Excerpted Criticism

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Charles Berger: On "Of Mere Being"

"Of Mere Being" says nothing about the sun or choirs; it displays a fabricated world, though its "firefangled" bird may indeed come from the sun, the fire fashioner. The question toward which the poem leads is the Blakean one: who made thee, who formed thy symmetry? The "gold-feathered bird" stands gorgeously alone, as if the scrawny crier of "Not Ideas" were now transformed into something rich and strange, something singular--or self-begotten, if we read the bird as phoenix. . . .

[Berger quotes the entire poem]

The palm at the end of the mind, a destination and a reward, symbolizes both resurrection and poetic glory: as the palm rises, so do we. Like the soldier, in "Metaphors of a Magnifico," Stevens sees a tree in the distance, though there is no assurance that the "edge of space" beckons on to a village, much less the walled city of Jerusalem. Much rides on whether or not "the end of the mind" and "Beyond the last thought" are synonymous, or whether Stevens implies that there is a space between the last thought and mind's end, a region that lies within the mind but beyond the range of thought. "It is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy" might point to this region. If one chooses to equate the two phrases, then the palm would rise, the bird's feathers "dangle down," just beyond the mind's edge: "It would have been outside," to quote from "Not Ideas." Wherever we stand in space, "bronze decor," with its echoes of Horace's claim for poetry-exegi monumentum aere perennior--and the string of words in the final line, convince us that bird and palm alike blaze with artifice. Yet the maker or fashioner remains unidentified. "Of Mere Being" is poised on the edge of unanswerable questions. Does the wind move slowly because it is dying down, as the spirit departs in death? Or does it move slowly because a new life is starting up? Whose spirit is this?

From Forms of Farewell: The Late Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Wisconsin Press.

Eleanor Cook: On "Of Mere Being"

Of Mere Being allows what Stevens has not allowed before, anagogic metaphor, which we may hear in his explicit and implicit word-play:

The palm at the end of the mind,

Beyond the last thought, rises

In the bronze decor,

 

A gold-feathered bird

Sings in the palm, without human meaning,

Without human feeling, a foreign song.

 

You know then that it is not the reason

That makes us happy or unhappy.

The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

 

The palm stands on the edge of space.

The wind moves slowly in the branches.

The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

This slowly moving play of excitation begins with the title and its obvious double sense of "mere." This is mere (bare, only) being and also mere (utter, very) being. On the edge of things, including life, this is how being may be. The implicit pun is on the word "phoenix," which is what this fiery bird is. The Greek word for this fabulous sacred bird is also used for a date-palm. The bird "sings in the palm" and through a pun is the palm. So also the poem is contained in its words or its leaves, and vice versa; it also is its words or leaves. So also space is contained in the mind, and vice versa; it also is the mind.

This use of "is" sounds like the merest play of the verb "to be" or of "being." Yet such a visionary sense "at the end of the mind" is also of utter and very being. These are no longer the "intricate evasions of as"; here "as and is are one." This is being as in the A is B of anagogic metaphor. And we recall Stevens' old play with "B," "be," "to be"--of mere being, so to speak. Anagogic metaphor is paradisal: this is as close to paradisal language as Stevens will allow himself. He echoes the bird of the earthly paradise from the lemon-tree land of An Ordinary Evening in "dangle down," also rhymed on. He evokes the sun once more, for the phoenix lives in the City of the Sun. He uses no language of upwardness and no language of home. The poem is of mortality yet with a sense of immortality, though not personal immortality. It is a kind of will and testament of song. Thus, I think, the touching on Yeats; this is a Byzantium poem of sorts, a land of gold and kinds of transmutation. The "last thought" is the last thought possible before we move beyond reason, whether toward imagination or toward death.

J. S. Leonard and C. E. Wharton: On "A Clear Day and No Memories"

"Nothingness" and the "sense" of "being" (as a vitalness) again commingle in the late poem (1955) "A Clear Day and No Memories":

Today the air is clear of everything.

It has no knowledge except of nothingness

And it flows over us without meanings,

As if none of us had ever been here before

And are not now: in this shallow spectacle,

This invisible activity, this sense.

