Wallace Stevens frequently alludes to or quotes from the English Romantics in his letters and in his essays, and there is little doubt that this twentieth century poet is working within the Romantic tradition. The best evidence for the contention that he is a twentieth century Romantic, however, is his poetry. Repeatedly, one finds in his work the “reality-imagination complex,” as he calls it. While one can see the central beliefs of William Wordsworth and John Keats in Stevens’s poetry (celebration of nature, acceptance of mutability, rejection of supernatural realms, and belief in the brotherhood of man), the foundation of his Romanticism is his Wordsworthian imagination. The function of this imagination in Stevens’s poetry is to make sordid reality, what Wordsworth calls “the dreary intercourse of daily life,” palatable without resorting to mysticism. It is a difficult task; failure results in a profound alienation (“dejection” in the language of the Romantics).
Stevens does not merely repeat what Wordsworth and Keats have accomplished in their work but extends the Romantic tradition. He differs from his predecessors in his radical nontranscendentalism. In a May 30, 1910, letter to his wife he quotes from Keats’s “Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds”: “It is a flaw/ In happiness, to see beyond our bourn,—/ It forces us in summer skies to mourn,/ It spoils the singing of the Nightingale.” This idea is the premise of all Stevens’s work. He takes the secular Romanticism of Wordsworth and Keats to its logical conclusion.
“Of Modern Poetry”
Stevens’s poem “Of Modern Poetry” provides a good introduction to both his theory and his method. The modern poem whose origin goes back to the discursive odes of Wordsworth and Keats is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice.” This modern meditation shows the process of the mind confronting reality, searching for a secular solution to the individual person’s feeling of meaninglessness. Before the Romantic period (1789-1832), this was not a major problem, and thus there was no need for this type of meditation. Or, as Stevens says: “It has not always had/ To find: the scene was set; it repeated what/ Was in the script.” Now the poet (“the actor”) is “a metaphysician in the dark,” the man of vital imagination who seeks to redeem ugly reality and overcome his alienation by secular meditation. It is a meditation that will not descend to negation or ascend to supernaturalism (“below which it cannot descend,/ Beyond which it has no will to rise”).
The meditation uses conversational speech, “the real language of men,” as Wordsworth says in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798), or the “speech of the place,” as Stevens states here, and seeks its affirmation in everyday reality. However, this “poem of the act of the mind” may create heightened moments in everyday reality, “spots of time,” as Wordsworth calls them in The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850). It is these “spots of time” that often allow the imagination to redeem reality by ordering it, enchanting it, transforming it, or creating a feeling of stasis, of permanence beyond time. By these heightened moments and by the process of the meditation itself, the imagination strives to rectify the individual’s sense of loss.
In short, Stevens expands the Wordsworthian-Keatsian discursive act of the mind in a radical fashion. In a number of his acts of the mind, the only unifying element is the solitary mind searching for what will suffice to ease its alienation. In these acts of the mind, the imagination can create moments of illumination which help regenerate the poet—and regeneration is the central goal of modern meditations, those “poems of our climate.”
“Poems of Our Climate”
“Poems of Our...
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- Critical Essays