Spirituality and Religion in American Culture, Olomouc 2000

 

NATURE & IDEOLOGY IN WALLACE STEVENS

Justin Quinn, Ph.D., Charles University, Czech Republic

Justin Quinn is Senior Lecturer at the Charles University, Prague. He has published two collections of poetry with Carcanet in the UK, and has published widely on twentieth-century poetry. This paper was published in The Wallace Stevens Journal (2000).

 

My approach to the theme of this symposiumóreligion and spiritóis a little oblique, for it is generally agreed that Wallace Stevens occupies something of a post-religious moment. One of the important influences on his poetry was Nietzsche and it is in a very Nietzschean vein that he comments: "To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences" (OP 260). So thatís that then for the gods. But things are never so clear-cut. Post-religious man, as Stevens saw him, still had a deep need for the kind of exaltation of the body and spirit which goes under different names in different religionsóChristians call it grace, that is, the feeling or knowledge that the workings of God are revealed to the individual, thus lifting him or her up to a state of ecstatic consciousness. In Emersonianism such moments are secularised and contextualised in the burgeoning democratic individualism of the U.S. Stevens, although many pages of his edition of Emerson remained uncut, was very much in a follower of Emerson in the matter of manís ecstatic relation to nature, and in his poetry he sought out and valorised such moments. However, there is another twist to this, which I will dwell on in this paper. For the romantics in general such moments of ecstasis in the midst of nature are experienced by the solitary imagination, and the bonds of society are cast away as unimportant. Stevens once said that the romantic is a falsification, and perhaps the reason for the comment was his feeling that such moments of ecstatic relation in the midst of nature had to be given a social and eventually political meaning, rather than remaining in the arena of the spirit. Stevens poetry then offers a pastoral romantic ecstasis that become the occasions for searching out the relations between the individual, his or her community and the natural world.

 

The outstanding new readings of the poetry of Wallace Stevens in recent years have come from critics who examine Stevensís relations to politics and ideology. In a class of its own is Charles Altieriís Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (1989) which helps see Stevens through the prism of the political choices readers (and those in America above all) continue to make in their lives. In the work of James Longenbach and Alan Filreis we learn to see the gold-leaf reactions of Stevensís poetry to its time. However, the problem with these kinds of approaches, especially the latter, is that they are suspicious of statements like that in his letter to Hi Simons: "The Ďever jubilant weatherí is not a symbol. We are physical beings in a physical world; the weather is one of things that we enjoy, one of the unphilosophical realities" (L 348-49). Talk of jubilation and the weather and, elsewhere in Stevens, exaltation, seems suspiciously ahistorical. Could there be hankerings after the bogey of "universalism" lurking in such expressions? In the case of many poets in the Romantic tradition the hankerings are definitely there, but such is not the case with Stevens. The pastoral space in which these jubilations and exaltations of the spirit are experienced is also the space in which Stevens looks at politics and human history; further, it is the space that often occasions such thinking. Poetry must engage "the great interests of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking",1 but at the same time it must talk of Lenin, revolution, social change and organisation, which are also interests of man, albeit affording less pleasure. It is within the great amphitheatre of air and light that Stevens considers Lenin and the rest, and we do his poetry a great disservice by not recognising the oblique ways in which his political pastoral works.

In this talk, I will outline two critical accounts of the place of landscape in Stevensís poetry and then go on to compare his work with that of Robinson Jeffers, widely known as one of the foremost nature poets of the twentieth century. I will show Stevensís political pastoral at work as he encompasses moments of exaltation and despair in the midst of nature and connects these wider considerations of human society.

