The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

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“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” is one of the longer poems in Wallace Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium. It consists of twelve eleven-line stanzas of flexible blank verse. Its title has multiple reverberations, as its sound play and its French title distance the poem from the author. Readers are asked to accept that they are looking through the uncle’s monocle and not the poet’s own eyes. The title turns the poem into a kind of dramatic monologue, except that the poem’s emphasis is not on characterizing the speaker, as is generally the case in a true dramatic monologue, but on posing and answering, or attempting to answer, philosophical questions. It presents a persona who is aging, disappointed in love, and skeptical about religion. This world-weary speaker explores the nature of desire and inquires how desire translates into art.

Beginning with a mocking speech, perhaps part of a quarrel, the narrator examines his relationship with a woman, presumably his wife. He proceeds to examine the nature of the man-woman situation in general. His tone is of fatigue, disappointment, and withdrawal. He describes an apparent rejection and compares the present with the past: “The radiant bubble that she was.” He is aware of how old he has become and of how he is edging toward death: “I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;/ For it has come that thus I greet the spring.” The poem develops a meditation on sex and death as the speaker muses on his worn-out love, the aging of the body, and sexual confusion, and wonders how these things relate to the creation of art. Sexual “verve” is a source of poetry, but what if that fails? What is left for the artist or poet to draw on?

The speaker concludes that the waxing and waning of sexuality is not all there is. He claims, “There is a substance in us that prevails,” but this “basic slate” remains undefined and not entirely satisfactory. It is true that there is another wellspring for art besides sexual longing that is longer lasting: metaphysical desire. This longing too is unsatisfiable, and the speaker discusses the lack of credibility in traditional religion and compares the two kinds of desire: “The honey of heaven may or may not come,/ But that of earth both comes and goes at once.” Picturing himself and his love as “two golden gourds” overripe and ready to rot on the vine, he considers the irony of the human situation: Signs of earth’s fruitfulness are in evidence, but this kind of fulfillment is not for the aging; on the other hand, metaphysical fulfillment remains beyond his grasp. He retreats into resignation, pondering what growing old has taught him and how different his perspective is now from what it was when he was young.

It is significant that this tired philosopher appears in Stevens’s first collection, accompanied by Crispin of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” who is also a played-out questioner but one who has been fully satisfied in sex and love—to the extent that these elements of his life took the place of art. It would seem that neither indulgence nor denial was fully effective in producing artistic creativity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

Blank verse is a suitable form for this philosophical poem; its division into twelve eleven-lines stanzas provides a sense of order and completion. The rhythm is flexible rather than metronome-like. The casual, conversational rhythm helps to develop the character of the speaker as well as to present the issues. Figurative language abounds. In fact, the poem is a series of metaphors presented and then explained self-consciously by the narrator. Since this is a poem of meditation by an invented character, the metaphors show the speaker’s rather precise, pedantic way of looking at the world. They are often parables to explain the positions explored in the poem. The speaker describes angels riding mules down from the heavens, while “centurions guffaw and beat/ Their shrilling tankards on the table-boards.” He then explicates: “This parable, in sense, amounts to this,” the explication being the passage quoted above about the “honey of heaven” as contrasted with “that of earth.” The motifs in the poem underscore its theme of mortality: fruit, ripe and rotting; a frog, suggesting the human grotesque; and a mystical tree, which, in its self-replenishment, may suggest the inexhaustibility of nature.

The images of nature suggest the limits of the individual life in contrast with the life force. Images of fluttering birds appear in the last section, and these movements may suggest the helplessness and fragility of the individual. The birds also suggest a contrast between the perceptions of youth and age:

A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,On sidelong wing, around and round and round.A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,Grown tired of flight . . .

The blue pigeon may suggest participation, what Stevens calls in another title “The Pleasure of Merely Circulating.” The white pigeon is aware of being “tired,” and circling has changed to a downward fluttering. Both the images explained by the speaker and those left for the reader to unravel express the speaker’s sense of exclusion and his need to find another source of self-definition besides sexual love. The speaker is self-mocking but nevertheless serious about his predicament.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

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Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

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