Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


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Wa l l ace St ev enS a nd

t he a e St het ic S of

a bSt r ac t ion

edward ragg’s study is the first to examine the role of abstraction

throughout the work of Wallace Stevens. by tracing the poet’s inter-

est in abstraction from Harmonium through to his later works, ragg

argues that Stevens only fully appreciated and refined this interest

within his later career. ragg’s detailed close-readings highlight the

poet’s absorption of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-

century painting, as well as the examples of philosophers and other

poets’ work. Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction will

appeal to those studying Stevens as well as anyone interested in the

relations between poetry and painting. This valuable study embraces

revealing philosophical and artistic perspectives, analysing Stevens’

place within and resistance to Modernist debates concerning litera-

ture, painting, representation and ‘the imagination’.

edwa r d r agg is a poet and teaches at tsinghua University,

beijing. he is co-editor of Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic (2008).

  Wa ll ace St ev enS a nd t he a e St het ic S of a bSt r ac t ion

  edWa r d r agg

  Tsinghua University, Beijing


  Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Dubai, Tokyo Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

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  The poet striding among the cigar stores, ryan’s lunch, hatters, insurance and medicines, denies that abstraction is a vice except to the fatuous. These are his infernal walls, a space of stone, of inexplicable base and peaks outsoaring possible adjectives. one man, the idea of man, that is the space, The true abstract in which he promenades. from ‘a Thought revolved’ (1936), Wallace Stevens



Acknowledgements pag

  List of Abbreviations

  introduction: ‘Stevensian’ and the question of abstraction 1935–2009


  1 The abstract impulse: from anecdote to ‘new romantic’ in

   Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1935)

  2 The turn to abstraction: Owl’s Clover (1936) and the ‘un-locatable’


  speaker in The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937)

  3 The ‘in-visible’ abstract: Stevens’ idealism from coleridge to Merleau-Ponty

   3.1 romantic adaptations: Wordsworth, coleridge, Stevens

   3.2 abstract analogues: blanchot, Merleau-Ponty, Stevens


  3.3 The touch of henri focillon

  4 abstract figures: the curious case of the idealist ‘i’

  4.1 taming ‘the guerrilla i’: the early poems of Parts of a World (1942) 4.2 from ‘robust poet’ to idealist ‘i’: ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’ (1942) and ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’ (1943)

  4.3 The human abstract in ‘landscape with boat’ (1940)

  5 abstract appetites: food, wine and the idealist ‘i’

  5.1 tasting ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’ (1942) 5.2 hartford bourguignon: ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ (1942) and Cymbeline




  6 The pure good of theory: a new abstract emphasis

  6.1 ‘Major man’ revised: ‘Paisant chronicle’ (1945) and ‘description Without Place’ (1945)

  6.2 Writing ‘beyond’: ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ (1944) and ‘Three academic Pieces’ (1947)

  6.3 Pragmatic abstraction v. metaphor: ‘The Pure good of Theory’ (1945) and Macbeth

  7 bourgeois abstraction: poetry, painting and the idea of mastery in late Stevens


  7.1 Mastery of life: at home with Wallace Stevens 7.2 conclusion





  i would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their support: fiona green, Jean chothia, frances gandy, lee Jenkins, Maud ellmann, bart eeckhout, Simon critchley, the late richard rorty, charles altieri, J. hillis Miller, John n. Serio, Michael Schmidt, eleanor cook, Wang ao; ray ryan, Maartje Scheltens and the staff of cambridge University Press; Sara Peacock for her excellent copy-editing; Paul giles and the staff of The rothermere american institute; the staff and fellows of Selwyn college, cambridge; Sue hodson and the staff of The huntington library, San Marino (also for permission to quote from The Wallace Stevens archive); Melinda Mcintosh and Mike Milewski of the University of Massachusetts (also for permission to quote from Stevens’ copy of henri focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art); The University of chicago library (for permission to quote from ronald lane latimer’s papers); The british association for american Studies; The british academy; and lu Zhongshe and the staff of the foreign languages department, tsinghua University. Special thanks are also due to my par- ents, my parents-in-law, the late tedman littwin, Peter roberts and, last but not least, fongyee Walker.



  first citations present the full titles of Stevens’ works together, where rele- vant, with date of first publication and/or date of composition. Subsequent references are undated. The following abbreviations for major editions and other resources are used throughout:


BL Samuel taylor coleridge, Biographia Literaria ed. James engell

  and W. Jackson bate (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, , 2 vols.


  Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose ed. frank Kermode and Joan richardson (new York: library of america, )


CW William Shakespeare: The Complete Works ed. Stanley Wells and

  gary taylor (oxford: clarendon, compact edition


L Letters of Wallace Stevens ed. holly Stevens (new York: Knopf,

niversity of california Press, 1996)

  OP Opus Posthumous ed. Milton J. bates (london: faber )

  ronald lane latimer Papers, University of chicago (xeroxed


  without serial numbers in The Wallace Stevens archive)


WAS The Wallace Stevens archive, The huntington library, San

  Marino, california


WSJ The Wallace Stevens Journal ed. John n. Serio (Potsdam,

  nY: Wallace Stevens Society, inc., 1977–2009)


Introduction: ‘Stevensian’ and the question

of abstraction 1935–2009

The idea of life in the abstract is a curious one and deserves some

abstraction (in poetry, not in painting) involves personal removal by

the poet. for instance, the decision involved in the choice between

‘the nostalgia of the infinite’ and ‘the nostalgia for the infinite’

defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of

the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal,

and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé). Personism,

a movement which i recently founded and which nobody knows

about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind

of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the

first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace

Stevens what la poésie pure was to béranger. Personism has nothing

to do with philosophy, it’s all art.

[r]ecently i have been fitted into too many philosophic frames. as

a philosopher one is expected to achieve and express one’s center.

for my own part, i think that the philosophic permissible (to use an

insurance term) is a great deal different today than it was a gener-

ation or two ago. Yet if i felt the obligation to pursue the philosophy

of my poems, i should be writing philosophy, not poetry; and it is

  frank o’hara’s mock-manifesto ‘Personism’ – and the ironic move- ment of the same name ‘founded’ on 27 august 1959 over lunch in new York – testifies as much to o’hara’s poetic relationship with Wallace Stevens as it reveals how Stevens was viewed only four years after his 1 death. ‘Personism’ also recalls o’hara’s brilliance in constructing a poetic


Wallace Stevens, Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens ed. holly Stevens (new

2 York: Knopf, , 90.

frank o’hara, ‘Personism: a Manifesto’ in Selected Poems ed. donald allen (harmondsworth:

  2 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘personality’ equally as daunting and complex on the page as Stevens’, if more beguiling for its surface, ‘personal’ appeal. o’hara’s allegiance, ‘of the american poets’, to Whitman, crane and Williams is clear. but, as ‘Personism’ demonstrates, o’hara had absorbed Stevens; just as his range of international influences was as wide as, if not wider than, Stevens’. ‘Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poésie pure was to béranger’: o’hara is saying his ‘manifesto’ would, apparently, have proved anathema to Stevens, just as ‘pure poetry’ could hardly have appealed to Pierre Jean de béranger, the french republican whose popular ballads initiated the scorn of baudelaire. o’hara intends a double-anachronism where béranger is trumped by the innovations of the later Symbolists and Stevens is trumped by the advent of ‘Personism’ itself.

  Stevens is probably the twentieth-century poet for whom the ‘nostalgia of the infinite’ was most motivational. o’hara alludes to de chirico’s painting of the same title (dated 1911, but composed a little later) with its distant yet imposing tower flanked by a dominating, shadowy archway. in de chirico’s metaphysical phase, the ‘nostalgia’ experienced is inspiring and perhaps reprehensible, refracted through Modernism’s soul-searching over questions of reality and faith. Similarly, Stevens, despite his many affiliations with french Symbolism, was no Mallarmé. as we shall see, a Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’ of the ‘idea’ was ultimately not something the Modernist Stevens could endorse; and his initial 1930s ambivalence concerning abstraction indicates a Modernist poet confronting the unsettling interim of two world wars and the global economic consequences of the depression. as o’hara knew, Stevens had also absorbed Modernist painting in his own idiosyncratic way, undoubtedly affected by the representational issues the new painting and sculpture confronted; even if, by his last dec- ade, Stevens shunned the ‘professional modernism’ then quasi-canonical by the 1940s and early 1950s. o’hara probably read Stevens’ 1951 lecture

  ‘The relations between Poetry and Painting’ delivered at MoMa only a few months before o’hara would himself begin working there (MoMa producing a pamphlet of Stevens’ paper). but it is, perhaps, Stevens’ the- orizing bent that o’hara’s wit intends to bait. Stevens could never have been a ‘Personist poet’, if that ‘poet’ resembles the performance of the intensely personal, yet elusive, ‘frank’. however, Stevens did modify his abstract spirit in his later career, oscillating between what this study 4 calls ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ abstractionindeed, would not Stevens have been 5 See L, 647.



  3 intrigued by o’hara’s playful claim that ‘Personism’ is ‘so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry’? to what value can the abstract wheel turn and come full circle? in o’hara’s case, the answer is a pregnant ‘zero’. in other words, this ironically original, ‘true abstraction’ represents the poet pushed to the extreme of the personal in verse, thereby becoming an abstract version of the poet: genuinely removed from the work rather than artificially divorced from it. o’hara could not have raised this issue in this way without Stevens’ prior posing of the question of abstraction. for a poet so affected by the ‘death of the gods’, the lingering desire to capture the idea of ‘the infinite’ or transcendent remained a strong feature throughout Stevens’ Simultaneously, Stevens’ poetry reveals a poet equally sensitive as o’hara to the implicit stances which the varying abstractness of his writ- ing involves. for Stevens, abstraction represented a question of artistic and philosophical proportions; and yet his natural inclinations were those of o’hara (adamantly in the ‘all art’ camp), resistant to assimilation into ‘too many philosophic frames’. nevertheless, the philosophical leanings of Stevens’ writing and its engagement with ‘abstraction’ are unmistak- able. What Stevens made of philosophy is most noticeable in his expres- sion of an abstract vocabulary, albeit a rhetoric essentially jettisoned in his late career as the poet absorbed the consequences of abstraction.

  Without doubt, Stevens remains among the more enigmatic, reclu- sive, cosmopolitan, oft quoted (but under-read) and seriously playful of the american poets to have emerged during the Modernist era. by turns shy, brash, idiosyncratic, straight-talking, disinclined to read publicly (and fiercely private), Stevens stage-managed his late-blossoming poetic career from the confines of his vice-presidential office at The hartford accident and indemnity company. Stevens had written poetry from his youth. but it was only having discovered an initial niche in the new art and literature of international Modernism that he gave voice to the striking performance pieces of Harmonium (1923), many of which appeared in the ephemeral pages of the little magazines. it would be some twelve years before Stevens published a second volume: the defensive and defiant Ideas of Order (1935). by the mid-1930s Stevens sought a poetic idiom adequate to the task of addressing the role of abstract representation in an increasingly violent and


abstraction championing spontaneous creation or the ‘unformed’ (‘art informel’/‘tachisme’).

  4 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction pressingly ‘real’ world. What the poet had learnt from Modernist and also impressionist painting was, by 1935, in serious need of realignment and refinement if the increasingly abstract tenor of Stevens’ poetry was to have any meaningful relationship with a wider world.

  Put differently, Stevens’ initial embrace of Modernist art and the nom- inal ‘pure poetry’ of his first phase led to the desire to justify a mod- ernized ‘pure poetry’ during the turbulent 1930s, not least following ingly ambivalent about abstract forms of artistic representation at the very point where his own poetry tended toward an abstract aesthetic: one that would eventually leave ‘pure poetry’ behind (even though the charge of ‘irrelevance’ would continue to stick).

  This book is principally interested in the turn to abstraction and its influential aftermath that occurred in roughly 1935 in Stevens’ work. That the place of abstraction in Stevens remains underappreciated, misun- derstood and the subject of considerable debate, makes careful ground- clearing desirable. how did abstraction become a question for Stevens as a poet? how has the issue of abstraction engaged Stevens’ critics? did Stevens’ attitudes toward abstraction change and do we find different expressions of abstract writing throughout the corpus?

  The book proceeds in broadly chronological fashion to exemplify how Stevens came to discover and absorb abstraction, providing new read- ings of the poetry and prose which chart the development of Stevensian abstraction in the mainstay of the poet’s career from 1935 to 1955

  analyses the abstract impulse in Stevens’ writing and its nominal relations


explores Stevens’ turn to abstraction in the mid-1930s – as exemplified in

The Man with the Blue Guitar – focusing on the emergence of a novel text-

  ual speaker (addressed in and


chapter 3 explains the philosophical relations between abstrac-

  tion, idealism and phenomenology in Stevens’ work, illustrating how the poet’s embrace of abstraction was conditioned by romantic and phenom- enologist leanings (the british romantics, blanchot, Merleau-Ponty and henri focillon feature prominently).

chapter 4 then analyses the place

  of abstract figures in Stevens’ mid-career, especially a neglected speaker, 7 Stevens’ idealist ‘i’, suggesting how this figure conditions an aesthetic


Stanley burnshaw, ‘turmoil in the Middle ground’ New Masses 17 (1935), 41–2. for retrospect-



  5 influenced by cézanne’s notion of abstraction.

  this analysis to address the under-explored relations between Stevens’ meditations on gastronomy and abstract reflection (with Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ forming an important bridge).

  tisoning of an overt abstract vocabulary as his writing moved into a more pragmatic mode of abstract inspiration. finally,

  discusses how Stevens’ mature abstract work relates to his domestic life, combining art-

  collecting, gastronomy and poetic meditation. in other words, the various expressions of abstract writing with which Stevens experimented – his ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ abstract performances – only found full voice in the ‘bourgeois’ ruminations of his late career.

  What emerges is a Stevens attracted to the mental processes enabling abstract figuration rather than a poet mimicking abstract painting in ver- bal form. ‘The Public Square’ (1923) with its ‘slash of angular blacks’ is, perhaps, an early exception; but the mature Stevens was motivated by


ideas concerning abstraction rather than the realization of a pared-down

  poetry of abstract implication once he had embraced abstraction as a positive force in his writing – around 1937 – the main aesthetic challenge Stevens faced was exploiting what abstraction offered. This would see him dispatch the overt abstract rhetoric and specialist symbolism of ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ (1942) and embrace a more boldly abstract verse reflecting on the ‘baldest’ concepts: ‘metaphor’, ‘resemblance’, ‘description’, ‘analogy’, ‘the ultimate poem’. however sparse these con- cepts appear, Stevens crafted from them a verse of humane abstract medi- tation whose various expressions are intimately pursued throughout. opposite ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’, some readers may be sur- My interest has rather been in those poems of abstraction that surround and chime with ‘notes’ throughout Stevens’ career; those which are perhaps more a realization of abstract powers than Stevens’ more ‘theoretical’ poem can claim to be. Whilst i believe ‘notes’ can be exonerated of the aloofness to ‘reality’ laid at Stevens’ door by Marjorie Perloff, this oft-read text – which has functioned as a vortex in Stevens criticism – only adumbrates what abstraction was coming to mean to Stevens in

  1942. certainly, the poet was able to capitalize on his aesthetic discov- eries in other 1942 texts (se 8 9

10 CPP, 91. Ibid., 329.


See Perloff, ‘revolving in crystal: The Supreme fiction and the impasse of Modernist lyric’ in

  6 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction of Sound’ and ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’). but Stevens also sensed that the trumpeting of abstraction in ‘notes’ erred on too cold an aesthetic front, hence perhaps his later proposition of a final, if unrealized, section for as

  to ‘Paisant chronicle’ (1945), perhaps the ‘major man’ of ‘notes’ was sim- ply too abstracted to come alive for Stevens, even as he modified the figure in this later poem. of course, this study does make repeated reference to ‘notes’, and con- textualizes the concept of a ‘supreme fiction’ i

chapter 3 . however, i have

  sought elsewhere to distinguish between this poem’s nominative power – in contrast with ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ and ‘description Without Place’ (1945) – and the abstract spirit of Stevens’ post-‘notes’ versWhereas ‘notes’ persistently names and signals its objects of aesthetic interest – even where it ironizes nomination (‘but Phoebus was / a name for some- thing that never could be named’) – the mature Stevens realized he could fashion abstract poetry without recourse to an overt idiom, at least not for the mature Stevens, a robust abstract poetry would never have to declare ‘The major abstrac- tion is the commonal’; but rather would demonstrate or imply such an imaginative possibility. What ‘notes’ calls an ‘abstraction blooded’ other Stevens poems would have to achieve, as the poet jostled with the innate problems of conveying the ‘[i]nvisible or visible or both: / a seeing and unseeing in the eye’. from the poet who declared as early as ‘a high- toned old christian Woman’ (1922) that ‘Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame’ to the architect of ‘The Pure good of Theory’ – discussed at length in

  – it is the evolution of Stevensian abstraction that concerns the present work.

  but what picture has Stevens criticism painted of the poet’s abstrac- tions? Scholars whose careers have shaped contemporary criticism – altieri, bloom, donoghue, frye, hillis Miller, Kermode, vendler – have all battled with Stevens before themselves becoming subject to the skirmishes of younger scholars. today, being a ‘Stevensian’ is not, at 11 12 See L, 863–4.


See ragg, ‘good-bye Major Man: reading Stevens without “Stevensian”’ WSJ 29.1 (Spring 2005),

98–105; ‘love, Wine, desire: Stevens’ “Montrachet-le-Jardin” and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

13 WSJ 30.2 (fall ), 194ff. 14 15 CPP, 329. Ibid., 336, 333. 16 Ibid., 47.


Select works include: charles altieri, Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry

(cambridge: cambridge University Press, ; harold bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems



  7 least in north america, a cranky activity; and, as recent conferences reveal, critical interest in Stevens will excite equally vociferous debate in the twenty-first century and no doubt beyond. More even than

  Yeats, eliot, auden, Moore, Pound or Williams, Stevens continues to upset and inspire critics in the extreme. arguably, he achieves first place among twentieth-century poets for garnering the largest groups of detractors and zealots, ones for whom abstraction often proves a burn- ing issue. as lee Jenkins has observed, Stevens’ early reputation on both sides of the atlantic was dogged by charges of dandyism, effeteness, even irre- sponsibility; charges variously traced to fin de siècle aestheticism and the gradually, more posi-

  Symbolist-inspired ‘pure poetry’ of Harmonium. tive accounts of Stevens’ relations with aestheticism, Symbolism and nevertheless, doubt persists as to whether Stevens has anything to say, irrespective of his undeniable talent for poetic speech; raising suspicion his own work is hopelessly ‘abstract’ in a pejorative sense. from the late 1980s to the present, following the aftermath of deconstructionist criticism, debate surrounding Stevens’ responses to social and political realities – particularly the depression and the Second World War – has been especially acute. but whilst historicist accounts have yielded vital information about Stevens’ quotidian exist- ence – as poet, art-collector and surety bond lawyer – there is obvious disagreement as to how Stevens’ times affected his poetry and vice versa;


of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern American Poetry (new York: columbia University Press,

); northrop frye, ‘The realistic oriole: a Study of Wallace Stevens’ in Wallace Stevens: A

Collection of Critical Essays ed. Marie borroff (englewood cliffs, nJ: Prentice hall, , 161–76;

J. hillis Miller, ‘Theoretical and atheoretical in Stevens’ in Wallace Stevens: A Celebration ed.

frank doggett and robert buttel (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); helen vendler, ‘The Qualified

assertions of Wallace Stevens’ in The Act of Mind: Essays on the Poetry of Wallace Stevens ed.

roy harvey Pearce and J. hillis Miller (baltimore, Md: Johns hopkins University Press, ,

17 163–78.


‘celebrating Wallace Stevens: The Poet of Poets in connecticut’ (2004), University of

connecticut; ‘Wallace Stevens’ (2004), University of london; ‘fifty Years on: Wallace Stevens

18 in europe’ (2005), rothermere american institute, oxford. See WSJ 28.2, 29.1, 30.1. 19

lee M. Jenkins, Wallace Stevens: Rage for Order (brighton: Sussex University Press, ), 3–4.


See Milton J. bates, Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self (berkeley: University of california Press,

); Michel benamou, Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination (Princeton, nJ: Princeton

University Press, ; george bornstein, Transformations of Romanticism in Yeats, Eliot, and

20 Stevens (chicago, il: University of chicago Press, ).


See Marjorie Perloff, ‘Pound/Stevens: whose era?’ in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the

21 Poetry of the Pound Tradition (evanston, il: northwestern University Press ), 2.

  8 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction and it has been especially hard for historicist criticism to align contextual politics with poetic practice.

  Painted most negatively, Stevens is usually accused of being doomed to a kind of aloof abstraction that disabled him from writing verse adequate to his epoch; despite his avowal that the poet of ‘any time’ he is fre- quently charged with writing without feeling; and even ‘Stevensians’, typically, the ‘abstract side’ of Stevens’ writing disappoints readers who want literature to have an overt relationship with everyday life. halliday, despite his admiration, mounts ‘a moral critique of Stevens’ as a writer whose work apparently embodies ‘an objectionable with- Such didacticism overlooks not only the range of Stevens’ work, but the reach of poetry itself. Sadly, the tendency to equate ‘the abstract’ with ‘the inhuman’ has triggered the majority of misplaced charges of oblivi- ousness on Stevens’ part.

  This nominally ‘inhuman’ side assumes a different complexion, how- ever, once a more imaginative ear is given to abstraction. vendler suggests Stevens’ poetry specializes in ‘second-order reflection’ – rather than ‘first- order personal narrative’. but, as vendler suggests, this dichotomy masks something subtler: ‘the distinction is so crude as to be false, because all good poetry pretending to be first-order poetry […] is in fact implicitly second-order poetry by virtue of its having arranged its first-order narra- Thus Stevens cannot be superficially a ‘second- order’ poet who transmutes ‘first-order’ concerns for precisely the reason vendler gives for the distinction’s failure to hold. nevertheless, the idea that an abstract poetic has an abundantly human task is given weight by the calculated poetic interaction of ‘second-order’ and ‘first-order’ concerns.

  Sympathetic critics, therefore, counter the inhumanity charge by sug- 22 gesting Stevens, like Yeats, is a high-priest of the imagination, an american 23 CPP, 639.


See Jenkins, Wallace Stevens, 3; george lensing, ‘Wallace Stevens in england’ in Wallace

Stevens: A Celebration ed. frank doggett and robert buttel (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University

Press, 1980), 130–48; carolyn Masel, ‘Stevens and england: a difficult crossing’ WSJ 25.2

(2001), 122–37; Milton J. bates, ‘Pain is human: Wallace Stevens at ground Zero’ The Southern

24 Review 39. ), 169. 25 Mark halliday, Stevens and the Interpersonal (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 94.



  9 coleridge without coleridge’s metaphysics, an emersonian who knew a thing or two about pain; even, paradoxically, because of a superficial as Stevens himself remarked: ‘Sentimentality certainly, Stevens stands to one side of the crowd, scrutinizing how poetry becomes a viable part of life; a writer unlikely to be swept up by political or literary movements even as he was influ- The place of abstraction in that project is undeniable; but the impetus for this study emanates from the misconceptions that very abstract aesthetic has aroused. one upshot of sympathetic historicist work, however, has been an over- emphasis on the role Stevens’ poetry plays in responding to political and social issues. although cleghorn declares Stevens ‘ideologically elusive’, he suggests ‘description Without Place’ exacts a ‘deconstruction’ of the

  ‘expansionist rhetoric’ of american foreign policy in 1945. Schaum views Stevens as ‘centrally political’, arguing the poet ‘provides startling insights into the fictions of history, the rhetorical “illusions” by which we as social Similarly, brogan finds Stevens to be a ‘very polit- filreis also claims Stevens’ misgivings about the new critics – especially allen tate’s ferocious response to the ‘brooks–Macleish’ call for a nationalistic war

  Yielding to the pressure to answer Perloff’s damning appraisal of Notes


Toward a Supreme Fiction, such responses over-state Stevens’ readability as a

  politically concerned poet, sacrificing the particularities of the poetry to the general argument that poetry challenges commonsensical understandings Whilst Stevens criticism has been enriched by re- 26 examination of the interaction between history, politics and poetry, there is


See richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (london: faber, ,

27 178–80. 28 CPP, 903. 29 See CPP, 665.

angus J. cleghorn, Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric (new York: Palgrave,

30 24.

  Melita Schaum, ‘lyric resistance: views of the Political in the Poetics of Wallace Stevens and 31 h.d.’ WSJ 13., 204, 200.


Jacqueline brogan, ‘Wrestling with those “rotted names”: Wallace Stevens’ and adrienne

32 rich’s “revolutionary Poetics”’ WSJ 25., 19, 23.

alan filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press,

33 ), 80.


See Perloff, ‘revolving in crystal’, 41–64. Perloff refers explicitly to the cummington Press edi-

tion. elsewhere i refer to ‘notes’ as a single poem, as it appears, tardily, in Transport to Summer

  10 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction obviously a danger in implying Stevens was this politicized, however ‘pol- itical’ his apolitical gestures appear and however much political readings historicist accounts have also shied from abstraction, unless the concept is linked with the poet’s early isolationism or the later polit- ical dimension of abstract expressionism. but the tendency to defend Stevens excessively derives from the sheer abstract ambiguity of his often enigmatic verse. With critical hindsight, it also appears that Stevens’ own abstract terms seemingly resist novel interpretation. ‘Major man’, a ‘new romantic’, a ‘supreme fiction’, ‘the first idea’, ‘the death of the gods’, ‘the imagination–reality complex’, ‘the fluent mundo’, ‘the abstract’ itself: the choice terms of Stevens’ mid-career furnish the reader with a ready-made vocabulary for reading back into the poetry. it is an idiom which provides the illusion that Stevens’ work constitutes a ‘harmo- nious whole’, a tendency critics assume the poet encouraged in want- ing to title his 1954 Collected Poems ‘The Whole of harmonium’ (even although Stevens actually spent a lifetime resisting a collected edition of his work).

  Several critics complain of the effects abstract, and often binary, terms serve critically. leggett laments the ‘imagination-reality termin- cleghorn observes

  Proponents of a ‘theory’ through which readers can navigate Stevens’ work often strive in vain to discover the ‘metaphysic’, as frye assumes, that informs his ‘poetic vision’ or the ‘theory of knowledge’ that informs typically, in the absence of a discernible ‘theory’, critics harness another vocabulary for support, either beyond or deriv- ing from Stevens. donoghue’s epiphany where he reports want- ing ‘to give up [Stevens’] privileged terms, or to go beyond or beneath them’ is telling, as is vendler’s contemporaneous move to a vocabulary of 34 ‘desire’


filreis admits: ‘Those of us who have tried to make manifest the political life of an apparently

unpolitical poet found the requirements of the project were so daunting […] that we had to

make short work of sound in readings of poems where the music of words is obviously central’,

35 ‘Sound at an impasse’ WSJ 31.1 ( , 21. 36 See L, 834, 829.

b. J. leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory: Conceiving the Supreme Fiction (chapel hill,

  37 nc: University of north carolina Press, 80. 38 cleghorn, Wallace Stevens’ Poetics, 3. 39 frye, ‘The realistic oriole’, 161.

denis donoghue, ‘two notes on Stevens’ WSJ 4.3/4 ( , 44; helen vendler, Wallace



  11 comparative work on Stevens has, therefore, proven critically popular. Stevens’ abstract vocabulary appears less intimidating when contextualized through nietzsche, William James, emerson, the british romantics, other american Modernists, or various continental thinkers and writers. not only does comparison provide Stevens’ readers with various intellectual and poetic contexts, it deflects the totalizing power Stevens’ mid-career vocabu- lary wields. for Stevens criticism has not only suffered from binary oppos- itions or enigmatic terms. its main abstract figures, championed in ‘notes’, feature frequently in self-confirming readings of the poet’s work. a critical idiom, ‘Stevensian’, establishes a hermeneutic circle in which the corpus itself ‘revolv[es] in crystal’, where every phase of Stevens’ writing is reducible to the terminology that actually only dominates the period in which Stevens first embraced abstraction: 1935–45. among this book’s claims is that the ‘fluent mundo’ is not co-extensive with the Stevens corpus; that Stevens’ need to create a vocabulary advertising abstraction was born of the early 1930s and did not survive the mid-1940s; that it was not until his final decade that he fully absorbed abstraction; and that, if Stevens is to be read afresh, a revision- ist account of how and why he was drawn to ‘the abstract’ must be found.

  My concern, therefore, is more with re-examining what abstraction represented to Stevens – through a combination of close-readings and review of the documentary evidence, published and unpublished – and less with arguing with Stevens critics on their own terms. as pragmatism cautions, the latter would only give credibility to the very vocabulary one one example of ‘Stevensian’ at work, however, should suffice in demonstrating how approaching so ‘abstract’ a subject as ‘Stevensian abstraction’ requires careful choices of vocabulary. harold bloom reads ‘notes’ through Stevens’ ‘first idea’, the abstract notion that poem itself scrutinizes, observing:


for Stevens, an image is an obsession […] and so he tries to demystify it by a

reduction to its first idea, a fate or reality supposedly beyond further reduction.

but […] he undergoes a recognition of the first idea (itself an ‘imagined thing’

or image) and then finds he is in danger of being dehumanized by this freedom

of substitution, since substitution is its own meaning, as though to-put-into-

question was what would suffice. Thus Stevens moves on to a fresh recognition

or retroactive meaningfulness of the first idea as a potentia (both Power and

40 passion) or pathos, or as he says […] the fiction that results from feeling. 41 CPP, 351.


See richard rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (cambridge: cambridge University Press,

  12 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction bloom struggles here to illuminate Stevens’ ‘first idea’, despite harnessing his own emersonian ‘triad’ of fate, freedom and Power. bloom’s enig- matic ‘american orphism’ cannot ultimately compete with Stevens’ ter- minology, as his resorting to both the ‘first idea’ and troping the poet’s own phrases demonstrates (‘what [would] suffice’, ‘the fiction that results This is not to imply Stevens’ work does not reflect on itself or that it is illegitimate to refer to Stevensian terms per se. it is to stress the tendency of an abstract vocabulary to dominate interpretation; although i distinguish between Stevens’ terminology in situ and ‘Stevensian’, the critical language requiring translation into less abstract idioms.

  Stevens created, therefore, a seductive idiom which can encourage uncritical familiarity (leggett wittily observes that bloom himself suffers richardson even insists on the necessity of learning Stevens’ ‘language’ before approaching his verse. but this strategy risks foregrounding only one element of Stevens’ achieve- ment at the expense of reading the poetry intimately. Similarly, if criticism can only make limited use of ‘Stevensian’, comparative studies can suffer from reifying a substitute language in place of reading Stevens at all. for example, bové’s analysis of ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) shows more familiarity with heidegger than it does with Stevens and risks rendering heidegger

  and Stevens unintelligible. referring to Stevens’ ‘listener’, bové writes:

he is ‘nothing himself,’ that is, he is ontologically identical with the other inso-

far as they are both part of ‘what-is’ existing in and by virtue of ‘nothing’ […]

he senses the falsity of the dualistic separation of res cogitans and res extensa and

sees the primordiality of being-in-the-World, alongside the World, as a structure

  Pragmatist discourse also urges not investing foundational or ‘metaphys- ical’ priority in any one vocabulary. rorty wryly comments of heidegger’s language: ‘heideggerese is only heidegger’s gift to us, not being’s gift to heidegger’ (he also brings heidegger and derrida to task for re-capitulat- 43 ing what heidegger himself calls ‘the tradition of onto-theology’)for 44 Ibid., 5; see CPP, 218–19, 351. 45 leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 70.


Joan richardson, ‘learning Stevens’s language: The Will & the Weather’ in Teaching Wallace

Stevens: Practical Essays ed. John n. Serio and b. J. leggett (Knoxville, tn: University of

46 tennessee Press ), 140–55.


Paul a. bové, Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry (new York: columbia

47 University Press ), 190–1.

richard rorty, ‘Wittgenstein, heidegger and the reification of language’ in Essays on


Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers vol. ii (cambridge: cambridge University Press,



  13 rorty that tradition specializes in spawning dominant master vocabular- ies with illusory qualities. referring to derrida, he warns: ‘We may find ourselves thinking that what heidegger thought could not be effed [sic] to trope rorty, ‘Stevensian’ is only Stevens’ gift to us, not the abstract’s gift to Stevens.

  Unsurprisingly, the word ‘abstract’ has occasioned conflicting debate. leggett notes the confusing tendency of associating abstraction with a) isolating ‘reality’ without the interference of the imagination and b) cre- it will become clear that i consider Stevensian abstraction an idealist process that coincides with neither of these positions. leggett himself traces Stevens’ ‘abstract’


  to the poet’s reading of i. a. richards’ Coleridge on Imagination although leggett is right to link Stevensian abstraction with coleridgean idealism, i suggest a need to go beyond richards’ coleridge to the


Biographia Literaria and other idealist phenomena for support. clearly,

  no single textual source of influence exists for an imaginative process that evolved gradually in Stevens. it is, therefore, through a range of vocabu- laries that Stevens’ ‘abstract’ may be read afresh. The point of focusing on the term is not merely that ‘major man’, a ‘supreme fiction’ and Stevens’ other figures are abstract. one simply cannot understand the poet Stevens becomes, both during 1935–45 and throughout his career, without some account of what abstraction meant to him personally and in practice. as Patke observes, Stevens’ 1900 journal entry, noting that ‘the idea of life in the abstract’ was a subject worthy of ‘some reflection’, proved but what specific critical arguments con- cerning abstraction should be grasped? Stevens’ occasional companion richard eberhart appreciated how the abstract quality of Stevens’ writ- nthony hecht, though ambivalent, observed Stevens’ interest in ‘the very beauty of the abstract doggett, meanwhile, suggested Stevensian abstraction ‘contains something of the drama of being and of a specific ellmann, keen to dispense with treating Stevens the man 48 and poet as categorically distinct, remarks: ‘Stevens presented a mode 49 rorty, ‘Philosophy as a Kind of Writing’, 101. 50 leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 34.


rajeev S. Patke, The Long Poems of Wallace Stevens: An Interpretative Study (cambridge:

51 cambridge University Press, 130. 52 richard eberhart, ‘notes to a class in adult education’ Accent 7.4 (1947), 251–3. 53 anthony hecht, ‘a Sort of heroism’ Hudson Review 1 –8), 607.

  14 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction of apprehending reality that is also a reflection of the inner mechan- ism of that reality’, adding that, in composition, Stevens ‘was both actor and spectator’. indirectly, ‘his poems are fragments of the grand con- it is partly this study’s intention to demonstrate the role abstraction plays in that dramatization, particularly with regard to Stevens’ quotidian experience, his gastronomic and aesthetically catholic imagination.

  This dramatic component, however, is rarely conceived as such. randall Jarrell was quick to question Stevens’ abstract side: ‘little of Stevens’ work has the dramatic immediacy, the mesmeric, involving human- ity, of so much of Yeats’ and frost’s poetry […] [t]hese cool, clear, airy poems, which tower above us […] ought to be sailing over other heads Jarrell’s nuanced prose indicates reservation and grudging admiration, implying the ‘flight’ of Stevens’ poetry is culp- able in aiming for heights even a ‘poetry audience’ would find perplex- ing. ‘ought’ is similarly loaded: implying an unpalatable future where Stevens’ poetry will continue to tower over its audience as it revels in its own aerial detachment. although Schwartz discussed Stevensian abstraction as early as 1938 (as

chapter 2 reveals), it was not until the 1940s that the subject was substan-

  tially addressed. Such critical attention coincided not only with the collec- tions following Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction but with Stevens’ post-war Stevens’ library testifies, in fact, to his minute tracking of the criticism appearing after 1945 (to which holly Stevens added), the poet binding in red leather publication of blackmur’s ‘Poetry and Sensibility’; cunningham’s ‘The Poetry of Wallace Stevens’ and frankenburg’s ‘variations on Wallace Stevens’; 1950, louis Martz’s ‘The World of Wallace Stevens’ and o’connor’s monograph The Shaping Spirit. by 1952, Morse’s ‘Motive for Metaphor’ composed the entire issue of Origin V, whilst deutsch’s Poetry 54

in Our Time mounted an ambivalent critique of Stevens’ careerin the

richard ellmann, ‘how Wallace Stevens Saw himself’ in Wallace Stevens: A Celebration ed.

55 frank doggett and robert buttel (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 170. 56 randall Jarrell, ‘very graceful are the Uses of culture’ Harper’s 209 ( , 100.


See Milton J. bates, ‘Stevens’ books at the huntington: an annotated checklist (concluded)’

57 WSJ 3.1/2 (1979), 25–6. 58 Voices ‘Wallace Stevens issue’ 121 (1945).

r. P. blackmur, ‘Poetry and Sensibility: Some rules of Thumb’ Poetry 71.5, 271–6; J. v.



  15 poet’s final years, the Selected Poems was reviewed by bernard bergonzi and the Collected Poems by Jarrell, whilst Schwartz was among the first to by 1956, however, William carlos Williams observed: ‘i have no confi- dence that anyone will read the poems of Wallace Stevens tomorrow. The f

  Stevens had not then attained a sizeable audience, the explosion in criticism of the next half-century was something Williams was neither willing nor able to anticipate (Williams was not alone in pondering Stevens’ reputation, nly eight years later riddel would write what remains one of the best assessments of Stevens’ career (‘The contours of criticism’) in an in the Voices issue brinnin suggested that Stevens’ idealist abstractions are essentially sensory:


Stevens possesses a belief in the reality of the sensory object […] consequently

he is to be observed on sensuous excursions into the impure image itself, the

manifest object, and not to the image as a copy emanating from the idea. if it is

possible to understand how it feels to be a pear, a green light on the sea, a bowl

of flowers, Stevens manages […] to say that he does.

  This recalls ‘a rabbit as King of the ghosts’ (1937) which imagines what it feels like to be a rabbit or shade of a rabbit: where ‘nothing is left except light on your fur’ and where one ‘feel[s] that the light is a rabbit-light’. given that he only had access to Stevens’ work up to 1945, brinnin’s insight into the idealist quality of Stevensian abstraction was unusually appreciative. however, reviewing Transport to Summer, blackmur declared Stevens had grown ‘prolific, and sometimes prolix’. although he admired Stevens’


louis l. Martz, ‘The World of Wallace Stevens’ in Modern American Poetry ed. b. rajan

(london: denis dobson, ), 94–109; William van o’connor, The Shaping Spirit: A Study

of Wallace Stevens (chicago, il: regnery, ), entire issue; babette deutsch, Poetry in Our Time (new York: henry holt,

59 ).

bernard bergonzi, ‘The Sound of a blue guitar’ Nine: A Magazine of Literature and the Arts 10

(1953–4), 48–51; randall Jarrell, ‘The collected Poems of Wallace Stevens’ The Yale Review ( ,


340–53; delmore Schwartz, ‘Wallace Stevens: an appreciation’ The New Republic (22 august

60 , 20–2. 61 W. c. Williams, ‘comment: Wallace Stevens’ Poetry 87. ), 237.


See alan filreis, ‘Stevens/Pound in the cold War’ WSJ 26.2 ( ), 181–93. filreis jokes about

62 ‘the great Stevensian consolidation’, 186. 63 Joseph n. riddel, ‘The contours of Stevens criticism’ ELH 31.1 (1964), 106–38.

  16 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘absolute content of sensibility’, blackmur was alienated by the ‘unusually high number’ of words that are ‘recognizably a part of a special vocabu- lary’, which ‘not charged and fixed by forces outside the vocabulary, will obliterate the perceptions it specializes’. evidently blackmur felt short- changed by Stevens’ abstract master-vocabulary (whose ‘meanings’ might

  ‘disappear with use’)blackmur’s ‘an abstraction blooded’ had argued that abstraction ‘requires constant iteration and constant experience’; but his previous fervour for ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ proved unsus- frankenburg, by contrast, recognized the painterly qualities of

  Stevens’ ‘abstract’, associating ‘a Study of two Pears’ (1938) with cézanne and noting affinities between Stevens, Klee, de chirico and Miró. like brinnin, frankenburg appreciated how an abstract poetic could paradox- ically be intimate, suggesting: ‘Klee’s description […] of “a line taking a but it was not until the 1950s that Stevens was even considered a writer of ‘ideas’. in 1950 Martz paid tribute to Stevens’ ‘explorations into the realm of the pure idea’, adding: ‘Stevens is often called a hater of ideas and of reason […] Notes toward a Supreme Fiction should dispel any mis- conception.’ discussing ‘It Must Be Abstract’, Martz observed:


note here the interaction of precise generality and precise concreteness, each

supporting and enriching the other, as if the abstract definition were a flower

or a grove. and indeed it is: the flower, the grove, perceived in candour, define

  Martz understood how an ‘abstract definition’ might be the portal to novel aesthetic experience. however, even as supportive a reader as o’connor struggled with

  Stevens’ more abstract poems:


[Stevens’] abstraction[s] or generalization[s] […] will rarely if ever sound fatu-

ous. on occasion, however, the abstractions lack the power to arouse our feel-

ings. one finds such lines more often in the later poems, as in Esthétique du

Mal or A Primitive like an Orb. in ‘chocorua to its neighbor’ […] one may

read with the sense that a subject is being made ready to declare itself […] but

finally come to recognize that the poem says […] in the first few stanzas all that

is to be said. ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ exhibits […] some of the same

65 weaknesses 66 blackmur, ‘Poetry and Sensibility’, 271–3. 67 blackmur, ‘an abstraction blooded’ Partisan Review 10.3 (1943), 298. 68 frankenburg, Pleasure Dome, 221–2

chapter 7 discusses Stevens and Klee. Martz, ‘The World of Wallace Stevens’, 98, 100.



  17 even critics who applauded Stevens’ ‘philosophical’ side were, therefore, ambivalent about its ‘abstractions’. failure to ‘arouse’ feeling was not the only problem. The association of abstraction with generalization led critics to see Stevens’ most abstract poems as un-poetic, ‘vague and unrealized’; lacking the ‘subtly elaborated subject-matter’ o’connor found in other,

  Morse, however, queried the assumptions at the root of typical portray- als of Stevens’ work:


[t]he gusto that many readers would not question in […] the early poems, sim-

ply because it is directed toward things and sensory experience, seems to many

of those same readers almost morally reprehensible when directed toward ‘ser-

ious’ ideas. Stevens himself tends to accentuate this split between poetry and

philosophy in his description of philosophy as an ‘official view’ of being and

poetry as an ‘unofficial view’; but when he is […] writing poetry, he refuses to

  certainly, Stevens romanticized or vilified philosophy according to his poetic needs, as eeckhout notes. eeckhout also describes ‘Stevens’ end- however, as

chapter 4 suggests, this notion requires challenging because ‘sense

  impressions’ and ‘abstractions’ are not necessarily conflictive. Stevens delights in abstractions of sense impressions, or abstract notions that re-invite imaginative scrutiny of our own senses. Speaking of Parts of a


World, Morse did complain that some poems ‘remain abstractions […]

  [t]hey do not take on the “radiance” that Stevens cherishes’ but he was Morse also defended Stevens from ‘deliberately set[ting] out to epater les bourgeois’: ‘his con- stant concern is rather to find some way to demonstrate that “The poet

  The paradox Stevens’ readers confront is how abstract reflections conjure commonality, ordinariness and ‘the normal’ without promulgating hol- low generalizations. This is especially clear in the later poetry and is one regard in which Stevens refined his developing sense of abstraction. if Morse did not conceive the ‘bourgeois’ aesthetic

  70 addresses below, deutsch saw Stevens in domestic terms whilst sharing 71 Ibid., 131. 72 Morse, ‘Motive for Metaphor’, 57–8.


eeckhout, ‘Stevens and Philosophy’ in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens ed. John n.

73 Serio (cambridge: cambridge University Press, ), 107.

  18 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction o’connor’s reservations about abstraction. noting Stevens’ ingenuity in ‘domesticat[ing] the savage Southern night’ deutsch resisted the poet’s ‘abstract sound’, complaining that ‘the manipulation of sound values’ admittedly, deutsch was seeking an idiom to tie down an elusive subject, reasonably suggest- ing how Stevens’ ‘imagery tends to be visual rather than auditory […] yet the tone-color of certain titles […] indicates his feeling for abstract sound’. but what deutsch meant by ‘abstract sound’ remains unclear: ‘[Stevens’] work is divided between poems that are rich, clear transcripts of reality and poems that talk rather abstractly about the gulf between the ultimate reality and its various appearances’. deutsch only helped foster the con- ception of Stevens as an ‘aloof […] music maker’ who ‘lets a problem of

  Such reductive criticism is compounded by over-attention to in 1952, of course, commentators could not read the more ‘personal’ poems of The Rock or ‘late Stevens’. Thus, Stevens’ work post-Harmonium tended to be viewed as abstract evasion. if bergonzi claimed it ‘foolish’ to accuse the poet of ‘being cut off from reality’, he concluded Stevens’ ‘phenom- although Stevens’ work up to

  1952 is hardly ‘a barren achievement’, bergonzi argued the poet had paid ‘the penalty of viewing the world purely as an aesthetic phenomenon’. as with r. S. Thomas’ ‘Wallace Stevens’, the notion that Stevens’ world constitutes a solitary, dry abstraction has stuck, in large part because read- ers are uncomfortable not merely with abstractions as generalizations but

  Just as over-attention to Harmonium is traceable to a dislike of abstrac- tion, so too is The Rock’s favourable reception, even though The Rock has its own abstract poetics. Jarrell had, of course, read The Rock when he reviewed Stevens’ Collected Poems. but it was Jarrell’s earlier reservations concerning The Auroras of Autumn that galvanized his embrace of The


Rock, where he latterly discovered poems in which ‘it seems to us that

76 we are feeling […] what it is to be human’. This essay forms a pivotal 77 78 deutsch, Poetry in Our Time, 243–4. Ibid., 250, 377, 252.


Marius bewley complained of this tendency as early as 1949 in ‘The Poetry of Wallace Stevens’

(Wallace Stevens: A Critical Anthology ed. irvin ehrenpreis [harmondsworth: Penguin, ],

79 162–82). bergonzi suggests Stevens’ ‘first volume remains unsurpassed’, 49. 80 bergonzi, ‘The Sound of a blue guitar’, 51. 81 Ibid., 51.



  19 moment in Stevens criticism, polarizing appreciation of The Rock at the expense of the equally fine The Auroras of Autumn: ‘equally fine’ because imagine The Auroras of Autumn without poems such as ‘large red Man reading’ or ‘This Solitude of cataracts’, easily companion pieces to the ‘personal’ lyrics Jarrell favours in The Rock. in 1951 Jarrell observed:


When the first thing that Stevens can find to say of the Supreme fiction is that ‘it

must be abstract,’ the reader protests, ‘Why, even hegel called it a concrete uni-

versal’ […] Stevens has the weakness – a terrible one for a poet, a steadily increas-

ing one in Stevens – of thinking of particulars as primarily illustrations of general

  as leggett observes, this simplistically equates the abstract with gen- eralization as a force opposed to the concrete/particular. What Jarrell dismisses as inconsistency – that Stevens ‘is never more philosophical, abstract, rational’ than when he tells the reader to have faith in ‘nothing but immediate sensations, perceptions, aesthetic particulars’ – is, viewed Jarrell’s champion- ing of The Rock, however, unfortunately led to a lack of appreciation for Stevens’ more abstract late work.

  Schwartz was more generous in his retrospective, observ- ing: ‘Stevens, studying Picasso and Matisse, made the art of poetry vis- ual in a way it has never been before’; as the poet variously combined ‘Shakespeare, cubism, the Symbolist movement and modern philosophy Just as Schwartz astutely recognized the abstract possibil- ities of ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ (see

chapter 2 ), he appreciated

  early how Stevens synthesized abstract notions in contemporary art with philosophical reflection, idealism especially. contra Kenneth burke – who thought Stevens 150 years late in exploring idealism – Schwartz understood it was not so much Stevens’ subject-matter that mattered, but

Stevensian abstraction re-examines how poetry might be ‘visual’, pre- cisely through conjuring the ‘in-visible’ (a term

  borrows from Merleau-Ponty). abstraction enables a poetry that, as ‘The creations of Sound’ (1944) remarks, makes the visible ‘a little hard / to see’ (note not 83 impossible to see). 84 Jarrell, ‘reflections on Wallace Stevens’ Partisan Review 18 (1951), 339. 85 Ibid., 341. 86 Schwartz, ‘Wallace Stevens’, 21.

  20 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction in ‘The contours of Stevens criticism’ riddel subsequently argued that Stevens’ ‘final composure’ lies in ‘the power of the self to be […] for riddel, Stevens criticism had overlooked the poet’s career-long battle to effect this achievement: ‘critics who maintain that Stevens’ stylistic changes are simply new jars for old moonshine sacrifice much of this sub- The present study explains how an abstract aesthetic had to grow on Stevens in order for him to grow into it. like riddel, i refrain from totalizing the corpus (‘The Whole of harmonium’), however much Stevens’ self- referential gestures are inter-textually engaging. The cracks in that world beautifully emerge, in fact, in Stevens’ questioning of abstraction. it is not that Stevens’ later work moves from the more baffling abstractions of his middle phase (including The Auroras of Autumn) to the plainer, more ‘domestic’ speculations of the late poetry. Such a claim misleads not merely because ‘last Stevens’ involves such extremely abstract poems as ‘of Mere being’ or ‘as at a Theatre’, but because the final poetry actively blends ‘personal’ and nominally ‘impersonal’ expression. Moreover, ever since ‘The Man with the blue guitar’, if not before, Stevens purposively incorporated ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ abstract gestures into his writing. but we should also recall Kermode’s cautionary words: ‘Many books and articles on Stevens fall into the trap of treating him as a philosopher

  […] [o]ne would hardly suspect that they were talking about a poet at certainly, Stevens’ priority was to produce poetry, even although he was aware of the intellectual changes then conjoining ‘disciplines’ however, the very fact Stevens tended to embrace philosophy when it catalysed his poetry or reified ‘Philosophy’ as pejoratively ‘abstract’ when it proved less than inspiring accentuates how abstraction engages poet- ical/philosophical exchange. irving howe had suggested Stevens ‘himself was partly to blame’ for the problem Kermode highlights (‘at his prolific nevertheless, it is critical to refine the relations between philosophy and poetry in Stevens’ work, especially as abstraction often proves the sorry 88 bridge for more critical earnestness than the poetry deserves: a verse at 89 riddel, ‘The contours of Stevens criticism’, 136. 90 Ibid., 134. 91 frank Kermode, ‘Preface to 1989 edition’ in Wallace Stevens, xv.



  21 once philosophically playful and poetically preoccupied with experien- cing ideas.

  Kermode also warns: ‘There is a poetry of the abstract; if you do not like it, even when it is firmly rooted in the particulars of the world, you will not like Stevens’, adding: ‘Stevens approved the saying of valéry’s Socrates, that “Man fabricates by abstraction”.’ fredric Jameson would seemingly exemplify Kermode’s point about abstract poetry dividing opinion. for Jameson, Stevens’ ‘astonishing linguistic richness’ and his ‘impoverish- Stevens’ language ‘at once empties itself by calling attention to its own hollowness This reductive position implies Stevens’ idealism is essentially frustrated. however, if Stevens tries to ‘touch’ reality – whilst necessarily being at an aesthetic remove from ‘the real’ – such idealism affords him consid- erable negative capability. readers may complain the poetry lacks sus- taining content, but their complaints constitute preferences for different varieties of verse rather than compelling evidence for supposing ‘poetry’ and ‘abstraction’ are definitively opposed. one further paradox has alienated critics: namely, that abstraction shares in common things, even embodies ‘commonality’. cook, however, is refreshingly alive to this dimension:


My sense of Stevens’ word ‘abstract’ is consistent with i. a. richards’s use in his

Coleridge on Imagination […] richards conceives of an ‘ “all-inclusive myth” that

would provide the kind of nature “that the religions in the past have attempted

to provide for man.”’ Stevens starts ‘it Must be abstract’ with a play on ‘be,’ and

  cook is quoting leggett quoting richards. on her reading, the ‘doctrine of being’ allies fiction and abstract conception; just as Stevens would note in quasi-theological terms: ‘the fictive abstract is as immanent in the mind cook thereby focuses the common sharing of beliefs abstraction breeds. in fact, she goes further in her reading of ‘notes’: ‘The revelation of major 93 man in his particulars should remain private, though in his abstraction, 94 Kermode, Wallace Stevens, 46, 102. See CPP, 883.


fredric Jameson, ‘Wallace Stevens’ in Critical Essays on Wallace Stevens ed. Steven gould axelrod

95 and helen deese (boston, Ma: g. K. hall, , 178. 96 Jameson, ‘Wallace Stevens’, 190.

eleanor cook, Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens (Princeton, nJ: Princeton

  22 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction cal definition of Stevens’ hero figure. but in 1942 Stevens was not poetic- ally equipped to convey how abstraction might comprise the ‘commonal’.

  That was a project for his final decade. nevertheless, cook rightly hones the multiple senses of Stevens’ ‘abstract’, even in the same sections of ‘notes’: ‘“abstract” as compendium merges with “abstract” as “inconceiv- ese notions, particularly the

  ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’, are refined and synthesized throughout this book. beyond filreis’ pioneering historicism, longenbach’s account help- fully contextualizes Stevens’ embrace of abstraction. for longenbach, the abstract spirit of Stevens’ early 1940s writing marks ‘not a retreat from the political content of the social realism of the 1930s’ but ‘a rebellion against the coercive demand of ideological explicitness’ and ‘an assertion of inter- nationalist values’. longenbach cites the 1943 abstract expressionist manifesto ‘globalism’, spearheaded by rothko and gottlieb, which challenged the ‘narrow political isolationism’ still persisting after Pearl harbor. These painters sought ‘a language transcending the barriers of There was noth- ing ahistorical or solipsistic to this approach. The abstract expressionists were, longenbach explains, resisting propagandist art precisely because that art represented a caricature of the world.

  Thus, ‘to say “it must be abstract” is to assert that “it cannot possibly be otherwise than abstract” and that “it cannot possibly leave the histor- certainly, Stevens’ abstract side is misinterpreted if construed as a desire to quit history or contemporary society. in harness- ing blanchot and focillon especially, this book shows how Stevens cannot sensibly be accused of such escapism. as longenbach suggests: ‘the impos- sibility of sustaining the imperative “it must be abstract” is not a failure to be overcome but a dialectic to be embraced’, adding, ‘if the purely abstract’ necessarily evades us, ‘the continual effort to remake the supreme fiction is the only way we can approach the condition of abstraction, retaining the fiction’s availability to all people in all places and times’. 98


cook, Poetry, Word-Play and Word-War, 231. This goes further than robert Pack, who

argues: ‘The hero is an abstraction, but as he appears in each poem he becomes the concretiza-

tion of the ideal’ (Wallace Stevens: An Approach to his Poetry and Thought [new York: gordian,

99 ], 157). 100 cook, Poetry, Word-Play and Word-War, 231.


James longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (new York: oxford University

101 Press, ), 253.



  23 but it is leggett and altieri who have most persistently scrutinized the workings of abstraction in Stevens. leggett’s Wallace Stevens and


Poetic Theory disputes doggett’s, donoghue’s and Jarrell’s tendency to

  equate abstraction with ‘an aphoristic and generalizing style’ however, although leggett rightly challenges this idea, doggett’s conception of Stevens’ ‘poetry of thought’ is more nuanced than this grouping sug- leggett also disputes Martz’s attention to the ‘root meaning –


abstrahere, to draw away’ and questions how, ‘in a strange turnabout,

  the abstract is associated with the concrete, the fully realized’ but ‘the abstract’ should not be conceived as ‘the opposite of real’, a notion leggett derives from only part of Stevens’ reactions to philosophy, namely a blunt-headed distinction between ‘the real’ and ‘unreal’, the ‘official’ and

  ‘unofficial’ even if, as philosophically ‘harassing master[s]’, we main- tain abstract poetic ideas are less ‘real’ than ‘the pans above the stove, the pots on the table’, our distinction risks demoting ‘the abstract’ to a flight of fancy where the ‘more abstract’ Stevens becomes, the more unread- leggett inadvertently supports the criticism that Stevensian abstraction equals negative removal from ‘real- ity’. his uneasiness with Stevens’ most abstract poems – as he struggles to defend their abstract qualities – suggests as much. i dispute, therefore, a number of leggett’s early arguments as well as leggett is some aired more recently in Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. much closer to the spirit of Stevens’ poetry when he argues it captures ‘an epistemology by which even the most sensuous detail remains radically against this background, it is curious he did not yield to Martz, who highlights abstraction’s realization of particu- What prevents leggett from embracing Martz, however, is the thought that Stevens might, after all, be using ‘abstract’ in an unconventional sense. in other words, leggett 103 appears stuck between claiming Stevens is conventional in his use of 104 leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 18.


doggett’s ‘abstraction’ is actually linked with idealism and the ‘fictive’ (see doggett, Poetry of

105 Thought, 107 and 207ff.). 106 leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 20.


See b. J. leggett, ‘Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore: two essays and a Private review’

WSJ 10.2 (1986), 81 and ‘Stevens’ late Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens

107 ed. John n. Serio (cambridge: cambridge University Press, 2007), 65. 108 See CPP, 415, 365.

b. J. leggett, Late Stevens: The Final Fiction (baton rouge, la: louisiana State University 109 Press, 2005 ).

  24 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘abstract’ (as opposing the ‘real’) whilst suggesting an unconventional role for abstraction: namely, that it allies intimately with sensuous particulars, something his Late Stevens seems bound to deny in its ambivalence con- cerning Stevens’ most abstract poems (i also question leggett’s lumping together of hillis Miller, Pearce and riddel as adherents of an abstraction leggett does sensibly question the use of Stevens’ 1950s interest in ‘decreation’ to account for the poet’s 1942 understanding of abstraction. he addresses, therefore, ‘the conception of abstraction that Stevens him- self held when he wrote Notes’. but it is unlikely, as leggett believes, that Stevens took his 1942 reading of henri focillon literally in believ-

  Late Stevens even argues: ‘Stevens’ late poetry, unlike “notes,” does in fact embody a version of the supreme fiction, not merely as description or illustration but as a referring to a retrospective state- ment Stevens made in 1954 – which identified his ‘supreme fiction’ as the ‘central theme’ to which his other poems concerning ‘reality’ and ‘imagin- ation’ were ‘marginal’ – leggett claims Stevens finally gave ‘form to what was formless in “notes”’. certainly, the 1954 statement was revisionist. for example, the more ‘accessible’ poetry of The Rock differs in expression from the bejewelled rhetoric of ‘notes’. but there is much more to Stevens’ final work than The Rock; and, as suggested, even The Rock offers a com- pelling admixture of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ abstract manoeuvres. for instance, ‘The river of rivers in connecticut’, a poem where personal reflection is but how can The Rock or other late work realize Stevens’ ‘supreme fic- 111 tion’, however modestly? leggett’s inter-textual reading of Stevens – where


See leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 21–2. Miller insists it is ‘impossible’ to ‘walk

barefoot into reality’ and claims ‘to place reality in the imagination by abstracting it does

not mean, however, twisting it into some unreal mental fiction. it means the power to carry

the image of the very thing alive and undistorted into the mind’, J. hillis Miller, Poets of

Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (cambridge, Ma: harvard University Press, ),

246–7. Pace leggett and Miller, this last sentence does not sound like ‘reach[ing] the uncreated

rock of reality behind’. it is the ‘image’ of the very thing that is arrested rather than the thing

itself. likewise, riddel is more dialectical and idealist than leggett suggests: ‘The poet […] not

only lives by abstraction but knows he lives by abstraction […] [h]e knows that although he

lives at the edge of things, he lives in the center of himself where abstractions are created’, The

Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens (baton rouge, la: louisiana State

112 University Press, , 166. 113 leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 26. 114 See ibid., 15–16; leggett, Late Stevens, 3.



  25 Stevens is ‘read’ through other Stevens texts – encourages this notion. although Stevens’ work is unquestionably self-referential and self- reflexive, leggett thereby risks reading ‘late Stevens’ in almost purely Stevensian terms. certain readings also merely construe abstraction as negative. for example, leggett casts late and last Stevens as follows:


although difficult from the beginning, Stevens’ poetry had become increasingly

theoretical and abstract, and thus increasingly obscure, since Parts of a World

in 1942 […] The Auroras of Autumn represents the culmination of this tendency.

[…] [t]he poems of The Rock are unexpectedly plain, stripped of the imagina-

tive flourishes and epistemological quandaries of the preceding volumes. Stevens’

late poems are thus not of a piece formally or stylistically, even if they address

many of the same themes.

  Whether or not Stevens became ‘increasingly obscure’ as his poetry became ‘increasingly […] abstract’, those approaching The Rock for the first time would be surprised to hear this is a poetry ‘stripped of the imaginative flourishes’ and ‘epistemological quandaries’ of Stevens’ earlier work. certainly, The Rock addresses the quotidian in an idiom desiring plainness or ordinariness. but this change of tone reveals a poet more accommodated to abstraction rather than one correcting too abstract an idiom. it is as though leggett denies Stevens his more abstract poems because they do not, apparently, sit comfortably with the ‘personal’ engagements of The Rock: Jarrell once again. admittedly, leggett knows his position is complicated by the overtly abstract ‘last Stevens’, the poetry written after such ‘final’ pieces as ‘not ideas about the Thing but the Thing itself’ and ‘The Planet on the table’. referring to the uncollected poems in Opus Posthumous from 1954–55, leggett claims: ‘as a group, these poems […] are less accessible than the poems of The Rock, more abstract, less personal. “as You leave the room,” “of Mere being” and “reality is an activity of the Most august imagination” would have been at home in The Rock. “The Sail of Ulysses” would not.’ but if The Rock is ‘more personal’, how can ‘of

  Mere being’ be ‘at home in The Rock’? leggett himself describes ‘of Mere being’ as one of ‘the coldest and most impersonal of the last poems’. leggett’s negative rendering overlooks Stevens’ ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ expres-


sions of abstraction; which obliterate the nominal ‘tension’ in the late

  poetry between abstract expression v. ‘reality’, between a ‘poetry of ideas’ v. one of domestic reflections on old-age or the quotidian.

  26 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction by contrast, altieri argues of Stevens’ work:


These exercises in abstraction have the important consequence of enabling us

to display to ourselves human powers […] one cannot defend Stevens’ ideas as

ideas without denying the paradox on which they are founded – that their value

as ideas is not in their truth claims per se but in the life they create within the

  This performative quality is crucial. altieri maintains, however, that Stevens was not aping Modernist art: ‘Stevens derived his principles from painterly examples […] but familiarity need not entail influence […] Stevens wants to pose poetic language as a form of abstraction more res- onant and representative than anything produced for the eye.’ altieri thus implicitly takes his lead from the Stevens who claims poetry should be ‘a little hard / to see’. Stevens, for his part, was perhaps realizing the claims of his early mentor Santayana: ‘The visible landscape is not a proper object for poetry […] [t]here is a sort of landscape larger than the visible, which escapes the synthesis of the eye; it is present to that topo- graphical sense by which we always live in the consciousness that there is a sea […] even when we do not see it’. charles tomlinson’s frustrations with Stevens are telling in precisely n a 1964 interview, tomlinson explained:


it was a case of being haunted [by Stevens] rather than of cold imitation. i was

also a painter and this meant that i had far more interest in the particulars of

a landscape or an object than Stevens. Stevens rarely makes one see anything in

  tomlinson added elsewhere:


[W]as there ever a poetry which stood so explicitly by a physical universe and

against transcendence, but which gives so little account of that universe, its

spaces, patterns, textures, ‘a world of canon and fugue’, such as hopkins spoke

charles altieri, ‘Why Stevens Must be abstract, or What a Poet can learn from Painting’ in


Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism ed. albert gelpi (cambridge: cambridge University

120 Press, 1989), 89–90. 121 Ibid., 90.


CPP, 275. altieri has recently explicated the ‘concrete abstractness’ in Stevens’ late poetry. See

altieri, ‘Why “angel Surrounded by Paysans” concludes The Auroras of AutumnWSJ 32.2

122 ), 274.


See gareth reeves, ‘a ghost never exorcized: Stevens in the Poetry of charles tomlinson’

in Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic ed. bart eeckhout and edward ragg (london: Palgrave,

2008), 186–203.