Fredric Jameson and Bonnie Costello have discussed the role that landscape plays in Stevensís poetry. Costello, arguing against readings such as Harold Bloomís and Joseph Carrollís that figure the poet as a triumphalist of the human imagination over the contingencies of the material world, has shown how landscape represents a base to which Stevens often returns when consoling fictions fall away (204, 216-17). She shows also how Stevens reacted against the "totalizing space of classical and romantic landscape" by revealing its "constructedness and hence the contingency of [its] vision" (211). "Stevensí landscapes are", she argues, "pragmatic and provisional, affording aesthetic and emotional if not intellectual arrival", a background that "defines not only an opportunity for the imagination but the limits of its independence as well" (204). Such a fresh emphasis in a reading of the poems, as Costello points out, implies a relocation of Stevens within certain cultural and social contexts, since attitudes toward landscape played such an important role in the construction of the national identity of the United States. Stevensís provisional paysages begin to represent a way of reassessing the uses to which ideas of landscape are put, whether they be to bolster a national mythology or generate a tourist industry. Our landscapes are also the primary means through which our attitudes toward nature as a whole are formed. These attitudes perhaps owe more to this totalising space of Classicism and Romanticism, which Stevens, in Costelloís reading, tries to disrupt, insofar as we still presume to dominate nature for our own ends, whether to build nations, to provide holiday breaks in "unspoilt" natural surroundings or to extract raw materials for the purposes of industry.2 In each of these instances the message is clear that nature is at our disposal.

Jamesonís essay would seem to promise to lead us in a similar direction with its opening gambit: "Stevensí only content, from the earliest masterpieces of Harmonium all the way to the posthumous Rock, is landscape" (178). But by the end of the same paragraph we see that there is a deep divergence between him and Costello:

In Stevens, nature is, however, nothing but a given, a ready-made occasion for speechóbirds, wind, mountains, the sun, always ready to hand whenever poetic speech needs some kind of objective content for its own production. (179)

Stevensís landscapes are "laundered of their cultural and social semantics" (179), and his poetry, which uses these landscapes merely "as a set of neutral counters for the exercise of poetic speech", designates nothing beyond itself. (In the context of his overall critical approach, the pun on "laundering" is admirable as it passes off the poetry as some kind of "funny money".) This autoreferentiality does not, he goes on to say, collapse into the usual stances of high modernism, but is the moment when "an unusual permutation takes place [...] in which Ďthe theory of poetryí becomes at one with Ďthe life of poetryí" (190). Stevensís poetry, discoursing on nothing beyond itself becomes the moment that poetry "in its traditional sense, dies and is transformed into something historically new", Theory (191). By taking nature as his subject, Jameson argues, Stevens is able to avoid the very issues that Costello claims Stevensís poetry engages (207). Stevens, on Jamesonís reading, replicates the gestures and visions of Classicism that viewed nature as a resource for human needs, be they æsthetic or social. Clearly, he would align his work with a meditative lyric like "Thanotopsis". If Stevens wants to write poetry then nature is standing waiting to be used (one thinks of Bryantís "couch") as a pliant subject that will not disrupt his discourse on the true theme, that of poetry itself.3

Jamesonís essay, though published in 1984, has made little impression on Stevens criticism. The probable reason for this fact is the glaring inaccuracy of the central statement that the poetry discourses on nothing beyond itself. Nevertheless, there is the wonderful intuitive observation (which unfortunately leads him to contradict himself) that Stevensís landscapes are locales of ur-Theory. The contradiction resides in the fact that Jameson on the one hand says that Stevensís poems are about nothing beyond themselves, yet are the beginning of Theory. But what is Theory but the consideration of the relations between history, politics and culture? It is true that a lot of the theory of the 1980s seemed to be discoursing on nothing beyond itself, but the best theorists always knew that something more was at stake.4 This "something more" is a concern with ethics and culture, and their interconnections, at the deepest levels, i.e., how should society organise itself? for what reasons should its members be told to sacrifice their lives (war? capital punishment?)? and how, in the light of these issues, should communities represent themselves to themselves through the work of culture? These questions are fundamental for Stevens, and he engages them in the space of pastoral.

