January 23, 2012

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, part four

Three weeks ago, I began an in-depth study of Wallace Stevens’ work that I deeply admire and my contention, despite the great love I have for his work, that he did not confront, perhaps not until close to his death, the primary issues of faith: a subject he deals with again and again through his view of the imagination as all, his view that whatever is spiritual comes out of the mind.

To review from the end of part one of my essay: I do not believe Stevens confronted the absurdist implications of his philosophical stance. One cannot have it both ways: If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is Stevens’ subject—if this writer concludes there is nothing but human consciousness, then he must also, at the very least, confront faith as an insurmountable abyss.

To read part one of my essay, go here. To read part two, go here. For part three, go here.

First here is the full text of the poem I discuss next "The Auroras of Autumn." This section of the discussion includes the long poem that follows and the longest section of my argument. I hope you will read and bear with me on this one. Part five, coming next week, will close the essay.

The Auroras of Autumn


This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.
His head is air. Beneath his tip at night
Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.

Or is this another wriggling out of the egg,
Another image at the end of the cave,
Another bodiless for the body's slough?

This is where the serpent lives. This is his nest,
These fields, these hills, these tinted distances,
And the pines above and along and beside the sea.

This is form gulping after formlessness,
Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances
And the serpent body flashing without the skin.

This is the height emerging and its base
These lights may finally attain a pole
In the midmost midnight and find the serpent there,

In another nest, the master of the maze
Of body and air and forms and images,
Relentlessly in possession of happiness.

This is his poison: that we should disbelieve
Even that. His meditations in the ferns,
When he moved so slightly to make sure of sun,

Made us no less as sure. We saw in his head,
Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal,
The moving grass, the Indian in his glade.


Farewell to an idea . . . A cabin stands,
Deserted, on a beach. It is white,
As by a custom or according to

An ancestral theme or as a consequence
Of an infinite course. The flowers against the wall
Are white, a little dried, a kind of mark

Reminding, trying to remind, of a white
That was different, something else, last year
Or before, not the white of an aging afternoon,

Whether fresher or duller, whether of winter cloud
Or of winter sky, from horizon to horizon.
The wind is blowing the sand across the floor.

Here, being visible is being white,
Is being of the solid of white, the accomplishment
Of an extremist in an exercise . . .

The season changes. A cold wind chills the beach.
The long lines of it grow longer, emptier,
A darkness gathers though it does not fall

And the whiteness grows less vivid on the wall.
The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand.
He observes how the north is always enlarging the change,

With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green,
The color of ice and fire and solitude.


Farewell to an idea . . . The mother's face,
The purpose of the poem, fills the room.
They are together, here, and it is warm,

With none of the prescience of oncoming dreams.
It is evening. The house is evening, half dissolved.
Only the half they can never possess remains,

Still-starred. It is the mother they possess,
Who gives transparence to their present peace.
She makes that gentler that can gentle be.

And yet she too is dissolved, she is destroyed.
She gives transparence. But she has grown old.
The necklace is a carving not a kiss.

The soft hands are a motion not a touch.
The house will crumble and the books will burn.
They are at ease in a shelter of the mind

And the house is of the mind and they and time,
Together, all together. Boreal night
Will look like frost as it approaches them

And to the mother as she falls asleep
And as they say good-night, good-night. Upstairs
The windows will be lighted, not the rooms.

A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round
And knock like a rifle-butt against the door.
The wind will command them with invincible sound.


Farewell to an idea . . . The cancellings,
The negations are never final. The father sits
In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard,

As one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes.
He says no to no and yes to yes. He says yes
To no; and in saying yes he says farewell.

He measures the velocities of change.
He leaps from heaven to heaven more rapidly
Than bad angels leap from heaven to hell in flames.

But now he sits in quiet and green-a-day.
He assumes the great speeds of space and flutters them
From cloud to cloudless, cloudless to keen clear

In flights of eye and ear, the highest eye
And the lowest ear, the deep ear that discerns,
At evening, things that attend it until it hears

The supernatural preludes of its own,
At the moment when the angelic eye defines
Its actors approaching, in company, in their masks.

Master O master seated by the fire
And yet in space and motionless and yet
Of motion the ever-brightening origin,

Profound, and yet the king and yet the crown,
Look at this present throne. What company,
In masks, can choir it with the naked wind?


The mother invites humanity to her house
And table. The father fetches tellers of tales
And musicians who mute much, muse much, on the tales.

