44 terms

American Lit: 1914-Present

Flashcards for the Masters
Willa Cather
"My Antonia: Humankind's Relationship to the Past

The central narrative of My Ántonia is a look into the past, and though in his narration Jim rarely says anything directly about the idea of the past, the overall tone of the novel is highly nostalgic. Jim's motive for writing his story is to try to reestablish some connection between his present as a high-powered New York lawyer and his vanished past on the Nebraska prairie; in re-creating that past, the novel represents both Jim's memories and his feelings about his memories. Additionally, within the narrative itself, characters often look back longingly toward a past that they have lost, especially after Book I. Living in Black Hawk, Jim and Ántonia recall their days on the farms; Lena looks back toward her life with her family; the Shimerdas and the Russians reflect on their lives in their respective home countries before they immigrated to the United States.

The two principal qualities that the past seems to possess for most of the characters in the novel are that it is unrecoverable and that it is, in some way, preferable to the present. Ántonia misses life in Bohemia just as Jim misses life in Nebraska, but neither of them can ever go back. This impossibility of return accounts for the -nostalgic, emotional tone of the story, which may have been autobiographical as well, informed by Cather's own longing for her Nebraska childhood. But if the past can never be recovered, it can never be escaped, either, and Jim is fated to go on thinking about Black Hawk long after he has left it.

The other important characteristic of the past in My Ántonia is that it is always personal: characters never look back toward bygone eras or large-scale historical conditions, but only toward the personal circumstances—places, people, things—that they remember from their own lives. As a result, a character's emotions are destined to color his or her memories for the rest of his or her life, a fact that is made thematically explicit in the novel by Jim's decision to call his memoir "My Ántonia" rather than simply "Ántonia." In thus laying claim to Ántonia, Jim acknowledges that what he is really writing is simply a chronicle of his own thoughts and feelings.

The novel ends on an optimistic note, however, with Jim's return to Nebraska twenty years after he last saw Ántonia and his mature decision to visit more often and to keep Ántonia in his life. This decision implies that, by revisiting his past, Jim has learned to incorporate it into his present, to seek a real relationship with Ántonia rather than transform her into a symbol of the past in his own mind. The past, the novel seems to suggest, is unrecoverable, but the people who shared one's past can be recovered, even after a separation of many years.
Humankind's Relationship to Its Environment

Related to the novel's nostalgic feeling for the past is its in-depth exploration of humankind's relationship to its environment. What characters in My Ántonia miss about the past is not simply lost time but a lost setting, a vanished world of people, places, and things, especially natural surroundings. The characters in My Ántonia respond powerfully to their environments—especially Jim, who develops a strong attachment to the Nebraska landscape that never really leaves him, even after two decades in New York.

As Cather portrays it, one's environment comes to symbolize one's psychology, and may even shape one's emotional state by giving thoughts and feelings a physical form. The river, for example, makes Jim feel free, and he comes to prize freedom; the setting sun captures his introspective loneliness, and the wide-open melancholy of Nebraska's plains may play a role in forming his reflective, romantic personality—if it does not create Jim's personality, it at least comes to embody it physically. Thus, characters in My Ántonia often develop an extremely intense rapport with their surroundings, and it is the sense of loss engendered by moving beyond one's surroundings that occasions the novel's exploration of the meaning of the past.
The Immigrant Experience in the United States

On a more concrete level, My Ántonia explores the lives of immigrants on the United States frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Nebraska prairie of the novel is an ethnic hodgepodge combining American-born settlers with a wide range of European immigrants, especially eastern and northern Europeans such as the Bohemian Shimerdas, the Russians Peter and Pavel, and the Norwegian Lena. The novel creates a sympathetic portrait of the many hardships that immigrants faced, including intense homesickness (a form of longing for the past), inability to speak English, and a bewildering array of cultural and religious differences that the novel's immigrants must overcome if they wish to fit in with the often quite judgmental American settlers who make up the economic and cultural mainstream in Black Hawk. Because of the rigid (and, in Jim's eyes, preposterous) social hierarchy of Black Hawk, simply getting by can be very difficult for the immigrants, who lack the same opportunities as the Americans—Jim goes to school, for instance, while Ántonia must help her family eke out an existence after her father's suicide.

Still, though Cather's portrait of the immigrant experience is sympathetic, it never quite rises to the level of advocacy: Jim is describing a vanished past, not agitating for social change, and he himself shares many of the cultural assumptions of the American-born settlers. Thus, My Ántonia has little in common with more socially inflammatory works about the hardships faced by immigrants such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which was written to bring about social change. My Ántonia is a much more personal story and is more concerned with re-creating an emotional reality than with awakening the nation to a moral outrage.
The Traditional Nature of Frontier Values

My Ántonia evokes the living conditions and mindset of the nineteenth century, as well as the simple, hardworking, homespun ethic of that era's settlers, an ethic Cather approves of strongly even if she does not always approve of its application, for instance, the -prejudicial treatment of the hired girls in town. The novel also explores the social assumptions of the frontier people on matters such as race (in the passage about Samson d'Arnault) and gender (in the passages about the hired girls, and in Jim's general desire to spend time with girls rather than with boys). These rigid traditional social assumptions require that Jim learn to fight and swear so that he will seem more like a boy. Nevertheless, despite their shortcomings, the settlers share values of family, community, and religion that make Black Hawk a close-knit and positive community, not unworthy of the nostalgia in which it is bathed throughout the novel.

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.

Childhood and Adulthood

As the generation to which the main characters (Ántonia, Jim, and Lena) belong grows from young children into adults, the novel indirectly evokes many of the characteristics and feelings of children as they make the transition into adulthood. As a result, the vanished past for which many of the characters long is often associated with an innocent, childlike state that contrasts with the more worldly, grown-up present. But the motif of childhood and adulthood is propagated in the novel mostly by the feelings of the characters as they gradually begin to experience independence, responsibility, and sexuality, leading to a natural contrast between the before and after states of their lives. Once Jim begins to fantasize sexually about Lena, his earlier years become less relevant; once Ántonia begins to live for the town dances, she is never again the same simple farm girl. In marking these sorts of divisions, the novel charts the growth of its principal characters, who eventually gain the maturity to understand the relationship between their past and their present.

Of all the cultural differences between the European immigrants and the American settlers (and there are many, often complicated differences, as we see when Jim's grandmother attempts to give the Shimerdas a gift of food), the one that recurs most interestingly is the difference in religion. Most of the Europeans are Catholic, as the Shimerdas are, and most of the Americans are Protestant, as the Burdens are. In addition to this dichotomy, there are smaller cultural differences, such as language and attitude, which the novel explores from time to time. The motif of religion is most visible during the novel's depictions of Christmas and the circumstances surrounding Mr. Shimerda's suicide.

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Nebraska Landscape

The most important and universal symbol in My Ántonia is the Nebraska landscape. Cather's poetic and moving depiction of it is perhaps the most famous and highly praised aspect of the novel. The landscape symbolizes the larger idea of a human environment, a setting in which a person lives and moves. Jim's relationship with the Nebraska landscape is important on its own terms, but it also comes to symbolize a great deal about Jim's relationship with the people and culture of Nebraska, as well as with his inner self. Throughout the novel, the landscape mirrors Jim's feelings—it looks desolate when he is lonely, for instance—and also awakens feelings within him. Finally, the landscape becomes the novel's most tangible symbol of the vanished past, as Jim, the lawyer in distant New York, thinks back longingly on the landscape of his childhood.
The Plow

The plow, which Jim and Ántonia see silhouetted against the enormous setting sun, symbolizes the connection between human culture and the natural landscape. As the sun sets behind the plow, the two elements are combined in a single image of perfect harmony, suggesting that man and nature also coexist harmoniously. But as the sun sinks lower on the horizon, the plow seems to grow smaller and smaller, ultimately reflecting the dominance of the landscape over those who inhabit it.
Robert Frost: Home Burial
On "Home Burial"

Randall Jarrell

The poem's first sentence, "He saw her from the bottom of the stairs / Before she saw him," implies what the poem very soon states: that, knowing herself seen, she would have acted differently—she has two sorts of behavior, behavior for him to observe and spontaneous immediate behavior: "She was starting down, / Looking back over her shoulder at some fear" says that it is some fear, and not a specific feared object, that she is looking back at; and, normally, we do not look back over our shoulder at what we leave, unless we feel for it something more than fear. "She took a doubtful step" emphasizes the queer attraction or fascination that the fear has for her; her departing step is not sure it should depart. "She took a doubtful step and then undid it ": the surprising use of undid gives her withdrawal of the tentative step a surprising reality. The poem goes on: "To raise herself and look again." It is a little vertical ballet of indecision toward and away from a fearful but mesmerically attractive object, something hard to decide to leave and easy to decide to return to. "He spoke / Advancing toward her": having the old line end with "spoke," the new line begin with "advancing," makes the very structure of the lines express the way in which he looms up, gets bigger. (Five lines later Frost repeats the effect even more forcibly with: "He said to gain time: 'What is it you see,' / Mounting until she cowered under him.") Now when the man asks: "What is it you see / From up there always—for I want to know," the word "always" tells us that all this has gone on many times before, and that he has seen it—without speaking of it—a number of times before. The phrase "for I want to know" is a characteristic example of the heavy, willed demands that the man makes, and an even more characteristic example of the tautological, rhetorical announcements of his actions that he so often makes, as if he felt that the announcement somehow justified or excused the action.

The poem goes on: "She turned and sank upon her skirts at that . . ." The stairs permit her to subside into a modest, compact, feminine bundle; there is a kind of smooth deftness about the phrase, as if it were some feminine saying: "When in straits, sink upon your skirts." The next line, "And her face changed from terrified to dull," is an economically elegant way of showing how the terror of surprise (perhaps with another fear underneath it) changes into the dull lack of response that is her regular mask for him. The poem continues: "He said to gain time"—to gain time in which to think of the next thing to say, to gain time in which to get close to her and gain the advantage of his physical nearness, his physical bulk. His next "What is it you see" is the first of his many repetitions; if one knew only this man one would say, "Man is the animal that repeats." In the poem's next phrase, "mounting until she cowered under him," the identity of the vowels in "mounting" and "cowered" physically connects the two, makes his mounting the plain immediate cause of her cowering. "I will find out now" is another of his rhetorical announcements of what he is going to do: "this time you're going to tell me, I'm ging to make you." But this heavy-willed compulsion changes into sheer appeal, into reasonable beseeching, in his next phrase: "you must tell me, dear." The "dear" is affectionate intimacy, the "must" is the "must "of rational necessity; yet the underlying form of the sentence is that of compulsion. The poem goes on: "She, in her place, refused him any help . . ." The separated phrase "in her place" describes and embodies, with economical brilliance, both her physical and spiritual lack of outgoingness, forthcomingness; she brims over none of her contours, remains sitting upon her skirts upon her stairstep, in feminine exclusion. "Refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence": she doesn't say Yes, doesn't say No, doesn't say; her refusal of any answer is worse than almost any answer. "The least stiffening of her neck," in its concise reserve, its slight precision, is more nearly conclusive than any larger gesture of rejection. He, in extremities, usually repeats some proverbial or rhetorical generalization; at such moments she usually responds either with a particular, specific sentence or else with something more particular than any sentence: with some motion or gesture.

The next line, "She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see," reminds one of some mother bird so certain that her nest is hidden that she doesn't even flutter off, but sits there on it, risking what is no risk, in complacent superiority. "Sure that he wouldn't see, / Blind creature": the last phrase is quoted from her mind, is her contemptuous summing up. "And awhile he didn't see"; but at last when he sees, he doesn't tell her what it is, doesn't silently understand, but with heavy slow comprehension murmurs, "Oh," and then repeats, "Oh." It is another announcement of what he is doing, a kind of dramatic rendition of his understanding. (Sometimes when we are waiting for someone, and have made some sound or motion we are afraid will seem ridiculous to the observer we didn't know was there, we rather ostentatiously look at our watch, move our face and lips into a "What on earth could have happened to make him so late?" as a way of justifying our earlier action. The principle behind our action is the principle behind many of this man's actions.) With the undignified alacrity of someone hurrying to reestablish a superiority that has been questioned, the woman cries out like a child: "What is it—what?" Her sentence is, so to speak, a rhetorical question rather than a real one, since it takes it for granted that a correct answer can't be made. His reply, "Just that I see," shows that his unaccustomed insight has given him an unaccustomed composure; she has had the advantage, for so long, of being the only one who knows, that he for a moment prolongs the advantage of being the only one who knows that he knows. The immediately following "'You don't,' she challenged. 'Tell me what it is'" is the instant, childishly assertive exclamation of someone whose human position depends entirely upon her knowing what some inferior being can never know; she cannot let another second go by without hearing the incorrect answer that will confirm her in her rightness and superiority.

