Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

Wallace Stevens was not a particularly philosophical poet, but he was an idea poet, for ideas always lurk behind his aesthetics. Unlike E. E. Cummings, who in poems such as “a man who had fallen among thieves” often centers on relationships, community, and love, thereby challenging Christians to live up to their biblical roots, Stevens is more concerned with immediate reality and how one perceives it. He dismisses belief systems in order to focus on the present as a poet. His challenge is to people in their immediate context, to their imaginative capability, and to this end he takes the reader inside the man with the blue guitar.

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In the background of Stevens’s poem are key thinkers of all times and places, notes Joseph Riddle in The Clairvoyant Eye (1965). Stevens assumes with Heraclitus that the world is in flux, and as a student of Georg Hegel he sees reality as moving forward creatively. Stevens also must have admired James Joyce’s young Steven Dedalus as Steven pursues new worlds as poet and thinker in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). At the same time, he rejects the idea of God or the divinity of Christ, even undercutting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of transcendence, as he does T. S. Eliot’s “still point,” in favor of an immediate and changing world.

Where Stevens is most original is in his creative images, according to William York Tindall, through which he makes his reader ponder important subjects. He takes Paul Verlaine’s marionette, for example, and puts him in the brutal world, “Oxidia”—violent and toxic, unlike the mythological Olympia. Here the marionette figure sees three crosses: Christ on the cross, a telephone pole, and the cross stick of the marionette. Rejecting transcendent answers, and located in the real world (the world of the telephone pole), the artist is able to entertain his audience, something that metaphysically may be both comic and tragic. That is the poet’s (Stevens’) idea of what is real.

Perhaps one of the strongest statements about the potential value of the imagination comes in section XIV, in which Stevens compares the imagination to a candle, which he says is “enough to light the world.” In contrast to the German chandelier (which represents scientific knowledge, reason), the candle provides clear insight at any time of day:

At night, it lights the fruit and wine,The book and bread, things as they are.

The fruit and wine and book and bread have no symbolic or sacramental value, but are simply “things as they are.” Here, Thomas J. Hines has said, the blue guitar, which has been used throughout the poem, defines itself and its potential (the candle), and so proves that it can generate a definition of itself within its own constructs.

Hines also notes that philosophically, in the mid 1930’s, Stevens was closest to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method; in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” the poet organizes his world around a single intuition, with which he then works in a fictive or imaginative manner. He did not evolve a new notion of man’s essence or being, but his improvisions on the blue guitar present a wide variety of options for looking at reality and at humankind’s place in it.

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