The father fetches negresses to dance,
Among the children, like curious ripenesses
Of pattern in the dance's ripening.

For these the musicians make insidious tones,
Clawing the sing-song of their instruments.
The children laugh and jangle a tinny time.

The father fetches pageants out of air,
Scenes of the theatre, vistas and blocks of woods
And curtains like a naive pretence of sleep.

Among these the musicians strike the instinctive poem.
The father fetches his unherded herds,
Of barbarous tongue, slavered and panting halves

Of breath, obedient to his trumpet's touch.
This then is Chatillon or as you please.
We stand in the tumult of a festival.

What festival? This loud, disordered mooch?
These hospitaliers? These brute-like guests?
These musicians dubbing at a tragedy,

A-dub, a-dub, which is made up of this:
That there are no lines to speak? There is no play.
Or, the persons act one merely by being here.


It is a theatre floating through the clouds,
Itself a cloud, although of misted rock
And mountains running like water, wave on wave,

Through waves of light. It is of cloud transformed
To cloud transformed again, idly, the way
A season changes color to no end,

Except the lavishing of itself in change,
As light changes yellow into gold and gold
To its opal elements and fire's delight,

Splashed wide-wise because it likes magnificence
And the solemn pleasures of magnificent space
The cloud drifts idly through half-thought-of forms.

The theatre is filled with flying birds,
Wild wedges, as of a volcano's smoke, palm-eyed
And vanishing, a web in a corridor

Or massive portico. A capitol,
It may be, is emerging or has just
Collapsed. The denouement has to be postponed . . .

This is nothing until in a single man contained,
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house

On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.


Is there an imagination that sits enthroned
As grim as it is benevolent, the just
And the unjust, which in the midst of summer stops

To imagine winter? When the leaves are dead,
Does it take its place in the north and enfold itself,
Goat-leaper, crystalled and luminous, sitting

In highest night? And do these heavens adorn
And proclaim it, the white creator of black, jetted
By extinguishings, even of planets as may be,

Even of earth, even of sight, in snow,
Except as needed by way of majesty,
In the sky, as crown and diamond cabala?

It leaps through us, through all our heavens leaps,
Extinguishing our planets, one by one,
Leaving, of where we were and looked, of where

We knew each other and of each other thought,
A shivering residue, chilled and foregone,
Except for that crown and mystical cabala.

But it dare not leap by chance in its own dark.
It must change from destiny to slight caprice.
And thus its jetted tragedy, its stele

And shape and mournful making move to find
What must unmake it and, at last, what can,
Say, a flippant communication under the moon.


There may be always a time of innocence.
There is never a place. Or if there is no time,
If it is not a thing of time, nor of place,

Existing in the idea of it, alone,
In the sense against calamity, it is not
Less real. For the oldest and coldest philosopher,

There is or may be a time of innocence
As pure principle. Its nature is its end,
That it should be, and yet not be, a thing

That pinches the pity of the pitiful man,
Like a book at evening beautiful but untrue,
Like a book on rising beautiful and true.

It is like a thing of ether that exists
Almost as predicate. But it exists,
It exists, it is visible, it is, it is.

So, then, these lights are not a spell of light,
A saying out of a cloud, but innocence.
An innocence of the earth and no false sign

Or symbol of malice. That we partake thereof,
Lie down like children in this holiness,
As if, awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,

As if the innocent mother sang in the dark
Of the room and on an accordion, half-heard,
Created the time and place in which we breathed . . .


And of each other thought—in the idiom
Of the work, in the idiom of an innocent earth,
Not of the enigma of the guilty dream.

We were as Danes in Denmark all day long
And knew each other well, hale-hearted landsmen,
For whom the outlandish was another day

Of the week, queerer than Sunday. We thought alike
And that made brothers of us in a home
In which we fed on being brothers, fed

And fattened as on a decorous honeycomb.
This drama that we live—We lay sticky with sleep.
This sense of the activity of fate—

The rendezvous, when she came alone,
By her coming became a freedom of the two,
An isolation which only the two could share.

Shall we be found hanging in the trees next spring?
Of what disaster in this the imminence:
Bare limbs, bare trees and a wind as sharp as salt?

The stars are putting on their glittering belts.
They throw around their shoulders cloaks that flash
Like a great shadow's last embellishment.

It may come tomorrow in the simplest word,
Almost as part of innocence, almost,
Almost as the tenderest and the truest part.


