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.


Title Eleanor Cook: On "Of Mere Being" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Eleanor Cook Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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