  27 This overlooks the creative power of Stevensian abstraction. for there is a different vision involved in not making readers see things as directly as tomlinson craves. but i will return to the visible, the invisible and Merleau-Ponty’s ‘in-visible’ in relation to Stevens’ abstract gaze below. altieri’s sense of abstraction, then, relates to unconventional modes of

  ‘seeing’; and what he calls the domination of ‘third person’ over ‘first per- son’ concerns. borrowing from Wittgenstein’s Notebooks to describe the abstract ‘self’ or selves Stevensian poems generate, altieri quotes:


Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found? […] i think that nothing

in the visual field would enable one to infer that it is seen from an eye. The think-

ing subject is surely mere illusion. but the willing subject exists. if the will did not

exist, neither would there be that centre of the world, which we call ‘i’ […] What

  altieri adds: ‘This non-objective “i” […] could serve as the typical speaker

chapter 4 argues, Stevens’ ideal- ist ‘i’ is a kind of object, maybe even a cipher for an impossible objectivity.

  at the very least, that speaker is an abstract token, paradoxically intimate with the personal by possessing hardly any, if any, individuating charac- teristics at all. but i want, finally, to return to the alleged problematic of ‘Stevens and philosophy’, an issue informed by the very question of abstraction. Some readers still view Stevens’ ‘poetry of ideas’ as a sorry departure from the exotic verses of Harmonium. Simon critchley’s Things Merely Are is an apparent corrective. but the responses to the book have been even more captivating. critchley gingerly defends his approach:


Stevens’s verse shows us a way of overcoming epistemology […] i am not min-

ing Stevens’s verse for philosophical puzzles and aperçus in pleasing poetic garb.

nothing would be more fatuous. on the contrary, i am trying to show […] that

Stevens’s poetry […] contains […] instructive philosophical insight, and […]

that this insight is best expressed poetically. […] i am painfully aware of the

fact that this entire enterprise is a performative self-contradiction[.]

  eeckhout contends: ‘critchley is clearly writing about “Philosophy and Stevens” here. to him […] the notion of providing a “pleasing” aesthetic “garb” to philosophical ideas is anathema and any attempt at treating phil- 126 osophy as subservient to the aesthetics of art-making is quickly dismissed 127

ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914–16 trans. g. e. M. anscombe (new York: harper, 80.

128 altieri, ‘Why Stevens Must be abstract’, 110.


Simon critchley, Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

  28 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction as fatuous.’ in other words, if critchley wants to avoid the charge of ‘min- ing Stevens’s verse for philosophical puzzles’, eeckhout sees this as faux eeckhout’s own position proves compelling:


a residual antagonism between poetry and philosophy, then, is noticeable in

even the most elegant and admiring attempts at bringing the two together […]

Stevens himself was given to expressing this antagonism on occasion. in spite of

his own attraction to philosophy, and his well-attested appeal to philosophically

oriented readers, we should not be made to forget too soon that he remained a

  but is it not possible to counter this ‘residual antagonism’ by dispatching such reified categories as ‘poetry’ and ‘philosophy’? derrida’s and rorty’s works, as eeckhout knows, suggest as much. We might then at least avoid the philosophical ‘running in circles’ critchley represents (however much an understandable ‘performative self-contradiction’). critchley defends his critical impetus as deriving from Stevens’ appar- ent inability to transliterate ‘the philosophical content of his poetry into philosophical prose’. but if critchley is right in saying this con- tent is ‘best expressed poetically’, how is Stevens’ ‘case’ an ‘oddity’? critchley asks: ‘What is it about the particular meditative poetic form that he developed that is able to carry genuine philosophical weight and yet which is impossible to translate into prose?’ Yet the claim that such ‘philosophical weight’ is ‘impossible to translate into prose’ is different, surely, from the suggestion Stevens failed to broach ‘philosophy’ convin- cingly in his prose. Moreover, if a poetry–philosophy distinction is relin- quished and Stevens’ texts are seen as different expressions of an evolving abstract idiom, critchley’s conundrum disappears. Paul valéry, whose writing Stevens prefaced for a translation commis- sioned in 1954, illustrates the positive combination of poetry and philoso- valéry’s 130 eeckhout, ‘Stevens and Philosophy’, 115. 131 Ibid., 116. 132 critchley, Things Merely Are, 31.


for other responses to critchley, see charles altieri, ‘Stevens and the crisis of european

Philosophy’ in Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic, ed. bart eeckhout and edward ragg

(london: Palgrave, 2008), 70–1, and Krzysztof Ziarek, ‘“Without human meaning”: Stevens,

heidegger and the foreignness of Poetry’ in Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic ed. bart eeckhout

133 and edward ragg (london: Palgrave, 86–8.


Wallace Stevens, ‘two Prefaces’ in Paul valéry, Dialogues trans. William Mccausland Stewart



  29 ‘Poetry and abstract Thought’ (1939) – with which Stevens was perhaps not familiar until 1948 – certainly coincides with my claims for Stevensian abstraction; especially in arguing a ‘poet’s function […] is not to experi- valéry’s insistence on the physical aspect of abstract thinking is also similar to Mauron’s emphasis lisa goldfarb rightly observes that Stevens The present work is concerned more with Stevens’ relations with focillon, Mauron, blanchot and Merleau-Ponty, but refers to valéry throughout. finally, we should not forget the centrality of pleasure in Stevens’ work and his enjoyment in projecting abstract notions. Stevens understood that

  ‘reality’ is mentally created but that its creation depends upon abstracting ‘real’ objects from the world. consequently, the more abstract a notion the greater the potential pleasure of realizing its ‘reality’. as the young Marcel reflects on reading bergotte in Proust’s The Way by Swann’s:


i no longer had the impression i was in the presence of a particular passage from

a certain book by bergotte, tracing on the surface of my mind a purely linear

figure, but rather of the ‘ideal passage’ by bergotte, common to all his books, to

which all the analogous passages that merged with it had added a sort of thick-

ness, a sort of volume, by which my mind seemed enlarged.

  ideas or ‘ideals’ are, then, the palpable agents for touching and being touched by ‘the thing itself’, for manipulating reality in the space where mind and world interact. This kind of abstraction – based on an ideal that is nonetheless part of ‘reality’ – is central to Stevens’ work and prac- tice. as we shall see, it comprises a misunderstood aesthetic that actually 135 defines the poet’s contact with life at large.


Paul valéry, ‘Poetry and abstract Thought’ in The Art of Poetry trans. denise folliot, intro. t.


S. eliot (london: routledge, , 60. The essay was also translated by gerard hopkins for

Essays on Language and Literature ed. J. l. hevesi (london: Wingate, , a book Stevens

owned in the 1948 edition; see robert Moynihan, ‘checklist: Second Purchase, Wallace Stevens

136 collection, huntington library’ WSJ 20. ), 89. 137 See valéry, ‘Poetry and abstract Thought’, 57–8.

lisa goldfarb, ‘“The figure concealed”: valéryan echoes in Stevens’ ideas of Music’ WSJ 28.1

138 (2004), 39.

  Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s trans. lydia davis (london: Penguin, , 96.


cH a p t er 1

The abstract impulse: from anecdote to ‘new

romantic’ in harmonium (1923) and

ideas of order (1935)

  in January 1935, answering ronald lane latimer’s request for an inscribed copy of Harmonium, Stevens wrote:


i shall be very glad to inscribe harMoniUM. Some time ago a most agree-

able damsel called me up on the telephone to say that she was passing through

hartford and would i inscribe her copy of harMoniUM. i told her that i

wondered that she did not prefer to leave it without an inscription, since, so far

as i knew, that was the only copy without an inscription in existence. but i find

that i was, after all, mistaken.

now, wouldn’t it be much better just to paste this amusing anecdote in your


  Stevens had good reason to be ironic about his first book. The poet knew well that neither was Harmonium an autographed edition nor had his signature been in demand following its publication in September 1923. he could joke about ‘only one copy without an inscription in existence’ because, despite featuring in the little magazines, Stevens was not, like agreeable damsels flung themselves however, as so often in Stevens’ correspondence, surface humour accen- tuates a deep-seated wit. latimer was eagerly awaiting the manuscript of Stevens’ second book Ideas of Order, and his request for an inscribed copy of Harmonium jostled the poet’s nerves about his publishing prospects almost twelve years on.


Harmonium had relied on anecdote as a poetic vehicle. Stevens’ suggest-

  ing the anecdote of the ‘agreeable damsel’, rather than his own name, be inscribed in latimer’s copy indicates, then, the extent to which the poet 1 associated his 1923 poetics – even his own name and reputation – with 2 L, 273. 3 See tony Sharpe, Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life (basingstoke: Macmillan, , 111ff.


The abstract impulse

  31 anecdote. anecdote was also the signature of Stevens’ earlier poetic style, a hallmark traceable not merely to Harmonium but to those lyr- ics experimenting with story-telling, constructing personae – as in ‘Peter Parasol’ – and even effacing the name Wallace Stevens altogether (as in Stevens’ sug- gestion that the author of Harmonium had better paste an anecdote about his own book of anecdotes into latimer’s copy rather than sign his own name does not merely comment on Harmonium, however. Whether or not latimer inferred as much, the poet was articulating the hope that ‘Wallace Stevens’ would stand for something new in 1935. indeed, his compiling of Ideas of Order for latimer’s alcestis Press rather than for his trade publisher alfred a. Knopf indirectly indicated the desire to tran- scend the poetic that had initiated Harmonium.

  The distance between Ideas of Order and Harmonium is not, however, as great as Stevens wished. in fact, the dialogue between these books accen- tuates the abstract impulse that led Stevens to create a modified idiom in the mid-to-late 1930s. as much as the 1935 Stevens wanted to transcend


Harmonium, the difficulty he experienced in compiling and publishing his

  first book haunted his second; not least in ‘academic discourse at havana’ (1923/1929), which appeared in book form first in Ideas of Order, but which indeed, Stevens’ desire to conceive what by the mid-1930s he called a ‘new romantic’ had as much to do with transcending the quasi-impromptu aesthetic of Harmonium – an unrepeat- able, ‘one-off’ performance – as it had with conceiving a modernized ‘pure poetry’ during the depression (the problematic of Stevens’ ‘pure poetry’ in fact, it was precisely Stevens’ misgivings about the applicability of Harmonium in the changed world of the 1930s that prompted his adjusted diction and the search for a novel voice. but in order to understand Harmonium’s place in the origins of this new abstract rhetoric one has to appreciate the tension manifest in Harmonium itself between anecdote – a ‘poetic form’ suited to little magazine culture – and poetry published in book form.

  The root of ‘anecdote’ is anekdota: ‘things unpublished’. ‘anecdota’ signify 4 ‘secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives’ (OED 1). commonly,


‘Peter Parasol’, CPP, 548. See J. M. edelstein, Wallace Stevens: A Descriptive Bibliography

5 (Pittsburgh, Pa: Pittsburgh University Press, , 192–3. 6 CPP, 115–17.

even before the depression Stevens was urged not to ‘repeat Harmonium’: ‘“harmonium” is a sub-

  32 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction an anecdote is ‘a detached incident […] told as being in itself interesting or striking’ (OED 2.a). Poems such as ‘anecdote of the Jar’ (1919), ‘earthy anecdote’ (1918), among other Harmonium ‘anecdote’ poems, caught the attention of the little magazines precisely because they comprised ‘hith- erto unpublished’, even private, narratives which for brevity and wit were but the majority of the Harmonium poems, from ‘valley candle’ (1917) to ‘The doctor of geneva’ (1921), rely on What is less obvious is Stevens’ unease in compiling these subtle ‘improvisations’ as a first collection. for although his appearances in Contact or The Little Review comprised literal publications, the ephemeral, experimental milieu of the little magazines was radically different from the world of Knopf’s trade hardbacks. Stevens even agonized over grouping his early poems. finalizing ‘Pecksniffiana’ (1919), he asked harriet Monroe to exclude one poem because ‘it is cabbage instead Stevens would re-use the metaphor when assembling Harmonium, writing to Monroe in late 1922: ‘to pick a crisp salad from the garbage of the past is no snap’. Perhaps Stevens preferred his anecdotes in a paradoxically unpublished state; or at least in the context of the little magazines where, after all, they remained crisp.

  Such anxiety stands behind one Harmonium poem especially. in 1921 Stevens submitted ‘from the Journal of crispin’ for the Poetry Society of South carolina’s blindman Prize. When grace hazard conkling won the

  Simultaneously, carl van vechten cajoled Stevens into presenting a book to Knopf, and only a few months after re-shaping the poem Stevens com- The revision of ‘from the Journal of crispin’ is significant, therefore, because it occurred precisely at the point where Stevens pondered publishing his first major long poem after ‘le Monocle de Mon oncle’ (1918) in little magazine or book form. The resulting poem, ‘The comedian as the letter c’ (1923), marks this tension. never finally submitted to any magazine, ‘The comedian’ became the only poem in Stevens’ manuscript to be written specifically for Harmonium.

  ‘from the Journal of crispin’ and ‘The comedian as the letter c’ are, in their different ways, preoccupied with books. The final section of ‘from the Journal of crispin’ is entitled ‘The idea of a colony’, and although 7 that ‘colony’ remains imaginary – although it ‘may not arrive’ – crispin’s


‘anecdote of the Jar’ Poetry 15.1 (1919), 8; ‘earthy anecdote’ Modern School 5.7 (1918), 193, Others


The abstract impulse

  33 journal insists its ‘site / exists’. Such a ‘colony’, if not realizable as a place, is the space where crispin’s journal is conceived as finally achieving the reality of a book. The poem apparently dispels the solipsistic concern that crispin’s journal only ‘at the best, concerns himself’, insisting:

  no, no: veracious page on page, exact. as crispin in his attic shapes the book

That will contain him, he requires this end:

The book shall discourse of himself alone,

of what he was, and why, and of his place,

and of its fitful pomp and parentage. Thereafter he may stalk in other spheres.

  (CPP, 995)

  as poet-figure, crispin demonstrates the need to convert the hearsay of a journal – replete with anecdotes about ‘Mexican sonneteers’ – into Stevens is, however, playful because crispin’s book – the text that ‘shall discourse of himself alone’ – is alarmingly similar to the original journal which ‘at the best, concerns

  Moreover, crispin, having completed that book, ‘may stalk in’ rather than ‘talk of’ other spheres. ‘from the Journal of crispin’ satirizes, therefore, the desire to sum oneself up in a book, suggesting that the lit- erary creator always stalks an unrealizable prey: for instance, the prize of but where ‘from the Journal of crispin’ comically questions how crispin can realize himself in a book, ‘The comedian’ resigns itself to the impossibility of concluding the poem Stevens actually needed to finish in order to complete Harmonium. Significantly, ‘The comedian’ leaves its reader a choice of anecdotes with which to ‘conclude’ the poem, a choice which nominally ‘decides’ what crispin becomes:

  Score this anecdote

invented for its pith […] as crispin willed,

[…] or if the music sticks, if the anecdote is false, if crispin is a profitless Philosopher, beginning with green brag, concluding fadedly […] 13 14 fickle and fumbling, variable, obscure, 15 16 CPP, 995. Ibid., 989. Ibid., 995.


Maurice blanchot, after Mallarmé, argues that books accentuate the unattainable reality of the

  34 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


and so distorting, proving what he proves

is nothing, what can all this matter since

The relation comes, benignly, to its end?

So may the relation of each man be clipped.

  (CPP, 36–7)

  This is ‘concluding fadedly’. delegating completion of the poem to the reader is a Pyrrhic victory because neither anecdote is effectively endorsed: ‘what can all this matter since / The relation comes, benignly, to its end?’

  ‘relation’ suggests here as much Stevens’ relationship with the poem as it does crispin’s with his cabin and daughters with curls. although one is supposed to decide crispin’s ‘true’ character, as soon as Stevens relin- quishes authorship crispin becomes irrelevant. The ‘concluding’ phrase, ‘So may the relation of each man be clipped’ – clipped from the poem’s main body in a single line – adds insult to injury as Stevens plucks him- self from his own poem, leaving two ‘benign’ (because insignificant) anec- dotes in his wake. as ‘cy est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les Unze Mille vierges’ (1915) has it, Stevens’ reader is left to finish a poem ‘not writ / in any book’. it remains a poem which, despite Stevens’ invitation, the reader cannot complete for him. but, whereas ‘cy est Pourtraicte’ finds ironic tension as an anecdote whose story is not ‘writ / in any book’ and yet appears in Harmonium – and was later published as a book – ‘The comedian’ suffers from the reverse scenario. each of the anecdotes posed at the poem’s ‘close’ is written into the text but the reader cannot write

  The relation has been clipped. in failing to finish ‘The comedian as the letter c’ Stevens could hardly have felt the poem was the crisp lettuce intended. if crispin, des- pite his name, appears slightly soggy in Harmonium it is because Stevens was not yet confident in compiling book collections, fearful, as he was, of miscellany (the broad, organizing principle of ‘ideas of order’ illustrates how his abstract impulse subsequently helped him overcome the prob- lem). nor had Stevens yet discovered how to utilize anecdote in longer poems suitable for book publication. but how does this aesthetic tension influence Ideas of Order as well as the creation of the abstract idiom which 17 would occupy Stevens for the next decade and beyond? 18 CPP, 17.


The abstract impulse

  35 one of the last poems Stevens wrote before his five-year poetic silence is ‘academic discourse at havana’ (1923/1929). originally published as

  ‘discourse in a cantina at havana’ (1923) and re-published in 1929 with minuscule changes, the poem entered Ideas of Order through the backdoor of Harmonium, where it remains largely unnoticed for the glare of Stevens’ Some accounts of the poet’s silence rely on Stevens’ own claims that the arrival of holly Stevens and increased insurance work meant ‘[n]othing short of a coup d’état would make it possible […] to write poetry now’. but Stevens’ complaints about such intrusions tell n ‘academic discourse at havana’ doubts emerge concerning the poet’s role. in other words, this poem, written just before and revised immediately after the poet’s silence, provides possible textual clues as to why Stevens stopped writing and why he resumed in the early 1930s with a pointedly abstract vocabulary. That ‘academic discourse’ contrasts significantly with Stevens’ mid-1930s concept of a ‘new roman- tic’, the new florida poems and the ‘ideas of order’ motif accentuates how

Ideas attempts to overcome the tension surfacing in Stevens’ 1923 poem.

however, ‘academic discourse’ is closer to Ideas of Order than one might think. The poem creates a tension within Ideas which contextualizes the impetus for the poet’s ‘new romantic’ as symbolizing the aesthetic need to re-adjust Harmonium’s gaudiness (an aim in which Ideas is only par- tially successful). This aesthetic manoeuvre sheds light on the poet Stevens became as he ventured into increasingly abstract terrain. before turning to ‘academic discourse’, however, i want to explore

  Stevens’ 1930s ‘new romantic’. This concept is re-examined here not as a tool for reading Ideas of Order, but as an example of the seductiveness of Stevens’ new abstract rhetoric; one which has led Stevens criticism into appealing but unrevealing hermeneutic circles. The ‘romantic’ first appears in 1934:


it should be said of poetry that it is essentially romantic […] although the

romantic is referred to, most often, in a pejorative sense, this sense attaches


[…] not to the romantic in general but to some phase of the romantic that has

Wallace Stevens, ‘discourse in a cantina at havana’ Broom 5.4 (1923), 201–3; ‘academic

discourse at havana’ Hound & Horn 3.1 (1929), 53–6. The poem was, however, anthologized

in Kimon friar and John Malcolm brinnin, eds, Modern Poetry: American and British (new

20 York: appleton-century-crofts ), 81–3.


L, 261, 244. See Peter brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography

(new York: random house, 1983), 244–5 and george S. lensing, Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s

  36 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


become stale. Just as there is always a romantic that is potent, so there is always

a romantic that is impotent.

  Stevens would re-use the term in his preface to Williams’ 1934 Collected


Poems and invoke the ‘romantic’ as both potent and impotent force in

  by mid-1935 the potent ‘romantic’ became ‘new’:


When people speak of the romantic, they do so in […] a pejorative sense. but poetry

is essentially romantic, only the romantic of poetry must be something constantly

new and, therefore, just the opposite of what is spoken of as the romantic. Without

this new romantic one gets nowhere; with it, the most casual things take on tran-

scendence, and the poet rushes brightly […] What one is always doing is keeping

the romantic pure: eliminating from it what people speak of as the romantic.

  here Stevens glosses ‘Sailing after lunch’ (1935), submitted to latimer’s short-lived Alcestis magazine. The poem opens the alcestis edition of


Ideas, advertising Stevens’ seductive term and noting its ‘pejorative’ sense

  (‘it is the word pejorative that hurts’), along with the ‘transcendence’ the poet achieves through a ‘new’ romantic:

  Mon dieu, hear the poet’s prayer. The romantic should be here. The romantic should be there. it ought to be everywhere. but the romantic must never remain, Mon dieu, and must never again return.

  […] it is only the way one feels […] to expunge all people and be a pupil of the gorgeous wheel and so to give That slight transcendence to the dirty sail, by light, the way one feels, sharp white,

and then rush brightly through the summer air.

  (CPP, 99–100)

  note ‘the gorgeous wheel’ Stevens’ term comprises. The pejorative 21 sense of ‘romantic’ derives from contemporary critiques of romanticism,

Wallace Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’ Commonplace Book ed. Milton J.

22 bates (Stanford, ca: Stanford University Press, 31.


‘introduction’ to William carlos Williams, Collected Poems1931 (new York: The objectivist

Press, 1934); ‘a Poet That Matters’ Life and Letters Today 13.2 (1935) (CPP, 768–71, 774–80). See


The abstract impulse

  37 particularly a romantic aesthetic grown sentimental or clichéd (Stevens but the ‘new romantic’ becomes a self-perpetuating force where poetry rejuvenates itself because it is ‘essentially romantic’. Through the one term Stevens establishes a cycle of significance where ‘romantic’ does not merely mean two things at once. Stevens’ ideal ‘romantic’ must be kept ‘pure’, and this means that the impotent aesthetic is the site for the potent ‘new romantic’ to flourish. like the jar of ‘anecdote of the Jar’, Stevens’ ‘romantic’ takes ‘dominion

  Stevens’ notion thus becomes universalist: an infectious piece of vocabulary absorbing any ascribable meaning. by 1940 the poet stated ‘communism is just a new romanticism’, by which stage the trope had but even when applied to poetics, the ‘romantic’ creates a linguistic circle both Stevens and his crit- ics have found hard to master. When t. c. Wilson asked for the review of Moore, Stevens replied:


Miss Moore is endeavoring to create a new romantic […] [t]he way she breaks

up older forms is merely an attempt to free herself for the pursuit of the thing in

which she is interested; and […] the thing in which she is interested […] is that

  That ‘fresh’ indicates Stevens’ awareness of the tautology that a poet is ‘romantic’ because she is interested in ‘the romantic’. of Moore’s ‘romantic’ but disclos- ure is not something linguistic circles perform. They prefer the reiteration of their own terms; as is evident in some critical responses to the ‘new romantic’. for example, Schulze and bornstein take Stevens’ lead in conceiving

  Moore’s ‘romantic’ as ‘hybridizing’. both critics suggest that to ‘hybridize’ a poetic object – in Moore’s case the ‘moon-vines’ of Stevens’ review – is This provisionality is then read back into the ‘new romantic’ because a fresh ‘romantic’ is always provisional, something that rushes brightly on, unfixed. referring to the metaphysician in the dark twanging his guitar in ‘of Modern Poetry’ (1940), bornstein observes: ‘Stevens has created a romantic image of integration […] but his honest doubt has led him to provisionalize his 24 own creation by denying its independent actuality’ Similarly Schulze, 25 26 27 28 29 CPP, 778. Ibid., 60–1. L, 351. Ibid., 278–9. CPP, 778.

  38 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction linking Stevens’ review with Ideas, concludes: ‘Stevens […] reads Moore as achieving in form, rhetoric, and content the radical provisionality that ironically, because the concept of provisionality derives from the ‘new romantic’ itself, such accounts offer only provisional readings of Stevens’ own self- reflexive aesthetic. for if Stevens’ early 1930s poetic is read solely through the vocabulary he supplies us, one puts on hold further inquiry into this very specialist language. bornstein borrows Stevens’ ‘new romantic’ to argue for the poet’s over-arching ‘romanticism’, particularly opposite the but, whilst Stevens undoubtedly modifies romantic themes, his use of ‘romantic’ varies throughout his career; and ‘the romantic’ has a very particular currency in the 1930s it does not possess by the mid-1930s, then, Stevens sought an abstract idiom he had not previously required which attempted to transcend the nominally ‘impo- tent’ aesthetic of Harmonium. however, Stevens craved rejuvenation not because the Harmonium anecdotes were defective but because ‘The comedian as the letter c’ inadvertently revealed he was uncomfortable integrating anecdote into larger, more realized poetic projects (‘Song of fixed accord’ is a late example of a Harmonium-style anecdote, but one to effect referring ironically to Harmonium’s ‘depression before Spring’) transition Stevens transformed the desire for a new aesthetic into a self- reflexive language designed to overhaul dead ‘romantics’. once Stevens created his ‘new romantic’ he could write ‘farewell to florida’ (1936), the poem that would open the trade edition of Ideas of Order and the trad- itional point of reference for Stevens’ departure from Harmonium’s lux- but i am not proposing that the ‘new romantic’ adequately accounts for the different poetics of Stevens’ first two books. Whilst Ideas grows out of Harmonium, Stevens’ 1930s rhetoric actually attempts to mask the aesthetic problem it nominally represents. Specifically, Harmonium 31 affected Ideas not because the former was a stale ‘romantic’ (hatching a


robin g. Schulze, The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens (ann arbor,

32 Mi: University of Michigan Press, , 114. 33 See bornstein, Transformations of Romanticism, 6–7.


‘imagination as value’ (1948) does discuss ‘the romantic’, but at this later stage Stevens merely

contrasts abstraction with a pejorative ‘romantic’: ‘The imagination is the only genius […] and

the extreme of its achievement lies in abstraction. The achievement of the romantic, on the con-

34 trary, lies in minor wish-fulfillments and it is incapable of abstraction’, CPP, 728.


The abstract impulse

  39 new aesthetic) but because the difficulty Stevens experienced in organ- izing and completing Harmonium would haunt Ideas, even as his new abstract idiom attempted to surmount the problem. retrospectively, of course, Stevens rationalized his poetic silence as precisely the aesthetic decision to leave Harmonium behind. ‘farewell to florida’ confidently summarizes ‘The snake has left its skin upon the floor’, an image befitting the shedding of an outworn ‘romantic’ and, allegorically, the survival of but in 1929 no such certainty pressed to rehabilitate Stevens’ work.

  ‘academic discourse at havana’, however, demonstrates how much more than the aesthetic of Harmonium was at stake when Stevens resumed writ- ing. Put differently, the difficulty Stevens experienced in finishing ‘The comedian as the letter c’ (and Harmonium) affected Ideas of Order not because Stevens needed to overcome the anecdote, but because the prob- lem with the ‘end’ of ‘The comedian’ implicitly questioned the poet’s role, as the reader’s involvement in the ‘writing’ of that poem partially indicates. ‘academic discourse’, drafted not long after ‘The comedian’, sees the poet resume his role, but question his task. it is the poem straddling the self- conscious transition between Harmonium and Ideas; and it is the text that sug- gests reading Ideas of Order without sole recourse to Stevens’ ‘new romantic’.

  ‘academic discourse at havana’ concerns the risks of investing faith in cultural life in general and poetry in particular. initially, however, the poem apparently justifies social and aesthetic diversions:

  canaries in the morning, orchestras in the afternoon, balloons at night. That is a difference, at least, from nightingales, Jehovah and the great sea-worm. The air is not so elemental nor the earth So near.

but the sustenance of the wilderness

does not sustain us in the metropoles.

  (CPP, 115)

  Stevens admits that in an arena of orchestras and balloons the ‘air’ and ‘earth’ may not be as immediate as they should be (‘The air / is not so elemental nor the earth / So near’). however, Stevens’ abrupt ‘but’ defen- sively insists that what keeps the wilderness alive ‘does not sustain us in the metropoles’. nevertheless, such metropolitan confidence is challenged by a picture of imaginative decay:

  40 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  life is an old casino in a park. The bills of the swans are flat upon the ground. a most desolate wind has chilled rouge-fatima and a grand decadence settles down like cold.

  but to appreciate this contrast one needs to recall that ‘academic discourse’ is not only remarkable as a neglected part of Ideas of Order. it is one of the few Stevens poems directly influenced by the poet’s travel- ling abroad, as he did to havana twice in 1923. for example, Stevens implies a preference for Spanish-catholic deca- dence over american, and possibly Jewish, culture. on his first trip to havana Stevens observed: ‘[t]he place is infinitely more Spanish than i

  Spanish’ apparently evokes colour, gaiety, exoticism:


The lamp-lighter with his long pole is lighting the lamps on the Prado. a man

on horse-back has just gone by dressed in white. The colors of the dresses in the

  Stevens stayed in a colonial Spanish setting, the hotel Sevilla; and canaries are Spanish song-birds; preferred in ‘academic discourse’ to plaintive nightingales, the party-pooping authority of Jehovah and the biblical ‘great sea-worm’ (‘Jehovah’ implicitly echoing with ‘Jonah’).

  Stevens also wrote to elsie that he was going to meet ‘Mr. Marion, one of the representatives of the hartford fire’ and that they were to have din- a ‘casino’ thus fea- tured in Stevens’ apparent mixing of business and pleasure in havana in february 1923, and the aphorism ‘life is an old casino in a park’ entered the poem because the casino conjures both havana and a climate of risk (risk obviously being central to the insurance industry).

  That ‘casino’ is also hispanic because Spanish survivors of the republic, dismembered after the Spanish–american war of 1898, referred to their social establishments as ‘casinos’, whether gambling houses or otherwise, whilst americans accentuated their presence by frequenting

  ‘clubs’. Stevens subtly invokes, therefore, the decline of Spanish coloni- 37 alism in ‘academic discourse’ ii. not only is life a dilapidated ‘casino’; 38 39 L, 234. Ibid., 236.


Ibid., 234. See Joan richardson, Wallace Stevens: The Later Years 1923–1955 (new York: beech

40 tree, , first two plates ff. 128. 41 L, 235. 42 Stevens was not, however, on official business when he met Marion (see L, 233).


The abstract impulse

  41 those graceful swans find their bills ‘flat upon the ground’. all catholic colour lies frozen: ‘a most desolate wind has chilled rouge-fatima / and rouge-fatima is Stevens’ composite of a casino starlet and the virgin Mary, thought, as rehder notes, to have appeared in fatima, Portugal, in 1917. but she is a chilly figure set in a terrain whose grandeur has already waned.

  Section iii, however, illustrates Stevens’ nominal fears for imaginative engagement, not least in alluding to coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ (a reference also contextualized by his havana letter):

  The swans … before the bills of the swans fell flat Upon the ground, and before the chronicle of affected homage foxed so many books, They warded the blank waters of the lakes and island canopies which were entailed to that casino. long before the rain Swept through its boarded windows and the leaves filled its encrusted fountains, they arrayed The twilights of the mythy goober khan. The centuries of excellence to be rose out of promise and became the sooth of trombones floating in the trees.

  (CPP, 115)

  Just as Stevens met with an insurance contact in havana, he also wears here an insurance hat. The casino’s decline is traced to the inherent risk in warding ‘the blank waters of the lakes / and island canopies which were entailed / to that casino’. ‘entail’ implies the legal act of bestowing an ‘inalienable possession’ (OED 1). removing what was inalienable to the casino necessarily involves the establishment in loss. in fact, the syntax of ‘academic discourse’ accentuates its critique of denying the casino its entailment. ‘Before the bills of the swans fell flat […] before the chronicle of affected homage […] long before the rain swept through’: this anaphora emphasizes the original act leading to the casino’s demise. Yet the main cause of such dilapidation is having arrayed ‘the twilights of the mythy goober khan’. What relation has coleridge’s dream vision to ‘academic 43 discourse’ and why does ‘Kubla Khan’ become ‘goober khan’?


by contrast, in a gastronomically inspired letter, Stevens remarked: ‘i suppose that the shrimps

there [Mount St. Michel] are as fat as cherubs and that the sunsets are gorgeous with a catholic

44 gorgeousness’, L, 620.

robert rehder, The Poetry of Wallace Stevens (basingstoke: Macmillan, , 98. if overlooked,

  42 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction in coleridge’s poem a pleasure dome is constructed by annexing a whole area of ‘fertile ground’ and populating it with ‘walls and towers’:

  in Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree: Where alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round: and here were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree[.]

  The pleasure dome’s exclusion of the wilderness initiates its own night- marish transformation. coleridge’s wailing woman causes the dome to be transported to the sea. it is turned to ice amidst sounds of war and the poem concludes with a warning to beware those who have drunk on the but, despite surface similarities, ‘academic discourse at havana’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ are crucially different. certainly, both poems’ pleas- ure domes are cordoned off, seeking an internal splendour distinct from the ‘sunless sea’ in ‘Kubla Khan’ and the ‘blank waters of the lakes’ in but in ‘Kubla Khan’ the dome is transformed because of coleridge’s wailing woman, an external agent, whereas Stevens’ casino declines because of the act of enclosure itself. There is no external agent, not even rouge-fatima. Where coleridge has an actual fountain ele- vating the pleasure dome, Stevens has defunct ‘encrusted fountains’: the dilapidated result of warding off the lakes entailed to the casino. but what about arraying ‘the twilights of the mythy goober khan’? twilight naturally evokes coleridge’s dream vision as well as a sense of cultural demise. in norse mythology the ‘twilight of the gods’ connotes imminent destruction, whilst ‘twilight sleep’ (OED) constitutes partial narcosis designed to ease the pains of childbirth (one thinks of coleridge’s taking laudanum before writing ‘Kubla Khan’). Stevens’ implication is that to array the casino is to dress it in dangerous make-believe. denying Stevens’ dome its wild side is precisely what causes the casino’s destitu- tion. Thus, Section i’s brusque assertion ‘the sustenance of the wilderness / 45 does not sustain us in the metropoles’ is seriously questioned. Without

Samuel taylor coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’ (the 1816 text) in Poems ed. John beer (london: J. M.

46 dent, ), 205. Stevens quotes from the poem in an early journal, L, 82.


The abstract impulse

  43 that sustenance life becomes the illusion of an immortal fairyland. ‘The centuries of excellence to be’ are nothing more than the surrealistic ‘sooth’ of ‘trombones floating in the trees’. as the ‘mythy goober khan’ emerges as a contributing factor in the casino’s being ‘boarded’ up, ‘academic discourse’ critiques such imagina- tive indulgence:

  The toil of thought evoked a peace eccentric to The eye and tinkling to the ear. gruff drums could beat, yet not alarm the populace. The indolent progressions of the swans Made earth come right; a peanut parody for peanut people.

  (CPP, 115)

  The allusion to ‘Kubla Khan’ persists: those martial ‘gruff drums’ recall Stevens’ ‘toil of thought’ also tropes coleridge’s ‘toy of Thought’ from ‘frost at Midnight’ (another Stevens asserts that imaginative obsessions create a false sense of security where the advance of an army might ‘not alarm the populace’. but why should this consti- tute a ‘peanut parody / for peanut people’? to appreciate why ‘Kubla Khan’ becomes ‘goober khan’ we should return to Stevens’ havana letter. ‘goober’ is, of course, american for ‘peanut’. a ‘goober khan’ is, perhaps, a ‘leader of Peanuts’. Peanuts also feature in Stevens’ havana letter:


There are plenty of places where english is spoken but to move about freely it

is imperative to know Spanish. even the chinese speak it. There are a good

many chinese here. They sell cakes, fish etc. one came up to me on the street

with a big box swung over his shoulder and said ‘hot Peanuts!’ That’s the

  Stevens associates peanuts with pleasurable consumption (‘That’s the life’). What recommends Stevens’ chinese peanut seller, however, is that he has learnt english (and perhaps Spanish) to survive 1920s havana. by contrast, Stevens’ ‘peanut people’ prove less resourceful (the only language they speak is ‘peanut’). in an unpublished letter Stevens later 48 observed: ‘goober Khan merely means a fantastic little building where 49 coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, line 30, 207.

  coleridge, ‘frost at Midnight’ (1798), line 23, 188.

  44 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction no ‘fantastic little building’, and the casino in Stevens’ poem is destroyed by the make-believe of occupying a ‘peanut’ world. admittedly, ‘academic discourse’ can invite over-earnest, ‘academic’ leaps of association. for example, was Stevens thinking about ‘Kubla

  Khan’ because he was in Cuba and because he met a chinese man selling peanuts (the Khan, of course, occupied much of china)? but, whilst cuba, Kubla, and goober – like Jehovah/Jonah – apparently echo in Stevens’ mind, how do these verbal resonances bear on ‘academic discourse’ and what stance does the poem adopt before Stevens’ lengthy poetic silence?

  Section iii focuses a universalist v. nominalist debate in terms of con- ceiving ‘reality’. Philosophically speaking, universalists believe in absolute categories drawn from but irreducible to contingent cultural or intellec- tual contexts, whereas nominalists contend the world consists in particu- ‘academic discourse’ iii slides between each position in representing ‘reality’ in general and cuba in particular:


Politic man ordained

imagination as the fateful sin. grandmother and her basketful of pears Must be the crux of our compendia. That’s world enough, and more, if one includes her daughters to the peached and ivory wench for whom the towers are built. The burgher’s breast, and not a delicate ether star-impaled, Must be the place for prodigy, unless Prodigious things are tricks. The world is not The bauble of the sleepless nor a word That should import a universal pith to cuba. Jot these milky matters down. They nourish Jupiters.

  (CPP, 116)

  Stevens’ ‘politic man’ is universalist. The poem implies a degree of bour- geois commonsense where the ‘burgher’s breast’ – and the homely reality of ‘grandmother and her basketful of pears’ – embody the good citi- zen’s account of life. Specifically, the grandmother and her daughters are the stuff of ‘compendia’: convenient abstracts which organize (com- 51

pendere, ‘weigh together’) the world’s essentials. Stevens anticipates the

52 Stevens to Kimon friar, 2 September 1947, WAS, 694.


The abstract impulse

  45 ivory tower rhetoric of the early 1930s as his politic man dismisses ‘the ivory wench / for whom the towers are built’. but where cleanth brooks would claim that the reading public not the modern poet inhabits the grandmother and pears are ‘world enough, and more’, but only if her daughters are included with the ‘ivory wench’ (Stevens’ ‘to’ may, admit- tedly, hedge the assertion). certainly, Stevens’ nominalist language subverts the politic man’s paro- chial security. The poem implies the politic man’s universalism requires the very things it rejects for self-definition. Stevens’ burgher ‘ordained / imagination as the fateful sin’. he gives authority to that of which he nom- inally disapproves. imagination becomes a ‘ fateful sin’ perhaps because the burgher requires the ‘imagination’ as the straw-target from which to project sensible compendia. Such complicity resounds in Stevens’ ‘prodigy’ which connotes both ‘marvellous things’ and the ‘prodigious’, something abnor- mal and/or enormous (OED). for Stevens’ townsman, the imagination’s insubstantial character (‘a delicate ether star-impaled’) must not interfere with ‘true’ prodigy, but he cannot escape the fear that ‘prodigious things are tricks’. Thus the word ‘prodigy’ cannot maintain the constant meaning the politic man requires precisely because ambiguous particulars – ‘prodi- gious things’ – intrude on the compilation of words as universal signifiers.

  ‘academic discourse at havana’, however, goes further by dismantling its own dialectic. for neither can the world mean anything one wants it to mean nor can the word ‘world’ have universal resonance, at least from the vantage of havana: ‘The world is not / The bauble of the sleepless nor a word / That should import a universal pith / to cuba’. Stevens’ poem is wary of adopting any one philosophical scheme to envisage ‘world’/‘word’; and clearly fears the negative abstraction implicit in treating the world as ‘bauble’. to engage in such ‘discourse’ is to seek final answers not indis- tinguishable from those desired by the universalist ‘politic man’:

  Jot these milky matters down. They nourish Jupiters. Their casual pap Will drop like sweetness in the empty nights When too great rhapsody is left annulled and liquorish prayer provokes new sweats: so, so: life is an old casino in a wood. 53

  (CPP, 116)

cleanth brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (chapel hill, nc: University of north

  46 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Stevens’ reader (or imagined poet) is asked to ‘jot’ these ‘milky mat- ters’ down, as perhaps the academic seed capable of fostering ‘Jupiters’

  (arguably whole new universes). Such matters are, however, ‘pap’, con- noting baby-food, paper pulp and ‘undemanding reading-matter’ (OED). The ‘discourse’ the poem envisages, then, is playfully gloopy. like certain philosophical schemes, or Stevens’ ‘new romantic’, such discourse engulfs any meaning. even the pap’s resembling ‘sweetness’ – dropping, manna- like, from what in reality are ‘empty nights’ – humorously critiques the metaphysical desire to look to the heavens for final solutions. This is a sat- ire on the search for ‘prodigy’ because that word’s root prodigium means ‘portent’, and interpreting portents involves discovering what lies behind the sign.

  ‘academic discourse’ thus proffers a complex language game. on the one hand, it thrives on verbal associations: cuba, Kubla, goober. on the other, it satirizes investing too much faith in any discourse. Stevens’ ‘pap’ is apparently therapeutic, warding off the ‘too great rhapsody’ which beguiles one into ascribing sacred meanings to compendia or the imagin- ation. but the poem also casts the very desire to belittle the imagination – to reduce its ‘milky matters’ to pap – as a paradoxical form of rhapsody; as Stevens playfully dismisses the role of discourse in the poem’s own linguistic game. ‘liquorish’ (not ‘liquorice’) prayer ‘provokes new sweats’, signifying that faith in a sole vocabulary is like dependence on liquor. but the desperate prayer the poem ironizes actually re-connects Stevens’ text with its own allusive practice. for ‘Kubla Khan’ conjures its own ‘new sweats’ in the ‘deep romantic chasm’ where ‘fast thick pants were Stevens resolves in ‘academic discourse’ iii to consign his readers to the wilderness. Mimicking the ‘academic’ desire to discover steadfast conclu- sions, his initial aphorism ‘life is an old casino in a park’ is rephrased: ‘so, so: / life is an old casino in a wood’. amending ‘park’ to ‘wood’ places one in a less manicured environment where life’s meditations might become ‘elemental’. but the rephrased aphorism does not enable the wilderness to sustain us in the metropoles. it places the metropolitan in the wilderness, one where no one can see the wood for the trees. in questioning the validity of belief in any vocabulary Stevens’ poem comes to ponder the role of the poet and perhaps the status of ‘pure poetry’ (‘mere sound’). as if parodying Harmonium and Stevens’ own early euphuism, Section iv asks:


The abstract impulse


  is the function of the poet here mere sound, Subtler than the ornatest prophecy, to stuff the ear? it causes him to make his infinite repetition and alloys of pick of ebon, pick of halcyon. it weights him with nice logic for the prim.

  (CPP, 116) That last line could have come from ‘The comedian as the letter c’.

  but Stevens’ wit is directed here at the ‘function of the poet’, not the poet’s autobiographical journey, whereas ‘The comedian’ never doubts ‘the poet’, even if it dramatizes Stevens’ inability to finish his own poem. Poetry itself may be ‘subtler’ than intricate ‘prophecy’ – ‘prophecy’, again, invoking portents. but it is mistrusted here as mere sound and the mater- ial of a ‘nice logic’ seemingly too comfortable for Stevens in late 1923. The ‘pick of ebon, pick of halcyon’ also recalls Harmonium, a dandyesque ref- erence to yet another bird as well as plectrums, or ‘picks’, for serenading however, the halcyon, unlike the canary or nightingale, is a mythological calmer of rough seas. Stevens implicitly ironizes the notion of poetry as an all-harmonizing force and, perhaps, Harmonium as the ‘halcyon days’ of his early poetic.

  ‘academic discourse’ iv does, however, invest faith in poetry. for all its doubts about a luxuriant ‘pure poetry’, it credits verse with the ability to ‘reconcile us to our selves’ and to the ‘adroiter harmonies’ of ‘pacific words’. Stevens anticipates the poetic material of Ideas of Order where ‘pacific’ implies both peace-inducing and the sea; where the ‘exhalations of the sea’ in ‘academic discourse’ pre-figure ‘The idea of order at Key West’ but, unlike ‘The idea of order at Key West’, ‘academic discourse’ ten- tatively figures the poet’s ability to speak and mould ‘reality’:

  but let the poet on his balcony Speak and the sleepers in their sleep shall move, Waken, and watch the moonlight on their floors. This may be benediction, sepulcher, and epitaph. it may, however, be an incantation that the moon defines by mere example opulently clear. and the old casino likewise may define an infinite incantation of our selves in the grand decadence of the perished swans.

  (CPP, 117)

  48 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Stevens’ ‘may’ suspends several ambiguities. The collocation of ‘bene- diction’, ‘sepulcher’ and ‘epitaph’ sums up the poet-figure’s predicament precisely. for ‘academic discourse’ questions whether the poet’s speech blesses life or merely comprises distraction, at best an epitaph en route to the grave. There is at least no indication that poetry will necessarily ‘define’ the ‘infinite incantation of our selves’, a role that is at least accred- ited to song in ‘The idea of order at Key West’ with its ‘[w]ords’ ‘of our-

  ‘academic discourse at havana’ is, therefore, a pivotal poem in Stevens’ early development, its concerns over imaginative creation anticipating the poet’s own problematic silence from 1924 to 1929. in 1924 Stevens wrote ‘Sea Surface full of clouds’ buoyed by his holiday cruise of october

  1923, which saw him again stop in havana i am not, then, suggesting ‘academic discourse’ silenced Stevens. nevertheless, the poem does pon- der the function of verse more restlessly than Stevens’ self-confident ques- tioning of poetry in old age. ‘academic discourse’ is also pivotal because it talks to the poetics of both Harmonium and Ideas of Order, displaying several qualities which create tension within Ideas itself.

  ‘academic discourse’ remains an ‘unmemorable’ poem both because it is rarely read by critics and because Stevens forgot its original 1923 publi- cation when submitting a ‘revised’ version to Hound & Horn in 1929. in 1938 Stevens recalled:


[n]o one could be more surprised than i was to find that the thing had appeared

in broom. i have a copy of Hound and Horn and also a copy of broom,

but have not compared the two versions, which are probably identical […]

[W]hen Hound and Horn wrote to me for something […] i had plainly forgot-

ten all about broom, although i remembered clearly thinking that the poem was

  The poem is uncannily like Stevens’ anecdote poems, giving the elusive impression of being ‘unpublished’. but ‘academic discourse’ also creates subterfuge in Ideas. as a ‘cuban’ creation, it faces Stevens’ more famous florida poetry – ‘farewell to florida’, ‘The idea of order at Key West’ – with a different gaze. in 1923 one cuban poet wrote mournfully: ‘florida but it is not just florida that points. if ‘unmemorable’, ‘academic discourse’ is also the poem that sounds a radically different note in Ideas of Order from Stevens’ abstract ‘new 57 romantic’ or the ‘ideas of order’ motif. Written almost twelve years before 58 59 CPP, 106. Ibid., 82–5. See L, 241. L, 335.


The abstract impulse


  Ideas was published it is less comfortable with abstract projection, adam-

  ant the ‘world is not / The bauble of the sleepless’ and suspicious of ‘ivory wenches’ in absence of wholesome ‘daughters’ (a

chapter 2 argues, it was

  not until ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ that Stevens would effectively embrace abstraction).

  We saw earlier how Stevens’ ‘new romantic’ is universalizing. one nega- tive feature of abstraction Stevens tried to check in his developing verse is the tendency for abstract concepts to become meaningless ‘universals’. John dewey complained that certain philosophers specialize in ‘general answers supposed to have a universal meaning that covers and dominates all particulars’. for dewey, such answers ‘do not assist inquiry. They close as with criticism of Stevens’ ‘new romantic’, rhetoric absorbing any possible meaning also closes critical inquiry. The ‘ideas of order’ motif, likewise, has a seductive hold over Stevens’ second book because, just as any Stevens poem can be reduced to an ‘imagination’ v. ‘reality’ debate, any Ideas of Order poem can be conceived in terms of ‘order’. ‘academic discourse’, however, resists identification with Ideas because it will not yield to one language, however abstract; at least, it distrusts philosoph- ical answers which offer saccharine completeness. but the poem is also proleptic, making its inclusion in Ideas of Order ironically opportune; as it indirectly questions the material appearance of Ideas whilst pointing up those contrasts of tone that make Ideas of Order sound uncannily like


  Ideas of Order was first published by latimer’s alcestis Press in august

  1935. it was Stevens’ first ‘ornate’ book, a fact overlooked by critics preoccupied with the cummington Press’s exquisite Notes Toward a


Supreme Fiction. curiously, the typeface for so contemporary a book was

  inkunabula, a gothic-looking script. Though attractive to bibliophiles, inkunabula was not entirely popular, particularly among those rais- ing the book’s $7.50 retail during the depression (Stevens’ 1954 Collected as elizabeth bishop wrote of Ideas to Marianne Moore: ‘i am so pleased to have it – had Stevens remembered ‘academic discourse’ he might have thought 61 twice about inkunabula (Stevens was personally involved in the text’s


John dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy in The Middle Works of John Dewey vol. xii ed. Jo ann

62 boydston (carbondale, il: Southern illinois University Press ), 188. 63 Wallace Stevens, Ideas of Order (new York: alcestis, 1935).

  50 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction appearance). in ‘academic discourse’ the casino degenerates not merely because of ‘the mythy goober khan’ but because a ‘chronicle of affected ‘foxing’ implies general trickery, but is also the deliberate discoloration of books to make them look older (fake editions display ‘fox-marks’, OED). figuratively speaking, ‘academic discourse at havana’ is foxed in Ideas. The edition’s typeface aims to hoodwink readers into thinking the poem and book are considerably older. but ‘academic discourse’ is already older than its 1935 publication, hailing from the Harmonium period. if Stevens enjoyed the tension of approving an antiquated typeface for a book whose content is desperately contemporary, the book has the last laugh. if Stevens thought he was cre- ating a ‘new romantic’ in Ideas of Order the typeface he chose actually suggests an outworn, or at least retrospective aesthetic. if ‘academic discourse’ implicitly questions ‘pure poetry’, Stevens’ res- ervations about the tone of Ideas actually led him to rehabilitate the quasi-

  ‘pure poetry’ of Harmonium. as Stevens admitted:


after i had made a tentative arrangement of material, it seemed […] that the

tone of the whole might be a bit low and colorless; and, since it is the tone of the

whole that is important, i might want to work on the thing, adding, say, 10 or 15

  ‘gaiety and brightness’ remind one of Harmonium’s anecdotes; and Stevens’ inclusion of ‘dance of the Macabre Mice’ (1935), ‘Snow and Stars’ (1933), ‘The Sun This March’ (1930) and ‘The brave Man’ (1933) illus- however, these poems would have appeared second-rate in Harmonium. for all their surface ‘gaiety and brightness’, they offer a hollow tone within


Ideas. Stevens insisted: ‘the arrangement [of the book] is simply based

  on contrasts; there is nothing rigid about it. not every poem expresses a phase of order or an illustration of order: after all, the thing is not a thesis.’ but those contrasts also suggest the desire to recreate Harmonium within the starker verses of Ideas. The Stevens who could make ‘much bing, high bing’ was writing like his 1923 self but in a less conducive text- ‘academic discourse at havana’ does, however, implicitly suggest ways 65 in which to read Ideas of Order as a development beyond Stevens’ early 66 67 CPP, 115. L, 272–3. 68 CPP, 101, 108, 108–9, 112.


The abstract impulse

  51 poetic phase. for example, the poem fixates on buildings: the building being the site where Stevens addresses aesthetic and social change in Ideas. i mentioned earlier that Stevens’ poem anticipates the ivory tower rhet- oric of the 1930s. in his preface to Williams’ Collected Poems Stevens asks:


What, then, is a romantic poet now-a-days? he happens to be one who still dwells

in an ivory tower, but who insists […] life there would be intolerable except for the

fact that one has […] such an exceptional view of the public dump and the advertis-

ing signs of Snider’s catsup, ivory Soap and chevrolet cars; he is the hermit who

  This description offers something more palpable than the Protean ‘new romantic’ for approaching Stevens’ second volume, whilst also indicat- ing how the impulse to be abstracted from modern life (to dwell alone ‘with the sun and moon’) is not entirely an option for the contempor- ary ‘romantic poet’ who still requires ‘a rotten newspaper’. Ideas is lit- tered with buildings, particularly dilapidated ones like the casino of ‘academic discourse’ (note also Stevens’ later reference to ‘goober khan’ Such spaces may not provide exceptional views but do occasionally overlook the public dump. ‘farewell to florida’ features a ‘shadowless hut’ bordered by ‘rust and bones’; ‘botanist on alp (no. 1)’, (1934) describes a hotel ‘boarded and bare’; and in ‘Mozart, 1935’ the com- poser’s poor house has stones hurled at the roof ‘because they carry down of course, in ‘academic discourse’, the imagination is implicated in the casino’s decline. Similarly, Ideas of Order focuses situations of imagina- tive ‘poverty’ bordering economic poverty and cultural neglect. Where ‘Sad Strains of a gay Waltz’ (1935) intones ‘too many waltzes have ended’ there is both an aesthetic criticism that the waltz has allowed itself to become superannuated (to be ‘ended’) and the notion that ‘sudden mobs The poet proclaiming from his ‘balcony’ in ‘academic discourse’ may not herald a new aes- thetic. but a traceable textual element in Ideas – dilapidated buildings – situates the poet’s responses to the role of poetry in the mid-1930s more concretely than the figure of the ‘new romantic’; even although these phe- nomena deliberately contrast in the one poetic. This tension prefigures Stevens’ later negotiation between abstract rhetoric and a poetry combin- 69 ing abstract ideas and physical imagery as interrelated phenomena. 70

  52 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction but what relations exist, finally, between ‘pure poetry’ and abstrac- tion? and how might these relations condition our views of Harmonium and Ideas of Order? in the french Symbolist reading of Poe’s ‘The Poetic Principle’, the ‘pure’ of la poésie pure ‘is equivalent to absolute, i.e. struc- Poetry in this sense aspires solely to the condition of music, has no direct semantic relation- ship with the world and thus remains autotelic, autonomous, ‘abstract’ (as in ‘detached’). This ideal derives, as in Poe, from aversion to the notion of poetry possessing a didactic role. certainly, Harmonium specializes in poetry with no didactic function and frequently reflects on music and speech – as in ‘to the one of fictive Music’ and ‘Peter Quince at the clavier’ – as well as conjuring its own idiosyncratic sounds (most not- Superficially, Stevens appears akin to Mallarmé in seeking a poetry of the ‘idea’ miraculously untainted by the intellectual operations ‘pure poetry’ eschews. This nominally applies to Ideas of Order, but also to those reflective Harmonium poems con- cerned with abstract concepts, for example ‘to the one of fictive Music’,

  What complicates this picture is the ironized nature of the many anec- dote poems – which imagine both fictive and palpably human figures (as in ‘The doctor of geneva’, ‘The Man Whose Pharynx Was bad’) and those poems reflecting on perception or which focus representational, even imagist concerns (as in ‘of the Surface of Things’, ‘Theory’, ‘Six These poems do not conceive poetry as being abstracted from reality, but, admittedly, there is an abstract element to Harmonium that chimes with ‘pure poetry’. but however stylized this poetry appears, it keeps drag- Stevens’ lyric voice, his speaking ‘i’ – in ‘domination of black’, ‘Metaphors of a Magnifico’, ‘The apostrophe to vincentine’, ‘explanation’, ‘two figures in dense violet night’ or ‘Theory’ (where that ‘i’ is not in the service 73 of a persona) – is not nearly, for example, as non-subjective or abstract


alex Preminger et al., eds, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton,

74 nJ: Princeton University Press, , 1007. 75 76 CPP, 70, 72, 60. Ibid., 70, 3, 8. 77 CPP, 19, 81, 45, 70, 58, 74.


The young Stevens, despite admiring arcady, resisted the separation of art from life and fre-


The abstract impulse

  53 as the later idealist ‘i’

chapter 4 analyses below. The poems that place

  us in oklahoma, tennessee and, most memorably, florida, likewise ren- der Harmonium far from ‘pure poetry’. We should dispute, then, Percy hutchison’s claim in his 1931 review of Harmonium that ‘[f]rom one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles’, as if Stevens, like the dead in ‘of heaven considered as hutchison overlooks the deeply ironized gestures Harmonium displays in works that, in their very humour, cannot but help connect imagination and world, not least in the figure of the desirous poet who imagines them. if Stevens subsequently defined Ideas of Order as a ‘book of pure poetry’ he was not so much defining that poetry as, like Poe and the Symbolists, resisting the didactic spirit (for which a depression work would actively nevertheless, Stevens struggled to nur- ture his penchant for abstract writing as he responded to an increasingly uncertain and violent world. as we shall see, what he would later describe as a preference for ‘abundant poetry’ over ‘pure poetry’ conditioned the reflecting back on ‘The curtains in the house of the Metaphysician’ in 1944, Stevens wrote to hi Simons: ‘i suppose this was written at a time it was para- doxically through exploring the limits of abstraction that Stevens could mould his imagination to the production of poems constituting more than merely ‘things in themselves’.

  The danger Stevens sensed in 1935, however, was pejorative abstraction (as the next chapter explores). Stevens knew Harmonium was an experi- ment and that it would be necessary to be ‘as obscure as possible’ until but as early as 1918, Stevens was uncomfortable with an abstract aesthetic that stifles appreciation for concrete things. Writing of Jean le roy’s ‘instant de clarté’ – which Stevens would translate for The Modern School – the poet wrote to carl Zigrosser: ‘it is large, but has a german quality of cos- 79 mic abstractness, not now of the same piquancy of piquantness […] as the 80 CPP, 7, 15, 42, 58, 69, 70.


Percy hutchison, ‘Pure Poetry and Mr. Wallace Stevens’ The New York Times (9 august 1931);

cited in charles doyle, ed., Wallace Stevens: The Critical Heritage (london: routledge, ,

81 89. 82 83 84

  54 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction specific, concrete thing one is keen for.‘Pure poetry’ perhaps tended to a cosmic abstractness with which Stevens, an experimental poet with abstract leanings, felt uncomfortable. That desire for the ‘piquancy of piquantness’ witnesses a poet striving toward the abstract realization of concrete, sensual things. by 1935, then, Stevens sought the terms of the vocabulary which would preoccupy him for the next decade. he could not have known he would create such a language, but his ‘new romantic’ allowed firsthand experience of the dangers and possibilities of seductive tropes. Such rhet- oric bolstered a poet emerging from a prolonged silence. but Ideas of


Order tries too insistently to cut its obvious ties with Harmonium, and

  ‘academic discourse at havana’ is essential to understanding what per- haps conditioned Stevens’ silence and what actuated the rhetoric support- ing Ideas. The final line of ‘like decorations in a nigger cemetery’ (1935) in effect this meant creating a rhetoric of the ‘abstract’, the seemingly cold, crystalline poetic defining Parts of a World and ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’

  (‘like decorations’ also ponders ‘man the abstraction’) but to confront Stevens’ most unavoidable term – that part of the Stevensian rubric most requiring translation – one has to understand how Stevens battled with 85 abstraction in ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ and beyond. 86 87 Ibid., 210. CPP, 128. Ibid., 126.


cH a p t er 2

The turn to abstraction: owl’s clover (1936)

and the ‘un-locatable’ speaker in


The Man with the blue guitar (1937)

how does it matter how i play or what i color what i say? it all depends on inter-play or inter-play and inter-say,

like tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee,

or ti-ri-la and ti-ri-li and these i play on my guitar and leave the final atmosphere

to the imagination of the engineer.

i could not find it if i would. i would not find it if i could.

  The two years following Ideas of Order formed a period of intense experi- mentation for Stevens. although he would omit ‘owl’s clover’ from the 1954 Collected Poems, his attempt at a quasi-allegory concerning the func- tion of art in the depression marked a greater engagement with ‘real- The ity’ than Ideas had achieved (despite poems such as ‘Mozart, 1935’). jacket statement to the trade edition of Ideas defensively asserted: ‘The Whilst Stevens acknowledged

  ‘economic […] political and social changes’, he apparently sought a mod- ernized ‘pure poetry’ rather than abandoning one kind of verse for a socially more responsive but poetically less sophisticated idiom. as we have seen, however, Ideas of Order was anything but ‘pure poetry’ in the sense of verse aspiring to the condition of music, of sounds miraculously free from the significant world. Harmonium too thrived on a tension between Symbolist experiment (‘to the one of fictive Music’), poems 1 that revel in sonority (‘bantams in Pine-Woods’) and more ‘theoretical’ 2 Wallace Stevens, draft canto for ‘The Man with the blue guitar’, CPP, 999.

  56 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction explorations of self and world (‘a high-toned old christian Woman’, ‘Theory’, ‘Thirteen Ways of looking at a blackbird’, ‘The Snow Man’ and so on).

  Stevens’ ‘anecdote’ poems – and those pieces that are anecdotes in all but name – actually represent all three of these Harmonium strains. if


Harmonium suggested the carnival atmosphere its ‘instrument’ implies

  (harmoniums being both orchestral in range and comic in expression), its ‘pure poetry’ cannot be as easily dismissed as early critics of the book maintained. but ‘The comedian as the letter c’ had fallen flat: a poem that does not sound especially ‘comic’ and which reveals Stevens’ anx- iety over completing Harmonium. in other words, if Stevens’ version of ‘pure poetry’ suggested negative abstraction to his critics (a pitfall Ideas


of Order was designed to surmount), the result for Stevens was a different

  expression of abstract poetry: more ‘theoretical’ than before but clinging to the slapstick of Harmonium in an inauspicious textual and contempor- ary space.

  When he wrote ‘owl’s clover’, however, Stevens experimented with a long poem designed to realize civic and aesthetic aims. both poem and book would prove difficult to write. referring to ‘The old Woman and the Statue’ (1935), Stevens noted: ‘it is a carefully worked thing, about which i am in some doubt for that very reason. i like the slap-dash and

  Just as Stevens had over-worked Ideas by lightening ‘the tone of the whole’, the need to confront poverty and politics (what ‘one reads in the papers’) dogged the poet, not to mention the urge to reply to sort of poetry’ to a contemporary ‘subject’, nor was he comfortable with admittedly, the fate of ‘owl’s clover’ – published by alcestis, then drastically edited for The Man with the Blue Guitar and Other Poems before final exclusion from the 1954 Collected – was not solely the result of Stevens over-working his poem. nevertheless, Stevens failed in ‘owl’s clover’ to conjoin convincingly the two types of poetry Ideas offered. When he wrote ‘The Man with the blue guitar’, however, although his 5 compositional methods changed, Stevens re-created Harmonium’s ‘slap-


Wallace Stevens, ‘The old Woman and the Statue’ The Southern Review 1.1 (1935): 78–81; Stevens

6 to latimer, 27 May 1935, RLP. 7 Stanley burnshaw, ‘turmoil in the Middle ground’ New Massses 17 (1935), 41–2. 8 L, 308. See letter to latimer, 16 May 1936, RLP.


The turn to abstraction

  57 dash’, discovering a contemporary focus that harnessed both his abstract proclivities and the insouciance of tone in which Harmonium specialized.

  Surprised at the frequency of his revisions, Stevens reported: ‘apparently, only the ones over which i take a great deal of trouble come through finally. This is contrary to my usual experience, which is to allow a thing Preserving poetic spontaneity was the paradoxical achievement of Stevens’ revisions. The rambling draft canto above shows how significant revision would become for the formation of this hard-won poem. revision and planning are, naturally, two distinct activities. Whilst

  Stevens later mapped the trajectory of ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’, he was not ready to write a multi-part long poem in 1936, despite the attempting to marry civic and poetic ‘fictions’, Stevens drifted toward an aesthetic that neutralized dualism, particularly an ‘imagination–reality’ distinction. but what ‘owl’s clover’ and ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ demonstrate is Stevens’ unease about a poetic that, if it evaded dualism, might be dangerously ‘abstract’ (as if the negative press surrounding


Harmonium and Ideas of Order lived to haunt him). as he remarked in

  december 1935: ‘[M]y real danger is not didacticism, but abstraction. for what validity could his ‘civil fiction’ claim if its aesthetic was removed from the world? as ‘owl’s clover’ asserts in language reminiscent of the snakeskin shed in ‘farewell to florida’:

  a shade of horror turns The bees to scorpions blackly-barbed, a shade of fear changes the scorpions to skins concealed in glittering grass, dank reptile skins. The civil fiction, the calico idea, The Johnsonian composition, abstract man, all are evasions like a repeated phrase, Which, by its repetition, comes to bear a meaning without a meaning.

  (CPP, 166)

  fearing the ‘abstract’ as ‘evasion’, something removed from its context – those shed ‘dank reptile skins’ – Stevens ponders a poetic that risks ‘mean- ing without a meaning’. What the poet could not have known was that he was about to write a work which critiques abstraction in an abstract space.

