In 1954, the year before his death, Stevens was asked to define his major theme. His clear, direct statement might have been taken from almost any of his earlier critics’ analyses. His work, he said,suggests the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfillment. In the creation of any such fiction, poetry would have a vital significance. There are many poems relating to the interactions between reality and the imagination, which are to be regarded as marginal to this central theme.
From his earliest work in Trend and Poetry to the last few poems before his death, Stevens explored the relationships between the mind and the world, sometimes setting the greater value on the imagination, verging on Romanticism, and sometimes on the actual. His final position is an attempt to balance or reconcile the two.
Stevens’s first poems tend to glorify the imagination. In their energetic mental gymnastics, the poems of Harmonium astound by their virtuosity and their intellectual energy. It is these poems that prompted Stevens’s earliest critics to call him a “dandy.” Beneath the glittery surface of these early poems, however, is the first elaboration of the dynamic that would occupy him for a lifetime: the nature of the struggle between mind and world, as mind seeks to encompass and world resists.
The Harmonium poems return to several central propositions, including the failure of religion to satisfy the mind in the modern world, the split between human consciousness and unconscious nature, and the need for imagination to somehow replace the failed gods. The problematic role of the imagination is expounded in the various poems. The difficulty is that the mind must not simply transform reality into whatever it desires or thinks should be, but it must also enhance the world’s reality through creative perception. The overall theme of Stevens’s work might be described as a search for an aesthetic for his time, one which would fill the spiritual vacuum of people’s lives. (Later in the poet’s work, the aesthetic and the spiritual merge.) “The Comedian as the Letter C” traces the stages of discovery and disillusion in the travels of the naïve truth seeker; this early long poem explores how the mind grapples with reality and is finally consumed by it. Harmonium is dominated by images of the tropical and exotic, and its techniques include Poundian Imagism and orientalism.
Stevens’s second collection, Ideas of Order, deals with the same themes, but the meditative component becomes stronger, while the imagery becomes less dense and physical. The opening poem abandons the southern paradise of Harmonium for a tougher northern landscape. This move north represents Stevens’s desire for more involvement with the real: “My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime/ Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in clouds,” he says. The negative, or at least critical, reviews of Ideas of Order caused him to engage even more directly with the realities of the Depression which his critics accused him of neglecting. His next collections, Owl’s Clover and The Man with the Blue Guitar, are essentially apologies for art in troubled times. He develops also his theories of heroism and the heroic, a preoccupation perhaps originally linked to questions of World War I but which remains a major issue throughout the collections of his middle period.
After these collections come his most sustained discursive poems on the relationship between mind and world. His later poems describe an energetic search for a world both imagined and real, and they reflect reading of philosophy as well as poetry and poetics: His description of the grasp for experiential truth parallels the phenomenological theories of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers. The poems illustrate...
(The entire section contains 4734 words.)
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- Critical Essays