The man goes on explaining, to himself, and to mankind, and to her too, in slow rumination about it and about it. In his "The wonder is I didn't see at once. / I never noticed it from here before. / I must be wonted to it—that's the reason," one notices how "wonder" and "once" prepare for "wonted," that provincial-, archaic-sounding word that sums up—as "used" never could—his reliance on a habit or accustomedness which at last sees nothing but itself, and hardly sees that; and when it does see something through itself, beyond itself, slowly marvels. In the next line, "The little graveyard where my people are!" we feel not only the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending, but also the tender, easy accustomedness of habit, of long use, of a kind of cozy social continuance—for him the graves are not the healed scars of old agonies, but are something as comfortable and accustomed as the photographs in the family album. "So small the window frames the whole of it," like the later "Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight / On the sidehill," not only has this easy comfortable acceptance, but also has the regular feel of a certain sort of Frost nature description: this is almost the only place in the poem where for a moment we feel that it is Frost talking first and the man talking second. But the man's "Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?"—an observation that appeals to her for agreement—carries this comfortable acceptance to a point at which it becomes intolerable: the only link between the bedroom and the graveyard is the child conceived in their bedroom and buried in that graveyard. The sentence comfortably establishes a connection which she cannot bear to admit the existence of—she tries to keep the two things permanently separated in her mind. (What he says amounts to his saying about their bedroom: "Not so much smaller than the graveyard, is it?") "There are three stones of slate and one of marble, / Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight / On the sidehill " has a heavy tenderness and accustomedness about it, almost as if he were running his hand over the grain of the stone. The "little" graveyard and "little" slabs are examples of our regular way of making something acceptable or dear by means of a diminutive.

Next, to show her how well he understands, the man shows her how ill he understands. He says about his family's graves: "We haven't to mind those"; that is, we don't have to worry about, grieve over, my people: it is not your obligation to grieve for them at all, nor mine to give them more than their proper share of grief, the amount I long ago measured out and used up. But with the feeling, akin to a sad, modest, relieved, surprised pride, with which he regularly responds to his own understanding, he tells her that he does understand: what matters is not the old stones but the new mound, the displaced earth piled up above the grave which he had dug and in which their child is buried.

When he says this, it is as if he had touched, with a crude desecrating hand, the sacred, forbidden secret upon which her existence depends. With shuddering hysterical revulsion she cries: "Don't, don't, don't, don't." (If the reader will compare the effect of Frost's four don't's with the effect of three or five, he will see once more how exactly accurate, perfectly effective, almost everything in the poem is.) The poem continues: "She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm / That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs"; the word "slid" says, with vivid indecorousness, that anything goes in extremities, that you can't be bothered, then, by mere appearance or propriety; "slid" has the ludicrous force of actual fact, is the way things are instead of the way we agree they are. In the line "And turned on him with such a daunting look," the phrase "turned on him " makes her resemble a cornered animal turning on its pursuer; and "with such a daunting look" is the way he phrases it to himself, is quoted from his mind as "blind creature" was quoted from hers. The beautifully provincial, old-fashioned, folk-sounding "daunting" reminds one of the similar, slightly earlier "wonted," and seems to make immediate, as no other word could, the look that cows him. The next line, " He said twice over before he knew himself," tells us that repetition, saying something twice over, is something he regresses to under stress; unless he can consciously prevent himself from repeating, he repeats. What he says twice over (this is the third time already that he has repeated something) is a rhetorical question, a querulous, plaintive appeal to public opinion: "Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?" He does not say specifically, particularly, with confidence in himself: "I've the right to speak of our dead child"; instead he cites the acknowledged fact that any member of the class man has the acknowledged right to mention, just to mention, that member of the class of his belongings, his own child—and he has been unjustly deprived of this right. "His own child he's lost" is a way of saying: "You act as if he were just yours, but he's just as much just mine; that's an established fact." "Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost" has a magnificently dissonant, abject, aggrieved querulousness about it, in all its sounds and all its rhythms; "Can't a man" prepares us for the even more triumphantly ugly dissonance (or should I say consonance?) of the last two words in her "I don't know rightly whether any man can."

Any rhetorical question demands, expects, the hearer's automatic agreement; there is nothing it expects less than a particular, specific denial. The man's "Can't a man speak . . ." means "Isn't any man allowed to speak . . . ," but her fatally specific answer, "Not you!" makes it mean, "A man cannot—is not able to—speak, if the man is you." Her "Oh, where's my hat?" is a speech accompanied by action, means: "I'm leaving. Where's the hat which social convention demands that a respectable woman put on, to go out into the world?" The immediately following "Oh, I don't need it!" means: in extremities, in cases when we come down to what really matters, what does social convention or respectability really matter? Her "I must get out of here. I must get air" says that you breathe understanding and suffocate without it, and that in this house, for her, there is none. Then, most extraordinarily, she gives a second specific answer to his rhetorical question, that had expected none: "I don't know rightly whether any man can." The line says: "Perhaps it is not the individual you that's to blame, but man in general; perhaps a woman is wrong to expect that any man can speak—really speak—of his dead child."

His "Amy! Don't go to someone else this time" of course tells us that another time she has gone to someone else; and it tells us the particular name of this most particular woman, something that she and the poem never tell us about the man. The man's "Listen to me. I won't come down the stairs" tells us that earlier he has come down the stairs, hasn't kept his distance. It (along with "shrinking," "cowered," and many later things in the poem) tells us that he has given her reason to be physically afraid of him; his "I won't come down the stairs" is a kind of euphemism for "I won't hurt you, won't even get near you."

The poem's next sentence, "He sat and fixed his chin between his fists"—period, end of line—with its four short i's, its "fixed " and "fists," fixes him in baffled separateness; the sentence fits into the line as he fits into the isolated perplexity of his existence. Once more he makes a rhetorical announcement of what he is about to do, before he does it: "There's something I should like to ask you, dear." The sentence tiptoes in, gentle, almost abjectly mollifying, and ends with a reminding "dear"; it is an indirect rhetorical appeal that expects for an answer at least a grudging: "Well, go ahead and ask it, then." His sentence presupposes the hearer's agreement with what it implies: "Anyone is at least allowed to ask, even if afterwards you refuse him what he asks." The woman once more gives a direct, crushing, particular answer: "You don't know how to ask it." "Anyone may be allowed to ask, but you are not because you are not able to ask"; we don't even need to refuse an animal the right to ask and be refused, since if we gave him the right he couldn't exercise it. The man's "Help me, then," has an absolute, almost abject helplessness, a controlled child-like simplicity, that we pity and sympathize with; yet we can't help remembering the other side of the coin, the heavy, brutal, equally simple and helpless anger of his later I'll come down to you.

The next line, "Her fingers moved the latch for all reply" (like the earlier "She . . . refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence"; like "And turned on him with such a daunting look"; like the later "She moved the latch a little"; like the last "She was opening the door wider"), reminds us that the woman has a motion language more immediate, direct, and particular than words—a language she resorts to in extremities, just as he, in extremities, resorts to a language of repeated proverbial generalizations. "Home Burial" starts on the stairs but continues in the doorway, on the threshold between the old life inside and the new life outside.

The man now begins his long appeal with the slow, heavy, hopeless admission that "My words are nearly always an offence." This can mean, "Something is nearly always wrong with me and my words," but it also can mean—does mean, underneath—that she is to be blamed for nearly always finding offensive things that certainly are not meant to offend. "I don't know how to speak of anything / So as to please you" admits, sadly blames himself for, his baffled ignorance, but it also suggests that she is unreasonably, fantastically hard to please—if the phrase came a little later in his long speech he might pronounce it "so as to please you." (Whatever the speaker intends, there are no long peacemaking speeches in a quarrel; after a few sentences the speaker always has begun to blame the other again.) The man's aggrieved, blaming "But I might be taught, / I should suppose" is followed by the helpless, very endearing admission: "I can't say I see how"; for the moment this removes the blame from her, and his honesty of concession makes us unwilling to blame him. He tries to summarize his dearly bought understanding in a generalization, almost a proverb: "A man must partly give up being a man / With women-folk." The sentence begins in the dignified regretful sunlight of the main floor, in "A man must partly give up being a man," and ends huddled in the basement below, in "With women-folk." He doesn't, use the parallel, coordinate "with a woman," but the entirely different "with women-folk"; the sentence tries to be fair and objective, but it is as completely weighted a sentence as "A man must partly give up being a man with the kiddies," or "A man must partly give up being a man with Bandar-log." The sentence presupposes that the real right norm is a man being a man with men, and that some of this rightness and normality always must be sacrificed with that special case, that inferior anomalous category, "women-folk."

He goes on: "We could have some arrangement [it has a hopeful, indefinite, slightly helter-skelter sound] / By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off "—the phrases "bind myself" and "keep hands off" have the primitive, awkward materiality of someone taking an oath in a bad saga; we expect the sentence to end in some awkwardly impressive climax, but get the almost ludicrous anticlimax of "Anything special you're a-mind to name." And, too, the phrase makes whatever she names quite willful on her part, quite unpredictable by reasonable man. His sensitivity usually shows itself to be a willing, hopeful form of insensitivity, and he himself realizes this here, saying, "Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love." Frost then makes him express his own feeling in a partially truthful but elephantine aphorism that lumbers through a queerly stressed line a foot too long ("Two that don't love can't live together without them") into a conclusion ("But two that do can't live together with them") that has some of the slow, heavy relish just in being proverbial that the man so often shows. (How hard it is to get through the monosyllables of the two lines!) His words don't convince her, and she replies to them without words: "She moved the latch a little." He repeats in grieved appeal: "Don't—don't go. / Don't carry it to someone else this time." (He is repeating an earlier sentence, with "Don't go" changed to "Don't carry it.") The next line, "Tell me about it if it's something human," is particularly interesting when it comes from him. When is something inside a human being not human, so that it can't be told? Isn't it when it is outside man's understanding, outside all man's categories and pigeonholes—when there is no proverb to say for it? It is, then, a waste or abyss impossible to understand or manage or share with another. His next appeal to her, "Let me into your grief," combines an underlying sexual metaphor with a child's "Let me in! let me in!" This man who is so much a member of the human community feels a helpless bewilderment at being shut out of the little group of two of which he was once an anomalous half;
Robert Frost: The Wood-Pile
The Wood-Pile: blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "The Wood-Pile"

J. Donald Crowley

"The Wood-Pile" is thoroughly typical of many of Frost's mature nature poems. At once narrative and dramatic, the poem seems astonishingly clear even on first encounter. There at its center are the solitary speaker, a familiar figure, and his story, this one—like Frost's others—told in the inevitably simple, straightforward and calm, almost laconic language that characterizes dozens of Frost's other narrative lines. There is the typical stripped minimum of physical action—walking. Here, as elsewhere, the walking is seemingly aimless, has no manifest destination: it is an epitome of Frost's conviction that "Calculation is usually no part in the first step of any walk" (402). But, again as elsewhere, however much the walking appears to lack direction, it is clearly mysterious in that it radiates a high sense of personal destiny. "Every poem," Frost once remarked, "is an epitome of the great predicament; a :figure of the will braving alien entanglements" (401). The speaker simply appears in our field of vision and—to use Yvor Winters' negative criticism in a positive way—seems to be "spiritually drifting." There is the familiar winter landscape, bleak, desolate, initially amorphous and forbidding. There is the appearance of the small bird and the speaker's curious pretense of talking with such creatures. There is the woodpile itself, like the tuft of flowers, the mending wall, the road not taken, the west-running brook, so enigmatically and hypnotically there. And there is the almost dreamlike state of meditation it induces, in some ways calling to mind the sleepy vision of "After Apple-Picking." Finally, there is what Frost called "the vocal imagination," the speaker's voice, his style: that particular quality of sound "which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying . . . , the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds" (403). Frost once joked: "Let the sound of [Robert Louis] Stevenson go through your mind empty and you will realize that he never took himself other than as an amusement. Do the same with Swinburne and you will see that he took himself as a wonder" (298). In "The Wood-Pile" Frost clearly takes himself neither simply as an amusement nor as a wonder but as both.

