of that other and her desire.” This polarity is basic; it underlies all the rest. Like them, it is a reflective and reflexive pairing. Like them, it is wrought out of time into the timelessness of the imagination.

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