The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens
Part four
Stevens and the Absolute

by Mary L. Tabor Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. 20.01.2014


Editor's Note: This is a five part series - Please click here for part One.


I close part three of this five-part essay this way: Stevens may not, as is generally believed, have rejected the idea of God. How could he? I ask. He did not confront the question.

I will discuss here work from his final years. Stevens was born in 1879 and he died in 1955. 

Here is the full text of the poem I discuss next, "The Auroras of Autumn." (1948)


The Auroras of Autumn

 

I 

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.

 

II 

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.

 

III

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.

 

IV 

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?

 

V

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.

 

VI 

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.

 

VII

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.

 

VIII 

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 . . .

 

IX

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.

 

X 

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.

 

This poem was composed in 1948; published, 1950.

I consider “The Auroras of Autumn”[i] to be the finest of Stevens’ long poems and 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—or the absence of a struggle—with belief in the Absolute and the role of poet as creator.

In “A Collect of Philosophy” (1951) Stevens says, “Whether one arrives at the idea of God as a philosopher or as a poet matters greatly.”[ii] 

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.”[iii] 

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.”[iv]

Although Stevens acknowledges the power of imagination in philosophers: “[T]heir ideas are often triumphs of imagination.”[v] his point is that imagination and reason act in concert. 

I agree but I also assert that Stevens is not confronting either the absence or presence of God, even 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” (1951) 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.”[vi]

in “The Auroras of Autumn” (1948), a struggle is indeed in play, but I think it’s fair to question whether that struggle is with his own question on his table: the question of the Absolute. 

The struggle strikes me as his brilliantly realized sense of his own humanity in the face of aging and death. In 1948, Stevens is sixty-nine years old.

The poem opens with this line: “This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.” In this opening line I see a statement of spiritual struggle and then these lines, “This is the form gulping after formlessness,/ Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances” (stanza 4) and “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. 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 … .”[vii]

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.”[viii] 

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, and I agree, says that here Stevens sees “man encompassed by that which cannot be conceived.”[ix]

If Doggett is correct, and I believe he is, then 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.”[x] 

Stevens powerfully confronts his own death in this poem. And he powerfully questions his own assertions, in his essays and his poems, of the power of the imagination.

But he does not address the struggle to believe in or to reject the Absolute. 

Canto V (of ten cantos) 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 by 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

change,

 

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 … .”[xi]  If she is right, Stevens may be 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.” 

In canto VI Stevens creates this startling image of the lights: “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

 

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” are his admission of the limits of his own attempt to recreate them, the limits of language, the limits of the imagination.

The scholar “feels afraid.” His words do not measure up to what he sees. And the man, Stevens, recognizes that he will die.

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 VIII 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 . . . [Stevens’ ellipsis]

 

The use of the word “holiness” refers to the lights, to what Vendler has called the “celestial aurora.”

Here “holiness” refers not to the imagination of the preceding canto, but instead acknowledges the power of what the scholar (the speaker in the poem) sees in the sky. 

The last canto X uses the words of organized religion: “rabbi,” “solemnize,” “congregation” and Stevens discounts these with his nonsense word “Buffo!”

He does not say, I see these lights and turn to religion [“rabbi” “congregation”] Religion is dismissed: “Buffo!” 

But he has written about the lights themselves without irony and with the word “holiness.”

I repeat: He (or the scholar as speaker) says, I see these lights and “feel afraid.”

Vendler calls this the “climax” of the poem.[xii] 

This unusual statement, appearing in a Stevens’ poem where feelings are rarely mentioned, speaks of 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.”[xiii] 

But my question remains: Has Stevens’ addressed the primary human struggle to find the Absolute, however that may be named and regardless of organized religion?

I argue that “Auroras in Autumn” reveals Stevens’ recognition of his own limitations to recreate what he sees—and I also argue that this poem may be the finest expression in words, in imagery that we have in the literary canon of the Northern Lights. 

Does this mean that we should believe in Stevens, as A.S. Byatt has recently said in a 2010 interview with The Guardian: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in Wallace Stevens”?

In the essay “Two or Three Ideas,” (1951) Stevens says, “… [H]ow 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.”[xiv] 

He seems here to acknowledge what Ozick calls the seduction of literature.

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

Ah, there's the rub for anyone who writes: The imagination as a “restricted creation.”Indeed, I say, marvelous as it may be.

And I argue that God is still not addressed while the question remains on Stevens’ table.

 

A bibliography in five parts - Please click here for part five.



[i] Stevens, Collected Poems, pp. 411-421. I note here that Frank Kermode’s chapter on the Stevens collection entitled the Auroras of Autumn chooses not to discuss this poem; an omission that strikes me as odd.

[ii] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p. 190. 

[iii] Ibid., p. 193.

[iv] Ibid., p. 200. 

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., p. 205, essay “Two or Three Ideas” appeared in CEA Chapbook in 1951. 

[vii] Vendler, On Extended Wings, pp. 249-50.

[viii] Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, p. 256. 

[ix] Doggett, Stevens’ Poetry of Thought, p. 12.

[x] Ibid., p. 14. 

[xi] Vendler, On Extended Wings, p. 255.

[xii] Ibid., p. 263. 

[xiii] Doggett, Stevens Poetry of Thought, p. 14.

[xiv] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p. 210. 

[xv] Ibid., p. 215.

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