On another level of its structure, beneath the relaxed surface of the language, the poem progresses by way of a series, almost a system, of oppositions, ambiguities, and contrarieties that might be called Hawthornian. "In order to know where we are," Frost has noted, "we must know opposites." The "frozen swamp" is the first obvious instance of this characteristic structural phenomenon and suggests immediately multiple ambiguities in the external landscape: hardness-softness, cold-heat, solidity-fluidity, stability-instability, a surface level and a dimension—as yet untouched but present—beneath the surface. All this is registered against the blankness, the flatness of the minimally specified "one gray day." In the first line, then, we have concentrated an action, a place, a time. There is also a typically Frostian subtlety in the simple prepositions surrounding the action and thus wrapping it in still another operative ambiguity: "Out walking in"—the phrase is so solidly idiomatic, so much a mode of common speech, that all its powers of suggestion (namely, the juxtaposition of externality and internality) are playfully hidden, buried beneath the plainness of the words themselves. This particular tension is elaborated in the relationships between lines 1 and 2. Whereas the first line addresses itself to a continuous physical action and the external landscape, the second is concerned with a pause and a turning inward to the mind of the persona and his fearful response to that landscape. The speaker's decision to "turn back" emphasizes the sharp disjunction existing between this particular mind and this particular reality. The fear and confusion are isolated only momentarily, however, since they are immediately answered to by the courage of the counter-resolution of line 3. There, as the grammatical shift from "I" to "we" signifies, it is not Frost's purpose to annihilate the fear but to use it: the fear and the courage, the will to proceed and the hesitancy to do it, now almost formally define two dimensions of the persona. He has become at once his own reassuring guide and cautious initiate. And since it is the "we" who shall see, what is to be discovered will be informed by both. Still another ironic opposition is in Frost's use of the negative qualifier "No" to decisively introduce the positive affirmation of "going on" and thus to undermine the negative preference to "turn back." It is as if there is in the persona's emotions a mathematical logic in which two negatives interpenetrate to form a positive. The playful blending of "amusement" and "wonder" here illustrates what Reuben Brower calls Frost's "delight of saying the ordinary thing and discovering that it is art."

We might at this juncture turn back to ask what gives rise to the fear in the first place. The question leads back to that "frozen swamp" and to the realization that the place is forbidding and inscrutable because it suggests nature in its least regenerate aspects. It is essentially primordial, totally unformed. Hinting as it does at a sweeping geological sense of time and age, it provides another, prehistoric tension with the fragile minuteness and ephemerality of the mere "one gray day."

In line 4 the speaker, going on, now, as it were, gives himself to the place. He is no longer "out" altogether but in some sense "in." The distance between mind and reality is now diminished even to the point of tactile intimacy implied in the word "held." He who would see submits willingly to being acted upon by the still undefined force within that which he would see. But the explicit oppositions and tensions persist: in the "now" an the "then," the one foot and the implied other, the "here" and the "Somewhere else." Even the syntax displays similarly precarious balances: "The hard snow held me" announces a categorical, absolute condition, and points to a sureness of footing and, concomitantly, an intellectual and emotional security. But the line moves on by way of a concessive clause that turns back on the earlier statement and attaches exceptional circumstances contrary to it. The sentence contains elaborated images of impenetrability and penetrability that are quietly paradoxical because of the conditions they are associated with. The impenetrability suggests sureness and constancy, the penetrability doubt and instability, even danger. What normally seem to be positive and negative connotations are equally mixed in each of these syntactical units, then, and they are joined in fact by a conjunction—"save"—whose playful punning transforms the usual logic of "except" and suggests that the categories of positive and negative have again interpenetrated. To see is, of course, to penetrate into the truth or meaning of a phenomenon or thing. In a Frost poem, however, to see is always to know that there is a point at which the thing to be seen resists and defies penetrability, a point of its being beyond which it is alas unknowable. "The Wood-Pile," like "Neither Out Far nor In Deep," is from this angle a metaphor about the process of penetration and the ultimate limits of that process: a metaphor about the process of the interpenetration of him who sees and that which is seen. It is at once, like so much of Hawthorne's work, an exploration into the wilderness and into the self, a journey at once out and in.

What the persona sees in lines 5 to 9 is merely a "view," since he has as yet penetrated very little—only enough, in fact, to be confronted with an overwhelmingly confusing verticality. He sees merely one-dimensional lines without shape, and the measure of his plight is that he cannot find a language to give a name to the place. But, although he is thus suspended between his desire for certainty and the fact of his fearful uncertainty, his uneasiness and doubt are now informed by his awareness of them. Trying to solve the riddle of the landscape, he comes to know something not so much about that landscape as about himself. He is, he says, "just far from home." If "just" points up the severe, even terrifying, limits of his knowledge at this point of the process, it also simultaneously emphasizes his diminished anxiety regarding those limits. The word at once generates a sense of terror and dispels it. The effect is almost that the terrors of "homelessness," of being lost in undifferentiated space, comprise a condition the speaker has known before and finds so persistent and multifarious as to demand his constant re-engagement.

The small bird now appears, and in a way that seems equally fortuitous and gratuitous. The speaker responds immediately by recognizing it as a dramatic projection of his own fearfulness. In the following lines, the bird's activity adds a horizontal dimension to the speaker's growing spatial consciousness; and, giving the scene intersecting lines, if not shape, it permits the speaker to have for the first time a perspective. Again, the process moves by way of the artful opposition between bird and tree and the little joke by which physical laws seem overturned: the bird "puts" a tree—that is, assigns it a specific material place—between itself and the speaker. The bird is clearly what the speaker has come so far to know best, and he comes to know it by way of what he has previously come to know about himself. As Frost's deliberately confusing pronoun references in lines 12 and 13 imply, the speaker intimately identifies with the bird at the same time he tries to assert his superiority to it. The condition that allows him this intimacy, however, is his physical separation from the bird, marked by the one tree standing between subject and object. The tree, like the mending wall, signifies one of those barriers without which the world would, for Frost, not make sense. The speaker's teasing identification with the bird leads to his awareness of himself as the source of the bird's fearfulness; and this, in turn, clarifies his own relationship with the larger, unredeemed scene, the source of his own fear, which is thus brought further under the control of consciousness. The speaker's awareness is now many- layered, and he now has words for what is at stake. The bird's white tail feather is, of course, that by which he is what he is: it is the unmistakable mark of his irreducible identity and, paradoxically, the sign of his surrender. His fear of its loss turns back on and elucidates the speaker's recognition of his homelessness. "Home" is now understood to mean that point in space where one is at ease, where the self "belongs," where identity is safe.

Counterbalancing the gradual emergence of clarity and shape in the landscape is the gradually emerging personality of the speaker: at every stage of the poem, we know the speaker only to that extent which the speaker himself has come to know and understand the landscape. Frost once remarked that if the style of a poem "is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do" (351). The cautious sobriety and reserve within the vocal imagination as it initially addressed the outer terror are now cut across by a tone of humorous self-parody as the speaker engages in reflection. Now he can indulge in the quietly extravagant joke of a pathetic fallacy—"like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself." Now too, however, the speaker's enlarged awareness and confidence are juxtaposed to, and measured by, his own self-deception. The speaker is himself deceived in thinking that the way for the bird to become "undeceived" is simply to flee the scene—to go "the way I might have gone." The bird, given free play, does not flee but, willing to get lost in order, apparently, to find itself, goes behind the woodpile. He seeks it out as a refuge, a home, in a final effort to discover and preserve identity in this place. Bird and man now embrace the woodpile, bind it by both courage and fear; and what the speaker sees there is conditioned, then, by his awareness of the bird on the opposite side. The logic of this perceptual symmetry, of course, is that the pile of wood has consolations to offer the man—consolations against the threat of formlessness, mindlessness, absence of order. And consolations there are indeed, in the lovely wholeness, the solid three-dimensionality of the woodpile. Here is, at last, the physical universe filled out in shapely and substantial form, caught in a moment of exacting perception that sees into it with a clarity and completeness incorporating at once modes of analysis and synthesis, modes of physical labor and intellectual love: "It was a cord of maple, cut and split / And piled—and measured, four by four by eight." The moment of perception constitutes a symbolic reenactment of the original building of the woodpile. The cutting and splitting and piling refer us simultaneously to the fact of the pile of wood and to that process by which it came to be. The speaker imaginatively duplicates all of the separate, divisible stages of the process of physical activity and then, in an evaluative act of measuring, finds a language—"four by four by eight"—that expresses perfectly the fact of its fully unitary and integrated wholeness of being. Process and fact, energy and form, coalesce and become one in a single continuous act of perception, and in that act the courage and fear have themselves been transformed into love and meditative forgetfulness.

The moment is a perfect illustration of Frost's distinction between what it means to believe in things and what it means, on the other hand, to believe things in (339). The latter is the special task of him who would be poet and person. In this symbolic reenactment, the speaker believes into existence an entity which was potentially there in the emerging but partial lines of the earlier stages of his journey inward. The woodpile, according to Frost's poetic theory, had its beginnings "in something more felt than known" (339). While in one sense, then, the speaker only "reveals" and "discovers" the woodpile, in another he can be said to have "made" it. We have here what William James, in "Humanism and Truth," called a quasi-paradox: "A fact virtually pre-exists when every condition of its realization save one is already there. In this case the condition lacking is the act of the counting and comparing mind. . . . Undeniably something comes by the counting that was not there before. And yet that something was always true. In one sense you create it, and in another sense you find it."

Like the white tail feather, the woodpile is totally singular. It is a far larger, more elaborate and complex symbol of individual form and identity. In its four-by-four-by-eightness there is a marvelous solidity as well as form, a substantiality that makes it not only palpable but, at least initially, permanent. In its apparent permanence it has a homeostatic capacity that heroically confronts the ephemeral and formless flux of the entropic environment. But just as soon as the speaker has become aware of its shape and form—its thereness—he is compelled, notice, to describe it in terms of what is not there: "And not another like it could I see." Thus, in the very process of celebrating the magnificence of its being, he uses language, has a perception, that points ironically to a sad sense of the diminishedness of things. Frost was himself fascinated by what he called "carrying numbers into the realm of space and at the same time into the realm of time" (333). In the same essay, he later quotes Einstein that "In the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved" (334). What Frost has done in "making his count" of the woodpile's dimensions is to carry those numbers into time, and in doing so he has transformed the straightness and angularity of the landscape into curves, into roundness and sphericity. This transformation is initially hinted at, I think, in the multiple suggestiveness of "cord," which is not only the specific name given to 128 cubic feet of fuel wood but, here, a pun on the mathematical term denoting a straight line which joins two points on an arc or curve. The change wrought in the speaker's perception of the scene is a brilliant poetic realization of Frost's conviction that "We are what we are by elimination and by deflection from the straight line."

Once he exists in a definitively three-dimensional physical universe, the speaker muses on the fourth dimension in trying to penetrate further into the meaning of the physical fact. Immediately, he meditates on—has a creative vision about—what is not there, what is quintessentially impalpable and increasingly indefinite, what is further and further back in time and of completely mysterious origin. Whereas the physical journey moves forward in space, its ultimate outcome is an inward journey, a meditation, which is a heightened mode of "turning back from here," an action no longer informed by fear alone. The implied and emergent curves of the woodpile the speaker's vision now makes explicit in the imagined loops of the runner tracks he cannot see; and these imagined curves in turn lead the speaker back into an awareness of the actual curved lines explicit in the woodpile itself: the warping bark, the sunkenness, the strings of clematis circling round and round. But the Hawthornian tensions and polarities, of which those curves are the ultimate expression, persist: between the imagined facts and the observable realities, in the references to different points in time, between the one side and the other, between what the clematis had done, what the tree is still doing, what the stake and prop are about to do. All these details catch, in a single, powerful image, a moment of process in which exquisite physical and spiritual form and imminent formlessness, growth and decay, stasis and flux fully interpenetrate, the implications of each participating in and giving value to the other. Now, although the speaker is completely at home in this place, his meditation does not lead to any reassuring consolation or benevolent resolution that would cancel these tensions and contrarieties; instead, it reaffirms and heightens them. For if the speaker's turning inward to the mind is a turning outward to the imagined identity of the woodcutter, and thus implies a consoling movement from solitude to human relationship, it also leads simultaneously to the speaker's recognition of his still distant separation from that imagined home with the "useful fireplace." The very process by which the speaker, along with the frozen swamp, has been warmed by the woodcutter's selfless and forgetful act of love issues in no comfortable, Emersonian notion of transcendent compensation. The condition of distance, of being "far from home," still attaches, as does the implied need to continually "turn to fresh tasks." Space and time have indeed been redeemed within the process of the speaker's vision to the extent that the woodpile as fact and process—as seemingly senseless material waste—is now endowed with a poignant significance and spiritual usefulness. But the implications of that redemption presuppose the necessity of continual other ones at different times, in different places. Seeing the woodpile in all its magnificence, the speaker sees also that its heat warms "only as best it could." And while there are duration, clarity, and beauty in the "slow, smokeless burning," they are apprehended in a vision that focuses on the inexorable fact of decay. The woodpile and the loving vision it induces only momentarily stay the confusion of a universe moving toward nothingness.