Once more there is a winter integration--a "sense" in which the past (with its fictions) has vanished with the "sun" that once illuminated it. The clear air of the present moment has "no knowledge except of nothingness / And it flows over us without meanings." The indifference of the air, to the present as well as the past, is an indifference to the human, reminiscent of the indifferent night ("the color of the heavy hemlocks") in the early poem "Domination of Black" (1916). But as in "Domination," the indifferent (what seems objective) is so only in our apprehension of it. By the doubled meaning of the lines, the clear air, in the "invisible activity" of air, "flows over" this "invisible activity" which is ourselves. As he often does, Stevens exposes the full shape of the poem by the turn of the last line. Our "invisible activity" (which again is like the light that "adds nothing . . . ") is not simply a sense; it is "this sense": of what was, of what is, and of the indifferent "sense" the air.

From The Fluent Mundo: Wallace Stevens and the Structure of Reality. University of Georgia Press.

James Longenbach: On "A Clear Day and No Memories"

. . . at the very end, Stevens was able to write a few poems that accepted silence instead of spinning a web to disguise it. In the quiet and luminous "A Clear Day and No Memories" Stevens turns away from everything once dear to him--the soldiers of two world wars, the dead he spent years mapping in genealogical charts, and the living whom he felt he loved too little.

These lines empty out the accumulation of a lifetime, even the existence of the poet's self. Yet "A Clear Day and No Memories" appeared a few months after Stevens said plainly in his essay on Connecticut: "it is a question of coming home to the American self in the sort of place in which it was formed." Two years before, Stevens had returned to Cambridge--one of the places in which he was formed--to see an exhibition at the Fogg Museum. On that day he did have memories, and he recalled the museum as a place whose only real public consisted of "young persons of honorable intentions." When Stevens was a student at Harvard in the year 1900, he visited the Fogg Museum to hear a speech by John Jay Chapman. Fired by Chapman's words, he wrote his editorial calling for all young persons to become "readily acquainted with political conditions." Looking back fifty years later, Stevens knew the haphazard fate of honorable intentions. In a poem that relinquishes the memories of soldiers in the scenery and the thoughts of people now dead, Stevens commemorates a life spent honoring the plain sense of things.

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

William W. Bevis: On "A Clear Day and No Memories"

Stevens' last poems are distinguished by a broad serenity; this one was published in 1954, the year before he died. The poem is built of negations: "no memories," "no thoughts," "no knowledge except of nothingness," "without meanings," "none of us … here before / And are not now." In this void only two positive constructions occur: "air is clear," and at the end, "in … this sense." "This sense" is parallel to the prior oxymorons, "shallow spectacle," "invisible activity," each of which suggests a dual nature to reality, part void (shallow, invisible) and part richness (spectacle, activity). These oxymorons suggest an external reality but "sense" connotes an internal reality and hence both dissolves the external scene and unites, as the final description of the scene, not only voidness and suchness, but internal and external. It is all one "sense," both this perceived world, which is the absolute "today" stripped of all "knowledge except of nothingness," and these perceivers (poet and us) who have a vivid sense of perception, as vivid as if we had never seen this before (perhaps we have not in this state of consciousness), and who have this vivid sense because of self-loss: we "are not [here] now." No memory, no knowledge, no meaning, no existence – and a vivid sense of present reality, "clear" in a single unified sense." …

Within the poem, this clarity is achieved by the dramatic device of conjuring up the "people now dead," the people of whom he has "no thoughts." Those four beautiful lines place vividly before us … all the possibilities of beauty, desire, action, death: "Young and living … Young and walking … Bending in black dresses to touch," Some critics read the entire poem negatively because that delicate beauty is now gone, because "the mind is not part of the weather."

But in stanza 2 the weather itself is gone. To read the poem negatively we must find the last word, "sense," disappointing: "the air is clear" we must find sterile; the tone must be upsetting, unquiet. I find the poem more convincing as a serene clarity achieved by calling up those memories, lovely in themselves, and then dismissing them, "just as when the birds fly away the real sky is revealed."

From William W. Bevis, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation and Literature (Pittsburgh: University Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 101-102.

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan: On "As You Leave the Room"

The ambiguity of the word "still" points to the integrity of Stevens, who does not attempt to hide from anxiety inherent in self-consciousness. A comparison of "First Warmth" and "As You Leave the Room" is revealing here. The first poem says,

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,

As a questioner about reality,

 

A countryman of all the bones of the world?

Now, here, the warmth I had forgotten becomes

 

Part of the major reality, part of

An appreciation of a reality;

 

And thus an elevation, as if I lived

With something I could touch, touch every way.