An unhappy people in a happy world—
Read, rabbi, the phases of this difference.
An unhappy people in an unhappy world—

Here are too many mirrors for misery.
A happy people in an unhappy world—
It cannot be. There's nothing there to roll

On the expressive tongue, the finding fang.
A happy people in a happy world—
Buffo! A ball, an opera, a bar.

Turn back to where we were when we began:
An unhappy people in a happy world.
Now, solemnize the secretive syllables.

Read to the congregation, for today
And for tomorrow, this extremity,
This contrivance of the spectre of the spheres,

Contriving balance to contrive a whole,
The vital, the never-failing genius,
Fulfilling his meditations, great and small.

In these unhappy he meditates a whole,
The full of fortune and the full of fate,
As if he lived all lives, that he might know,

In hall harridan, not hushful paradise,
To a haggling of wind and weather, by these lights
Like a blaze of summer straw, in winter's nick.

Stevens may not, as is generally believed, have rejected the idea of God. 
How could he? I ask. He has not confronted the question.

In “A Collect of Philosophy” he says, “Whether one arrives at the idea of God as a philosopher or as a poet matters greatly.”[1] God is still on the table, I presume. 

He adds, “The number of ways of passing between the traditional two fixed points of man’s life, that is to say, of passing from the self to God, is fixed only by the limitations of space, which is limitless. The eternal philosopher is the eternal pilgrim on that road.”[2] He then discusses the differences between philosophers and poets: “The most significant deduction possible relates to the question of supremacy as between philosophy and poetry. If we say that philosophy is supreme, this means that reason is supreme over the imagination. But is it? If we rely on the imagination (or, say, intuition), to carry us beyond that point (as in respect to the idea of God, if we conceive of the idea of God as this world’s capital idea), then the imagination is supreme, because its powers have shown themselves to be greater than the powers of reason.”[3]

Stevens acknowledges the power of imagination in philosophers: “their ideas are often triumphs of imagination”[4], but his point is that imagination and reason act in concert.

I agree but I also assert that he is not confronting either the absence or presence of God, though he is the one who puts that issue on the table again and again—as he does in his next essay “Two or Three Ideas” where he says, “To speak of the origin or end of gods is not a light matter. It is to speak of the origin and end of eras in human belief.”[5]

Am I to presume that Stevens simply stopped believing or returned to belief or remained a believer without a serious struggle? I think not. And I see that struggle for the first time in “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948).

Let me begin by saying that I consider “The Auroras of Autumn”[6] to be the finest of Stevens’ long poems and that I cannot do justice within the limits of this essay to its beauty, to the coherence I see in its ten cantos, to its power of image and thought.

My task here is to place this poem in the context of Stevens’ struggle with the Absolute and the poet as creator.

The poem opens with this line: “This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.” I see as statements of spiritual struggle this line and the lines, “This is the form gulping after formlessness,/ Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances” (stanza 4) and the lines “This is his poison: that we should disbelieve/ Even that” (stanza 7).

I see the serpent, an animal out of the scriptures, as a symbol of both questioning and belief in earth and paradise because it is the creature of knowledge and loss of innocence in Genesis, when, the Bible story tells us, God made the world and man and woman.

Vendler sees the serpent in Stevens’ world as the “Fate-serpent,” as the “simple animal nature of the serpent as he lives in the ferns, on the rock,” and as the “changeable serpent, whose head has become air. . . .”[7] Bloom says the ultimate meaning of the serpent is “death, because the serpent is the emblem of the necessity of change and the final form of change is one’s own death.”[8]

Both their readings inform mine because I believe that to confront the issue of the Absolute, one must confront knowledge without innocence, life as it is, the everydayness of it—“the serpent as he lives in the ferns,” if you will—life as it changes with loss and with death; these are the contexts from which one confronts the Absolute or his absence.

Doggett, who calls this poem a masterpiece, says that here Stevens sees “man encompassed by that which cannot be conceived.”[9] If this is so, then perhaps in this poem Stevens recognizes the limits of the imagination.

Stevens begins three cantos (II, III and IV) with this phrase: “Farewell to an idea” followed each time with an ellipsis. Doggett says, “The ‘idea’ of this farewell, in accordance with the terms of the rest of the poem, can be assumed to be an idea of individual being.”[10] But could this not also be a questioning of that which man cannot conceive, of the Absolute and of Stevens’ own assertions of the power of the imagination? Canto V ends this way:

A-dub, a-dub, which is made up of this:
That there are not lines to speak? There is not play.
Or, the persons act one merely being here.