  58 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ achieves this abstract locale through ‘repeated phrases’, but these hardly comprise the superficial ‘meaning’ ‘owl’s clover’ rejects. in fact, repetition and rhyme create and dissolve meaning in ‘blue guitar’; a poem that neither reads like a ‘Johnsonian composition’ – which Stevens implies is writing a little too perfect and self-contained – nor has any truck with an ‘abstract man’. retrospectively, of course, Stevens attempted to distinguish carefully between ‘owl’s clover’ and ‘The Man with the blue guitar’:


The effect of Owl’s Clover is to emphasize the opposition between things as they

are and things imagined; in short, to isolate poetry […] The Man with the Blue

Guitar […] deals with the incessant conjunctions between things as they are and

  but if by ‘isolate’ Stevens describes poetry as interposing between the ‘opposition’ of things imagined and actual, his use of the verb betrays

  Stevens characterizes ‘blue guitar’ as being not pejoratively abstract; as intimate with ‘conjunctions’ between imaginative and actual life. in dif- ferentiating the poems in this way, however, Stevens overlooked the battle within ‘blue guitar’ between the poem’s assault on abstraction and the creation of an abstract locale where an ‘un-locatable speaker’ speaks.

  Stevens’ mature sense of abstraction as a creative process finds its ori- gins in this 1937 poem. before turning to ‘blue guitar’, however, the spe- cific senses in which Stevens used the word ‘abstract’ during 1935–42, his first abstract phase, should be refined. before the earlier poems of Parts


of a World, like ‘The candle a Saint’ (1939), Stevens’ use of ‘abstract’ is

  essentially pejorative. Whilst ‘abstract’ can mean ‘separated from matter, practice, or particular examples’, its negative connotations include ‘not concrete’, ‘idealistic, not practical’ or even ‘abstruse’ (OED 1/2). to be ‘abstracted’ is to be ‘withdrawn in thought’ and, as a transitive verb, to ‘abstract’ is to ‘deduct, remove’ or even ‘steal’ something from its original context. an ‘abstraction’ is variously defined as a ‘withdrawal’, the ‘pro- 12 cess of stripping an idea of its concrete accompaniments’ and ‘something 13 canto xxx’s attempt ‘to evolve a man’ appears ironic (CPP, 149). 14 CPP, 998.


glen Macleod argues that Stevens initially resisted abstract art because he equated the notion

with geometric abstraction. See Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to

Abstract Expressionism (new haven, ct: Yale University Press, , 92–6. Macleod suggests

that Stevens’ ‘ambivalence about abstraction remained unresolved’ in writing ‘blue guitar’ (96).


The turn to abstraction

  59 visionary’ (OED). in ‘owl’s clover’ Stevens fears abstraction as ‘eva- sion’, an aesthetic withdrawal from what, in 1935, he calls the ‘actual world’. evasions are mental creations like ‘Johnsonian compositions’.

  ‘Johnsonian’ implies ‘using […] long words of latin derivation’. although short, ‘abstract’ is of latin derivation, from abstrahere meaning ‘to draw away’ (OED). to ‘draw away’ – either by abstracting an object or remov- ing oneself – preoccupied Stevens greatly in the late 1930s and early 40s. in ‘The irrational element in Poetry’ (1936) Stevens insists that the poet’s response to ‘the pressure of the contemporaneous’ involves ‘resistance’ but tevens defiantly transformed his 1936 ‘resistance’ into posi- tive ‘escapism’ in ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’ (1942):


The poetic process is psychologically an escapist process. The chatter about escap-

ism is […] merely common cant. My own remarks about resisting or evading the

pressure of reality mean escapism, if analyzed. escapism has a pejorative sense

which it cannot be supposed that i include in the sense in which i use the word.

The pejorative sense applies where the poet is not attached to reality, where the

  by 1942, then, Stevens’ sense of abstraction resists the charge of escap- ism (which is why he appears confident about re-defining ‘escapism’ posi- tively). by the early 1940s, ‘abstraction’ indicates neither the failure of the poet to ‘adhere to reality’ nor the imagination’s wilful distortion of ‘reality’, but a creative process where the idea of ‘poetry’ inspires real- ized poems. both ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ and ‘The irrational element’ confront this phenomenon but are not comfortable calling it ‘abstract’. as Stevens pointedly wrote in defence of the ‘blue guitar’ can- tos: ‘They deal with the relation or balance between imagined things and real things […] actually, they are not abstractions, even though what i

  The distance between ‘The irrational element’ and ‘The noble rider’, however, marks Stevens’ gradual acceptance of an abstract poetic. by 1942 Stevens conceives a ‘possible poet’. The possible poet’s ‘power’ derives from his ability ‘to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstrac- 16 tion the reality on which the lovers of truth insist’ but Stevens’ positive 17 18 19 L, 292. CPP, 788. Ibid., 661–2.


L, 316. discussing valéry, Stevens admitted: ‘it is difficult for me to think and not to think

abstractly. consequently, in order to avoid abstractness, in writing, i search out instinctively

things that express the abstract and yet are not in themselves abstractions’ (L, 290). note how

Stevens seeks an appropriate idiom, rejecting thinking ‘abstractly’, ‘abstractness’ and even

‘abstractions’ in favour of ‘the abstract’.

  60 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction use of ‘abstract’ becomes clearer when the term is not, tautologically, adopted to explain itself. a

chapter 3 argues – referring to Wordsworth,

  coleridge, blanchot’s ‘work’, Merleau-Ponty’s ‘in-visible’ and focillon’s creative ‘life of forms’ – what the ‘mind’s eye’ creates bears both on how Stevens wrote his poems and how his readers experience them. in writing ‘blue guitar’ Stevens realized that ideas concerning verse, although not concrete, were nevertheless creative catalysts. his awareness of this phe- nomenon appears as early as ‘The irrational element’: ‘There is […] an unwritten rhetoric that is always changing and to which the poet must always be turning. That is the book in which he learns that the desire for but in 1936 this ‘unwritten rhetoric’ – or one consequence of this process, in Stevens’ case, was a poetry that, despite proffering visual or physical imagery, remains hard to ‘see’. ‘The

  Man with the blue guitar’ is an early example. but to understand how Stevens creates a space (and speaker) that proves tricky to situate, the dismantling in ‘blue guitar’ of its own dualism must be addressed. as Stevens dissolves the dialogue between guitarist and audience, his poem explores the dangers and allure of abstraction; an aesthetic development which would have a massive effect on the poet Stevens becomes, both the writer who requires a vocabulary of abstract ideas and, by 1945, the poet who dispatches an overt abstract rhetoric.

  The two most quoted parts of ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ are can- tos i and xxii. canto i presents the poem’s dominant tension between the ‘imagination’ and ‘reality’, depicted in guitarist and audience:

  The man bent over his guitar, a shearsman of sorts. The day was green. They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are.’ The man replied, ‘Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.’ and they said then, ‘but play, you must, a tune beyond us, yet ourselves, a tune upon the blue guitar of things exactly as they are.’ 21

  (CPP, 135) 22 Ibid., 790.


The lecture does envision, however, ‘a poet’ of ‘such scope that he can set the abstraction on


The turn to abstraction

  61 canto xxii identifies poetry as an idea travelling metaphorically between the ‘imagination’ and ‘reality’:

  Poetry is the subject of the poem, from this the poem issues and to this returns. between the two, between issue and return, there is an absence in reality, Things as they are. or so we say. but are these separate? is it an absence for the poem, which acquires its true appearances there, sun’s green, cloud’s red, earth feeling, sky that thinks? from these it takes. Perhaps it gives, in the universal intercourse.

  (CPP, 144–5)

  both cantos are central to understanding Stevens’ poem. canto xxii dis- cusses how the idea of ‘poetry’ effects the creation of poems themselves. Stevens represents the ‘imagination’ at its most ‘unreal’ in the catachre- ses of ‘earth feeling’ and ‘sky that thinks’. These are not flights of fancy but examples of whatever might influence realized poems (‘from these it takes’). This justifies what Stevens later means by the injunction ‘It Must


Be Abstract’. My interest here, however, is in exploring the textual behav-

  iour of ‘blue guitar’. Without close reading, it is easy to overlook how Stevens creates his own significant ‘absence of reality’ in the poem by dismantling its dialogue between ‘imagination’ and ‘reality’. canto i underscores the confrontation between guitarist and audience through rhyme:

  They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are.’ The man replied, ‘Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.’

  ‘are/guitar’ is not an adventurous rhyme. but ‘guitar’ already contains the sound ‘ar’, as if the guitar itself is implicated in ‘reality’: how things ‘are’. rhyme-order informs, in fact, the dialogue’s dialectic. in the first couplet, the audience rhymes to give priority to the phrase ‘things as they are’. This is its important clause, whereas having a ‘blue guitar’ represents a sorry diversion from ‘reality’. but the guitarist prioritizes

  62 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction his guitar. rejecting the audience’s rhyme-order, he asserts ‘things as they are’ are changed not by the ‘guitar’ but upon it. inverting the rhyme-order to highlight the guitar itself – as well as emphasiz- ing ‘upon’ to stress the guitar as the site of change and not its mere cause – the guitarist thwarts the audience’s insistence on ‘reality’ as arbiter of the tune. That argument proves compelling because the audi- ence unconsciously adopts the guitarist’s preposition in its subsequent appeal: ‘play […] / a tune beyond us, yet ourselves, / a tune upon the blue guitar’.

  Stevens’ guitarist also reverses the audience’s rhyme-order to detract from the phrase ‘things as they are’, focusing instead on the participle ‘changed’. in the guitarist’s reply ‘things as they are’ becomes com- pound, signifying ‘reality’ in general. This is not what Stevens’ audience intends. When it suggests the guitarist does ‘not play things as they are’ the audience means he fails to represent how particular things really are. The guitarist evades this charge by asserting ‘reality’ in general (‘things- as-they-are’) is transformed through performance, whilst specific ‘things’ remain literally ‘as they are’. That Stevens does not hyphenate ‘things as they are’ allows the guitarist’s verbal trick to creep into the poem almost unnoticed. but the audience does recognize the ploy, even in conceding the guitar might create an appropriate tune: ‘but play […] / a tune upon the blue guitar / of things exactly as they are’. That exact- ing demand aims to countermand the guitarist’s riposte that ‘things as they are’ in general are changed by guitar-playing.

  The guitarist’s ‘are’ is also a springboard to ‘change’: ‘Things as they are, / Are changed upon the blue guitar’. Unlike the audience, he prefers ‘are’ as an auxiliary and not intransitive verb. canto ii marks such cre- ative change as the guitarist becomes first person:

  i cannot bring a world quite round, although i patch it as i can. i sing a hero’s head, large eye and bearded bronze, but not a man, although i patch him as i can and reach through him almost to man. if to serenade almost to man is to miss, by that, things as they are, Say that it is the serenade of a man that plays a blue guitar.

  (CPP, 135)


The turn to abstraction

  63 The guitarist’s ‘patch[ing]’ refers back to the ‘shearsman of sorts’. Stevens When renato Poggioli was translating the poem in 1953 Stevens wrote that the speaker is ‘squat- like a tailor, the guitarist not only mends but makes: his patching creates novel pat- terns where, implicitly, there was once a worn-out creation, even hole or void. This imagery anticipates canto xxii’s conception that the idea of ‘poetry’ plugs the gap of ‘an absence in reality’. Poetry, in this sense, is an idea that creates the fabric of poems themselves, just as, in canto ii, ‘a hero’s head’ (an ideal figure without corporal ‘reality’) is preferred. if we conceive Stevens’ guitarist as a poet-figure, then the ‘shearsman of sorts’ is not merely a quasi-metaphor for the guitarist (‘of sorts’ as in ‘approxi- mate’). he may be the poet whose printed words fill the whiteness of the page, patching ‘reality’ with ‘sorts’ (as in ‘fount[s] of type’, OED). although in canto ii the guitarist retains his preferred rhyme-order, however, his tune dismantles Stevens’ poem. ‘Things as they are’ stretches over two couplets to rhyme with ‘blue guitar’, as if the canto were mim- icking what it is to ‘miss’ serenading to ‘man’. Significantly, the rhyme is separated by the word ‘serenade’:

  if to serenade almost to man is to miss, by that, things as they are, Say that it is the serenade of a man that plays a blue guitar.

  The second ‘serenade’ occupies what would have been the position of ‘things as they are’ in the guitarist’s rhyming couplet. That is, the ser- enade the guitarist sings deliberately misses the harmony of the poem’s dominant rhyme. Such disruptive song unpicks as much as it patches, but in the ‘inter-play’ and ‘inter-say’ of Stevens’ rhyme even the guitarist’s own rhetorical strategies are unwoven.

  Stevens un-stitches ‘blue guitar’ because the poem cannot endorse the dualism of ‘imagination’ v. ‘reality’. no sooner than the rhyming coup- let breaks, canto iii spawns a string of unresolved subordinate clauses, an effect in which Stevens’ poem specializes:

  ah, but to play man number one, to drive the dagger in his heart, to lay his brain upon the board and pick the acrid colors out,

  64 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  to nail his thought across the door, its wings spread wide to rain and snow, to strike his living hi and ho, to tick it, tock it, turn it true, to bang it from a savage blue, Jangling the metal of the strings…

  (CPP, 135–6)

  lacking grammatical resolution, Stevens demonstrates exactly what his ‘blue guitar’ achieves when freed from having to rhyme with ‘things as they are’. ‘blue’ becomes the authoritative rhyme-maker (chiming with ‘true’). note also how the emphasis on the adjective ‘blue’ rather than the noun ‘guitar’ denies agency to the guitarist. canto iii is not a continu- ation of the guitarist speaking, but a violent song where Stevens retrieves the very poem of which he remarked: ‘[t]here is a kind of secrecy between the poet and his poem which, once violated, affects the integrity of the canto iii protects ‘blue guitar’ from violating that ‘secrecy’ by seizing poem from guitarist, not least by appropriating the adjective ‘blue’. Stevens’ poem will even transform the word ‘adjective’ into a noun (its ‘amorist adjective aflame’) as if to assert that the descriptive word by canto iv, therefore, the guitarist’s ‘are/guitar’ rhyme is implicitly questioned, along with the claim that imaginative song is the site for transforming ‘reality’:

  So that’s life, then: things as they are? it picks its way on the blue guitar. a million people on one string? and all their manner in the thing, and all their manner, right and wrong, and all their manner, weak and strong?

  (CPP, 136)

  The anaphoric ‘all their manner’ views sceptically the idea that ‘reality’ can be captured in guitar-playing. The verb ‘pick’ has also changed. in canto iii it connoted picking up by hand or wrenching open (to ‘pull apart’ OED 6), describing the violent dissection of a man’s brain. in canto iv, ‘picks its way’ connotes daintily selecting a viewpoint or assuming a pose – as in to pick ‘one’s words, way, steps’ (OED 5). Where in canto iii Stevens wrests the poem from the guitarist, picking away at ‘man’


The turn to abstraction

  65 himself, canto iv satirizes the guitarist’s effete picking, both as a musician with a ‘pick’/plectrum and a figure who cannot represent ‘reality’ because he merely picks his way through life.

  The poem thus dissolves the dialogue between ‘imagination’ and ‘reality’, dispatching guitar-playing as a metaphor for writing poetry. Superficially, Stevens appears to leave his audience the last word:

  do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry, of the torches wisping in the underground, of the structure of vaults upon a point of light. There are no shadows in our sun, day is desire and night is sleep. There are no shadows anywhere. The earth, for us, is flat and bare. There are no shadows. Poetry exceeding music must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns, ourselves in poetry must take their place, even in the chattering of your guitar.

  (CPP, 136–7)

  The audience’s desire not to hear of the ‘greatness of poetry’ is ironized here by its requiring poetry for self-consolidation (‘ourselves in poetry’). Where earlier in ‘blue guitar’ the guitarist is analogue for the creating poet, canto v elevates poetry over music, condescending to the guitarist that only snatches of poetry inform his song: ‘Even in the chattering of your guitar’. Poetry is envisaged supplying the dimensions of shade and colour lost to a world where heaven is ‘empty’. but if the guitarist is subor- dinated, the audience is critiqued for creating the bare world it occupies. Where poetry is asked to ‘take the place of empty heaven and its hymns’, one questions whether those hymns emanate from that world of ‘no shad- ows’, the audience’s realm. despite blaming ‘empty heaven’, the audience creates the conditions under which it is dependent upon ‘poetry’. but despite insisting nothing be ‘changed’, Stevens’ audience actually switches places with his guitarist, a shift again signalled by rhyme:

  a tune beyond us as we are, Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar; ourselves in the tune as if in space Yet nothing changed, except the place of things as they are and only the place

  66 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  Placed, so, beyond the compass of change, Perceived in a final atmosphere; for a moment final, in the way The thinking of art seems final when The thinking of god is smoky dew. The tune is space. The blue guitar becomes the place of things as they are, a composing of senses of the guitar.

  (CPP, 137)

  The audience speaks here through the guitarist’s preferred rhyme-order (‘are/guitar’) absorbing the guitarist and his tune (‘a tune beyond us as


we are’); as the pronoun ‘we’ vies with the phrase ‘things as they are’. The

guitarist is addressed (‘as you play’), but no longer speaks.

  canto vi’s irony, however, is that the audience remains unaware of sounding like a crypto-guitarist. it believes the only change the guitarist can instrument is the ‘place of things as they are’. The actual, dimensional ‘space’ of ‘reality’ cannot be altered. The audience, therefore, attempts to uphold a reality–imagination distinction even when exchanging places with Stevens’ guitarist. textually, this occurs not only with the audi- ence adopting the guitarist’s rhyme. once the phrase ‘things as they are’ changes places with ‘blue guitar’ to complete the guitarist’s rhyme, the audience does occupy a new space, the guitarist’s world. The audience prefers the ‘imagination’ to stay ‘beyond the compass of change’, fearing the guitarist’s insistence on ‘change’ equals manipulation of ‘reality’. but in articulating that desire the audience is itself transformed, entering the guitarist’s semantic and textual locale. once guitarist and audience dissolve, Stevens’ dominant rhyme dis- appears from the poem only to reappear in a few ironic instances. as with Stevens’ fears for abstraction in ‘owl’s clover’, no sooner than the imagination–reality dualism unfolds ‘blue guitar’ critiques the audi- ence’s absolute desires. for canto vi – and the draft canto prefacing this chapter – a ‘final atmosphere’ is dangerously removed. in the draft canto it concerns ‘the imagination of the engineer’, perhaps another potential ‘Johnsonian composition’. however, rather than concede to a ‘final atmos- phere’ Stevens’ speaker quips: ‘i could not find it if i would. / i would not find it if i could’, a chiasmus anticipating the speaker in Stevens’ eventual poem who enjoys similar evasions. but ‘evasion’ is precisely the shared concern of both ‘owl’s clover’ and Stevens’ 1937 poem. ‘blue guitar’ is more defensive than its draft canto, keen to critique an abstract imagina-


The turn to abstraction

  67 canto vii, for example, worries about the cost of abstraction, venturing a persona–poet in place of departed guitarist and audience:

  and shall i then stand in the sun, as now i stand in the moon, and call it good, The immaculate, the merciful good, detached from us, from things as they are? not to be part of the sun? to stand remote and call it merciful? The strings are cold on the blue guitar.

  (CPP, 137–8)

  Standing ‘remote’ leads to imaginative sterility, represented here by cold guitar strings. There is an obvious fear of being abstracted from reality, standing in the moon and not being ‘part of the sun’. although Stevens’ ‘i’ associates itself with the guitarist (as also in canto viii), ‘blue guitar’ is not ultimately concerned with a guitarist, but with the figure who speaks in Stevens’ poem. The ‘blue guitar’ persists, but increasingly lacks its guitarist. Moreover, it is not only Stevens’ ‘i’ that poses questions about where to ‘stand’. This ‘i’ becomes a speaker the reader cannot locate, an abstract token and creator of meaning; a figure who cannot be detached because it has no context from which to be removed (and it has no con- text because its location is continually on the move). note, for example, how the speaker sounds like a guitarist but without any sense of what his ‘playing’ effects:

  i know my lazy, leaden twang is like the reason in a storm; and yet it brings the storm to bear. i twang it out and leave it there.

  (CPP, 138)

  Stevens’ simile of ‘reason in a storm’ evokes lear’s hysterical dialogue in the storm scene of Shakespeare’s play, echoing lear’s apostrophe to ‘thought-executing fires’ and his discourse with Poor tom, the ‘philoso- pher’, whom he asks: ‘What is the cause of thunder?’ tom’s being labelled ‘the thing itself’ also chimes with Stevens’ ironic meditations on ‘things if the guitarist’s ‘twang’ is ‘like the reason in a storm’ then it appears as superfluous noise, unless its ‘leaden’ sound enables ascertaining


where one is. Stevens’ ‘i’ does not admit to being lost, however, remaining

  68 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction enigmatic about its ‘twang’, just as lear combats his ‘contentious storm’ through rhetoric, despite admitting: ‘This tempest in my mind / doth to bring ‘the storm to bear’ perhaps signifies that the ‘twang’ defines the ‘reality’ of the storm (‘bring to bear’ meaning to ‘apply or aim’, OED

  13). Sixteen years after the poem’s composition Stevens assured Poggioli that the phrase indicates ‘the poet is relaxed […] his words are full of the storm but not part of it. consequently, they control it and bring it however, having invoked the storm, Stevens’

  ‘i’ merely ‘leave[s] it there’: a spatial/temporal phrase meaning to discon- tinue playing and to situate that tune, perhaps for an audience. The older Stevens aimed to help Poggioli render the poem in italian and was writ- but Stevens’ reader can nei- ther be sure of where ‘there’ is, nor where the ‘i’ positions itself. Stevens’ ‘i’ becomes, as lear says of Poor tom, ‘Unaccommodated man’: a figure if, as canto ix suggests, this speaker is ‘merely a shadow hunched / above the arrowy, still strings, / The maker of a thing yet to be made’, once the poem’s main rhyme unwinds, not only does its ‘i’ dominate: Stevens’ ‘blue guitar’ begins to float. in fact, ‘blue guitar’ is not a poem about a guitarist but a text where an elusive speaker aims to become the ‘blue guitar’. Stevens thereby sati- rizes his speaker and critiques negative abstraction; the speaker’s desire to become the ‘blue guitar’ being a parody of the ‘imagination’ as removed and ‘unreal’. even if one struggles, then, to locate Stevens’ speaker palp- ably – the ‘maker of a thing yet to be made’ – one can ascertain the text- ual ironies within which that ‘i’ is placed.

  The elision of speaker and guitar forges a rupture which causes Stevens to begin ‘blue guitar’ all over again in canto xiv. even as early as canto Xii the speaker is unsettled by his own metamorphosis:

  tom-tom, c’est moi. The blue guitar and i are one. The orchestra fills the high hall with shuffling men 29 high as the hall. The whirling noise 30 31 Ibid., 3.4.12–14: 960. L, 783.


Stevens returned to this phrase with Poggioli (L, 791). however, he was uneasy about his

glosses: ‘You will understand that in converting a poem […] into plain english, one’s explana-


The turn to abstraction


  of a multitude dwindles, all said, to his breath that lies awake at night. i know that timid breathing. Where do i begin and end? and where, as i strum the thing, do i pick up That which momentously declares itself not to be i and yet Must be. it could be nothing else.

  (CPP, 140)

  recalling the ‘sleepless’ figure of ‘academic discourse at havana’ (who toys with the world as a ‘bauble’), canto xii critiques one who ‘lies awake

  Stevens’ all-consuming ‘i’ seems likewise solipsistic, but lacks fixed iden- tity. consuming everything, it cannot be located by reference to anything else: ‘Where / do i begin and end?’

  Stevens’ ‘i’ retreats, then, to a hyper-abstract space, subsuming the ‘blue guitar’ and being subsumed by it. in this enigmatic elision the poem almost breaks under the weight of the adjective ‘blue’:

  The pale intrusions into blue are corrupting pallors… ay di mi, blue buds or pitchy blooms. be content – expansions, diffusions – content to be The unspotted imbecile revery, The heraldic center of the world of blue, blue sleek with a hundred chins, The amorist adjective aflame…

  (CPP, 140–1)

  Stevens ironizes here a poetry writ large, featuring excessive alliter- ation – those repeated ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds – and a chiasmus (‘be content – expansions, diffusions – content to be’) which ironically fails to expand on anything. This parodies a poetry of mere technique which, like the abstract ‘evasion’ of ‘owl’s clover’, renders ‘meaning without a meaning’. even the ‘blue sleek with a hundred chins’ remains worryingly abstract; a ‘blue’ which, despite its plural visage, has no face.

  Writing to Poggioli, Stevens claimed: ‘the amorist adjective means

  Yet, a few days later, he countered:

  70 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


Perhaps my explanation was a bit too expansive. The poem in which this appears

[…] deals with the intensity of the imagination unmodified by contacts with

reality […] i took a look at this poem after i had written to you and thought that

the metamorphosis into reality […] was misleading. The poem has to do with

pure imagination.

  Stevens struggles here to read ‘blue guitar’ because his earlier inter- pretation overlooked the irony in which the canto’s ‘adjective’ fails to represent ‘a word metamorphosed into blue as a reality’. rather, canto xiii is itself a ‘pale intrusion into blue’, a stuttering song corrupted by the very adjective (now metamorphosed to the proper noun ‘adjective’) that had previously propelled the poem. ‘Pure imagination’ lacks substance: it lacks abstractive power.

  The ‘amorist adjective aflame’ fizzles out, then, in an elliptical trail leaving Stevens to re-begin ‘blue guitar’ at canto xiv, ironically with the word ‘first’. This is like Joyce’s ‘preparatory to anything else’, the begin- ning of the sixteenth episode of Ulysses which, as Jeri Johnson notes,

  ‘claims its power to begin Ulysses all over again’ but to understand the significance of canto xiii’s demise, one must attend to Picasso’s appear- ance in the poem:

  is this picture of Picasso’s, this ‘hoard of destructions,’ a picture of ourselves, now, an image of our society? do i sit, deformed, a naked egg, catching at good-bye, harvest moon, Without seeing the harvest or the moon? Things as they are have been destroyed. have i? am i a man that is dead at a table on which the food is cold? is my thought a memory, not alive?

is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood

and whichever it may be, is it mine?

  (CPP, 141–2)

  as Macleod shows, ‘blue guitar’ is highly context-suggestiv Yet, des- 36 pite echoing Surrealist and cubist topoi – and despite Stevens’ allusion 37 Ibid., 785.


James Joyce, Ulysses: The 1922 Text ed. Jeri Johnson (oxford: oxford University Press, , 569,


The turn to abstraction

  71 to a ‘picture of Picasso’s’ – the poem is not cross-generically giving. The most useful artefact behind Stevens’ text is not a painting but christian Zervos’ 1935 interview with Picasso; which Macleod also discusses and which Stevens later remembered to Poggioli, insisting he had ‘no particu-

  Stevens’ ‘hoard of destructions’ tropes Picasso’s description of a paint- ing as a ‘sum of destructions’:


a picture used to be a sum of additions. in my case a picture is a sum of destruc-

tions. i do a picture – then i destroy it. in the end, though, nothing is lost: the

red i took away from one place turns up somewhere else.

  despite the ‘destruction’ wreaked by the adjective ‘blue’ in canto xiii, however, Stevens’ poem is concerned more with self-preservation than destruction, which may account for substituting ‘hoard’ for Picasso’s ‘sum’ (hoarding being to ‘overstock […] in time of scarcity’, OED 3). however, in ‘The relations between Poetry and Painting’ Stevens misremembered Picasso’s phrase and his own, substituting ‘horde’ for ‘hoard’: ‘does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say Self-preservation and destruc- tion (marauding hordes) are perhaps inextricable, particularly for the poet who preserves poetry by destroying cliché, received ideas or other com- monplace verbal associations. but what relations exist between Picasso and Stevens’ troubled speaker who observes ‘Things as they are have been destroyed. / have i?’ What is usually not discussed in comparing ‘blue guitar’ with Zervos’ interview is Picasso’s distaste for ‘abstract art’. This revulsion reveals much about Picasso’s and Stevens’ ideas concerning composition. Picasso argues:


There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. afterward you

can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea

of the object will have left an indelible mark. it is what started the artist off,

excited his ideas, and stirred up his emotions. ideas and emotions will in the end

be prisoners in his work […] They form an integral part of it, even when their

presence is no longer discernible.

  fully abstract art is impossible, then, because nothing can ultimately be 39 removed from its context; because the concept or object initiating the 40 L, 783, 786.


christian Zervos, ‘conversation avec Picasso’ Cahiers d’art 10 (1935); translated in dore ashton,

41 ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (new York: viking, ), 8.

  72 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction artwork always influences the artist’s composition (‘it is what started the artist off, excited his ideas, and stirred up his emotions’). for Picasso, even if a picture is ‘destroyed’ – appearing ‘removed’ from its original ‘object’ – it draws from the object or idea inspiring its composition. even in destruction ‘nothing is lost’. earlier in the interview Picasso explains:


When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must

be on guard against these. destroy the thing, do it over several times. in each

destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but

  Picasso’s views chime with Stevens’ claims for ideas as imaginative catalysts and the poet’s fear of abstraction. ‘Poetry is the subject of the poem’ does not mean poetry’s ‘subject-matter’ is necessarily poetry itself, as Julian Symons, who had published a shorter version of ‘blue guitar’, assumed (Symons concluding Stevens was, in fact, evading his ‘actual world’). rather, Stevens implies that the idea of creating poetry, what- ever its subject-matter, actuates the poem. to borrow Picasso’s phrase, the idea ‘form[s] an integral part of’ the poem ‘even when [its] presence is no longer discernible’, and even when the ‘original’ objects of inspiration are impalpable ‘ideas and emotions’. admittedly, for Picasso ‘abstract art’ is impossible, whereas ‘blue guitar’ fears the ‘unreality’ of excessive abstraction. ‘a Thought revolved’ (1936) may observe that ‘The poet […] / denies that abstraction is a vice except / to the fatuous’, but the poem Stevens wrote a year later is genuinely wor- ried about an ‘i’ who speaks in an abstract zone where dualism disap- pears. ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ swings free from the ‘real’ world from which it projects its imaginative creations because ‘things as they are have been destroyed’. This creates epistemological doubt in which the mysterious locale where Stevens’ ‘i’ speaks provides few certainties. The statement about the destruction of ‘things as they are’ is the only sentence in canto xv that is not a question. Stevens’ speaker is no surer whether or not Picasso’s painting does comprise ‘an image of our society’ than it is of its own identity, the signifiers of its presence and the nature of those signs: ‘is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood / and whichever it 43 may be, is it mine?’ 44 Ibid., 9.


See Julian Symons, ‘a Short view of Wallace Stevens’ Life and Letters Today 26 (1940): 215–24; L,


The turn to abstraction

  73 The uncertainty of inhabiting an abstract space is clear: ‘do i sit, deformed, a naked egg, / catching at good-bye, harvest moon, / Without seeing the harvest or the moon?’ ‘Shine on harvest Moon’ (c. 1908) was a popular song Pennsylvania singer ethel Waters performed in the 1920s and 30s. it exists in multiple versions. Written by nora bayes and Jack norworth, the song became part of the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld directed by robert Z. leonard, a musical tribute to florenz Ziegfeld.

  The chorus reads:

  Shine on, shine on harvest moon Up in the sky. i ain’t had no lovin’ Since January, february, June or July. Snow time ain’t no time to stay outdoors and spoon. So shine on, shine on harvest moon

  Waters’ version reads: ‘don’t know why / There’s no sun up in the sky / Stormy weather / Since my gal and i ain’t together’ (Waters also per- formed her own rendition of ‘Stormy Weather’ at the cotton club in 1933).

  Stevens told Poggioli about ‘a popular song entitled good-bye, good- bye harvest Moon’, but which song he intended remains a mystery.

  ‘Shine on harvest Moon’ concerns missing out on ‘lovin’’. Perhaps ‘blue guitar’ (which ‘brings the storm to bear’) combines one or more songs certainly, canto xv’s abstracted speaker is distanced from reality and physical companionship. being ‘deformed, a naked egg’ suggests a body self-consciously preoccu- pied with being unattractive, reaping no harvest of love and finding noth- ing romantic in the moon. The ‘harvest moon’ is the full moon appearing closest to the autumn equinox. but it is a lunar event without reality for a figure that sees neither the ‘harvest’ nor the ‘moon’, nor derives com- fort from the intimacy of human warmth which remains at a depressing remove. abstract tragedy thus befalls the speaker who, having wanted to become the ‘blue guitar’, by canto xv confuses the signs and confines of a fragile 46 existence. The ‘imagination’ stretched to what Stevens calls ‘pure irreality’ 47 See http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/20813/The-great-Ziegfeld/overview.


The song’s earliest publication is, perhaps, 1918 (historic american Sheet Music collection, duke

  74 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction can only dissemble its creations if it attempts to stay ‘apart’Stevens adds: ‘i do not desire to exist apart from our works and the imagination does not desire to exist apart from our works […] imagination has no source except in reality, and ceases to have any value when it departs from fearing an existence ‘apart’ and without ‘any value’ permeates

  Stevens’ poem. but ‘blue guitar’ does create a meaningful locale, even if (or because of the fact that) its speaker undergoes protean shifts affect- ing the poem’s textual geography. despite reviews suggesting flippancy, William carlos Williams hit the nail on the head in describing ‘blue Williams did not only mean that these were lyrics in all but name; Stevens’ cantos are also projections of what poetry might be (troping the optical sense of ‘virtual image’, OED 1/2). indeed, Stevens’ inspiration derives from an imagined space for his speaker that is virtual because it is always ‘yet to be made’, always on the point of creation. by dissolving its opening dialogue, then, ‘blue guitar’ creates an elu- sive space where Stevens confronts his fear of abstraction and creates a world for an ‘un-locatable’ speaker. in 1937, however, Stevens was not ready to call his creation ‘abstract’. during composition, Stevens observed of his drafts to latimer:


They deal with the relation or balance between imagined things and real things

which […] is a constant source of trouble to me. i don’t feel that i have as yet

nearly got to the end of the subject. actually, they are not abstractions, even

though what i have just said about them suggests that […] [W]hat they really

deal with is the painter’s problem of realization: i have been trying to see the

world about me both as i see it and as it is. This means seeing the world as an

  in the Zervos interview Picasso also confronts ‘the painter’s problem of realization’. but, for Picasso, realization is not intrinsically problematic because ‘abstract art’ is impossible: there can be no composition removed from reality. Thus the artist need not fear any discrepancy between what niggles Stevens: ‘see[ing] the world […] as i see it and as it is’. indeed, Stevens’ lingering fears over abstraction derive from upholding the imagination–reality distinction ‘blue guitar’ overcomes. if ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’ are incommensurable, then the artist is necessarily in dan- 50 ger of evading ‘reality’ and becoming pejoratively abstract. Stevens’ 1937 51 52 L, 360. Ibid., 362, 364.


William carlos Williams, ‘a troubled man who sings well’ New Republic 50 (1937), cited in


The turn to abstraction

  75 poem is worried about rendering ‘meaning without a meaning’, but it also witnesses the creation of a speaker that transcends the poet’s imagina- tion–reality obsession, a voice which creates the poem as it speaks. note, for example, how in canto xxviii Stevens’ ‘i’ struts through the poet’s concluding couplets as though it owned the page. realizing, finally, it is ‘a native of this world’, Stevens’ speaker confidently declares:


here I inhale profounder strength

and as I am, I speak and move

and things are as I think they are

and say they are on the blue guitar.

  (CPP, 148; emphasis added)

  This ‘profounder strength’ is observable in the speaker’s movement from one end of the poetic line to the other, appearing four times in three lines (a text- ual quality of the idealist ‘i’ Stevens creates in the late 1930s and early 40s). note, also, how the poem’s original dialogue has become the play-thing of the speaker, who dispatches the very worries Stevens reveals to latimer. ‘Things’ can only be what the ‘i’ thinks of them, and can only be realized imaginatively ‘on the blue guitar’. This realization comes with resigning oneself to the reality of possessing an ‘i’, an identity. for if Stevens’ speaker evades self-definition, it cannot relinquish its textual and poetic reality.

  Where do we reach at the close of ‘The Man with the blue guitar’? Stevens revels in his mobile, ‘un-locatable’ speaker. canto xxxii turns its back on the fixity of ‘definitions’ in language reminiscent of auden’s

  ‘Stop all the clocks’ (1936):

  Throw away the lights, the definitions, and say of what you see in the dark That it is this or that it is that, but do not use the rotted names. […] nothing must stand between you and the shapes you take When the crust of shape has been destroyed. You as you are? You are yourself. The blue guitar surprises you.

  (CPP, 150)

  The canto critiques the very philosophical questions Stevens’ poem ponders (and its readers frequently ask), dispelling the epistemological uncertainty of ‘You as you are?’ with the flat rebuttal: ‘You are yourself.’ Just as coleridge

  76 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction recognizes the creative ‘subject’ is ‘groundless’ and yet remains ‘the ground of all other certainty’, Stevens insists the ‘self’ is assertive by resisting medi-


ation: ‘nothing must stand / between you and the shapes you take’This

  accounts for the rejection of ‘rotted names’, the terms of any language, including an imagination–reality distinction, that might confine Stevens’ ‘self’. The canto also provides an image for the abstract imagination Stevens will develop after 1937. The appeal to speak of ‘what you see in the dark’ accentuates the paradoxically visible aspects of a shady virtual world where the idea of ‘poetry’ is a pre-text for realizing poems themselves. as

chapter 3 explores, this emphasis anticipates what Merleau-Ponty

  calls the ‘in-visible’ (among other compelling analogues in Proust, Mauron, focillon and others). Merleau-Ponty’s term refers not to what we cannot literally see, but to our imaginative conception of the visual. beyond auden’s poem, a better textual parallel for canto xxxii is hardy’s ‘Shut out That Moon’ (1904). hardy’s speaker desires a purely mental imaginative space in order to create poetry because the actual moon is beguiling and leads to sterility:

  close up the casement, draw the blind, Shut out that stealing moon, She wears too much the guise she wore before our lutes were strewn

  With years-deep dust, and names we read on a white stone were hewn. Step not forth on the dew-dashed lawn to view the lady’s chair, immense orion’s glittering form, The less and greater bear: Stay in; to such sights we were drawn

  hardy’s imperatives chime not only with Stevens’ poem (‘Throw away the lights’); his ‘strewn’ ‘lutes’ also resound with Stevens’ ‘monstrous lutes’ (from canto xix). Significantly, hardy advocates an armchair imagin- ation. his main imperative ‘Stay in’ unwittingly describes Stevens’ idealist or phenomenologist imagination where to look deeply within oneself is, as for Proust and cézanne, to scrutinize the world in the deepest sense. hardy’s speaker, like Stevens’, prefers to conceive the world in the 55 abstract. banal reality cannot satisfy the poet’s imagination; and yet,


The turn to abstraction

  77 paradoxically, the ‘ordinary’ aids the poet’s creations (‘ordinariness’ and ‘the normal’ becoming critical in late Stevens):

  Within the common lamp-lit room Prison my eyes and thought; let dingy details crudely loom, Mechanic speech be wrought: too fragrant was life’s early bloom, too tart the fruit it brought!

  hardy writes more tragically than Stevens here, but his poem coincides with ‘blue guitar’’s injunction to avoid ‘light’, to speak of what one ‘see[s] in the dark’: images anticipating the kind of poet Stevens becomes in the late 1930s and beyond. by the end of ‘blue guitar’, therefore, Stevens embraces an abstract imagination; even if, in 1937, he cannot call it by name. canto xxx even parodies the desire to ‘evolve a man’. Thinking of man in the abstract, the poem playfully constructs a ridiculous figure, an ‘old fantoche / hanging Perhaps Stevens ironizes his own emergent abstract tendencies. but there is no fear here of falling under the weight of ‘the adjective’ or creating a ‘Johnsonian composition’. Stevens’ capitulation to the direction of his new poetic defines the story of this poem and his later work. When he observed that he had not ‘as yet nearly got to the end of the subject’ he could not have been more correct. by 1938 the ‘abstract’ already held the solution to the poet’s ‘imagination–reality complex’. abstraction would help create the poet’s specialist vocabulary, but it would also outlive delmore

  Schwartz, in his review of ‘blue guitar’, observed: ‘There is always an abstractness present; everything is turned into an object of the imagin- ation.’ Schwartz correctly saw Stevens was in danger of being labelled ‘too poetic’. but the scare quotes Schwartz gives the phrase in his review indi- cate he saw salvation for the poet. Stevens’ work is ‘located […] in the middle of everything which concerns us’, a position paradoxically estab- 57 lished through the voice of the poet’s ‘un-locatable’ speaker. 58 hardy, Selected Short Stories and Poems, 171. 59 60 CPP, 149. Ibid., 226.

  delmore Schwartz, review of ‘blue guitar’ Partisan Review 4. ), 52.


cH a p t er 3

The ‘in-visible’ abstract: Stevens’ idealism from

Coleridge to Merleau-Ponty

  3.1 rom a n t ic a da p tat ions: wor ds wort H, col e r i dge, s t e v e ns

  i still have had Thy after-sojourn in the self-same place Present before my eyes, have played with times (i speak of private business of the thought) and accidents as children do with cards, or as a man, who, when his house is built, a frame locked up in wood and stone, doth still in impotence of mind by his fireside rebuild it to his liking. i have thought of thee, thy learning, gorgeous eloquence, and all the strength and plumage of thy youth, Thy subtle speculations, toils abstruse among the schoolmen, and Platonic forms of wild ideal pageantry, shaped out from things well-matched, or ill, and words for things – The self-created sustenance of a mind debarred from nature’s living images, compelled to be a life unto itself, and unrelentingly possessed by thirst

  in The Prelude Wordsworth expresses doubts about coleridge’s ideal- ist imagination. Wordsworth observes his friend has introspected to the extent that the ‘actual world’, as Stevens calls it, no longer influences coleridge lives on the ‘self-created sustenance 1 of a mind / debarred from nature’s living images, / compelled to be


William Wordsworth, The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850 ed. Jonathan Wordsworth et al. (new York:


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  79 a life unto itself’. but in charging coleridge with relinquishing his tal- ent to ‘Platonic forms of wild ideal pageantry’ Wordsworth checks his own tendency toward conceiving coleridge’s life in the abstract. That is, Wordsworth is wary of having ‘played’ with coleridge’s ‘after-sojourn’, of transporting himself to the ‘self-same place’ of coleridge’s life and times but conjuring there ‘accidents as children do with cards’. The distance between imaginative creation and the ‘reality’ of what coleridge endures is satirized in the ‘man, who, when his house is built’ – although ‘locked up in wood and stone’ – rebuilds it ‘to his liking’. Such ‘private business of the thought’ marks a form of ‘impotence’ for Wordsworth. Where the hardy of ‘Shut out That Moon’ wants to ‘Stay in’ to counter the beguil- ing intrusions of ‘that moon’, Wordsworth critiques the inadequacy of the man ‘by his fireside’ who cannot see his own house for what it is.

  The Prelude repeatedly confronts the degree to which the mind constructs

  ‘reality’ and is influenced by ‘nature’ in its creations; a Wordsworthian rorty’s Contingency, Irony,


and Solidarity opens with the statement: ‘about two hundred years ago,

  the idea that truth was made rather than found began to take hold of Wordsworth himself insists: ‘in weakness we create distinctions, then / deem that our puny boundaries are things / Wordsworth, like

  Stevens, oscillates between wanting to touch ‘reality’ and recognizing that conception of the ‘real’ is ineluctably mental: ‘i conversed / With things that really are’, but only as ‘the mind / is lord and master, and […]


The Prelude indicates, however, that Wordsworth thought the imagin-

  ation could be tamed from idealist excess through conversation with ‘nature’. The ‘poetic spirit’ of life at large stems from an active dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Wordsworth conceives his ‘infant babe’ as ‘[a]n inmate of this active universe’, revealing the creative reciprocity between child and world:


from nature largely he receives, nor so

3 is satisfied, but largely gives again;

Wordsworth examines ‘all the mighty world / of eye, and ear, – both what they half create, /

and what perceive’, Complete Poetical Works ed. Thomas hutchinson rev. ernest de Selincourt

4 (oxford: oxford University Press, lines 105–7, 164–5. 5 rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 3.


The Prelude 1805, book Second, lines 222–4: 76. See also the two-part Prelude, Second Part, lines

6 253–5: 20.

  80 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  […] his mind,

even as an agent of the one great mind,

creates, creator and receiver both,

Working but in alliance with the works

Which it beholds. Such, verily, is the first

  coleridge, by contrast, has apparently relinquished contact with an active world. Wordsworth charges him with mistaking ‘words for things’, with falling prey to etymology and scholastic word-coining, absorbed in ‘sub- tle speculations, toils abstruse / among the schoolmen’. checking his own abstraction, Wordsworth claims not to rebuild coleridge’s past ‘to his [own] liking’; whilst, being ‘unrelentingly possessed’, coleridge is, apparently, ‘compelled’ to live in the isolation of his own perceptions: a life unto itself. but Wordsworth’s fears for coleridge help illustrate the anxiety Wallace Stevens underwent during the mid-1930s over abstraction, the political climate of Stevens’ own epoch being as disconcerting as the aftermaths of the french revolution. Wordsworth’s and coleridge’s confrontations – continued in the Biographia Literaria – also contextualize Stevens’ rela- tions with his romantic forebears. however, although the poet derived much from the british romantics, coleridge especially, in forging an abstract vocabulary, Stevens was neither a latter-day romantic nor a Unlike Yeats, Stevens would never claim ‘We were the last romantics’, even where, contemporaneously, the poet manipulated romantic themes. Yet, whilst Stevens’ relations with the romantics have been repeatedly discussed, little scrutiny exists of how Stevens’ modern idealism combines with abstraction. That interest was stimulated not only by the romantics, but by Stevens’ college read- ing of arnold, Pater, emerson and William James. however, the poet’s 7 8 The Prelude 1805, book Second, lines 266–76: 78, 80.


‘dejection: an ode’ may lament: ‘i may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and

the life, whose fountains are within’ (lines 45–6, 351). but this debilitated speaker cannot solely

9 represent coleridgean idealism.


Joseph carroll, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (baton rouge, la: louisiana

State University Press, , 5–8. Whiting suggests Stevens’ ‘romantic irony’ constitutes a thor-

oughly Modernist response. See anthony Whiting, The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens’

10 Romantic Irony (ann arbor, Mi: University of Michigan Press, 1996).


W. b. Yeats, ‘coole and ballylee, 1931’ in The Poems ed. daniel albright (london: dent, ),


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  81 modernized abstractions would take shapes the romantics and their suc- cessors could not have predicted.

  Stevens’ ‘abstract’ and the elusive terms beloved of ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ trope coleridge and Wordsworth, particularly coleridgean poetic theory, transforming romantic subject-matter into a novel poetics. both Stevens’ poetry and his attitudes to inspiration also anticipate phenomenological concepts of the imagination, emergent con- temporaneously but not popularized until after Stevens’ death. Stevens’ coleridgean inheritance and reading of focillon, blanchot and possibly Merleau-Ponty present alternative idioms for re-describing the ‘abstract’. Thus i borrow blanchot’s concept of the ‘work’ and Merleau-Ponty’s ‘in-visible’ to paint Stevens’ ‘abstract’ in a new light, also referring to hegelian idealism in introducing Stevens’ idealist ‘i’: the complex first person and

  address in greater detail. These idioms combine

  with the work which probably influenced Stevens’ sense of abstraction the most: focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art (‘one of the really remarkable The final part of the chapter observes Stevens’ ori- ginality in troping romantic themes in a new critical climate dismissive of coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, for Stevens’ emphasis on abstraction in 1940s america defied the new critics’ re-writing of english literature and poetic theory.

  What relates idealism to abstraction and what might Stevens have learnt from coleridge? Philosophically, idealism signifies any ‘doctrine holding that reality is fundamentally mental in nature’. clearly, Kantian idealism differs from coleridgean idealism (and the german idealists who influenced coleridge); and no one idealism can account for the idio- syncratic play with ‘reality’ Stevens embraces poetically. Where Kant holds that we cannot know ‘things as they are’ in themselves, that sub- ject and object are forever divided and that the mind constructs ‘real- ity’ through the illusions of space and time, coleridge protests that the 12 Stevens underlined Matthew arnold’s point that ‘[i]t is the business of the critical power […] to


see the object as in itself it really is’ in his copy of Essays in Criticism (london: Macmillan, ,

6. for the emersonian/Jamesian inheritance, see doggett, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought; Poirier,

The Renewal of Literature; Jonathan levin, The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism

and American Literary Modernism (durham, nc: duke University Press, 1999); and david

M. la guardia, Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace Stevens (hanover,

13 nh: University Press of new england, 1983).


CPP, 671. henri focillon, The Life of Forms in Art trans. charles b. hogan and george

Kubler (new York: Zone books, 1989), originally published as La vie des formes (Paris: Presses

Universitaires de france, 1934). Stevens’ copy of the book is the hogan and Kubler translation

  82 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction imagination transcends the subject–object distinction, arguing that we understand intuitively a universe in which we participate actively (like Where coleridge holds the infinite ‘i aM’ of the ‘primary iMagination’ derives from a Supreme being,

  Stevens overhauls coleridge, suggesting that, with ‘the death of the gods’, Stevens simultaneously fashions an idealist ‘i’, not as metaphysical as coleridge’s ‘i aM’, but with powers similar to coleridge’s ‘secondary’ imagination: the force that ‘dissolves,

  What relates idealism to abstraction is the phenomenon already observed in ‘The Man with the blue guitar’. once any dichotomy is col- lapsed – ‘imagination–reality’, ‘subject–object’ – ‘reality’ appears a ter-

tium quid, a third entity ‘intermediate between mind and matter’ (OED).

either one accepts the idealist notion that humans create this intermediate ‘reality’ or one concludes that the idealist conjures ‘the real’ abstractly, at the dangerous remove Wordsworth detects in coleridge. in other words, if we do not subscribe to any brand of idealist thought we will accuse idealists of living in the ‘self-created sustenance’ of minds ‘debarred’, as Wordsworth states, from ‘nature’s living images’. We will accuse the idealist of being abstracted from the ‘actual world’. by 1938 Stevens had gradually overcome the concern that his poetry was detached from ‘reality’. during the mid-1930s excessive abstraction haunted his writing. a rarely quoted part of the ‘adagia’ (c. 1934–40)

  Yet Stevens was also convinced that ‘[w]hat we see in the mind is as real to us as what we see by the eye’. if Stevens still exhibited concern that what the mind sees and what the eye perceives may constitute different ‘realities’, by the end of the 1930s he was more accommodated to idealism


and abstraction. in the same period Stevens’ manipulation of coleridge

becomes most explicit in Parts of a World and ‘notes’.

  in ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’ Stevens upholds coleridge’s distinction between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’; and refers to ‘dr. richards’, indicating his reading of i. a. richards’ Coleridge on his personal copy of richards also illustrates how Stevens absorbed richards’ idealist paraphrases of coleridge: ‘The colours of 15 nature are a suffusion from the light of the mind, but […] the shaping


See immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics ed. gary hatfield (cambridge:

16 cambridge University Press ), 35ff.


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  83 spirit of imagination, comes from the mind’s response to nature’ (a pas- Stevens also underlined: ‘it is the privil- ege of poetry to preserve us from mistaking our notions either for things The obses- sion with ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ – essential to Parts of a World – also owes much to coleridgean rhetoric. The Biographia Literaria utilizes ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ in discussing everything from sense perception to the ‘har- monious whole’ in which the ideal poem consists. certainly, the poet who considered calling his Collected Poems ‘The Whole of harmonium’

  Moreover, Stevens would have composed several of the Parts of a World poems – such as ‘landscape with boat’ (1940) – before he read focillon. Thus, although focillon’s analysis of viollet-le-duc influenced ‘notes’, Stevens was already meditating on spatial/semantic dimensions before coleridge offered Stevens a synecdochal reading The Life of Forms in Art idiom for describing the relations between the poem, literature as a whole and the imagination. Stevens’ desire to ‘think about the world without its varnish and dirt’ – to become a thinker of ‘the first idea’ – also chimes with n collaborating on the Lyrical Ballads, coleridge aimed ‘to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom’. coleridge, like Stevens, wants poetry to penetrate 21 the ‘film of familiarity’ formed by the ‘lethargy’ of habitual perception 22 i. a. richards, Coleridge on Imagination (london: Kegan Pau, Stevens’ copy, 152. 23 richards, Coleridge on Imagination, Stevens’ copy, 163.


BL, ii, ch. 14, 15. Stevens’ rhetoric of ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ is also Mallarméan. Mallarmé finds

a ‘harmony […] somewhere in the parts of the total poem […] everything will be hesitation,

disposition of parts, their alternations and relationships […] contributing to the rhythmic total-

ity’ (‘crisis in Poetry’ in The Norton Anthology of Western Literature ed. Sarah lawall [new

York: norton, 2006], 1562). however, Stevensian abstraction should be distinguished from

Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’ because Stevens is restless with a poetic where ‘essences are dis-

tilled and then embodied in idea’ (1561). Stevens’ ‘never-resting mind’ (CPP, 179) prevents him

from embracing a world of pure essences or ideas. as Michel benamou suggests: ‘Purity will

have to shed its Mallarméan connotations of inaccessibility and non-being before finding its

way into Stevens’ imaginary world’ (‘Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist imagination’ in The

Act of Mind: Essays on the Poetry of Wallace Stevens ed. roy harvey Pearce and J. hillis Miller

24 [baltimore, Md: Johns hopkins University Press, 1965], 108).


See CPP, 334. Stevens marked the following: ‘architectural masses are rigorously determined

by the relationship of the parts to each other and of the parts to the whole’, focillon, The Life of

25 Forms in Art, 71; Stevens’ copy, 22.


L, 427, CPP, 330–1. Santayana observes that once the poet removes ‘the veil of convention […] we

are better able to dominate any particular experience and […] to change its scale’, Interpretations

of Poetry and Religion, 266.

  84 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Such parallels can be extended infinitely. Where Stevens envisages a ‘flu- ent mundo’, coleridge insists that the genius ‘rest[s] content between thought coleridge’s and Stevens’ obsession with ‘fiction’ also indicates their shared conviction that ‘reality’ is linguistically inscribed. but the point here is to demonstrate how coleridgean discourse helps us to conceive Stevens’ ‘abstract’: both to show coleridge’s influence on Stevens’ terminology and to borrow coleridge’s idiom to re-describe Stevens’ most elusive term.

  Stevens read coleridge at harvard, if not before. The poet’s personal library reveals his reading of the ‘everyman’ series of romantic poets edited by ernest rhys. rhys’ The Prelude to Poetry contains Wordsworth’s Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, chapters from the


Biographia and Shelley’s ‘defence of Poetry’, all of which Stevens margin-

  ally marked but Stevens’ 1930s re-working of romantic theory derived from an aesthetic epiphany in which abstraction and idealism unite, and coleridge is only one element in Stevens’ imaginative development. it is unlikely that Stevens actively read the Biographia, or coleridge at large, in writing Parts and ‘notes’. he had also absorbed Mallarmé, whose own idealism promised an attractive Symbolist edge: ‘we have the right […] to madly detach [things] until we fill that void and thus endow them with Mallarmé, a cru- cial influence on blanchot, is part of a complex of figures whose idioms enable us to re-assess Stevens’ emergent sense of abstraction. however, Stevens’ modernizing of coleridgean idealism does occur in Stevens’ later sensitivity to the similarity of his terminology to romantic theory is also telling. in 1953 he claimed:


While, of course, i come down from the past, the past is my own and not some-

thing marked coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. i know of no one who has been par-

ticularly important to me. My reality-imagination complex is entirely my own

  but if Stevens’ past is not ‘something marked coleridge, Wordsworth, 27 etc.’ it is marked by those writers; and Stevens’ ‘reality-imagination 28 Ibid., i2.


coleridge coins ‘suffiction’ in preference to ‘supposition’ because, like Stevens, he views percep-

29 tions as fictions (BL, i01–2).

ernest rhys, ed., The Prelude to Poetry: The English Poets in the Defence and Praise of Their Own

30 Art (london: dent,


Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé in Prose ed. Mary ann caws (new York: new directions,

31 , 37.


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  85 complex’, among other seductive figures, was hardly his own however, in order to understand what occasions the surface similarities between Stevens and coleridge, i must elucidate how coleridgean language bears on Stevensian abstraction. leggett plausibly argues that Stevens expanded his concept of abstraction from richards’ Coleridge on Imagination. richards describes words as ‘abstractive fictions’, indicating coleridge’s belief that lan- for leggett, abstraction ‘enables the imagination to free itself from the Moving beyond the critical ten- dencies to think the injunction ‘It Must Be Abstract’ means either a) iso- lating ‘reality’ itself without the interference of the ‘imagination’ or b) opposing Stevens’ poetry to the concrete, leggett suggests that Stevens’ slogan signifies ‘the inability of the poet’s fiction to escape the artificial ut whilst leggett is correct that Stevens’ ‘abstract’ transcends a ‘mind-world duality’ we must look beyond richards’ secularizing of coleridge’s metaphysics to re- describe Stevens’ term. admittedly, in the idiom of ‘notes’, assessing coleridge’s influence and the effect of richards’ coleridge hardly boils down to a ‘choice between’ That is, one need not choose between coleridge and richards’ coleridge as influences on Stevens, but can speculate as to which of these influences had the greater effect on the poet. The trouble with Stevens’ ‘abstract’ is that – like the ‘new roman- tic’ – it encourages tautological paraphrase. as an adjective it is alarm- ingly empty, requiring other epithets for self-definition. ‘abstract’ is also an empty noun, seemingly connoting the very formlessness it represents. but a coleridgean idiom partially enables escape from the emptiness Stevens’ ‘abstract’ superficially encourages. coleridgean abstraction derives from the etymology of the word ‘idea’. in the Biographia coleridge opposes hume’s ‘materialist’ explanation of the ‘idea’ and hartley’s ‘associationism’, doctrines that, for coleridge, 33 coleridge summarizes the materialist position thus:


bornstein bizarrely claims: ‘Stevens rightly insisted that his doctrines were his own’

34 (Transformations of Romanticism, 175). 35 richards, Coleridge on Imagination, 83. 36 leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 34. 37

  86 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


Whenever we feel several objects at the same time, the impressions that are left (or

in the language of Mr. hume, the ideas) are linked together. Whenever therefore

any one of the movements [is] renewed through the senses, the others succeed

  coleridge opposes hume by disinterring the etymology of ‘idea’:


i here use the word ‘idea’ in Mr. hume’s sense […] though against my own


judgement […] The word, ’i , in its original sense […] represented the visual

abstraction of a distant object, when we see the whole without distinguishing

the parts.

  an ‘idea’ is, then, a ‘visual abstraction’. With respect to ‘a distant object’ the mind conceives a ‘whole’ without distinguishing specific ‘parts’. in coleridge’s idealist scheme, however, subjects and objects are inextricable. in reading Biographia chapter 14, Stevens marginally lined coleridge’s insistence that ‘[i]n order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts […] [W]e must then restore them in our conceptions to the unity in which they actually co- exist’. Thus coleridge derides the notion that humans are ‘merely passive no division between subject and object exists because the ‘i’ is an active creator of ‘reality’, mediating the space of Kantian dualism. like the ‘un-locatable’ speaker in ‘The Man with the blue guitar’, coleridge’s ‘i’ is significantly ‘groundless’. it is the force that ‘in the very idea […] precludes all ground […] it is groundless; but only because it is itself the ground of all other for the christian coleridge, this ‘i’ derives from the creator ‘i aM’. What should be observed here, however, is coleridge’s formation of sub- jectivity as a self-reflexive idea (a notion shared with hegel). celebrating the imagination as the mind’s faculty to conceive itself, the Biographia argues:


There are evidently two powers at work […] active and passive; and this is not

possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and pas-

sive. (in philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty

[…] the imagination […].)

  for coleridge, the imagination allows the mind to conceive itself. This 39 ‘intermediate faculty’ enables conception of self. it is an abstract force 40 41 Ibid., i , 97. 42 Stevens’ copy of rhys, The Prelude to Poetry, 158. 43


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  87 not because it conceives a logically ‘groundless’ ‘i’ removed from ‘reality’, but because it creates the space where self can exist: ‘the ground of all other certainty’. ‘blue guitar’ had asked ‘What is there in life except one’s ideas?’ not to deny the presence of a physical world but to affirm the self as Stevens’ speaker insists: ‘i am a native of this world’, where, in the end, ‘things are as i think they if that certainty is relinquished, so is the ‘i’ who claims knowledge coleridge helps, then, in re-conceiving Stevens’ ‘abstract’ by showing how the imagination conceives itself and its relation to the ‘actual world’. contrary to Wordsworth’s fears in The Prelude, coleridgean idealism links imagination and world intimately. despite the concerns of ‘blue guitar’, by 1938 Stevens also discovers abstraction as a positive creative process.

chapter 2 explored Stevens’ realization that conceiving poetry

  as an idea could inspire the creation of actual poems (‘Poetry is the sub- The ‘unwritten rhetoric’ of ‘The irrational element in Poetry’ anticipates Stevens’ belief that fictive notions may actuate cre- as the ‘adagia’ notes: ‘Poetry is the expression of the experience of poetry’, adding: ‘every poem is a poem within a poem: the poem of

  The reciprocity between the idea of ‘poetry’ and writing generated by the abstraction of that idea signifies Stevens’ idealist strain. leggett suggests that a ‘detailed analysis of the first section of “notes” would be but no such required to match Stevens’ use of idea with coleridge’s’ match is necessary to translate Stevens’ term. coleridge is, as leggett observes, not a source for Stevens. rather, Stevens’ echoes of coleridge establish a context for re-interpreting the ‘abstract’ as a modern form of idealism. rather than say the injunction ‘It Must Be Abstract’ derives from coleridge and Stevens’ reading of richards, one can borrow coleridgean idealism to flesh out the ‘abstract’. rather than suggest that coleridge provides Stevens with the concept of the imagination as self-reflexive idea- maker, one can venture that Stevens is a modern idealist whose recon- structed idealism contrasts with coleridge. one can, therefore, mark the distance between coleridge and Stevens rather than simply map their 45 overall similarities. 46 47 CPP, 144. Ibid., 147–8.


Paul valéry remarks, ‘The “i” is that which “responds” or is able to respond to anything at all’

48 Cahiers/Notebooks trans. Paul gifford et al. (frankfurt am Main: Peter lang ) vol. i, 351. 49 50

  88 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction 3.2 a bs t r ac t a na l ogu e s: bl a ncHo t, m e r l e au-pon t y, s t e v e ns

  The distance between coleridge’s idealism and Stevens’ emerges through further translation. during Stevens’ lifetime phenomenological think- ers re-interpreted the philosophical position the romantics and german idealists established for the self. resisting physiological accounts of per- ception (just as coleridge and Schelling opposed ‘mechanical’ pictures of the mind), phenomenologists presupposed a self capable of perceiving phe- Such thinkers were preoccupied with the role imagination plays in transforming perception; and it is no coincidence that Stevens would develop an interest in heidegger, the pre-eminent philosopher of ‘being’ but Stevens also expressed interest in french writers and theorists who borrowed from heidegger’s philosophy in explicating the relations between literature and the imagination, between writers and their works.

  Stevens came to blanchot through the Nouvelle Revue Française, probably ut the intimacy of Stevens’ reading of blanchot is not at point in considering the american poet’s position in the late 1930s and early 40s. Similarly, although in an unpublished letter to Paule vidal Stevens requested a copy of ‘Eloge de


la Philosophie, an inaugural lecture by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’, Stevens’

  digestion of Merleau-Ponty, if he read him, is not at issu rather, blanchot’s and Merleau-Ponty’s conceptions of the imagination proffer terms that give Stevens’ ‘abstract’ form. Making Stevens’ term corporeal enables us to read his middle to late phases afresh and without indebted- ness to the poet’s own vocabulary. i will also note how french Symbolism, especially Mallarmé, informs blanchot. for it is no exaggeration to say that in the 1950s Stevens was primed to respond to blanchot because of blanchot’s essentially Modernist twist on Mallarméan ideas. indeed, 52 Stevens’ absorption of focillon gave the poet an even wider context for


See richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: From Husserl to Lyotard (london: routledge,

53 ), 5.

frank Kermode, ‘dwelling Poetically in connecticut’ in Wallace Stevens: A Celebration ed.


frank doggett and robert buttel (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 256–73.