The second poem begins with four allusions to earlier poems, including the "one / About the mind as never satisfied" and says that these "are not what skeletons think about." The poem then continues with, "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life, / As a disbeliever in reality." Although Stevens undercuts the despairing tone by saying that skeletons do not think about the poems he has written, including the one about the "mind as never satisfied," he also increases the despairing tone by changing "questioner about reality" to "disbeliever." Similarly, the "warmth I had forgotten" in the first poem is replaced by the "snow I had forgotten" in the second poem. And, whereas the concluding lines of the first poem raise the possibility that he is now living in touch with an original warmth, the second one undercuts that possibility by adding that "Nothing has been changed" (by the poem) "except what is / Unreal." However, the following clause, "as if nothing had been changed at all" further complicates the ambiguity and raises the possibility that something has been changed by and in the language. This complication is, of course, one of the things that makes the second poem superior to the first. The other is the depth created by the ruthless question the second poem asks: whether living in poems has not been a kind of death. However, the restraint has been an inherent part of the poem since the opening lines, in which Stevens quietly reminds us that skeletons do not think. Ultimately, the poem reclaims something of the "finally human" despite its ruthless questioning.

From Steven and Simile: A Theory of Language. Copyright © 1986 by Princeton University Press.

Anthony Whiting: On "The Plain Sense of Things"

Instead of evoking the plain sense of things by creating a construct, Stevens evokes the outer in "Plain Sense" by imagining not simply the absence of any construct, but the absence of the faculty that creates the constructs. Paradoxically, though, the imagining of the absence of the imagination is itself a powerful expression of the creative activity of the imagination, "the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined" (CP 503). The poem seems to uncover the plain sense of things through a kind of creative anticreativity, the imagination imagining its own absence.

From The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens' Romantic Irony. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan.

Barbara M. Fisher: On "The Plain Sense of Things"

"[Stevens experiences] a relative ease in sailing toward a mystical negativa, or in bringing a playful exercise in negation to a paradoxical conclusion. The labor is in confronting the banal, unornamented, unswept scene. It is not in the visionary fireworks of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" that Stevens takes up the challenge of a depressive reality but in a much shorter poem of the same period. "The Plain Sense of Things," cast as a reflective narrative in the manner of Frost, comes as close to an "existential ordinary" as a Stevens poem will get. It attempts to close off the last route of escape from the commonplace, to exclude the troping paradox, the shimmer of possibility – not as perfectly perhaps as it might.

Like Shakespeare’s "bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang," Stevens’s meditation on the plain sense of things evokes a state of mind, a season of life, a time of year "after the leaves have fallen." It mirrors the psychological reality of a vision – not so much despairing as resigned – in which all other moods appear to have been falsely optimistic, all other visions illusory. The coloration tends to sepias and grays rather than black and white; the region is limbo rather than hell. This is Dickinson’s pervasive Hour of Lead, a mode of perception that disallows hope, that feels eternal, that masquerades as truth and darkens both past and future. It is not the great cloud of tragedy but an unresolved diminished seventh. One feels a corrosive importance and passively notes the blank evenness of things, the disappearance of a choice:

[lines 1-7 are quoted here]

The verses are cast as short, flat statements of fact, and end-stopped with unusual frequency. Lexically, the poem trudges through a mire of disaffirmation: "fallen," "end," "inanimate," "inert," "difficult," "blank," "without cause," "lessened," "old," "badly," "failed," "silence," "waste." The tongue has trouble with the repetitive haltings of "in-an-I-mate in an in-ert" while the mind is troubled by the vague image of the unmoving, the lifeless, embedded in the inactive. The numbness extends to memory; it is difficult even to choose an adjective. Mortality is reduced, in stanza three, to a "repetitiousness of men and flies." Stevens the poet has surely succeeded on getting as close to the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. …

… But symbolisms crouch in the ordinary scene and cannot be blanked out. The house is the world, the body, the housing of the mind, the skull – and the cosmos, once conceived as the House of God. The greenhouse is a glass coffin, an enclose garden. And who or what has failed in this "fantastic effort"? The neutral tones and the "great pond" of this poem are reminiscent of [Thomas] Hardy’s alienated vision, although in Hardy’s landscape a measure of pathos survives. … Stevens’s "plain sense of things" avoids sentiment and maintains its distance, both from the human "we" and the inhuman "God." But it turns upon the irresistible paradox: "Yet the absence of imagination had / Itself to be imaged." With the reappearance of the word imagination in the final stanza of "Plain Sense," the world is dismantled to the point where the Word and the Name are both "Mud." A debased perception creeps out of this originating element, this pre-Adamic slime – not a spoken imperative but the silent shiftiness of "a rat come out to see.; And what the rat sees, what we see, are the ravages of Solomonic beauty, the aftermath of creation. It can be seen as such – and this is the point – only through the lens of imagination."