Jameson goes on to say that Stevens lacks "the visionary sense of many of the great nature poets, for whom the momentary epiphanies of place and object world are rare events, to be preserved over against the encroaching destruction of Nature as well as the alienating features of city or man-made environment" (178-79). But although Jamesonís comparison of Stevens with visionary nature poets seems like a reproach, he is at pains to say that his comments should not "be taken as criticisms, not even yet as an ideological critique, of Stevensí work" (179). He would agree that Stevens doesnít employ landscape in the way that, say, Turner did (the British painter disrupted the charmed space of picturesque vedute to expose the social tensions of the time, much to the displeasure of contemporaneous critics5). But his comparison of Stevens with the great visionary nature poets who use nature to castigate civilisation (in other words, who use nature as an instrument of ideology) leads him to state that Stevensís poetry designates nothing beyond itself (191). The idea of nature qua ideological instrument is indeed anathæma to Stevens, but it hardly implies that Stevens uses landscape and the seasons merely as pretexts for a poetic utterance that has no true subject but itself.

What I wish to do is investigate the polarity that Jameson sets up here in order to come to a better idea of what kind of nature poetry Stevens writes, and the particular way that it includes within it questions of ideology. Arguing this point is not just a matter of setting one critic of Stevens over another, but should extend our awareness of Stevens as a poet who is continually concerned with the orientation of the individual and the community within the landscapes and metamorphoses of the natural world. W.J.T. Mitchell has argued that that landscape "naturalizes a cultural and social construction, representing an artificial world as if it were simply given and inevitable, and it also makes that representation operational by interpellating its beholder in some more or less determinate relation to its givenness as sight and site" (2). Thus Stevensís representations of landscape, which do not accord to our received notions of nature poetry, can be seen as challenging such a "naturalisation" of nature through the way he depicts it as the site where fictions, be they religious, æsthetic, political or romantic, contend with one another, and so offer new ways for communities to think about themselves and their place in the world.

 

Robinson Jeffers is a poet whom I consider to fit Jamesonís description of a "great nature poet". As Jeffers himself states, "to feel / Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural / Beauty, is the sole business of poetry" (Selected Poems 94). F.O. Matthiessen, who happened to be reviewing one of Jeffersís books with Ideas of Order in 1936, remarked: "When Mr. Stevens comments on the present state of the world, you are not given Mr. Jeffersís melodramatic vision of all mankind plunging down the hill to a darkened sea". Jeffers felt that it was his mission to hymn the superiority of the natural world over the world that humanity was creating for itself in the forms of cities and towns and that could only end in apocalypse. The poetry is continually embattled: "civilization is a transient sickness" that in its lifetime goes about destroying the beauties of the natural world (Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers 363). In one of his most anthologised poems, "Carmel Point", he recoils in disgust at the construction of suburban houses in a place of great natural beauty, and is haunted by memories of what that place was once like before being subordinated to social needs. These buildings clearly represent for him "the alienating features of city [and] man-made environment" that are encroaching on nature and making its beauty hard to apprehend. The poem ends with the instruction that, for all this, we must seek out nature in the place where it quietly endures these forays upon it, and try to imitate its attitude. Nature is a wise presence that is represented as waiting for the disappearance of humanity: "It knows the people are a tide / That swells and in time will ebb, and all / Their works dissolve" and until that time natureís beauty hides itself. With relish, Jeffers himself looks forward to the destruction of humanity itself since this is the moment when nature will reassert itself. Reading his poetry of praise for nature we are continually told that the destructive powers of humanity are in the offing and could make incursions at any moment. The moments that Jeffers cherishes are those when nature is able to manifest itself as something pristine, something that humanity has not yet tarnished or appropriated. And even in a poem like "The Place for No Story" when such a moment occurs, it is not sufficient for Jeffers that such a moment is witnessed, but the volta of the poem, the hinge round which it swings, is the statement that humanity has not yet made its mark on the spot. In poem after poem (apart from the long narratives) the turning point occurs about such contrasts: nature is beautiful and will endure, humanity is sordid and, although it temporarily threatens nature, it will eventually be extinguished. No doubt it will, but to be continually told so in poetry or out of it is tedious.