55 L, 879.


Maurice blanchot, ‘où va la littérature (i)’ Nouvelle Revue Française 7 (1953); reprinted as ‘The

disappearance of literature’ in The Blanchot Reader ed. Michael holland (oxford: blackwell,


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  89 combining the abstract spirit of all these writers in what is a remarkable confection of writerly and painterly influences. in ‘The essential Solitude’ blanchot explains that the ‘work’ is an ideal to which the writer is drawn but cannot achieve alone:


The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work. There is a work only

when, through it […] the word being is pronounced. This event occurs when the

work becomes the intimacy between someone who writes it and someone who

reads it. […] [i]f solitude is the writer’s risk, does it not express the fact that he is

turned, oriented toward the open violence of the work, of which he never grasps

anything but the substitute – the approach and the illusion in the form of the

  for blanchot, the writer merely owns his books, whilst the ‘work’ evades him as an abstract ideal particularized only for individual readers. The writer’s ‘solitude’ ensures he cannot read his own work. but this very inability sustains the writer as his only life-line with the ‘work’, just as, for Kierkegaard, the despair of the unbeliever paradoxically establishes a as blanchot observes:


[t]he writer never reads his work. it is, for him, illegible, a secret […] [h]e is

separated from it. however, his inability to read the work is not a purely nega-

tive phenomenon. it is, rather, the writer’s only real relation to what we call the

work. The abrupt Noli me legere brings forth, where there is still only a book, the

  The ‘work’ becomes, then, a necessary fiction. like Stevens, blanchot sees a fictive ideal as directly catalysing imaginative creation. in ‘Mallarmé’s experience’ blanchot notes how the ‘unreal’ influences the ‘real’ – a favourite Stevensian theme – and that the ‘fictive’ seemingly enables our own fictions: ‘This language of the unreal, this fictive language which a silent, almost unnameable ‘abstract’ is what Stevens demands of his ‘supreme fiction’. as ‘notes’ insists, teetering on naming its object: ‘The sun / Must Stevens’ ideal there and elsewhere is the communication of the incommunicable which, for blanchot, is the 57 silent ‘work’ itself. 58 blanchot, ‘The essential Solitude’, 23.


See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to ‘Philosophical Fragments’ intro. W.

59 lowrie (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, , 470. 60 blanchot, ‘The essential Solitude’, 23–4.

  90 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘Mallarmé’s experience’ also describes in heideggerian terms the ten- sion between a text’s ‘reality’ and the distance between text and ideal:


The poet strives […] to create the ‘poem-thing,’ […] the language of mute

being. he wants to make of the poem something which all by itself will be

form, existence, and being[.] […] We call this powerful linguistic construc-

tion […] the work. and we call it being. but it is from this perspective neither

one nor the other[.] […] [The poem] is a being, and for this reason it is by no

means close to being, to that which escapes all determination and every form

of existence.

  despite the individual poem’s existence, no text can realize the ‘work’ because that ideal always eludes realization (‘that which escapes all determination and every form of existence’). blanchot’s interest in Mallarmé doubtless stems from Mallarmé’s abstract ‘book’: a univer- sal text akin to blanchot’s unattainable ‘work’ which Mallarmé rep- Such an ideal cannot exist concretely, but is what Stevens calls ‘immanent’; like the ‘i’ of ‘blue guitar’, it is ‘there’ but cannot be fixed. as Mallarmé remarked to valéry: ‘to conceive of literature […] we have to reach this “high symphony” that perhaps no one will manage’. Stevens refined his own notion as follows:


The abstract does not exist, but it is certainly as immanent: […] the fictive

abstract is as immanent in the mind of the poet, as the idea of god is immanent

in the mind of the theologian. The poem is a struggle with the inaccessibility of

the abstract.

  in ‘The disappearance of literature’ blanchot extends such ‘inaccess- ibility’ to the idea that literature travels ‘toward itself, toward its essence which is disappearance’. nevertheless, the poet persists in inspecting the ‘source’ of his own activity. The ‘work’ evades him, but its influence on his imaginative life inspires his unrealizable dream.

  Such pressure is, for blanchot, irreducible to specific cultural or social needs: 62 63 blanchot, ‘Mallarmé’s experience’, 42.


See Mallarmé, Mallarmé in Prose, 125–33. for a previous discussion of blanchot’s ‘work’, see

edward ragg, ‘Pragmatic abstraction v. Metaphor: Stevens’ “The Pure good of Theory” and

MacbethWSJ 30.1 ), 25. Josh cohen also refers to Mallarmé, blanchot, Schlegel and Stevens

with regard to an ultimate ‘book’ in ‘“The strange unlike”: Stevens’ Poetics of resemblance’

(Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic ed. bart eeckhout and edward ragg [london: Palgrave,

64 2008], 107–18). 65 Mallarmé, Mallarmé in Prose, 7.


The ‘in-visible’ abstract



[t]he poem is the depth which opens onto the experience which makes it pos-

sible […] the work itself become the restless, infinite pursuit of its own source

[…] [W]hile historical circumstances exert their pressure on such movements

[…] – so it is said that the writer, who takes as the object of his activity the

uncertain essence of that activity, is merely reflecting what is becoming his own

precarious social position – they are not on their own capable of explaining the

significance of this pursuit.

  The reciprocity between ‘work’ and poem – where each text is involved in the ‘infinite pursuit of its own source’ – is significantly trans-histor- ical. in Stevens’ creation of a ‘supreme fiction’ that is ‘poetry’ – but a fiction only glimpsed in ‘notes’ leading toward itself – we find a correla- tive to blanchot’s unattainable work. but we also uncover what most upsets Stevens’ harshest critics: an imagination seemingly swinging free from historical contingency. The slogan ‘It Must Be Abstract’ inadvert- ently makes Stevens’ poetry appear ‘abstracted’ from ‘reality’. but Stevens and blanchot are neither a-historical nor aloofly removed. The function of Stevens’ ‘abstract’ is to re-connect poet and reader with a palpable, ‘real’ world. if Stevens would never write the war poetry of Karl Shapiro, randall Jarrell or Keith douglas, his early 1940s idealist ‘i’ epitomizes an imaginative process which rejuvenates perception of life. as for coleridge and Santayana, abstract imagining helps one pierce the ‘film of familiar- during the early 1940s, however, Stevens still felt it necessary to defend poetry from having to respond directly to social and political phenomena: a pressure derived from the turbulent 1930s, but which, by the 40s, was coloured by isolationism and the USa’s subsequent entry to the Second World War. following Pearl harbor, Stevens was par- ticularly alienated by the ‘brooks–Macleish’ controversy and the ‘new nationalism’ demanded of american writers (see

chapter 5 ). if Stevens

  could have read in 1942 what blanchot wrote in the early 1950s he might have discovered an alternative way of presenting his ‘abstract’. however, in The Life of Forms in Art, Stevens did find support for his sense of the artwork’s transcending the local and contemporary conditions of its cre- ation. Stevens’ reading of focillon in therefore, predisposed him to the blanchot of the early 1950s. however, i discuss blanchot’s abstract ‘work’ first because the concept aids appreciation of focillon’s specula- 67 tions on abstract forms.

  92 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction how does Stevens discuss his abstract figurations and does blanchot’s idiom help portray Stevens’ practice? The poet certainly resisted explain- ing his poems in letters to latimer, hi Simons, henry church and others. less appreciated, however, is the imaginative satisfaction Stevens derived from discussing poetry in the abstract. blissfully unaware of the future publication of his letters, Stevens confessed: ‘i like the idea of talk- ing about poetry without any attempt to fix what one says in print’ (‘talk’ one example of not ‘fix[ing] what one says’ was Stevens’ protracted discussion with church over endow- ing a ‘chair of Poetry’, initiated in 1940. Stevens’ intent as a poet and lawyer to endow the chair was serious enough (as his ‘Memorandum’ but Stevens wanted to discuss a ‘theory of poetry’ whether or not the chair materialized. as church devised the Princeton Mesures but he had no theories of versification, or any specific theory, in mind. he simply wanted to discuss poetry as an abstract topic. one letter to church oscillates between describing ‘specimens’ of poetry (created poems on the page) and an abstract ‘whole’ from which such poems derive inspiration:


to most people poetry means certain specimens of it, but these specimens are

merely parts of a greater whole. i am not thinking of the body of poetic litera-

ture, because that whole body is merely a group of specimens. i am thinking

of the poetic side of life, of the abstraction and the theory. This sounds rather

  in conceiving ‘specimens’ as ‘parts’, Stevens was not imagining poems emanating from a ‘body of poetic literature’. That ‘whole body’ is ‘merely a group of specimens’. instead, he conceives ‘a greater whole’, an ‘abstrac- tion’ where poetry is the idea inspiring those specimens. When Stevens and church returned to discussing the chair in 1942, the poet revelled in merely talking about poetry as an idea:


i am glad that we can go back to the subject of a chair of Poetry, which i should

really like to write to you about now and then, as an abstract subject, without

the slightest thought of ever trying to talk you into doing anything about it

  in blanchot’s terms, Stevens was happiest exploring the ‘uncertain essence’ of his own ‘activity’, pursuing poetry as ‘an abstract subject’. Knowing


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  93 he could produce poems through the ‘infinite pursuit’ of poetry’s own ‘source’, Stevens eagerly discussed that elusive origin ad infinitum.

  Stevens’ ‘supreme fiction’ would prove even more captivating. criticism has tried to decipher what a ‘supreme fiction’ means, and the correspond- ence provides obvious clues. Stevens explained: ‘i have no idea of the form that a supreme fiction would take. The noteS start out with the idea That a ‘fic- tion’ should not attain form parallels blanchot’s insistence that the ‘work’ ‘escapes all determination and every form of existence’. as hegel argues in Phenomenology of Spirit, what is ‘abstract’ is precisely immediate and formless. but what the criticism also often overlooks is the highly physical effect Stevens’ abstract figures have on his imaginative nervous system (which illustrates how ‘immanent’ his ideas are). for example, Stevens describes his ‘supreme fiction’ as a ‘thing’ attach- ing itself to his person:


When i get up at 6 o’clock in the morning […] the thing crawls all over me; it

is in my hair when i shave and i think of it in the bathtub. Then i come down

here to the office and, except for an occasional letter like this, have to put it to

one side. after all, i like rhine wine, blue grapes, good cheese, endive and lots of

chapter 5 argues that this need for ‘rhine wine, blue grapes, good cheese’

  and ‘lots of books’ was actually coterminous with Stevens’ desire for ‘supreme fiction’. What makes this letter fascinating is the proximity of palpable, phys- ical objects (wine, grapes, cheese, endive, books) to that abstract ‘supreme fiction’, especially where the abstraction affects Stevens’ imagination ‘physic- ally’ (‘the thing crawls all over me; it is in my hair when i shave’). but note how, without its indefinite article, ‘supreme fiction’ almost risks becoming a definite article, like wine, grapes, or books; whereas, when Stevens refers to ‘a supreme fiction’ he insists ‘it would not take any


form: it would be abstract’‘extracts from addresses to the academy

  of fine ideas’ (1940) also revealingly combines articles and abstraction (‘There was that difference between the and an, / The difference between himself and no man’), where ‘an’ refers to an abstract ‘empty place’ as as

chapter 5 adum-

  brates, this slightly earlier poem precedes the gastronomic ‘Montrachet- le-Jardin’ in Parts of a World, the later text acting as a ‘commentary’ on ‘extracts from addresses’.

  94 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction if the ‘abstract’ desires, then, to be mediated – to become ‘an abstrac- tion blooded’ or ‘an abstraction given head’ – the already mediated can be re-configured imaginatively only through abstraction (otherwise the Stevens’ ‘etc., etc., etc.’ sug- gests further desired items to be purchased through office work, but the acquisition of these physical items is clearly on a par with ‘supreme fic- tion’ (which is also part of office life, albeit via correspondence). in short, Stevens’ imaginative pleasure thrives on an abstract dialectic: where phys- ical palpability vies with abstract re-configuration, at work, at home. Just as hegel insists that the abstract work, although immediate, seeks a phys- ical form enabling mediation, Stevens’ ‘supreme fiction’ is almost physical (‘the thing crawls all over me’), for Stevens’ abstract terminology cannot

  The need for palpability arises from what benjamin lee Whorf (that other famous hartford employee) calls ‘linguistic binomialism’. as Whorf explains: ‘our language patterns often require us to name a phys- ical thing by a binomial that splits the reference into a formless item plus a form.’ This proves effective for physical objects, as in ‘stick of wood, it is less successful for abstract qualities, as in the title Ideas of Order. The nouns ‘idea’ and ‘order’ are immaterial and, via Whorf’s binomial, conjure poetic ambi- guity. Similarly, if palpable descriptions for Stevens’ ‘abstract’ cannot be found the term will always evade our grasp.

  defined Stevens’ poetry as abstract not merely because it relies

  upon idealist conception, but because its themes and figures are ‘hard 78 to see’. ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ demonstrates how, although 79 Ibid., 333, 380. See also ragg, ‘Pragmatic abstraction v. Metaphor’, 11ff.


See g. W. f. hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit trans. a. v. Miller, foreword and notes by J. n.

findlay (oxford: clarendon, , 429. valéry likewise suggests abstract thought becomes

physical: ‘[a] sudden concatenation of ideas, an analogy, would strike me in much the way the

sound of a horn in the heart of a forest makes one prick up one’s ears, and virtually directs the

co-ordinated attention of all one’s muscles toward some point in the distance, among the leafy

80 depths’ (‘Poetry and abstract Thought’, 57–8). 81 See brazeau, Parts of a World, 19.

benjamin lee Whorf, ‘The relation of habitual Thought and behavior to language’ in


Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (cambridge, Ma: Mit

82 Press ] 2000), 141.


Michel benamou argues Stevens mastered ‘a sort of pulse that alternately dilates and narrows the

field of vision’, ‘Wallace Stevens: Some relations between Poetry and Painting’ in The Achievement

of Wallace Stevens ed. ashley brown and robert S. haller (Philadelphia, Pa: lippincott, ,

233. bonnie costello observes: ‘although Stevens was endowed with a rich visual imagination, one

does not experience a strong engagement of the visual faculty in reading his poetry’, adding that


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  95 Stevens’ speaker is textually identifiable, the reader struggles to locate its elusive ‘i’. This quality derives not only from Stevens’ dense diction and imagery. it is what makes Stevens a poet who a) thinks abstractly and b) creates abstract poetry. The poetry that is ‘hard to see’ also perhaps differ- entiates Stevens’ ‘abstract’ from abstract expressionism, or certain modes of painterly abstraction (Stevens’ 1930s reservations about creative isola- Stevens’ poetry does not pare language down to its basic elements; as the most extreme abstract art achieves on the visual/material level. Just because the ‘abstract’ is immediate does not mean Stevens adopts non-physical or non-concrete language (Stevens’ favoured term is, after all, ‘immanent’). rather, his concern is with aesthetic experience which does find instructive analogies in painterly abstraction from cézanne to Klee; not least in francis bacon who thought abstractly but spent a lifetime resisting ‘abstract art’. bacon claims that ideas for paintings inspired his work to the extent that his pictures appeared self-generating:


i can daydream for hours and pictures fall in just like slides. but it doesn’t mean

that the pictures that i finally end up with have anything to do with the paint-

ings that dropped into my mind […] i think of the disposition of the forms and

  Stevens approaches this process not by observing ‘forms form themselves’ but by creating imaginative works inspired by formless ideas. Unlike bacon, who claims to see – literally or figuratively – the source of his inspiration, Stevens transforms an invisible ‘abstract’ into poems which, however visual, remain hard to visualize. but to refine what is meant by the difficulty of ‘seeing’ Stevens’ poetry, i want to explore Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the ‘in-visible’.

  Merleau-Ponty attempts a novel vocabulary for describing vision, stressing the imagination’s role in creating the phenomenon of ‘the visual’ itself. rejecting Sartre’s negative account of the imagination as solipsis- tic, Merleau-Ponty also coincides with blanchot’s and Stevens’ views of inspiration. as Merleau-Ponty explains:


Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not the contradictory of the visible: […]


the in-visible is the secret counterpart of the visible […] – one cannot see it there

‘abstract expressionism’ is clearly an amorphous term, as Pollock and de Kooning are notably

more ‘expressionist’ than ‘abstract’. See charles harrison, ‘abstract expressionism’ in Concepts

of Modern Art ed. nikos Stangos (london: Thames & hudso, 169–211.

  96 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


and every effort to see it there makes it disappear, but it is in the line of the visible,

  The difficulty in visualizing what Merleau-Ponty articulates only reflects the phenomenon he describes, at least if one clings to a conventional ‘invisible’. Meaning may be invisible, but that does not mean it cannot be perceived. Merleau-Ponty dispatches the common sense of ‘invisible’, suggesting the ‘visible’ always contains another meaning, a ‘secret coun- terpart of the visible’: the ‘in-visible’. like Stevens’ abstract, this cannot be seen, but, idealistically speaking, undeniably exists. like coleridge, Merleau-Ponty believes every notion of ‘the real’ derives from imaginative acts. dispatching a mind–body dualism, he suggests one’s sense of the body is itself an imaginative projection:


it is not the utilizable, functional, prosaic body which explains man: […] the

body is precisely human to the extent that it discovers its symbolic and poetic

  Merleau-Ponty’s view of the imagination is not, however, merely another instance of how ‘abstract’ creations impact on our sense of the ‘real’. Stevens’ abstract figures – and the process that creates them – are ‘in- visible’. his poems conjure physical and visual imagery, but, paradoxic- ally, remain ‘hard to see’. as noted, ‘The creations of Sound’ precisely ‘an ordinary evening in new haven’ (1949) likewise describes ‘desire’ as ‘set deep in the eye, / behind all actual seeing, in the actual scene […] always in emptiness that would be filled’. it is abstraction’s ultimate role Merleau-Ponty also observes how ‘the distinctive feature of the imagin- ation’ is ‘not to affirm the real presence of its object’, which actually affirms his awareness that ‘real presence[s]’ are created by perceiving sub- as ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ indicates, it is precisely poet- ry’s job to challenge, even dissolve, binary distinctions between reality and imagination, subject and object, body and mind, the material and 85 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible ed. claude lefort, trans. alphonso lingis 86 (evanston, il: northwestern University Press, 215.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Existence et dialectique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de france, ),

87 85; as translated in Kearney, Poetics of Imagining, 114. 88 CPP, 275.


Ibid., 398. Stevens also writes of ‘a visibility of thought, / in which hundreds of eyes, in one


mind, see at once’, ‘things seen and unseen’ and puns on ‘sight and insight’ (CPP, 416, 415, 404).


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  97 immaterial. Such dissolution is the shared goal of coleridge’s and hegel’s thought and, clearly, a quality in which Stevens’ poetry excels. but, as ‘blue guitar’ also explores, poetry is both limited to and liberated by its verbal relationship with things visible and invisible, unlike painting. as eeckhout would argue, it is precisely this limit that proves product- ive. When the young Stevens read The Laocoön, he marginally marked lessing’s observation that the poet is able to ‘raise this degree of illusion

  Stevens’ own references to vision indicate the imagination’s powers and limits. for him, the poet is ‘the priest of the invisible’, whose ‘tongue is by the mid-1940s, once Stevens had begun to absorb abstraction, two developments followed: a) he modified the overtly abstract termin- ology of ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ and b) Stevens discovered a less advertised, even surreptitious, language of the ‘in-visible’, conceiving the ‘thing’ that is impossible to visualize but which nonetheless exists. after 1942 one hears little in Stevens’ work of a ‘supreme fiction’, ‘the first idea’, ‘major man’, or even ‘the abstract’ itself. by this stage, Stevens had absorbed such a creative notion of abstraction he no longer required the inspiration of an exemplary vocabulary, at least not one in which abstrac- tion was necessarily explicit. as and

   explore, abstraction in

  late Stevens positively combines ordinariness, normality, a ‘bourgeois’ life with abstract speculations on the imagination that make such nominally ‘common’ realities extraordinary. achieving this fecund ‘normality’, para- doxically through a refined poetic, became the project to which Stevens gestured repeatedly in the late 1940s and early 50s.

  Significantly, during the heyday of Stevens’ abstract rhetoric, a com- plex speaker enters the verse: an ‘i’ who is self-conscious and self-reflex- ive but unlike the romantic ‘i’ of Stevens’ predecessors. but in order to explain how this ‘i’ is nonetheless idealist (despite being ‘non-subjective’), i want to draw on hegel’s notion of self-consciousness. The chapter will then re-evaluate focillon’s influence on Stevensian abstraction, noting the originality of Stevens’ reconciliation of abstraction with idealism in the unsympathetic climate of the new criticism. in Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) hegel ambitiously aimed to reconcile

  Kant’s ‘subject’ and ‘object’. as we have seen, Stevens, like Wordsworth, 90 oscillates between the desire to touch ‘reality’ and the knowledge that the


Stevens’ copy of gotthold ephraim lessing, The Laocoön, and Other Prose Writings of Lessing

trans. and ed. W. b. rönnfeldt (london: W. Scott, c ), 78, 88.

  98 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘real’ is mentally constructed. for hegel, the creative ‘i’ conceives itself as an object of speculation. Subject and object thus conflate to form an ultimate ‘self-consciousness’. hegel insists the Kantian ding an sich can- not be left outside consciousness. if ‘unknowable’, it is also caught up in the mind’s creative powers: ‘it comes to pass for consciousness that what it previously took to be the in-itself […] was only an in-itself for if there is movement, then, between subject and object consciousness creates it (‘[t]he “i” is the content of the connection and the connecting hegel’s difficulty, however, is to present this novel consciousness without relying on the Kantian terminology he wants to transcend. as with Merleau-Ponty’s ‘in-visible’, hegel engages the problem of re-equip- ping old terms for new uses. although he retains ‘subject’ and ‘object’, hegel’s fluid consciousness also inadvertently describes the space Stevens’ elusive poetry occupies in the early 1940s. for example, hegel claims:


Thought becomes fluid when pure thinking […] recognizes itself as a moment,

or when the pure certainty of self abstracts from itself – not by leaving itself out

[…] but by giving up the fixity of its self-positing, by giving up not only the fix-

ity of the pure concrete, which the ‘i’ itself is […] but also the fixity of the dif-

  as noted, the ‘i’ of ‘blue guitar’ is both a fluid thinker and one who relinquishes ‘the fixity of its self-positing’. Stevens’ ‘i’ becomes certain of itself – ‘abstracts itself’ – not by standing apart from ‘reality’, but by dis- missing the positions convention dictates, by relinquishing the hold of no one can locate Stevens’ ‘i’, despite its textual positioning, because its location is definitively fluid. as hegel explains, that the human mind is capable of self-reflection

  informs consciousness:

consciousness knows and comprehends only what falls within its experi-

ence; […] [e]xperience is the name we give to […] [the] movement, in which

the immediate, the unexperienced, i.e. the abstract […] becomes a property of

92 consciousness also


See also charles taylor, Hegel (cambridge: cambridge University Press, , 76–124. hegel,

93 Phenomenology of Spirit, 54. 94 hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 105. 95


The ‘in-visible’ abstract

  99 likewise, for Merleau-Ponty, effective ‘perception’ is ‘the thought of perceiving’:


[t]he thing itself no more leaves the circle of our thoughts than does the imagin-

ation, which is also a thought of seeing, but a thought that does not seek the

exercise, the proof, the plenitude, that therefore presumes on itself and is only

  What conjures Stevens’ imaginative behaviour here is the way an ‘abstract’ is a living part of the mind. imagination is, for Merleau-Ponty, the ‘thought of seeing’, and for hegel the abstract is ‘immediate’: some- thing only given movement by the self-conscious mind that realizes that what is abstract is ‘also a property of consciousness’. This portrayal of the relationship between ‘imagination’ and ‘reality’ underlies the struggle Stevens encounters with abstraction and idealism (Stevens taking solace in a secular idealism that keeps the unruly side of abstraction in check). hegel’s radical philosophy offers, therefore, a new way of thinking not only about Stevens’ ‘abstract’ but also his poetic ‘i’, the neglected idealist figure

  explore in the 1938–45 verse. before re-examining

  focillon’s pervasive influence on Stevens, however, i want to summarize a number of aspects common to idealism and abstraction, briefly discussing hegel’s concept of the abstract artwork. This summary draws together what needs to be carried over to subsequent chapters’ detailed readings of those poems featuring Stevens’ complex ‘i’.

  Stevens’ ‘abstract’ defines the development of a gradually evolving aes- thetic. even when Stevens no longer required explicit ‘figure[s] of cap- That is, the abstract tendency lives on in his work after Stevens ceases referring heavily to ‘abstraction’. This ‘abstract’ should be understood in two senses: first, as an adjective describing the habit of imagining ideas in order to realize particular poems (the ‘theory of poetry’, the ‘chair of Poetry’, a ‘supreme fiction’) and second, as a quality describing the phenomenon readers experience in struggling to visualize what Stevens’ poetry evokes. This second phenomenon defines the elusive space of ‘The Man with the blue guitar’, but it becomes a stronger component in Stevens’ work after 1937. idealism specializes in abstractive thinking, as the mind always con- jures one’s sense of ‘reality’. What unites coleridge, Wordsworth, hegel, 97 focillon, blanchot and Merleau-Ponty, among others, is the view that Merleau- Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 29–30.

  100 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction the object, the ‘thing-in-itself’, cannot be removed from experience, but is ‘created’ by consciousness. Self-consciousness is not an index of the mind: it is the index. This hegelian view has a bearing on the nature in which Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ is self-aware.

  Phenomenology of Spirit also defines the ‘abstract artwork’. for hegel

  the ‘work of art, as immediate, is abstract and individual. as for itself, it has to move away from this immediate and objective mode towards self- consciousness’. Simultaneously, however, the creative artist aims to turn himself into an abstraction:


What belongs to the substance, the artist gave entirely to his work, but to him-

self as a particular individuality he gave in his work no actual existence: he could

impart perfection to his work only by emptying himself of his particularity,

depersonalizing himself and rising to the abstraction of pure action. in this first

immediate production, the separation of the work from his self-conscious activ-

ity is not yet restored to their unity. The work by itself is not, therefore, actually

  hegel’s artist empties himself of particularity, depersonalizes himself in the impossible hope of ‘rising to the abstraction of pure action’, whilst the created work, although deriving from the artist, aims not to appear ‘an inspired work’ (even although it can only be whole ‘together with its genesis’). The artwork thus strives to appear without an artist: a quality encouraging readers/viewers to consider the work without the overt, even disruptive, presence of the artist. This pragmatic tension engages Stevens’ 1940s and 50s work, illustrating its positive impersonality as well as the characteristics of the first-person speakers or other constructed ‘personae’ who derive pleasure from the objects and thought-processes which also apparently inspired Stevens. as

chapter 4 recounts, Stevens would laud

  ‘the determining personality’ of his favourite painter cézanne precisely because that ‘personality’ controls, without dominating, the painter’s often abstract works. relevant here is hegel’s account of the abstract work’s aim to attain self-consciousness and the artist’s aim to abstract himself from his cre- ation. as noted earlier, Stevens’ ‘supreme fiction’ is surprisingly phys- ical, almost entering a ‘real’ modality, like rhine wine, books and ‘good cheese’. every elusive Stevensian term similarly begs for physical or palp- able identification. in Ideas of Order the ‘new romantic’ appears in images of dilapidated buildings. if these buildings are not ‘self-conscious’ they

  The ‘in-visible’ abstract 101

  are indices of Stevens’ elusive ‘new romantic’. The converse pattern hegel detects in the artist is the desire to remove oneself from one’s art, to become an abstract ‘poet’. The ‘possible poet’ is, therefore, forever impli- cated in the abstract poetry Stevens would go on to create.

  3.3 t H e toucH of H e n r i foci l l on how did henri focillon contribute to Stevens’ emergent sense of abstrac- tion? focillon’s nuanced exploration of the ‘life of forms’ undoubtedly i cannot re-evaluate the total argument of The Life of Forms in Art, but will substantiate how abstraction is central to focillon’s thinking and how his ideas apparently affected Stevens. for focillon, ‘forms’ live a life of their own, but are not autonomous. he claims initially: ‘the life of forms has absolutely no aim other than itself and its own renewal’. however, speaking of raphael’s School of


Athens, focillon insists: ‘here, the metamorphosis of shapes does not alter

  the factors of life, but it does compose a new life.focillon voices this distinction because, for him, forms develop independently of aesthetic categories, especially those of traditional art history:


each style passes through several ages and several phases of being. This does not

mean that the ages of style and the ages of mankind are the same thing. The life

of forms is not the result of chance. nor is it a great cyclorama neatly fitted into

the theatre of history and called into being by historical necessities. no. forms

obey their own rules – rules that are inherent in the forms themselves, or better,

  focillon adds: ‘form is qualified above all else by the specific realms in which it develops’. but however independent focillon finds ‘form’, central to his thought is the human contact (or ‘touch’) indicating his own idealism. The idealist dialectic at the heart of his theory depends upon forms nominally devel- oping of their own accord whilst also belonging to ‘the regions of the mind where they are located and centered’. What likely touched Stevens’ imagination was focillon’s positive abstractions. Speaking of ‘sculptural 101 quality’, focillon notes in a Proustian vein:


See leggett, Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 15. My interpretation of focillon’s influence dif-

102 fers significantly from leggett’s, however.

  102 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


The axes are an abstraction. in considering an armature […] a mere sketch in

wire endowed with the physiognomic intensity of all abbreviations […] or [a]

pure ornament, we realize that our sight must invest them all […] with sub-

stance. and it must do this in the twofold recognition, on the one hand, of their

utter and terrifying nudity, and on the other, of the mysterious and vital halo of

the volumes with which we must envelop them […] because the exigency already

lies within ourselves.

  Such idealism figures matter and space in physical and mental ter- rains: ‘[f]orms that live in space and in matter do live in the mind. but the important question is to know what they do there, how they behave […] and, finally, what turmoil or activity they undergo before taking shape, if […] it is true that being forms, even in the mind, they can have Stevens quoted heavily from this section of focillon’s study (‘forms in the realm of the Mind’) in ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’

  (1943): ‘in one of the really remarkable books of the day […] henri focillon says: Human consciousness is in perpetual pursuit of a language and

  a style.

chapter 4 discusses the significance of this particular reference

  in a deeper analysis of Stevens’ lecture. What should be observed here is the idealist basis of focillon’s assertion: ‘it is my belief that there is no antagonism whatsoever between mind and form, and that the world of forms in the mind is identical in principle with the world of forms in

  Moreover, focillon’s emphasis on consciousness inexorably pursuing ‘a language and a style’ is essentially aesthetic: ‘its activity […] is an artistic Such aestheticism testifies both to the power of abstraction and to the ‘life of forms’ as an evolutionary, ahistorical phenomenon. numerous examples of abstraction as an artistic force litter focillon’s analysis. form is


a kind of fissure through which crowds of images aspiring to birth may be intro-

duced into some indefinite realm – a realm which is neither that of physical

extent nor that of pure thought […] form is never the catch-as-catch-can gar-

ment of subject matter. no, it is the various interpretations of subject matter that

are so unstable and insecure. as old meanings are broken down and obliterated,

107 Ibid., 77–8. Ibid., 118. 108 CPP, 671. Stevens underlined this passage in his copy (52).

  The ‘in-visible’ abstract 103

  This ‘fissure’ arises from an abstract void: ‘even before it becomes for- mal […] the simplest ornamental theme […] has already given accent to the void in which it occurs and has conferred on it a new and original existence’. focillon’s strategic difficulty, however, is to avoid his own account of abstraction sounding impalpable. he therefore tends toward metaphors that give abstractive theories shape. referring to botticelli, focillon notes:


he knows and practices […] every device that permits the likely construction of

linear and aerial space, but the beings who move within the space itself he does

not completely define. They preserve a sinuous and ornamental line […] that

might be described in the undulations of a dancer who […] is purposely seeking

to compose such or such a figure.

  The metaphor of the line forming ‘the undulations of a dancer’ assists focillon as he recognizes ‘a frontier […] between the worlds of actual life focillon not only harnesses arresting metaphors for abstract proc- esses; he suggests human ‘touch’ defines creative abstraction, remarking in hegelian manner: ‘form is not only […] incarnated […] it is invari- but such incarnation is seemingly not self- generating:


[a] value, a tone do not depend alone on the properties […] touching them,

but on the way in which they are placed, that is, ‘touched.’ because of this,

a painting is not the same thing as a painted barn door or wagon. touch is

structure. it imposes on the form of the animate being or the object its own

form, which is not merely value and color, but also […] weight, density and


  as ‘Three academic Pieces’ (1947) shows, abstraction precisely enables the mind to confer ‘weight, density and motion’ on objects. Stevens was certainly taken with focillon’s ‘touch’, underlining the last two sentences but focillon’s urge to phys- of the above in his personal Life of Forms icalize his discussion through ‘touch’ not only aims to avoid pejoratively abstract analysis but is influenced by his conviction that hackneyed forms 115 116 Ibid., 66. Ibid., 85. Ibid., 93. Ibid., 101. 117 Ibid., 110. Se .

  Stevens’ copy, 47. Stevens also marginally noted focillon’s ‘definition of touch’, 46.

  104 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction What precludes negative abstraction, then, is the ‘touch’ of arresting, definitive styles. focillon is adamant that ‘style’ influences the metamor- phosis of form. in a passage Stevens marked, focillon argues: ‘form is primarily a mobile life in a changing world. its metamorphoses endlessly begin anew, and it is by the principle of style that they are above all coordi- nated and stabilized. This term has two very different, indeed two oppos-

  The evolutionary, ite meanings. Style is an absolute. A style is a variable. ahistorical notion of ‘style’ focillon proposes deeply impressed the Stevens who would later embrace blanchot; who, as noted, also highlights the pri- macy of artistic labour over historical and sociological contingencies. for focillon, ‘style’ as ‘an absolute’ transcends local conditions. he offers a Proustian conception of artistic progress:


The word ‘style’ in its generic sense indicates a special and superior quality in a

work of art […] that allows it to escape the bondage of time. conceived as an

absolute, style is not only a model, but also something whose validity is change-

less[.] […] in utilizing style as an absolute, we give expression to a very funda-

mental need: that of beholding ourselves in our widest possible intelligibility

[…] our most universal aspect, beyond the fluctuations of history, beyond local

and specific limitations. A style, on the other hand, is a development.

  This passage clearly grabbed Stevens (who underlined all of the sentence beginning ‘in utilizing style’). focillon adds that ‘a style’ is constituted of ‘its repertory, its vocabulary […] its system of relationships, its syntax’. Metaphorically speaking, abstraction is that ‘syntax’. it is ‘the very instru- ment’, in focillon’s words, through which Stevens’ mid-career vocabu- lary ‘wields its power’. Just as focillon’s forms evolve within art as a whole, Stevens experienced his ‘development’ precisely in focillon’s sense of naturalist change: ‘This activity on the part of a style in the process of self-definition, that is, defining itself and then escaping from its own def- clearly, it would be tendentious to suggest that Stevens was influenced by focillon because his own vocabulary can be read metaphorically in focillon’s terms. but consider how focillon suggests that ‘all formal envir- onments give birth to their own […] styles of life, vocabularies, states 119 of awareness […] [i]s not the essential attribute of any environment that 120 focillon, The Life of Forms, 44; Stevens’ copy, 8.


Stevens would note: ‘Style is not something applied. it is something inherent, something that

permeates. it is of the nature of that in which it is found […] it is not a dress. it may be said to

121 be a voice that is inevitable’ (CPP, 845).

  The ‘in-visible’ abstract 105

  of producing its own myths […]?Then consider how Stevens’ 1940s abstract vocabulary is inextricable from a formal environment replete with fictions (‘its own myths’). focillon’s ‘naturalism’ also proves com- pelling: Stevens forever insisting on change and adaptation as both a quo- tidian necessity and an essential part of his poetics. for example, Stevens would later resist John crowe ransom’s depiction of his work as invested in ‘nobility’, despite acknowledging ransom’s persuasiveness:


Mr. Weinstock of Knopf’s was eager to use something that you had said for the

purpose of publicity. The trouble is that once one is strongly defined, no other

definition is ever possible, in spite of daily change.

  Stevens’ insistence on adaptation obviously chimes with focillon’s wish ‘to dispel the impression that the notion of a world of forms is mere meta- it is not merely that Stevens’ personal ‘style’ evolved across his oeuvre. his work also gestures to focillon’s style ‘as an absolute’ in that he desired his ‘harmonious whole’ to be conceived in universalizing terms, as a Parnassian poetic irreducible to local contingencies. could Stevens, therefore, be partly to blame for the reductive terms in which he is sometimes read? i suggest focillon’s style ‘as an absolute’ remained an abstract dream for Stevens, and dispute, therefore, leggett’s suggestion that the poet took focillon literally in believing there was an

  Stevens did under- line focillon’s observation that ‘a definite style is not merely a state in the life of forms, nor is it that life itself: it is a homogeneous, coherent, formal environment, in the midst of which man acts and breathes’. but the poet embraced the ‘life of forms’ and its representative styles more as ‘“psy- chological landscapes,” without which the essential genius of the envir- onments would be opaque and elusive for all those who share in them’ (a Stevens’ imaginative interest lay, there- fore, in an idealist dialectic where psychology and artistic form mutually influence each other rather than in an autonomous ‘life of forms’. it was precisely the abstract idea of a ‘life of forms’ that piqued Stevens’ poetic interest.

  Stevens also seems to have been impressed by focillon’s extended dis- 124 125 cussion of the artist’s role(s). focillon’s conception of the artist is, again, 126 Ibid., 60–1. 7 october 1954, WAS, 1542. 127 focillon, The Life of Forms, 117.

  106 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Proustian: ‘We are content with an age-old acquisition, with an auto- matic, perhaps worn-out knowledge buried inside ourselves. This the art- to create such exposure, the artist’s intentions are kept on hold; at least, there is no linear relation- ship between intention, execution and the realized work: ‘a work of art is not the outline or the graph of art as an activity; it is art itself. it does not design art, it creates it. art is made up, not of the artist’s intentions, but of as we shall see with cézanne, temperament (what Stevens calls ‘determining personality’) enables a robust art unclouded by inten- tion. focillon maintains similarly: ‘the life of forms is undoubtedly more or less affected by the temperament’. as with Stevens’ ‘fluent mundo’, the artist also creates a new world:


[t]he artist develops, under our eyes, the very technique of the mind; he gives

us a kind of mold or cast that we can both see and touch […] [h]e is creating a

world – a world that is complex, coherent and concrete.

  in composing ‘description Without Place’, Stevens would later insist to José rodríguez feo that ‘the power of literature is that in describing the world it creates what it describes’. referring to feo’s journal Orígenes, Stevens remarked: ‘You are describing a world and by describing it you focillon perhaps ballasted Stevens’ 1945 conviction. for example, the poet underlined the following: ‘true technique is creative activity. at the cross-roads of psychology and physiology, forms arise with all the authority of outline, mass, and intonation’ (adding his own mar- finally, Stevens would have been equally entranced with the idea that the artist makes of his life the necessary conditions of his art. as focillon argues:


[e]ach life is its own piece of fiction […] a sequence and combination of adven-

tures […] There happens in the life of each one of us something roughly analo-

gous to that which happens in the written novel […] We too […] create our own

myths, our own style, with greater or lesser relief and authority […] here, for

example, we have chardin, perfectly contented to remain within the modest cir-

cle of a narrow bourgeoisie, or delacroix, buried in his lonely studio, or turner,

deliberately hiding himself behind an incognito as protection against outward

129 130 circumstances. 131 132 133 focillon, The Life of Forms, 167. Ibid., 33. 134 Ibid., 125. Ibid., 119. L, 495.

  The ‘in-visible’ abstract 107

will discuss the paradoxical fecundity of Stevens’ ‘bourgeois

  abstraction’ further (to raise feo again, observe how Stevens writes about


s discussion of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ also reveals how the

  ‘bourgeois’ becomes, for Stevens, a portal to extraordinary realizations, including the realization of the ‘ordinary’. but what should be observed here is focillon’s on-going influence on Stevens and how focillon’s work helps us to assess Stevens’ development as an abstract artist.

  3.4 coda : t H e n e w cr i t icism a n d a bs t r ac t ion Stevens’ positive notion of abstraction could not have been more alien to the new criticism, then gathering pace in the late 1930s and early 40s. ransom’s The World’s Body and brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry were both published in 1938. by 1939 brooks had also finished his polem- in the Kenyon, Sewanee, Southern and Partisan reviews the new critics espoused distaste for romanticism generally and abstraction especially. for the new criticism, science and technology were essentially abstractive, removing objects from their con- art, by contrast, would re-unite the object with the ‘real’ world. ransom saw the ‘trope’ as the quality enabling art its return to the actual. The process is, as Stevens would agree, a fiction. but, unlike Stevens, ransom opposes this process to abstract thought:


We are aware of how science abhors the figurative, the tropical […] art on its

side abhors propositions, or it should. When the trope begins to reduce to a

proposition, we are coming out of the solid world of art into the abstract plane of

science. We are also relapsing further from the world of actuality, of which art is

the closest fiction that we can have.

  as ransom claims, art ‘attempts to restore the body which science has

  ‘abstract’ was also a tell-tale word for the debased romanticism the new critics proscribed. in his review of george frisbee Whicher’s This 136

Was A Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson tate accused Whicher

137 See CPP, 391.


John crowe ransom, The World’s Body (new York: Scribner’s, 1938); cleanth brooks and

robert Penn Warren, eds., Understanding Poetry (new York: holt, ); brooks, Modern Poetry

138 and the Tradition.

  108 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction of abstracting a ‘single quality’ from the nominally ‘single “mood”’ of dickinson’s poetry in order to define her place in literary history (practis- tate was adopting the laudable new critical practice of reading texts not merely as histor- if tate does not call Whicher’s reading habits abstract, his criticism is clear. however, Kenneth burke, a tangential but related figure, castigated what tate bemoaned and called the habit ‘abstract’: ‘[W]hen we are talking of a work as it is, realistically, we must consider it in its totality, not singling out some one feature and treating this, in its isolation, as the “essence” of art’. for burke, such an ‘essentializing’ process ‘abstracts one ingredient in a work as the significant element, and overlooks the rest’. admittedly, Stevens’ ‘abstract’ has nothing to do with this critical mishap. but Stevens’ term does relate to romantic idealism, even as a

  Modernist adaptation. The romantic poets who shaped Stevens’ early sense of poetry were, by the 1940s, being rejected in the journals where Stevens was himself publishing (the word ‘abstract’ becoming the favoured pejorative marker appended to the romantics in new critical literature). brooks lauded verse in which ‘the poet has been just to the complexity of experience, and has not given us an abstraction in the guise of experi- ence’, criticizing Shelley for displaying a ‘confusion of abstract generaliza- When ransom wrote to Stevens, applauding ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’, he claimed to prefer the ‘non-philosophical’ parts of the poem. but he must have had one eye on further submissions for Kenyon Review. having decried abstraction for the best part of a dec- ade, ransom wrote:


i’ve just been reading Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction […] nobody can do such

poems, besides you. i like the best the innocent, non-philosophical ones, […]

  ransom was, at least, careful not to discuss explicitly the poem’s first ‘philosophical’ section, ‘It Must Be Abstract’.

  The distance between Stevens and the new critics marks, therefore, 141 the ingenuity of the poet’s rehabilitation of a modernized ‘romantic’ 142 allen tate, ‘The Poet and her biographer’ Kenyon Review 1.2 ( ), 202.


See rené Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: American Criticism, –1950 (london: Jonathan

143 cape, 1986), 146. 144 Kenneth burke, ‘The calling of the tune’ Kenyon Review 1.3 (1939), 282. 145 brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, 44, 237.

  The ‘in-visible’ abstract 109

  aesthetic. clearly, Stevens’ battle with abstraction comprises part of that picture, constituting a secular idealism. Surprisingly, the ‘i’ who domi- nates much of the late 1930s and early 1940s verse has received scant atten- tion in Stevens criticism. This idealist figure is a major textual force in the period when Stevens creates his abstract rubric. tellingly, perhaps, the ‘i’ also drops out of Stevens’ verse, along with the lion’s share of his abstract idiom, around 1945. The next chapter, therefore, explores the full extent of Stevens’ idealist ‘i’, observing the poet’s creation of a speaker without pre- cedent in poetry written in english, unique to Stevens’ time and since.


cH a p t er 4

Abstract figures: the curious case

of the idealist ‘I’

  4.1 ta m i ng ‘t H e gu e r r i l l a i’: t H e e a r ly poe ms P A R T S O F A W O R L D of (194 2) in 1938 Stevens entered one of the most fecund phases of his writing car- eer. With The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems he reached the end of an experimental period, during which he realized abstraction’s poten- tial and the poetic possibilities of a novel first-person speaker. if Stevens had not answered his speaker’s question in ‘blue guitar’ – ‘Where / do i begin and end?’ – he was certainly more confident about employing this in the poetry fol- elusive ‘i’ as a speaker, especially in an abstract spac lowing ‘blue guitar’ Stevens would break new ground, attracting fewer comparisons with a dandy or Surrealist aesthetic (apart from in the eyes of cleanth brooks and Yvor Winters). even Picasso’s influence on Stevens waned. in 1938, approving a ‘just placing of Picasso’, Stevens copied down herbert furst’s summary of



Picasso, unfortunately, has made his name pre-eminently as an intellectualist

[…] [h]is fame rests entirely on his cool and calculated exploitation of the elem-

ents of formal design, with or without psychological associations. away from

nature! was his slogan. Much of his work […] remained, except as a matter of

abstract designing, unintelligible. nevertheless, there has appeared in his oeuvre

abstract form, solidly modelled, that had a grim significance of human emotions

[…] Picasso is not a painter […] he is an over-intellectual designer who moves

  endorsing furst’s portrayal, Stevens conveniently forgot the 1935 Zervos– 1 Picasso interview and the influence Picasso himself wielded on ‘The 2 CPP, 140.


cleanth brooks, ‘a retrospective introduction’ (1965) in Modern Poetry and the Tradition, xxi;

Yvor Winters, ‘Wallace Stevens, or The hedonist’s Progress’ in The Anatomy of Nonsense (norfolk,

  Abstract figures 111

  Man with the blue guitar’. far from preaching the ‘slogan’ ‘away from nature!’, Picasso told Zervos that ‘abstract art’ was impossible because the painter ‘always start[s] with something’. even if the artist ‘remove[s] all traces of reality’ the ‘idea of the object will have left an indelible mark’ for Picasso, objects and inspiration derive from nature. They are not created by intellectual abstraction. as he recalled: ‘i go for a walk in the forest of fontainebleau. i get “green” indigestion. i must Stevens himself echoed Picasso’s observation in ‘The greenest continent’: ‘The voice / in admittedly, furst acknowledges that from Picasso’s ‘abstract form’ the

  ‘grim significance of human emotions’ appears. but the portrayal Stevens favours renders Picasso ‘an over-intellectual designer’, one who ‘moves one to thought, but not to feeling’. Stevens endorses furst’s desire to have it both ways. Picasso’s abstract art confines him to a realm of ideas, but it is through ‘abstract form’ that the artist discloses ‘human emotions’. on the one hand, Picasso possesses, like Wordsworth’s coleridge, the ‘self- created sustenance of a mind / debarred from nature’s living images’

  (‘away from nature! was his slogan’) on the other, Picasso conveys emo- tion through ‘abstract form’. on closer inspection his paintings are, furst

  My point in highlighting how Stevens revised his view of Picasso is to demonstrate how the poet was, by 1938, devising an abstract aesthetic as

chapter 3 argued, this involved forging a modern ideal-

  ism, affirming the phenomenon of a creative subject, an active ‘i’. in ‘blue guitar’ this ‘i’ occupies an abstract locale, frustrating any attempt to describe its position in dualistic terms. in fact, the ‘i’ must be ‘un-locat- able’, must be continually mobile if it is to convey the fluid meditation hegel also discovers in his phenomenology.

  Significantly, the poems Stevens wrote immediately after ‘blue guitar’ feature idealism and the textually invasive ‘i’ who dominates much of the 1938–45 verse. even more than ‘blue guitar’, these 1938 poems render Stevens’ ‘i’ idealist. in 1937 Picasso’s troubling ‘image’ for ‘our society’ 4 haunts Stevens’ speaker: 5 ashton, Picasso on Art, 9. 6 7 Ibid., 10. CPP, 162. 8 Wordsworth, The Prelude book Sixth, lines 312–13: 202. 9 Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 63.


Stevens showed increasing frustration with derivative Modernism, complaining: ‘There is no

  112 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  Things as they are have been destroyed. have i? am i a man that is dead at a table on which the food is cold? is my thought a memory, not alive? is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood and whichever it may be, is it mine?

  (CPP, 142)

  by 1938, however, Stevens surmounted both Picasso and abstraction as ‘destabilizing’ influences. Simultaneously, Stevens’ first person experiences a less traumatic textual life, becoming both theme and poetic choreog- rapher. although the poet overlooked his debt to Picasso in confronting abstraction, Stevens’ 1938 poems foreground the idealist speaker born of the poet’s own struggle with an abstract aesthetic.

  The ‘canonica’ series comprising the first twelve poems of Parts of


a World marks this transitionin ‘The Poems of our climate’ (1938)

  Stevens emphasizes the unavoidable reality of the creative self. as brogan argues, he critiques an objectivist poetic – especially Williams – both in his wry title and the poem’s bare imagery:

  clear water in a brilliant bowl, Pink and white carnations. The light in the room more like a snowy air, reflecting snow. a newly-fallen snow at the end of winter when afternoons return. Pink and white carnations – one desires So much more than that.

  (CPP, 178

  ‘Pink and white carnations’ remain insufficient because Stevens can- not evade the desirous mind that lends his carnations colour. The poem allows an unmediated ‘objective’ view articulation only to query its valid- ity. imagining a scene where the ‘snowy scents’ and unruly, perceiving ‘i’ are purged of ‘evilly compounded’ subjectivity, the poem wryly re-affirms the existence of the ‘i’ that creates the scene.

  Stevens imagines the impossibility of a world where carnations and their perceiving ‘i’ are merely objects. but even if such a world is imag- ined, a desirous ‘i’ returns to haunt the scene:

  Say even that this complete simplicity 10 Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed

  Abstract figures 113 The evilly compounded, vital i and made it fresh in a world of white, a world of clear water, brilliant-edged, Still one would want more, one would need more, More than a world of white and snowy scents.

  (CPP, 179)

  even if, then, a re-created ‘vital i’ could become ‘fresh in a world of white’ (a totally abstracted environment) one cannot avoid subjective desire: ‘Still one would want more, one would need more’. as the poem insists: ‘There would still remain the never-resting mind’. Significantly, Stevens cannot accept a Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’, despite his obvious inheritance of Mallarméan his ‘vital i’ evades neutralization just as, for brogan, the poem resists the illusion of an objectivist poetic in which ‘pink and white carnations’ stand for themselves unmediated by a perceiving mind.

  ‘The Poems of our climate’ implies, therefore, that every environment has a creator, even ‘unmediated’ aesthetics:


There would still remain the never-resting mind,

So that one would want to escape, come back to what had been so long composed. The imperfect is our paradise. note that, in this bitterness, delight, Since the imperfect is so hot in us, lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

  (CPP, 179)

  This is a major crossroads for Stevens. The turn to ‘what had been so long composed’ and the insistence that the ‘imperfect is our paradise’ anticipate ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’, especially the view that the world requires perpetual stripping of its veneers before imagina- tive re-composition. Stevens’ poem does not, however, prefer a purely abstract space stripped of veneers, as, for the idealist, unmediated envir- onments do not exist. instead, as focillon observes: ‘technique must extract from matter forces that are still vital and not vitrified beneath a flawless varnish’. This positive abstract quality, as longenbach notes, would attract robert Motherwell to this very poem in his 1944 essay 12 ‘Painters’ objects’


for example, Stevens inherits Mallarmé’s drive to transcend ‘the poet’s own personal and pas-

13 sionate control of [the] verse’ (‘crisis in Poetry’, 1561). 14 See L, 427; focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, 106.


‘Stevens’s poem bolstered his [Motherwell’s] assertion that […] a purely abstract painting,

  114 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Stevens’ idealist ‘mind’, however, can only re-invigorate a created world if, as for Wordsworth, brute ‘reality’ – a necessarily ‘imperfect’ paradise – is its starting point. our climate is already ‘composed’ and cannot be whitewashed. it is necessarily imperfect because the ‘never- resting mind’ cannot rest content with perfection (an inhuman ‘world of white’). Stevens also engages ‘sound’ here, a persistent preoccupation

  Stevens’ abstract poetic is undeniably preoccupied with sound, as is its idealist speaker; as if it is only through sound(s) that the senses of poetry and world unite. but it will take a fuller study of ‘sound’ in Stevens to chart the poet’s changing uses of this word; and to assess how the sonorous qualities of his verse relate, or otherwise, to abstrac- tion (‘sound’ is addressed here in discussion of ‘The noble rider’, however).

  Stevens’ ‘vital i’ has not yet become an active poetic agent. it remains a theme. his concern with the transformative mind and, implicitly, the ‘i’ who speaks in his verse is hypothetical, just as in ‘notes’ Stevens adver- tises ‘the abstract’ before creating his mature post-1942 aesthetic; one where ‘abstraction’ is no longer a required term, even if Stevens cannot help but refer occasionally to his primary aesthetic transformation in sig- ‘Prelude to objects’ (1938) also features the ‘self’ as theme. but this poem does anticipate the potential of Stevens’ ‘i’, by lauding a ‘self’ who, through beholding himself, perceives the world more intimately:

  if he will be heaven after death, if, while he lives, he hears himself Sounded in music, if the sun, Stormer, is the color of a self as certainly as night is the color of a self, if, without sentiment, he is what he hears and sees and if, Without pathos, he feels what he hears and sees, being nothing otherwise, having nothing otherwise, he has not to go to the louvre to behold himself. 15

  (CPP, 179)

See anca rosu, The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens (tuscaloosa, al: University of

16 alabama Press, , 138–58.

  Abstract figures 115

  Stevens affirms here his favourite painter cézanne’s dictum that ‘nature is on the inside’ (a comment Merleau-Ponty also cites approvingly). like the speaker in ‘blue guitar’ who asserts ‘i am, i speak and move / and things are as i think they are’ the poem celebrates a ‘self’ who both ‘feels what he hears / and sees’ and ‘is what he hears and sees’ (note Stevens inverts these phrases because feeling confirms perception of self rather for all the cézannes in ‘the louvre’,

  Stevens’ ‘self’ needs neither to commune with art nor travel the world to achieve his nature: very much the Stevensian stance epitomized by hardy’s like ‘The Poems of our climate’, ‘Prelude to objects’ also identifies sound as a source of self- realization, lauding the self who ‘hears himself / Sounded in music’. but if Stevens apparently swings free from his ‘actual world’ – par- ticularly in stating ‘he has not / to go to the louvre’ – he is ironically accentuating Émile bernard’s recollections of cézanne’s conversation and aphorisms. Stevens paints a ‘self’ who is not solipsistic but an aesthetic creator, in the model cézanne proposes. bernard published his descrip- tion of cézanne and the painter’s aphorisms in L’Occident in 1904. but Stevens could have read cézanne’s views in any number of texts (the aph- orisms profoundly influencing Picasso, braque and the cubists, as well as Matisse). bernard writes:


[h]e [cézanne] made himself a new optics, for his own had been obliterated,

swept away by a boundless passion for too many images, print, paintings. he

wanted to see too much; his insatiable desire for beauty made him examine the

multiform tome of art too much; henceforth […] if he now goes to the louvre

[…] it is in view of stripping down appearances[.]

  Thus, although cézanne still ‘goes to the louvre’, it is to strip down ‘appearances’; an aim Stevens obviously shares with the painter in ‘notes’ (and, of course, in ‘The Poems of our climate’). but cézanne was actually keener on communing with nature than visiting the louvre. as he wrote to bernard:


The louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We should not, however,


content ourselves with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘eye and Mind’ in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on


Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics ed. James M. edie

18 (evanston, il: northwestern University Press ), 164. 19 CPP, 148. 20 Se

  116 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


predecessors. let’s take leave of them to study beautiful nature, let’s understand

to disengage our minds from them, let’s seek to express ourselves in accordance

with our personal temperaments.

  cézanne’s insistence on personal temperament undoubtedly appealed to Stevens. of the twenty aphorisms bernard recorded, several illus- trate cézanne’s conviction that ‘[p]ainting after nature is not copying This does not mean the artist

  ‘occupies’ his work, however, as bernard quickly observed:


[t]he more the artist works […] the more he distances himself from the opacity

of the model serving as his point of departure, the more he enters into a painting

without adornment whose sole aim is itself. The more he abstracts his painting,

the more he gives it a simplified amplitude[.]

  The artist’s painting thus reveals ‘personality’ but not personal individu- ality. as cézanne wrote to bernard: ‘The thesis to develop […] is to give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that appears in front of us. Which, i think, should permit the artist to give all of his personality, both cézanne and Stevens imagine ‘personalities’ who do not need to go to the louvre to behold themselves. anchored in nature, such ideal- ist figures reveal their perception of the world through the ‘personality’ of their art. They forget ‘everything that appears in front’ of them not because the world is bereft of physical reality but because in a world of appearances perception matters. as Proust’s Marcel observes: ‘The only real journey […] would be to travel not towards new landscapes, but with cézanne’s ‘new optics’ conveys precisely the ‘personality’ embodying novel vision. likewise, in the late 1930s, Stevens creates an ‘i’ who has definite ‘personality’ but is not a cipher for individual gripes or reflections. in 1937 Stevens copied extracts from graham bell on cézanne into his commonplace book. citing bell’s observation that ‘cézanne’s peculiar determination [is] to pin down his sensation’, Stevens added:


i note the above both for itself and because it adds to subject and manner the

thing that is incessantly overlooked: the artist, the presence of the determining

22 personality. Without that reality no amount of other things matters much 23 24 cited in cachin et al., Cézanne, 18. bernard, ‘Paul cézanne’, 37. 25 26 cachin et al., Cézanne, 37. cited in ibid., 17–18.


Marcel Proust, The Prisoner and The Fugitive trans. carol clark and Peter collier

  Abstract figures 117

  in ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’ (where cézanne’s letters are quoted successively) Stevens’ ‘personality’ follows cézanne’s term closely, indicating the refracted traces of perception the artist communicates and Stevens read similar observations in focillon, also a prominent element within his 1943 lecture: ‘the life of forms is undoubtedly more or less affected by the if Picasso ended up, for Stevens, at the abstract remove

  Wordsworth detects in coleridge, then cézanne is exemplary because he exudes personality without falling into solipsism or imaginative indul- gence: ‘it was of the temperament of the artist that cézanne spoke so fre- quently in his letters’. This ‘temperament’ engages what Stevens calls the cézanne also epitomizes the idealist strain outlined in . for Stevens, the painter becomes the exemplar of an abstract aesthetic the poet realizes in the late 1930s. Stevens would have recognized how the term ‘abstraction’ accompanied cézanne. in 1945 lionello venturi applauded the painter’s abstract style:


[he] could so abstract his style […] from any given experience of nature and yet

convey through his abstractions so profound an interpretation of the nature of

things, that every artist and also many laymen have in the last forty years seen

  venturi marvels at cézanne’s ‘new optics’, enabling one to see through ‘the eyes of cézanne himself’ but without the intrusion of the painter’s individual struggle to create. for Stevens this variety of vision derives from a ‘determining personality’. Such an abstract artist is also the idealist creator hegel favours in Phenomenology of Spirit. Stevens’ ‘self’ does not need to visit the louvre because – as with cézanne’s view that ‘nature is on the inside’ – his palette already comprises himself interacting with the world.

  ‘Prelude to objects’ focuses a self untroubled by epistemological doubt, where self-knowledge and knowledge of the world are coterminous in 28 he also applies a kind of verbal paintbrush. another reason the self does 29 See CPP, 671–2. 30 focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, 125. 31 CPP, 671.


lionello venturi, Painting and Painters: How to Look at a Picture, from Giotto to Chagall (new

32 York: Scribner’s, 179.

  118 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction not need to ‘go to the louvre’ is not because it rejects what bernard calls the ‘tome of art’; rather, ‘reality’ is conditioned by ‘the eyes of cézanne himself’. our vision is influenced by art and the personalities who deter- mine that vision. as Stevens insisted in 1938: ‘cézanne has been the source accordingly, even if one visits the louvre, one sees more than pictures on the wall. The world itself is revealed through artistic creation, a revela- tion that for Stevens equals self-revelation:

  granted each picture is a glass, That the walls are mirrors multiplied, That the marbles are gluey pastiches, the stairs The sweep of an impossible elegance, and the notorious views from the windows Wax wasted, monarchies beyond The S.S. Normandie, granted one is always seeing and feeling oneself, That’s not by chance.

  (CPP, 179–80)

  This idealist confection of painting (‘each picture’), reflection (‘glass’, ‘mirrors multiplied’) and metamorphosis (the ‘marbles’ turned ‘gluey pas- tiches’, the world beyond the louvre a ‘wax’ work) marks the inescap- able fact that one ‘is always seeing and feeling oneself’. even the S.S.


Normandie, whose regular route could have conveyed Stevens from new

  York to le havre – whence he could proceed to the louvre – lacks aes- thetic allure. There is no prelude to objects. The ‘prelude’ is certainly not the ‘self’ who views a world of objects. Stevens’ title is playful because radical idealism privileges neither the self who manipulates objects nor the objects themselves because it denies a subject–object dualism. in the absence of that distinction there can be no prelude privileging either per- ceiver or perceived. but Stevens’ poem does offer a ‘determining personality’ of its own: ‘it This

  ‘guerilla i’ is an assailant operating outside conventional practices: a first person specializing in ‘irregular fighting’ (OED). Stevens battles with this speaker in ‘blue guitar’, but by 1938 can joke about the need, in marked legal language, to bring his ‘guerilla i’ to book because he had already, 33 bibliographically speaking, booked and bound that speaker in The Man

  Abstract figures 119

with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems. The ‘nigger mystics’ of this ‘i’ – an

  alarming caricature of ‘voodoo’ spell-binding? – are also ironized; para- doxically, because the poem insists they be transformed from ‘foolscap’ to ‘wigs’. ‘foolscap’ is a size of paper, but obviously elides ‘fool’s cap’, denot- ing the jester with his cap and bells. Stevens quips his ‘i’ is both a serious textual phenomenon – bound in paper – but also an object of mirth, lack- ing a serious audience (the ‘i’ desires the solemnity of a legal ‘wig’ rather than a fool’s cap). The poem implies, however, that ‘wigs’ can be taken no more seriously than any other definitive headgear (Stevens’ tone is simi- lar to the apostrophe to the ‘beards’ of ‘extracts from addresses to the however, if the ‘guerilla i’ is not as dangerous as Stevens maintains, his idealist ‘i’ does invade the early 1940s poetry.

  ‘Prelude to objects’ signals that the poet (and a poetic ‘i’) need not fear solipsism or perverse abstraction. The poem’s last section addresses the ‘Poet’ himself, insisting that, just as cézanne shapes our vision of every- thing, the poet creates our sense of self-image: ‘We are conceived in your conceits’. Stevens could joke about a ‘guerilla i’ because he had already wrest control of that assailant in ‘blue guitar’. realizing an ‘i’ and affirm- ing an abstract imagination are, in fact, one and the same manoeuvre in Stevens’ late 1930s work. but before demonstrating how his idealist ‘i’ choreographs the early 1940s poetry, i want to turn to ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’ and ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’, re-interpreting these lectures through their interest in speakers and what The chapter then demonstrates how Stevens presents his idealist ‘i’, among other abstract figures, in milieux distinguished by food, wine and aesthetic meditation, concluding with a short reading of ‘landscape with boat’. This is pre- liminary to

chapter 5 ’s exploration of ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’

  and Stevens’ most abstract ‘gastronomic’ poem ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ as we move into further uncharted critical territory: namely, the relations between gastronomy, desire and abstraction in Stevens’ mature writing.

  4.2 from ‘robust poet’ to ide a l ist ‘i’: ‘t He nobl e r ider a nd t He sou nd of wor ds’ (1942) a nd ‘t He figur e of t He you t H a s v ir il e poet’ (1943)

  ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’ provides a rare instance of Stevens critically reading another author’s work, namely Plato’s Phaedrus.

  120 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction This reading illustrates Stevens’ growing awareness of how textual speak- ers influence readers. although Stevens borrows Plato’s ‘charioteer’ pri- marily as an example of a figure of lost imaginative resonance (as a waning symbol of ‘nobility’), what is often overlooked in this lecture is Stevens’ relish for Plato’s speaker. in fact ‘The noble rider’ initially foregrounds Plato’s words rather than Stevens’:

  in the Phaedrus, Plato speaks of the soul in a figure. he says:

Let our figure be of a composite nature – a pair of winged horses and a charioteer.


Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the gods are all of them noble […] while

ours are mixed; and we have a charioteer who drives them in a pair, and one of

them is noble and of noble origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin […]

I will endeavor to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal

creature. The soul or animate being has the care of the inanimate, and traverses the

whole heaven in divers forms appearing; – when perfect and fully winged she soars

upward, and is the ruler of the universe; while the imperfect soul loses her feathers,

  Stevens knows it is not Plato who speaks here but Socrates. The lecture postpones reading the text as a dialogue – each speaker possessing his own rhetorical agenda – because Stevens wants to influence his audience’s response(s) to Plato.

  Stevens is, in fact, peremptory, as he aims to delimit our understanding of Plato’s figure:


We recognize at once, in this figure, Plato’s pure poetry; and […] we recognize

what coleridge called Plato’s dear, gorgeous nonsense. The truth is that we have

scarcely read the passage before we have identified ourselves with the charioteer,

have, in fact, taken his place […] [S]uddenly we remember, it may be, that the

soul no longer exists and we droop in our flight and at last settle on the solid

ground. The figure has become antiquated and rustic.

  but whilst Plato’s passage might constitute ‘pure poetry’ – what Stevens labels ‘all imagination’ – the reader/listener does not necessarily identify ‘with the charioteer’ or take his place as Stevens prescribes‘The truth is that we have scarcely read’ forms a rhetorical ploy through which Stevens delimits the interpretation with which he can account for Plato’s figure having become ‘antiquated and rustic’. for if we ‘identify ourselves with the charioteer’, we automatically participate in the experience of this fig- ure’s downfall. indeed, if we agree the figure falls for its unreality then Stevens’ reading gives credence both to our nominally fine reading skills

  Abstract figures 121

  (ones attributed to us by Stevens) and to the validity of the imagination– reality equilibrium: what ‘The noble rider’ famously describes as the ‘interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals’. but Stevens’ attempt at controlling interpretation is more than rhet- orical. he mimics the conviction and authority of Socrates, aping ‘Socratic rhetoric’, especially Socrates’ taste for conjunction:


Something else than the imagination is moved by the statement that the horses

of the gods are all of them noble, and of noble breed or origin. The statement

is a moving statement and is intended to be so. it is insistent and its insistence

moves us. its insistence is the insistence of a speaker, in this case Socrates, who,

for the moment, feels delight […] in the nobility and noble breed. Those images

of nobility instantly become nobility itself and determine the emotional level at

  This ‘Socratic rhetoric’ is self-reflexive: ‘The statement is a moving state- ment and is intended to be so. it is insistent and its insistence moves us.’ Such diction determines how ‘the next page or two’ of ‘The noble rider’ are ‘to be read’. for Stevens cajoles his audience – also, implicitly, the readers of The


Necessary Angel – to participate in a similar experience to that which he

  credits Socrates with making. The insistence of an ‘insistent’ speaker proves catching. even if the reader does ‘not quite yield’ to the nobility of Plato’s figure, it is easy to ‘recognize’ the strength of the ‘robust poet’ Stevens identifies in Plato/Socrates:


The result is that we recognize […] the feelings of the robust poet clearly and

fluently noting the images in his mind and by means of his robustness, clearness

and fluency communicating much more than the images themselves.

  This announces an idealist poetic figure. Stevens’ ‘robust poet’ neither copies nature nor merely transcribes mental pictures. he communicates ‘much more than the images themselves’. like cézanne, he conveys his own ‘robustness’, clarity and ‘fluency’ by evoking mediated images. The ‘robust poet’ conveys what Stevens had described in 1938 as the ‘deter- mining personality’. but we should focus also on the other overlooked aspect of this lec- 40 ture: that ambiguous phrase ‘the sound of words’. in 1942 ‘the sound of 41 42 43 Ibid., 659. Ibid., 644. Ibid., 644–5.


Stevens struggles to address ‘the sound of words’ theme: ‘here i am, well-advanced in my paper,

with everything of interest that i started out to say remaining to be said’ (CPP, 659). ‘Say[ing]’ is

thus preliminary to having ‘said’ something, as though Stevens’ own rhetoric is inscribed with

  122 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction words’ refers initially to literature’s grasp on the imagination over time, particularly literature losing cultural resonance, a phenomenon to which in a passage

  Stevens alludes in quoting croce’s The Defence of Poetry. from which Stevens does not quote, croce remarks:


i will not conceal a feeling […] which i have had during the last twenty years: […]

that if i recite aloud a line or stanza of dante or Petrarch or foscolo, their voices

find no echo: a sense of a surrounding atmosphere strange, hostile and contemp-

tuous; a sense of sacrilege in bringing into it those gentle and exalted words,

born in a different world and addressed to a different world.

  ‘Sound’ would even come to take on a different resonance for Stevens. by 1944, for example, when Stevens wrote ‘The creations of Sound’, ‘sound’ has attained a ‘different’ hold on the poet’s imagination; as

  demonstrates, by this period Stevens’ confidence in abstraction was such but to understand Stevens’ ‘i’ in the poems following the ‘canonica’ series (and in ‘The noble rider’) one must appreciate the highlighted

  ‘personality’ of ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’. This lecture usu- as filreis suggests, by 1943 Stevens opted to replace the imagination–reality equilibrium of ‘The noble rider’ with an emphasis on facing ‘reality’ for filreis, this shift reflects Stevens’ awareness that he would be addressing a ‘refugee audience’ at les entretiens de Pontigny, Mount holyoke college, in august 1943 (where his paper was chaired by gestapo survivor Jean Wahl). however, ‘The figure of the Youth’ is not overtly concerned with the social and political reality of nazi-occupied europe and certainly not with the specific experiences of refugees. Such a reality exerts pressure on the lecture, but Stevens’ preoccupations in ‘The figure of the Youth’ only relate to that pressure in an indirect sense: namely, 44 through the freedom represented by the ‘figure of the youth’ who realizes 45 See CPP, 652.


benedetto croce, The Defence of Poetry: Variations on the Theme of Shelley (oxford: clarendon,

46 , 29. for an early insight into ‘the thought of sound long ago’, see L, 117.


The ‘different poet’ of ‘The creations of Sound’ is undeniably a verbal creation. but his ‘sound’

is not oral. he does not speak in Stevens’ poem. if we ‘say ourselves in syllables that rise / from

the floor, rising in speech we do not speak’, it is because poetry reliant on abstraction re-con-

ceives poetic speech (CPP, 274–5). as ‘description Without Place’ insists: ‘it matters, because

everything we say […] is description without place, a cast / of the imagination, made in sound’.

The poet’s words – and the reader’s absorption of those words – thus transform what this later


poem mischievously calls the ‘plainly visible’. See WSJ 33.1 (2009) for a fuller study of ‘sound’.

48 CPP, 676.

  Abstract figures 123

  his own imagination. Stevens’ main preoccupation is with sketching the figure ‘The noble rider’ describes as the ‘robust poet’, for the idealist ‘i’ who reflects this ‘robust poet’ is not pejoratively abstracted from the world but aims to re-establish fresh contact with ‘reality’ through imaginative meditation.

  Stevens also insists that the world in which his ‘youth’ lives is ‘apart from politics’:


There is a life apart from politics. it is this life that the youth as virile poet lives,

in a kind of radiant and productive atmosphere. This is the life of that atmos-

phere. There the philosopher is an alien. The pleasure that the poet has there

is a pleasure of agreement with the radiant and productive world in which he

  This was an important statement for Stevens because in 1954 it became There is nothing incompatible in claiming a realm of experience beyond the political sphere whilst also acknowledging how political realities exert pressure on this ‘life apart’. at least, it can hardly be claimed the ‘agreement’ Stevens speaks of throughout ‘The figure of the Youth’ indicates a growing social commitment, or, as filreis suggests, reveals Stevens becoming, even if Stevens urges an ‘agreement with real- ity’ it is to convey how an idealist, abstract imagination is not reducible to the political sphere, even if it is influenced by it. The world ‘apart’ is not removed from the grubby realm of international politics but simply needs to affirm itself as a valid part of life. Stevens even suggests that ‘with his sense of the heaviness of the world’ the poet ‘feels his own power to lift, The poet – and Stevens – emerges as a ‘spiritual epicure’ who realizes the cost of the freedom in which he can ostensibly ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet’ addresses a ‘def- inition of poetry’, but Stevens conflates this theme with the figure of coleridge is for Stevens ‘a man who may be said to have been defining poetry all his life’, even if his definitions ‘no longer impress us

  e Biographia insists:


What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the


answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. for it is a distinction

51 CPP, 678. 52 Wallace Stevens, Wallace Stevens Reads (new York: caedmo ] 1998), audiotape.

  124 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images,

  Stevens replicates, then, a coleridgean habit, even if he attempts to dis- tance himself from the definitions coleridge represents. Stevens also quotes Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry where Shelley ventures an ‘approxi- mation’ of poetry through the figure of the poet and via the poem as the as Stevens insists, ‘we have no difficulty in recognizing poetry’, and ‘we may be accounting for’ this phenomenon

  ‘if we say that it is a process of the personality of the poet’uch con- flation makes ‘The figure of the Youth’ a self-referential performance – similar to the self-reflexive ‘The noble rider’ – in which lecture, lecturer and ‘youth’ become one and the same poet speaking. Specifically, Stevens transforms his paper into a portrait of the figure of the ‘youth’ becoming an idealist ‘i’. but because the romantics nominally lack the modern ‘val- idity’ Stevens craves, ‘The figure of the Youth’ employs more contempor- ary intellectual support to explicate ‘the personality of the poet’.

  Stevens’ tone becomes defensive, however, because his citations inter- fere with painting his idealist ‘youth’:


[W]ithout indirect egotism there can be no poetry. There can be no poetry with-

out the personality of the poet, and that, quite simply, is why the definition of

poetry has not been found and why, in short, there is none. in one of the really

remarkable books of the day, The Life of Forms in Art, henri focillon says:


Human consciousness is in perpetual pursuit of a language and a style. To assume

consciousness is at once to assume form. Even at levels far below the zone of definition

and clarity, forms, measures, and relationships exist. The chief characteristic of the

mind is to be constantly describing itself. This activity is indirect egotism.

  Stevens reiterates here an argument he read in Mauron’s Aesthetics and Psychology. Mauron stresses that ‘expressive art’ requires ‘the creation of a language’, effecting ‘the transmission of a state of mind’referring to Mauron’s examples for this process, Stevens even paraphrased Mauron in his own copy of Aesthetics and Psychology, marginally observing: ‘which 57 end in the creation of a language’. a few pages earlier, Stevens also 58 59 60 BL, ii, ch. 14, 15. CPP, 670. Ibid., 670.


Ibid., 670–1. Stevens underlined this passage in his copy of focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, 52

61 (1989 edition, 118). 62 See CPP, 661.

charles Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology trans. roger fry and Katherine John (london:

  Abstract figures 125

  wrote: ‘in the case of expressive art, it is a transmission through sensation but citing focillon neither adds to the effect of describing the ‘pro- cess of the personality of the poet’ nor helps Stevens update his romantic forebears. Shelley himself insists that poets’ language is ‘the hieroglyphic of their thoughts’ and imagines each poet developing his own idiom to convey his ‘invisible nature’, adding: ‘[i]t is by no means essential that a in fact, the young Stevens marginally lined this precise passage in reading Shelley

  Perhaps Stevens’ dissatisfaction with failing to ‘modernize’ his sub- ject – either by citing focillon or flouting cézanne on ‘the tempera- ment of the artist’ – accounts for how ‘The figure of the Youth’ abruptly The text moves from aphoristic, quasi-academic diction to painting Stevens’ ‘younger figure’ impressionistically, as though focillon’s thesis about language and style were compositionally rather than intel- lectually inspiring the poet. in a text littered with italicized quotations, Stevens switches to speaking in ‘quotations’ from his poetic youth. This speech is also italicized but not for citational purposes. Stevens imagines a ‘central purity’ where his abstract youth speaks not merely to himself but to a reader. if, however, in this ‘elevation’ Stevens emphasizes that the poet ‘com- municates to the reader’, Stevens’ audience is also conceived as participat- ing in this speech:


here as part of the purification that all of us undergo as we approach any central

purity […] we can say:

No longer do I believe that there is a mystic muse, sister of the Minotaur. This is

another of the monsters I had for nurse, whom I have wasted. I am myself a part of

what is real, and it is my own speech and the strength of it, this only, that I hear or

ever shall.


These words may very well be an inscription above the portal to what lies

  it is a remarkable moment. The Necessary Angel is frequently read for Stevensian topoi: for the ‘pressure of reality’, poetry as ‘an unofficial view 64 of being’, or the imagination–reality complex. it is rarely considered 65 Ibid., 54, Stevens’ copy.


Percy bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in The Major Works ed. Zachary leader and Michael

66 o’neill (oxford: oxford University Press ), 678–9.

  Stevens’ copy of rhys, The Prelude to Poetry, 171.

  126 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction for the poetic speakers it employs. one stylistic habit of Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ is its repeated appearance in textual spaces. The pronoun appears five times in the above speech poet–lecturer and audience share. This ‘i’ also dominates Stevens’ lecture at large and is the last voice heard at its close, as Stevens conjures ‘personality’ as theme and technique: ‘it is the spirit out of its own self, not out of some surrounding myth, delineating with

  ‘The figure of the Youth’ also identifies its ‘i’ as an antaen figure reliant on ‘reality’. Stevens rejects the mysticism he believes inherent in meta physics: ‘when we are in agreement with reality, we find […] that we however, although the lecture discusses the

  ‘unreal’, this first person’s purpose – as for any self-respecting idealist – is to ‘create his unreal out of what is real’, where the ‘unreal’ is fanciful but ‘credible’ fiction; just as, conversely, what Stevens calls ‘irreality’ influences This explains the phrase

  ‘No longer do I believe that there is a mystic muse, sister of the Minotaur […]


I am myself a part of what is real’. dispatching his ariadne – to whom i

  will return shortly – Stevens affirms the connection his idealist ‘i’ makes with an audience; as the audience is encouraged to participate in the very imaginative creation the speaker embodies (‘participate’ being a favoured Stevens stridently emphasizes this connection, defending his ‘i’ from

  ‘double characters’ (‘the poetic philosophers and the philosophical poets’) and from dubious ‘metaphysicians’:

  he is able to read the inscription on the portal and he repeats:

I am myself a part of what is real and it is my own speech and the strength of it,

this only, that I hear or ever shall. he says, so that we can all hear him:

I am the truth, since I am part of what is real, but neither more nor less than those

around me. And I am imagination, in a leaden time and in a world that does not

  The lecture oscillates between affirming the personality Stevens’ ‘i’ con- jures – ‘it is my own speech […] this only, that I hear’ – and acknowledging this sense of self is ‘neither more nor less’ real ‘than those around me’. The pressure of ‘a leaden time’ impinges here; and filreis correctly observes 70 that ‘weight’. but Stevens’ ‘I am’ pushes back repeatedly. ‘The figure of 71 72 73 Ibid., 675. Ibid., 679. Ibid., 679; L, 360. See CPP, 645.

  Abstract figures 127

  the Youth’ does eventually attain the ‘personality’ cézanne admires: the abstract achievement neither removed from life nor disturbed by the art- ist’s individual struggle. Stevens’ ‘determining personality’ depends on its ability to inculcate what Shelley calls ‘perpetual sympathy’ and what coleridge describes as the transformation of ‘our admiration of the poet’ it is a sympathy Stevens’ 1940s com- ments on the relations between poet and poem also illustrate.

  ‘The figure of the Youth’ strives, then, to create an idealist ‘i’, a speaker from whom we derive spiritual rejuvenation. The audience is invited to ‘join him’, the ‘virile poet’, in his own imaginative communion with the ‘real’, as if the ‘robust poet’ of ‘The noble rider’ had become a ‘virile’, solid self. Stevens asks: ‘can we suppose for a moment that he will be content merely to make notes, merely to copy Katahdin, when, with his sense of the heaviness of the world, he feels his own power to lift, or help Katahdin is a Maine mountain. like the new hampshire mountain chocorua, it evokes for Stevens the need to but true to cézanne, one must not ‘copy Katahdin’ or ‘make notes’ rep- resenting the ‘actual’. in a world of appearances the imaginative ‘i’ must convey its perception of ‘Katahdin’, lifting life’s ‘heaviness’ off the shoul- ders of those confined to the monocular vision of despair.

  This makes all Stevens’ readers potential idealist visionaries. although ‘The figure of the Youth’ ends by invoking the ‘sister of the Minotaur’, Stevens’ ‘virile poet’ neither falls into ‘metaphysics’ nor denies participa- tion. Stevens insists that as ‘we say these things’ not only does the ‘virile poet’ come alive; he becomes an abstraction through which ‘we’ realize the ‘intensity’ of our own feelings:


as we say these things, there begins to develop, in addition to the figure […]

seated in our midst, composed, in the radiant and productive atmosphere with

which we have surrounded him, an intimation of what he is thinking as he

reflects on the imagination of life, determined to be its master and ours. he is

thinking of those facts of experience of which all of us have thought and which

all of us have felt with intensity, and he says:


Inexplicable sister of the Minotaur, enigma and mask, although I am part of

what is real, hear me and recognize me as part of the unreal. I am the truth but

the truth of that imagination of life in which with unfamiliar motion and man-

ner you guide me in those exchanges of speech in which your words are mine, mine

  128 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Superficially, Stevens closes with a pact between the ‘virile poet’ and ariadne. but this speech is meant to chime with what ‘all of us have thought’. Thus the phrase ‘your words are mine, mine yours’ does not imply a secret ‘agreement’ between Stevens’ figures: it is an exchange of speech through which Stevens appeals to his audience. but to understand this gesture one must appreciate what ariadne lends to the supplication of the poet’s ‘I am’. ariadne is not only sister to the Minotaur; she is lover of Theseus who, condemned to imprisonment in daedalus’ maze, slays King Minos’ beast and escapes the labyrinth thanks to ariadne’s ball of thread. despite flee- ing crete with him, ariadne is abandoned by Theseus on naxos where, taking pity on her, dionysus marries her, thereby ensuring her immortal- Stevens’ ‘i’ addresses, then, an immortal, although unconventional

  Muse. however, the lecture resists the mystical allure ariadne represents (‘No longer do I believe that there is a mystic muse, sister of the Minotaur’). if the poet has immortality in mind, it is literary (as ariadne has spun many a yarn). for example, in Ariadne’s Thread J. hillis Miller alludes to nietzsche’s ‘Klage der ariadne’, explaining how dionysus’ relationship with ariadne features interpersonal exploration. nietzsche has dionysus declare to ariadne: ‘ich bin dein labyrinth’ (‘i am your labyrinth’).

  Stevens’ ‘i’, however, emphasizes ariadne’s capacity as a guide (‘you guide me in those exchanges of speech’). but in ‘The figure of the Youth’ there is no end to being guided through the labyrinth of the ‘unreal’, ‘the imagination of life’. if ariadne divines dionysus’ labyrinthine ‘personality’, the final speech Stevens gives his ‘virile poet’ conjures the infinite discovery Stevens hopes his listeners will experience through his own abstract ‘I am’. Just as ariadne is ‘enigma


and mask’, the ‘virile poet’ represents the elusive identity of the imagin-

  ation itself. but what distinguishes an ‘enigma’ from a ‘mask’? a mask conceals ‘true’ identity, creating new or imagined character. an enigma remains a ‘riddle’ or ‘puzzling person or thing’, etymologically suggesting to ‘speak allusively’, deriving from the greek ainos (‘fable’, OED). to be enigmatic, then, is to trade in allusive tales. ariadne comprises the site of several myths which allude to each other. Similarly, when the ‘virile poet’ 79 alludes to her Stevens invites layer upon layer of imaginative association.


M. c. howatson, ed., The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (oxford: oxford University

80 Press, , 53–4.

  Abstract figures 129

  it is a rhetorical gesture through which Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ aims to speak directly to his audience: ‘your words are mine, mine yours’.

  What the early 1940s lectures from The Necessary Angel illustrate, there- fore, is Stevens’ realization of the robust first person who also speaks in his early 1940s poetry. This ‘i’ is foregrounded in the 1938 ‘canonica’ series. but by 1940, in ‘landscape with boat’, Stevens converts a philosophizing third person into the aesthetic ‘i’ who colours such poems as ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’ and ‘holiday in reality’. ‘landscape with boat’ also reveals the milieux where Stevens’ ‘i’ creates and is created: places often defined by gastronomic tokens significant to its meditations. My reading forms a bridge wit

chapter 5 ’s analysis of ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’, where an idealist ‘i’ and gastronomic aesthetic combine. The pre-

  sent chapter concludes by summarizing the overall effects of Stevens’ ‘i’, noting its originality in contradistinction to new critical poetic speakers and against the backdrop of Stevens’ romantic precursors.

  4.3 t H e H u m a n a bs t r ac t i n ‘l a n dsc a pe w i t H boat’ (1940) ‘landscape with boat’ is the most self-referential poem of Parts of a World, not because it refers to its own status as a poem, but because it expli- citly advertises ‘parts’, a ‘centre’ and ‘the truth’, the choice themes of Parts itself. The poem is occasionally overlooked by scholars, perhaps because it fits ‘too well’ into Stevens’ fourth volume. eeckhout suggests ‘landscape’ is ‘clearly programmatic’, sounds ‘a disputatious and dogmatic ring’ and in ‘flat and unredeeming language enacts only too well what it sets out to represent’. but whilst eeckhout does find much redeeming in Stevens’ language, he bases his reading of the poem on a negative view of abstrac- tion which disables conceiving the end of ‘landscape with boat’ as an idealist celebration. by assuming the balcony scene at the poem’s close is co-extensive with the abstract aesthetic critiqued at the start of the poem, eeckhout reads ‘landscape’ as a blindness on Stevens’ part to his own abstract proclivities. in what follows i want simply to demonstrate a) the radical transmu- tation of a philosophizing ‘he’ to an idealist ‘i’ and b) a coterminous movement where Stevens rejects ultimate abstraction in favour of con- 82 ceiving ideas as a means re-establishing contact with ‘reality’. for, whilst

  130 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘landscape with boat’ is influenced by painting, it does not necessar- recallin

   , Stevensian abstraction comprises an imaginative pro-

  cess which does not yield a pared-down, non-concrete aesthetic. instead, Stevens shares francis bacon’s tendency to think about artefacts in the abstract, as imaginative catalysts for creative work. This is not the same as embracing abstract expressionism or endorsing the kind of ‘non-human’

  ‘landscape with boat’ presents a painterly ‘ascetic’ whose desire to cut through appearance suggests abstract imagining:

  an anti-master-man, floribund ascetic. he brushed away the thunder, then the clouds, Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still The sky was blue. he wanted imperceptible air. he wanted to see. he wanted the eye to see and not be touched by blue. he wanted to know, a naked man who regarded himself in the glass of air, who looked for the world beneath the blue, Without blue, without any turquoise tint or phase, any azure under-side or after-color.

  (CPP, 220)

  following ‘The Poems of our climate’, Stevens critiques the desire to whitewash the world. certainly, the 1940s Stevens wants to strip away appearance; but what differentiates a poem like ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ from the attempt of the ‘anti-master-man’ to strip the world bare is that ‘notes’ knows that the discovery of the ‘first idea’, or a ‘supreme fiction’, is inspiringly unrealizable. What ‘notes’ appreciates is the cre-

   with boat’, however, simply critiques the attempt to push through appear- ance to an impossible world without colour (a sky ‘without blue’, or any colour, is arguably hardly a sky). That Stevens’ ‘he’ is figured in painterly diction only testifies to the impossibility of breaking out of any medium into pure form. if ‘he brushed away the thunder’, there remain traces of 83 the brush-strokes the ‘anti-master-man’ makes 84 See eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 175–6; cleghorn, Wallace Stevens’ Poetics, 44–5.


Macleod does, however, address how Stevens’ poetics chimes with abstract painting following

the Second World War and with the abstract expressionists’ responses to Stevens (see Macleod,

85 Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, 143ff.). 86 CPP, 333.

  Abstract figures 131

  Stevens’ ‘he’ is also ironized as over-intellectualizing. Whilst this fig- ure realizes the impossibility of discovering a ‘neutral centre’, he remains prey to rhetoric desiring a ‘single-colored’ truth:

  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. he would arrive. he had only not to live, to walk in the dark, to be projected by one void into another.

  (CPP, 220)

  Stevens’ playful language accentuates how this ‘he’ is already subject to the ambiguity which questions discovering unambiguous ‘truth’. ‘Supposed’ conveys ‘assumed’, as in logical supposition and ‘imagined’, signifying creative acts. ‘Sup-posing’ is literally ‘placing under’ (from the french poser). Within the thought that is ‘easier to think’, truth is neatly placed in ‘uncreated night’, awaiting discovery. but on the idealist and pragmatist view where truth is made not found, ‘supposing’ is creating, and creation involves changing the appearance of places – just as in ‘blue guitar’ canto vi the words ‘place’ and ‘space’ change places significantly.

  Stevens’ ‘he’ moves, then, from logical supposition to creating ‘truth’, where a rhetoric of rejection paradoxically enables his speaker to move around: ‘he would arrive’ in ‘a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw / and denying what he heard’. rather than cause inertia, the refusal ‘to live’, to walk instead ‘in the dark’ enables Stevens’ ‘he’ to discover a new locale. note also how this third person disappears in his ‘suppos- ing’, not reappearing until the phrase ‘a thing that he reached’. The poem implies that the philosophical thirst for final answers disables movement. like the ‘un-locatable’ speaker of ‘blue guitar’, Stevens’ ‘he’ will not become mobile without relinquishing logical supposition.

  Stevens’ speaker is thus conceived in a specialized setting where an idealist ‘i’ is imagined (if only ‘he’ could ‘suppose’ this for himself):

  had he been better able to suppose: he might sit on a sofa on a balcony

  132 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  becoming emeralds. he might watch the palms flap green ears in the heat. he might observe a yellow wine and follow a steamer’s track and say, ‘The thing i hum appears to be The rhythm of this celestial pantomime.’

  (CPP, 221)

  being ‘better able to suppose’ means imaginatively changing places: remov- ing oneself from an ‘ascetic’ world and reclining on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. Stevens’ ‘he’ seemingly discovers himself in an envir- onment of ‘palms’, a ‘yellow wine’ and ‘a steamer’s track’: as if the boat, or its trace, only become ‘real’ parts of the poem’s landscape when the ‘he’ relinquishes his world without colour and becomes painter of the scene.

  The imagined ‘i’ shapes an idealist epiphany. ‘The thing i hum appears to be / The rhythm of this celestial pantomime’ affirms how appearances are mental creations. a ‘pantomime’, originally, was a ‘dumb show’ not a festive play, just as ‘celestial’ refers etymologically to ‘the sky’ rather than anything metaphysical. The ‘celestial pantomime’ implies the world presents us with a spectacle, but not a language (which awaits creation, be it musical, visual or verbal). Whatever the language, however, the poem realizes the powers of the idealist mind upon which Stevens frequently meditates in the early 1940s.

  ‘landscape with boat’ also illustrates the human dimensions of Stevensian abstraction. by transforming a philosophizing ‘he’ into an idealist ‘i’ Stevens rejects meaningless abstraction in favour of an inter- but Stevens’ modern idealism relies on abstraction for the human task of refreshing ‘reality’. to be ‘abstract’ is to re-discover the human, re- invigorating our physical and sensual impressions. eeckhout, however, sees ‘landscape with boat’ as problematic, caught between critiquing its abstract ‘ascetic’ (which he compellingly associates with Mondrian) and Specifically, eeckhout opposes abstraction to Stevens’ perception of ‘sensuous particulars’:


even if a modicum of self-irony […] inform[s] the description of the ascetic,

Stevens still manages rather easily […] to come down on one side of the debate,


ignoring […] his own strong inclination toward abstraction and his own regular

See eeckhout’s reading of ‘The Snow Man’ (Wallace Stevens, 85) and leggett, Wallace Stevens and

88 Poetic Theory, 17–26.

leggett suggests ‘even the most sensuous detail remains radically a product of abstraction’,

Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 40.

  Abstract figures 133

distrust of the sufficiency of sensuous particulars […] ‘landscape with boat’ is

an affirmation of the sensuous particulars of this world […] but it is also, surrep-

titiously, an exorcism.

  but Stevens never evinced a ‘regular distrust’ of ‘the sufficiency of sen- suous particulars’, unless eeckhout intends the questioning of the senses abstraction encourages before re-configuring perception. Such particulars become tokens of the imaginative space where an idealist poetic re-estab- lishes contact with ‘reality’. but eeckhout assumes these ‘sensuous partic- ulars’ belong to the illusory realm of what coleridge and Shelley call the ‘film of familiarity’, and that, by lauding abstraction, Stevens attempts to transcend an indulgent, physical world rather than seeing that realm as a Mallarmé asks: ‘Why should we perform the miracle by which a nat- ural object is almost made to disappear beneath the magic waving wand of the written word, if not to divorce that object from the direct and the but Stevens does not palpable, and so conjure up its essence in all purity? share Mallarmé’s desire to dispense entirely with habitual perception. his aim is not to transcend ‘the direct’ and ‘palpable’, but, through abstrac- tion, metamorphose our very sense of palpability. eeckhout’s reading of ‘landscape with boat’ attributes to Stevens a Mallarméan distrust of sen- suous particulars, perpetuating a tradition that ultimately opposes the abstract to the human. but from an idealist perspective, visual and sen- sual tokens are opportunities. a ‘yellow wine’ might initiate novel inter- action with life itself.

  What, then, characterizes Stevens’ idealist ‘i’? first, it is textually inva- sive, appearing frequently in small chunks of verse as well as dominating the poems in which it appears. Second, it is paradoxically non-subjective. for Stevens’ readers the ‘i’ forms a source of abstract attraction, almost a cipher upon which any desire may be projected. Stevens’ ‘i’ is thus an


emblem for the abstract imagination described here and earlier, a ‘self’ of

  aesthetic hypersensitivity to colour, sound, smell, touch and taste. although a first person, it allows Stevens to abstract himself from his own poem and to give his abstract ideas sensual reality through the aesthetic spaces the ‘i’ apparently creates (or to which it has access). Stevens’ ‘i’ invites readers into the poem not as quasi-creators of the poem itself – which david Walker 90 sees as being a component of the nominally ‘transparent lyric’ – but as an 91 Ibid., 183.

  134 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction emblem for the imagination which conjures the poem’s own meditations in hegel’s sense, the poet abstracts himself from his poem, but his readers turn the abstract ‘i’ of the poet’s imagination into the mediated spirit who establishes fresh contact with the world. although Stevens criticism has addressed the role of speakers, no although idealism has been discussed, this criticism has not focused on certainly, Stevens’ ‘i’ does not con- form to any precedent for lyric speakers in poetry written in english, and, contemporaneously, was alien to the new critical view of poetic voic- in fact, the poet’s idealist ‘i’, if it derives from romantic philosophy, is thoroughly Modernist; albeit more in line with Proust’s and Woolf’s altieri asserts that Modernism is ‘characterized by the gradual domin- ation of third-person over first-person terms’ in ‘understanding the psyche’ and conceiving ‘social relations’. Stevens’ ‘i’ paradoxically communicates ‘third-person’ concerns, transcending reduction to ‘first-person terms’ by creating the abstract space where readers reflect on imaginative possibil- ities. altieri ponders if ‘the lyric imagination’ could ‘assume a version of Stevens’ ‘i’ achieves this assumption precisely.

chapter 3 suggested that Stevensian terms beg for physical realiza-

  tion, noting how the poet’s ‘supreme fiction’ exerts a ‘physical’ hold over Stevens’ quotidian imagination. When he reports liking ‘rhine wine, blue grapes’ and ‘good cheese’ as much as ‘supreme fiction’, Stevens does not compartmentalize the abstract term as different in kind from these gastronomic items. if anything, insurance work requires putting ‘supreme fiction’, like the enjoyment of food and wine, temporarily ‘to one side’. 93 See david Walker, The Transparent Lyric: Reading and Meaning in the Poetry of Stevens and 94 Williams (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press,


See daniel Schwarz, Narrative and Representation in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (new York: St

95 Martin’s Press, , 7; vendler, Words Chosen Out of Desire, 15; eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 39.


See Kenneth burke, A Grammar of Motives (new York: Prentice-hall, , 224–6; Peterson,

Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition; Whiting, The Never-Resting Mind; Jennifer bates,

96 ‘Stevens, hegel, and the Palm at the end of the Mind’ WSJ 23., 152–66. 97 See brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry, liv.

to appreciate the distance between Stevens’ speaker and romantic selfhood, see Michael

o’neill, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (oxford: clarendon, 1997), xiii–xiv; and

leon Waldoff, Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation

98 (columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 8. 99 altieri, Painterly Abstraction, 333. valéry, Cahiers/Notebooks vol. i, 322.

  Abstract figures 135

  but Stevens’ sense of his profession affording him the possibility of living What is less obvious is how all these elements are

  The next chapter illustrates the importance of understanding Stevens’ gastronomic references as involving much more than the occasional reflec- tions of a gourmet, reading ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’ as a special case in which Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ speaks, before embarking on a longer The physical and sensual in Stevens are often the sites for the catalysis of his abstract imagination, and the tendency to oppose the sensual to the abstract denies readers insight into this aspect of Stevens’ work. The ‘mastery of life’, of which Stevens speaks later in his career, is explored in greater detail, along with his gastronomic aesthetic, i

chapter 7 . The next chapter begins by exploring how Stevens’

  idealist speaker thrives on the gourmet spirit that makes its poet a ‘spirit- 101 ual epicure’ in every sense of the phrase.


but Stevens also ruminated imaginatively on office life (see L, 776). in ‘Surety and fidelity

claims’ (1938) he commented of the ‘claim man’: ‘after twenty-five years or more […] he finds

it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles and comes almost to

believe that he and his papers constitute a single creature, consisting principally of hands and

102 eyes: lots of hands and lots of eyes’, CPP, 799.


Stevens wrote ironically to feo: ‘the […] valery which i read yesterday got mixed up with a

lot of rhine wine that i had for lunch and kept falling out of my hand. When i had finished i

thought it was a truly wonderful work and felt relieved that it was over […] either one of these

103 books with rhine wine or Moselle would be hard to improve on’ (L, 757).

frank lentricchia argues Stevens’ ‘good cheese’, rhine wine, grapes and books are ‘substitutes

for supreme fiction money can buy’, Ariel and the Police (Madison, Wi: University of Wisconsin


Press, , 228–9. They are not substitutes but inspirational, even symbolic, objects which play

an active role in Stevens’ quotidian imagination, where the humdrum and ‘sublime’ unite in

104 abstract meditation.

  L, 394.


cH a p t er 5

Abstract appetites: food, wine

and the idealist ‘I’

  5.1 ta s t i ng ‘c e rta i n pH e nom e na of sou n d’ (194 2) Stevens’ gastronomic references could inform an entire study in their own right. The elusive ‘lobster bombay’, mango chutney, burgundian wines (Meursault, le Montrachet, chablis, corton), champagne, persim- mons, pears, peaches, strawberries, even a glass of water: these are only some of the stimulants affecting Stevens’ literal and abstractive palate. gastronomy in Stevens often unites ‘high ideas’ with living, immediate pleasures. as the poet wrote to henry church: ‘being, as i think of it, is Such calculated flippancy is a reminder to Stevens’ more earnest heideggerian readers that ‘being’ was hardly the ‘be-all and end-all’ for this poet. numerous Stevens poems refer to bread and wine, where such staples imply imaginative and domestic well-being, whether present or disturb- following Santayana, Stevens gave the word ‘poverty’ a par- ticular resonance; sensing economic and imaginative hardships frequently domestic comforts thus take on aesthetic significance in the poetry, not least through gastronomy. That significance chimes with the argument i make for Stevensian abstraction: namely, that aesthetic medi- tation re-connects us with the world and that an abstract aesthetic poten- 1 tially maximizes its number of gourmet readers 2 See CPP, 347, 234–7; L, 682, 684, 761, 682, 393; CPP, 180, 206, 207, 181–2. 3 L, 453. 4 See CPP, 106–7, 142, 229, 246, 350 and 352.


See ibid., 8–9. Santayana argues that poetry ‘shakes us out of our servile speech and imaginative

poverty’ (Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 266). in a more abstract vein, he claims: ‘[t]he

superiority of the distant over the present is only due to the mass and variety of the pleasures that

can be suggested, compared with the poverty of those that can at any time be felt’ (The Sense of

5 Beauty, 68).

feo early pondered Stevens’ aesthetic love of wine (see brazeau, Parts of a World, 141). rehder

mentions the poet’s gourmandism, suggesting Stevens wrote poetry because the ‘feelings’ he nur-

  Abstract appetites 137

  Stevens no doubt delighted in Mauron’s claim that ‘[w]ithout the ori- ginality of artists our human world would lose half its taste’ (underlining the phrase in his personal copy). Stevens added a marginal note: ‘it is ori- ginality [that] enriches the world’, a comment indicating his conviction that poets, among other artists, should be the acknowledged legislators. Mauron’s notion that artworks arrest present sensation rather than imply- ing future action is also gastronomically expressed:


in ordinary life we sometimes pause […] before a tree […] or at a table even,

with a mouthful of wine, our attention concentrated wholly on the delicate black

savour […] rolling between the palate and the tongue. in such moments […] we

are all like artists, because instead of putting an end to the stimulus by a prompt

  The artist thus ‘transforms us, willy-nilly, into epicures’. Mauron finds the ‘bliss of gourmets’ to be coterminous with the pleasure artworks cre- Stevens undoubtedly enjoyed being a ‘spiritual epicure’ himself, and appreciated aesthetic suspense, underlining Mauron’s ‘Through our very he also wrote marginally of

  Mauron’s ‘epicures’: ‘and constitutes a stimulus, which we enjoy in its own sense, since it entails no reaching beyond the enjoyment of the sen- sation it provokes. Thus the basis of the aesthetic emotion is the aesthetic attitude; contemplation without any idea of making use of the object of like Stevens, Mauron understood the vitality ‘luxury’ can afford

  (Stevens underlining the first two sentences of the following):


biologically, human pleasure is a luxury […] a point in our curve above the per-

fect zero which represents absence of pain. art is part of this luxury. We add

aesthetic joys to our life as we add condiments to our soup, to give it a little more

  no doubt Stevens appreciated Mauron’s defence of the ‘luxury’ of abstraction, which appeals to ‘the domain of the senses’ precisely because like Stevens,


beneath the aesthetic values of poetry or painting. his imagination welcomed perceptual pleas-

6 ures whether or not they became pretexts for poetry. 7 Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 52, Stevens’ copy. 8 Ibid., 32. 9 Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 37, 46. 10 See L, 394.


Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 38, Stevens’ copy. Stevens also marked Mauron’s later com-

11 mentary on the artist’s ‘contemplative epicurism’, 105.

  138 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Mauron also opposed the ultimate abstraction critiqued in ‘landscape with boat’ because in a world without colour there can be neither sense nor feeling. Similarly, francis bacon criticized extreme abstraction for lacking this human element: ‘anything in art seems cruel because real- ity is cruel. Perhaps that’s why so many people like abstraction in art, as Klee observed ambivalently of a landscape in one of his bauhaus lectures: ‘it is still too hard […] to stay alive in such abstractions and not to forget entirely the bridge that carries from natural rhythm to its precise representation’. robert Motherwell, in another book Stevens owned, went further:


a weakness of modernist painting nowadays […] is inherent in taking over or

inventing ‘abstract’ forms insufficiently rooted in the concrete, in the world

of feeling where art originates, and of which modern french poetry is an


  but in a poetic that can abstract feeling, reality, cruelty and the inher- ent luxury of ‘pleasure’ multiple emotions may be encompassed. Stevens learnt as much from Mallarmé, and perhaps, as Motherwell’s comparison invites, from valéry too. admittedly, Stevens is accused of writing without feeling. Some read- ers ponder, with berryman, whether there was ‘something […] not there in his flourishing art’. r. S. Thomas’ ambivalent ‘Wallace Stevens’ also observes:

There was no spring in his world.

  his one season was late fall; The self ripe, but without taste.

  but Stevens’ poetry does encourage readers to taste, imagine, create and re-create through abstract discovery. as Kermode insists: ‘There is a poetry of the abstract; if you do not like it, even when it is firmly rooted 13 in the particulars of the world, you will not like Stevens. Stevens could 14 Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 200.


Paul Klee, Paul Klee: Dokumente und Bilder aus den Jahren 1896–1930 (bern: verlag benteli,

), 11, Stevens’ copy. i am grateful to bart eeckhout for his translation. for Klee’s influence

15 on Stevens, see CPP, 750 an .

robert Motherwell, ‘Prefatory notice’ in Marcel raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (new

York: Wittenborn, Schultz, ), unpaginated. Stevens refers to this work in ‘The relations

between Poetry and Painting’ (CPP, 749). he is mentioned in text by harold rosenberg as

one of the poets following the first World War who had been ‘enthusiastically frenchified’

16 (unpaginated). 17 John berryman, ‘So long? Stevens’ in The Dream Songs (london: faber, , 238.

  Abstract appetites 139

  never be a ‘personal’ poet, if by ‘personal’ we imagine the naïve read- erly response of abstracting for ourselves the precise depths of the poet’s ‘ personality’. rather, Stevens’ poems invite readers into the celebratory, festive imagination those texts themselves evoke and re-create incessantly. as blackmur observes, Stevens’ verse ‘does not so much record sensibility, it creates it, adds to it; it is part of the regular everlasting job of making over again the absolute content of sensibility’. Stevens indirectly defended this idea by underlining Mauron’s obser- vation that artists ‘have reached this point of detachment and tenderness through pure sensibility – their perception of differences’. in a revealing marginal comment, Stevens explicitly links the epicure’s delight in sus- pension with the world of taste in all senses: ‘Just as the artist is immobile before nature, so he is immobile before his own nature, at least enough so to control it: not wholly merely to live his state of mind, nor wholly merely to pause and taste it’. This is a tension we find repeatedly in the abstract gestures Stevens’ own poems and letters make. gastronomic and aesthetic meditation also combine in several poems where Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ predominates. ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’ is the best example, but the less well-known ‘anything is beautiful if You Say it is’, ‘The news and the Weather’ and ‘holiday in reality’ are close aesthetic ‘characters’ in Stevens, often seated at café tables, also symbolize the pleasures of imagining abstractly. as

chapter 6 argues,

  when Stevens jettisoned an explicit abstract vocabulary his verse still retained abstract aspects in poems where figures meditate or consume. My interest in ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’, however, is to show how Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ behaves. but i will also observe how sound, gastron- omy and narrative affect this first person’s textual behaviour.

  ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’ teems with images of sound: The cricket in the telephone is still.

  a geranium withers on the window-sill. cat’s milk is dry in the saucer. Sunday song comes from the beating of the locust’s wings, That do not beat by pain, but calendar, nor meditate the world as it goes round.

  Someone has left for a ride in a balloon 19 or in a bubble examines the bubble of air. 20 blackmur, ‘Poetry and Sensibility’, 271. 21 Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 51, Stevens’ copy. 22

  140 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  The room is emptier than nothingness. Yet a spider spins in the left shoe under the bed – and old John rocket dozes on his pillow. it is safe to sleep to a sound that time brings back.

  (CPP, 255–6)

  Several images communicate how silence contextualizes sound. Just as peace and quiet aid listening, the chances of hearing the ‘cricket in the telephone’ are paradoxically enhanced if it is ‘still’. in a ‘bubble of air’ or room ‘emptier than nothingness’ the possibility of hearing the infinitesimal sound of the ‘spider’ that ‘spins in the left shoe under the bed’ is likewise enhanced. The specificity of ‘left shoe’ helps us imagine an ear sensitive enough to locate the exact space where the spider spins.

  Such imaginative activity enables sounds inaudible or from the past to be ‘heard’. ‘old John rocket’ is antiquated or derives from a narrative concerning the past. Stevens imagines him dozing on his pillow, and this ‘sound’ comforts the imagined sleeper of the poem’s ‘present’. if ‘[i]t is safe to sleep to a sound that time brings back’ we actively imagine the sound of ‘old John rocket’ asleep. an abstract imagination ‘hears’ sounds either dead to the world or inaudible, which partly accounts, paradoxically, for the poem’s later concern with vision. Stevens’ imagination acts out that synaesthesia where what we see is what we hear, where we ‘visualize’ what is otherwise thought inaudible.

  Section ii turns from impersonal ‘narrative’ to a conversational register:

  So you’re home again, redwood roamer, and ready to feast… Slice the mango, naaman, and dress it With white wine, sugar and lime juice. Then bring it, after we’ve drunk the Moselle, to the thickest shade of the garden. We must prepare to hear the roamer’s Story…

  (CPP, 256)

  here, leisured consumption – Moselle and dressed mango – contextual- izes a compelling narrative, as does reposing in the protective ‘thickest shade of the garden’; just as, in ‘notes’, ‘lobster bombay’ and Meursault 24 are preludes to the canon aspirin’s meditation on his sisterStevens’

  Abstract appetites 141

  ellipses accentuate the delight in preparing to hear the story the poem merely suggests, as we infer the experience of preparing to hear the ‘roamer’s Story’. but ‘certain Phenomena’ reverts to its initial abstract meditation on sound:

  … The sound of that slick sonata, finding its way from the house, makes music seem to be a nature, a place in which itself is that which produces everything else, in which The roamer is a voice taller than the redwoods, engaged in the most prolific narrative, a sound producing the things that are spoken.

  (CPP, 256)

  This ‘place’, where ‘The roamer is a voice taller than the redwoods’, defines the very abstraction in which Stevens specializes. Music does not convey what ‘nature’ is. rather, sound and music ‘seem / to be a nature’. The roamer’s voice is a ‘sound producing the things that are spoken’. although this is literally true, Stevens also implies the voice creates these ‘things’, the meanings they possess. What The roamer’s narrative conveys is proof-positive that the human imagination creates its world.

  ‘certain Phenomena’ iii, however, features an idealist ‘i’ who seem- ingly ingratiates the reader into sympathy with the very philosophy and spirit of the poem itself:

  eulalia, i lounged on the hospital porch, on the east, sister and nun, and opened wide a parasol, which i had found, against The sun. The interior of a parasol, it is a kind of blank in which one sees. So seeing, i beheld you walking, white, gold-shined by sun, perceiving as i saw That of that light eulalia was the name. Then i, Semiramide, dark-syllabled, contrasting our two names, considered speech. You were created of your name, the word is that of which you were the personage. There is no life except in the word of it. i write Semiramide and in the script i am and have a being and play a part. You are that white eulalia of the name.

  (CPP, 256–7)

  142 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction in so sound-obsessed a poem, these visual themes are striking. eulalia’s appearance justifies and is informed by the ‘light’ of her name. St eulalia is the Spanish patron saint of rain, miscarriages, torture victims and sail- ors. That Stevens’ eulalia is bedecked in sunlight seems tongue-in-cheek. but Stevens knows eulalia, as martyr, can represent any article of pious devotion. Stevens’ ‘i’ views eulalia through a ‘blank’. The speaker’s para- sol becomes ‘an interior’, and if the ‘interior of a parasol’ is ‘a kind of blank in which one sees’ then Stevens’ ‘i’ embraces indirect vision. Just as, earlier in the poem, the very absence of sound invites ‘listening’, this ‘blank’ enables Stevens’ speaker to see eulalia. The idealist ‘i’ conjures images for the very act of mind through which Stevens’ poems derive.

  The aim is not to create a speaker who explains what it means to cre- ate eulalia, but to evoke the process in which eulalia is created by an imaginative voice.

  What complicates this imagery is another name: ‘Semiramide’. Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ does not usually assume personae. but, conventionally speak- ing, the speaker is not Semiramide. Written words contrast with the cur- rency of names here as names become privileged over textual nomination. ‘Semiramide’ is the eponymous queen of rossini’s tragic opera. but to appropriate her name is simply to play a part: ‘i write Semiramide and in the script / i am and have a being and play a part’. That ‘Semiramide’ is italicized accentuates her textual nature. eulalia, by contrast, is, beguil- ingly, the thing itself. She is credited as being ‘that white eulalia of the but it is Stevens’ genderless speaker who, in appropriating diction, creates eulalia’s significance. The speaker innocuously claims: ‘i beheld you walking, white, / gold-shined by sun, perceiving as i saw / That of that light eulalia was the name’. beholding constitutes visual acquisition, deriving from the old english bihaldan (‘to keep’). Perceiving, likewise, derives from the latin capere (‘to take’). eulalia does not so much inspire this mysterious ‘i’ as gain her inspiration from Stevens’ speaker.

  ‘certain Phenomena’ involves multiple changes of tone: moving from impersonal narrative, to a first-person plural conversational register (revert- ing to impersonal reflection in section ii), before mounting a first-person ‘lyric’. The poem seemingly gestures toward the realization of its ‘i’: the speaker self-identified seven times in section iii alone. but the poem’s close hardly constitutes conventional lyric. recalling altieri, the poem’s 25 lyrical ‘i’ assumes the authority of ‘third-person terms’, representing not

  Abstract appetites 143

  a subjective but an interpersonal space. certainly, the speaker does not refer to itself self-consciously (this ‘i’ never says ‘my’). it is, rather, the textually invasive speaker Stevens’ early 1940s poetry adopts, who disap- pears from the corpus around 1945 once Stevens dispatches an explicit abstract vocabulary. but i want next to turn to ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, perhaps the most elusive poem exhibiting Stevens’ marriage of gastronomic and abstract concerns. following analysis of this pivotal long poem, i briefly outline what should be carried over to

   ’s discussion of Stevens’ re-cast- ing of his overtly abstract 1942 idiom.

  5.2 H a rt for d bou rgu ignon: ‘mon t r acH e t-l e-Ja r di n’ C Y M B E L I N E (194 2) a n d ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ was published in early 1942 in Partisan Review.

  Stevens’ poem appeared alongside victor Serge’s ‘on The eve’ (a graphic account of the humiliation of the french under nazi occupation) and ‘on The “brooks-Macleish Thesis”’, a heated dismissal of van Wyck brooks and archibald Macleish’s nationalist call for a patriotic, pref- ‘on The “brooks-

  Macleish Thesis”’ involved condemnation from allen tate, John crowe ransom, louise bogan, lionel trilling, William carlos Williams and henry Miller. Stevens’ poem thus occupied a milieu debating the direc- tion literature should take only three months after Pearl harbor and US entry to the Second World War.

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ does not speak directly to that conflict, with regard to either the occupation or american involvement. however, like ‘esthétique du Mal’, the poem confronts an increasingly disturbing world (‘the x malisons of other men’); speculates – like many other Parts of a


World poems – on the figure of the hero (‘Man must become the hero

  of his world’); and is preoccupied with appropriating spaces (‘of terra Paradise / i dreamed’) or existing at the mercy of occupying influences (‘consider how the speechless, invisible gods / ruled us before, from although ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ is not concerned with

  ‘war literature’, it is representative in the sense, albeit vague, expounded by Partisan Review’s editors: ‘our main task now is to preserve cultural values against all types of pressure and coercion. obviously we can- not even speak of the survival of democratic civilization apart from the

  144 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction survival of our entire cultural tradition. Stevens would never write the war poetry of Shapiro, Jarrell or douglas, just as he refrained from the but, as i have argued elsewhere, this demanding poem, with its engaging french title, must have appealed symbolically to Partisan Review’s editors, especially to their belief that literature under war should be as challenging as ever, initially, ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ appears far from partisan. Yet it emerges as a ‘pro-french’ poem retaining the poetic advantage of saying My analysis here focuses on Stevens’ favour- ite french wine region, burgundy, discussing the place of Stevens’ title in a poem that eroticizes imaginative terrains and plays with vinous allu- sion. although i have previously discussed the poem’s portrayal of love, i return here to Stevens’ ingenious allusion to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, one illuminating how ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ shares that play’s taste for if the shape-changing of the


amour characterizes the imaginative work of this ‘francophile’ poem, its

  Protean subtlety resides in appearing to wrest a piece of france and pro- ject it into Stevens’ own backyard: an abstract appropriation implicit in the poem’s very title. few discussions of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ have considered the rela- tionship between the poem and its title, perhaps because, unlike those of Stevens’ other ‘francophile’ poems, this particular title remains coy, refusing to invite a ‘manner’ of reading. ‘le Monocle de Mon oncle’ ironizes ‘men at forty’, themselves prone to irony; ‘esthétique du Mal’ The title ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, however, does not offer explicit clues as to how to read a poem which itself forges no sustained relationship with 29 france. The closest it gets is the ‘chateaux’ of stanza twenty-six, combined 30 Partisan Review 9.1 (1942), 2.


his distaste for Macleish was, however, aired to James Thrall Soby (see brazeau, Parts of a

31 World, 119). 32 See ragg, ‘love, Wine, desire’, 183–209.

longenbach suggests Stevens’ early 1940s abstract writing marks ‘not a retreat from the pol-

itical content of the social realism of the 1930s’ but ‘a rebellion against the coercive demand

of ideological explicitness’ and ‘an assertion of internationalist values’ (Wallace Stevens, 253).

The ‘internationalist’ ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ may indirectly represent an aesthetic corrective to

33 ‘brooks-Macleish’.


See ragg, ‘love, Wine, desire’. for love, desire and erotic attention, see vendler, Wallace Stevens

and barbara M. fisher, Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous (charlottesville, va: University

  Abstract appetites 145

  with the franco-derived ‘lascive’, ‘malisons’, ‘friseured’ and ‘demoi- in fact, one might think ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ entirely fictional, an invented place-name (or other proper noun) with only a passing, even eccentric, relationship with france. but ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ does evoke burgundy and the shadow of occupation. le Montrachet is a grand cru vineyard situated in the heart of burgundy’s côte de beaune. Planted with some of the world’s most prized chardonnay, it is shared geographically between the villages of Puligny-Montrachet and chassagne-Montrachet. vineyard site, however, takes precedence over village name. Thus, ‘le Montrachet’ is typically prominent on the labels of wines made from this grand cru appellation. indeed, the names of many burgundian villages are double-barrelled to reflect their associations with particular grands crus. gevrey-chambertin signals its proximity to le chambertin (the vineyard napoleon allegedly had his troops salute), chambolle-Musigny appropriates le Musigny, and vosne-romanée incorporates the famous vineyard of la romanée.

  The case of le Montrachet is unusual, however, because it is claimed by competing villages: Puligny-Montrachet and chassagne-Montrachet (until the late nineteenth century called Puligny and chassagne). The name is also etymologically compelling, mont rachet meaning ‘shaven mountain’. le Montrachet was originally known as Mons rachicensis (‘uncultivated hill’) and, by the thirteenth century, as Mont-Rachat (‘bare its gentle slope is complexly ori- ented, but no mountain. The noun ‘Montrachet’ is also infectious because the other grands crus associated with these two villages likewise hyphen- ate to raise status: as in chevalier-Montrachet, bâtard-Montrachet, bienvenues-bâtard-Montrachet and criots-bâtard-Montrachet.

  Bâtard (‘bastard’) signifies much about burgundian culture as well as

  forging a relationship with Stevens’ poem. burgundy’s vineyards are subdi- vided geographically, qualitatively and proprietarily. for example, bâtard- Montrachet is not as cherished as le Montrachet, although in practice the quality of wines deriving from each grand cru depends more on standards of viticulture and winemaking than terroir (the variously defined french term conveying the unique aspects of a vineyard’s locale). hundreds of different climats, each with its own terroir, are further subdivided propri- 35 etarily, a legacy of napoleonic inheritance law which stipulated assets be 36 Ibid., 235–6.

  146 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction divided equally among offspring. The situation is reflected in the names of burgundian domaines today, along with the advantages of inter marriage between families. Thus chassagne-Montrachet boasts the domaines of fontaine-gagnard, gagnard-delagrange and Jean-noël gagnard as well as albert Morey, bernard Morey, Jean-Marc Morey, Marc Morey (et fils!), and Michel Morey-coffinet. historically speaking, then, legitimacy was

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ echoes this phenomenon in the lines ‘bastard chateaux and smoky demoiselles, / no more. i can build towers of my in this covert allusion to a ‘bastardized’ Montrachet (perhaps even bâtard-Montrachet), the ‘smoky demoiselles’ evoke a particular burgundian site, ‘les demoiselles’ being a part of chevalier-Montrachet. a ‘demoiselle’ is an unmarried bourgeois woman. The word appears in Stevens’ copy of Dictionary of the French and English Languages (1876), sig- nifying a ‘young lady; girl; unmarried or single lady, single woman; maid;

  The subplot ‘les demoiselles’ was owned, during the 1880s, by the two in a poem preoccupied, therefore, with occupying and ‘owning’ spaces – be they actual locales or abstractions of desire – Stevens’ title assumes a canny resonance. but what about that title’s hyphenation, Stevens’ inversion of ‘le

  Montrachet’ and the ‘lower key’ tag jardin? There is no site in burgundy called ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’. There is a parcel of vines around Puligny- Montrachet known as ‘le Jardin’, but this is not officially recognized and does not appear on wine labels or regional maps. it is, therefore, unlikely Stevens knew of the ‘le Jardin’ vines (even supposing they were called ‘le Jardin’ in the early 1940s). instead, Stevens follows the burgundian habit of raising status by stressing proximity to a valuable locale, as though the garden of 118 Westerly terrace presented everything le Montrachet could offer the poet as armchair imaginative traveller.

  Stevens probably read of le Montrachet in his copy of Paul de cassagnac’s

  French Wines 37 or in a slim brochure entitled The Wines of France which

See rigaux, Burgundy Grands Crus; anthony hanson, Burgundy (london: faber, ; and

38 Jancis robinson, ed., The Oxford Companion to Wine (oxford: oxford University Press, ). 39 CPP, 236.

ferdinand e. a. gasc, Dictionary of the French and English Languages (new York: holt, ),

  Abstract appetites 147

   cover features a painting depicting dining tables, serving girls (demoiselles?), chefs and chateaux, whilst the back comprises an artist’s ‘vinous map’ of france marking burgundy and the Moselle region of ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’. The map is inaccurate, particularly with burgundy’s sub-regions, but together these depictions constitute a ‘bourgeois fantasy’ of france. bernard ragner, the brochure’s author, was editor of the Chicago Tribune’s european edition from 1925 to 1929, and, writing of burgundy’s grands crus, mentions ‘Montrachet’, observing ‘each name [is] a glorious reality, also a significant symbol’. ragner also notes how the côte d’or region and its wines have been prey to occupying forces: ‘caesar’s legions drank them, and appreciated them; so did the american expeditionary forces when ragner’s comments cannot be dated exactly. but in choosing

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ for a title Stevens perhaps implied that, in the harsh climate of war, one must, as Candide concludes, cultivate a garden (‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’). as voltaire’s tale shows, life only comes to have lasting value when candide and his companions follow the example of the cultivated turk whose labour protects him and his family from the alarming political developments of constantinople. Stevens cer- tainly associated voltaire with freedom of action and expression. Writing to barbara church about Partisan Review backer allan dowling’s social- ist politics – note how that magazine surfaces again – Stevens speculated on the emergent cold War ideologies placing ‘freedom’ at a beguiling premium: ‘The total freedom that now endangers us has never existed

  Stevens’ allusion follows dr Pangloss’ words to candide:


There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not

been turned out of a beautiful mansion at the point of a jackboot for the love of

lady cunégonde, and if you had not been involved in the inquisition, and had

not wandered over america on foot […] you would not be here eating candied

41 fruit and pistachio nuts.


Paul de cassagnac, French Wines trans. guy Knowles (london: chatto and Windus, ;

bernard ragner, The Wines of France (publication unknown) as found inside Stevens’

copy of Selwyn gurney champion, Racial Proverbs: A Selection of the World’s Proverbs

42 (london: routledge 43 ragner, The Wines of France, unpaginated. 44 See voltaire, Candide trans. Shane Weller (new York: dover, 166. 45 voltaire, Candide; or Optimism trans. John butt (harmondsworth: Penguin, ), 142 ff.

  148 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction candide partially acknowledges Pangloss’ argument, but ventures, ‘but we must go and work in the garden’. The relationship between honest endeavour and ‘this best of all possible worlds’ marks an acceptance of ‘things as they are’, an argument Stevens partially acknowledges in his ‘notwithstanding voltaire and so on’. but, although the jardin of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ only echoes Candide, Pangloss’ words eerily evoke occupied france, where evictions from mansions ‘at the point of a jack- boot’ were common. That said, the above translation dates from 1947, so it is unsurprising its translator rendered Candide in an idiom attractive to a post-war readership: a tale meditating upon warfare, misery, depravity and unmerited fortune(s).

  That voltaire’s tale does respond to contemporary interpretation, how- ever, follows the spirit of Stevens’ echo. ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ under- stands the privilege of having the freedom to eat ‘candied fruit and pistachio nuts’, appreciating how that pleasure is partly informed by the labour preceding and succeeding the relative leisure of consumption (a poin

  discusses with regard to Stevens’ bourgeois abstractions).

  as the poem suggests, we may say ‘amen to our accustomed cell’ – accept- ing a Panglossian ‘chain of events’ – while also desiring a world of ‘respon-


sive fact’ in dialogue with the freedom of our imaginations, the freedom

  Whatever ‘voltaire’ suggests, Stevens’ ‘Jardin’ does echo occupied france. Maintaining france’s vineyards in war-time was a matter of national pride, and the practice of bricking up cellars to conceal presti- gious bottles from the nazis commonplace, especially in burgundy. admittedly, Stevens’ poem, unlike ‘certain Phenomena of Sound’, lacks a garden. The ‘persona’ who conceives a ‘terra Paradise’ finds that fireside meditation ironically deflated: ‘i affirm and then at midnight the great cat / leaps quickly from the fireside and is gone’ – a resignation similar, if less plaintive, to Yeats’ ‘lines Written in dejection’: ‘When have i last looked tevens’ idealist ‘i’ finds no space in this poem. however, the human delight in cultivating gardens clearly captures ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, as jardin proves nonetheless evocative.

  Stevens’ inversion of ‘le Montrachet’ also slackens the article ‘le’, 47 rather than affirming the Montrachet distinct from its related vineyards. 48 CPP, 235, 237.


See don and Petie Kladstrup, Wine and War: the French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s

  Abstract appetites 149

  in ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ that article applies equally to ‘Jardin’, the gar- den in which Montrachet might be absorbed (unless the phrase signifies ‘le Jardin de Montrachet’, where the garden is subset to le Montrachet). Perhaps Stevens’ hyphenation involves two-way travel between garden and vineyard, neither subsuming the other but becoming parts of a larger, metaphorical whole. certainly, the cachet of ‘Montrachet’ persists, as if Stevens were harnessing its etymology: acquiring his own ‘shaving’ from the ‘mountain’ and transplanting it home, grafting that space on to his imaginative roots or projecting those roots on to le Montrachet.

  The Collected Poetry and Prose should, therefore, retain ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’ (as it appears in Partisan Review) rather than adopt ‘Montrachet- le-Jardin’. Kermode and richardson note: ‘The present volume prints the text of the first printing of the Knopf edition [of Parts of a World]’ and that printing does have ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ in its contents with the nevertheless, the article ‘le’ should remain capitalized because of the poem’s osten- sible relationship with le Montrachet (unless one argues ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’ deliberately attenuates the cultural dominance of the french site).