The condition of lostness, of homelessness, is not finally overcome; we are, at the end, still more aware of tensions than of unities. Whatever triumph there is lies in the fact that homelessness has now been defined and formalized by intelligence and love, by the process of growing awareness by which the woodpile and the poem have simultaneously come to be. In one sense, Frost himself provides the best gloss on the way the poem works when he says that "it makes us remember what we didn't know we knew" (394). He would agree with William James, I think, that "All homes are in finite experience" and that "finite experience as such is homeless." The process of the poem does not take us from an attitude of fearful doubt to one of certainty in the immutable. Instead, it begins with a felt doubt that arises out of the formless inscrutabil
Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken
On "The Road Not Taken"

William H. Pritchard

On December 16, 1916, he received a warm letter from Meiklejohn, looking forward to his presence at Amherst and saying that that morning in chapel he had read aloud "The Road Not Taken," "and then told the boys about your coming. They applauded vigorously and were evidently much delighted by the prospect."

Alexander Meiklejohn was an exceptionally high-minded educator whose principles and whose moral tone toward things may be illustrated most briefly and clearly by some statements from his essay "What the College Is." This, his inaugural address as president of Amherst, was printed for a time as an introduction to the college catalogue. What the college was, or should be -what Meiklejohn hoped to make Amherst into - was a place to be thought of as "liberal," that is, "essentially intellectual": "The college is primarily not a place of the body, nor of the feelings, nor even of the will; it is, first of all, a place of the mind." Introducing "the boys" to the intellectual life led for its own sake, would save them from pettiness and dullness, would save them from being one of what Meiklejohn referred to as "the others":

There are those among us who will find so much satisfaction in the countless trivial and vulgar amusements of a crude people that they have no time for the joys of the mind. There are those who are so closely shut up within a little round of petty pleasures they that have never dreamed of the fun of reading and conversing and investigating and reflecting.

A liberal education would rescue boys from stupidity, its purpose being to draw from that "reality-loving American boy" something like "an intellectual enthusiasm." But this result could not be achieved, Meiklejohn added, without a thorough reversal of the curriculum: "I should like to see every freshman at once plunged into the problems of philosophy," he said with enthusiasm.

Now, five years after his address, he was bringing to Amherst someone outside the usual academic orbit, a poet who lacked even a college degree. But despite - or perhaps because of - this lack, the poet had escaped triviality, was an original mind who knew about living by ideas. For he had written among other poems "The Road Not Taken," given pride of place in the just-published Mountain Interval as not only its first poem but also printed in italics, as though to make it also a preface to and motto for the poems which followed. It was perfect for Meiklejohn's purposes because it was no idle reverie, no escape through lovely language into a soothing dream world, but a poem rather which announced itself to be "about" important issues in life: about the nature of choice, of decision, of how to go in one direction rather than another and how to feel about the direction you took and didn't take. For President Meiklejohn and for the assembled students at compulsory chapel, it might have been heard as a stirring instance of what the "liberal college" was all about, since it showed how, instead of acceding to the petty pleasures, the "countless trivial and vulgar amusements" offered by the world or the money-god or the values of the marketplace, an individual could go his own way, live his own life, read his own books, take the less traveled road:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The poem ended, the boys "applauded vigorously," and surely Meiklejohn congratulated himself just a bit on making the right choice, taking the less traveled road and inviting a poet to join the Amherst College faculty.

What the president could hardly have imagined, committed as he was in high seriousness to making the life of the college truly an intellectual one, was the unruliness of Frost's spirit and its unwillingness to be confined within the formulas - for Meiklejohn, they were the truths - of the "liberal college." On the first day of the new year, 1917, just preparatory to moving his family down from the Franconia farm into a house in Amherst, Frost wrote Untermeyer about where the fun lay in what he, Frost, thought of as "intellectual activity":

You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won't formulate - that almost but don't quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.

The "fun" is "outside," and lies in doing something like teasing, suggesting formulae that don't formulate, or not quite. The fun is not in being "essentially intellectual" or in manifesting "intellectual enthusiasm" in Meiklejohn's sense of the phrase, but in being "subtle," and not just subtle but so much so as to fool "the casual person" into thinking that what you said was obvious. If we juxtapose these remarks with his earlier determination to reach out as a poet to all sorts and kinds of people, and if we think of "The Road Not Taken" as a prime example of a poem which succeeded in reaching out and taking hold, then something interesting emerges about the kind of relation to other people, to readers - or to students and college presidents - Frost was willing to live with, indeed to cultivate.

For the large moral meaning which "The Road Not Taken" seems to endorse - go, as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, and it will make "all the difference"-does not maintain itself when the poem is looked at more carefully. Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of his choice, that the two roads were in appearance "really about the same," that they "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black," and that choosing one rather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearly than to say that the road taken had "perhaps the better claim." But in the final stanza, as the tense changes to future, we hear a different story, one that will be told "with a sigh" and "ages and ages hence." At that imagined time and unspecified place, the voice will have nobly simplified and exalted the whole impulsive matter into a deliberate one of taking the "less traveled" road:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Is it not the high tone of poignant annunciation that really makes all the difference? An earlier version of the poem had no dash after "I"; presumably Frost added it to make the whole thing more expressive and heartfelt. And it was this heartfelt quality which touched Meiklejohn and the students.

Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that "I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken," and he characterized himself in that poem particularly as "fooling my way along." He also said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. When Frost sent "The Road Not Taken" to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failed to understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that "I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on." And though this sort of advice went exactly contrary to Frost's notion of how poetry should work, he did on occasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became a popular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as "the fun of the thing." It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost's work of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks contains the following four-line thought:

Nothing ever so sincere
That unless it's out of sheer
Mischief and a little queer
It wont prove a bore to hear.

The mischievous aspect of "The Road Not Taken" is what makes it something un-boring, for there is little in its language or form which signals an interesting poem. But that mischief also makes it something other than a "sincere" poem, in the way so many readers have taken Frost to be sincere. Its fun is outside the formulae it seems almost but not quite to formulate.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

Jay Parini

A close look at the poem reveals that Frost's walker encounters two nearlv identical paths: so he insists, repeatedly. The walker looks down one, first, then the other, "as just as fair." Indeed, "the passing there / Had worn them reallv about the same." As if the reader hasn't gotten the message, Frost says for a third time. "And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black." What, then, can we make of the final stanza? My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: "When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying." Frost signals the mockingly self-inflated tone of the last stanza by repeating the word "I," which rhymes - several times - with the inflated word "sigh." Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less traveled, is a fraudulent position, hence the sigh.

From "Frost" in Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott. Copyright © 1988 by the Columbia University Press.

George Montiero

"THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that might be called "The Choice of the Two Paths, " reaching not only back to the Gospels and beyond them to the Greeks but to ancient English verse as well. In Reson and Sensuallyte, for example, John Lydgate explains how he dreamt that Dame Nature had offered him the choice between the Road of Reason and the Road of Sensuality. In art the same choice was often represented by the letter "Y" with the trunk of the letter representing the careless years of childhood and the two paths branching off at the age when the child is expected to exercise discretion. In one design the "Two Paths" are shown in great detail. "On one side a thin line of pious folk ascend a hill past several churches and chapels, and so skyward to the Heavenly City where an angel stands proffering a crown. On the other side a crowd of men and women are engaged in feasting, music, love-making, and other carnal pleasures while close behind them yawns the flaming mouth of hell in which sinners are writhing. But hope is held out for the worldly for some avoid hell and having passed through a dark forest come to the rude huts of Humility and Repentance." Embedded in this quotation is a direct reference to the opening of Dante's Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was the forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more.

From the beginning, when it appeared as the first poem in Mountain Interval (1916), many readers have overstated the importance of "The Road Not Taken" to Frost's work. Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College, did so when, announcing the appointment of the poet to the school's faculty he recited it to a college assembly.

"The Choice of Two Paths" is suggested in Frost's decision to make his two roads not very much different from one another, for passing over one of them had the effect of wearing them "really about the same." This is a far cry from, say, the description of the "two waies " offered in the seventeenth century by Henry Crosse:

Two waies are proposed and laide open to all, the one inviting to vertue, the other alluring to vice; the first is combersome, intricate, untraded, overgrowne, and many obstacles to dismay the passenger; the other plaine, even beaten, overshadowed with boughes, tapistried with flowers, and many objects to feed the eye; now a man that lookes but only to the outward shewe, will easily tread the broadest pathe, but if hee perceive that this smooth and even way leads to a neast of Scorpions: or a litter of Beares, he will rather take the other though it be rugged and unpleasant, than hazard himselfe in so great a daunger.

Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word "roads" rather than "waies" or "paths" or even "pathways." In fact, on one occasion when he was asked to recite his famous poem, "Two paths diverged in a yellow wood," Frost reacted with such feeling—"Two roads!"—that the transcription of his reply made it necessary both to italicize the word "roads" and to follow it with an exclamation point. Frost recited the poem all right, but, as his friend remembered, "he didn't let me get away with 'two paths!'"

Convinced that the poem was deeply personal and directly self-revelatory Frost's readers have insisted on tracing the poem to one or the other of two facts of Frost's life when he was in his late thirties. (At the beginning of the Inferno Dante is thirty-five, "midway on the road of life," notes Charles Eliot Norton.) The first of these, an event, took place in the winter of 1911-1912 in the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire, while the second, a general observation and a concomitant attitude, grew out of his long walks in England with Edward Thomas, his newfound Welsh-English poet-friend, in 1914.

In Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant locates in one of Frost's letters the source for "The Road Not Taken." To Susan Hayes Ward the poet wrote on February 10, 1912:

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone's eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn't go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.

This portentous account of meeting "another" self (but not encountering that self directly and therefore not coming to terms with it) would eventually result in a poem quite different from "The Road Not Taken" and one that Frost would not publish for decades. Elizabeth Sergeant ties the moment with Frost's decision to go off at this time to some place where he could devote more time to poetry. He had also, she implies, filed away his dream for future poetic use.

That poetic use would occur three years later. In 1914 Frost arrived in England for what he then thought would be an extended sabbatical leave from farming in New Hampshire. By all the signs he was ready to settle down for a long stay. Settling in Gloucestershire, he soon became a close friend of Edward Thomas. Later, when readers persisted in misreading "The Road Not Taken," Frost insisted that his poem had been intended as a sly jest at the expense of his friend and fellow poet. For Thomas had invariably fussed over irrevocable choices of the most minor sort made on daily walks with Frost in 1914, shortly before the writing of the poem. Later Frost insisted that in his case the line "And that has made all the difference"—taken straight—was all wrong. "Of course, it hasn't," he persisted, "it's just a poem, you know." In 1915, moreover, his sole intention was to twit Thomas. Living in Gloucestershire, writes Lawrance Thompson, Frost had frequently taken long countryside walks with Thomas.

Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a "better" direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets. . . . Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid.

If we are to believe Frost and his biographer, "The Road Not Taken" was intended to serve as Frost's gentle jest at Thomas's expense. But the poem might have had other targets. One such target was a text by another poet who in a different sense might also be considered a "friend": Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem, "My Lost Youth," had provided Frost with A Boy's Will, the title he chose for his first book.

"The Road Not Taken " can be placed against a passage in Longfellow's notebooks: "Round about what is, lies a whole mysterious world of might be,—a psychological romance of possibilities and things that do not happen. By going out a few minutes sooner or later, by stopping to speak with a friend at a corner, by meeting this man or that, or by turning down this street instead of the other, we may let slip some great occasion of good, or avoid some impending evil, by which the whole current of our lives would have been changed. There is no possible solution to the dark enigma but the one word, 'Providence.'"

Longfellow's tone in this passage is sober, even somber, and anticipates the same qualities in Edward Thomas, as Frost so clearly perceived. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant had insisted that Frost's dream encounter with his other self at a crossroads in the woods had a " subterranean connection " with the whole of "The Road Not Taken," especially with the poem's last lines:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Undoubtedly. But whereas Longfellow had invoked Providence to account for acts performed and actions not taken, Frost calls attention only to the role of human choice. A second target was the notion that "whatever choice we make, we make at our peril." The words just quoted are Fitz-James Stephen's, but it is more important that Frost encountered them in William James's essay "The Will to Believe." In fact, James concludes his final paragraph on the topic: "We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? 'Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better." The danger inherent in decision, in this brave passage quoted with clear-cut approval by the teacher Frost "never had," does not playa part in "The Road Not Taken." Frost the "leaf-treader" will have none of it, though he will not refuse to make a choice. Nothing will happen to him through default. Nor, argues the poet, is it likely that anyone will melodramatically be dashed to pieces.

