Le Monocle de Mon Oncle

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

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“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” is a poem about art, as are, on one level, all of Stevens’s poems. This poem explores the relationship of sexuality to art. The poem’s argument is relatively direct, and meanings are not hidden in symbols or allusions. Some critics hold that Stevens’s disappointment in marriage resulted in this poem. Stevens’s engagement was protracted because he wanted to be in a position to support his beautiful fiancé Elsie Moll before marrying her. During his long engagement, he wrote her voluminous letters that showed her role as his muse; after the marriage, it is clear from the letters that passion cooled fast. Stevens apparently needed to admire his muse from afar. To have her fail as a source of poetry may have made him raise the issue of the role of sexual love in the creative drive and may have made him look for a substitute—not only for her but also for the whole male-female procreative-creative impulse. The speaker asks: What source can bring forth art, if not that one? How can older poets write at all, if they are not impelled by the same energy that brings them to their lovers’ arms? Although Stevens may have separated himself from his speaker with a French title, these are his questions too. What about metaphysical desire as the replacement for physical desire? Although metaphysical longing is powerful, it is uncertain of fulfillment. The “honey of heaven” is too vague and unreliable. Nevertheless, it is desire, whatever the object, that brings poetry into being. Unfulfilled desire is the underground stream that also feeds this poem.

Whether or not Stevens’s own relationship is the basis of the poem, it examines this issue persistently and obsessively. Like so many of his other works it is elegiac in tone, perhaps regretting a remembered or imagined period of full participation in love and in life. The reward of aging—wisdom—is not sufficient to replace youthful drive, although wisdom itself contributes to art. The poetry of age has wisdom, while the poetry of youth has verve; it seems impossible to have both. This problem is one cause for the speaker’s ironic resignation.

“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” is one of several poems in which Stevens creates older, somewhat pedantic speakers to reflect on art and its relationship to life. The tone of self-mockery may seem to undercut the conclusions reached by the narrators, but even this affected self-awareness may be considered a part of the artist’s perspective, especially in Stevens’s early poems. The speaker of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” may be seen as a counterpart to T. S. Eliot’s ineffective suitor in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” except that “Mon Oncle” has the wisdom to look beyond his own insecurities in an attempt to make sense of his situation and find a valid source for his art.

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