  More problematic is the editors’ gloss: ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin] a white no wine of this name exists and it is highly unlikely Stevens ever found one. The poet did, however, cultivate an interest in wine and owned two significant gastronomic titles: the aforementioned French


French Wines is more relevant here. but one can imagine Stevens relishing

  fleming’s text, which features numerous international dishes including recipes for curried lobster and mango chutney (although ‘lobster bombay’

  French Wines addresses ‘the gourmet who is seeking theoretical and

  practical information’, ‘the frenchman who loves the treasures of his cassagnac discusses the gourmet and connoisseur which doubtless appealed to the poet of ‘connoisseur of chaos’, another vinous piece from Parts of a World (‘a law of inherent opposites, / of essential unity, is 50 as pleasant as port’): 51 CPP, 972. i am grateful to Jonathan Strange for confirming this. 52 Ibid., 1001. 53 Moynihan, ‘checklist: Second Purchase’, 83, 86.


atherton fleming, Gourmet’s Book of Food and Drink (london: John lane, ), 103, 106. See

  150 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


The real connaisseur uses without misusing and remains moderate in his pleas-

ures – a moderation all the more praiseworthy because of the occasional temp-

tation to overstep it: his love of wine is based on the pure aesthetic appreciation

  cassagnac’s connoisseurship extends to literature, venturing analogies between wine and poetry:


take, for example, Margaux 1900. a magnificent bottle of wine without a fault.

but it fails to sweep us […] to those giddy heights to which […] that same

Margaux, but an 1875, lifts the admiration of the connaisseur. an exact parallel

is the difference between a work of art executed classically and a masterpiece;

or a poem, the prosody of whose verses is perfect, and an inspired poem, abbé

  if Stevens lacked firsthand experience of château Margaux, cassagnac’s writing probably captured his imagination, particularly through vicari- ous wayfaring: ‘Jump into your car and start from Paris for the south, pottering along the road. as soon as you reach olivet you’ll find the vine- This narrative quality would have attracted Stevens as much as a letter or objet d’art from Thomas Mcgreevy, leonard van geyzel, ebba dalin, or anatole or Paule vidal. although obviously not ‘personally’ addressed to Stevens, cassagnac’s writing would have piqued the poet’s interest: ‘You stopped to lunch, tea, and dinner at good inns or at friends’ houses: you got out of your car to admire and examine the vineyards: you asked for information on […] the methods of culture and cassagnac also reveals how early twentieth-century burgundy took shape, mentions ‘Montrachet’ frequently and explains burgundy’s double- barrelled names (‘There is no doubt that gevrey would be unknown he describes the subdivision of burgundy’s vineyards and discusses the problem of poorly made, even adulterated wines, appropriating prestigious names as misleading indices When cassagnac was translated, burgundies were not, as they often are today, domaine-bottled, which enabled négociants, and even foreign merchants, to blend wines at their discretion. in short, there was no guarantee a bottle labelled ‘le Montrachet’ contained any wine from that vineyard. before the implementation of the mid-1930s appellation 55 contrôlée system, what was an authentic burgundy was anybody’s guess. 56 57 CPP, 195; cassagnac, French Wines, 6. cassagnac, French Wines, 27. 58 59

  Abstract appetites 151

  Stevens’ title speculates, therefore, on the legitimacy and authenticity of names, not least in its deft allusion to Cymbeline. it could be objected that whilst Stevens owned French Wines he rarely consulted it, let alone became acquainted with burgundy. but i am not arguing that Stevens relied on cassagnac in composing ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’. Moreover, Stevens’ writing amply demonstrates his appreciation of wine, burgundy especially. cassagnac’s work also chimes with Mauron’s


Aesthetics and Psychology, a work likewise blending gastro-aesthetic con-

  cerns. take canto v of ‘It Must Give Pleasure’:

  We drank Meursault, ate lobster bombay with mango chutney. Then the canon aspirin declaimed of his sister, in what a sensible ecstasy She lived in her house. She had two daughters, one of four, and one of seven, whom she dressed The way a painter of pauvred color paints. but still she painted them, appropriate to Their poverty […]

  (CPP, 347)

  Meursault is another famous burgundian village not far from Puligny and chassagne-Montrachet. as gastronomic token, the wine reflects the contrast between leisured consumption and the tougher search for what ‘gives pleasure’, not least for the canon aspirin’s sister (does the canon require aspirin following overindulgence?). The canto focuses the rela- tionship between aesthetic and gustatory pleasures. indeed, for Stevens, cassagnac and Mauron, gastronomy and literature form parts of a larger aesthetic whole. Significantly, it is having eaten that the canon medi- tates upon his sister’s poverty, which, in turn, prompts further artistic speculation: ‘The canon aspirin, having said these things, / reflected, humming an outline of a fugue / of praise, a conjugation done by for Stevens, material conditions have a stake in imaginative freedom and vice versa, as his comments on voltaire suggest.

  Stevens’ correspondence also refers to burgundy. following a trip to new York, he wrote:


Since i had a car i brought home a load of mangoes, fresh apricots, the outsized

cherries that i like, a little chablis and a little Meursault […] This last always

seems the coldest thing in the world on a hot day in the garden where i like to

  152 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Stevens’ passion for consuming Meursault in an undisturbed garden space suggests how the title ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ proved inspiring (nor was this an isolated incident). The freedom to enjoy, or imagine enjoying, he even worried about

  ‘the mania of Marxism’, affirming: ‘[w]eather or no weather, people still lunch on the terraces of Paris and drink chablis’. indeed, Stevens’ know- ledge of burgundy was sufficiently advanced that when nelly de vogüé, daughter of the comte de vogüé (owner of the eponymous domaine in chambolle-Musigny), came to america to establish a literary magazine in the early 1950s, he wrote to barbara church about the matter, mentioning to José rodríguez feo that he associated ‘the name of de vogüé either with the revue des deux Mondes or with a moderately good burgundy’.

  Meditation upon wine and especially love, as the epigraph to

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, composed a few months earlier, opens with its own apostrophe:

  What more is there to love than i have loved? and if there be nothing more, o bright, o bright, The chick, the chidder-barn and grassy chives and great moon, cricket-impresario, and, hoy, the impopulous purple-plated past, hoy, hoy, the blue bulls kneeling down to rest. chome! clicks the clock, if there be nothing more.

  (CPP, 234)

  The poem ironically gestures to the creation (or discovery) of something ‘to love’, but teeters on naming its beloved, just as it seemingly shies from directly naming bâtard-Montrachet or les demoiselles. ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’ thus contrasts significantly with ‘notes’ (especially its epigraph). The rhetorical question opening ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ both is desirous and feigns world-weariness: asking, literally, ‘is there more for me to love than i have loved?’ and resolving, ironically, ‘can there really be more to love than i have loved?’ Stevens’ giddy ‘hoy, hoy’ and ironic ‘o bright, o bright’ perhaps outweigh the literal question, and there is mock-finality in ‘chome! clicks the clock’: time is up or passing. by contrast, ‘notes’ feels the presence of a beloved and names that love, even if its object remains 63 an abstract ‘supreme fiction’. ‘notes’ is also the poem heralding the largest 64 65 66 See ibid., 512. See ibid., 684. Ibid., 687.

  Abstract appetites 153

  glut of Stevensian names: a nomenclature for the poet’s mid-career trum- peting of abstraction. certainly, ‘notes’ pivots on a tension between naming and resisting nomination:

  but Phoebus was a name for something that never could be named.

  There was a project for the sun and is. There is a project for the sun. The sun Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be in the difficulty of what it is to be.

  (CPP, 329–30)

  The word ‘flourisher’ echoes ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, Stevens using the word only twice in the Collected Poems however, ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’ considers ‘something’ to love which proves even harder to locate than a ‘supreme fiction’, a ‘something more’ that is unnameable:

  but if, but if there be something more to love, Something in now a senseless syllable, a shadow in the mind, a flourisher of sounds resembling sounds, efflorisant, approaching the feelings or come down from them, These other shadows, not in the mind, players of aphonies, tuned in from zero and beyond, futura’s fuddle-fiddling lumps, but if there be something more to love, amen, amen to the feelings about familiar things, The blessed regal dropped in daggers’ dew, amen to thought, our singular skeleton, Salt-flicker, amen to our accustomed cell, The moonlight in the cell, words on the wall.

  (CPP, 234–5)

  Stevens’ anaphora (‘but if, but if’) – contrasting with ‘o bright, o bright’ – accentuates a significant synaesthesia. The poem favours something in a ‘senseless syllable’, an abstract ‘shadow in the mind’, recalling Stevens’ extensive play on the centrality of mind in ‘extracts from addresses to the academy of fine ideas’ but that shadow, ‘a flourisher’, has a sonorous base (‘of sounds resembling sounds’). Moreover, the paronomastic ‘efflo- risant’ (resembling ‘flourisher’) offers another visual dimension, following

  154 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction the sonorous ‘shadow’, because ‘efflorisant’ is a french-sounding adjec- tive aping the english ‘effloresce’: to burst into flower (the english being ‘efflorescent’).

  ‘efflorisant’ also evokes the ‘[s]alt-flicker’ of Stevens’ ‘singular skeleton’ – the figure for ‘thought’ the poem explores – as ‘efflorescence’, chemically speaking, denotes the crystallization of salts. Those spatial lines where Stevens’ ‘sounds’ are ‘[a]pproaching the feelings or come down from them’ mimic emotion becoming crystallized. The OED defines ‘effloresce’ in markedly spatial language: ‘(chem., of crystalline substance) turn to fine powder on exposure to air, (of salts) come to the surface and there crystal- lize, (of ground or wall) become covered with salt particles.’ Stevens adds, therefore, a saline dimension to the crystalline pronouncements of Parts


of a World and ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’, among other 1940s

  poems (observe the frequency of ‘crystal’, ‘diamond’ and ‘glass’ during

  ‘but if there be something more to love’: the anaphora is punctu- ated only by Stevens’ ‘amen’, a competing anaphora designed to assuage those doubts about ‘other shadows’ arising in stanza five. The poem is performative, grammatically silencing the clause beginning ‘These other shadows, not in the mind, players / of aphonies’. Stevens displays his early penchant for ‘dramatic’ unresolved subordinate clauses (from ‘The This is ironic because ‘aphony’ is precisely a loss or lack of voice, as if Stevens’ poem were giving voice to a voiceless threat that must itself be silenced. The poem suggests a crystallization of feeling where the unwieldy nuisance of ‘futura’s fuddle-fiddling lumps’ is prevented from interrupting that incantatory ‘amen’.

  The relationship between ‘amen’ and ‘futura’s fuddle-fiddling lumps’ appears textual. futura is a sans-serif typeface similar to arial or century gothic (both deriving from futura). Sans-serif type lacks the curls and squiggles that make body text easy to read and is, therefore, especially suitable for titles or headlines. These cold, futuristic ‘lumps’ – abso- lute blocks ‘tuned in from zero and / beyond’ – assume little weight as ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ lauds more ‘familiar things’. but Stevens remains playful because one such familiarity is the mock-tragic: the quasi-Shake- spearean ‘blessed regal dropped in daggers’ dew’. nevertheless, the poem also marks an acceptance of our mortal coil

  (‘amen to our accustomed cell’), albeit tempered by ‘thought’, the ‘singular

  Abstract appetites 155

  skeleton’ who bolsters the fragile skeleton within. Stevens’ making a typo- graphical allusion is unusual, but not surprising given his attention to his alcestis and cummington books. The unwieldy ‘futura’ also suggests the tension described in

chapter 3 between palpable physicality and abstrac-

  tion. Those ‘fuddle-fiddling lumps’ are unlikely objects of love. certainly, they lack the inspiration of Stevens’ ‘words on the wall’ which transform the confined ‘prisoner’ of stanza eight who, for all his confinement, is delivered by ‘thought’, by imaginative meditation. but ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ turns the prisoner’s cell – his literal cham- ber and body – into a site where an impalpable ‘murmuring’ becomes

  physical, becomes ‘a throat’, or speaking organ: to-night, night’s undeciphered murmuring comes close to the prisoner’s ear, becomes a throat The hand can touch, neither green bronze nor marble, The hero’s throat in which the words are spoken, from which the chant comes close upon the ear, out of the hero’s being, the deliverer delivering the prisoner by his words, So that the skeleton in the moonlight sings, Sings of an heroic world beyond the cell, no, not believing, but to make the cell a hero’s world in which he is the hero. Man must become the hero of his world.

  (CPP, 235)

  These lines continue a debate in Stevens’ early 1940s poetry between being and belief, between the ‘actual’ and the ‘rhetorical’ spirit actuating belief. ‘examination of the hero in a time of War’ resolves: ‘The hero / acts in reality, adds nothing / to what he does […] it is a part of his concep- but a rhetoric of belief eas- ily substitutes for the hero’s ‘conception’ which only betrays the distance between conception and ‘reality’ – ‘belief’ also being a strong component The ‘repeated sayings’ from ‘extracts’ contrast, however, with the eco- nomic repetitions of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, which dispatch a ‘rhetoric’ of belief: ‘no, not believing, but to make the cell / a hero’s world’. Thus the poem immediately following ‘extracts from addresses’ in Parts of a World converts the impalpable ‘night’s undeciphered murmuring’ into something

  156 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction concrete and compellingly abstract. That ‘murmuring’ becomes ‘a throat’, the basis of the ‘hero’s throat’ through which Stevens’ ‘words on the wall’ are matched by ‘the words [that] are spoken’. The speaking ‘hero’s throat’ realizes ‘the chant’ that emerges ‘out of the hero’s being’, a departure delivering the poem’s prisoner not to final judgement or execution but to a novel, imaginative locale. now the ‘accustomed cell’ grows less familiar, becoming instead a place of creative transformation: no longer a pejora- tive ‘nothing more’.

  Such abstraction champions desirous figures who prove hard to locate. The ‘salty skeleton’ continues his crystalline dance whilst a floating third person appears: ‘he hears the earliest poems of the world / in which man is the hero. he hears the words, / before the speaker’s youngest breath is This ambiguous ‘he’ and possessive ‘his’ emanate from the line

  ‘delivering the prisoner by his words’, which suggests the hero’s words ‘deliver’ the inmate, but which also implies the prisoner delivers himself through his own ‘words’. in ‘to make the cell / a hero’s world in which he is the hero’ Stevens’ pronoun cannily refers to the hero who becomes his world and to the ‘skeleton’ who sings ‘of an heroic world’. This tension persists even after Stevens’ aphoristic statement: ‘Man must become the hero of his world’.

  Such ambiguity feeds our uncertainty as to who ‘hears the earliest poems of the world’ (the only uncomplicated use of ‘he’ occurs in ‘The salty skeleton must dance because / he must’). Just as ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’ ambiguously alludes to a garden space appropriating the pres- tige of a burgundian vineyard – and just as it features its own beguiling flowers (‘licentious violet and lascive rose’) but no real garden – the reader struggles to locate Stevens’ abstract figures, whether the ‘hero’, ‘salty skeleton’, ‘speaker’ or the ‘prisoner’ (who is hardly confined to a cell, at least not of walls). note the french ‘lascive’, the french for ‘lascivious’, which implies playfulness (Stevens’ dictionary translates

  ‘lascive’ as ‘lascivious, lewd’) With its evocation of a ‘Midsummer love’ – where one is disorientated by ‘night creatures’ who echo ‘rhetorics more than our own’ (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ concerns unnameable and un- locatable desire, the abstract meditation on a love that discovers neither a habitation nor a name.

  Shakespeare appears, in fact, from the ‘breath’ of Stevens’ speaker:

  Abstract appetites 157 fear never the brute clouds nor winter-stop and let the water-belly of ocean roar, nor feel the x malisons of other men, Since in the hero-land to which we go, a little nearer by each multitude, to which we come as into bezeled plain, The poison in the blood will have been purged, an inner miracle and sun-sacrament, one of the major miracles, that fall as apples fall, without astronomy, one of the sacraments between two breaths, Magical only for the change they make.

  (CPP, 235–6)

  Stevens’ abstract ‘hero-land’ cultivates a space intact from earthly trouble, a frontier beyond life: a ‘bezeled plain’. a ‘bezel’ is a sloped edge, specific- ally the ‘oblique face of [a] cut gem’ from the old french besel (in Stevens’ ironic simile a ‘plain’ plane that cannot be plainly seen). The ‘hero-land to which we go’ is not as forbidding as that final frontier from whose bourn no traveller returns. but Stevens has more than Hamlet in mind in desiring a land where the ‘poison in the blood will have been purged’. The poem tropes the sacraments paid to innogen as she is laid to rest by belarius, guiderius and arviragus in Cymbeline act 4 Scene 2.

  The song the mourners sing, like the skeleton’s song in ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’, is of ‘an heroic world beyond the cell’. guiderius begins:

  fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, nor the furious winter’s rages.

  Thou thy worldly task hast done, home art gone and ta’en thy wages. golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

  arviragus adds:

  fear no more the frown o’th’ great, Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke. care no more to clothe and eat, to thee the reed is as the oak. The sceptre, learning, physic, must all follow this and come to dust.

  (CW, 4.2.259–70: 1154)

  clearly, the imperative ‘fear’ links texts, as does Stevens’ modification of

  158 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction more a call to arms than ‘fear no more’, the diction of last rites. however, Stevens’ phrase reads not only as imaginative defiance, but as ballast: a protection against quotidian pressure, just as Woolf’s Mrs dalloway con- jures the same ‘fear no more’ couplet as a means of buoying herself before

  Cymbeline and ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ both aim to defend themselves from a winter of discontent, however much Stevens’ ‘winter- stop’ remains an ambiguous ‘threat’. but the allusion to Cymbeline is more significant for its dramatic import. innogen’s ‘burial’ is neither a burial nor is innogen ‘buried’ alone. to guiderius and company, innogen is the boy fidele, but neither fidele nor innogen is actually dead (innogen merely having taken the The other figure buried with fidele is cloten, who, though he is known by those present to be cloten, is wearing the clothes of innogen’s love Posthumous (cloten, sore at the denial of innogen’s hand, having plotted to murder Posthumous after the company deliver their ‘obsequies’, innogen, waking from her induced sleep, mis- takes cloten’s body for that of Posthumous. it is only because cloten is decapitated that she does not realize her mistake.

  Cymbeline thus trades in mistaken identities and misplaced desire.

  Stevens’ allusion to the burial scene is ironic because ‘Montrachet- le-Jardin’ also trades in mobile desire, elusive identities and assumed names: not least in appropriating ‘le Montrachet’, which, historically, has proven attractive and lucrative. for the desire to produce inauthen- tic wines bearing prestigious names is no different from cloten’s ploy to promote himself as Posthumous. The name ‘fidele’ obviously suggests ‘fidelity’, and, throughout Cymbeline, the assumed name is played on for but it is a false name. belief, and by exten- sion faith, is something ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ also critiques, at least any belief that fails to create an imaginatively responsive world.

  Stevens’ poem creates its ‘hero-land’ largely without the ‘i’ who ‘starts’ ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ and resurfaces only in its close. one must have faith, then, in the imagination to create a heroic world without the figure who nominally ‘makes’ that world. The ‘i’ of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ does not, therefore, share the robust qualities Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ displays. it does not 76 reappear until stanza twenty-four, whilst the floating ‘he’ of stanza fourteen 77 virginia Woolf, Four Great Novels (oxford: oxford University Press, ), 141. 78

  Abstract appetites 159

  proves no surrogate. in Cymbeline, fidele–innogen’s song is likewise mis- placed. having originally performed a version of the song at the funeral of euriphile, arviragus instructs guiderius: ‘let us […] sing him to th’ ground / as once our mother; use like note and words, / Save that “euriphile” must be “fidele”’. not only is the song improvised from euriphile’s sacraments, it is barely even sung. guiderius replies: ‘i cannot sing. i’ll weep, and word it with thee, / for notes of sorrow out of tune are worse / Than priests and ‘fear no more’ becomes, then, a spoken song. The text that

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ tropes is, therefore, more of a poem than a song, something not immediately clear from Stevens’ allusion. both texts also rail against quotidian ‘reality’. ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ withstands ‘the x malisons of other men’, a ‘malison’ being a curse, deriv- ing from the old french maleison (perhaps also mal son, ‘bad sound’). Stevens could easily have consulted the word in his own dictionary where he would have discovered ‘malsonnant’ (‘ill-sounding; offensive’) and ‘malsain’ (‘unhealthy; sickly’), with the english–french section listing

  ‘malison’ as ‘malédiction’. implicit is a resistance not only to the particu- lar cursing of other men, but to their malediction, the sum of evil speech (from maledicere). for it is the ‘x malisons’ of men that are threatening rather than the malisons of ‘x’ numbers of men. diction that is ‘mal’, therefore, is comparable to or exceeds the actual threats of ‘other men’ (as both texts thereby desire release from harmful speech: ‘fear not slander, censure rash […] no exor- but both texts also confront nominally less serious threats. Cymbeline’s song is consoling: ‘Thou thy worldly task hast done, / home art gone and ta’en thy wages.’ Stevens, by contrast, imagines a garden for ‘hero land’, or at least an abstract, edenic space where miracles ‘fall / as apples fall’: ‘a little while of terra Paradise / i dreamed.’ Thus the tone of Cymbeline’s song, with its injunctions to ‘care no more to clothe and eat’, is trans- formed from consolation in death to consolation in a living, imagina- tive world: an earthly paradise. although ‘death’s element’ intrudes on ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’, Cymbeline’s consolations help reconstruct the miraculous, imaginative space Stevens’ poem desires. Writing to robert frost a few months after ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ was published, Stevens 80 uncharacteristically imagined inviting frost to his house, claiming: ‘how 81 Ibid., 4.2.237–43: 1154.

  160 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction nice it would be to sit in the garden and imagine that we were living in a ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ adapts the funereal connotations of Shakespeare’s play to achieve precisely such an imagined state. Stevens would never welcome frost either; as if the mere conception of such tranquillity would stimulate each poet alike as an abstract delight (as with the ‘chair of Poetry’ Stevens discussed with henry church).

  Cymbeline also comments covertly on ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’. having

  met fidele, the company discusses the ‘grief’ the boy endures in prolepti- cally ironic comments given fidele’s impending ‘death’:

  arviragus how angel-like he sings! guiderius but his neat cookery! belarius he cut our roots in characters, and sauced our broths as Juno had been sick and he her dieter. […] guiderius i do note That grief and patience, rooted in him both, Mingle their spurs together. arviragus grow patience, and let the stinking elder, grief, untwine his perishing root with the increasing vine.

  (CW, 4.2.49–62: 1152)

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ reads:

  but to speak simply of good is like to love, to equate the root-man and the super-man, The root-man swarming, tortured by his mass, The super-man friseured, possessing and possessed.

  (CPP, 236)

  Stevens’ ‘root-man’ naturally chimes with le Montrachet and those ‘bastard chateaux’. but the root and vine metaphorically struggling in fidele also inadvertently comment upon Stevens’ ‘root-man’ and ‘super- man’. for with the ‘x malisons of other men’ to endure, all speech, any constructed paradise on terra firma, involves the battles of root-men and super-men.

  This struggle involves ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ in a dialectic mirror- ing the physical/abstract tension informing the poem overall. an earthy imagination battles with an unworldly one, but both are implicitly

  Abstract appetites 161

  critiqued. The ‘super-man’ is ‘friseured’, making him sound ‘coiffeured’ (friser meaning ‘to curl’) and prone to ‘frissons’ of indulgence, both pos- sessing and self-possessed (a poseur). but ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ also cri- tiques the desire to capitulate to an earthier, ‘antaen’ imagination, one erroneously conceiving poetry as an ivory tower enterprise:

  a little while of terra Paradise i dreamed, of autumn rivers, silvas green, of sanctimonious mountains high in snow, but in that dream a heavy difference Kept waking and a mournful sense sought out, in vain, life’s season or death’s element. bastard chateaux and smoky demoiselles, no more. i can build towers of my own, There to behold, there to proclaim, the grace and free requiting of responsive fact, to project the naked man in a state of fact, as acutest virtue and ascetic trove.

  (CPP, 236–7)

  here paronomasia flourishes again. The earlier ‘sacraments between two breaths’ become the orations of ‘lean sacristans’, only to confront the ‘sanctimonious mountains’ of terra Paradise. These mountains are hardly monts rachets, but stand aloof ‘high in snow’. but if a sanctimonious imagination proves insufficient – and reminds one of the ‘heavy difference’ between idealized aesthetics and the real- ities of ‘life’s season or death’s element’ – neither can Stevens’ speaker find solace in his antaen ‘root-man’, who is hardly antaen because he is unable to derive strength from the ground (or at least from his own roots). he is ‘swarming, tortured by his mass’, a further ambiguous use of ‘his’ indicating the ‘root-man’ is either overwhelmed by his own bulk or, like the struggling vine, is forced to compete with surrounding masses. Thus two caricatures of the imagination appear here: the impossibly idealized, pejoratively abstract ‘terra Paradise’ and the ironically deracinated world of Stevens’ ‘root-man’.

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ thus favours its own tower-building: the con- struction of a robust abstract space neither aspiring to the height of ‘sanc- timonious mountains’ nor capitulating to ‘heavy difference[s]’. ‘bastard chateaux and smoky demoiselles, / no more. i can build towers of my own’: these lines accentuate a desire to transcend the clichés of fantasized struggle, such as re-appropriating the properties of illegitimate usurpers or

  162 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction poem’s bourgeois limits thus disincline its figures to embrace the precar- ious world of candide’s adventures; although it is precisely the domestic and horticultural aspects of ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ that recall candide’s need to cultivate his garden. a ‘demoiselle’, as noted, is an unmarried bourgeois woman, perhaps of burgundian descent (always a more agricultural and mercantile region than aristocratic bordeaux). Whether or not Stevens knew of chevalier- Montrachet’s ‘les demoiselles’ or about the viollot ‘demoiselles’, ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ imagines a world where desire is shaped, even transcended, by abstraction. Thus, fantastical clichés become pejoratively ‘common’ for Stevens, whereas the nominally ‘commonplace’ or ‘bour- geois’ is where the real capacity for imaginative change lies. note how Stevens’ ‘no more’ now echoes Cymbeline’s ‘fear no more’. Just as ‘fear never the brute clouds’ transforms Cymbeline’s more consolatory ‘fear no more the heat o’th’ sun’, ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ adapts Shakespeare’s vocabulary to erect its own protective walls: ‘bastard chateaux […] no more. i can build towers of my own’. The best form of attack is strategic defence, and what better castle to erect than one’s own milieu, even one’s own home.

  This stance recalls Stevens’ earlier response, in introducing Williams’

Collected Poems to the ‘ivory tower’ rhetoric of 1930s literary criticism.

There Stevens suggested the ‘romantic poet’ ‘happens to be one who still dwells in an ivory tower, but who insists that life there would be intoler- able except for the fact that one has, from the top, such an exceptional view of the public dump and the advertising signs of Snider’s catsup, in the same month ‘Montrachet-le-

  Jardin’ appeared, Stevens wrote: ‘one of these days i should like to do something for the ivory tower. There are a lot of exceedingly stupid people Stevens’ frustration indicates how, by 1942, this was still a debatable issue, save that its point of reference moved from the depression to ‘war lit- erature’. in 1939 cleanth brooks provocatively suggested the public, not poets, inhabited an ivory tower. certainly, the ‘brooks–Macleish thesis’ would neither have been a ‘thesis’ nor a debate were it not for the impli- cation that the irresponsible basis of ‘coterie literature’ was precisely that its exemplars believed they could retain their ivory towers. Stevens’ com- ment on Williams, by contrast, shows one can enjoy ivory towers along

  Abstract appetites 163

  with ‘ivory Soap’, and implies the person who really knows ‘the public dump’ is the ‘hermit’ who has an ‘exceptional view’ of it.

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ desires, then, an abstract space beyond the tussles of ‘superman’ v. ‘root-man’, ivory tower v. ‘bastard chateaux’, ‘sanc- timonious mountains’ v. the earthier ‘sacraments’ of ‘two breaths’ (obla- tions perhaps, but ones lacking the false piety ‘sanctimonious’ implies). hence the poem’s wish to conceive an abstract ‘naked man’. as Cymbeline demonstrates, assuming garments and disguises signifies what one wants to be, become or evade. however, in a stripping bare that anticipates the ‘first idea’ of ‘notes’, Stevens’ poem conceives a ‘naked man’ stripped of all trappings. ironically, the skeleton ‘proposes’ the naked man:

  The skeleton said it is a question of The naked man, the naked man as last and tallest hero and plus gaudiest vir.

  (CPP, 236)

  This ‘naked man’ is an abstraction who nevertheless exists ‘in a state of fact’, the word ‘fact’ resonating throughout the end of ‘Montrachet-le- Jardin’. he is impossibly superlative: the ‘tallest’ hero, the ‘plus gaudiest vir’, someone of ‘acutest virtue’ and ‘ascetic’, excessively abstinent. but ‘the naked man’ still lives by ‘responsive fact’. That the poem lists various abstractions as ‘items’ marks a similar tension. for, even though the poem ‘itemizes’ its abstract figures, there is always an abstract resistance to the particular. This tension enables ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ to pivot on the paradoxical ‘facts’ of desire – say, the wish to conceive an entirely ‘naked’ figure – which can never become commonplace ‘facts’. Stevens’ ‘naked man’ has no such matter and, like his other abstract figures, remains importantly insubstantial.

  ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ itself remains significantly frustrated:


and yet what good were yesterday’s devotions?

i affirm and then at midnight the great cat leaps quickly from the fireside and is gone.

  (CPP, 237)

  The poem thus ironizes the ‘items’ standing at its close. They are too ‘absolute’ to be reached:

  item: The cocks crow and the birds cry and The sun expands, like a repetition on one string, an absolute, not varying toward an inaccessible, pure sound.

  164 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  and, imageless, it is itself the most,

Mouthing its constant smatter throughout space.

item: The green fish pensive in green reeds is an absolute. item: The cataracts as facts fall like rejuvenating rain, fall down through nakedness to nakedness, to the auroral creature musing in the mind.

  (CPP, 237)

  each item – ‘cocks’, ‘wind’, ‘green fish’, ‘cataracts’ – is preceded by a capitalized definite article, as if ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ attempts to fix its facts/items as quasi-legal exhibits. one thinks, to venture another bawdy french tale, of the ‘items’ marking the institution of the paradisal abbey of Thélème in rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (chapter 52). but ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ subtly dislocates our sense of the relations between these figures. The poem resurrects its interest in sounds without words. its ‘absolute’ of ‘a repetition on / one string’ – an image recalling ‘blue guitar’ canto iv – travels toward ‘an inaccessible, pure sound’. even the ‘imageless’ wind can only mouth itself ‘throughout space’, unidentifi- able save for its ‘smatter’.

  Stevens’ final ‘item’, however, is neither an object nor requires a capital- ized definite article:

  item: breathe, breathe upon the centre of The breath life’s latest, thousand senses. but let this one sense be the single main.

  (CPP, 237)

  The imperative ‘breathe’ recalls the floating ‘he’ of stanza fourteen who, hearing the ‘earliest poems of the world’, also ‘hears the words, / before Stevens implies that capturing ‘The breath life’s latest’ – assaulting the present with a ‘thousand senses’ – is the most valuable ‘absolute’ we can have. like ‘esthétique du Mal’, the poem implicitly critiques the tendency in Parts of a World and ‘notes’ to idolize centrality or singularity. rather than favour a single man, be it ‘major man’ or Stevens’ other hero-figures, the poem recommends ‘the single main’, the plethora of life’s latest and ‘the major miracles’ falling but ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ cannot accept so ‘nameable’ a proposition as ‘the single main’, and, despite its title, resists naming the spaces closest

  Abstract appetites 165

  to its heart. The possibility of fabricating a rival le Montrachet dissolves as we depart from the ‘garden scene’ and find ourselves in a palpably domes- tic fireside interior. ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ thus domesticates its desires, be they for love or wine, and tailors its imaginative grandeur within bour- geois limits, even if (and because of the fact that) those limits are defined by the desire to ‘build towers’ of one’s own. That this poem’s first person is only a shadow of Stevens’ idealist ‘i’ perhaps indicates how the poet was already feeling around for other modes of abstract address. if, by 1942, therefore, Stevens began realizing the advantages of abstrac- tion, by the mid-1940s he would largely dispatch the idiom advertising his interest in ‘the abstract’. The next chapter considers how Stevens dis- pensed with this idiom as he absorbed abstraction. rather than replace his 1942 vocabulary with another seductive terminology, Stevens discov- ers a robust abstract poetry without recourse to a specialist idiom. during 1935–45 – from the ‘new romantic’ to a ‘supreme fiction’ – Stevens’ need of an overt idiom was coterminous with reconciling his poetry to a chan- ging world. The ‘un-locatable’ ‘i’ emerging from the abstract locale of ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ would become the idealist figure rep- resentative of the poet’s own abstract imagination. but it was important this ‘i’, for all its interest in painting and fine wine, should not easily elide with Stevens himself. achieving a ‘mastery of reality’, as Stevens later rec- ognized, would involve distancing oneself from elaborate figuration, par- ticularly the ‘figure[s] of capable imagination’ the poet sought in the early 91 1940s

  L, 459.


cH a p t er 6

The pure good of theory:

a new abstract emphasis

  6.1 ‘m aJor m a n’ r e v ise d: ‘pa is a n t cH ron icl e’ (1945) a n d ‘de scr ip t ion w i t Hou t pl ac e’ (1945)


here we are all in the fever of contemporary life, with everything fundamental

turned upside down and in course of re-examination. That alone and without

reference to the profound misery in europe, should exact from the right people

  The year 1945 was pivotal in Stevens’ poetic development. following Parts


of a World and ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ the poet experienced a

  re-examination of his own. Those texts had featured an icy world replete with heroic figures and other nominally ‘cold’, crystalline entities. Stevens’ embrace of abstraction engaged a new vocabulary characterized by poetic symbols, the nomenclature of his early 1940s aesthetic. largely advertised by ‘notes’, ‘major man’, ‘the first idea’, a ‘supreme fiction’, the ‘death of the gods’, the ‘fluent mundo’, even ‘the abstract’ itself became the terms of a specialist idiom. The impulse toward such rhetoric emanated from Ideas

but the highpoint for creating an abstract language built into the fabric of an increasingly abstract poetic was 1942, and although Stevens continued to write abstractly he would have less use for an explicit vocabulary, as the mature poetry of his final decade indicates.

  Stevens carefully jettisons his 1942 idiom in poems written dur- ing 1943–45. Whilst the later poetry refers to such terms as ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’, the need for stylized abstract figures occupied Stevens less. 1 The poet transcended the literary idealism enabling his early 1940s verse 2 L, 482–3.


Harmonium’s nominal ‘pure poetry’ has prompted comparison with Mallarmé ever since hi

Simons raised the issue (L, 391) – see Simons’ posthumously published ‘Wallace Stevens and

  The pure good of theory 167

  to achieve a poetry of ‘perception’ – by turns ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ in abstrac- tion – owing much to idealism but little to an explicit idiom. Whilst the later verse is ripe for phenomenological (especially heideggerian) read- ing, i suggest Stevens’ transcending of a conceptual rhetoric created the room for the very abstract aesthetic which attracts phenomenologists: an

chapter 7 argues, it

  is in Stevens’ grasping toward the ‘ordinary’ that his bourgeois abstraction forms: a paradoxical aesthetic where the quotidian ‘normal’ is made less familiar and more palpable through abstract meditation. nonetheless, Stevens did not effortlessly drop his 1942 vocabulary, neatly dispensing with crystalline meditations on poetry, heroism and the imagin- ation. ‘esthétique du Mal’ may proclaim ‘We are not / at the centre of a diamond’, but it would take Stevens more than that poem to modify his a linguistic residue from ‘notes’ and Parts naturally occupies the post-1942 verse, accentuating where Stevens shapes new poetry from old concerns. The decline of the idealist ‘i’ is illustrative. other early 1940s motifs, particularly Stevens’ treatment of ‘sound’, are also transformed in the mid-1940s verse. in other words, themes that do not characterize Stevens’ early 1940s work, but exist within it, develop in his middle period, and it is to these less well-known areas that this chapter partially turns.

  Stevens transcended his ‘figure[s] of capable imagination’ by address- ing more ‘singular’ themes, writing poems and lectures on ‘description’, ‘resemblance’ and ‘analogy’ brogan’s and Schaum’s ‘poetics of resist- ance’ argument borrows Stevens’ emphasis on ‘description’ to defend the poet from the charge of being removed from his ‘actual world’. i have challenged elsewhere the claim that Stevens is more politically engaged


as a poet post-1945 rather, the Stevens who embraces ‘description’ –

  and other aesthetic concepts – demonstrates a new-found confidence in abstraction. Thus, whilst a political reading of this confidence is possible, i cannot accept the argument that a) all language is ‘political’, therefore

  b) Stevens’ fascination with description is politically informed. certainly, 3 Stevens revised his isolationism following US entry to the war but this


See Thomas J. hines, The Later Poetry of Wallace Stevens: Phenomenological Parallels with Husserl

and Heidegger (lewisburg, Pa: bucknell University Press, ), 213–73; Krzysztof Ziarek,

Inflected Language: Toward a Hermeneutics of Nearness: Heidegger, Levinas, Stevens, Celan (albany,

4 nY: new York State University Press, , 103–32; bové, Destructive Poetics, 208–15. 5 CPP, 283. 6 Ibid., 226. See CPP, 296–302, 686–91, 707–23. 7 ragg, ‘good-bye Major Man’, 97–105.

  168 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction realignment did not yield verse more amenable to political themes. by the mid-to-late 1940s Stevens could allow aesthetic concepts themselves to inspire his work – be they ‘description’, ‘metaphor’ or ‘the ultimate

  Stevens’ interest in ‘description’ is, therefore, part of a more complex response in which a self-confident abstract aesthetic presses back on the pressure of reality by recasting ‘reality’ at large. The turn to ‘description’ informs Stevens’ enigmatic treatment of other ‘commonplace’ words – ‘different’, ‘beyond’, ‘distance’, ‘speech’, ‘sound’, ‘centre’ – which exist in the early 1940s work, but do not accrue full abstract currency until


Transport to Summer. in ‘chocorua to its neighbor’ (1943), ‘The creations

  of Sound’ and ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ (both 1944) Stevens

  ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ even defends the notion of ‘nourish[ing]’ but these are, importantly, not the terms of a specialist idiom.

  What makes Stevens’ later work attractive to phenomenologists is not only its capacity to evoke ‘being in the world’, but its ability to convey experience in language. Without the symbolic overtones of ‘major man’, ‘the first idea’, or even a ‘supreme fiction’, Stevens allows greater room for his readers to embrace abstraction. ‘The Pure good of Theory’ even critiques the ‘desire to believe in a metaphor’. although that poem iron- ically and self-consciously succumbs to metaphor, Stevens questions the ‘literariness’ of his early 1940s writing throughout the mid-1940s and later verse. either nominally ‘bald’ aesthetic concepts (‘description’, ‘metaphor’, ‘resemblance’) become imaginative catalysts or the simplest words (‘beyond’, ‘different’) take on new status as the catalysts of Stevens’ abstract writing.

  Stevens justified this shift in emphasis as follows:


from the imaginative period of the notes i turned to the ideas of credences of

Summer. at the moment i am at work on a thing called an ordinary evening

in new haven […] [M]y interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the

common-place and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. it is not a ques-

tion of grim reality but of plain reality. The object is of course to purge oneself

of anything false […] This is not in any sense a turning away from the ideas of

8 9

  The pure good of theory 169

  Stevens’ early 1940s verse is replete with ‘ideas’. but the poet refers to a poetic change where the luxurious configurations of ‘notes’ differ in degree from his later aesthetic, one content without supportive fig- ures or characters in a poetic drama. rather than invite an ‘ephebe’ to ponder ‘the first idea’ Stevens seeks novel ways to purge himself of

  ‘anything false’. e does not experience a ‘turning away’ from previ- ous ideas but the development of what was only incubating in his 1942 imagination. in 1945 José rodríguez feo asked Stevens to explain what he meant by the phrase ‘major men’. although Stevens observed the ‘major men’ of

  ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ meant ‘merely the pick of young men’ – implying they had little in common with his idealized ‘major man’ – he interpreted feo’s request by explaining a symbolic ‘major man’:


The major men […] are neither exponents of humanism nor nietzschean shad-

ows. i confess that i don’t want to limit myself as to my objective, so that in

notes toward a supreme fiction and elsewhere i have at least trifled with the

idea of some arbitrary object of belief: some artificial subject for poetry, a source

of poetry. The major men are part of the entourage of that artificial object.

  Stevens characteristically evades tying down his poetic figures. ‘The major men’ are only ‘part of the entourage’ that comprises his ‘object of belief’: a source of poetry. Stevens would later downplay some of the major play- ers in his own entourage precisely to define an object of belief. a much- quoted biographical note reads:


The author’s work suggests the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as

a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfilment. in the cre-

ation 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.

  not only are ‘reality’ and ‘the imagination’ marginal here, a ‘supreme fiction’ (Stevens’ ‘central theme’) is, remarkably, no longer poetry itself. in 1942 Stevens wrote: ‘in the long run, poetry would be the supreme but by 1954, when Stevens compiled the above, the creation of such a ‘fiction’ could involve poetry but would not comprise poetry alone. Stevens was himself aware that his early 1940s figures were part of a pro- ject – achieving a centre, defining a source – which had itself changed. if he came closer to ‘reality’ in his later career it was through dispatching his personal entourage of attendant symbols and terms. The ‘supreme fiction’,

  170 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction if a viable object, need not be literary at all. it would remain a poetic idea without need of the advertisements of ‘notes’ or Parts.

  Stevens became aware of this aesthetic shift as early as 1945. When he wrote ‘a Word with José rodríguez feo’ (1945), Stevens also composed ‘Paisant chronicle’ ‘for’ feo:


in the other poem [‘Paisant chronicle’] i have defined major men for you. i real-

ize that the definition is evasive, but in dealing with fictive figures evasiveness

at least supports the fiction […] [W]e have to fix abstract objectives and then

to conceal the abstract figures in actual appearance. a hero won’t do, but we

like him much better when he doesn’t look it and, of course, it is only when he

  Stevens’ ‘definition’, however, says more about his 1945 concerns than about the ‘major man’ of ‘notes’. ‘Paisant chronicle’ paints a hero- figure of convincing ‘appearance’, one who is credible precisely because ‘he doesn’t look’ the part; an abstract figure who re-connects readers with the world paradoxically through being ‘conceal[ed]’ in actuality, or what Stevens playfully calls ‘actual appearance’. but the poem also marks the distance between this mediated abstract figure and the ‘major man’ of ‘notes’, who is only rendered ‘actual’ by the rather awkward introduction ‘Paisant chronicle’ begins by questioning ‘the major men’: What are the major men? all men are brave.

  all men endure. The great captain is the choice of chance. finally, the most solemn burial is a paisant chronicle.

  (CPP, 293)

  That opening question suggests there is no need to construct an ideal ‘major man’ because all men are major for themselves. by asking ‘what’ and not ‘who’ the ‘major men’ are Stevens also implies they are danger- ously abstracted, without credible reality. ‘Paisant chronicle’ is not inter- ested in arriving at a definition and makes Stevens’ comment to feo ironic, as if defining the ‘major men’ meant consigning them to a poetic past – perhaps something Stevens, by 1945, desired. Moreover, the poem aims to wrest a totally abstracted theme from its icy sphere and invest it with 17 palpable ‘reality’. its concern is, as hegel argues for the abstract artwork,


See Wallace Stevens, ‘new Poems’: ‘The Pure good of Theory’, ‘a Word with José rodríguez

  The pure good of theory 171

  to mediate its abstract inspiration with the garb of ‘actual appearance’: to make ‘the major men’ palpable men. if the ‘major men’ are ‘different’, then, the ‘fictive man’ they comprise finds salvation only by becoming the commonplace hero seated at a café table: the classic milieu for Stevensian meditation. although Stevens discredits the ‘major men’ as ethereal abstractions, he rescues the ‘fictive man’ they represent, suggesting the creation of a novel ‘fictive’ figure, one whose abstract character is concealed in ‘actual appearance’:

  The major men – That is different. They are characters beyond reality, composed thereof. They are The fictive man created out of men. They are men but artificial men. They are nothing in which it is not possible to believe, more than the casual hero […] The baroque poet may see him as still a man as virgil, abstract. but see him for yourself, The fictive man. he may be seated in a café. There may be a dish of country cheese and a pineapple on the table. it must be so.

  (CPP, 294)

  if the ‘major men’ are ‘nothing in which it is not possible / to believe’ their value as an ‘object of belief’ is minimal. They are so abstract they lack identity; so protean any value can be ascribed to them. together they comprise ‘the fictive man’ but one made from ‘artificial’ figures. The ‘arti- ficial’ of ‘Paisant chronicle’ seems pejorative, whereas in Stevens’ letter to feo ‘an artificial object of belief’ is affirmative (where ‘artificial’ signifies possessing an artificer). This collective ‘fictive man’ is an ‘easy projection’ because the imagination can invest any value in the cipher ‘major men’. to be ‘as still a man / as virgil, abstract’ is to have lost mobility (Stevens plays on ‘still’ as in ‘unchanged’ and ‘immobile’). Whatever the perspec- tive, the ‘fictive man’ risks becoming as meaningless as any other charac- ter ‘beyond reality’.

  Stevens’ tone, however, turns from censure to affirmation: a movement mimicking the shift in imagination he encounters during 1942–45. The ‘fictive man’ is rehabilitated not as the figure dreamt by a ‘baroque poet’ 19 but one constructed by the reader: ‘[S]ee him for yourself, / The fictive

  172 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction man. he may be seated in / a café. There may be a dish of country cheese / and a pineapple on the table. it must be so’. The use of ‘may’ invites the creation of a personal ‘fictive man’ from potential appearances. The tongue-in-cheek ‘it must be so’ is hardly peremptory. Stevens concedes the reader is a vital creator in providing his ‘fictive man’ meaning. in writing ‘Paisant chronicle’ Stevens began, therefore, to refine his own abstract aesthetic. it was not that Parts of a World and ‘notes’ had issued a crystalline world removed from ‘reality’. both those works have too much range and tension to suggest Stevens was doomed to irreverent solipsism. rather, Stevens had doubts not about abstraction but about the priority of an abstract idiom. ‘notes’ itself understood how every abstrac- in hegelian terms, ‘the abstract’ becomes mediated to attain ‘self-consciousness’; just as, con- versely, the artist removes himself from his work in order to communicate that work to a wider audience. Stevens’ difficulty in ‘It Must Be Abstract’ was that he required more than an evocative vocabulary or the invoca- tion of ‘the Maccullough’ to attract an empathetic readership. canto viii ponders if ‘the Maccullough’ ‘might take habit’, achieve a form in which, as an abstraction, he could be ‘blooded’. but he remains a ‘beau Stevens would remember this phrase in the close of ‘repetitions of a Young captain’, a poem troubled by a ‘beau language without a drop

  Whilst ‘notes’ is hardly inhuman, Stevens felt it lacked the blood and bones his later verse would possess. he even pondered about adding another section, something omitted from his 1942 masterpiece: ‘It Must ‘Paisant chronicle’, by contrast, re-invests the human. if it defines ‘major men’ it is not ultimately to critique the 1942 ‘major man’ as bloodless abstraction. Stevens implies that ‘major man’, or even his ‘fic- tive man’, only has significance if he belongs to an affirmative abstract imagination. for Stevens, this imagination takes precedence and not the vocabulary upon which his 1942 aesthetic depends.

  ‘description Without Place’ also covertly critiques Stevens’ earlier need for an abstract idiom. Written not long after ‘Paisant chronicle’, the poem implicitly dispatches ‘major man’. Stevens criticism has not given this manoeuvre due attention, perhaps because ‘description Without Place’ principally attracts scholars for its pragmatist and poststructur- brogan

  The pure good of theory 173

  and Schaum focus on ‘description’ in order to exonerate Stevens of the as noted, in their view, Stevens’ interest in ‘description’ signifies a poet with new priorities, post- ‘notes’, to meet the ‘actual world’ head on, a position similar to filreis’ argument concerning Stevens’ ‘agreement with reality’ in ‘The figure of but, whilst Stevens can be exonerated of aloofness, ‘description

  Without Place’ is better read as an exercise in heaving off an old vocabu- lary rather than as evidence for wanting to subvert received political dis- course. Where Stevens aimed to rehabilitate a modified ‘pure poetry’ in the mid-1930s, by 1945 he abandoned ‘pure poetry’ itself, a clear departure from Mallarmé: ‘[n]o one proposes to practice pure poetry. i think the feeling today very definitely is for an abundant poetry, concerned with ‘[a]bundant poetry’ depends largely, for

  Stevens, on the poet’s descriptive powers. as he remarked to feo, then founding the cuban magazine Orígenes:


[t]he power of literature is that in describing the world it creates what it

describes. Those things that are not described do not exist, so that in putting

together a review like origenes you are really putting together a world. You are

describing a world and by describing it you are creating it.

  Stevens’ programme for ‘description Without Place’ chimes with this position:


i am going to read a poem before the Phi beta Kappa at harvard […] i am about

to settle down to my subject: description witHout place […] it seems to me

[…] an interesting idea: […] that we live in the description of a place and not in

  ‘description Without Place’ would re-create Stevens’ poetic world not as a specifically named place, like the crystalline ‘mundo’, but as a descrip- tive terrain without explicit, abstract figures: no ‘major man’, ‘supreme i have noted elsewhere that ‘description Without

  Place’ even ironizes a ‘major manner’: a covert reference, perhaps, to the as already suggested, 25 See ragg, ‘good-bye Major Man’, 97–105; brogan, ‘Wallace Stevens: Poems against his


climate’, ‘Stevens in history and not in history’ and ‘Wrestling with those “rotted names”’,

26 19–39; Schaum, ‘lyric resistance’, 191–205. 27 See filreis, ‘an interview with Stanley burnshaw’, 28, an 28 29 . 30 L, 495. Ibid., 495. Ibid., 494.

interestingly, Mallarmé also resists nomination: ‘to name an object is largely to destroy poetic

  174 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘notes’ is a nominating poem; despite its alleged provisionality, it can- not resist creating a symbolic nomenclature. as if to resist the ‘mundo’, ‘description Without Place’ baldly illustrates its preference for description over naming. as such, the poem enacts in microcosm what the Stevens corpus from 1945 onwards achieves at large: the dismantling of the famil- iar ‘names’ of the earlier poetry. but it is in texts like ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ and ‘Three academic Pieces’ that Stevens more effectively allowed aesthetic concepts to inspire his abstract imagination. ‘repetitions’, especially, follows the imaginative process Stevens spells out in ‘Three academic Pieces’ as both texts question the role of ‘rhetoric’ in poetic speech, even as Stevens draws on his most rhetorically resourceful strategies in poem and lecture alike. after turning to these pivotal works, the chapter closes by reading ‘The Pure good of Theory’ as an example of the pragmatic impetus the mature Stevens came to derive from an abstract aesthetic.

  6.2 w r i t i ng ‘be yon d’: ‘r e pe t i t ions of a you ng c a p ta i n’ (194 4) a n d ‘t H r e e ac a de m ic pi e c e s’ (1947) in 1943 Stevens observed:


The abstract does not exist, but it is certainly as immanent: that is to say, the

fictive abstract is as immanent in the mind of the poet, as the idea of god

is immanent in the mind of the theologian. The poem is a struggle with the

  Stevens’ letters and the early lectures of The Necessary Angel often attempt to make immanent ideas palpable. by ‘Three academic Pieces’, however, instead of painting a ‘virile youth’ or ‘possible poet’, Stevens discovered a more direct means of illustrating the virtues of abstraction: addressing the relatively ‘bare’ subject of ‘resemblance’. Stevens defends what seems a pejora- tively abstract subject with the claim: ‘Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance […] it touches the sense of reality, it enhances the sense of real- is leads to an idealist defence:


What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the

text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of

reality […] The eye does not beget in resemblance. it sees. but the mind begets

in resemblance as the painter begets in representation […] as the painter makes

  The pure good of theory 175

  The ‘world within a world’ becomes a further defence for the imagination that creates ‘a reality of its own’. Stevens adds: ‘[a] sense of reality keen enough to be in excess of the normal sense of reality creates a reality of its own. here what matters is that the intensification of the sense of reality

  That a ‘resemblance’ exists between a created ‘reality of its own’ and quotidian ‘reality’ accentuates the crux of Stevensian abstraction. The imagination conceives ‘reality’ in order to re-establish fresh contact with the world (‘it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it’). ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ imagines a departing soldier locked in a perpetual present to illustrate such an enhanced ‘reality’. Stevens ech- oes the poem in his 1947 lecture, not least given its insistence that ‘[t]he gigantic has a reality of its own’:

  constantly, at the railway station, a soldier steps away, Sees a familiar building drenched in cloud and goes to an external world, having nothing of place. There is no change of place nor of time. The departing soldier is as he is, Yet in that form will not return. but does he find another? The giant of sense remains a giant without a body. if, as giant, he shares a gigantic life, it is because The gigantic has a reality of its own.

  (CPP, 272–3)

  The reader ‘creates’ this soldier ‘constantly’. Stevens draws a distinc- tion between a figurative ‘external world’ – ‘external’ because it has ‘nothing of place’ like the descriptive terrain of ‘description Without Place’ – and the ‘external world’ of the decimated theatre at the poem’s opening:

  a tempest cracked on the theatre. Quickly, The wind beat in the roof and half the walls. The ruin stood still in an external world.

  (CPP, 271)

  but the ‘external world’ where the soldier exists defies the distinction between figurative and literal realms. for, if the soldier occupies some- thing which ‘has a reality of its own’, his world cannot easily be discredited

  176 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction as ‘unreal’. if it is ‘external’, it is because it resembles the ‘actual world’ in which soldiers step away.

  Miraculously, Stevens’ soldier changes shape in an abstract state, even if he experiences no discernible change in space and time: ‘There is no change of place / nor of time. The departing soldier is as he is, / Yet in that form will not return’. The playful ‘but does he find another?’ teases us into considering how the abstract soldier can change if he is ‘constantly’ involved in the same repetitive stepping away. if the soldier is to find another form it is through the reader’s and poet’s capability to project the change. but in order to understand the full resonance of Stevens’ ques- tion we must return to ‘Three academic Pieces’ which, although written three years after this poem, deftly adumbrates the qualities and limits of abstract conception.

  ‘Three academic Pieces’ claims the imagination’s limits are defined by ‘resemblance’: ‘The imagination is able to manipulate nature as by cre- ating three legs and five arms but it is not able to create a totally new nature as, for instance, a new element with creatures indigenous thereto, to accentuate the impossibility of cre- ating ‘a totally new nature’ Stevens might have written ‘a new element


without creatures indigenous thereto, their costumes and cuisines’. but

  what allows an abstract imagination special power is the deployment of ‘metaphor’ to unleash multiple levels of resemblance. in ‘repetitions’ the soldier becomes a metaphor for the very imaginative process the poem illustrates. The difficulty in envisaging the soldier resembles the difficulty with which one imagines an abstract idea intensifying ‘reality’. if, for Stevens, a poem ‘is a struggle with the inaccessibility of the abstract’ then ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ depicts this struggle in the soldier who must ‘constantly step away’.

  Such re-conception is what ‘repetitions’ means by approaching ‘a real- ity beyond’. This ‘beyond’ also obsesses ‘Three academic Pieces’:


in reality, there is a level of resemblance, which is […] nature. in metaphor, there

is no such level. if there were it would be the level of resemblance of the imagin-

ation, which has no level. if, to our surprise, we should meet a monsieur who

told us that he was from another world, and if he had […] all the indicia of div-

inity […] we should recognize him as above the level of nature but not as above

the level of the imagination […] [i]f […] we should meet one of these morons

whose remarks are […] a part of the folk-lore of the world of the radio […] we

should recognize him as below the level of nature but not as below the level of

  The pure good of theory 177

the imagination. it is not, however, a question of above or below but simply of

beyond. level is an abbreviated form of level of resemblance. The statement that

the imagination has no level of resemblance is not to be taken as a statement that

  ‘beyond’ does not, then, signify ‘outside human experience’. an abstract imagination gestures to things ‘beyond’ the ‘normal sense of reality’ – neither ‘above’ nor ‘below’ the level of nature (or imagination) – but which, through metaphorical ‘resemblance’, recall our own constructions of reality. The abstract ‘may not exist’ but is immanent. The only sense in which it is ‘beyond’ is that it requires a mind capable of abstract creation to conceive it.

  This becomes clearer when ‘Three academic Pieces’ constructs a ‘par- ticular abstraction’. The lecture forms a special case in The Necessary Angel because it ostensibly generates the poem ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple together’. certainly, the creation of this ‘abstraction’, and the poem inspired by it, form the most affirmative and defensive parts of Stevens’ lecture:


There is a gradus ad Metaphoram […] a poetic metaphor – that is to say, a meta-

phor poetic in a sense more specific than the sense in which poetry and meta-

phor are one – appears to be poetry at its source. it is. at least it is poetry at one

of its sources although not necessarily the most fecundating. but the steps to

this particular abstraction, the gradus ad Metaphoram in respect to the general

sense in which poetry and metaphor are one, are, like the ascent to any of the

abstractions that interest us importantly, an ascent through illusion which gath-

  ‘gradus’ indicates a ‘step’ or ‘level’. it is the root of ‘grade’ and the adjec- tive ‘gradual’ (OED). Stevens’ ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ creates an abstrac- tion designed to resemble what is meant by metaphor in the commonplace sense where ‘poetry and metaphor are one’.

  The ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ also becomes a quasi-compound noun intended as a metaphor for metaphor: the ultimate metaphor to which all metaphors refer (metaphor at its most abstract). if metaphor, in its sense of ‘transference’, can be defined as ‘a trope […] in which a word or phrase is shifted from its normal uses to a context where it evokes new meanings’, Stevens’ abstraction constitutes a metaphor for re-thinking the function The following reading of ‘The Pure good of Theory’ 37 borrows donald davidson’s view of metaphor to show how Stevensian 38

  178 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction abstraction does not create ‘new meanings’, but evokes them. What mat- ters is how the imagination approaches its themes and re-constitutes its world. Stevens’ ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ even serves as an illustration of ‘the ascent to any of the abstractions that interest us importantly’. So, not only is the ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ a metaphor for metaphor: it is also a metaphor for abstraction.

  Paul ricoeur argues that metaphor conditions ‘reality’, although, in coleridgean fashion, he suggests that the solution to the question of how metaphors function is involved in the answer to what ‘reality’ comprises:


When we ask whether metaphorical language reaches reality, we presuppose that

we already know what reality is. but if we assume that metaphor redescribes

reality, we must then assume that this reality as redescribed is itself novel reality.

[…] [M]etaphorical language […] increase[s] our sense of reality by shattering

and increasing our language […] With metaphor we experience the metamor-

phosis of both language and reality.

  if abstraction helps devise new metaphors, one could extend ricoeur’s comments to an abstract aesthetic. The obsession with metamorphosis in ‘The Pure good of Theory’ also coincides with ricoeur. Stevens embraces abstraction precisely to refresh ‘reality’: even if, and indeed because, one risks shattering language and ‘reality’ (poetry, in this sense, really is a ‘Three academic Pieces’ understands this risk where abstraction is ideally ‘an ascent through illusion’, but where illusion itself ‘gathers round us more closely and thickly […] the more we penetrate it’. in ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple together’ an imagined third person ‘con- templates / a wholly artificial nature’. This contemplation becomes part of Stevens’ lecture, responding directly to the ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’:

  o juventes, o filii, he contemplates a wholly artificial nature, in which The profusion of metaphor has been increased. it is something on a table that he sees, The root of a form, as of this fruit, a fund, The angel at the center of this rind, This husk of cuba, tufted emerald, himself, may be, the irreducible X at the bottom of imagined artifice, 40 its inhabitant and elect expositor.


Paul ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work ed. charles e. reagon

  The pure good of theory 179 it is as if there were three planets: the sun, The moon and the imagination, or, say, day, night and man and his endless effigies. if he sees an object on a table, much like a jar of the shoots of an infant country, green and bright, or like a venerable urn, Which, from the ash within it, fortifies a green that is the ash of what green is, he sees it in this tangent of himself. and in this tangent it becomes a thing of weight, on which the weightless rests[.]

  (CPP, 693–4)

  Stevens recalls here a number of his own poems whilst illustrating what abstraction achieves. ‘The husk of cuba’ echoes ‘academic discourse at havana’, which suggests the world should not ‘import a universal pith to cuba’. The ‘irreducible X’ echoes ‘anecdote of canna’ and the abstract ‘X’ from ‘The creations of Sound’. The ‘jar’ containing ‘the shoots of an if the poet’s imagination disinters the ‘root of a form’, or the ‘angel at the center of this rind’, it is through perceiving an object on a table, which opens the universe, adding ‘the imagination’ to the run of familiar planets. abstraction ‘fortifies a green’ through conceiving ‘the ash of what green is’. imagining the destruction or transmutation of ‘green’ to ash – the ‘green altar’ of Keats’s urn hovering here – abstraction re-conceives that ash and, through it, what ‘green is’. Such capability is ‘of human residence’, proceeding through self-directed sight: ‘if he sees an object on a table […] he sees it in this tangent of himself’. imaginative re-concep- tion fortifies because it confers ‘weight’ and rigging for the ‘weightless’. Stevens’ image indicates how one abstraction supports another, where insubstantial ‘ephemeras’ are imaginatively substantiated.

  The ‘beyond’ comes down, then, to the imaginative projection reflect- ing back on our own mental creations. as with blake’s ‘The human abstract’, what defines the extent of our idea(s) of a ‘beyond’ is the range ‘Three academic Pieces’ revels in abstraction as concept, whilst ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple together’ illus- 42 trates how abstract conception behaves. That ‘someone’ could be anyone. 43 Ibid., 116, 44, 274–5, 60–1.


See William blake, Blake: The Complete Poems ed. W. h. Stevenson (london: longman, ,

111, 216. Kermode suggests: ‘blake’s “minute particulars” are of the essence of his [Stevens’]

  180 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘This is everybody’s world’, the poem claims, because in re-conceiving every conception derives from the distillate of inherited ideas; but abstrac- tion enables re-distillation of new senses and impressions. like ‘Three academic Pieces’, ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ aims to move beyond ‘rhetoric’, to create an abstract aesthetic without literary embellishment. however much the ‘gigantic’ has ‘a reality of its own’, the poem’s abstract leanings force the speaker toward dispatching ‘rhetoric’ for other forms of idealist mediation. rather than persuasive oratory, ‘a few words’ provide the imaginative sustenance required:

  on a few words of what is real in the world i nourish myself. i defend myself against Whatever remains. of what is real i say, is it the old, the roseate parent or The bride come jingling, kissed and cupped, or else The spirit and all ensigns of the self? a few words, a memorandum voluble of the giant sense, the enormous harnesses and writhing wheels of this world’s business, The drivers in the wind-blows cracking whips, The pulling into the sky and the setting there of the expanses that are mountainous rock and sea; and beyond the days, beyond the slow-foot litters of the nights, the actual, universal strength, Without a word of rhetoric – there it is.

  (CPP, 273)

  Several qualities suggest a mid-1940s Stevens poem here. first, the speaking ‘i’ is no longer an idealist ‘i’. This ‘i’ refers to itself – ‘i nour- ish myself’ – and possesses a voice traceable to a persona: the captain who speaks. Second, the poem conceives a ‘universal strength’. achieving a ‘centre’ or ‘universal’ is a quality of many Stevens poems, but when couched in this variety of ‘beyond’ we are experiencing an immediate post-‘notes’ poem. it is ‘beyond the days, beyond the slow-foot litters / of the nights’ that the poem approaches ‘the actual’. That approach is possible only without ‘rhetoric’ (‘Without a word of rhetoric – there it is’). however, the persuasive poise of ‘there it is’ reminds us how Stevens’ own ‘rhetoric’ goads pursuit of the ‘actual’.

  The pure good of theory 181

  ‘Three academic Pieces’ ponders how ‘hypotheses relating to poetry, although they may appear to be very distant illuminations, could be as ‘The Pure good of Theory’ reveals, an abstract aesthetic vies with rhetorical excess, how- ever much that aesthetic utilizes stock poetic effects. ‘repetitions’ shows similar self-awareness when it locates an ‘orator’ in its close. but, first, i want briefly to illustrate the distance between Stevens’ negotiation of ‘the real’ in the early 1940s and the more self-confident abstraction inform- ing ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ by comparing the remainder of the poem with the earlier ‘examination of the hero in a time of War’. like ‘repetitions’, ‘examination of the hero’ desires a centre. even the ‘fury’ of war must discover ‘its noble centre’. but Stevens’ earlier poem too keenly satirizes the aesthetes, or ‘ghosts’, who merely ‘dally / With life’s salt upon their lips’, savouring a taste they dare not consume.

  Such ‘imaginative’ figures ‘secrete within them / too many references’. Stevens aims to check the solipsism which prefers ‘reference’ or ‘concep- tion’ over ‘reality’. The poem essentially critiques the power of abstrac- tion where ‘reality’ is wilfully shaped and re-moulded, the dangerous habit Wordsworth observes in coleridge. but, more stridently than

  Wordsworth, this earlier poem seemingly assaults the imagination’s asso- by 1944, however, ‘reference’ and that ambivalent verb ‘secrete’ – which connotes concealment and the separation of substances – play different roles in ‘repetitions of a Young captain’. The ‘real’ is defined by the ‘universe’ itself and whatever ‘reference’ an idealist imagination lends to ‘reality’:

  a few words of what is real or may be or of glistening reference to what is real, The universe that supplements the manqué, The soldier seeking his point between the two, The organic consolation, the complete Society of the spirit when it is alone, the half-arc hanging in mid-air composed, appropriate to the incomplete, Supported by a half-arc in mid-earth. Millions of instances of which i am one. 45

  (CPP, 273) 46 Ibid., 692.

