Pat Righelato

Pat Righelato: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Indeed, in the ability to express potentía, an unforced intimacy with the sublime in consciousness and nature, Stevens was to prove more ‘capable’ than Emerson. He worked through the problem of the discrepancy of scale between consciousness and nature in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. It is a key poem in that its engagement with the sublime is schematic, yet lyrical.

In the first verse the girl singer (symbol of the lyric poet), who walks beside the sea, sings beyond the sea because the sea is incapable of expressive utterance; the sea is empty rhetoric — (what Crispin called ‘the brunt’): the sea is at once presence and absence.

In the second verse the problematic relationship between humanity and nature is stated: ‘The song and water were not medleyed sound’. The elements might seem to be ‘gasping’ for utterance but utterance is human. The decisiveness of the statement ‘But it was she’ affirms human significance but also bleakly acknowledges the autonomy of the created world of art — beside and beyond but not with the sea.

In verse four, the empty rhetoric of nature is only potentially sublime and meaningful: ‘the heaving speech of air’, ‘the meaningless plunges of water’ need the human voice to give them significance. There is moreover a discrepancy of scale in this theatre— the small figure of the girl and the huge ocean — but it is the girl who brings it all to bear:

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing

This line again suggests intensity given by poetic expression but also nature’s escape — ‘vanishing’ — a poignant expression of the separation of humanity and nature.

In verse five, the poet addresses a fellow human being, asking why it is that artistic expression (the song of the girl) has the magical effect of intensifying consciousness, seeming to order nature. In moonlight (the imagination’s symbol) the human lights seem to localise the cosmos: they ‘mastered the night and portioned out the sea’. It is an idea of order; it is the imagination’s power to communicate an idea of order.

The last verse is a celebratory chant, a celebration of the powers of language and of creative desire. In the last line the ‘ghostlier demarcations’ in moonlight, the imagination’s light, are ‘ghostlier’ because creations of the spirit creating its territory, its ‘demarcations’; the ‘keener sounds’ are the utterance of poetry, ‘keener’, more intense, sharper than the impotent ‘heaving’ rhetoric of nature. The final image is at once removed, shadowy and closer to us.

From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.

Pat Righelato: On "The Snow Man"

In a poem like ‘The Snow Man’ the exacting eye registers not merging but a precise equivalence; consciousness must cut back, not expand. ‘The Snow Man’ is a rejection of the idea that nature is the vehicle of human splendours and miseries; rather, the creative consciousness must discipline itself to a condition of wintriness in order to apprehend without embellishment: ‘One must have a mind of winter’.

The condition of having ‘been cold a long time’ is not really a deprivation, although it involves depriving oneself of easy ecstasies, but is rather a condition of acutest, clearest perception:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothmg that is not there and the nothing that is.

The listener does not confuse his own moods with the sound of the wind, and in the recognition that the landscape is not there to inflate his consciousness, he is thus enabled to ‘behold’ (a significant verb in Stevens, denoting privileged insight) ‘Nothing that is not there’, i.e. the scene without embellishment, with nothing extraneous, and ‘the nothing that is, i.e. with an understanding of its essential bareness, its irreducible reality. This is not a grandiose claim for the infinite extent of consciousness, but it is nevertheless a heroic effort of perception, a Modernist reassessment of Transcendentalist vision, a revision of Emerson’s ecstatic merging in the more sustained awareness of the separation of consciousness and nature. Stevens is trying to make ‘a new intelligence prevail’, an intelligence which understands the strategies of consciousness as fictions rather than religious truths.

From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.

Pat Righelato: On "Anecdote of the Jar"

Wallace Stevens is, at times, the exemplary figure of the austere Modernist, shorn of Transcendental excess, wary of its expansionist programme for consciousness: ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ has been mined by generations of students teasing out its seemingly endless self-referentiality to demonstrate that ‘less is more’. The poem is, of course, an ironic critique of the Romantic yearning for the creative interfusion of consciousness and nature as the basis of art. Its circular self-enclosing form seems an austere rebuke to Emerson’s more expansive solipsism. Emerson wrote, ‘The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end’, but Steven’s circling is a demarcation line, an exclusion zone. Similarly the poem cheats the reader’s desire for narrative lift-off; this is an anecdote which leads nowhere, which fends off chatty familiarity, and in which there is no significant joining that transcends its constitutive elements.

These refusals are particularly evident when comparing the poem with its famous Romantic precursor, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The heated imagination of the narrator of Keats’s Ode desperately interrogates the ‘cold’ and ‘silent’ Urn about the narrative significance of its figures; this is frustrating for the questioner, but at least the Urn bears signs of nature to which consciousness can respond. Stevens’s jar, more exigently, has no trace of nature, human or otherwise, and the ‘I’ of the poem does not attempt to read the jar or to express feeling, but merely notes its regulatory effect with a punctilious disinterestedness. The poem itself jars, repels the reader’s consciousness. Keats’s poem concludes in enigmatic utterance, yet the very ambiguity as to whose voice the final words are to be attributed is a kind of merger:

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ -that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The voice is rhetorically identified as the voice of art, whose utterance has been achieved by the coming together of passionate warmth and cold silence; together they have produced the epigram (literally ‘an inscription’) which, although circular, seems to suggest something beyond its apparent limited prescription.

Most strikingly and consolingly, the reader of Keats’s poem is aligned with nature, with ‘breathing human passion’; the reader and the poet share the intensities of transience, whereas the bald statements of Stevens’s poem are indifferent to such intensities. The jar is a visual surveillance point, not teasingly enigmatic but blank, without cordial allusions to illustrious urn forebears and implicitly a rebuff to Keats’s expression of ardent longing for a consummate reciprocity between art and nature. Stevens’s own Keatsian proclivities are being kept well in check in this self-admonitory anecdote —an anecdote for the artist.

But Stevens’s modernist austerity nakedly reveals that his theme is power. In an American context the poem engages with Emerson’s Transcendentalist emphasis on the possessive power of the eye. The genteel tradition, of which Emerson was the principal representative, might seem to have existed in rarefied seclusion from the commercial energies of the age, but it underwrote the expansionist energy of the era by transforming its power into an aesthetic of consciousness. In his essay ‘Nature’, Emerson comments on property:

The charming landscape which I saw this morning is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.

What is significant here is that this is not a rejection of ownership —indeed it expresses land-hunger — but a relinquishment of an inferior category of ownership for a superior, more active one. Similarly, Emerson’s ‘transparent eyeball’ utterance is the expression of a colonising consciousness — there is space which the eye can acquire:

Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing: I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God ... I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

The disclaimer, ‘I am nothing’ is disingenuous within the overall context of the egotistical sublime in which ‘I’ becomes ‘eye’, infinitely expansive, capable of encircling nature. Consciousness is prehensile and invasive, its transports masking its annexations.

In ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, Stevens’s curious use of the word ‘slovenly’ to describe the ‘wilderness’ converts the traditional meaning of the expression to a positive rather than a pejorative sense, as well as drawing on the more recent and more neutral American meaning of ‘uncultivated’. Indeed, in ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ the Tennessee wilderness is less satisfactorily assimilated by the power of the colonising consciousness: the jar may take ‘dominion’, but the wilderness is not internalised as an active source of creative power; it does not give its energy and fecundity to the jar. Emerson, ‘crossing a bare common’, is exhilarated by the winter landscape and the initial bleakness is suffused with a rhetoric of euphoric exchange; however, when Stevens’s starting point in the Harmonium volume is an Emersonian one, the bleakness is not the occasion of rapturous interfusion.

From Righelato, Pat, "Wallace Stevens." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.