«Epiphanies Among the Poems of Wallace Stevens. A lecture delivered in St. Chad's Chapel, Durham University 24/2/ (For reasons of copyright I have ...»
Among the Poems of Wallace Stevens.
A lecture delivered in St. Chad's Chapel, Durham University 24/2/
(For reasons of copyright I have omitted the texts of most of the quoted
poems. References to their sources can be found in the notes at the end. )
As everyone here no doubt knows, the word epiphany means
generally a manifestation or showing forth of a supernatural or divine
reality. Epiphany with an upper case E refers specifically to the Christian
Festival held January 6th commemorating in the Western Church the manifestation of Christ to the Magi. Used metaphorically, and especially in connection with the poems I want to read with you this evening, the word with a small e can be stretched to express that feeling of personal exaltation that is sometimes evoked by a certain kind of poem. There are, of course, many kinds of poem, and who would want to limit their scope or variety?
But for some years now I have kept a record, a sort of diary in my mind, of poems I think of as epiphanies, poems that have struck me with the force of revelations. I suppose these poems must be termed influential, since I probably would not have written poems myself without their example, but their influence has not been obvious to me; that is to say, I don't believe I've been tempted to imitate them – or at least not for a long time. Instead, they have given me patterns of sounds and rhythms in words that have somehow got into my ears like echoes. Naturally, my tastes have changed over the years. On the whole, though, I have returned again and again to the poets I might call seed poets– from John Donne, George Herbert and the seventeenth-century divines through to Blake and Yeats and on to the Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop whose poetry I have trumpeted in this chapel in previous years. What I'd like to do this evening in the fifty or so minutes at my disposal is to read with you several poems by a major twentieth-century American, Wallace Stevens. All the poems you'll find on your hand out sheets are among those I revere as epiphanies. This is why none of them are what unquestioning admirers of Stevens might consider typical. Let me say now that I am not an admirer of all or even most of his poems. A few famous ones, such as 'The Comedian as the Letter C' and 'The Man with the Blue Guitar', prized and praised for their ornate, aesthetically fanciful language, in parts amuse me but eventually bore me; while his long, philosophical poems on the nature of reality and imagination (all essentially about how in poetry imagination recreates reality) once they have been taken to pieces and put together again as rational arguments, annoy me – not least because Stevens argues at the same time that rationality has no place in poetry. But for all his high-spirited verbosity, self-contradiction and too facile generalisations, Stevens was, I believe, a great poet. I also want to suggest that Stevens at his most serious and inspired, can be said to honour, while suitably modifying, T.S. Eliot's historically based Tradition of poetry in the English language. This is the kind of poetry I found myself describing (or defending) last year in an article for a reference book of contemporary poets. Here is the relevant passage.
A poem succeeds when form and subject matter perfectly coalesce, when form is not sacrificed to meaning or meaning squeezed uncomfortably into pre-set forms. Every poem that lasts is more than its subject; each is a work of art in which the elements of life and language, different though they are, have undergone, like a chemical reaction, a transformation in the poet's mind into something "rich and strange." 1 We are not talking here of what poems say but of what poems are, of what I take Stevens to have meant by a passage in his essay, 'The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words' which opens the discursive prose of his book
The Necessary Angel (1942):
Above everything else, poetry is words; and words, above everything else, are in poetry sounds... A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words. 2 Also relevant to his theory of the complementary roles reality and imagination play in poetry (reality is bearable only as the poet's imagination transmutes it into art) he launches towards the end of the same essay into a
defence – unfashionable in his day as in ours – of the word nobility:
The imagination gives to everything it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility...I mean the nobility which is our spiritual height and depth...For the sensitive poet... nothing is more difficult than affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them... are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege. 3 Since there is probably no word more unacceptable to today's popular poets than the word 'nobility' (unless it is 'elitist') I think we must try to forget that Stevens has been pigeonholed as a 'modernist' and consider that he was an American poet whose temperament, like Walt Whitman's and Emerson's, was in everything but the doctrines of religion, religious. In the absence of belief, Stevens' tireless explorations of western philosophy, convinced him that civilization in the twentieth century could no longer seriously credit the existence of God. This is how Stevens explained and justified poetry to his friend, Henry Church, who in 1940 tried and failed to set up a Chair of Poetry for him at Princeton.
The major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God. One of the visible movements of the modern imagination is the movement away from the idea of God. The poetry that created the idea of God will either adapt it to our different intelligence, or create a substitute for it, or make it unnecessary...The knowledge of poetry is a part of philosophy, and a part of science; [but] the import of poetry is the import of the spirit.
The figures of the essential poets should be spiritual figures. [my italics]4 So Stevens, in his passion to rethink the theory of poetry, came all out for spirituality in his essential poets (and that paragraph is only one instance out of many similar declarations). In and throughout all his writing he summoned words – the more extravagant and imaginative, the better – to replace the idea of God with the idea of a supreme fiction, a verbal creation of the imagination powerful enough to have the effect of a spiritual revelation or epiphany. Such an epiphany, for Stevens, was a revelation of nobility, such as would distinguish a god if gods were any longer possible.