It is useful to see Frost's projected sigh as a nudging criticism of Thomas's characteristic regrets, to note that Frost's poem takes a sly poke at Longfellow's more generalized awe before the notio
Robert Frost: The Oven Bird
On "The Oven Bird"

Reuben A. Brower

. . . The poem opens with what first sounds like flat prosaic statement,

There is a singer everyone has heard . . .

but the line rides on the expected thrust of later lines, and before it ends, it melts imperceptibly into iambics. But—we must always be saying 'but' of this poem—as we are lapsing into a regular beat, the meter flutters slightly in 'everyone' before settling down. The next line begins unexpectedly

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird . . .

The opening monosyllable is stressed doubly for sense and meter, the comma further lengthening the pause; the word is out of the familiar metrical and grammatical order, and very casual, almost rude in tone. But 'Loud' is followed by two echoing poetic compounds, and the third line is back in the swing of iambic verse, though a bit roughed up by alliteration and t-d-s sounds—almost a tongue-twister:

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

This odd talking-song, so deftly rude, is central to the growing form and to the attitude reaching a climax in the final line—the troubling sense of diminishedness, of things being less than they were. The poetry is not in this idea alone, but in the metaphor of loss-and-song expressed 'in all but words' through many sorts of indirection. The song in the poem is not just any oven bird's song, but the singing made by the poet's words. It is very common—'everyone has heard' it—and not charming or poetic, but 'Loud.' It renews the spring song of 'other birds' ('Tree trunks sound again') only to remind us that summer is a tenth as good as spring, that the 'petal-fall' anticipated the approaching 'other fall.' More conventional birds, like the orioles and thrushes, do not sing in mid-summer. But the oven bird's song really isn't a song, as the language keeps insisting: he 'makes . . . trunks sound' (he hammers and drums ), 'he says that . . . he says . . . he says . . . he knows . . . he frames . . . '—a most explanatory bird. (As Frost says of prose without rhythm, it is 'declare, declare, declare.') If we are familiar with the 'teacher-teacher' call of the oven bird, we get the point sooner; but even without knowing the bird we hear its teaching in the paradox of song-not-song renewed in many fine poetic stresses. The metaphor is always there underground and implicit, the quality of the poem depending on the unobtrusiveness of this half-apprehended but surely heard meaning. Anyone who has walked in dry July woods will remember how the metallic refrain of the oven bird bores into ears and mind.

The metaphor is also active in the dramatic voice, which is very much in harmony with 'all-but-ness' and which resists easy reduction of the poem to 'Ah, summer!—spring's faded!' The poet's rhythm is always being steadied by prose statement, and his grammar is of the plainest. In the wager of 'one to ten,' where we might expect 'ten to one' in summer's bounty, and in the playing with various 'falls' his subtly amused tone comes out clearly enough. The restraining quality of his speech goes finely with the language he has used of the bird's song and with the question he frames in the end. But the poet outdoes the bird: he manages in not singing to sing. Tempo and feeling increase as the rhythm rides with surprising force through full stops and with what Edward Thomas beautifully called 'a quiet eagerness of emotion.' Readers who see in the poem a symbol of Frost as poet or a veiled ars poetica, should note that the symbol is not the bird but the poetic art, the 'feat of words' as a whole. But that further metaphor is only touched on: as in the best of Frost, lightness is all.

The figure implied in 'The Oven Bird'—of talking song and of unobtrusive metaphor embodied in rhythm and tone as much as in statement and image, of a growth from observation (Frost's moment of 'delight') to felt truth—is not only a formal pattern, but also the forming of a revelation of which the meaning is the unfolding poetic event.

from The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

George Montiero

Over time it has become increasingly evident that this sonnet struck a note which became central to the work of many of the major poets of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Anticipating the sorrowful observation of his younger contemporary LS. Eliot, that in our time the ancient song of the nightingale had degenerated into the "Jug Jug" of dirty ears, Frost focused on the transformation and diminution of Whitman's central symbol for the poet. In the midsummer, midwood song of the ovenbird, Frost hears a parable of the modem poet who, unlike those poets who can burst into song only in the spring, has learned the ovenbird's paradoxical trick. He has learned how to sing an unlyrical song in those times that are not at all conducive to joyous song.

[quotes poem]

When "The Oven Bird " was published in Mountain Interval (1916), Frost's third collection of poems, its reception among readers displeased the poet. That reception drove him to warn his friend Sidney Cox that "The Oven Bird" was not of "the large things in the book." He cautioned further, obviously worried over the unsubtle impact of the poem's last two lines, "You mustn't be misled by anything that may have been laid down to you in school into exaggerating the importance of a little sententious tag to a not over important poem." What other readers found in the poem is evident from Frost's complaint to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that the last two lines of his poem had "been used unjustly against New England." Just how they had been misused Frost apparently chose not to explain to Mrs. Sergeant, nor did he wish to explain that his poem was purely in the New England tradition. There is no denying the validity of Mrs. Sergeant's emphasis upon "the tragic background of the poet who writes from the heart of the life that he knows and divines"; but much of the varied, rich life the poet knew, divined, and portrayed, it should be observed, shows the impact of the books he read and chose to love. Fully alert to classical Western literary traditions, Frost was acutely aware of the romantic tradition of New England, whose poets, in the flowering of New England literature, opened the way for Frost's own poetry of embattlement and resistance in addition to blazing a path followed by dozens of lesser writers.

The New England context of Frost's poem has never been fully investigated. In the paragraphs which follow, I shall try to locate some of the immediate sources for Frost's decision to turn the ovenbird into a surrogate for the poet. Clear hints for the ovenbird as symbol, I shall maintain, came from three writers (though there may have been others) whose work varies greatly in intrinsic literary merit—Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey (Thoreau's editor at the turn of the century), and Mildred Rowells (the daughter of William Dean Rowells). The line can be drawn chronologically.

Reimagining his dramatic withdrawal to the Concord woods, Thoreau laments the fate that, in the few years since his removal, has befallen the woods encircling Walden Pond: "the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth." As nature's poet, then, Thoreau would fall as silent as the disappointed songbirds, for diminished nature—in this case, nature reduced through man's waste—silences both Muse and mortal song. "How can you expect the birds to sing," entones Thoreau, "when their groves are cut down?"

In Walden Thoreau fails to identify the ovenbird by name, but his journals contain several descriptions of the ovenbird and its sounds, along with several related descriptions of a "night- warbler." At various times Thoreau observes, in notes that were not lost on Frost, that (1) "the oven-bird thrums [a] sawyer-like strain," (2) "the hollow-sounding note of the ovenbird is heard from the depth of the wood," (3) the oven-bird's note is "loud and unmistakable, making the hollow woods ring," (4) its note, a true "woodland" sound, is "fresh emphatic." Thoreau suggests that he was able to distinguish the seasonal songs of the ovenbird, though he makes nothing of that fact.

Thoreau was as receptive to the ovenbird's spring song, evidently, as he was to its midsummer song. But his puzzlement sometimes led him to ascribe the two songs to different species. Often mistaking the ovenbird for a different bird he chose to call a "night-warbler," he wrote enthusiastically about that "powerful singer": "It launches into the air above the forest, or over some hollow or open space in the woods, and challenges the attention of the woods by its rapid and impetuous warble, and then drops down swiftly into the tree-tops like a performer withdrawing behind the scenes, and he is very lucky who detects where it alights." For all his repute as a naturalist, Thoreau never managed to distinguish the ovenbird satisfactorily from the mysterious "night-warbler," confusing them time and time again. It is now generally conceded by ornithologists and Thoreau scholars alike that Thoreau's "mysterious" night-warbler and the seemingly different ovenbird, whose more characteristic song and daytime appearance were well known to Thoreau, were one and the same.

That the ovenbird sings two quite different songs was clear enough to Bradford Torrey. In 1900, while editing Thoreau's journals, Torrey wrote and published a Thoreauvian journey piece. Reconstructing the memorable incidents of a day's excursion to New Hampshire's Franconia Mountains (where Frost would later live), Torrey wrote of the ovenbird:

An oven-bird shoots into the air out of the forest below for a burst of aerial afternoon music. I heard the preluding strain, and, glancing up, caught him at once, the sunlight happening to strike him perfectly. All the morning he has been speaking prose; now he is a poet; a division of the day from which the rest of us might take a lesson. But for his afternoon role he needs a name. "Oven-bird" goes somewhat heavily in a lyric:

"Hark! hark! the oven-bird at heaven's gate sings"—you would hardly recognize that for Shakespeare.

Torrey notes with accuracy that the ovenbird can and does sing two distinctly different songs. The distinction between the songs is explained by one of Thoreau's modern editors. The ovenbird's "song is a series of short, ringing, emphatic notes that grow louder and louder as the tempo increases," she observes. "It is often called the teacher-bird because the song sounds like teacher repeated over and over again. The Ovenbird also has a beautiful flight song, most often heard in May and June, late in the afternoon or on moonlight nights."

For his own purposes Frost chose the ovenbird whose song is pedagogical, not lyrical. He reverses Torrey's emphasis, which was on the lyrical beauty of the afternoon song. Surely Torrey's view of the ovenbird was too conventional for Frost's more insistent taste and therefore wholly unsuited to the specific purposes of his parablelike poem. In Frost there is, of course, no indication that the ovenbird sings a beautiful flight song as well as the dry, sharp, rasping song for which it is better known. The existence of its melodious flight song is a fact not at all useful to the poet answering the sentimentalist whose song falters and fails before natural loss.

On one occasion Frost revealed that his poems were largely "a way out of something." He elaborated: "I could probably name twenty or thirty poems that were just answers to somebody that had . . . left me unsatisfied with the last thing he said in an argument." The possibility can be entertained, for its suggestive implications at least, that "The Oven Bird" constitutes just such an answer to the question framed by Mildred Howells in her Keatsian poem, "'And No Birds Sing'":

There comes a season when the bird is still
Save for a broken note, so sad and strange,
Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill
With sense of coming change.

Stirred into ecstasy by spring's new birth,
In throbbing rhapsodies of hope and love,
He shared his transports with the listening earth
And stormed the heavens above.

But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone—
Of hopes that withered with the waning year,
An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown,
And winter drawing near?

There can be no doubt, of course, that in quality, no matter what yardstick we use, Miss Howells's autumn poem does not measure up to Frost's. For one thing, it lacks immediate force and overall resonance. Its images too evidently belong to the pale, late Victorian poetry of nature. They remain static and generalized. Still, despite reservations, there is value and purpose in comparing the two poems. Sentimentality and loose structure notwithstanding, Miss Howells's poem does indicate a theme that Frost would find congenial: how, indeed, does one respond to the diminished thing that dry midsummer augurs and which autumn and winter all too surely realize?

The first line of Frost's sonnet seems to echo and answer the first line of "'And No Birds Sing'": "There is a singer everyone has heard" counters the line, "There comes a season when the bird is still." Moreover, if a "broken note . . . of plaintive cadence" predicts "coming change" in the Howells poem, the sterner song of Frost's ovenbird, in describing facts as they are, " makes the solid tree trunks sound again."

The middle stanza of Miss Howells's poem moves back in time to recall the retrospective irony of the bird's ecstasy when it was fostered by "spring's new birth." By contrast, in midpoem Frost's ovenbird reminds us dryly and matter-of-factly that spring's luxuriance of flowers diminishes by midsummer in the ratio of "one to ten." Then in the eleventh line Frost fashions another answer to "'And No Birds Sing.'" The question asked in the Howells poem, "how should he sing" of withered hopes in a "waning year" as winter encroaches upon life, is answered: the ovenbird "knows in singing not to sing." Frost concludes his poem, not by asking Howells's question of whether the ovenbird should sing (he takes it for granted that he must sing) but by defining the question which the bird's songless song frames.

Like his ovenbird of midsummer song, the poet that Frost continued to recognize in himself was one who faced the hardest of facts: seasonally; but above all historically; the world has diminished, and "dust is over all." Still, the difficulty of the situation cannot reduce the durable poet to compliance: he resists the fact, and his resistance becomes the impulse—bone and sinew—for his poem. When Frost decided that "a poet must lean hard on facts, so hard, sometimes, that they hurt," he discovered as well that what "the facts do to you . . . transforms them into poetry."