  See Wordsworth, The Prelude book Sixth, lines 297–317: 200, 202 (discussed in

  Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction 182

  ‘repetitions’ recognizes that ‘what is real’ is contingent on concep- tion. because it welcomes what ‘may be’, it is more accommodating than ‘examination of the hero’ toward a ‘reference to what is real’. but ‘repetitions’ deftly balances the two-way transference abstraction entails by affirming the ‘universe that supplements the manqué’. The ‘manqué’ is that which ‘might have been but is not’: whatever has ‘missed being’ (OED). The ‘universe’ supplies what is missing, constituting the base from which ‘reality’ is mentally projected (as ‘Three academic Pieces’ argues, there is a ‘level of nature’ from which the imagination draws). The ‘millions of instances of which i am one’ are strong contenders for the instance that ‘i’ becomes. in a ‘complete / Society of the spirit’ the mind achieves an ‘organic consolation’, content that both the ‘universe’ and its conceptions harmonize. This ‘organic consolation’ is more tempered than the thirst after the ‘organic centre’ ‘examination of the hero’ craves. The conclusion of ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ also marks the distance between Stevens’ 1942 stance and his mid-1940s confidence in abstraction. like ‘Three academic Pieces’, ‘repetitions’ explores the same mistrust of ‘rhetoric’ observed earlier in the poem. Stevens casts his mind back again to ‘examination of the hero’, but discovers a more positive sense for ‘secrete’:

  and if it be theatre for theatre, The powdered personals against the giants’ rage, blue and its deep inversions in the moon against gold whipped reddened in big-shadowed black, her vague ‘Secrete me from reality,’ his ‘That reality secrete itself,’ The choice is made. green is the orator of our passionate height. he wears a tufted green, and tosses green for those for whom green speaks. Secrete us in reality. it is there My orator. let this giantness fall down and come to nothing. let the rainy arcs and pathetic magnificences dry in the sky.

  Secrete us in reality. discover a civil nakedness in which to be, in which to bear with the exactest force The precisions of fate, nothing fobbed off, nor changed in a beau language without a drop of blood.

  (CPP, 274)

  The pure good of theory 183

  The poem’s ‘choice’ is canny, involving no decision between ‘her vague “Secrete me from reality”’ and ‘his “That reality secrete itself”’. Stevens chooses neither alternative but proffers ‘Secrete us in reality’, a brilliant ambiguity because the phrase has no agent. ‘Secrete us’ might be an imperative for an unknown figure. but, equally, ‘secrete us’ could be self- referential: ‘let us secrete ourselves’.

  ‘repetitions’ ironically echoes ‘notes’ with its ‘choice between’ and a ‘choice of’:

  he had to choose. but it was not a choice between excluding things. it was not a choice between, but of. he chose to include the things That in each other are included, the whole, The complicate, the amassing harmony.

  (CPP, 348)

  ‘repetitions’, by contrast, moves beyond a dialectic where a ‘choice of’ is preferable to a ‘choice between’. The ‘powdered personals’ (a thespian force not dissimilar from the aesthetes of ‘examination of the hero’) are


not chosen in preference for ‘the giants’ rage’ or vice versa. The colour

  ‘blue’ and the ‘deep inversions in the moon’ are not chosen over the ‘gold whipped’ and ‘reddened in big-shadowed black’. ‘repetitions’ chooses another phrase and another colour: green.

  ‘green’ is emblematic of the very quality Stevens illustrates in ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple together’, where abstraction ‘fortifies / a green that is the ash of what green is’. in ‘repetitions’ ‘green’ becomes ‘the orator / of our passionate height’. no sooner than this ‘green’ is conceived, it is appropriated: ‘he wears a tufted green’. in diction anticipating ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple together’, the figure ‘tosses green for those for whom green speaks’. The poem is mimetic, transforming an immediate abstrac- tion into a mediated entity: a ‘he’ with his own attire. if Stevens’ reader goes the distance in conceiving this ‘green’, he or she becomes one ‘for whom green speaks’.

  ‘The noble rider’ had previously observed how the poet addresses himself ‘to a gallery of one’s own, if there are enough of one’s own to The unapologetic need to address an ‘élite’ persists in ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ with ‘those for whom green speaks’. Such an ‘élite’ is not negatively exclusive. What ‘The noble rider’ argues is that the poem requires the audience who can achieve the work for

  184 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction itself and poet alike. for blanchot, a ‘work’ only achieves ‘being’ when it ‘becomes the intimacy between someone who writes it and someone who for hegel the writer ‘impart[s] perfection to his work only by emptying himself of his particularity, depersonalizing himself and rising to the abstraction of pure action’. as hegel suggests, ‘[t]he work by itself is not […] actually an inspired work; it is a whole only together with its

  ‘The noble rider’ likewise argues: ‘[t]hat elite, if it responds […] will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to if, in 1942, Stevens attaches more agency to the poet, by the mid-1940s he prefers to choose between neither poet nor audience, offering instead the allure of abstraction itself. for ‘The noble rider’, the poet ‘fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become ut Stevens’ mid-1940s poetry opens wider, inviting ‘the minds of others’ into a more reciprocal process where poems stand or fall on their receptiveness to abstract creation, for reader and poet alike.

  Such ‘opening up’ is clear in ‘repetitions of a Young captain’, with its desire for ‘nothing fobbed off, nor changed / in a beau language with- certainly, if Stevens writes ‘Secrete us in reality. it is there / My ora- tor’, this is deft poetic rhetoric: an ironic inversion of section v where ‘the actual’ is summoned ‘[w]ithout a word of rhetoric – there it is’. Stevens’ reader is persuaded that what ‘is there’ really exists because of the anaph- ora ‘Secrete us in reality’. but the deliberate lack of punctuation between ‘it is there’ and ‘My orator’ also suggests such evocation is itself the ‘ora- tor’. Saying ‘it is there’ is the source of whatever rhetoric ‘repetitions’ practises. had Stevens written ‘it is there, / My orator’ the comma might suggest an apostrophized ‘external’ orator. but ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ shares with ‘The Pure good of Theory’ the conviction that a single word – ‘reality’, ‘there’ – can inspire the imagination to abstract meditation. This stance reflects the broader sweep of Stevens’ career in which a specialized idiom is largely jettisoned post-1945 as a more confi- dent abstraction orchestrates the poet’s work. but let us turn to ‘The Pure good of Theory’ to see the pragmatic benefits of such conceptual think- 50 ing as a source of poetic inspiration. 51 blanchot, ‘The essential Solitude’, 23.

  hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 429.

  The pure good of theory 185 V

  6.3 pr agm at ic a bs t r ac t ion . m e ta pHor : ‘t H e pu r e M A C B E T H g ood of t H e ory ’ (1945) a n d ‘The Pure good of Theory’ was published as part of a group entitled ‘new alongside selections from Stevens’ earlier works including Notes Toward a The most recent poems were presumably submitted as representative of Stevens’ early 1945 poetry. What distinguishes ‘The Pure good of Theory’ from the other 1945 poems, however, is the confidence with which Stevens forges a maturing abstract aesthetic. The poem has none of the retrospection of ‘Paisant chronicle’ (‘Paisant’ also appearing in the Voices issue), and, despite its title’s emphasis on ‘theory’, does not follow ‘description Without Place’ in trumpeting an aesthetic concept. Unlike ‘Paisant chronicle’ and ‘description Without Place’, ‘The Pure good of Theory’ also resists self-consciously referring to Stevens’ early 1940s poems. it has no interest, for example, in questioning the dated

  ‘major man’ in 1946 the poet would highlight his desire to discover, but in early 1945 Stevens was already experimenting, if not with new themes, then with a maturing aesthetic – one that had absorbed abstraction rather than merely announcing the arrival of ‘the abstract’.

  ‘The Pure good of Theory’ also transforms items of Stevens’ early 1940s fascination – sound, distance, speech, hearing, oratory, music, the ‘beyond’ – into tokens informing the texture and theatrical density of the poem. This breaks new ground, as Stevens discovered he no longer required the master-vocabulary of ‘notes’. Without constituting a sur- rogate idiom, such ‘terms’ take on a subtler function in a poetry suspi- cious of domineering or ‘literary’ rubrics. Where in ‘notes’ Stevensian terms achieve metaphysical or ontological imperatives, ‘The Pure good of Theory’ questions privileging any one vocabulary, however abstract (even Stevens’ imagining of an abstract ‘poetry’ enables the poet to scrutinize the workings of metaphor itself. ‘The Pure good of Theory’ not only embodies the positive claims this study makes for abstraction, it testifies to the pragmatic benefits of an abstract aesthetic which Stevens only fully realized in his final decade.

  ‘The Pure good of Theory’ pivots on a battle between abstraction and 55 metaphor, a contest informed by deft allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The 56

  186 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction poem eventually reconciles metaphor to abstraction, a strategy that rescues Stevens from conceiving an inhumanly abstracted verse. in substantiating these arguments, i touch on debates surrounding ‘metaphor’ and refine the relationship between creating metaphors and thinking abstractly.

  ‘All the Preludes to Felicity’ plays with various metaphors for time. a ‘prelude’ literally comes before ‘play’ (from ludere ‘to play’) as a musical or literary introduction, especially ‘the introductory part of a poem’ (OED).

  Stevens’ poem introduces the mind’s tendency to think metaphorically and to call on metaphor to protect itself from time:

  it is time that beats in the breast and it is time That batters against the mind, silent and proud, The mind that knows it is destroyed by time. time is a horse that runs in the heart, a horse Without a rider on a road at night. The mind sits listening and hears it pass. it is someone walking rapidly in the street. The reader by the window has finished his book and tells the hour by the lateness of the sounds.

  (CPP, 289)

  because the mind ‘knows it is destroyed by time’, Stevens implies meta- phor (‘time is a horse’) creates the self-protective illusion that the mind can conquer, or at least be reconciled to, time: ‘The mind sits listening and hears it pass.’ likewise, where time becomes ‘someone walking rap- idly in the street’, the metaphor enables Stevens’ ‘reader’ to appreciate ‘the lateness of the sounds’.

  This focuses the ameliorating effect of metaphor. ‘felicity’ not only indicates a happy state or ‘thing causing happiness’, but denotes a ‘happy faculty of expression’ or ‘well-chosen phrase’ (OED). even if ‘time’ is ‘a horse / Without a rider on a road at night’ – which connotes unruly deter- mination – the mind conceives time’s progress through metaphor because felicitous expressions are palliative. The mind cannot be cured of the real- ization that it will be destroyed by time. but its ability to represent time metaphorically diverts agency therapeutically back to the mind itself, enabling a form of intellectual resilience.

  Palliative metaphor is, however, abandoned for abstract conception. a ‘capable being’ is proposed and created as a figure more capable than metaphor in defending the mind from time:

  The pure good of theory 187 even breathing is the beating of time, in kind: a retardation of its battering, a horse grotesquely taut, a walker like a shadow in mid-earth… if we propose a large-sculptured, platonic person, free from time, and imagine for him the speech he cannot speak, a form, then, protected from the battering, may Mature: a capable being may replace dark horse and walker walking rapidly.

  (CPP, 290)

  Stevens’ metaphors – the ‘horse grotesquely taut’, the ephemeral ‘walker like / a shadow in mid-earth’ – are themselves suspended in an ellip- sis which implies metaphor’s limitations. That is, the horse remains ‘taut’ and the walker as insubstantial as a ‘shadow’ because the mind realizes metaphors cannot themselves ward off the ‘battering’ of time. he is impossibly ‘free from time’ but constitutes a more useful preserve for the imaginative mind. note how agency is given to the ‘we’ who propose the figure, who must ‘imagine for him the speech he cannot speak’. rather than promulgate traditional metaphors for time, ‘The Pure good of Theory’ re-invests the mind with abstract creative power. This ‘capable being’ may ‘replace / dark horse and walker walking rapidly’ both on the level of replacing these figures in the poem and on the abstract scale of withstanding time itself. nevertheless, ‘All the Preludes to Felicity’ remains true to the playful- ness of its title. The novel felicity of replacing metaphor with an abstract

  ‘capable being’ is scrutinized as the desire to conceive by metaphor proves insurmountable. time becomes a comical chronos (‘old father time’ or death as ‘hooded enemy’) who, with beguiling magic, reinstates meta- phor as the natural point of reference:

  felicity, ah! time is the hooded enemy, The inimical music, the enchantered space in which the enchanted preludes have their place.

  (CPP, 290)

  This is tongue-in-cheek. Unusual for this period is the rhyming coup- let, reminiscent of a closing Shakespearean scene featuring a Puck or ariel. Three metaphors – ‘hooded enemy’, ‘inimical music’, ‘enchan- 61 tered space’ – affirm how metaphor is central to conceiving time. The

  188 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction stanza also displays the poem’s overall paronomasia – as in ‘enchantered’ and ‘enchanted’ – established earlier with ‘time’/‘mind’, ‘beats’/‘breast’, ‘breathing’/‘beating’. This trope – most evident in ‘metamorphosis’ and ‘metaphor’ – mimics the oscillation the poem itself effects between meta- phor and abstraction, for in the rear of any abstract thought is the very ‘desire to believe in a metaphor’. Metaphor makes palpable what ‘pure’ abstraction cannot render. That metaphor metamorphoses is what the poem’s paronomasia reflects. although Stevens’ horse disappears from ‘The Pure good of Theory’ – replaced by a ‘capable being’ – the poet would not forget the image in

  ‘farewell Without a guitar’ (1954). This short poem provides insight into how ‘The Pure good of Theory’ treats the possibilities and limits of meta- phor. it too features a horse ‘without a rider’: Spring’s bright paradise has come to this.

  now the thousand-leaved green falls to the ground. farewell, my days.

  The thousand-leaved red comes to this thunder of light as its autumnal terminal – a Spanish storm, a wide, still aragonese, in which the horse walks home without a rider, head down. The reflections and repetitions, The blows and buffets of fresh senses of the rider that was, are a final construction, like glass and sun, of male reality and of that other and her desire.

  (CPP, 461–2)

  This retrospective poem focuses the benefits of abstract meditation. The horse becomes a metaphor for not possessing a metaphor. it represents nothing of itself and without a rider is bereft of significance. an abstract mind, however, looks through the horse to ‘the rider that was’ and con- jures for itself ‘a final construction’. The riderless horse may be a cour- ier without a message, but the mind conceiving what the rider represents revels in the abstract power which delivers the ‘blows and buffets of fresh senses’. even an ‘autumnal terminal’ is no longer terminal when abstrac- tion rekindles ‘reflections and repetitions’. The poem heralds, therefore,

  The pure good of theory 189

  steps away’ in ‘repetitions of a Young captain’, can create a kind of per-

  Stevens’ horse ‘without a rider’ also echoes ‘The noble rider’


noted how in the opening of that lecture Plato’s ‘charioteer’ represents a

  figure turned ‘antiquated and rustic’, seemingly irrelevant to contempor- What follows is an early insight into Stevens’ mature sense of abstraction:


Suppose we try, now, to construct the figure of […] a possible poet. he cannot

be a charioteer traversing vacant space, however ethereal. he must have lived all

of the last two thousand years, and longer […] he will have thought that virgil,

dante, Shakespeare, Milton placed themselves in remote lands and in remote

ages; that their men and women were the dead – and not the dead lying in the

earth, but the dead still living in their remote lands and in their remote ages […]

[h]is own measure as a poet […] is the measure of his power to abstract himself,

and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers

of truth insist. he must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality,

which he does by placing it in his imagination. he knows perfectly that he can-

not be too noble a rider, that he cannot rise up loftily in helmet and armor on a

horse of imposing bronze.

  note the parity between Stevens’ ‘possible poet’ and the rider. Just as ‘The noble rider’ concerns the abstract construction of a ‘possible poet’ as modern rider, ‘The Pure good of Theory’ shares with ‘farewell Without a guitar’ the ability to create abstract figures substituting for antiquated, deceased, or merely absent riders: a ‘platonic person’, a ‘capable being’. That Stevens’ ‘possible poet’ lives forever and has contact with the dead ‘still living in their remote lands and in their remote ages’ also prefigures how ‘The Pure good of Theory’ confronts time; especially how abstract thought is negatively and positively timeless. Shakespeare connotes an abstract timelessness for Stevens in ‘The noble rider’ just as the subse- quent allusion to Macbeth in ‘The Pure good of Theory’ conjoins time and abstract meditation.

  ‘The Pure good of Theory’, like the ‘final construction’ of ‘farewell What should be observed here is the resonance Stevens’ riderless horse attains in the 1945 poem and later work. The image in ‘The Pure good of Theory’ stands for time, but also anticipates ‘farewell Without a guitar’ in serving as a metaphor for inadequate metaphor. ‘The Pure good of Theory’ renders its horse ‘grotesquely taut’, its significance stretched. but this metaphor

  190 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction cannot do the job accredited to the ‘capable being’, whose presence not only replaces the ‘horse’, it also decelerates the poem, mimetically rep- resenting how such an abstract figure becomes a ‘retardation’ of time’s battery. Stevens mimics delaying time by ‘breaking’ his own feigned stress-pattern, a mock-tetrameter, with ‘a retardation of its battering’:

  even breathing is the beating of time, in kind: a retardation of its battering, a horse grotesquely taut, a walker like a shadow in mid-earth… if we propose a large-sculptured, platonic person, free from time,

  actually, the poem resists both metre and metaphor in conceiving an abstract ‘capable being’. The ‘platonic person’ is not an impalpable idea, but a practical stalling device: resisting both the march of time and the movement of Stevens’ feigned metre.

  The ‘platonic person’ also represents pragmatic abstraction. The point of conceiving an idea (or ideal) is not realization exactly. rather, such medi- tation effects a change in current practice or initiates creation. gustav bergmann conceives an ‘ideal language’ not because such a language can be constructed but because it enables reflection on the language philoso- phers use to discuss ‘problems’. bergmann ascribes three conditions for his ‘ideal language’: ‘(1) every nonphilosophical descriptive proposition can in principle be transcribed into it; (2) no unreconstructed philosoph- ical one can; (3) all philosophical propositions can be reconstructed as if these conditions were fulfilled, it is arguable any proposition need be formulated in trad- itional terms. This has the pragmatic effect of questioning how philoso- phers formulate problems in practice. as rorty explains in The Linguistic Turn:


to see the importance of the suggestion that such a language might be con-

structed, one should note the implications of the first two conditions alone.

Suppose that there were a language in which we could say everything else

we wanted to say, but in which we could not express any philosophical the-

sis, nor ask any philosophical questions. This in itself would be sufficient to

show that a certain traditional view of philosophy was false – namely, the

view that common sense, and/or the sciences, present us with philosophical

66 problems[.] 67

gustav bergmann, Meaning and Existence (Madison, Wi: University of Wisconsin Press, , 43.

  The pure good of theory 191

  The operative ‘theory’ of Stevens’ poem is that abstract meditation enables similar changes in practice/conception. Proposing a ‘platonic person’ effects mental resilience to time: ‘a form, then, protected from the battering, may / Mature’. by imagining ‘for him the speech he cannot speak’, Stevens’ ‘we’ achieves a therapeutic, mental defence-mechanism. This is pragmatic abstraction. as William James defended his 1906 portrait of philoso- phy: ‘The picture i have given is indeed monstrously over-simplified and

  ‘Description of a Platonic Person’ indirectly illustrates rorty’s and James’ points through its abstract ‘being’. as observed, when composing ‘description Without Place’ – not long after ‘The Pure good of Theory’ – Stevens wrote to feo: ‘[t]he power of literature is that in describing the world it creates what it describes’. What distinguishes ‘The Pure good of Theory’ from ‘description Without Place’, however, is that the former really does harness descriptive power to create a world. ‘description Without Place’ may affirm its underlying premise that ‘we live in the but it is relatively inef- fectual in describing figurative places, especially mental terrains. a ten- sion, perhaps deliberate, persists in ‘description Without Place’ between insisting that description amounts to creation – even to ‘describing a world’ – whilst also that that poem’s descriptive practices avoid evoking places, literal or metaphorical. certainly, ‘Description of a Platonic Person’ creates an idealist blend of place and description that neutralizes a distinction between the ‘real’ and


  Then came brazil to nourish the emaciated romantic with dreams of her avoirdupois, green glade of serpents like z rivers simmering, green glade and holiday hotel and world of the future, in which the memory had gone from everything, flying the flag of the nude, The flag of the nude above the holiday hotel.

  (CPP, 290)

  verdant brazil and the colour green represent the ‘actual’ from which an idealist mind projects ‘reality’. The world nourishes mental depiction, 68 otherwise the imagination attenuates to an ‘emaciated romantic’. as for


William James, Pragmatism ed. bruce Kuklick (cambridge and indianapolis, in: hackett,

  192 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction Wordsworth and coleridge, flights of fancy have no place in robust imagina- tive thought. The ‘holiday hotel’ can only come to life if, as in ‘arrival at the

  The hold abstraction has, then, over re-creating an ‘actual world’ rests ‘brazil’ and ‘green’ reality possess ‘avoirdupois’: a specific system of weights, but, more generally, ‘bodily weight’ or ‘heaviness’ (OED). abstraction paradoxically supports mental phenomena by becoming a ‘thing / of weight, on which but what anchors Stevens’ figure in a pragmatic aes- thetic is his sheer ordinariness. Playfully, Stevens’ ‘platonic person’ is made real by re-enacting the process in which a ‘capable being’ is conceived.

  Thus, the ‘platonic person’ is not Stevens’ ‘capable being’. ‘Description of a


Platonic Person’ mediates the ‘platonic person’ as a human figure who re-

  enacts the job of imagining a ‘capable being’. like Joyce’s bloom or hce, or the ‘fictive man’ at his café table in ‘Paisant chronicle’, it is vital this person be ordinary, a part of what the later Stevens calls the ‘normal’ as This ‘real’ figure certainly appears quotidian:

  but there was one invalid in that green glade and beneath that handkerchief drapeau, severe, Signal, a character out of solitude, Who was what people had been and still were, Who lay in bed on the west wall of the sea, ill of a question like a malady, ill of a constant question in his thought, Unhappy about the sense of happiness. Was it that – a sense and beyond intelligence? could the future rest on a sense and be beyond 71 intelligence? on what does the present rest? 72 CPP, 219.


L, 292. admittedly, pragmatism diverges from extreme idealism. Pragmatists acknowledge the

independent existence of the physical world, which nominally queries the pragmatist argument

that ‘reality’ depends upon choices of vocabulary. however, as rorty argues, ‘[t]he pragmatist

meets this point by differentiating himself from the idealist. he agrees that there is such a thing

as brute physical resistance […] but he sees no way of transferring this nonlinguistic brutal-

ity to facts, to the truth of sentences […] [c]ausation is not under a description but explan-

ation is’, Objectivism, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers vol. i (cambridge: cambridge

University Press, ), 81. This is similar to John dewey’s point that one ‘cannot compare exist-

ence and meaning; they are disparate […] There is no common measure of physical existence and

conscious experience because the latter is the only measure there is for the former’, Philosophy

73 and Civilization (new York: Putnam’s ), 6.

  CPP, 694.

  The pure good of theory 193 This platonic person discovered a soul in the world and studied it in his holiday hotel. he was a Jew from europe or might have been.

  (CPP, 290–1)

  This ‘platonic person’ is not the metaphysical ‘walker’ ‘like / a shadow in mid-earth’. his discovery of a ‘soul in the world’ implies the creation of another ‘capable being’, partaking of the same abstraction the poem initially proposes for reader and poet alike. crucially, the ‘platonic per- son’ protects Stevens’ poem from meaningless abstraction, anchoring its ‘he’ palpably, for abstraction also has the negative power of conceiving a ‘world / of the future, in which the memory had gone / from every- thing’, where the ‘green glade’, ‘holiday hotel’ and ‘flag of the nude’ signify an alarmingly perpetual present. This disturbing prospect is dissimilar from the soldier who constantly steps away in ‘repetitions of a Young captain’, if superficially analogous. ‘The Pure good of Theory’ fears an excessive abstraction which misleadingly claims to have destroyed time rather than realizing the advantages Proust’s Marcel discovers in becom- ing an ‘extra-temporal’ being: where unconscious memories are moment- The ‘platonic person’ ‘was what people had been and still were’. not only is he placed in a palpable locale – lying ‘in bed on the west wall of the sea’ – he also conceives time contemporaneously. in 1945 the phrase ‘he was a Jew from europe or might have been’ had astonishing reson- ance. The ambiguity of ‘or might have been’ opens the door for abstract creation – he could be a Jew, hindu or any other figure – but also refers the reader to refugees real or denied for whom the past, present and future are or ‘might have been’ of pressing concern: ‘on what does the present rest?’

  Stevens emphasizes abstraction’s power to obliterate the past by shap- ing these tokens of the present into quasi-proper nouns: green glade, holiday hotel. Through their anaphora and often without definite art- icles, ‘green glade’ and ‘holiday hotel’ tower over ‘Description of a Platonic


Person’. even ‘the flag of the nude’, identified by its own definite articles,

  flies over the poem as emblem of the desirous present and the pressure abstraction wields in defending the mind from time. although a ‘world of the future’ is conceived, the pregnancy of the past is denied. if history is, as Stephen dedalus remarks, a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, ‘The Pure good of Theory’ imagines replacing that nightmare

  194 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction with abstracted ‘dreams’ where the future is reducible to comfortable but Stevens’ poem also creates an intermediary between metaphor and abstraction. The ‘platonic person’ is neither too connected with the world to be dangerously abstract nor metaphorical exactly. Unlike ‘brazil’ or the ‘emaciated romantic’, the ‘platonic person’ cannot be read metaphoric- ally, other than as a refracted metaphor for the very abstraction operative in the poem. instead, he embodies, or symbolizes, the abstract medita- tion proposed in section i and re-enacted by the ‘platonic person’ himself in section ii. What differentiates a symbol from a metaphor? The cruci- fix symbolizes christianity; it is only when christians ‘bear the cross’ that the crucifix becomes metaphorical. Perhaps, then, it is more accurate to describe the ‘platonic person’ as a symbolic rather than metaphorical figure. The problem with this distinction, however, is that boundaries between symbol and metaphor – or the literal and metaphorical – are context-dependent. but i return to the difficulties of defining metaphor, especially the roles of metaphor in poetry, later.

  The ‘platonic person’ focuses the relationship between metaphor and abstraction. Metaphor can ‘describe things that have no literal name’ or render ‘complex abstractions easy to understand through concrete ‘The Pure good of Theory’ scrutinizes this dialectic where inherited metaphors pressure the poet into cliché, but where abstract con- ception enables new metaphors, encouraging the mind to conceive with- out immediate reference to a predetermined or inherited context (even although one originally abstracts from an existing context). in fact, with- standing the pressure of the inherited – represented by the march of time and the past in Stevens’ poem – quickens the poet’s attempt to re- construe ‘the real’ through rejuvenating metaphor.

  Such a strategy is similar to the function of ‘the first idea’ in ‘notes’: ‘if you take the varnish and dirt of generations off a picture, you see it in its first idea. if you think about the world without its varnish and dirt, you are as coleridge insists: ‘The word, ’i , in its ori- ginal sense […] represented the visual abstraction of a distant object, when however, an idealist mind returns the whole to the context of its parts, because abstract vision 76 enables reconstituting phenomena. This is how new metaphors are born. 77 See Joyce, Ulysses: The 1922 Text, 34.

  The pure good of theory 195

  Section iii, ‘Fire-Monsters in the Milky Brain’, ironizes the mind’s dependence on metaphor in conceiving ‘reality’:

  Man, that is not born of woman but of air, That comes here in the solar chariot, like rhetoric in a narration of the eye – We knew one parent must have been divine, adam of beau regard, from fat elysia, Whose mind malformed this morning metaphor,

  While all the leaves leaked gold. his mind made morning, as he slept. he woke in a metaphor: this was a metamorphosis of paradise, Malformed, the world was paradise malformed…

  (CPP, 291)

  ‘Man, that is not born of woman’ alludes to Macbeth’s weird sisters and their conjuring of the Second apparition (‘for none of woman born / Macbeth is, of course, a literal interpreter, unable to anticipate the figurative narrative of Macduff’s birth. but if ‘Fire-


Monsters’ manipulates the mind’s tendency to think in metaphor, what

  might Stevens’ allusion to Macbeth’s literalism suggest? ‘Man, that is not born of woman but of air’ conjures an abstraction. a man born of air can neither be literal nor, at least here, metaphorical. Stevens’ next line ironizes the desire to render this abstraction understand- able through metaphor: ‘That comes here in the solar chariot’. The ‘solar chariot’ is an obvious metaphor for the sun, evoking Phoebus. but the poem’s abstractions resist metaphor. once the abstract man occupies his ‘solar chariot’, he is subjected to a belittling simile: ‘[l]ike rhetoric in a nar- ration of the eye’. Stevens’ mid-1940s mistrust of ‘rhetoric’ surfaces here again. rhetoric ‘in a narration of the eye’ is superfluous, adding a ven- eer to the story the eye conveys. Similarly, the ‘solar chariot’ reduces the abstraction to a cliché: a hackneyed metaphor from canonical literature.

  What the ironic allusion to Macbeth implies is that neither literal read- ing nor clichéd metaphor provides abstract ideas with weight or substance. if, like Macbeth, we read the man ‘of air’ literally, we dismiss the figure as make-believe. if, like Macduff, we read the ‘man’ figuratively, the abstrac- tion requires further metaphor to come alive; and risks only partially com- ing alive if cliché (the ‘solar chariot’) steps into the breach. The Witches are similarly incorporeal, like the apparitions they conjure. Macbeth replies

  196 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction to banquo’s ‘Whither are they vanished?’: ‘into the air, and what seemed ikewise, Stevens’ man of ‘air’ requires appropriate metaphors to take form. That it is ‘Man, that is not born of woman’ and not an identified abstract ‘man’ (such as the man of but the allusion to Macbeth opens other inter-textual avenues. Shakespeare’s play and Stevens’ poem are both obsessed with time. time also occasions Stevens’ battle between abstraction and metaphor, the ‘cap- able being’ becoming the ‘form’ that protects the mind from recalling its finitude. lady Macbeth goads Macbeth to seize the opportunity duncan’s visit has landed him: ‘to beguile the time, / look like the time; bear wel- upposing inertia on

  Macbeth’s side, lady Macbeth also taunts her husband’s ‘timing’: ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man […] nor time nor place / did then having murdered duncan, Macbeth himself ambivalently comments, ‘had i but died an hour before this chance / i had lived a blessèd time’, and in the close of the play, hearing of lady Macbeth’s own demise, observes ‘She should have died hereafter / Stevens’ poem echoes


Macbeth substantially, if surreptitiously. Macbeth’s metaphor for life from

  the ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech – ‘life’s but a walk- ing shadow’ – is echoed in ‘The Pure good of Theory’ by ‘the beating of

  Stevens probably did not consult Macbeth when he wrote this poem. but he had absorbed enough of Shakespeare’s play for it to take hold of his imagination, consciously or otherwise, during the poem’s cre- ation (Shakespeare also hovers, of course, in ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ and ‘description Without Place’). My concern here is how temporal percep- tion actuates Stevens’ dissection of metaphor and abstraction. The ‘solar chariot’ is a ‘morning metaphor’ in heralding the advent of day and, iron- ically, in being a metaphor from the beginnings (or ‘morning’) of Western literature. but for all the ‘metamorphosis’ metaphor effects – ‘he woke in a metaphor’ – Stevens’ poem resists metaphor’s ‘malformations’. on the one hand, the poem celebrates the world as ‘paradise malformed’, neither lost nor regained. on the other, it resists certain metaphors as deriving 81 from ‘mind[s] malformed’. When ‘rhetoric’ interrupts a ‘narration of the 82 83 84 Ibid., 1.3.78–80: 978. See CPP, 264. CW, 1.5.62–5: 980. 85 Ibid., 1.7.49, 51–2: 981.

  The pure good of theory 197

  eye’, it is, as Macbeth himself asserts, a ‘tale / told by an idiot, full of but rejecting ineffective metaphor offers no viable alternative to ‘the desire to believe in a metaphor’:

  now, closely the ear attends the varying of this precarious music, the change of key not quite detected at the moment of change and, now, it attends the difficult difference. to say the solar chariot is junk is not a variation but an end. Yet to speak of the whole world as metaphor is still to stick to the contents of the mind and the desire to believe in a metaphor. it is to stick to the nicer knowledge of belief, that what it believes in is not true.

  (CPP, 291)

  Music – and, thereby, time – becomes an ironic metaphor for the poem’s attempt to discover a sonorous ‘moment’. Stevens does not simply dispute hackneyed metaphor – ‘the solar chariot is junk’ – but the Pyrrhic vic- tory of rejecting outworn metaphor, resulting in a fatal ‘end’ to imagina- tive thought rather than fecund ‘variation’. Simultaneously, the fanciful embrace of metaphor (‘to speak of the whole world as metaphor’) is simi- larly self-defeating, as if ‘to stick to the contents of the mind’, its ‘nicer knowledge of / belief’, represents evasion from truth. note also how this ‘precarious music’ is susceptible to the timing of

  Stevens’ grasp of sound and rhythm. following the elliptical dots in ‘the world was paradise malformed…’ Stevens’ ‘now’ comprises a staccato attack which then describes what the poem itself effects:


Malformed, the world was paradise malformed…

now, closely the ear attends the varying of this precarious music, the change of key not quite detected at the moment of change and, now, it attends the difficult difference.

  (CPP, 291)

  That ‘now’ is itself a ‘change of key / not quite detected at the moment of change’ because the reader cannot be sure, following the ellipsis, if the ‘now’ is a new theme or, musically and thematically speaking, the

  198 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction continuation of another ‘variation’. Where the poem reiterates ‘and, now, it [the ear] attends’ the reader senses a musical strategy, preparing for the ‘difficult difference’ concerning the ‘solar chariot’ and metaphor at large. but ‘Fire-Monsters’ is not only mimetic, it is doubly self-reflexive. first, the poem’s ‘precarious music’ is a metaphor for the dangers of metaphor- building. Second, it is also part of the poem’s own handling of metaphor. The discussion of the ‘solar chariot’ has a forebodingly abrupt sound: ‘to say the solar chariot is junk / is not a variation but an end.’ in other words, not only does music serve as a metaphor for the problems of met- aphor-creation; the poem takes that metaphor and visits its own ‘precar- ious music’ on ‘The Pure good of Theory’.

  Sonorous play defines the poem’s final contest between metaphor and abstraction. Stevens achieves a marriage of sound, theme and technique that his other 1940s poems – ones equally interested in ‘sound’ – rarely acquire. Sound establishes the bridge between abstraction and metaphor that ‘The Pure good of Theory’ cannot ultimately evade. tellingly, the poem’s sub-titles mark this battle. ‘Fire-Monsters in the Milky Brain’, how- ever enigmatic, is a title rife with metaphor. but the poem’s concluding section is simply ‘Dry Birds Are Fluttering in Blue Leaves’. despite Stevens’ colour symbolism, it is almost possible to read this title as a literal state- ment, or at least as an abstraction without metaphor. appropriately, Section iv ‘argues’ that abstraction is involved in every rendering of ‘reality’:

  it is never the thing but the version of the thing: The fragrance of the woman not her self, her self in her manner not the solid block, The day in its color not perpending time, time in its weather, our most sovereign lord, The weather in words and words in sounds of sound.

  (CPP, 292)

  every ‘version’ of a thing rests on abstracting some part of an ‘actual’ phe- nomenon in order to conceive it: the ‘fragrance of the woman not her self’, day as embodied in its ‘color’ (not as a sign of ‘time’), time in the ‘blows and buffets’, as ‘farewell Without a guitar’ would say, of ‘its wea- ther’. Stevens envisages an infinite regress where every phenomenon is ren- dered by some quality attributable to it by resemblance and association. consistent with an idealist construction of ‘reality’, ‘weather’ is a matter of words and words themselves are distinguished through ‘sounds of sound’. but Stevens does more than illustrate a ‘variation’ on Kant. conceiving

  The pure good of theory 199

  time’s reduction of this imaginative projection to a finite context. Stevens seemingly draws here on Aesthetics and Psychology and Mauron’s insistence Mauron also argues that abstraction Stevens makes a similar affirm- ation. to ‘perpend’ is to ponder, and, etymologically speaking, pondering involves weight (from ponderare, ‘to weigh’). as with section ii’s ‘avoirdu- pois’, abstraction rubs off the burden of unnecessary thought to construct the imaginative haven where the ephemeral, or ethereal, gains sub- however, like section ii, the point of this power is its effect on the ‘actual’. abstraction should not, for Stevens, create another world adjacent or par- allel to time, the weather, the fragrance of women and so on. rather, it gives weight on a perceptual level to the ‘actual’. no sooner than abstraction re-surfaces, however, metaphor re-exerts its hold on Stevens’ poem. i argued earlier that metaphors help abstrac- tions become mediated. What is comical about ‘Dry Birds’, however, is that the metaphors inundating the poem’s close do not render abstract ideas concrete. ‘The Pure good of Theory’ closes with a sonorous explo- sion in which metaphor is heaped on metaphor, but where, as the poem quips, everything ‘remains the same’. it is as though Stevens’ poem were inscribing its own ‘ferocious alphabets’ simply to demonstrate the beguil- ing properties of metaphor itself:

  These devastations are the divertissements of a destroying spiritual that digs-a-dog, Whines in its hole for puppies to come see, Springs outward, being large, and, in the dust, being small, inscribes ferocious alphabets, flies like a bat expanding as it flies, Until its wings bear off night’s middle witch; and yet remains the same, the beast of light, groaning in half-exploited gutturals The need of its element, the final need of final access to its element – of access like the page of a wiggy book, touched suddenly by the universal flare for a moment, a moment in which we read and repeat The eloquences of light’s faculties. 88

  (CPP, 292) See Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 31.

  200 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction These are devastations indeed. in this alliterative and assonantal jumble each metaphor becomes its own divertissement: a ‘divertissement’ is a short ballet between musical acts, hence a diversion or interlude (OED). The poem continues the musical metaphor for the problems of metaphor- building with a diverting if ‘destroying spiritual’ (implying african- american song).

  These last five stanzas comprise, in fact, one introspective sentence, which for all its expansive imagery – springing ‘outward’, the bat ‘expanding as it flies’ – draws the reader into a charybdis of metaphor. Syntactically, Stevens’ ‘devastations’ are the ‘divertissements’ that com- prise the ‘spiritual’ which, combined with the poem’s paronomasia, is itself metamorphosed repeatedly – becoming dog-like (‘digs-a-dog’), flying ‘like a bat’ – only to create other flagrantly metaphorical figures: ‘night’s middle witch’, ‘the beast of light’. but in this saturation of metaphor it is intoxicatingly hard to envisage the abstraction or idea each metaphor might have embodied or resembled. does the end of ‘The Pure good of Theory’ represent, as Macbeth says of life, ‘a tale […] full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing’? hardly. Stevens deliberately pushes metaphor to its limits. he prolepti- cally gestures to what ‘Three academic Pieces’ describes as the ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’: where every ‘resemblance’ approaches an ultimate abstrac- tion, the metaphor of metaphors, or what ‘The Pure good’ calls a ‘final The poem implies that in the rear of metaphor-building is the desire for an abstract telos. Just as no abstraction can attain vivacity with- out metaphor’s aid, the desire for metaphor is part of what Stevens calls ‘the final need’, the attempt to create an ultimate abstraction, be it god, truth or reality. for the philosophical pragmatist – and in Stevens’ prag- matist phases – this is an intriguing, even nonsensical desire. Stevens’ simile for that ‘final access’ (‘of access like the page of a wiggy book’) implies a fusty, fustian philosophical enterprise worthy of parody, like the perfect page from the book of a venerable ‘beard’ (Stevens mocks ‘beards’ in ‘extracts from addresses’ as well as ‘wigs’ specifically in ‘banal i noted earlier how classical rhetoric associates metaphor with ‘trans- ference’. early twentieth-century accounts of the trope argued that meta- phor not only transfers points of resemblance between things, it creates 91 new meaningsMore recently, davidson’s contrary insistence that 92 Ibid., 693. Ibid., 229, 49.

  The pure good of theory 201

  metaphorical meaning differs in no important regard from literal mean- ing has accrued currency among literary critics. davidson’s 1978 ‘What Metaphors Mean’ has attracted wide attention, as have other essays cham- a relatively recent article concerning Stevens, davidson and metaphor borrows davidson’s view of metaphor to read Stevens and interprets ‘The Pure good of Theory’, unsurprisingly, can accommodate davidson’s view of metaphor and views contra davidson, for example nelson goodman’s arguments for the trope. i want to focus on this divergence of view because it assists in understanding the close of Stevens’ poem and its treatment of metaphor and abstraction. davidson argues: ‘metaphors mean what the words, in their most lit- eral interpretation mean, and nothing more’. he challenges the idea that

  ‘a metaphor has, in addition to its literal sense or meaning, another sense davidson’s interest lies not in reducing the magic metaphor entails, but in critiquing the notion that metaphor possesses additional ‘content to be captured’. rather, metaphor’s job is to make readers/listen- ers pay attention to its own powers: ‘[a]ll the while we are in fact focusing on what metaphor makes us notice’. for davidson, ‘there is no limit to goodman, by contrast, dispatches what he calls ‘the confusing word

  “meaning”’ and, contra davidson, asserts that words and sentences vary in literal and metaphorical ‘application’: ‘Metaphor […] involves with- drawing a term or rather a schema of terms from an initial literal appli- cation and applying it in a new way to effect a new sorting either of the in making this claim, however, goodman does not depart all that drastically from davidson; unless, of course, the tentative notion of effecting a ‘new sorting’ of ‘a different realm’ suggests a different arena of meaning in which metaphor operates. goodman clearly departs from davidson, however, by disputing the idea that metaphor can be understood through literal paraphrase. 94 davidson acknowledges that metaphors are hard to paraphrase, but not


donald davidson, ‘What Metaphors Mean’ Critical Inquiry 5 (1978); reed Way dasenbrock,

Truth and Consequences: Intentions, Conventions and the New Thematics (University Park,

95 Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press

clive Stroud-drinkwater, ‘Stevens after davidson on Metaphor’ Philosophy & Literature 26.2

96 , 346–53. 97 davidson, ‘What Metaphors Mean’, 32.

  202 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction because they comprise different meanings from their literal signification. goodman responds:


The acknowledged difficulty and even impossibility of finding a literal paraphrase

for most metaphors is offered by davidson as evidence that there is nothing to

be paraphrased […] but paraphrase of many literal sentences also is exceedingly

difficult, and indeed we may seriously question whether any sentence can be

translated exactly into other words in the same or any other language.

  for goodman, the problem with paraphrasing metaphors is not that there is nothing to be paraphrased beyond literal meaning, but that ‘the meta- phorical application of terms has the effect […] of drawing significant boundaries that cut across ruts worn by habit, of picking out new relevant kinds for which we have no simple and familiar literal descriptions’. This is tantamount to claiming that metaphorical significance differs in kind from literal significance. neither davidson nor goodman excludes literature from his arguments concerning metaphor. This is not, then, a philosophical dispute pertaining to ‘normal’ forms of discourse, because for these philosophers there is no normal discourse. The davidsonian position that ‘[t]here is no such thing as a language’ where ‘a language’ is meant to be a transparently shared medium must be considered when discussing ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ meaning, for these very terms are equivocal for language users. Why, then, shoe-horn davidson and goodman into a discussion of

  Stevens’ use of metaphor in ‘The Pure good of Theory’ if arguments concerning the nature of the trope cannot themselves be resolved? The point is that Stevens’ poem anticipates and demonstrates the problem with retaining a concept of metaphor dependent on either consistency or difference between literal and metaphorical meaning. as the 1946 Specifically, what the close of Stevens’ poem demonstrates is that the ‘final need’ for an abstract ‘final access’ relates to metaphor-building because, as davidson argues, one of metaphor’s effects is inculcating the desire to capture a ‘hidden meaning’.

  Thus, if we pursue covert meaning – trying to give extra currency to Stevens’ ‘beast of light’, ‘middle witch’, ‘divertissements’, ‘expanding’ bat and scurrying ‘puppies’ – we notice not another realm of significance but 99 100 101 Ibid., 126. Ibid., 126–7.


donald davidson, ‘a nice derangement of epitaphs’ in Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives

  The pure good of theory 203

  the activity of metaphor itself. Metaphor is heaped on metaphor, and in this downward spiral the reader learns the poet cannot help but harness the trope to evoke a ‘universal flare’. The phrase precisely illustrates the relation between abstraction – the conceptual attainment of an unattain- able ‘universal’ – and metaphor, represented by the luminous connota- tions of ‘flare’. it is simply impossible to wrest metaphor and abstraction apart, just as Stevens’ ‘universal flare’ cannot be unpacked into a literal or abstract meaning distinct from its metaphorical significance. no literal rendering of the end of ‘The Pure good of Theory’ can do justice to the poem, but not merely because metaphors are hard to para- phrase. There are simply too many cross-fertilizing metaphors in the poem’s last sentence to construe its senses definitively. davidson would have relished Stevens’ ‘and yet remains the same’. on the davidsonian view, whatever is ‘said’ in a poem does not change because of prolifer- ating metaphor. instead, the closing metaphors of ‘The Pure good of Theory’ are signs, as ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ has it, for ‘Desiring the exhilarations of changes’; rather than constituting earth-shattering but what ‘The Pure good of Theory’ also shows is that, as goodman argues, there are some uses of metaphor that render the test of paraphrase irrelevant, for it is debatable whether there is a lit- eral content to Stevens’ final sentence which needs to be coaxed from the poem’s spiralling metaphors. Stevens’ poem is demonstrative and its ‘the- ory’ is not reducible to a straightforward thesis. The 1947 poem ‘bouquet

  What ‘The Pure good of Theory’ ultimately achieves is the reconcili- ation of metaphor to abstraction, a strategy that rescues Stevens from an inhuman ‘abstract’. The ‘final access’ is, after all, based on a ‘final need’. inherited metaphors pressure the poet into cliché, but abstraction issues the creation of new, invigorating metaphors because, as suggested, it encourages conception without immediate reference to a predetermined or inherited context (even although one originally abstracts from an exist- ing context). Thus, the close of the poem wittily proffers the glut of meta- phors that Stevens, at his most abstract, can muster. but i want in the concluding chapter to rein in the various expressions of abstraction we find in Stevens’ work as we turn to the final decade and 103 104 the poet’s intriguingly bourgeois meditations on an abstract imagination.

  Ibid., 257, emphasis added. Ibid., 370.


cH a p t er 7

Bourgeois abstraction: poetry, painting and

the idea of mastery in late Stevens


What is terribly lacking from life today is the well developed indi-

vidual, the master of life, or the man who by his mere appearance

convinces you that a mastery of life is possible. the classic hero and the bourgeois, are different, much.

  The classic changed. There have been many. and there are many bourgeois heroes.


Peter [lee] lives a good deal out of books. recently i got a letter

from him in which he described the square in fribourg opposite

the post office as full of country people selling butter and vege-

tables, chickens and eggs […] [h]e described the town itself as full

of school girls not only from this country but from various parts

of europe, not to speak of egypt. he wound up with the explan-

ation: Il faut tenter vivre […] i came across this very expression in

something connected with Mallarmé. – i suppose, therefore, that

the butter and vegetables and chickens and eggs were all artificial

and that the school girls, especially the dark-eyed jewels from cairo,

  7.1 m a s t e ry of l i fe: at Hom e w i t H wa l l ac e s t e v e ns Stevens’ final decade witnessed a number of achievements as the poet’s reputation finally grew. With Transport to Summer, The Auroras of Autumn,


The Necessary Angel, two Selected Poems and the long-resisted Collected

Poems, Stevens experienced greater magazine publication, increased

  academic criticism and a raft of honorary degrees and awards. Stevens’ reputation as a major poet was hardly secure at the time of his death, but his maturation as an artist, especially his delving into abstraction,

  Bourgeois abstraction 205

  was undeniable. Such subtleties would take years to appreciate; many remain challenging to this day. for example, in ‘late Stevens’ the ‘cool abstraction’ of poems from The Auroras of Autumn – say, ‘The owl in the Sarcophagus’ – differs from the ‘warm abstraction’ of certain poems from The Rock – say, ‘a Quiet normal life’. Similarly, in ‘last Stevens’ the coolly abstract ‘of Mere being’ differs from apparently ‘warmer’ texts such as ‘reality is an activity of the Most august imagination’ (or ‘first Warmth’ and ‘as You leave the room’). however, even Stevens’ most impenetrable work tends toward human abstractions of desire. Mastery of life – rather than mastery of poetry or the imagination – becomes his enduring theme. as with his despair at Peter lee’s ‘literariness’, the world of Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’, for the older Stevens, was a literary dead-end. although Stevens himself was charged with promulgating arti- fice (a world of ‘wax stuffed with sawdust’), and although his verse relied upon Mallarmé’s example (the quintessential poet of the ‘idea’), Stevens’ mature aesthetic shifted as he absorbed his theoretical speculations con- cerning abstraction and came to rely more on abstract meditation itself as Simultaneously, Stevens drew his poetry toward the ‘normal’, ‘central’ and ‘ordinary’ – even as he aestheticized these domains, encouraging readers to speculate on their extraordinary qualities. When Stevens read Mauron, he underlined the following:


it seems to me that the perfect artist would admit into his work all inward voices,

until the moment when he ceased to listen and began to yield to their prompt-

ings. for at that very moment he would have forgotten his art and become a

  little did Stevens know this idea of the ‘commonplace’ might serve the maturing artist because of his penchant for abstraction. ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ insisted ‘[t]he major abstraction is the commonal’, but that poem had not discovered how to make abstraction seem in touch with in his last decade, however, Stevens refined his abstract aesthetic in order to reflect (on) commonality. his middle to late phases, 4 as longenbach notes, suggest that ‘the sublimity of the humdrum is an 5 See introduction.


longenbach argues that Stevens’ abstract aesthetic ‘was achieved under the stress of the Second

World War, but when the stress slackened, the aesthetic was strong enough to perpetuate itself

on its own terms’. in my view Stevens’ rhetorical figures (his literal ‘terms’) were expendable and

non-reiterable. longenbach rightly adds that Stevens aimed not to ‘build a world from poetry’

6 but ‘to build poetry a place in the world’ (Wallace Stevens, 280).

  206 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction achievement’Stevens’ developing tastes in painting, his enlarging cor- respondence and the later Necessary Angel essays testify to this emphatic change. in 1946, almost four years after creating his crystalline ‘mundo’,

  Stevens wrote: ‘for myself, the inaccessible jewel is the normal and all by 1949 Stevens noted a comment from edward Sackville-West which clearly illuminates a change of objective: ‘the later proliferations of romantic and symbol- ist theory have tended to obscure one of the most valuable functions of poetry: the illumination of the usual’. Stevens’ pursuit of the ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ led him to evade the merely ‘literary’, as he became increasingly disenchanted with literary circles and literary renown. Stevens refused to give an address at dylan Thomas’ US memorial, kept out of the Pound and bollingen Prize controversy (despite tate’s cajoling) and refused to sanction either his views of other writers publicly or the use of their views of his own work for promotional materials (even ransom was cautioned for describing Stevens’ work in terms of ‘nobility’). Writing to tate about

  Jean Wahl’s review of ransom’s 1945 Selected Poems, Stevens remarked: ‘i am going through a period in which i am inexpressibly sick of all sorts of fault-finding, and if Wahl has been finding fault with ransom, i don’t

  The mid-1940s embrace of the ‘normal’ informs Stevens’ view that an ‘abundant poetry’ should replace a Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’ in 1944 Stevens wrote of ‘The curtains in the house of the Metaphysician’ that it was composed when he ‘felt strongly that poems were things in them- an abstract imagination, by contrast, aims to rejuvenate the ‘nor- mal’ in a poetry gesturing toward ‘things’ at large. literature as an end in itself is irrelevant here. When composing ‘description Without Place’ Stevens insisted: ‘reality is the great fond, and it is because it is that the purely literary amounts to so little’ (adding later: ‘intellectual isolation 8


longenbach also links cavell’s notion of being ‘in quest of the ordinary’ with the ‘humdrum’

9 quality of late Stevens (Wallace Stevens, 264). 10 L, 521. 11 Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 103.


See L, 802. tate compiled a letter to be signed by ‘100 writers’, including Stevens, disapprov-

ing of the Saturday Review of Literature’s attack on Pound, ‘modern poetry and criticism’, 18

october 1949, WAS, 2382. Stevens wrote to tate: ‘1. i know nothing about this; 2. care less; 3. do

not believe that the Saturday review or benet or hillyer […] could possibly harm the cause of

letters; 4. prefer to keep out of this; and 5. intend to do just that’, 20 october 1949, WAS, 2404.

  Bourgeois abstraction 207

  certainly, Stevens was no Philip larkin, tony harrison or Peter reading: he was unlikely to take verse-writing to task when poetry remained his ‘piety’. but like these poets he was aware that literary self-consciousness blocks poetic expression. fear of the ‘literary’ caused Stevens to distance himself from tate and the new critics (not to men- tion eliot and Pound). in 1944 Stevens observed of tate:


he wrote the other day calling attention to a group of his poems in tHe kenyon

review. after reading these, i wonder whether there is enough of the peasant in

tate: Il faut être paysan d’être poète […] [h]is pride is a little like Pierre duPont’s

[sic] pride in his espaliers. not that i prefer the wild, old bush, but i like sap

and lots of it and, somehow, this Kenyon group seems to me like poetry written

  Stevens implies poems should be neither museum pieces nor artificial ‘hothouse’ creations. Poetry’s ‘sap’ should ooze naturally, even as the poet becomes wary of ‘the wild, old bush’. Stevens likewise observed of Jules renard:


renard constantly says things that interest me immensely. They are, however, on

the literary level on which it seems possible to say such things for a lifetime and

yet be forgotten on the way home from the funeral. The writer is never recog-

nized as one of the masters of our lives, although he gives them their daily color

and form.

  by 1945, becoming a master of life was Stevens’ implied aim. given his milieu as a connecticut surety bond lawyer – whose greatest ‘sins’ were hasty trips to new York – it is unsurprising the thirst for abstraction would take a ‘bourgeois’ form in his late work.

  This new direction is glimpsed in 1943. Writing about van gogh, Stevens explained:


The word for all this is maniement: i don’t mean a mania of manner, but […] the

total subjection of reality to the artist. it may be only too true that van gogh

had fortuitous assistance in the mastery of reality. but he mastered it […] and

that is so often what one wants to do in poetry: to seize the whole mass of every-

thing and squeeze it, and make it one’s own.

  ‘description Without Place’ would critique nietzsche’s ‘mania of man- ner’, a solipsistic idealism in Stevens’ eyes. nietzsche constructs ‘an The philosopher’s idealism, despite its anti-metaphysical allure, is portrayed through a mind too self-contained:

  208 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

  nietzsche in basel studied the deep pool of these discolorations, mastering The moving and the moving of their forms […] his revery was the deepness of the pool, The very pool, his thoughts the colored forms, The eccentric souvenirs of human shapes, Wrapped in their seemings, crowd on curious crowd, in a kind of total affluence, all first, all final, colors subjected in revery to an innate grandiose, an innate light, The sun of nietzsche gildering the pool, Yes: gildering the swarm-like manias in perpetual revolution, round and round…

  (CPP, 299)

  ‘Maniement’ means ‘handling’. Stevens suggests van gogh’s deft brush- work conveys mastery of reality. for there is a difference between hand-


ling ‘reality’ such that it is controlled by the artist (‘the total subjection

  of reality to the artist’) and, for Stevens’ nietzsche, perceiving ‘reality’ as nothing more than one’s own mind at work: a ‘revery’, ‘first’ and ‘final’.

  Those ‘swarm-like manias’ also recall the ‘Schwärmerei’ of ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’, save that ‘description Without Place’ is wary of the ‘innate grandiose’ in which nietzsche goes ‘round and round’.

  ‘Schwärmerei’ in ‘notes’ connotes enthusiasm and the desire to attain ‘a kind of Swiss perfection’. but the ‘swarm-like manias’ Stevens attributes to nietzsche connote the fanaticism coleridge associates with ‘Schwärmerei’, as he discusses poets who lack ‘imaginative power’:


cold and phlegmatic in their own nature […] they head and inflame by co-

acervation; or like bees they become restless and irritable through the increased

temperature of collected multitudes. hence the german word for fanaticism

[…] is derived from the swarming of bees, namely, Schwärmen, Schwärmerey.

  nietzsche fails, then, to attain ‘a kind of Swiss perfection’, despite residing ‘in basel’. his ‘Schwärmerei’ are more disturbing, connoting the ‘swarm- like manias’ coleridge detects in unimaginative poets. Such ‘mania’ Stevens felt an increasing need to avoid as his own poetry aimed to realize the serenity or mastery of reality the poet admired in van gogh.

  Bourgeois abstraction 209

  With regard to Stevens and painting, this book has focused primarily on Picasso and cézanne. Stevens overcame his initial distaste for abstrac- tion partly through ‘accepting’ Picasso, which led to an about-turn where cézanne became the more exemplary artist. by the late 1930s Stevens was already tiring with Modernist art’s ‘intellectual’ dimensions, and especially with Picasso. cézanne provided him with an older model for abstraction. Stevens’ inspirations drew, consciously or otherwise, from the british romantics – as well as emerson and Whitman – through cézanne and van gogh, uniting abstraction and idealism. Such a leg- acy helped Stevens understand how to avoid becoming, as furst wrote of Picasso, ‘an over-intellectual designer who moves one to thought, but not to feeling’, even although abstraction would prove a risky strategy for as

chapter 4 revealed, Stevens endorsed furst’s view whilst embracing

  cézanne. but, in reality, the poet’s dismissal of Picasso, intensifying post- 1945, involves protesting too much. Stevens had engaged with Picasso partly because he worried over the relationship between poetry and the ‘actual world’ of the depression. as ‘owl’s clover’ exemplifies, Stevens initially feared abstraction because of the charge of evading ‘reality’. however, his scrutiny of Picasso in ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ was pivotal since that poem enabled him to dramatize his fear of and fascin- ation with abstraction. although he never experimented extensively with a pared-down poetry mimetic of ‘abstract art’, Stevens was drawn to that art’s representational issues: from the 1913 armory Show to the institu- tionalization of Modernist artworks during the 1940s and 50s. focillon’s


The Life of Forms in Art also clearly helped Stevens consolidate his sense of

abstract power.

  but this picture is simplistic. Undeniably, Stevens’ initial embrace of abstraction united mind, world and poetry, paradoxically to evade ‘intellectualism’ or manifesto-movements. but Stevensian abstraction only becomes clearly delineated in the poet’s final decade as his sense of painting developed. The period 1945–55 arguably witnesses Stevens’ most remarkable poetry, coinciding with an increase in correspondence and picture-purchasing. during this time Stevens also became convinced he would never travel outside the USa again. apart from the occasional trip to new York, his world grew literally smaller as it became imaginatively larger, as Stevens’ domestic situation indicates.

  210 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction one aim of this concluding chapter, then, is to suggest how Stevens’ changing tastes in painting – as he responded to Modernism – affected his final decade. focusing on the art criticism of Stevens’ personal library – as well as his voluminous correspondence – the chapter charts the shades of abstraction to which Stevens was drawn. discussion then turns to Stevens’ domestic space, where art, literature, gastronomy and the pleas- This imaginative defence-mechanism scorns the pejorative ‘bourgeois’ whilst lauding a fecund domestic space: one neither luxurious nor impoverished or even, for that matter, house-proud. rather than provide exhaustive close-readings, my aim is to portray Stevens’ final decade through refer- ence to this study’s collective reflections on abstraction.

  Stevens’ earliest exposure to the relations between poetry and painting lessing argues that artists was probably through lessing’s The Laocoön are concerned with ‘personified abstractions’, suggesting painting is lim- ited to ‘represent[ing] the visible as invisible, or the invisible as visible’. however, the poet may ‘raise this degree of illusion in us by the representa- given Stevens’ own mid-career convic- tion that robust poetry should make things ‘a little hard / to see’, lessing’s Stevens also owned titles on the dutch Masters, impressionists, expressionists, Primitives and Modernists as well as closer-to-home figures such as Maine painter russell cheney or imported Surrealist Yves tanguy (who lived in Woodbury, connecticut The study of tanguy was by James Thrall Soby; 25 Stevens acquiring the majority of Soby’s MoMa publications The poet’s


Sharpe notes the ‘domesticated vision’ of ‘an ordinary evening in new haven’, arguing that

‘Stevens was not the helpless victim of his rocking-chair’ for all his disinclination to travel

26 (Sharpe, Wallace Stevens, 179, 178). 27 See Stevens’ copy of lessing, The Laocoön. 28 lessing, The Laocoön, 59, 81. 29 30 Ibid., 88. CPP, 275.

russell cheney, Russell Cheney 1881–1945: A Record of His Work (new York: oxford

University Press, ; eugene delacroix, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix trans. Walter Pach


(london: Jonathan cape, );

Walter Pach, The Masters of Modern Art (new York: huebsch, ; daniel catton rich, Henri

Rousseau (new York: MoMa, );

Wilhelm Uhde, Five Primitive Masters trans. ralph Thompson (new York: Quadrangle, );

31 vincent van gogh, Letters to Emile Bernard trans. douglas lord (london: cresset


Stevens also owned Soby’s Salvador Dali (1941), Georges Rouault: Paintings and Prints (1945),

Contemporary Painters (1948) and, with alfred J. barr, Twentieth-Century Italian Art (1949). Soby

  Bourgeois abstraction 211

  mournful 1949 complaint about ‘professional modernism’ no doubt derives revealingly, charles henri ford had written earlier on the relationship between Soby and Stevens in hartford. although a quirky ‘interview’, ford witnessed Stevens’ domestic art collection, reporting the poet’s more loaded statements:


[he] show[ed] me […] the kind of things he liked… Paintings here and there

by obscure frenchmen, mostly impressionist in style… You see? he said…

‘Soby would probably be contemptuous of these paintings.’… Yes, i said, recall-

ing Soby’s beautiful chiricos and tchelitchews… ‘You could probably dupli-

cate Soby’s collection fifteen times,’ said Stevens… i wondered, thinking of the

uniqueness of each picture, not of the names… did Mr. Stevens mean to imply

that he himself was more independent in his choice of painters, more original?

  certainly Stevens eventually developed strongly independent views of his own paintings. That ford thinks ‘of the uniqueness of each picture, not of the names’ also shows Stevens’ influence, the implication being that much other ‘Modernist’ painting, by 1940, was commodified and all but canon- ized. Stevens was, by contrast, seeking the so-called lesser talents who might be silently changing the course of painting. What the poet did not reveal was that these ‘minor figures’ – tal-coat, dufy, gromaire, cavaillès – enabled him to transform his private, abstract meditations into poetry.

  Some critics are surprised that Stevens did not acquire more overtly Modernist works, suggesting his ‘bourgeois’ tastes clashed with a passion for Klee, as well as being discontinuous with the painterly dimensions to some extent, Stevens could not acquire Picasso,

  Matisse, Kandinsky or Klee even if he had wanted: firstly, because of the expenditure and, secondly, because these artists’ works were largely unavailable (the poet did own a braque, but that was an exception). What


really characterized Stevens’ purchases was his desire to make an aesthetic

  virtue of necessity: ‘what i want is something exquisite and at the same time something for which i should not be obliged to pay as if i were a Such ‘modest’ paintings represented opportunities to 32 project his own imagination domestically rather than in a museum space 33 L, 647.


charles henri ford, ‘verlaine in hartford: has the Mystery Man of Modern Poetry really

34 another Self?’ View 1.1 (1940), 6.


James Johnson Sweeney thought Stevens’ art collection was ‘bourgeois’ and that it betrayed

‘playing it safe’. bernard heringman lamented Stevens’ ‘established bourgeois taste’ (brazeau,

Parts of a World, 228, 201). These views underestimate the subtlety of Stevens’ imaginative

  212 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (despite visits to the Wadsworth athenaeum); and, as with tal-coat and ‘angel Surrounded by Paysans’, such meditation initiated poems. Stevens cherished, therefore, cheerful, charming, even paysan work: not unsophis- ticated, but not stylized either and certainly not indebted to any particu- admittedly, Stevens was not alone in mourning derivative ‘abstraction- ists’. The early american interest in european abstract painting – as in a. e. gallatin’s ‘The evolution of abstract art’ (Museum of living art, new York, 1933) and alfred h. barr’s ‘cubism and abstract art’ (MoMa, 1936) – was by the early 1940s on the wane. indeed, by the Second World War, the american abstract artists association essentially folded, hav- ing already spread their abstract message following formation in 1937. if duchamp and Picabia challenged american tastes after the armory Show and if Surrealism challenged regionalist and social realist 1930s american art, by the mid-1940s new York had absorbed abstract painting (albeit nevertheless, Stevens’ tastes in french painting were relatively idiosyncratic, and he never lost faith in his favourite contemporary abstractionists: Klee, Mondrian and Kandinsky. but how did Stevens discuss abstraction, painting and poetry in his final decade? in 1948 the poet wrote to feo:


i think that all this abstract painting […] going on nowadays is just so much

frustration and evasion. eventually it will lead to a new reality. When a thing has

been blurred by the obscurity of metaphysics and eventually emerges from that

blur, it has all the characteristics of a brilliantly clear day after a month of mist

and rain. no-one can predict what that new reality is going to be because it will

be developed in the mind and spirit and by the hand of a single artist or group of

  Superficially, abstract painting does not speak to ‘metaphysics’. but Stevens knew Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian variously insisted that abstraction enabled access to spiritual domains. Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (1912) absorbed german idealism, goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810) and Theosophy. Mondrian, also a Theosophist, desired access to the ‘spir- 36 itual realm’ in painting, observing: ‘cubism did not accept the logical


Ibid., 728. Stevens refers here to ‘second-rate cheese’ and ‘second-rate wine’, but his gastronomic

imagination is of a piece with a ‘bourgeois’ desire for the paysan; hence his liking for Primitive

37 painting, henri rousseau especially.