The nonsense phrase “a-dub, a-dub,” with its ring of the old nursery rhyme “Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” raises the question of what happens to the three men in the tub: “Turn ‘em out all three.” And Stevens then “turns out,” tosses away, so to speak, says “Farewell” three times in the three cantos that follow. In the last of the three, canto IV, “The father sits in space ... He says no to no and yes to yes. He says yes/ To no; and in saying yes he says farewell.” Then canto V ends with “a-dub, a-dub.” I read this as Stevens’ acknowledgment of the limits of his words, a diminishment, if you will, of all that he has achieved in the preceding cantos with the increasing weight of the imagery in each.

The largest and most persistent image in the poem is the Northern Lights that appear in Canto II:

The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand.
He observes how the north is always enlarging the

With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps
And gust of great enkindlings, its polar green
The color of ice and fire and solitude.

Vendler says, “The verbal parallels between the celestial aurora and the chilling earthly wind make us realize that the one does not exist without the other. . . .”[11] If she is right, is Stevens not questioning whether the earth exists without the celestial? The Northern Lights appear again in canto III: “Boreal night/ Will look like frost as it approaches them.”

But Stevens has not yet created a startling image of the lights. He does so in canto VI: “It is a theatre floating through the clouds. . .” And then this gorgeous imagery:

Except the lashing of itself in change,
A light changes yellow into gold and gold
To its opal elements and fire’s delight

But the canto ends:

On Flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of Everything he is. And he feels afraid.

I believe that Stevens’ re-creation of the auroras in words is his attempt to take language to its height and that his words “he feels afraid” could be his admission of the limits of his own attempt to recreate them, the limits of language, of the imagination.

Perhaps the scholar “feels afraid” because his words do not measure up to what he sees. I say this because the next canto begins with this question: “Is there an imagination that sits enthroned. . . ?” “Enthroned” is a regal word with theological resonance. And his answer seems to be that “It [antecedent ‘imagination’?] dare not leap in its own dark.” 

In the next canto he says:

So, then, these lights are not a spell of light,
A saying out of a cloud, but innocence.
An innocence of the earth and no false sign

Or symbol of malice. That we partake thereof,
Lie down like children in this holiness,
As, awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,

As if the innocent mother sang in the dark
Of the room and on an accordion, half-heard,
Created the time and place in which we breathed . . .

The use of the word “holiness” refers to the lights, to what Vendler has called the “celestial aurora.” It does not refer to the imagination of the preceding canto. The last canto uses the words of organized religion: “rabbi,” “solemnize,” “congregation” and Stevens seems to discount these with his nonsense word “Buffo!” 

But he has written about the lights themselves without irony and with the word “holiness.” So, no, he does not say, I see these lights and turn to religion, but he does seem to say, I (or the scholar) see these lights and “feel afraid.” Vendler calls this the “climax” of the poem.[12] This unusual statement, appearing in a Stevens poem where feelings are rarely mentioned, seems to say something about the limitations of the imagination when confronted with the auroras. Doggett notes that “the only color in the poem occurs in the aurora . . . and stands for that which is beyond existence.”[13]

The question for me is does this poem mark a change in Stevens’ thinking about poet as creator?

Perhaps “Auroras in Autumn” indicates a recognition of Stevens’ own limitations.

In the essay “Two or Three Ideas,” he says, “. . . how easy it is suddenly to believe in the poem as one has never believed in it before, suddenly to require of it a meaning beyond what its words can possibly say, a sound beyond any giving of the ear, a motion beyond our previous knowledge of feeling.”[14] He seems here to be acknowledging what Ozick calls the seduction of literature. 

He adds, “A poem is a restricted creation of the imagination.”[15]

Ah, there's the rub for anyone who writes, no?

Part Five, the last part, and a full bibliography next week.

[1] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p. 190.
[2] Ibid., p. 193.
[3] Ibid., p. 200.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., p. 205.
[6] Stevens, Collected Poems, pp. 411-421. I should note here that Frank Kermode’s chapter on the Stevens collection entitled the Auroras of Autumn chooses not to discuss this poem; perhaps he disagrees with me?
[7] Vendler, On Extended Wings, pp. 249-50.
[8] Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, p. 256.
[9] Doggett, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought, p. 12.
[10] Ibid., p. 14.
[11] Vendler, On Extended Wings, p. 255.
[12] Ibid., p. 263.
[13] Doggett, Stevens Poetry of Thought, p. 14.
[14] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p. 210.
[15] Ibid., p. 215.