Editor's Note: This is a five part series - Please click here for part One.
In this five-part essay, I have examined Wallace Stevens’ work that I deeply admire and I have questioned whether he confronted his own rejection of the Absolute: 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.
I do not believe Stevens confronted the absurdist implications of this 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 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.
In part 4, I argue that even in his later work, 1948, the poem “The Auroras of Autumn” and 1951, the essays “A Collect of Philosophy” and “Two or Three Ideas,” God is still on the table.
Stevens died in 1955.
My argument is based on the fact that Stevens, like fiction writers William Gass and Cynthia Ozick, chose, in addition to his considerable body of poetry, to write essays that address the questions of existence, the most telling being “A Collect of Philosophy” (1951) where he says, “Whether one arrives at the idea of God as a philosopher or as a poet matters greatly.”
Stevens’ intended his essay “A Collect of Philosophy,” in 1951, the year The Necessary Angel was published, “as a contribution to one of the professional philosophy journals, but the essay was judged by the editor to be better suited for a literary review.” Stevens never submitted it elsewhere, Samuel French Morse notes in his introduction to Opus Posthumous.
A poet who chooses to write essays about his philosophical stance, a poet who addresses the questions of belief in his essays raises the bar.
Stevens clearly saw his territory equal to that of the philosopher. In A Necessary Angel (1951), he says “Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers. The greatest truth we could hope to discover is that man’s truth is the final resolution of everything. Poets and painters alike today make that assumption and this is what gives them the validity and serious dignity that become them as among those who seek wisdom, seek understanding.”[i]
In the late poem “The Planet on the Table”[ii] (1953), one of the finest poems in the literary canon, brilliant alone for its brevity, Stevens assesses his work with humility:
The Planet on Table
Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he had liked.
Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.
His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self
Were no less makings of the sun.
It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
In this poem, one of the last he wrote before he died, Stevens places his world and the body of his work, in the larger world. But the Absolute, presence or absence, even in the startling beauty and humility of the poem, is not addressed.
In the introduction to Opus Posthumous, Samuel French Morse, says that this poem is “touched with a depth of personal feeling that is surprising in a poet as detached as Stevens.”[iii]
It is Stevens’ detachment that, in the overview of his work, ultimately troubles me, as one who herself tries to write, to create something in the world, with all the problems that existence presents: the evil that persists in the world at large, the illness and death of loved ones, my own process of aging, the inexorable move toward my own death.
I ask, What has been the nature of Stevens’ journey?
His poetry and essays reveal a world of his own making in which the self through imagination is paramount.
Although in his later years, in “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948) and “The Planet on the Table” (1953), he acknowledges the limitations of his “world,” where is the struggle?
A philosophically serious examination of the existence or the absence of the Absolute must in a mind so finely tuned demand a confrontation, and by that I mean a struggle, with the questions posed.
The absurdist stance is as difficult as is the leap of faith. Reason will not take us to the Absolute. Stevens agrees on that point.
But rejection of the Absolute is also not a totally rational conclusion.
We are all faced with the conundrums that existence presents.
Imagination gifts creation: human hope in art, in poetry, in speech. That is Stevens’ gift. His imagination gifts us with the horrors of existence in “The Man on the Dump.”
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump?
But, as Harold Bloom tells us, it is “a superior self” that Stevens finds.[iv]
In the awe the scholar experiences before the Northern Lights in “The Auroras of Autumn” Stevens confronts imagination and still is unable here or in his prose essays to confront the gift of the imagination that may very well not be a superior self—but something ‘other’. If not, that something ‘other’ may be the self, it may be human consciousness, but, I dare say, that self is not superior. It is—and that is all it is.
In 1971, Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death addressed the question of the self as hero and the hero as prophet. He asks, “Why do brilliant thinkers become so flaccid, dissipate so carelessly their own careful arguments? Probably because they see their task as a serious and gigantic one: the critique of an entire way of life; and they see themselves in an equally gigantic prophetic role: to point to a way out once and for all, in the most uncompromising terms.”[v]
Here is Stevens in 1951, in his essay “Two or Three Ideas” written shortly before his own death in 1955: “In an age of disbelief, or what is the same thing, in a time largely humanistic, in one sense or another, it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief, in his measure and in his style. … I think of it as a role of the utmost seriousness. It is, for one thing, a spiritual role.”[vi]
God is not a part of the world Stevens has created. I do not fault him for that conclusion.