I should add that it's easy to fault Stevens' generalisations here as elsewhere. If indeed the idea of God dominated the poetry of the past, surely the poetry of nature and of secular love rivalled it. Neither does it seem to me evident that the modern imagination today is moving away from God; on the contrary, religion, especially fundamentalist religion, has become a source of such bitter and murderous sectarian violence in the Middle East as has not been seen in the West since the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries. On a brighter note, three recent novels by Marilynne Robinson set in Gilead, a small town Iowa, at a time when Stevens was at his acme as a poet, serve as convincing evidence that, at least in America, the Bible is as central to as many people's lives and beliefs as it ever was. But never mind what Stevens claimed in his sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating polemics; let's look at two or three of his poems after a word or two about Stevens himself.
Wallace Stevens was born into a prosperous lawyer's family in Reading, Pennsylvania, as long ago as 1879. Educated at Harvard and the New York Law School, he matured to live through some of the twentiethcentury's most discomforting ills and anxieties: the Depression, the great drought in the American west, mass unemployment and starvation, the ascension to power of Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, the horrors of World War II into which the United States was catapulted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, followed by that giant step forward in mankind's capacity to kill brought about by the atomic bomb. It is easy to guess, even after a few glances at Stevens' poetry, that the violent disequilibrium of his time encouraged his essentially romantic, joy-seeking, truth-loving passion for salvation through art and poetry to disengage from the murderous turmoil of ideological politics and, in his "rage for order", concern himself with ideas about how imagination might convert the uncontrollable realities of life into art. Contemporary with Pound, Eliot and the major modernists, he avoided a literary milieu both in academia and in New York and led a double life as a successful businessman in Hartford, Connecticut. By day he went to work in a suit and tie as an executive of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. By night he retired to his study to indulge his ideas and write his poetry. Apart from yearly vacations in Florida, he travelled only in his mind.
Though he read voluminously in French, German and the classics, he never ventured abroad. He never even strayed from the East Coast of the United States. When he died aged seventy-five in 1955, he had won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards and was acknowledged as a major influence in American letters. Today our populist and personality oriented literary world has turned the elitist ideas of the modernists out of doors. Though Stevens is still a name, his poetry is not generally beloved, which is why I want to look at these particular poems this evening.
I have said that, apart from his philosophical objections to believing in God, Stevens was a religious poet in the Anglo-American tradition. By this I mean that his relationship with the idea he called a supreme fiction was not exclusively
or even philosophical. It could be intimate in much the same way George Herbert's was intimate with his "dear angry Lord."
Compare the tone and language of Stevens' introduction to 'Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction' with Herbert's famous and beloved dialogue, 'Love'. Here
And for what except for you, so I feel love?
Do I press the extremist book of the wisest man Close to me, hidden in me, day and night?
In the uncertain light of single certain truth Equal in living changingness to the light In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest, For a moment in the central of our being, The vivid transparence that you bring is peace. 5
And here, Herbert:
Separated by four hundred years and speaking out from different countries, historical periods and beliefs, the writers of these poems shared a language, a tone of voice – modest, even humble – yet secure in the common dignity (nobility) of their personalities. Stevens himself proffered in The Necessary Angel a possible definition of poetry: "Poetry is a process of the personality of the poet." By which he did not mean "that it involves the poet as subject" but that the writing of poetry "is the element, the force, that keeps poetry a living thing, the modernizing and ever-modern influence."7 The differences between these two poems seem to me chiefly differences of 1) form: Herbert is a master of rhymed pentameter in a regulated pattern whereas Stevens writes here in traditional blank verse; and 2) reliance upon truths of faith that in Herbert's case are never in doubt, whereas Stevens allows contradictions to give his ambiguous faith the breath of life he called reality. "In the uncertain light of single certain truth / Equal in living changingness to the light" recalls the paintings by Cezanne and Paul Klee Stevens so admired.
Herbert, of course, would never have given voice to his doubts, although it could be that he sometimes wrote poems to conquer them.
Those eight lines introducing 'Notes for a Supreme Fiction' should look familiar. Stevens wanted to prepare his reader for embarkation on a long philosophical poem, and these lines are an invocation to his muse.
Note that his iambic pentameter is rather stricter than Milton's opening lines of Paradise Lost, which so arrestingly wrench that great poem open. They are even more orderly than the first line of Herbert's 'Love'. Compare the smooth flow of "And for what except for you do I feel love?" with the violent eruption of "Of man's first disobedience and the fruit/ Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste/ brought death into our world..." and so forth, and then with the relaxed pattern of stresses stretched over ten syllables in "Love bade me welcome:(breath) yet my soul drew back..."
Iambic pentameter is a wonderfully flexible meter, as Shakespeare and Milton discovered.
Stevens, a master of rhythms, chose to surprise us in those opening iambs by directly addressing a 'what' and not a 'whom'. A muse? An angel?