Janet McCann

Janet McCann: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

If poetry is to usurp the function of religion, then there must be a theodicy for it. Such can be found in "The Idea of Order at Key West," perhaps the most anthologized poem of this group. The participants in this poem play out the drama of the creative engagement of mind and world. "She," the speaker, the sea, and "Ramon Fernandez" demonstrate how the imagination enhances reality without falsifying it. The poem begins with the unbridgeable gulf between mind and world and attempts to define the dynamics of their interaction. . . .

There is a "genius" or presiding spirit to nature, but its cry is "not ours"; it is nature's own impenetrable utterance. (Compare this evocation of nature's voice with that of one of Stevens's last poems, "This Region November," in which the mind at the end of its existence in time listens in near despair to this other language.) The woman identified only as "she" sings "beyond the genius of the sea" and in so doing changes nothing but what is in the mind; her song is like reality, but it is not the same as reality. The imagination is not the voice of reality, "the dark voice of the sea." Neither is it our own understandings of reality, "her voice and ours." Rather, it is the intensification of reality that is given from the imagination's engagement with it. The tragic sense of life's evanescence is heightened: "It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing" (CP, 129). The speaker then addresses Ramon Fernandez, whose name Stevens claimed to have chosen more or less at random but who is actually a French critic with whose work Stevens was familiar (LWS, 798, 823). Fernandez's criticism, which Stevens read in Nouvelle revue française as well as in English translation, does involve theories of perception as well as commentary on the relationship between poetry and social reality (Longenbach, 161). Perhaps, however, Fernandez, in a broad sense, is "the critic" or the theorist of poetry. He is asked for an explanation of how it could come about that those who heard the song found nature reordered or rearranged:

[McGann quotes lines 46-51]

It is the perceiver and not the critic, however, who provides the answer. The critic is instructed by the perceiver, who attributes the reordering of nature to desire so intense that it is designated a "blessed rage":

[lines 52-56]

The revision is all in the perception: the "lights" cause it. The poem uses images of geometry to show the radical change in the perceived world as a result of the woman's song. It is this "blessed rage for order," the fierce vision of the "maker," that is responsible for a life lived in full awareness. The "rage for order" causes the creation of that intense poetry ("keener sounds") of our scarcely understood origins and points of departure. These portals are vague, barely discernible ("dimly-starred"), but marked out. The blessed rage drives toward their articulation, their definition ("ghostlier demarcations"). "Ghostlier" suggests both shadowy and spiritual, as in the German geistlich. This poem includes one of Stevens's earlier suggestions that the poetic impulse is a hallowed one, sanctioned. The results of this "blessed rage" are a redefinition, or perhaps a more precise understanding, of what it is to be human. "The Idea of Order at Key West" is an early articulation of the ideas that invention is discovery and insights are genuine revelations. The demarcations are there; they are the to-be-discovered to which the "blessed rage" leads.

"The Idea of Order at Key West" reaches a pitch of exaltation not found in many other Stevens poems of the era.

From Wallace Stevens Revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright 1995 by Twayne Publishers.

Janet McCann: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

"Peter Quince at the Clavier" is another poem of male and female--this time, Susanna and Peter Quince are elements of the poet--that seems to recommend a form of paganism, in this case implicitly. Traditionally, the poem is seen as a reinterpretation of the notion of art's permanence, an inversion of cliché. Peter Quince, as the director of the naive troupe of tradesmen-players in Midsummer Night's Dream, is a comic figure, another of Stevens's comedians; the title gives us the ironic image of Peter Quince at the delicate instrument, his rough hands attempting perhaps a sonata. (Several critics have suggested that the poem imitates the sonata form.) The somewhat awkward would-be lover at his instrument wishes to find some adequate chords to communicate his desire, which he compares to the lust of the elders in the story of Susanna, whose tale is told in those later additions to the book of Daniel that are collected in the biblical Apocrypha. Peter Quince suggests that desire is the origin of art; beauty plays on the spirit of the perceiver just as the perceiver plays on the keys of his instrument. There is a correspondence between the dynamic of arousal and that of artistry.