See Moszynka, Abstract Art, 141–3; and david anfam, Abstract Expressionism (london: Thames

  Bourgeois abstraction 213

  consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction Klee, like Stevens, was more mystified by abstraction, feeling that ‘reality’ often held sway regardless in his work. as Klee observed in one of his bauhaus note- books: ‘it is interesting to observe how real the object remains in spite of all abstractions […] it is possible that a picture will move far away Klee also resisted autotelic abstraction: ‘We construct and keep on constructing, yet intu- Stevens was certainly impressed by Klee’s desire to uncover ‘the secret places’, as ‘The relations between Poetry and Painting’ demonstrates.

  Stevens’ letter to feo, then, sees hackneyed abstract painting to be ‘frustration’ or worse ‘evasion’ from reality, as if the ‘metaphysics’ of abstraction had, in minor examples, substituted for genuine revelation. as the poet observed to Thomas Mcgreevy, ‘it is easy to like Klee and Kandinsky. What is difficult is to like the many minor figures who do not communicate any theory that validates what they do and, in conse- Stevens would contrast

  Jean arp with Klee and Mondrian thus:


[arp’s] imagination lacks strength. his feelings are incapable of violence […]

[t]he human spirit need not fear him […] he was a friend of Klee’s and he knew

Mondrian. he goes along with Klee’s prismatic and alpine snowdrops […] but

he does not go along with Mondrian. it is nonsense to speak of his integrity as

an abstractionist in the same breath with which one speaks of Mondrian. arp

is a minor stylist, however agreeable. but for Mondrian the abstract was the

  Stevens displays some machismo in desiring the bedrock of ‘real- ity’, encouraging the ‘human spirit’ to fear creation. but note that, for 39 Stevens, arp’s problem is not that he relies too much on the ‘human


eeckhout compellingly analyses Mondrian’s influence on Stevens. Mondrian’s aim was to see

through nature, to ‘abstract everything until i arrive at the foundation (always still an exterior

foundation)’. in effect, Stevens was attracted to Mondrian’s desire to realize ‘reality’ without the

intrusion of human sentiment and to Klee and Kandinsky as exemplars of an idealist abstraction

in which mind and world interact (eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 176, 179 n. 40). See also Macleod,

40 Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, 114–21. 41 See hajo düchtung, Paul Klee: Painting Music (Munich: Preste ), 25.


Moszynska, Abstract Art, 100. Moszynska argues that the bauhaus represented a ‘dichotomy’

between ‘the mathematical precision’ of the constructivists and ‘the more intuitive, subjective

and expressionist attitude of Klee and Kandinsky’ (98). although Stevens was clearly entranced

by Mondrian’s ‘cool’ grids and lines, he was equally comfortable with Klee’s and Kandinsky’s

  214 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction spirit’, but that he lacks the capacity to perform creative ‘violence’. Stevens observed elsewhere: ‘abstract sculptors, like abstract painters, should be totally abstract, not half so. arp is only half so […] his forms will never constitute a “visionary language.” Unlike the things of brancusi they if Stevens sought vibrant minor figures, clearly not every candidate would do. Perhaps conveni- ently, Stevens does not ponder how ‘abstract’ the poet ‘should be’, even although the notion of intimidating with possibilities effectively describes Stevens’ most abstract poems.

  When it came to the painters Stevens collected, the poet experienced pleasure and frustration in assimilating his purchases. late Stevens wit- nesses not just a poet who revels in abstraction, but one who derives ‘ideas’ for abstract poetry from paintings. as filreis argues, Stevens trans- formed the largely representational french paintings he collected into abstract poems rather than identify with the american abstract painting a french still-life bought on the report of Paule vidal was something Stevens relished ‘in the abstract’, but once it arrived in connecticut its physical reality Stevens would abstract again, not merely to review the same painting with fresh eyes, but as a stimulus to poetry. in the well-documented case of the tal-coat that ‘became’ ‘angel Surrounded by Paysans’, Stevens oscillated between disappointment (‘tal coat is supposed to be a man of violence but one soon becomes accus- tomed to the present picture’) and curiosity: ‘This man [tal-coat] puts up a great deal of resistance to the effort to penetrate him […] a violent

  The creative violence with which Stevens repeatedly renewed his home- world finds its source in precisely this kind of abstract effort: to make tal- coat into the painter who will almost satisfy Stevens’ incessant longing for vibrant ‘reality’.

  Significantly, Stevens judged figures like tal-coat in the same breath as his beloved Klee. The barrier of a worn-out ‘metaphysical’ aesthetic became a frequent theme:


cogniat says that tal coat is one of the few young painters from whom it seems

possible to expect a new reality. a painter […] [of] abstract painting is likely to


pick up a certain amount of the metaphysical vision of the day […] i don’t object

47 Ibid., 629.

alan filreis, ‘“beyond the rhetorician’s touch”: Stevens’ Painterly abstractions’ American

Literary History 4., 230–63.

  Bourgeois abstraction 215

to painting that is modern in sense. to illustrate: i have the greatest liking for

Klee. no-one is more interested in modern painting if it really is modern […]

if it really is the work of a man of intelligence sincerely seeking to satisfy the

needs of his sensibility. but the so-called metaphysical vision has been intoler-

ably exploited by men without intelligence.

  Stevens relishes bringing a nominally ‘second-rate’ painter like tal-coat to the table alongside Klee. if this required abstract embellishment – transforming the charming into the fecund – Stevens willingly exerted the effort, especially if the ‘pay-off’ was a poem such as ‘angel Surrounded by Paysans’. but this craving is subtler still. Stevens was drawn to artists who seemed ‘ordinary’ but had painstakingly achieved the semblance of sim- plicity. Speaking of another portrait in his collection, Stevens observed, without apparent criticism: ‘The picture occupies me when i lean back to rest from reading. Why is the artist, Jean cavaillès, a nobody and why is as Stevens pondered tal-coat, cavaillès, dufy, dubuffet, brianchon and others, his suspicions of professionalized modernism deepened:

  ‘Somehow modern art is coming to seem much less modern than used to be the case. one feels that a good many people are practicing modern- ism and therefore that it no longer remains valid’, observing in another letter: ‘i rather resent professional modernism the way one resents an clearly, when Stevens began publishing poetry, ‘Modernism’ was anything but professionalized. but by the late 1940s, if not before, the poet distanced himself from the ‘mass’ absorption of abstract art, at least as it was expressed in museum collections. for example, after a frustrated visit to MoMa, Stevens reported:


is all this really hard thinking, really high feeling or is it a lot of nobodies run-

ning after a few somebodies? i enjoyed quite as much the window in a fruit shop

that i know of which was filled with the most extraordinary things: beauteous

plums, peaches like Swedish blondes, pears that made you think of rubens and

the first grapes pungent through the glass. but on the whole new York was a

  Stevens’ aesthetic pleasures constitute gastronomic, painterly and literary complexes. That new York is ‘a lemon’ (a dud or disappointment) wittily contrasts with Stevens’ salivation at other fruits, as he constructs his own ‘still life’: the ‘beauteous plums’, the ‘peaches like Swedish blondes’, the pears reminiscent of rubens and those first-season grapes almost smelt

  216 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘through the glass’ (their pungency synaesthetically visualized). This is verbal painting, a prelude to a poem. note too how the nominally ‘ordin- ary’ ‘window in a fruit shop’ is laden with ‘extraordinary things’, forbidden fruits (‘Swedish blondes’?), unlike the uncomfortable confines of MoMa where run-of-the-mill ‘nobodies’ chase genuine ‘somebodies’ in quest of the extraordinary. re-creating the scene of Stevens’ voyeurism, the poet harnesses abstraction to touch the exquisite curves of ‘the ordinary’. likewise, what Stevens appreciated in tal-coat’s still life is the absence of obvious collage (collage being a hallmark of ‘professional modernism’):


My tal coat occupies me […] it is a still life in which the objects are a reddish

brown venetian glass dish, containing a sprig of green, on a table, on which

there are various water bottles, a terrine of lettuce, a glass of dark red wine and

a napkin. note the absence of mandolins, oranges, apples, copies of le Journal

and similar fashionable commodities […] it contradicts all of one’s expectations

  The fruits listed here are ‘off-limits’ as topoi of traditional still life. but the omission of mandolins and ‘copies of le Journal’ alludes to early cubist representations of stringed instruments and newspaper collage. admittedly, although tal-coat indirectly fuelled Stevens’ dislike for derivative Modernism, the painter did not escape the poet’s disappoint- ments. as much as Stevens aestheticized his domestic space, the last thing he wanted was a ‘domesticated’ painting, even one generating a poem: ‘now that i have had the new picture at home […] it seems almost domesticated […] i have even given it a title of my own: Angel Surrounded


By Peasants […] This title alone tames it as a lump of sugar might tame a

  tal-coat, however, like the lion after his sugar lump, survived scrutiny. Stevens admitted to Paule vidal:


[tal-coat represents] an effort to attain a certain reality purely by way of the

artist’s own vitality […] he is virile and he has the naturalness of a man who

  ‘virility’ and ‘vitality’ were qualities Stevens also appreciated in raoul dufy (whom he collected), who was neither factional nor an ‘experimen- talist’: ‘More and more, one wants the voices of one’s contemporaries – today’s music, painting, poetry, thinking. […] When i was able to sit in a room full of the paintings of raoul dufy […] my chief pleasure was in

  Bourgeois abstraction 217

  as noted, Stevens resisted delineating abstraction too strongly in his own work or in discussing ‘the poet’. one letter, however, almost sees him differentiating between the force of abstraction for poet and painter respectively. Writing to barbara church in 1948, Stevens claimed:


[t]he momentum toward abstraction exerts a greater force on the poet than on

the painter. i imagine that the tendency of all thinking is toward the abstract

and perhaps i am merely saying that the abstractions of the poet are abstracter

than the abstractions of the painter. anyhow, that does not have to be settled

  Stevens’ humorous dissatisfaction with this hypothesis – and the irony that such an idea could be ‘settled this morning’ – is subtly defensive. even if Stevens had elaborated the theory that the poet’s abstractions are ‘abstracter’ than the painter’s, we should not forget the performance of which Stevens’ daily, impromptu letters are composed. bringing other artists to task strategically enabled Stevens to scrutinize abstraction with- out dissecting his own poetic practice. note how the above letter describes ‘the momentum toward abstraction’ and ‘thinking’ rather than discussing realized poems. Speaking of auberjonois – whom Stevens met and whose son inspired ‘repetitions of a Young captain’ – the poet asked barbara church about auberjonois Sr’s apartment: ‘Was it the “appauvrissement” of a theorist grown abstract with age, or was it the abundance […] of giorgione, delighted with a posture, a piece of cloth, a tree. how much of Stevens was projecting his own concern at being ‘a theorist grown abstract with age’ onto auberjonois hoping the painter still exhibited the domestic abundance that would convince Stevens of his own ‘human nature’. of dufy Stevens wrote: ‘the artist will always come through as one of the masters of his particular time’, observing ‘a human self-confidence, as if one had known from the beginning the eventual denouement of Stevens was referring to dufy’s La Fée Électricité, a massive mural, as well as the painter’s over- all career. With regard to Marcel gromaire, Stevens also projected the happy notion of the genuine artist’s work finding fulfilment, regardless of public taste: ‘These […] are the pictures of a determined man, somewhat gromaire, dufy, tal-coat and cavaillès col- lectively represented a ‘master of life’ as ‘master of art’ for the Stevens who envisaged himself becoming an equally masterful poet. but in order to

  218 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction appreciate Stevens’ manipulation of these more ‘minor’ figures, we must examine the nuanced domesticity of his ‘bourgeois’ abstraction.

  Stevens’ ‘bourgeois’ tendencies are revealed in his love of the ‘primi- tive’ henri rousseau. Stevens may have been acquainted with rousseau from as early as 1904, and later most likely absorbed rousseau through Uhde’s Five Primitive Masters ) and rich’s Henri Rousseau ( The ‘Primitives’ were, appealingly, not really a group at all. as Uhde writes: ‘its members remained total strangers to one another […] [t]hey had no group experimental “purpose,” no group “program”.’ all were ‘self-taught, poor and obscure’ and only formed ‘a “group” in the sense that the early christian saints […] formed a spiritual brotherhood.’ These painters were ‘primitives’ through achieving ‘an air of unsophisticated artlessness or clumsiness’ (which chimes with Stevens’ love of ‘the ordin- ary’). ‘They had no education to speak of, no opportunities, no cultural stimulus, no funds’: precisely the artists that garner ‘bourgeois’ recogni- intriguingly, Uhde paints the Primitives in inadvertently ‘Stevensian’ terms, seemingly recalling ‘Prelude to objects’ with its cézanne-inspired notion that one ‘has not / to go to the louvre to behold’ oneself:


occasional visits to the louvre, if they made them, had little effect on their

careers; the masterpieces of art […] spoke another language. […] [t]heir lives

wore a humdrum pattern and ran in humdrum channels. The business of earn-

ing enough for mere bread and wine came first, and luxury […] consisted of

cheap magazines or picture postcards […] [which] were one source of the art of

  Stevens likewise lived off picture postcards for inspiration, even as he had actual paintings to devour. although his professional career amply pro- vided ‘bread and wine’, Stevens’ deep attachment to the ‘channels’ of the ‘humdrum’ is unmistakable. but was Stevens in danger of romanticizing rousseau? The frequent references to ‘bread and wine’ in his own poetry suggest metaphorical


and actual concerns. Moreover, if Stevens absorbed rich’s study, he would

  have read how the ‘primitive’ tag was a pejoratively ‘bourgeois’ notion which seriously underestimated rousseau’s significance:


for half a century […] [rousseau’s art] has been obscured by an insistent and


almost exclusive belief in its primitivism. because the artist was self-taught […]

See L, 71. Stevens also possibly saw rousseau’s work at Walter arensberg’s apartment (see

  Bourgeois abstraction 219

rousseau was first scorned, then loved for his ‘naïveté.’ his enthusiasts allowed

him no sources or development. he was simply a ‘primitive’ […] and automatic-

  rousseau himself remarked: ‘i have been told that my work is not of this century. as you will understand, i cannot now change my manner which but rousseau was taken seriously by Picasso, braque and delaunay before MoMa exhibited any of the painter’s work, Picasso and braque even organizing a regular event known as the ‘banquet rousseau’ at Picasso’s rue ravignan studio, with if such homage was socially ironic, the early Modernist painters cer- tainly appreciated rousseau’s work, as delaunay’s ‘The city of Paris’

  (1910–12) illustrates (alluding explicitly to rousseau’s ‘Myself, Portrait- landscape’). What matters is the two-fold attraction rousseau held for these early Modernist painters and Stevens alike. on the one hand, rousseau was paradoxically ‘exotic’: a self-taught painter, living the alleged ‘contradiction’ between customs official work (he was known as ‘le douanier’) and the imaginative strength of his art. on the other, rousseau’s painting was a caricature of ‘exoticism’, replete not just with jungle scenes but also strangely ‘bourgeois’ portraits of Parisian fam- ilies. nominally ‘simple’ scenes like those in ‘Portrait of a lady’ (1895–7), ‘The Wedding’ (1904–5), ‘The football Players’ or ‘old Junier’s cart’ (both 1908) involve unusual juxtapositions, particularly in the scale of rousseau’s figures. ‘Myself, Portrait-landscape’ (1890) is a special case that can be read allegorically both in terms of the artist’s sense of himself but what was Stevens’ sense of rousseau and Primitivism? Writing of bombois, the poet observed:


bombois […] is a [henri] rousseau who has never visited Mexico […] a rousseau

without imagination. he is a contemporary primitive and i have no way of know-

ing as yet what relations a picture of this sort will form with the other pictures in

my very small collection. however, it is fresh, pleasant and without sophistica-

64 tion. The truth is that i have a taste for braque and a purse for bombois. 65 66 rich, Henri Rousseau, 13. Ibid., quoted on title page. 67 nancy ireson, Interpreting Henri Rousseau (london: tate Publishing ), 72. 68 See ibid., 25–7.


Marianne Moore astutely allied Stevens’ exoticism with rousseau’s early work in ‘Well Moused,

lion’ The Dial 76 ( ), 271; rpt. doyle,

  220 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction bombois is ‘a rousseau who has never visited Mexico’. but Stevens knew rousseau had never travelled to Mexico either, despite the painter’s self- deluding boasts about travel. What Stevens appreciates is how rousseau depicted far-away places and jungle scenes, just as Stevens himself was prone to imaginative travelling. if bombois lacks imaginative strength, however, Stevens enjoys how his picture is ‘fresh, pleasant and without sophistica- tion’, potential material for the poet’s abstractive gaze. The more quoted part of this letter – ‘The truth is that i have a taste for braque and a purse for bombois’ – should not be taken at face value. Stevens may have had ‘a purse for bombois’ but he seems less to have had ‘a taste for braque’ and more a taste for lesser-known artists who seemingly resisted Modernist trends. certainly, Stevens aestheticized the process of acquiring ‘a Primitive’. in the same month that he printed ‘a Primitive like an orb’, Stevens wrote to Paule vidal wondering if she had ‘been paralyzed by’ his ‘request for a Primitive and, again, for something exquisite but cheap’, report- ing: ‘only the other day i received a catalogue of an exhibition held last year at avignon. of course i am not expecting the sort of Primitive that finding something ‘exquisite but cheap’ was not just a practical concern. Stevens did not desire any ‘Primitive’, but something different from ‘the sort of Primitive that you would find in avignon’ (a ‘typical’ and no doubt costly Primitive). his desire for some- thing on a par perhaps with rousseau, but a portrait not already part of an existing catalogue was bound to test vidal’s powers.

  What effects could such imaginative searching have had on Stevens’ poetry? it is tempting to think that rousseau’s ‘Poet’s bouquet’ (1890–5) but the textual evidence is slight. With ‘a Primitive like an orb’ it is super- ficially hard to detect traces of rousseau or any of the other ‘Primitives’. of course, it is characteristic of Stevensian abstraction to refrain from specific links – Stevens’ quoting from Yeats’ ‘The lake isle of innisfree’ in ‘Page from a tale’ is always a surprise to the committed reader of the however, ‘a Primitive like an orb’ iii does evoke an external but ‘domestic’ scene similar to rousseau’s depictions of the bour- geois excitement at domesticating the outdoors in ‘carnival evening’ (1886), ‘The Wedding’ (1904–5), ‘The football Players’ (1908) or ‘Jardin du 70 luxembourg’ (1909). 71 Ibid., 581.

  Bourgeois abstraction 221

  following the much-quoted idealization of ‘the existence of the poem’ known only ‘in lesser poems’, canto iii ventures:

  What milk there is in such captivity, What wheaten bread and oaten cake and kind, green guests and table in the woods and songs at heart, within an instant’s motion, within a space grown wide, the inevitable blue of secluded thunder, an illusion, as it was, oh as, always too heavy for the sense to seize, the obscurest as, the distant was…

  (CPP, 378)

  What is ‘a primitive like an orb’ and does the poem chime with ‘Primitivism’? even if Stevens’ poem is like a painterly ‘primitive’, there remains an actual simile to tackle. an ‘orb’ is not just a ‘sphere’, ‘globe’ or ‘heavenly body’ but also an ‘eyeball’/‘eye’ (OED). if the poem is similar to a ‘primitive’ painting, the comparison is also likened to ‘seeing in the round’. We are invited to see something larger than the physical poem, something possibly ‘too heavy for the sense / to seize’. Playing on simile, ‘the obscurest as’ is a forever fleeting and abstract past event, ‘the distant was’. like the ‘necessary angel’ who in the tal-coat-influenced ‘angel Surrounded by Paysans’ is ‘quickly, too quickly […] gone’ – only ‘[s]een for a moment standing in the door’ – ‘the essential poem at the center of things’ can only be approached through a refracted ‘primitive’ imagin- ation, which itself resembles another perceptive or reflective agent: an orb,

  Stevens enjoys transmuting domestic scenes to ‘the woods’. ‘It Must Give


Pleasure’ reports that ‘merely going round is a final good, / The way wine

  comes at a table in a wood’ ‘dinner bell in the Woods’ (1954) reads:

he was facing phantasma when the bell rang.

  The picnic of children came running then, in a burst of shouts, under the trees and through the air. The smaller ones came tinkling on the grass to the table Where the fattest women belled the glass. The point of it was the way he heard it,

in the green, outside the door of phantasma.

  (CPP, 471)

  222 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction rousseau’s french woodland portraits are overtly green, their figures cari- catures not unlike Stevens’ ‘phantasma’. This late poem relishes placing an everyday object of bourgeois pretension (the dinner bell) in an atyp- ical context (the woods) as prelude to an aesthetic feast. The ‘picnic of children’ makes up part of that metaphorical banquet, as do ‘the fattest women’, whose rotund shapes ‘belled the glass’: the verb suggesting their voluble shape, how their curves blend into a glass-like shape, as well as re-conjuring the dinner bell itself. ‘The point of it was the way he heard it’ seems to apply as much to the poem’s reader as to the figure who has heard the bell and its summons. accepting that ‘point’ liberates the figure who can now stand ‘outside the door of phantasma’ – seemingly at liberty to enter or otherwise – rather than merely ‘facing’ such phenomena.

  This poem recalls a pivotal comment in Stevens’ earlier career. in 1940, the poet confessed:


about the time when i […] began to feel around for a new romanticism, i might

naturally have been expected to start on a new cycle. instead of doing so, i

began to feel that i was on the edge: that i wanted to get to the center: that i was

isolated, and i wanted to share the common life […] People say that i live in a

world of my own […] i have been interested in what might be described as an

attempt to achieve the normal, the central. So stated, this puts the thing out of

all proportion in respect to its relation to the context of life. of course, i don’t

agree with the people who say that i live in a world of my own; i think that i am

perfectly normal, but i see that there is a center. for instance, a photograph of a

lot of fat men and women in the woods, drinking beer and singing hi-li hi-lo

  Stevens refers initially to the ‘new romantic’ of Ideas of Order. The goal of ‘sharing the common life’ is not really a social aim, but an aesthetic justification. Stevens’ penchant for abstraction, his obsession with privacy, primed him not for ‘relentless contact’ – which implies being too involved, even cauterized by excessive stimulation – but ‘an attempt to achieve the Stevens tactically welcomed rather than resolved this dilemma, relishing how this ‘attempt’ is already aesthetically removed from ‘normal- ity’. The poet is mindful of being ‘out of all proportion’ with respect to the nominal ‘center’ and ‘its relation to the context of life’. but, whether ‘its’ refers to the ‘center’ or to Stevens’ overall statement, the poet is inspired by 75 being at the distance which allows approach of this cherished ‘center’. 76 L, 352.


Vogue (1 october 1954) noted: ‘he [Stevens] dislikes publicity about either of his careers, and

  Bourgeois abstraction 223

  however, what is most captivating in this letter is its least quoted part. Stevens’ idea of the ‘normal’ does not only comprise ‘a lot of fat men and women in the woods, drinking beer and singing hi-li hi-lo’. he conceives this scene as ‘a photograph’, as an abstract snapshot of the ‘good life’. The picnic scene and its festive spirit prove catching. but what about ‘hi-li hi-lo’? ‘hi lee, hi lo’ was published in 1923 with music by ira This song should not be confused with ‘hi-lili, hi-lo’ (1953) – composed by bronisław Kaper for the film


Lili – which post-dates Stevens’ letter. The 1923 song was known, alarm-

  ingly, as a ‘chop Suey a la fox-ee trot-ee’, the first line being ‘into china far away, came a little german band one day’. certainly, Stevens’ attach- ment to this festive, ‘domestic’, picnic image – ‘hi-li, hi-lo’ sounds like a camping/drinking song – becomes an abstract photographic ‘negative’ to which the poet is drawn in ‘dinner bell in the Woods’ and elsewhere. but was Stevens, in heaney’s words, really ‘a home-based man at home / The foreman who shuts the yard in ‘Quitting time’ probably is at home ‘with little’, whereas Stevens required aesthetic stimulation from books, paintings and other artefacts from far-flung corners of the globe. nevertheless, Stevens does aestheticize a domestic existence where ‘less is more’, his self-denials and acquisitions becoming fecund flirtations with ascetic experience. if he domesticated what entered his home, such objects had to be engagingly ‘bourgeois’: not kitsch or sentimental objets d’art, but artefacts symbolically resisting ‘professional modernism’ and constituting refreshing changes from the Mondrians, Klees and Kandinskys Stevens valued outside Westerly terrace.

  Stevens also exhibited a violent desire to change his domestic sphere:


if i could afford it i should throw away everything i have, each autumn […] and

start all over with all the latest inventions: radiant heating ci-inclus, fresh walls,

new pictures – and possibly a goat. one would always like to bring home a goat

  Stevens was wary too of the trappings of ‘bourgeois’ life. in 1949 the poet applauded novelist, scholar and nobel Prize winner romain rolland for 77 scorning his house-proud neighbours:


‘hi lee, hi lo’ (new York: leo feist inc., 1923), Kirk collection ‘Popular Song index’ Part 4

1923–9, indiana State University library (http://odin.indstate.edu/about/units/rbsc/kirk/ps1923.

78 html).

  224 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction


rolland, apparently, lived in an apartment where his wife, clothilde, was no

more hostile to a little dust than we are at home but the neighbors seem to have

moved the chairs every Thursday and cleaned the windows every friday, pol-

ished the kitchen floor every Saturday, did the laundry on Sunday, dusted on

Monday, etc. rolland thought that this was the last word in being bourgeois.

how much more closely that sort of thing brings one to Paris than remarks

about the growth of interest in Socialism, the artificiality of Sarah bernhardt,

the facility with which duse was able to weep on the stage, the slightly ironic

  Stevens approves of the ‘little dust’ not merely in rolland’s apartment but also at Westerly terrace. The neighbourly tension over ‘being bourgeois’ reveals Paris ‘more closely’ than Socialism, the dramatic ‘artificiality’ of bernhardt or eleonora duse or the visage of d’annunzio combined. Stevens appropriates a literary figure, rolland, whom he enjoys as anything but ‘literary’ – as if rolland was another ‘master of life’, a hyperborean, hardly house-proud figure who is also removed from the over-earnestness literature can inculcate, whether through biographical artifice (the sneer d’annunzio impossibly ‘always wore’) or dramatic make-believe.

  Stevens’ domestic space is also a site where gastronomic and aesthetic as

chapter 5 made clear, Stevens’ correspondence is

  littered with gastronomic–aesthetic delights, particularly those enjoyed at home, their frequency increasing in the final decade. for example, writ- ing to victor hammer, Stevens commented of the italian poet Pietro Metastasio: ‘the idea that you might have been reading him in a railway restaurant and at the same time eating a fresh italian cream cheese and in the picture Stevens paints of hammer, Metastasio has no ‘reality’ without those strawberries and cream cheese just as Stevens flexes his abstract imagination to bring both figures to life. an economy of possible pleasures is kept ‘in the abstract’ (as with the chair of Poetry Stevens discussed with henry church) in which it is having claimed life was ‘pleas- ant at home’, Stevens admitted to barbara church: ‘Yet one is always curi- ous about the other side of the mountain, and it invigorates me, at least, to go to new York intending to have a really swagger lunch somewhere even 80 though on the train i decide that there won’t be time for lunch. 81 Ibid., 657.


‘cuisine bourgeoise’ is a less domestic, alarming case of ‘cannibalism’. The poem bemoans ‘the

glares / of this present, this science, this unrecognized, / This outpost, this douce, this dumb,

this dead, in which / We feast on human heads’, CPP, 209.

  Bourgeois abstraction 225

  Such reflections did not only provide abstract credits and unspent bonuses. Stevens often visualized his surroundings in gustatory terms, even his own paintings. Writing of his cavaillès, Stevens noted:


This picture grows on me […] [W]hat mattered was that it was necessary for

me to believe in it. in havana taxicabs are blue, gold, red, yellow, etc. So, in

cannes, small boats are of the green of the pistache, various shades of blue, and

docks are magenta and pink. it is as if one lived in a world of patisserie.

  Stevens explained his cravings to Wilson taylor: ‘What i want more than anything else in music, painting and poetry, in life and in belief is the thrill that i experienced once in all the things that no longer thrill me at all. i am like a man in a grocery store that is sick and tired of raisins and

  The domestic side of that appetite emerges in ‘a Quiet normal life’:

  his place, as he sat and as he thought, was not in anything that he constructed, so frail, So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught, as, for example, a world in which, like snow, he became an inhabitant, obedient to gallant notions on the part of cold. it was here. This was the setting and the time of year. here in his house and in his room, in his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked[.]

  (CPP, 443)

  although the house seemingly takes precedence over the imagination here, the poem suggests the poet’s imaginative activity is stimulated by ‘his house’, ‘his room’. ‘a Quiet normal life’ leaves no trace of the banal, but equally resists the ‘transcendent’:


There was no fury in transcendent forms.

but his actual candle blazed with artifice.

  (CPP, 444)

  This teasing final line exemplifies the impossibility of separating the mind’s artifice from the ‘actual’. but note the centrality of the domes- tic space catalysing the poet’s imaginative appetite, transforming what ‘an old Man asleep’ playfully calls ‘your whole peculiar plot’ (‘plot’ as 85 ground and personal narrative) 86 87 Ibid., 833. Ibid., 604.


CPP, 427. for other late poems featuring domestic imagery, see CPP, 427–8, 432–6, 439, 443–4,

  226 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction We saw earlier how Stevens dismissed derivative or ‘professional mod- ernism’ by contrasting the vibrant fruits in a new York shop window a few months earlier, Stevens complained to feo:


What music have i heard that has not been the music of an orchestra of parrots

and what books have i read that were not written for money and how many men

of ardent spirit and star-scimitar mind have i met? not a goddam one […] There

is no music because the only music tolerated is modern music. There is no paint-

ing because the only painting permitted is […] derived from Picasso and Matisse

[…] When i go into a fruit store nowadays and find there nothing but the fruits

du jour: apples, pears, oranges, i feel like throwing them at the greek. i expect,

as you expect, sapodillas and South Shore bananas and pineapples a foot high

[…] Why should i answer questions from young philosophers when i receive

  That last remark warned feo not to present Stevens with literary– philosophical conundrums. rather, Stevens craved details from feo’s cuban life, ideally as colourful as the exotic fruits Stevens expected feo to ‘expect’. although commonplace ‘fruits du jour’ are rejected in this letter, it was an importantly paradoxical part of the poet’s quest for normality that his experience be ordinary and exotic, even exotically commonplace. Stevens maintained that, for all his connoisseurship, ‘ordinariness’ was essential to his imaginative health: ‘[a]n ordinary day […] does more for me than an extraordinary day: the bread of life is better than any This tendency accounts for Stevens’ approval of the ‘second-rate’:


We did not ourselves go away this summer. one very affable friend […] wrote to

me suggesting that i spend the summer in tuscany. i should like to sit in some

elderly neighbourhood, washing down second-rate cheese with second-rate wine

as much as anyone, and i think that i should go in for something a little more

  The ‘second-rate’ requires none of the reverence the ‘first-rate’ demands, and provides none of the disappointment the ‘first-rate’ risks through not living up to expectations (especially if one only imagines the attractions of the ‘second-rate’). The paintings Stevens collected reflect this aesthetic preference, and it is arguable the poet would have benefited imaginatively from possessing ‘first-rate’ pieces. at least Stevens was able to engage in bourgeois abstraction at home through the stimulants of his art collection

  Bourgeois abstraction 227

  and other domestic phenomenaThis was, after all, the poet who, finally capitulating to Knopf’s Collected Poems, wrote ‘it is good housekeeping but Stevens’ domestic and aesthetic ‘tranquillity’ was disturbed by the growing, sometimes ambivalent, criticism of his writing during the Just as Stevens claimed to read less, he was confronted by although ‘the significance of poetry’ was its enabling ‘a fresh conception of the world’, it was poetry as meditation (not of the page) that attracted his reliance on a non-literary, habitual routine as an inspirational source also relates to abstraction:


[t]he habitual […] has become, at my age, such a pleasure in itself that it is

coming to be […] a large part of the normality of the normal. and, i suppose,

that projecting this idea to its ultimate extension, the time will arrive when just

to be will take in everything without the least doing since even the least doing

is irrelevant to pure being […] You will already have observed the abstract state

of my mind. This is in part due to the fact that i have done little or no reading,

  an abstract state of mind is paradoxically the route toward ‘the central’, even if such thinking might be ‘marginal’ or remote: ‘conceding that the normal, or, say, the central, involves all the fundamental problems of any writer, the actual truth is that the marginal seems to get at them more certainly, Stevens knew his own abstractive powers could be de - stabilizing, remarking of his own writing: ‘what one ought to find is normal life, insight into the commonplace, reconciliation with every- day reality. The things that it makes me happy to do are things of this

  Stevens realized his abstract tendencies could make ‘the commonplace’ seem unattainable, and yet the imaginative circle Stevensian abstraction encourages was precisely his source of inspiration. however, Stevens’ 92 resistance to ‘the literary’ intensified for fear that his mature, more


This process did not always achieve the desired results. in 1953 Stevens complained: ‘bezombes

93 may be, after all, a very rich sauce poured on poor bones’ (L, 796). 94 Ibid., 832.

robert lowell resentfully suggested ‘perhaps Stevens is too much the leisured man of taste’

(155), which denies Stevens’ ‘leisured’ poetry any positive relation with the world. See lowell,


‘imagination and reality’ in Wallace Stevens: A Critical Anthology ed. irvin ehrenpreis

95 (harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 154–7.

  228 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘abstract’ writing might be construed as literary evasion from ‘every-day reality’. as he informed richard eberhart, ‘poetry is not a literary activ- lthough he frequently chided feo or Peter lee for ‘literariness’, Stevens still feared being cast either as literary fop, the dandy of Harmonium, or as an abstract theorist – more than a lit- When c. roland Wagner and bernard heringman prepared their doctoral dissertations, Stevens wrote defensively to heringman: ‘as both you and Mr. Wagner must realize, i have no wish to arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes i believe most in the imagination for a long time and then, without reasoning about it, turn to reality and believe in that and that alone. but both of these things project themselves endlessly and i want them to do just ‘good housekeeping’ might involve itemizing the achievements of Stevens’ career in his Collected Poems, but it also involved protect- ing the domestic space in which Stevens’ abstract imagination thrived, where to project ideas ‘endlessly’ enabled inspiration rather than suc- cumbing to the intrusions of academic critical inquiry.

  7.2 conclusion What picture do we have, therefore, of Stevens’ total career? The final dec- ade sees Stevens transcending his early 1940s abstract vocabulary as he dis- covered a self-confident abstract aesthetic. ‘The Pure good of Theory’ is one of the most achieved early poems of Stevens’ late career, its battle with abstraction and metaphor pragmatically enabling the poet to confront ‘sound’ and ‘rhetoric’. in 1935, following his early interrogation of ‘pure poetry’, Stevens sought an abstract vocabulary, even although he defended his ‘new romantic’, or ‘ideas of order’ motif, from the name ‘abstract’. in ‘The Man with the blue guitar’ he interrogated the opportunities of abstract verse, experimenting with the ‘un-locatable’ speaker who both transcends the poem’s nominal dialogue between ‘imagination’ and ‘real- ity’ and engages Stevens’ reader in conceiving the very poem in which this ‘i’ speaks. by the early 1940s Stevens refined a new idiom replete with abstract 100 figures. but it is important that Stevens criticism does not overlook the 101 Ibid., 815.


‘[Y]ou are becoming so literary that you ought to understand that life fights back and that it

will get you even on the top floor of the Peacock inn if you are not careful’, the ‘top floor of the

  Bourgeois abstraction 229

  human element to Stevensian abstraction, whatever the surface ‘coldness’ of the early 1940s verse, especially if such verse is dismissed for didactic reasons. Whether or not Stevens’ idealism can be illuminated through coleridge, Wordsworth or hegel – or whether or not phenomeno- logical writers such as focillon, blanchot or Merleau-Ponty cast light on Stevens – Stevensian abstraction is a strategy for making the world richly poetic. The poet’s creation of an idealist ‘i’ is perhaps the most refined aspect of his realization of an early abstract poetic. it is a speaker the romantic poets could not have anticipated and its absence from critical discussion remains surprising. by the mid-1940s Stevens realized that no specialist vocabulary was necessary to achieve a resourcefully abstract verse. as ‘The green

  Plant’ comments, ‘The effete vocabulary of summer / no longer says anything’, perhaps a reference to Transport to Summer and its some- what awkward inclusion of ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’ (the 1942 from 1942 to the end poem that really belongs with Parts of a World of his career Stevens experimented, in the absence of a ‘literary’ rhet- oric, with the limits and insights of abstract meditation. The ‘ordinary’ and the ‘normal’ become tokens in realizing, as ‘The river of rivers in connecticut’ remarks, a ‘local abstraction’. however, in Stevens the local is never parochial or nativist even. abstracting one’s environment becomes a question of realizing poems that cannot ultimately be traced to a location, time and place, even as they are influenced by the culture and history of which they are a part. it is through this almost timeless quality that Stevens invites readers into the difficult terrain of his verse. abstraction aims, therefore, to convey experience in distilled form. as Marcel comments in The Way by Swann’s: ‘in all purely mental states, bstraction can transform ideas into ‘an actual part of nature itself, worthy to be studied and explored’, a process through which emotion, as ‘Three academic Pieces’ suggests, This study has also focused on the under-explored gastronomic and domestic components of Stevens’ imagination. certainly, Stevens was

  ‘masterful’ in manipulating the complex interaction of aesthetic pleas- ures in which his love of wine, food, painting, book-collecting and poetry 103 104 unite, particularly as those pleasures are held in abeyance or experienced 105 CPP, 431. Ibid., 451.

  Proust, The Way by Swann’s, 87.

  230 Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction ‘in the abstract’ through vicarious correspondence. ‘Montrachet-le-Jardin’ is perhaps a special case. but the Stevens corpus is littered with evidence for the profoundly catholic nature of the poet’s aesthetic tastes. finally, this concluding chapter has engaged with Stevens’ ‘primitive’ leanings, his desire for the ‘second-rate’ and the complexity of ‘cool’ and

  ‘warm’ abstraction in his total career. Whilst abstraction is not the bed- rock of Stevens’ imagination – an inappropriate metaphor for so fluid a concept – my hope is that this revisionist account anticipates a ‘twenty- first-century’ Stevens whose impulses were neither unusual for his time nor, therefore, incompatible with literary and artistic Modernism. The historicism of the late 1980s and after taught us a lot about Stevens’ rela- tionship with his ‘actual world’. My own reservation about that criticism is the tendency to overstress the poetry’s relationship with that world linearly. Stevens criticism must also resist over-reliance on Stevens’ own metaphors and figures. if comparative work on Stevens can be ‘too gen- eral to be serviceable’, it is at least usually immune from self-perpetuating

  Without self-contradiction, i want to conclude with a comment of Stevens’ own as he reviewed his overall career. it marks a fitting con- clusion to this study because we see Stevens benefiting from the almost abstract notion of what might have occurred if he had devoted himself entirely to poetry:


if beethoven could look back on what he had accomplished and say that it was

a collection of crumbs compared to what he had hoped to accomplish, where

should i ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that i have done

compared to that which i had hoped to do. of course, i have had a happy and

well-kept life. but i have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres

that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my

time to making a living, i had devoted it to thought and poetry. certainly it is

as true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s

time and that has not been true in my case. but, then, if i had been more deter-

mined about it, i might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but

at some actual devastation […] i am now in the happy position of being able to

say that i don’t know what would have happened if i had had more time. This

is very much better than to have had all the time in the world and have found

  This forever prospective imagination was not just a source of consolation to the ageing Stevens. it is a definitive aspect of the imaginative tendencies

  Bourgeois abstraction 231

  and reach of Stevens’ poetry, which revels in imaginative possibility, conceives poetry ‘in the abstract’ and, of course, results in a poetry that courts abstract concerns. Just as, for the Perloff of the twenty-first century ‘modernism remains unfinished’, i have no doubt critical engagement with Stevens is in its infancy and that the question of abstraction will be 109 repeatedly posed.

  Marjorie Perloff, ‘Pound/Stevens: Whose era? revisited’ WSJ 26., 139.



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Kant, immanuel, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics ed. gary hatfield

(cambridge: cambridge University Press, 1997)

Kearney, richard, Poetics of Imagining: From Husserl to Lyotard (london:

routledge, 1993)

Keats, John, Keats: The Complete Poems ed. Miriam allott (london: longman,

1970) Kermode, frank, Wallace Stevens (london: faber, [1960] 1989)

‘dwelling Poetically in connecticut’ in frank doggett and robert buttel,

eds., Wallace Stevens: A Celebration (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 256–73


Kierkegaard, Søren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript toPhilosophical

Fragments’ intro. W. lowrie (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1941)

Kladstrup, don and Petie, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle

for France’s Greatest Treasure (london: hodder & Stoughton, 2001)


Klee, Paul, Dokumente und Bilder aus den Jahren 1896–1930 (bern: verlag benteli,


  Bibliography 238

la guardia, david M., Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace

  Stevens (hanover, nh: University Press of new england, 1983)

lawall, Sarah, ed., The Norton Anthology of Western Literature (new York:

norton, 2006), 8th edition

leggett, b. J., ‘Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore: two essays and a Private

review’ WSJ 10.2 (1986): 76–83

Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory: Conceiving the Supreme Fiction (chapel

hill, nc: University of north carolina Press, 1987)

Late Stevens: The Final Fiction (baton rouge, la: louisiana State University

Press, 2005)

‘Stevens’ late Poetry’ in John n. Serio, ed., The Cambridge Companion to


Wallace Stevens (cambridge: cambridge University Press, 2007), 62–75

lensing, george S., ‘Wallace Stevens in england’ in frank doggett and robert

buttel, eds., Wallace Stevens: A Celebration (Princeton, nJ: Princeton

  University Press, 1980), 130–48

Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth (baton rouge, la: louisiana State University

Press, 1986)

lentricchia, frank, Ariel and the Police (Madison, Wi: University of Wisconsin

Press, 1988)

lePore, ernest, ed., Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of

Donald Davidson (oxford: blackwell, 1986)

lessing, gotthold ephraim, The Laocoön, and Other Prose Writings of Lessing ed.

and trans. W. b. rönnfeldt (london: W. Scott, c. 1895)

levin, Jonathan, The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism and American

Literary Modernism (durham, nc: duke University Press, 1999)

longenbach, James, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (new York: oxford

University Press, 1991)

lowell, robert, ‘imagination and reality’ in irvin ehrenpreis, ed., Wallace


Stevens: A Critical Anthology (harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 154–7

Macleod, glen, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to


Abstract Expressionism (new haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1993)

Mallarmé, Stephane, Mallarmé in Prose ed. Mary ann caws (new York: new

directions, 2001)

‘crisis in Poetry’ in Sarah lawall, ed., The Norton Anthology of Western

  Literature (new York: norton, 2006), 8th edition, 1561

‘The evolution of literature’ in Sarah lawall, ed.,The Norton Anthology of

  Western Literature (new York: norton, 2006), 8th edition, 1561

Martz, louis l., ‘The World of Wallace Stevens’ in b. rajan, ed., Modern American

  Poetry (london: denis dobson, 1950), 94–109

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(2001): 122–37

Mauron, charles, Aesthetics and Psychology trans. roger fry and Katherine John

(london: hogarth, 1935)

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, ‘eye and Mind’ in The Primacy of Perception and Other

  Bibliography 239 Politics ed. James M. edie (evanston, il: northwestern University Press, 1964), 159–90

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and James barry Jr, trans. Michael b. Smith et al. (london: humanities Press, 1992), 108–14

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eds., Wallace Stevens: A Celebration (Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 274–85

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Mongan, agnes, ed., One Hundred Master Drawings (cambridge, Ma: harvard

University Press, 1949) Moore, Marianne, ‘Well Moused, lion’ The Dial 76 (1924): 84–91

  Selected Poems intro. t. S. eliot (london: Macmillan, 1935) ‘Unanimity and fortitude’ Poetry 49.5 (1937): 268–72

Morse, Samuel french, ‘Motive for Metaphor’ Origin V 2.1 (1952) (entire issue)

Moszynka, anna, Abstract Art (london: Thames & hudson, 1990)

Motherwell, robert, ‘Prefatory notice’ in Marcel raymond, From Baudelaire to

  Surrealism (new York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1950), unpaginated

Mouffe, chantal, ed., Deconstruction and Pragmatism (london: routledge, 1996)

Moynihan, robert, ‘checklist: Second Purchase, Wallace Stevens collection,

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norman, remington, The Great Domaines of Burgundy (london: Kyle-cathie

ltd, 1996)

o’connor, William van, The Shaping Spirit: A Study of Wallace Stevens (chicago,

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o’hara, frank, Selected Poems ed. donald allen (harmondsworth: Penguin,


o’neill, Michael, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (oxford: clarendon,

1997) Pach, Walter, The Masters of Modern Art (new York: huebsch, 1924)


Pack, robert, Wallace Stevens: An Approach to his Poetry and Thought (new

York: gordian, 1968)

Patke, rajeev S., The Long Poems of Wallace Stevens: An Interpretative Study

(cambridge: cambridge University Press, 1985)

Pearce, roy harvey and J. hillis Miller, eds., The Act of Mind: Essays on the

  Poetry of Wallace Stevens (baltimore, Md: Johns hopkins University Press, 1965)

Perloff, Marjorie, ‘revolving in crystal: The Supreme fiction and the impasse

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  240 Bibliography


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Peterson, Margaret, Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition (epping: bowker,


Poirier, richard, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (london: faber,


Preminger, alex, et al., eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics

(Princeton, nJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)

Proust, Marcel, The Way by Swann’s trans. lydia davis (london: Penguin, 2003)


The Prisoner and The Fugitive trans. carol clark and Peter collier

(london: Penguin, 2003) Finding Time Again trans. ian Patterson (london: Penguin, 2003)

ragg, edward, ‘good-bye Major Man: reading Stevens without “Stevensian”’

  WSJ 29.1 (2005): 97–105

‘Pragmatic abstraction v. Metaphor: Stevens’ “The Pure good of Theory” and

  MacbethWSJ 30.1 (2006): 5–29

‘love, Wine, desire: Stevens’ “Montrachet-le-Jardin” and Shakespeare’s

  CymbelineWSJ 30.2 (2006): 183–209

‘Picasso, cézanne and Stevens’ abstract engagements’ in bart eeckhout and

edward ragg, eds., Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic (london: Palgrave,

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raymond, Marcel, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (new York: Wittenborn,

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reeves, gareth, ‘a ghost never exorcized: Stevens in the Poetry of charles

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rhys, ernest, ed., The Prelude to Poetry: The English Poets in the Defence and

  Praise of Their Own Art (london: dent, 1894) rich, daniel catton, Henri Rousseau (new York: MoMa, 1942)

richards, i. a., Coleridge on Imagination ed. John constable (london: Kegan

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richardson, Joan, Wallace Stevens: The Later Years 1923–1955 (new York: beech

tree, 1988)

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  Bibliography 241

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rigaux, Jacky, Burgundy Grands Crus trans. catherine du toit (clemency: terre

en vues, 2007)

robinson, Jancis, ed., The Oxford Companion to Wine (oxford: oxford

University Press, 1999)

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[1967] 1992)

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‘Philosophy as a Kind of Writing’ in Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972–

1980) (Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 90–109


Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (cambridge: cambridge University Press,


Objectivism, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers Vol. I (cambridge:

cambridge University Press, 1991)

Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Vol. II (cambridge:

cambridge University Press, 1991) Philosophy and Social Hope (harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999)

rosu, anca, The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens (tuscaloosa,

al: University of alabama Press, 1995)

Santayana, george, The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory

(new York: Scribner’s, 1896) Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (new York: Scribner’s, 1900)


Schaum, Melita, Wallace Stevens and the Critical Schools (tuscaloosa,

al: University of alabama Press, 1988)

‘lyric resistance: views of the Political in the Poetics of Wallace Stevens and

h.d.’ WSJ 13.2 (1989): 191–205

Schulze, robin g., The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens

(ann arbor, Mi: University of Michigan Press, 1995) Schwartz, delmore, review of ‘blue guitar’ Partisan Review 4.3 (1938): 49–52

‘Wallace Stevens: an appreciation’ The New Republic (22 august 1955): 20–2

Schwarz, daniel, Narrative and Representation in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

(new York: St Martin’s Press, 1993)

Segre, roberto, et al., Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (new

York: John Wiley, 1997)

Serio, John n., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens (cambridge:

cambridge University Press, 2007)

Serio, John n. and b. J. leggett, eds., Teaching Wallace Stevens: Practical Essays

(Knoxville, tn: University of tennessee Press, 1994)

Shakespeare, William, The Complete Works ed. Stanley Wells and gary taylor

  242 Bibliography

  Sharpe, tony, Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life (basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000)

Shelley, Percy bysshe, The Major Works ed. Zachary leader and Michael o’neill

(oxford: oxford University Press, 2003)

Simons, geoff, Cuba: From Conquistador to Castro (london: Macmillan, 1996)


Simons, hi, ‘Wallace Stevens and Mallarmé’ Modern Philology 43 (1946): 235–59

Soby, James Thrall, Yves Tanguy (new York: MoMa, 1955)

Stangos, nikos, ed., Concepts of Modern Art (london: Thames & hudson, 1991)

Stroud-drinkwater, clive, ‘Stevens after davidson on Metaphor’ Philosophy &

  Literature 26.2 (2002): 346–53

Sylvester, david, Interviews with Francis Bacon (london: Thames & hudson,


Symons, Julian, ‘a Short view of Wallace Stevens’ Life and Letters Today 26

(1940): 215–24 tate, allen, ‘The Poet and her biographer’ Kenyon Review 1.2 (1939): 200–3 Essays of Four Decades intro. louise cowan (Wilmington, de: iSi, 1999) taylor, charles, Hegel (cambridge: cambridge University Press, 1975) Thomas, r. S., Collected Poems 1945–1990 (london: orion, 2000) tomlinson, charles, The Necklace (Swinford: fantasy Press, 1955)

Uhde, Wilhelm, Five Primitive Masters trans. ralph Thompson (new

  York: Quadrangle, 1949)

valéry, Paul, Dialogues trans. William Mccausland Stewart (london: routledge,


‘Poetry and abstract Thought’ in The Art of Poetry trans. denise folliot, intro.

t. S. eliot (london: routledge, 1958), 52–81

Cahiers/Notebooks trans. Paul gifford et al. (frankfurt am Main: Peter lang,

2000), 2 vols.

van gogh, vincent, Letters to Emile Bernard trans. douglas lord (london:

cresset, 1938)

vendler, helen, ‘The Qualified assertions of Wallace Stevens’ in roy harvey

Pearce and J. hillis Miller, eds., The Act of Mind: Essays on the Poetry of

  Wallace Stevens (baltimore, Md: Johns hopkins University Press, 1965), 163–78

Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (Knoxville, tn: University of

tennessee Press, 1984)

The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (cambridge, Ma: harvard

University Press, 1988)

venturi, lionello, Painting and Painters: How to Look at a Picture, from Giotto to

Chagall (new York: Scribner’s, 1945)

voltaire [françois-Marie arouet], Candide; or Optimism trans. John butt

(harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947) Candide trans. Shane Weller (new York: dover, 1993)

Waldoff, leon, Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-

  Representation (columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 2001)

Walker, david, The Transparent Lyric: Reading and Meaning in the Poetry of

  Bibliography 243

Wellek, rené, A History of Modern Criticism: American Criticism, 1900–1950

(london: Jonathan cape, 1986)

Whiting, anthony, The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens’ Romantic Irony

(ann arbor, Mi: University of Michigan Press, 1996)

Whorf, benjamin lee, Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of

  Benjamin Lee Whorf (cambridge, Ma: Mit Press, [1956] 2000)

Williams, William carlos, Collected Poems 1921–1931 (new York: The objectivist

Press, 1934) ‘comment: Wallace Stevens’ Poetry 87.4 (1956): 234–9

Winters, Yvor, ‘Wallace Stevens, or The hedonist’s Progress’ in The Anatomy of

  Nonsense (norfolk, ct: new directions, 1943), 88–119

Wittgenstein, ludwig, Notebooks 1914–16 trans. g. e. M. anscombe (new

York: harper, 1969) Woolf, virginia, Four Great Novels (oxford: oxford University Press, 1994)

Wordsworth, William, Complete Poetical Works ed. Thomas hutchinson rev.

ernest de Selincourt (oxford: oxford University Press, 1936)

The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850 ed. Jonathan Wordsworth et al. (new York: norton,

1979) Yeats, W. b., The Poems ed. daniel albright (london: dent, 1994)


Ziarek, Krzysztof, Inflected Language: Toward a Hermeneutics of Nearness:

Heidegger, Levinas, Stevens, Celan (albany, nY: new York State University Press, 1994)

‘“Without human Meaning”: Stevens, heidegger and the foreignness of

Poetry’ in bart eeckhout and edward ragg, eds., Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic (london: Palgrave, 2008), 74–94



abstraction autotelic abstractio and the bourgeoi

   art and art-collecting. See painting auberjonois, rené vict auden, W. h –

   and the visua


   alcestis Press, The

   arensberg, Walte

   armory Show, Th


   arp, Jean –


   and textual speaker

   bacon, francis base bates, Milton J.

   baudelaire, charles

   bauhaus, The bayes, nora

   beethoven, ludwig van benamou, Michel

   benét, William rose béranger, Pierre Jean de


   bergmann, gustav bergonzi, bernard


   See also idealist ‘i’ and tim –

   in Stevens’ later caree Stevens’ modifying of

   ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ abstraction

   pejorative abstraction

   and domesticit

   expression and gastronomy. See gastronomy as generalization

   and the habitual

   and idealism. See philosophy for ‘idealism’ and inhumanit

   and mediation

   and mental processes

   and metaphor misunderstandings concerning

   and philosophy See also philosophy for ‘idealism’ and the physica


   and pleasur

   poet as abstract and pure poetry. See pure poetry and the rea


   as remova

   as sensor





  Index 245 bernhardt, Sarah bewley, Marius

   deutsch, babette

   crane, hart

   critchley, Simon

   croce, benedett cummington Press, The

   cunningham, J. v.

   d’annunzio, gabriele dalin, ebba

   dante, alighieri davidson, donald

   de chirico, giorgi

   delacroix, ferdinand victor eugène delille, abb

   derrida, Jacques

   dewey, John dionysus

   costello, bonni


   donoghue, denis

   douglas, Keit du Pont, Pierre duchamp, Marce duse, eleonora

   eeckhout, bar

   ellmann, richar

   emerson, ralph Wald


   feo, José rodrígue

   filreis, alan

   cotton club, Th

   cook, elean

   bezombes, roger bishop, elizabeth


   blake, Willia

   – bloom, harold bombois, camille

   bornstein, george

   botticelli, Sandr bové, Paul

   brancusi, constantin

   brianchon, Maurice brinnin, John Malcolm


   brogan, Jacqueline vaught brooks, cleanth

   brooks, van Wyc burgundy. See gastronomy burke, Kenneth

   byron, george gordon (lord)

   conkling, grace hazar

   caesar, J cannes

   cavaillès, Jea cézanne, Paul

   chardin, Jean-baptiste-Siméon chocorua church, barbar church, henry

   cleghorn, angu cohen, Josh coleridge, Samuel taylor


  Biographia Literaria ‘dejection: an ode

   ‘frost at Midnight

   ‘Kubla Khan’


   first World War, the

  Index 246 focillon, henri


   howe, irving

   humanism hume, david


   hutchison, Percy

   idealist ‘i’

   See also philosophy for ‘idealism’ ideas

  Mallarméan poetry of the ‘idea’

   heidegger, Marti hillyer, rober historicism




   insurance inter-textuality

   isolationis ivory tower rhetoric

   James, William

   hopkins, gerard Manle

   heaney, Seamus hecht, anthony

   fontainebleau ford, charles henri frankenburg, lloy

   bordeau burgundy bâtard-Montrache chabli chassagne-Montrachet côte d’or criots-bâtard-Montrache la romanée le corton

   french revolution, the

   freytag-loringhofen, baroness elsa vo

   friar, Kimo


   frye, northrop

   furst, herbert gagnard-delagrange, domaine gastronom

   le Musigny Puligny-Montrache café as Stevensian milie loire valle Moselle


   Stevens’ passion for wine

   tusca giorgione, barbarelli da castelfranco goodman, nelson

   gromaire, Marcel halliday, Mark

   hammer, vict hardy, Thomas

   harrison, tony hartford accident and indemnity company, the


   hartley, davi


  Index 247 Johnson, Jeri

   abstraction in

   naxos new criticism, the

   new York city

   nietzsche, friedric

   norworth, Jac

   o’connor, William v

   o’hara, fran


   Pack, robert

   painting abstract expressionis


   Motherwell, rober Museum of Modern art, the (MoMa)

   art concre

   art informel

   constructivis cubism

   dutch Masters, th impressionis



   regionalism social realism

   Stevens’ art collectio


   Musset, alfred d napoleonic inheritance la


   Kandinsky, W Kant, immanuel

   longenbach, James

   Kaper, bronisław Keats, John

   Kierkegaard, Søren

  Kladstrup, Peti

   larkin, Philip


   le havr

   lensing, georg

   lentricchia, fran

   lessing, gotthold ephrai

   lowell, rober Macleish, archibald Macleod, glen

   Morey, albert, domain Morey, Jean-Marc, domaine Morey-coffinet, Michel, domain

   Mallarmé, Stéphan

   Margaux, châtea

  Matisse, henr Mauron, charles

  Mediterranean, th

   Metastasio, Pietr Miller, J. hilli Minos and the Minotau –


  See also role of faith i

   Stevens’ aversion to ‘professional modernism’

  Mondrian, Piet

8 Miró, Joan

  Index 248 Pari Pater, Walter

   rorty, richar rossini, gioachino Semiramide and Semiramide

   pure poetry and abstraction


   la poésie pure

   Stevens’ modernizing of

   rabelais, f ransom, John crow raymond, Marce rehder, rober rhys, ernes

   rich, daniel catton


   richardson, Joan riddel, Joseph n

   rolland, romain –


   british romantic

   rothko, Mar

   ‘Stormy Weather

   rousseau, henri

   roy, Jean le

   rubens, Peter Paul Sanborn, Pitts

   Sartre, Jean-Pau

   Schelling, friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von

   Schlegel, friedrich von


   Schwartz, delmor

   Pearl harb

  Shakespeare, William

  Cymbeline King Lear

   Proust, Marcel

  ‘Shine on harvest Moon’


   ontology phenomenology



  philosophy deconstruction




   and abstraction





   and poetry. See poetry pragmatism

   popular songs ‘hi lee, hi lo

   subject and object universalism


  Picasso, Pabl

  Plat Poe, edgar allan

   poetry and ‘literariness’

   and nomination and office life

   and philosophy and politics

   and wine. See gastronomy Poggioli, renat



   Pollock, Jackson

   Shapiro, Kar Shelley, Percy byssh

  Index 249 Simons, h



  Socrates Stevens, elsie (Kachel)

   supreme fiction as abstract

35 Stevens, Wallace

   ‘chair of Poetry

   ‘botanist on alp (no. 1)’

   ‘a Thought revolved’

   ‘academic discourse at havana’


   ‘an old Man asleep’ ‘an ordinary evening in new haven’

   ‘anecdote of canna’

   ‘angel Surrounded by Paysans’

   ‘anything is beautiful if You Say it is’ ‘as at a Theatre’

   ‘as You leave the room’ ‘bantams in Pine-Woods’


   ‘bouquet of roses in Sunlight’ ‘certain Phenomena of Sound

   ‘a Quiet normal life ‘a rabbit as King of the ghosts’

   ‘chocorua to its neighbor’ Collected Poems

   Collected Poetry and Prose ‘connoisseur of chaos’ ‘cuisine bourgeoise ‘cy est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les Unze Mille vierges

   ‘dance of the Macabre Mice

   ‘depression before Spring’

   ‘description Without Place’

   ‘dinner bell in the Woods’ ‘discourse in a cantina at havana’

   ‘domination of black

   ‘earthy anecdote

   ‘esthétique du Mal’

   ‘a Study of two Pears

   ‘a Primitive like an orb’


   poetry as an unofficial view of being possible poet



   figure[s] of capable imagination

   fluent mundo

   harmonious whole ideas of order

   major ma

   mastery of lif

   metaph new romantic

   the normal

   poverty reality–imagination complex

   ‘a Postcard from the volcano’

   resemblance resistance


   the robust poe the romantic


   soun supreme fiction


  Stevens, Wallace (figures and themes in) the actual worl agreement with realit analogy

  ‘Stevensian’ as derived critical idiom

   the ultimate poe Stevens, Wallace (works of) ‘a high-toned old christian Woman’


  Index 250 ‘examination of the hero in a time of War’

   ‘The creations of Sound

   ‘Sailing after lunch

   ‘Sea Surface full of clouds’

   ‘Six Significant landscapes’

   ‘Snow and Stars

   ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple together’

   ‘Song of fixed accord

   ‘Sunday Morning’

   ‘Surety and fidelity claims’ ‘The apostrophe to vincentine’

   ‘The brave Man

   ‘The candle a Saint

   ‘The comedian as the letter c


   ‘The curtains in the house of the Metaphysician’

   ‘repetitions of a Young captain

   ‘The doctor of geneva

   ‘The figure of the Youth as virile Poet

   ‘The green Plant’ ‘The idea of order at Key West

   ‘The irrational element in Poetry

   ‘The Man Whose Pharynx Was bad’


  ‘The Man with the blue guitar’

  ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ The Necessary Angel

   ‘The news and the Weather’ ‘The noble rider and the Sound of Words’

   ‘The novel’

   ‘The ordinary Women

   Stevens, Wallace (cont.)

   ‘Sad Strains of a gay Waltz

   ‘reality is an activity of the Most august imagination’


   ‘Mozart, 1935


   ‘extracts from addresses to the academy of fine ideas’

   ‘farewell to florida

   ‘farewell Without a guitar’ ‘flyer’s fall’ ‘from the Journal of crispin


  ‘holiday in reality’ Ideas of Order

   ‘imagination as value’

   ‘invective against Swans

   ‘landscape with boat ‘large red Man reading’

   ‘le Monocle de Mon oncle ‘like decorations in a nigger cemetery’

   ‘Metaphors of a Magnifico’


   ‘not ideas about the Thing but the Thing itself


   ‘notes toward a Supreme fiction’



  ‘It Must Be Abstract

  ‘It Must Be Human’ as proposed section

  ‘It Must Give Pleasure

   ‘of Mere being ‘of Modern Poetry’

   ‘of the Surface of Things’


   ‘owl’s clover ‘Paisant chronicle Parts of a World


  ‘Peter Quince at the clavier’

52 Opus Posthumous

  Index 251 ‘The Planet on the table

   ‘The Poems of our climate’ ‘The Public Square’

   ‘The Pure good of Theory

   ‘The relations between Poetry and Painting’ viollet-le-duc, eugène emmanuel


  ‘The river of rivers in connecticut’

The Rock

   ‘The Sail of Ulysses

   ‘The Sun This March


  ‘Thirteen Ways of looking at a blackbird’ Candide

   ‘This Solitude of cataracts

   ‘to the one of fictive Music

   Transport to Summer ‘two figures in dense violet night

   Waters, ethel

   ‘valley candle’

   Sweeney, James Johnso

   Symons, Julian

   tal-coat, Pierr

   tanguy, Yves



   tchelitchew, Pave





   tomlinson, charles




   Uhde, W

   valéry, P


   van gogh, vincent Zigrosser, carl

   vechten, carl va


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The Collected Poems Of Wallace Stevens Urban Image And Urban Aesthetics Web Aesthetics Sindrom Stevens Johnson Abstraction Vina Diskarisma Abstraction Processes In Learning Geomet Ben Wallace Nba Career Study Of Green Panel Eco Aesthetics In House Building Kind Of The Mouse And The Description The Goal And Function Of The State
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