And not only does Jeffers adequately fit Jamesonís description but in so many ways he would seem to represent the exact opposite of a poet like Stevens. For Jeffers, the building of his house and tower on the coast of California was a poetic act in itself. He saw the United States as the endpoint of Western civilisation: it had originated in the Orient and would end in the West (Selected Poems 40). Thus his tower gave him a vantage point not only on the Pacific Ocean but also on a vision of the world after humanity had vacated it. Stevensís house on Westerly Terrace in Hartford, which he certainly did not build himself, stands in stark contrast to this. It represents the bourgeois ideal of the successful businessman who does not think that "civilization is a transient sickness", but on the contrary feels quite good about the whole human project. Echoing this is Jeffersís deep-seated misanthropy as against Stevensís appreciation of the work of the human imagination in its many different manifestations.6 While Jeffers consoles himself with visions of the erasure of humanity from the earth, Stevens sings the praises of the major man. Another difference, which would have been very noticeable during the years that both poets were at the height of their powers, was their differing public profiles. Jeffers was a hugely popular poet. Tamar and Other Poems (1924) was published to wide critical acclaim and a full-length bibliography of his work came out only eight years after his first successful collection (Carpenter 43). The book, enlarged to Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925), was reprinted many times in the following years (Carpenter 40). In contrast with this, the first yearís royalties for Harmonium brought in Stevens the princely sum of $6.40 andófor the most partóindifferent reviews. And while Stevens published very little over the next few years, by 1929 Jeffers had published four volumes in four successive years.

In Stevens, too there is an intellectual mobility wholly lacking in Jeffers, which probably prompted Jamesonís contrast of Stevensís outlook with "the visionary sense of many of the great nature poets". In Stevens there is no unchanging line of demarcation between humanity and nature. Sometimes looking at a landscape, the tune hummed by the viewer can be the rhythm of the changing scene (CP 243). Sometimes the viewer is violently pulled apart, his eyesight falling to earth (CP 294). Perhaps Jameson would say that this inconsistency, this very unwillingness to fix its value, reveals that Stevens cares for it in a different way to a poet like Jeffers, who values it above the incursions of civilisation. But Stevens (to turn Berryman on his head) was wider. He includes the concerns of a Jeffers in the scope of his poetry. Take a poem like "Landscape with Boat" (CP 241-43) where Stevens criticises a figure like Jeffers who aspires to an unmediated relationship with landscape. The "anti-master-man, floribund ascetic" is someone who doesnít realise that his own observation of the landscape is also an agency in it and that the truth of landscape cannot be broached until the figure admits this. As is obvious in "The Place for No Story" Jeffers does not consider his own presence at Sovranes Creek a human presence. He talks of the site as though it were pristine, discounting the way that his poem has represented it. His representation of nature, as he would have it, is innocent. His gaze accords with natureís and is not an intrusion. Jeffersís world-weariness gives him access, he thinks, to the finished gaze of nature, which can no longer be cajoled into believing human fictions. He now stands, in Stevensís phrase, "At the neutral centre, the ominous element, / The single colored, colorless primitive" (CP 242), his gaze "fool-proof and permanent". He has brushed away "the colossal illusion of heaven" (CP 241) with its projection of human morality on the sky. But Stevensís poem, although it discusses such a figure, cannot indulge its aspirations for long:

It was not as if the truth lay where he thought,
Like a phantom, in an uncreated night.
It was easier to think it lay there. If
It was nowhere else, it was there and because
It was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed,
Itself had to be supposed, a thing supposed
In a place supposed, a thing that he reached
In a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw
And denying what he heard.

(Italics mine.) Seen through the lens of Stevensís poem Jeffersís monumental truth becomes "a thing supposed / In a place supposed". Jeffersís landscape is monovalent; it closes possibilities and is based on the "rejection" and "denial" of things seen and heard. There is no more work for the imagination to do in a landscape by Jeffers. The latter is blind to the many selves and sensuous worlds that are available to those who do not try to extract a moral for their times from the landscape. Whereas Stevens is always following the way in which the imagination expends energy metamorphosing the landscape, tracing the vicissitudes of its project for dominion, Jeffersís landscapes are faits accomplis.