Just as my fingers on these keys

Make music, so the selfsame sounds

On my spirit make a music, too. (CP, 89)

The poem develops the theme that "music is feeling" by combining the poetic devices of alliteration, assonance, and consonance with puns on musical terms to suggest the sounds of the musical instruments mentioned, as in this passage describing the feelings of the lascivious elders:

The basses of their beings throb

In witching chords, and their thin blood

Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna. (CP, 90)

"Basses" fuses "base," suggesting both "low and unworthy" and "foundation," with the musical term "bass." Musical tone then becomes moral tone. The line "Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna" mimics the plucking of strings but also may suggest the sexual itch. This turning of music into words, and words into music, continues throughout the poem, becoming metaphor as well as genuine verbal music.

In the Apocrypha, Susanna is a beautiful and chaste young wife desired by the elders of the church, who tell her that if she will not grant them her favors, they will claim to have witnessed her committing adultery. She refuses, and they accuse her; she is sentenced to death, but God hears her prayers and arranges for Daniel to acquit her by cleverly trapping the elders into giving conflicting narratives. As he usually does, Stevens uses only those elements of the story that fit into his plan. The poet-pianist-player's desire transcends that of the elders. He cannot possess his beloved physically, but he can hold her in his mind in a platonic and permanent sense. Susanna is moved from the world of facts to the world of forms, where her beauty continues to exist.

B.J. Leggett, however, has pointed out that the problems of this poem have not been resolved by commentators. They have not dealt with the fact that Stevens's Susanna is not the innocent wife of the Apocrypha but a sensual, even lusty virgin; nor have they addressed the abrupt gaps in tone and logic within and between parts of the poem. Using Nietzsche's distinction between Appollonian and Dionysian as intertext, Leggett pulls the poem together as a medication on the question: "How does the lyric speaker's own subjective feeling, his desire, transcend the merely personal, the individual?" (Leggett, 67). The poem's answer is that through the power of music he "surrenders his subjectivity to the Dionysian process" (70), a surrender that happens to Peter Quince and in a sense to Susanna herself. Leggett's interpretation brings the various elements of the poem into balance: the elders, the evocative/provocative Susanna, and Peter Quince all have self-consistent roles in this parable of the creation of lyric poetry through the dissolution of the self in music--through, in fact, a Dionysian ecstasy. Thus, another form of paganism appears, deeper and more sophisticated than the "natural religion" Stevens identifies as belonging to "Sunday Morning." "Peter Quince" shows an effort to find transcendence by elevating the artist to the stature of a god, allowing him to break out of the limitations of self in his creative frenzy. Ultimately, the idea of the loss of self through the transformative process will not "suffice" either but will prove one of a series of efforts to find transcendence.

From Wallace Stevens Revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright © 1995 by Twayne Publishers.

Janet McCann: On "Sunday Morning"

"Sunday Morning" offers one of Stevens's first substitutes for Christianity: natural religion, or paganism. Stevens said very little about this poem after writing it, other than to note in 1928 that "the poem is simply an expression of paganism" (LWS, 250) and later, in 1944, to indicate that Hi Simons was correct in assuming that the poem suggests "a naturalistic religion as a substitute for supernaturalism" (LWS, 464). Stevens tended to dismiss questions about or interpretations of this poem. His offhandedness about what remains perhaps his most anthologized work may suggest that he thought the poem's interpretation to be clear and obvious. His dismissiveness may also have implied that the poem's propositions did not preoccupy him further or later. And yet they clearly did: the "Sunday Morning" questions recur in various guises on through the writing of his last work.