In seasons of human displacement, the Muse will continue to spite Thoreau (and his less durable followers) by disdaining silence. Transposed to a different key; it will speak but only to that poet whose lyric voice has been stripped of all traditional lyricism.

from Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

Jay Parini

Mountain Interval also contains "The Oven Bird," one of Frost's unforgettable sonnets. Like "Mowing," it is a poem implicitly about the act of writing, about a bird who "knows in singing not to sing," which is to say that he must abandon the worn-out poetical diction and rhetorical conventions of his predecessors and offer a new kind of song. "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The last two lines resonate with implications. What poet now writing is not faced with this dilemma? The world as we find it, much as the world Frost found, is sadly diminished, and the poet's job in the twentieth century has been what to make of this world, how to respond to its indignities, its savage and vengeful self-absorption, its greed, its abandonment of common decency and justice.

From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by the Columbia University Press.

Katherine Kearns

These seemingly negligible birds, symbols of the lyric voice, have intuited the Oven Bird's lesson and are the signs by which one is meant to divine Frost's acceptance of the linguistic implications of the fall from innocence. The Oven Bird, who watching "That other fall we name the fall" come to cover the world with dust, "Knows in singing not to sing." Instead, "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The fall, in necessitating both birth and death, imposes a continuum of identity that compromises naming. The process toward death, begun with birth, transmutes and gradually diminishes form, thus adding to the equation - words are things before they become words and things again when they do - an element of inevitable, perpetual senescence. The birds of "A Winter Eden" say "which buds are leaf and which are bloom," but the names are always premature or too late: gold goes to green, dawn to day, everything rises and falls and is transformed. Thus the Oven Bird says, "Midsummer is to spring as one to ten," because a season - this or any other - may only be codified analogously. "Fall" takes on a series of identities: petal fall, the fall season, the first and fortunate fall, each of which bears, at the moment of articulation, the burden of a whole complex of moral, aesthetic, and literary valuations. This bird is a "midsummer and a midwood bird" that sees things at the moment of capitulation to the imperatives of fall. Loud, he predicts the inevitable, and his "language" reflects the potential meaninglessness of a world in which one is forced to define a thing by what it departs from or approaches rather than what it "is." To anticipate and recognize in the full-blown flower only its inevitable decay is to miss the mark, but to ignore its ephemerality is an equal failure. The paradox of the Oven Bird's assertive voice completes the suggestion that only a new "language" can accommodate the diminishing of things, for he neither sings nor speaks: he "knows in singing not to sing" and he frames his question "in all but words." He neither sinks nor soars, and he lives in a solid, domed house that typifies his Yankee ingenuity, his forethought, his prudence. In a voice of virile moderation, loud but unhysterical, he sets out to articulate his surroundings.

But at the same time, and in a way that refuses to cancel out this message, Frost obliquely mocks his meager lyric birds and the compromised, oven-bird speakers throughout his poetry who are equally pinioned, held by their own voices from transcendence. He is ironically and ambivalently aware of the Palgravian definition of "lyric poetry." (Lentricchia sums it up: "No narrative allowed, no description of local reference, no didacticism, no personal, occasional, or religious material, no humor - the very antithesis of the 'poetical' - no dramatic textures of blank verse because the speaking voice is alien to song lyric," etc.) And Frost is very much dedicated to deconstructing this mode with his own lyricism: he writes to Amy Lowell: "The great thing is that you and some of the rest of us have landed with both feet on all the little chipping poetry of a while ago
Robert Frost: Birches
On "Birches"

Frank Lentricchia

In "Birches" (Mountain Interval, 1916) Frost begins to probe the power of his redemptive imagination as it moves from its playful phase toward the brink of dangerous transcendence. The movement into transcendence is a movement into a realm of radical imaginative freedom where (because redemption has succeeded too well) all possibilities of engagement with the common realities of experience are dissolved. In its moderation, a redemptive consciousness motivates union between selves as we have seen in "The Generations of Men," or in any number of Frost's love poems. But in its extreme forms, redemptive consciousness can become self-defeating as it presses the imaginative man into deepest isolation.

"Birches" begins by evoking its core image against the background of a darkly wooded landscape:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice storms do.

The pliable, malleable quality of the birch tree captures the poet's attention and kicks off his meditation. Perhaps young boys don't bend birches down to stay, but swing them they do and thus bend them momentarily. Those "straighter, darker trees," like the trees of "Into My Own" that "scarcely show the breeze," stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will. The malleability of the birches is not total, however, and the poet is forced to admit this fact into the presence of his desire, like it or not. The ultimate shape of mature birch trees is the work of objective natural force, not human activity. Yet after conceding the boundaries of imagination's subjective world, the poet seems not to have constricted himself but to have been released.

Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

Fascinated as he is by the show of loveliness before him, and admiring as be is of nature as it performs the potter's art, cracking and crazing the enamel of ice coating on the birch trees, it is not finally the thing itself (the ice-coated trees) that interests the poet but the strange association be is tempted to make: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." Certainly there is no question of belief involved here. The linkage of the scientifically discredited medieval sphere with the heaps of cracked ice suggests rather the poet's need to break beyond the rigid standard of empirical truth, that he himself has already allowed into the poem, and faintly suggests as well the kind of apocalyptic destruction that the imagination seeks when unleashed (the idea that the inner dome has been smashed clearly pleases the speaker). Eventually Frost in "Birches" comes round to exploring in much more sophisticated ways the complex problem broached by this statement from a later poem, "On Looking Up By Chance At the Constellations":

The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.

In "Birches" Frost looks not to natural catastrophe for those "shocks and changes" that "keep us sane" but to his resources as a poet:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Manipulating the simile, the overt figure of comparison, is a dangerous ploy for the poet, implying often that be does not have the courage of his vision and does not believe that his mode of language can generate a distinctive perspective on experience. For Frost, however, and for any poet who is rooted in what I call the aesthetics of the fiction., the simile is the perfect figure of comparison, subtler even than metaphor. Its overtness becomes its virtue: in its insistence on the disparateness of the things compared (as well as their likeness) it can sustain a divided vision; can at once transmute the birches--for a brief moment nature stands humanized and the poet has transcended the scientific universe--and, at the same time, can allow the fictive world to be penetrated by the impurities of experience that resist the transmutative process of imagination. It is at such moments as this in Frost's work that the strategies and motives of a poetry of play are revealed. There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost's motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader's as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated. It may be argued that the satisfaction is greatest when it is autonomous: the more firmly the poet insists upon the severance of his vision from the order of things as they are and the more clearly that be makes no claim for knowledge, the emotive power of the poem may emerge uncontaminated by the morass of philosophical problems that are bound to dog him should he make claims for knowledge. Both poet and reader may submerge themselves without regret (because without epistemological pretension) in aesthetic illusion.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what be found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

The shrewdness in Frost's strategy now surfaces. While claiming to have paid homage to the rigid standards of empirical truth in his digression on the ice-loaded branches, what he has actually done is to digress into the language of fictions. When he turns to the desired vision of the young boy swinging birches, he is not, as he says, turning from truth to fiction, but from one kind of fiction to another kind of fiction: from the fiction of cosmic change and humanized nature to the fiction of the human will riding roughshod over a pliable external world. And the motives for all of this fooling? I think there are two: one is that Frost intends to fox his naturalistically persuaded readers; a second is that this is what his poem is all about--the thrusting of little fictions within alien, antifictive contexts.* As he evokes the image of the boy, playing in isolation, too far from the community to engage in a team kind of sport, he evokes, as well, his cherished theme of the imaginative man who, essentially alone in the world, either makes it or doesn't on the strength of his creative resources. And now he indulges to the full the desired vision that be could not allow himself in the poem's opening lines:

One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then be flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

One figure seems to imply another--the image of the farm youth swinging up, out, and down to earth again recalls the boyhood of the poet:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.

For anyone but Frost the "pathless wood" is trite. But for him it carries a complex of meaning fashioned elsewhere. The upward swinging of the boy becomes an emblem for imagination's swing away from the tangled, dark wood; a swing away from the "straighter, darker trees"; a swing into the absolute freedom of isolation, the severing of all "considerations." This is the transcendental phase of redemptive consciousness, a game that one plays alone. The downward movement of redemptive imagination to earth, contrarily, is a movement into community, engagement, love--the games that two play together:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk,
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

One really has no choice but to be a swinger of birches. In the moment when, catapulting upward, the poet is half-granted his wish, when transcendence is about to be complete and the self, in its disdain for earth, has lofted itself into absolute autonomy, nothing having any claim upon it, and no return possible, then, at that moment,, the blessed pull of the earth is felt again, and the apocalypse desired by a transcending imagination, which seemed so imminent, is repressed. At the end of "Birches" a precious balance has been restored between the claims of a redeeming imagination in its extreme, transcendent form, and the claims of common sense reality. To put it in another way, the psychic needs of change--supplied best by redemptive imagination--are balanced by the equally deep psychic need--supplied by skeptical ironic awareness--for the therapy of dull realities and everyday considerations.

* The swings in consciousness between fictive and objective worlds are reflected in a series of perfectly placed linguistic pivots. Consider: the conjunctive "but," lines 5, 21; or the conjunctive "and," lines 42, 49, 55; or the subtle semantic ambiguity of "shed" (line 10) and "trailing" (line 18) which points us simultaneously outward (in objective reference) to the inhuman world of nature--of birches as birches--and inward (expressive reference) to the warm, ambient world of Frost's consciousness, of bent birches as girls throwing their hair before them, drying in the sun.

from Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Copyright © 1975 by Duke UP.

John C. Kemp

The philosophy articulated in "Birches" poses no threat to popular values or beliefs, and it is so appealingly affirmative that many readers have treasured the poem as a masterpiece. Among Frost's most celebrated works, perhaps only "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ranks ahead of it. Yet to critics like Brooks and Squires, the persona's philosophical stance in "Birches" is a serious weakness.

[. . .]

The didactic and philosophical element that some critics have attacked strikes others as the very core of Frost's virtue.

[. . .]

Perhaps impartial observers can accept the notion that "Birches" is neither as bad as its harshest opponents suggest nor as good as its most adoring advocates claim.

[. . .]

"Birches" . . . contains three fairly lengthy descriptions that do not involve unusual perspectives. In fact, the most original and distinctive vision in the poem--the passage treating the ice on the trees (ll. 5-14)--is undercut both by the self-consciousness of its final line ("You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen") and by the two much more conventionally perceived environments that follow it: the rural boyhood of the swinger of birches (ll. 23-40) and the "pathless wood," which represents life's "considerations" (ll. 44-47). As a result, the poem's ardent concluding lines--its closing pronouncements on life, death, and human aspiration--do not arise from a particular experience. Instead, they are presented as doctrines that we must accept or reject on the basis of our credence in the speaker as a wise countryman whose familiarity with birch trees, ice storms, and pathless woods gives him authority as a philosopher.

Since in "Birches" the natural object--tree, ice crystal, pathless wood, etc.--functions as proof of the speaker's rusticity, Frost has no need for extraordinary perspectives, and therefore the poem does little to convince us that an "experience," to use [Robert] Langbaum's wording, "is really taking place, that the object is seen and not merely remembered from a public or abstract view of it." This is not to deny that the poem contains some brilliant descriptive passages (especially memorable are the clicking, cracking, shattering ice crystals in lines 7-11 and the boy's painstaking climb and sudden, exhilarating descent in lines 35-40), and without doubt, the closing lines offer an engaging exegesis of swinging birches as a way of life. But though we learn a great deal about this speaker's beliefs and preferences, we find at last that he has not revealed himself as profoundly as does the speaker in "After Apple-Picking." It is remarkable that the verb "to like," which does not appear in Frost's non-dramatic poetry prior to "Birches," is used three times in this poem: "I like to think" (l. 3); "I'd like to get away" (l. 48); and "I'd like to go" (l. 54). The speaker also tells us what he would "prefer" (l. 23), "dream of" (l. 42), and "wish" (l. 51). But while his preferences are generally appealing, and while they seem intellectually justified, they are not poetically justified in the sense that Langbaum suggests when he discusses the "extraordinary perspective" as a "sign that the experience is really taking place": "The experience has validity just because it is dramatized as an event which we must accept as having taken place, rather than formulated as an idea with which we must agree or disagree" (p. 43).

"Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile" are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. The act of repairing the wall and trying to reason with the crusty farmer, the termination of the harvest and the preparation for a winter's rest, the vagrant woodland ramble and the discovery of the perplexing woodpile--all these are events that we indeed "accept as having taken place."

Unlike the meditative lyrics Frost selected for North of Boston, however, "Birches" does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker's utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. Yes, the speaker has observed ice storms that bend the birches "down to stay" (l. 4); he has "learned all there is / To learn" about swinging birches (ll. 32-33); and he has struggled through the "considerations" of life's "pathless wood" (ll. 43-44). But the relationship of these experiences to his present utterance--the poem--is left unclear. We would be more willing to accept what Squires calls a "contradictory jumble" of images and ideas if we were convinced (as Eliot and Pound often convince us) that the diverse materials had coalesced in the speaker's mind. Frost's confession that the poem was "two fragments soldered together" is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker's personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, "(Now am I free to be poetical?)," followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

[. . .]