The precincts of Stevensís poetry are not so impenetrable and exclusive as Jeffersís. No general practitioner of the landscape, Stevens is more interested in how these doctrines emerge, change and disappear. Nature is never a refuge whose consolations are already carefully mapped, rather it is the site where the fictions spun by the imagination are most forcefully questioned and their contingencies revealed. In this way we can see Stevens as a more inclusive nature poet than Jeffers, one who is aware of the many possibilities that nature affords the human imagination. As a poet who is open to these possibilities, figures who close them off exert a fascination.

A few pages on in the Collected Poems, we come across more "rejecting" and "denying". In "The Well Dressed Man with a Beard" (CP 247) Stevens refers to the relationship of a certain kind of poetic speech with a constructed landscape. Elements have been "rejected" and "denied" and brushed beyond the edge of our vision.

If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract [...]
a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!

 

 

 

 

(Italics mine.) The "anti-master-man" of "Landscape with Boat" had to exclude parts of the landscape to reach his truth, and this was viewed negatively by Stevens. In "Well Dressed Man" Stevens acknowledges that the poetic speech that Jameson ascribes to him would be possible if certain perceptions of landscape were to disappear into the cataract and be secreted from vision. Then the poet would indeed have a "douce campagna" instead of a landscape teeming with interpretive possibilities, exceeding the squamous mind. Stevens is suitably ironic about this prospect. Perhaps the well dressed man with a beard is one of the Fireside poets of the nineteenth century who rejected and denied the more distasteful elements of nature to present a "douce campagna". Perhaps it is some like William Cullen Bryant, who sports a beard on the frontispiece of my edition of his poems. The landscapes of Stevensís poetry are neither such campagnas or the monovalent ones of Jeffers, which are the instruments of his misanthropy. The title also indicates the way that Stevens is aware that landscapes are often employed by certain social formations: here the man of the title is respectably bourgeois and as a result his landscape is too. It is a genteel landscape that is predicated upon "rejecting" and "denying" the more anarchic elements of nature, and those is connected with a certain economy of social value.

But those who limit their experience of landscape by "rejecting" and "denying" are not only "floribund ascetics": on one occasion, as I pointed out earlier, Stevens takes the figure of Lenin and characterises him as a political leader precisely by the way that he organises and excludes certain elements of a lacustrine landscape (CP 343). On another, discussing a conversation between other revolutionaries, he portrays the fanaticism of one by the way he cannot perceive the landscape, the physical world that is surrounding him (CP 324-25).

Victor Serge said, "I followed his argument
With the blank uneasiness which one might feel
In the presence of a logical lunatic."
He said it of Konstantinov. Revolution
Is the affair of logical lunatics [...]
Lakes are more reasonable than oceans. Hence,
A promenade amid the grandeurs of the mind,
By a lake, with clouds like lights among great tombs,
Gives one a blank uneasiness, as if
One might meet Konstantinov, who would interrupt
With his lunacy. He would not be aware of the lake.
He would be the lunatic of one idea
In a world of ideas, who would have all the people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas. He would not be aware of the clouds,
Lighting the martyrs of logic with white fire.
His extreme of logic would be illogical.

Victor Serge was once a member of the Executive Committee of Communist International and Fyodor Vasilyevich Konstantinov a talentless philosopher and Communist fanatic, here standing for the ideologue. For Alan Filreis, here "Stevens merely repeats verbatim from Dwight MacDonaldís Politics Victor Sergeís claims against Konstantinov, postideological revisionism against murderous orthodoxy" (142). The problem here is in the "post". The thrust of the passage is that it is reasonable to expect that Konstantinov would not be able to maintain the integrity of his idea when faced with the sea (unlike the doctor of Geneva [CP 24]), but he should at least be able to look at a lake.7 However Konstantinov cannot, and he must "reject" the lake, suppress it from his perception. What follows directly in "Esthétique du Mal" is the much-quoted passage "The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world". Referring to this final section of the poem in her essay on Stevens and landscape, Bonnie Costello remarks: "Stevens suggests not only that creation overwhelms human capability, that the physical absorbs the metaphysical, but that our Ďsupreme fictions,í our metaphysical inventions, learn their changes less from autonomous compositional laws than from physical surroundings" (216). In this section of "Esthétique du Mal", however, Stevens is making a recommendation rather than stating a universal truth: our "supreme fictions" should learn their changes from physical changes, but often donít, as in the case of Konstantinov. It is not to say that there can be a time of "post-ideology", rather better ways of thinking about ideology, that is, through the landscape. What confirms the idea that was the main way in which Stevens thought about ideology is the change he made in the account of the exchange between Serge and Konstantinov. Yes, pace Filreis the words are verbatim, but in Stevensís source the original conversation took place in a tenement in St Petersburg (then Leningrad).8 Stevensís arena for thinking about the ideological is the lake, the landscape, and that it where he transposes it to.