I fault him for the lack of struggle in his arrival at that point, and for his ability to assert that it is the poet who supplies “the satisfactions of belief.”
In 1985, in an essay in Habitations of the Word, William Gass says "And everywhere here in my present absence—in your, the reader’s silence, where you, or something of you, sits among the scattered numbers of listening chairs like a choir before bursting into song—there is the subversive murmur of us all: our glad, our scrappy, rude, grand, small talk to ourselves, the unheard hum of our humanity; without which—think of it!—we might not be awake; without which—imagine it!—we might not be alive; since while we speak we live up there above our bodies in the mind, and there is hope so long as we continue to speak, to search for eloquence even over happiness or sympathy in sorrow or anger in revenge, even if all that is left to us is the omitted outcry, Christ's query, the silent condemnation: ‘My God, my God, why have you left me alone?’ ”[vii]
Gass does not accept the Absolute, but, as this eloquent utterance shows, he has no illusions about his role as “a spiritual role.” Stevens says, “I think of it [the role of the poet] as a role of the utmost seriousness. It is, for one thing, a spiritual role.”[viii]
The believer Cynthia Ozick says, “… [T]here is always the easy, the sweet, the beckoning, the lenient, the interesting lure of the Instead of: the wood of the tree instead of God, the rapture-bringing horizon instead of God, the work of art instead of God … .”[ix]
Any of us who choose to create something other must take care not to view that creation or, perhaps more important, our ability to put in words what we imagine as a “superior self” no matter where we stand on the question of the Absolute.
Ihab Hassan in his essay on nihilism and belief concludes, “The stutter of spirit, the struggle for belief, remain primal in our condition. In this regard, nihilism may appear a saving grace, the breakneck candor of a mind insisting on its own lucidity. Let us honor such lucidity: not even the forgiving earth sanctions every vapid, errant, or wicked belief. But by far in the most cases, such lucidity finally fails. Nor does irony, which Kierkegaard calls the ‘infinitely delicate play with nothingness,’ suffice. Heart and mind continue to cry out to hell, to heaven for something more. The cry is hopeless, its very hopelessness indistinguishable from hope on the other side of despair.”[x]
Kierkegaard says, “[I]t is not faith but the most remote possibility of faith that faintly sees its object on the most distant horizon but is separated from it by a chasmal abyss in which doubt plays its tricks.”[xi]
I ask, Where is Stevens’ abyss? Where is his despair?
If the writer’s subject is the nature of existence, and if he concludes that faith in God is not possible, it is not enough to assert that this is “the age of disbelief.” His integrity and originality lie in the struggle that brought him either to that conclusion or to the persistent residuum of doubt—and most important for the writer—its expression in words.
[i]Stevens, A Necessary Angel, pp. 174-5.
[ii] Stevens, Collected Poems, p. 532.
[iii] Samuel French Morse, ed. Opus Posthumous, p. xvi.
[iv] Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, p. 147.
[v] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 268.
[vi] Stevens, “Two or Three ideas,” Opus Posthumous, p. 206.
[vii] Gass, “On Talking to Oneself,” Habitations of the Word, p. 216.
[viii] Stevens, “Two or Three ideas,” Opus Posthumous, p. 206.
[ix] Ozick, “The Riddle of the Ordinary,” Art and Ardor, p. 208.
[x] Ihab Hassan, “The Expense of Spirit in Postmodern Times: Between Nihilism and Belief,” The Georgia Review, Spring 1997, p. 26.
[xi] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 20.
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Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Doggett, Frank. Stevens’ Poetry of Thought. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.
Gass, William. Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
Gass, William. The World Within the Word. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Gass, William. Habitations of the Word. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter. Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992.
Hassan, Ihab. “The Expense of Spirit in Postmodern Times: Between Nihilism and Belief,” The Georgia Review, Spring 1997, pp. 9-26.
Hassan, Ihab. Rumors of Change. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Kermode, Frank. Wallace Stevens. New York: CHIP’S BOOKSHOP, Inc., 1979.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Ozick, Cynthia. Art and Ardor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. Edited by Samuel French Morse. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951.
Vendler, Helen. On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Vendler, Helen. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
Note: The interview I refer to in part 4 of this essay that A.S. Byatt did with The Guardian can be found here.