It may seem arbitrary to press too hard the issue of honesty in this poem. Art, after all, relies on fantasy and deception. Yet there are different types of fantasy and many motives for deception. If we are confident that an artist has kept faith with some personal vision or inner self, we can accept falsification of many things. When Frost presents himself as a farm worker, for instance a mower wielding his scythe or apple picker resting his weary body--the fantasy seems sincere and convincing. When we consider Frost's career and personal history, however, we may wonder about his motives in falsifying the character of his childhood. The resulting images lack originality and inspiration. Surely "Birches" contains some vivid and forceful passages, but when a line or phrase gives us too strong a sense of the poet's calculated effort to validate his speaker's rusticity, the spell of the poem, its incantatory charm and imaginative vision, is threatened. Fortunately, in "Birches" this threat is hardly noticeable, certainly not overwhelming or repellent, unless we want it to be.

[Excerpted from a longer analysis]

from Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Copyright © 1979 by Princeton UP.

George Montiero

SEVERAL TIMES in Robert Frost: A Living Voice, his account of the poet's talks at the Bread Loaf School of English, Reginald L. Cook quotes Frost's remarks on "Birches." Frost's words on one such occasion are given a context by Cook, who writes:

In spite of his deprecatory view of explication, Frost revealed a good deal about his art. When he disclosed his feeling about certain words in "Birches," he gave a searching insight into what makes a poet's use of descriptive words stand up. And how cavalierly he did it! He offered "this little note on 'Birches' before I begin to read it. See. The kind of explication I forbid," he said self-consciously. Then with disarming slyness, he said: "I never go down the shoreline [from Boston] to New York without watching the birches to see if they live up to what I say about them in the poem." Invariably the listener laughed, but on the double take he realized that Frost, the careful craftsman, was confirming his assertion that birches bend to left and right by verification. Getting details right was a telling responsibility. His birches, he insisted, were not the white mountain or paper birch of northern New England (Betula papyrifera); they were the gray birch (Betula populifolia).

[. . . .]

The way in which Robert Frost came to write "Birches" is described by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant: "As for the poet, 'who never saw New England as clearly as when he was in Old England,' he could not tie down his creative moments. It was about this time, early in 1914, while tramping the muddy yard at the Bungalow [West Midlands], that he suddenly; he says, wrote a new poem, not to be included in North of Boston. This was the now so famous and beloved 'Birches,' with its cold and crystal memories of another kind of wintry world." As this account suggests, Frost's poem might have reflected pure, almost spontaneous invention, but if so, it was stimulated by memories of boyhood experiences of winter and summer in northern New England and sharpened by the perspective of the poet's self-imposed exile. What I would suggest, howev
Robert Frost: Fire and Ice
On "Fire and Ice"

Jeffrey Meyers

The concise, laconic, perfect and perfectly savage "Fire and Ice," the antithesis of the long-winded "New Hampshire," belongs with the apocalyptic "Once by the Pacific." The alternatives in the title represent passion and hatred, two ways of destroying the world. The poem was inspired by a passage in Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno, in which the betrayers of their own kind are plunged, while in a fiery hell, up to their necks in ice: "a lake so bound with ice, / It did not took like water, but like a glass ... right clear / I saw, where sinners are preserved in ice." The last, understated word in Frost's poem, "suffice," clinches the meaning (like "difference" in "The Road Not Taken") by rhyming with the two lines that end in "ice" and enclosing that thematic word within itself

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Katherine Kearns

Like ice shrieking across a red-hot griddle, his poetry does, indeed, ride on its own melting. One cannot, and Frost has ensured this absolutely with his unstable irony, make a validated choice between the fire and the ice, or between the language, so insistently mundane, and the potent oversound. Fire and ice are, after all, the inextricable complementarities of one apocalyptic vision: that endlessly regenerative cycle of desire and (self) hatred that necessarily brings the productive poet to scourge his own voice as he mocks both the poetic vocation and the state to which poetry - and if poetry then all language - has come. Frost anticipates modernism's lament and, it may be said, prefigures in his dualism its dubious palliative of self-referential irony. The lyric birds and the weary speakers tell us the genuine Frostian wisdom of achieving a commonsensical accommodation with the fallen world, while inciting at another, and ineffable, level a profound disquiet.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Tom Hansen

Harlow Shapley claimed that he inspired Robert Frost to write "Fire and Ice." Shapley, who taught at Harvard for many years, was perhaps the preeminent American astronomer of his time. Although his name was hardly a household word, it was known and respected among the academic scientific community. In an address he gave in 1960, "Science and the Arts," Dr. Shapley told an anecdote about his encounter with Frost a year or two before "Fire and Ice" was published in 1920. Although there is no reason to doubt his account of that encounter, the poem Frost wrote as a result does not say what Shapley thinks it says.

According to Dr. Shapley, he and Frost met at an annual faculty get-together during one of Frost's stints as poet-in-residence at Harvard. Frost sought Shapley out, tugged at his sleeve--figuratively, if not literally--and said something like, "Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?" [1] Taken aback by this unconventional approach, Shapley assumed Frost was joking. The two of them chatted for a few moments, but not about the end of the world. Then they each became involved in conversations with other people and were soon in different parts of the room. But a while later, Frost sought out Shapley again and asked him the same question. "So," said Shapley to his audience in 1960, "I told him that either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth." Shapley went on to explain, as he had earlier explained to Frost, why life on earth would eventually be destroyed by fire or ice.

"Imagine my surprise," Shapley said, "when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem." He then read "Fire and Ice" aloud. He saw "Some say" as a reference to himself--specifically to his meeting with Frost at that gathering of Harvard faculty. "This personal anecdote," Shapley concluded, "illustrates one of the many ways in which scientific knowledge can influence the creation of a work of art and also elucidate the meaning of that work of art."

Frost also spent several years as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan. A recent article by Sally Pobojewski in LSAmagazine, a publication of the university, shows that Shapley's misreading of "Fire and Ice" persists today, at least among some of the scientific members of the academic community. After quoting the poem's first two lines, the article begins, "For a poet, Robert Frost was a pretty good scientist, say astrophysicists Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin. Frost's fire-or-ice scenario neatly sums up two outcomes from their new study of possible future encounters between our solar system and passing stars" (28).

Like Shapley, Pobojewski fails to see that Frost's apparent directness and simplicity frequently mask, as Cleanth Brooks illustrates in Modern Poetry and the Tradition, his reliance on symbol (113, 114, 117). Though Brooks does not specifically mention "Fire and Ice," it is clearly a poem that must be interpreted symbolically. This is not a matter of preference. The poem unequivocally declares that it is not an astronomical speculation about a catastrophe millions of years in the future.

In several of his poems, Frost presents the outer as emblem or echo or distorted mirror image of the inner. The speaker of "Tree at My Window" notes, as he addresses the tree, that the two of them are dreamers--the tree so often "taken and tossed" and he himself so often "taken and swept / And all but lost" (9, 11-12). The poem concludes,

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

A similar outer-physical/inner-psychological correspondence is in the concluding quatrain of "Desert Places":

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The colloquial "scare" thinly masks the terror of this poem--not the terror that ripples through us when we vividly realize and almost physically apprehend the limitless emptiness of outer space, but the even greater tenor that washes over us when we realize that the ultimate desert places lie within us.

So it is with "Fire and Ice." Outer blatantly symbolizes inner. Fire is directly equated with desire, the kind that kindles antagonism and conflict. Ice is equated with hate. Fire and ice are born in the dark reaches of inner space, in the smoldering, ice-sheathed human heart. However, if the height of art is to conceal the art, then Frost is a consummate artist, because the terror in the poem is so casually understated that it slips by some readers undetected. The understatement is most evident in the fifth and last lines of the poem. "But if it had to perish twice," Frost says, as if the incineration of the world were little more than a passing sickness. "And would suffice," he concludes in a typically unemphatic last line. The use of first-person pronouns in lines 3, 4, and 6 also quietly contributes to the understatement, suggesting that the poem is only an expression of lightly held personal opinion. This deceptive strategy of understatement leads Shapley and Pobojewski to interpret the poem as idle cosm ic speculation rather than an astute diagnosis of the chronic malfunction of the human heart.


(1.) Although I was part of the audience listening to Shapley's address forty years ago, I imperfectly recall Shapley's account of his meeting with Frost. Still, Dr. Shapley made a strong impression, one that lingers yet. Bemused by Frost and viewing him as something of a character, Shapley presented himself as a forthright man of science and common sense, hardheaded but broad-minded. Therefore, the words I attribute to him--and those he attributed to Frost--must be taken as no more than approximations intended to convey the essence of what he said and to suggest something of the spirit in which he said it.


Brooks, Cleanth. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Edward C. Lathem and Lawrance Thompson. New York: Holt, 1972.

Pobojewski, Sally. "This Is the Way the World Ends." LSAmagazine 23.1 ( Fall 1999): 28--29.

from The Explicator 59.1 (Fall 2000)

John N. Serio

Most readers of Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" agree with Lawrance Thompson's view that the poem is a marvel of compactness, signaling for Frost "a new style, tone, manner, [and] form" (Years of Triumph 152). Thompson interprets "Fire and Ice" as hinting at the destructive powers of "the heat of love or passion and the cold of hate," sensing that "these two extremes are made so to encompass life as to be a gathering up of all that may exist between them; all that may be swept away by them" (Fire and Ice 122). But a closer look at the poem reveals that in structure, style, and theme "Fire and Ice" is a brilliant, gemlike compression of Dante's Inferno.(1) As such, it presents a much more profound distinction between the two extremes of love and hate. Like Dante, Frost follows Aristotle in condemning hatred as far worse than desire.

At its most obvious, formal level, "Fire and Ice" has nine lines, mirroring Dante's nine circles of hell. Although Frost's poem is not exactly funnel shaped like Dante's hell, it does narrow considerably at the end as Frost literally cuts in half his general pattern of four stresses (iambic tetrameter) to close on two lines having only two stresses each (iambic dimeter). Interestingly, the one line near the opening or top of the poem that contains two stresses, "Some say in ice," evokes the frozen punishment awaiting the worst sinners at the constricted bottom of Dante's hell. In addition, and surprisingly overlooked by most readers, Frost employs a modified terza rima, the rhyme scheme Dante invented for his Divine Comedy: aba, abc, bcb.

But it is at the thematic level that Frost most tellingly follows Dante, for the poem reflects the same system of ethics that Dante employs to classify the sins and punishments of hell. In reading the Inferno, readers are often puzzled by Dante's arrangement, because flatterers, fortunetellers, hypocrites, thieves, even counterfeiters are placed below murderers. The explanation that Dante provides in canto 11 derives from Aristotle: Sins of reason are worse than sins of passion. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that what distinguishes human beings from other life forms is reason; therefore, human beings must function with reason in order to fulfill their maximum potential, what Aristotle terms arete - excellence or virtue (17). As a Catholic, Dante modifies this principle by adding that reason is God's greatest gift to humankind and, therefore, its perversion or misuse constitutes the worst possible sin: "But since fraud / Is the vice of which man alone is capable, / God loathes it most" (Ciardi 11.24-26).

All the damned know they have committed sin, but those in the upper circles such as the carnal, the gluttons, the hoarders and wasters, the angry and sullen (note the Aristotelian lack of moderation in these categories) let passion sway their reason. Those in middle hell such as the murderers, warmongers, suicides, and homosexuals exercise emotion in alignment with reason: Violent though some of their actions may be, these sinners do what they think. But those in lower hell - the flatterers, hypocrites, thieves, and those who have betrayed family and country - exercise deceit. They use their reason to camouflage their true intent and thus pervert the proper use, according to Dante, of God's most distinctive gift to humans. Those in the ninth circle, the traitors to friends, family, and country, are frozen in ice, a most fitting punishment for their icy hearts. Though logically all the sinners in hell suffer the same consequence - eternal separation from the presence and love of God - those in the lower regions of hell have committed more serious sins and suffer more. In the very pit of hell, excoriated in the three mouths of icebound Satan, lie the arch-betrayers of all time: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot.