What is also of importance to note here is that landscape does not provide the opportunity to withdraw from social and historical contingencies; rather it is precisely when Stevens turns to landscape and the objects of nature that we should expect his acutest thoughts on history, politics and culture. Konstantinov does not live in a physical world but the ultimate politician can hear the words of the storm and of the people (CP 336); the latter does not need to "reject" and "deny" certain elements of his environment in order to bring into effect his political ideas. A better politics, better than that of Konstantinov and even of Serge, would show us how to live in the hermeneutic flux of the physical world.

 

III

In "How to Live. What to Do" Stevens makes a connection between the exaltation experienced in nature and the ethical concerns implicit in the title. Of course some readers might hear irony in the title (which recalls Nikolai Chernyshevskyís What to Do? [1863]), and thus think that Stevens, at least in this poem, is bidding social concerns farewell in favour of the æsthetic consolations of landscape. James Longenbach, for instance, says that the poem is a dramatisation of "the private selfís victory over public adversity" (131). I would counter by saying that more important than the putative irony in the poem is the speakerís location between an exalted awareness of landscape and public concerns. These are the important poles of the imagination in this poem and many others. What I wish to do in the readings of the two poems that follow is show how Stevens moves between the poles of "How to Live. What to Do", as he returns again and again to the natural world as the site of revelation of social meaning. I should remark here that itís not all about exaltation in nature: there are often moments of despair and weakness; but these are part of cycles of emotions that Stevens repeatedly connected with the cycle of the seasons, the despondency of winter followed by the exultation and plenitude of summer, and so on. These for him are fundamental to human thought and we have learnt our emotions from the weather:9 it is then not a symbol, as neither are the mountains, the sea, the sky, the trees, the flowers in bloom.

In "Dry Loaf" (CP 199-200) Stevensís sense of how the arrangements of landscape are connected with social formations is acute. And yet, as I have argued above, his representation of nature is not in the service of any particular ideology. It is polyvalent and frustrates attempts to employ the landscape scene as validation of some particular hegemony. Rather, social powers enter the arena of the landscape and suddenly discover the ground to be treacherous. They are afloat in hermeneutic uncertainty. This is what has been missed by previous critics of Stevens, the role that the natural world plays in meditations on the political and human history in general. The speaker of the poem is recounting a previous attempt of his to arrange the landscape as a background for his painting of the loaf of bread. One thinks immediately of those landscapes in Renaissance paintings that seem bleached of historical particularity (whether by the artist or the passage of time), serving only as featureless plain to set off the main object of interest (a person, a still-life arrangement).

Regard now the sloping, mountainous rocks
And the river that batters its way over stones,
Regard the hovels of those that live in this land.
That was what I painted behind the loaf,
The rocks not even touched by snow,
The pines along the river and the dry men blown
Brown as the bread, thinking of birds
Flying from burning countries and brown sand shores [Ö]

While he doesnít wish to present a sylvan idyll (the people live in hovels), he is intent on some version of the picturesque, in the sense that the poverty in Breughelís paintings can be picturesque. But then the landscape starts to go out of control. It gathers a motive force surpassing that of his organising brush. The poem continues, picking up again on the image of the birds:

Birds that came like dirty water in waves
Flowing above the rocks, flowing over the sky,
As if the sky was a current that bore them along,
Spreading them as waves spread flat on the shore,
One after another washing the mountains bare.