One of the more traditional in form of Stevens's poems, "Sunday Morning" consists of blank-verse sections of varying lengths. The poem develops as an argument between two voices: the tentative, questioning tones of the woman, whose enjoyment of the pleasures of this world is cut by the awareness of death, and another, more authoritative voice that seeks to reassure her that the world is enough to satisfy, that in fact it is all the satisfaction there is. . . .

In the first section, the woman is enjoying "complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" (CP, 66), but the very enjoyment of life leads her to realize its transience, to remember her church--which she is nor attending at the time--and to allow fear and guilt to disturb her pleasure. The second section picks up the argument with the other voice, which asks, "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" Should not this world provide compensation for the lost heaven? She should embrace her own divinity, the other voice suggests, and let herself be a mirror of the nature that engendered her and of which she is a part. . . .

One with nature, she should not try to separate herself from it and redefine herself as something unnatural or supernatural.

The third section takes up the hiistory of divinity, tracing godhead from the totally inhuman Jove through the partly human Jesus to the fully human god suggested by the poem. To invest the human with the divine would make earth into paradise, the sky becoming fully our own rather than a division between earth and heaven. The fourth section returns to the woman's perspective. She is not entirely willing to accept the argument because she realizes that the paradise offered is not permanent. The other voice then assures her that there is a permanence, a permanence of the human, although not of the individual. To her claim in part 5 that she needs individual continuity, the other voice offers the consolation that "Death is the mother of beauty" (CP, 69): the cycle of ripening, fruition, and decay causes desire, which would not exist without the realization of transience. The sixth section hypothesizes a static heaven in which the ripe fruit never falls; such a place would be boring, not beautiful. Only change causes beauty, and change entails beginnings and endings; hence, "Death is the mother of beauty."

The alternative to Christianity is suggested in part 7--"a ring of men" chanting "their boisterous devotion to the sun" (CP, 70). Human energy should recognize the source of nature's energy as kin; this recognition would reestablish the participation of humans in nature, which is not so much mystical as actual. This argument is presented as a conclusive one, and the woman accepts it. Her recognition that Jesus is a historical figure and that she is alone, a part of "unsponsored" nature, frees her from the prison in which her traditional beliefs had locked her, The conclusion, a merging of the woman's perception with that of the other voice, is a Wordsworth-like picture of the sweet earth, with overtones of an elegy for the notion of personal immortality. The joined voices proclaim that we are no different from the "casual flocks of pigeons" (CP, 70) whose flight is not patterned but casual, and whose indecipherable movements or "ambiguous undulations" (CP, 70) are nevertheless a form of untranslatable language, a kind of inscription or self-definition that is natural rather than superimposed. Stevens's later work is preoccupied with the notion that true order must be found in nature rather than forced on it, but he later finds orders different from the simple natural rhythms.

This poem uses the figure of the woman to work through the objections to the discarding of Christianity. Stevens himself is both the woman and her opponent. "Sunday Morning" is the first full presentation of Stevens's lifelong central motif, the search for a sustaining fiction. But the answers he provides are clearly problematic to him as well as to the reader. Parts 7 and 8 both seem to be conclusions, but they do not cohere. "Boisterous devotion" characterizes part 7: the reborn pagan males seek to merge with the life source, yielding their individuality to its larger identity. Part 8, however, is muted. The lushness of nature affords no participation mystique but rather suggests isolation and separation. The freedom the woman has won by relinquishing her Christian faith provides no real compensation except a sense of the vulnerability of all nature. Stevens allowed Harriet Monroe to publish the poem with part 7 last, embedding part 8 earlier in the narrative (LWS,183-84). It would seem that be did not know exactly where he wanted the poem to go or how seriously he wanted the paganism to be taken. Paganism does offer a form of transcendence, whereas simple identification with the natural cycles does not. His choice of elegy over energy seems to negate the scene of the sun worshipers, which then appears artificial and contrived in contrast with the poem's ending.

From Wallace Stevens revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright 1995 by Twayne Publishers.