From Barbara M. Fisher, Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous (Charlottesville: University Virginia Press, 1990), 50-53.

Charles Berger: On "The Plain Sense of Things"

Yes, grim reality, Stevens seems to say in "The Plain Sense of Things": an unhappy people in a happy world, we are bent by "this sadness without a cause." Weighed against his long poems of even the recent past and their large rallyings of the spirit, "The Plain Sense of Things" seems almost to court the sense of being too weak to live up to past victories. Stevens indulges in the great poet's right of retractio and disparagement: "The great structure has became a minor house"; "a fantastic effort has failed." In a number of his last poems, Stevens seems intent on disparaging his career, as if to test the resiliency of his poetry to withstand attack. Can his work survive the onslaught of its maker's revulsion? Part of the test involves discovering whether his poetic spirit still lives. Is the career over or not? And if it is, can the poet rejoice in past power which is now denied him? Writing against the weight of his own past accomplishments, Stevens needs to disparage what he has done if he is to go on and do more. As an outsider, seemingly hostile to the institutions of poetry throughout his odd career, Stevens always had to push on and validate his identity as a poet on a day-to-day basis. Nearing the end of his career, Stevens is even more reluctant to entrust his identity to what he has already fashioned. So these late poems often have to clear new space for themselves at the cost of disparaging or revising the earlier work. Surveying the withered scene in "The Plain Sense of Things," Stevens recoils from the exertion it would take to find energy in the scene, even though that exertion in the presence of the minimal so often marked his characteristic triumphs of the past.

From Forms of Farewell: The Late Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Wisconsin Press.

Joseph Carroll: On "The Course of a Particular"

The particular to which Stevens refers in "The Course of a Particular" is at once himself and the phenomenon that absorbs his attention: the "cry" of the leaves on a winter day. The course of the poem is a meditation in which Stevens inverts the visionary process through which he comes to a realization of essential unity. As he listens to the sound of the leaves in the wind, he recedes into a state of alienation from the world around him … Stevens only gradually clarifies for himself the significance of the cry he hears/ The declaration in the ninth line constitutes a climactic recognition. The force that "gives life as it is" is a force of particularity, that is, of "difference." In the first stanza, the cry of the leaves seems to associate itself with "the nothingness of winter" and also, paradoxically, to contribute to the diminution of spiritual negativity. The "icy shades and sharpen snow" recall the landscape of "The Snow Man," a recollection that may help to account for the ambiguous mingling of nothingness and the incipient animism in the cry of the leaves. In the second stanza, perhaps because the nothingness of winter has become a little less, Stevens suggests that the cry is potentially meaningful, but only to "someone else," and his sense of alienation expands to include the social world. The declaration "being part is an exertion that declines" includes both the world of particular objects and the people who concern themselves with those objects.

Once he has clearly recognized "the life of that which gives life as it is," Stevens drives toward a complete inversion of the pure principle. He drains out the incipient animism in the leaves" cry, which, though it is a meaningless sound, echoes with the ironic pathos of spiritual absence. …In Stevens" visionary poetry, man is an object of "divine attention" because he is the special locus of sentience through which the essential poem achieves its "difficult apperception" [from stanza I, "A Primitive Like an Orb"]. The divine attention can be realized only through the forms of thought that are also the forms of phenomenal reality. These forms are the "fantasia" of the supreme fiction. The pure principle of sentient relation can articulate itself only in metaphorical displacements, "the intricate evasion of as" [from stanza XXVIII, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven"] . The principle of difference manifests itself … in a reduction to the literal, "life as it is." The forms of thought reduce themselves to "the final finding of the ear," and the forms of phenomenal reality reduce themselves to "the thing / Itself." In the absence of fantasia, these two aspects of particularity, the self and the world, are equivalent in their meaninglessness. Stevens repudiates essential unity, but he does not then revert to a celebration of the parts of the world. The failure of transcendental affect leaves him at the nadir of the cycle from Romanticism to indifferentism.

From Joseph Carroll, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 305-306.

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