In the next verse the repressed returns in gala panoply and the painter, another well dressed man with a beard, is utterly vanquished:

It was the battering of drums I heard
It was hunger, it was the hungry that cried
And the waves, the waves were soldiers moving,
Marching and marching in a tragic time
Below me, on the asphalt, under the trees.

Mention of the asphalt here is particularly surprising as it locates the poem in the contemporary world whereas before it seemed as though a Renaissance painter was speaking. This reveals that the painter was deliberately trying to be anachronistic in his representation of nature, and erase all marks of the contemporary in favour of a timeless sylvan idyll. But the contemporary returns to trample on his aspirations:

It was soldiers went marching over the rocks
And still the birds came, came in watery flocks,
Because it was spring and the birds had to come.
No doubt that the soldiers had to be marching
And that drums had to be rolling, rolling, rolling.

It is the sigh of resignation in the last two lines here that endear the speaker to us more than the well dressed man with a beard. While his equation of the necessity of the birdsí return with that of the soldiers is humorous, it takes an ominous turn with the last words of the poem ("rolling, rolling, rolling"): his humour and his painting will evaporate in the emergencies and alarms of war.

What is also of note here is the conflation of landscape with the social formation of the army. The equation of birds and soldiers is not completely serious, but demonstrates a need to understand the action of armies against the panorama of the natural world. Also noteworthy is the fact that the eruption of the drums and soldiers into the sylvan idyll does not augur some kind of social realist allegory of landscape. The world of the soldiers, the birds and the mountains that we are left with as the end of the poem is curiously afloat and uncertain. No particular social meaning is affixed to the landscape. It is released into polyvalency after the speakerís attempts to restrict its symbolism. Thus, the poem records not only the speakerís failure to impress his meaning on the landscape but also that of the soldiers who are caught up in huge waves of birds and rocks. It is this overpowering rhythm of nature that the poem ultimately celebrates.

"Idiom of the Hero" (CP 200-1), which follows it immediately in the Collected Poems, would seem to turn all this on its head. The speaker here rejects social concerns ("I heard two workers say, ĎThis chaos / Will soon be ended.í // This chaos will not be ended") in favour of skyscapes "By which at least I am befriended". But what Stevens is really rejecting here is crude configurations of the political: anybody who thinks that social chaos will soon be mended, as many figures on Left did in the US in the 1930s, deserves our ridicule. Stevens enjoins us to find better ways of thinking about the relations between skyscapes and politics.

 

NOTES

I would like to thank Bonnie Costello and Alan Filreis for comments on to earlier drafts of this essay, as well as the Fulbright Commission in Prague, who provided funding which enabled some of the research.

 

1 Stevens quoting the Italian philosopher, Mario Rossi (CP 136).

2 Stevens comments on the idea of Classicism in "The Relation between Poetry and Painting": "When we look back at the period of French classicism in the seventeenth century, we have no difficulty in seeing it as a whole. It is not so easy to see oneís own time that way" (NA 172).

3 Frank Lentricchia harmonises with this opinion in the chapter on Stevens where he says that the moments of insight and vitality experienced in nature render meaningless those "social relations, even those obviously hinged on power [.Ö] In these moments we are most ourselves, wonderfully alone, cut loose from tradition and community" (137).

4 For instance, Charles Altieri in the Acknowledgements to Canons and Consequences writes: "In my text I project a hope that the effort to get theory right is also in a limited domain an effort to get a life right, in the sense of taking responsibility for the values that govern oneís work" (vii).

5 See Elizabeth Helsingerís essay, "Turner and the Representation of England" (Mitchell 102-26).

6 Jeffers tried to mitigate this attitude once in an introduction to a collection by describing his "Inhumanism" thus: "[Ö] a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man [Ö] This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist; [Ö] it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty" (quoted in Carpenter 127). But such statements ring hollow in the face of the poetry.

7 When excerpting from the poem for the a selection of his work submitted to Knopf in 1950 (but which remained unpublished), he made sure Section XIII was there also, preceding the final section (ms. in the Huntington Collection).

8 See Jan Pinkerton, "Stevensí Revolutionaries and John Addington Symons" Wallace Stevens Journal 1.3/4 (FallĖWinter 1977): 128.

