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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Jacqueline Vaught Brogan: On "As You Leave the Room" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jacqueline Vaught Brogan Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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