9 In a letter to Hi Simons, 9 January 1940, he remarks: "The state of the weather soon becomes a state of mind" (L 349).

10 Once again as in "Dry Loaf" and "The Well Dressed Man", Stevens criticises the figure who uses landscape and weather to abscond from society: "Men and the affairs of men seldom concerned / This pundit of the weather, who never ceased / To think of man the abstraction, the comic sum" (XXXV).

11 The phrasing here recalls one of Stevensís poems from his Cambridge days, "Self-Respect": "Sun in the heaven, / Thou are the cause of my mirth, / Star in the evening / Thine is my province since birth; / Depths of the sky / Yours are the depths of my worth" (SP 23).

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

Altieri, Charles. Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990.

Carpenter, Frederick. Robinson Jeffers. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962.

Costello, Bonnie. "Wallace Stevens: The Adequacy of Landscape". The Wallace Stevens Journal 17.2 (Fall 1993): 203-218.

Filreis, Alan. Wallace Stevens and the Actual World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Helsinger, Elizabeth. "Turner and the Representation of England" in Mitchell.

Jameson, Fredric. "Wallace Stevens" (1984). Rpt in Critical Essays on Wallace Stevens. Eds Stephen Gould Axelrod & Helen Deese. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Jeffers, Robinson. The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Random House, 1959.

óó. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Lentricchia, Frank. Modernist Quartet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Matthiessen, F.O. "Society and Solitude". The Yale Review 25.3 (March 1936): 605-607.

Miskinis, Steven. "Exceeding Responsibilities: Politics, History, and the Hero in Wallace Stevensí War Poetry". The Wallace Stevens Journal 20.2 (Fall 1996): 209-228.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (ed). Landscape and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Pinkerton, Jan. "Stevensí Revolutionaries and John Addington Symons". The Wallace Stevens Journal 1.3/4 (FallĖWinter 1977): 128-30.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954.

óó. Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966). Ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

óó. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1951.

 

 

***

It was not as if the truth lay where he thought,

Like a phantom, in an uncreated night.

It was easier to think it lay there. If

It was nowhere else, it was there and because

It was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed,

Itself had to be supposed, a thing supposed

In a place supposed, a thing that he reached

In a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw

And denying what he heard.

*

If the rejected things, the things denied,

Slid over the western cataract [...]

a speech

Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,

One thing remaining, infallible, would be

Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!

 

*

 

Victor Serge said, "I followed his argument

With the blank uneasiness which one might feel

In the presence of a logical lunatic."

He said it of Konstantinov. Revolution

Is the affair of logical lunatics [...]

Lakes are more reasonable than oceans. Hence,

A promenade amid the grandeurs of the mind,

By a lake, with clouds like lights among great tombs,

Gives one a blank uneasiness, as if

One might meet Konstantinov, who would interrupt

With his lunacy. He would not be aware of the lake.

He would be the lunatic of one idea

In a world of ideas, who would have all the people

Live, work, suffer and die in that idea

In a world of ideas. He would not be aware of the clouds,

Lighting the martyrs of logic with white fire.

His extreme of logic would be illogical.

 

*

Regard now the sloping, mountainous rocks

And the river that batters its way over stones,

Regard the hovels of those that live in this land.

That was what I painted behind the loaf,

The rocks not even touched by snow,

The pines along the river and the dry men blown

Brown as the bread, thinking of birds

Flying from burning countries and brown sand shores [Ö]

Birds that came like dirty water in waves

Flowing above the rocks, flowing over the sky,

As if the sky was a current that bore them along,

Spreading them as waves spread flat on the shore,

One after another washing the mountains bare.

It was the battering of drums I heard

It was hunger, it was the hungry that cried

And the waves, the waves were soldiers moving,

Marching and marching in a tragic time

Below me, on the asphalt, under the trees.

It was soldiers went marching over the rocks

And still the birds came, came in watery flocks,

Because it was spring and the birds had to come.

No doubt that the soldiers had to be marching

And that drums had to be rolling, rolling, rolling.

 

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