Frost's "Fire and Ice" contains this same organizational pattern. The understated opening two lines, "Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice," at first seem merely to suggest the biblical and scientific predictions about the end of the world: an apocalyptic holocaust or a new ice age. However, as figurative representations of desire and hatred, fire and ice embody the very system of Aristotelian ethics Dante employs in arranging the Inferno: Sins of reason are worse than sins of passion. Frost associates fire with the senses and places it first or, so to speak, near the top of his poem as the lesser of the two types of sin: "From what I've tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire." The verbs are sensuous and although not direct allusions, they recall characters in Dante's upper hell such as the glutton Ciacco the Hog ("tasted"), the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca ("hold"), and the hoarders ("favor"). In addition, by aligning the poem's speaker with a group of others ("I hold with those who favor fire"), Frost implies this is a more common and less serious sin.

When Frost speaks of hatred, however, instead of seeing it as an emotion or feeling, like anger, he presents it as a consequence of thought, of conscious choice: "I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice." The emphasis here, as in Dante, is on reason, or better, on the perversion or misuse of reason, because it is employed not for Christian love but for hatred. The intellectual distancing contained in the repetition "I think I know" the change from the present perfect tense, implying a past action ("I've tasted"), to the present tense ("I think I know"), and the utter isolation of the repeated 'T' without any reference to others mark hatred as worse than desire. Frost underscores this by making it the cause of a second death ("But if it had to perish twice") far more terrible by implication than the first. The pun on the word "ice" in "twice" and "suffice" accentuates the bitter coldness of hatred, and the triple repetition of "ice" at the end of the poem recalls Satan's futile efforts to escape - it is the very beating of his wings that causes the river Cocytus in the ninth circle to freeze.

Like Dante, Frost employs a first-person speaker in his poem. In his dramatic narrative, Dante creates a character named Dante to recount his journey. Although the author and narrator are distinct (after all, Dante the author did not hesitate to place characters in hell whom Dante the narrator pities), there are haunting, autobiographical overtones, as if the Inferno served as a warning not only to others but also to the poet himself:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood [...]. (Ciardi 1.1-3)

In "Fire and Ice," the force of the lyric "I" similarly contains an autobiographical edge. The deceptively casual, even flippant tone of the persona masks a deeper, understated meaning.

Whether it is a stark admission by Frost of his ambitious and unforgiving nature or an exorcising of the demon - interestingly enough, Frost included "Fire and Ice" as one of the "Grace Notes" in New Hampshire (1923) - we will never know. But by modeling his poem in both structure and theme on Dante's Inferno, Frost has enriched considerably the meaning of his brief lyric.


1. In addition to the internal evidence, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest Frost's familiarity with Dante's Inferno. Frost's personal library, now housed at the Fales Library of New York University, contains four editions of Dante's Divine Comedy. Although the Fletcher translation of 1931 is too late to have been an influence (the poem first appeared in Harper's in December 1920), the other three - two poetic translations by Longfellow, originally published in 1865, and a prose translation by Charles Eliot Norton in 1892, which relied heavily on Longfellow's popular verse translation - could clearly have had an impact. I am grateful to Helice Koffler of the Fales Library for this information.

The torments of hell are first hinted at in canto 3, when Virgil and Dante, after passing through the Gate of Hell, listen to Charon admonish the souls waiting to be ferried across the fiver Acheron. Both Longfellow and Norton use the same words "heat" and "frost" to describe the unexpected antithesis of punishment awaiting the damned below: "'I come to lead you to the other shore, / To the eternal shades in heat and frost'" (Longfellow 3.86-87). Much later, and in what I think is a veiled tribute to Robert Frost, John Ciardi translates these lines as:

I come to lead you to the other shore,
into eternal dark, into fire and ice. (3.83-84)


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Martin Ostwald. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1962.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Trans. Jefferson B. Fletcher. New York: Macmillan, 1931.

-----. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside, 1895.

-----. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Vols. 9-11. Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Complete Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 11 volumes. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside, 1895.

-----.The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Trans. Charles Eliot Norton. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside, 1892.

-----. The Inferno. Trans John Ciardi. New York: Mentor, 1954.

Frost, Robert. New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. Woodcuts by J. J. Lankes. New York: Henry Holt, 1923.

Thompson, Lawrance. Fire and Ice: The Art and Thought of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt, 1942.

-----. Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938. New York: Holt, 1970.

from The Explicator 57.4 (Summer 1999)

Return to Robert Frost
Robert Frost: Nothing Gold Can Stay
blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Alfred R. Ferguson

Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than "Nothing Gold Can Stay," a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa. Six versions of the poem exist, the first sent to George R. Elliott in March, 1920, in three eight-line stanzas under the title "Nothing Golden Stays." In this version the poem lacked any Edenic metaphor, reading in the three last lines, "In autumn she achieves / A still more golden blaze / But nothing golden stays." In its first published version, however, in The Yale Review (October 1923), under the present title, the poet caught both the moment of transitory perfection and the sense that the Edenic ideal must give way to earthly dying beauty:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The poem begins at once in paradox: "green is gold . . . leaf's a flower." At once, common knowledge, precise observation, and the implications of ancient associations are brought into conflicting play. Green is the first mark of spring, the assurance of life; yet in fact the first flush of vegetation for the New England birch and the willow is not green but the haze of delicate gold. Hence green is a theory or sign of spring; gold is the fact. Gold, precious and permanent as a metal, is here not considered as a metal but as a color. Its hue is described as hard to hold, as evanescent as wealth itself.

In the second couplet of the heavily end-stopped poem, paradox is emphasized again, this time in the terms of leaf and flower instead of green and gold. The earliest leaf unfolds in beauty like a flower; but in spite of its appearance, it is leaf, with all the special function of its being, instead of flower. Yet as apparent flower (the comparison is metaphoric rather than a simile—that is, leaf is flower, not leaf resembles or is like flower), the leaf exists in disguise only a moment and then moves on to its true state as leaf. In terms of the two parallel paradoxes, we find the green which appears as gold becoming the real green of leaf; the leaf which appears to be flower with all the possible color of flower becomes the true green of leaf. Our expectations are borne out: apparent gold shifts to green; apparent flower subsides into leaf. But in each case an emotional loss is involved in the changed conditions. The hue of gold with all its value associations of richness and color cannot be preserved. Nor can flower, delicate and evanescent in its beauty, last long; hence we are touched by melancholy when gold changes to green and flower changes to leaf (actually "subsides" or sinks or falls into leaf). Yet in terms of the poem, the thing which metamorphoses into its true self (gold to green of life and flower into leaf which gives life to the tree or plant) undergoes only an apparent or seeming fall. The subsiding is like the jut of water in "West-Running Brook, " a fall which is a rise into a new value. It is with this movement of paradox that Frost arrives at the final term of his argument, developing the parallel between acts within nature and acts within myth. "So Eden sank to grief" with the same imperceptible movement that transformed gold to green and made flower subside to leaf. By analogy the third term in the poem takes on the character of the first two; gold is green; flower is leaf; Eden is grief. In every case the second element is actually a value, a part of a natural process by which the cycle of fuller life is completed.

Thus by the very movement and order of the poem, we are induced to accept each change as a shift to good rather than as a decrease in value; yet each change involves a seeming diminution, a fall stressed in the verbs "subsides" and "sank" as well as in the implicit loss in color and beauty. The sense of a fall which is actually a part of an inherent order of nature, of the nature of the object, rather than being forced unintelligibly and externally, is reinforced as the final natural metaphor recapitulates the first three movements of the argument: "So dawn goes down to day." The pattern of paradox is assured; the fall is really no fall to be mourned. It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not "go down" to day, but comes up, as in Kipling's famous phrase, "like thunder," into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden's fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light. Frost, both through language and through structure, has emphasized in "Nothing Gold Can Stay" not merely the melancholy of transitory beauty—of Paradise—but an affirmation of the fortunate fall.

Here is Frost's most evocative use of the felix culpa metaphor. The subsidence, the sinking, the going down is, by the logic of the poem, a blessed increase if we are to follow the cycle of flower, leaf, bud, fruit, into the full life that includes loss, grief, and change.

from "Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall." Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.

John A. Rea

. . . the eight lines of "Nothing Gold Can Stay" are heavily end-stopped. The undesirable result is that the poem will fall apart into eight fragments unless they can somehow be made to cohere both formally and thematically. One major function of the linguistic structures is thus to help organize the poem formally, and, in fact, to organize it in a number of ways simultaneously; this is a second reason for a close examination of its formal structure. Couplet rhyme helps to counteract slightly the end-stopped lines and contributes to the "epigrammatic" quality noted by Thompson, but with no further structure the poem then consists of four disconnected chunks rather than eight—not too much real gain.

Starting with consonantism, the most striking feature is the alliterative symmetry, based on the stressed syllables, which has been extracted below beside the final version of the poem.
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. rea1.jpg (16740 bytes)

Notice first that only lines two and seven have all three stressed syllables in perfect alliteration within the line: Hardest-Hue-Hold, and Dawn-Down-Day. The symmetrical placement of these two lines helps bind the poem into a whole, as does the palindromic consonantism in lines four and five: Only-So-Hour, and Leaf-Subsides-Leaf (where we recall that any initial vowel [symbolized in the chart by O] will alliterate with any other initial stressed vowel).

H H H:

The arrangement down the center of the S-initial words is striking, as is the triangular placement of the L-initial ones. Only the first and last lines seem not to cohere alliteratively with the other lines, but this very lack of coherence, coupled with the lines' initial N and medial G, tends to unite them with each other (as does the recurrent word Gold, which appears only in these first and last lines and is, along with Leaf, the only recurrent stress-bearing word). Indeed, it is alliteration more than any other formal element that cements together Frost's eight end-stopped lines. The coherence of lines one and eight is further reinforced in that they are the only ones bearing initial stress (and so also the only lines not consisting of three perfect iambs), line one having an inverted first foot and line eight a truncated one. Willige claims that if there are "irregularities" of rhythm in a Frost poem, "they are likely to appear in the first line as if the poet had not yet caught its pace." This view of irregularity as a flaw is inadequate to capture its use here, as is clear from the climactic recurrence of the imperfect iamb in line eight. Alliteration also helps to associate thematically the key words Green and Gold, not only with each other but both also with Grief, just as the rhyme scheme links Leaf and Grief.

Although less immediately apparent, the stressed vowel nuclei also contribute strongly to the structure of the poem. The back round diphthongs (underlying round vowels in the abstract vowel structure of Chomsky and Halle) at the ends of lines one through four bind those lines into a unit, as do the front rising diphthongs ( underlying front vowels) at the ends of the second four lines. Philip Gerber suggests that at times Frost "concocts a pseudo-quatrain out of a pair of couplets," but he doesn't define the term "pseudo-couplet." The basic bipartite division of the poem created by these contrastive diphthong types is enhanced by other formal devices to be mentioned below. Notice that the middle stress in lines one and three is on fronting diphthongs while that in two and four is on rounded ones, for an alternating A-B-A-B effect, whereas in the second half of the poem, the first two lines have fronting diphthongs in the center and the last two have rounding ones, in an A-A-B-B arrangement.

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The three rounded diphthongs in the fourth line make a striking contrast with the three front ones of line five and establish a clear border between the two halves. Indeed, the ow-ow-aw of line four recapitulates the final vowel nuclei of lines one through three. The first and the last stress of the poem are both on the nucleus ej. It may be significant that the last couplet of the poem is the only one where the lines do not end in a consonant, so that the open syllable yields an open ended finale, or trailing-off effect.

Turning now to the syntactic, and briefly thereafter to the semantic structure, one sees that in the first quatrain the first three lines all begin with Possessive + Adjective + Noun, with the fourth line contrastively different in its structure. This A-A-A-B pattern is matched also in the second quatrain where the first three lines all have the structure Adverb + Noun + Verb + Preposition + Noun, again with a contrasting fourth line. This pattern thereby not only unifies internally the first and the second four lines, but its repetitiveness also binds the two quatrains together, as did the alliterative devices discussed earlier.

Reinforcing the rhyme, the superlative ending -st joins line one with line two while the similarly placed adverbial ending -ly ties three and four (as do the indefinite noun phrases at the ends of those lines). But line one is like three with its copula while two and four (with deleted copulas) are the only lines lacking finite verbs, for an A-B-A-B pattern exactly matching that of the stressed vowel nuclei at the middle stress of those same lines. In the first quatrain the Her of lines two and three sets them against one and four, as in an "envelope quatrain," just as is the case with the initial So of lines six and seven in the second quatrain. In the first half of the poem, each couplet constitutes a complete clause (matching the rhyme structure and diminishing the end-stopped effect), but the second half contrasts with the first in that each line is a complete clause. Frost's reading supports this structure with his slight pitch rises ( indicating non-finality) at the ends of lines one and three, compared with terminal falling pitch at the ends of all other lines; that is, there is double bar juncture in one and three versus double cross in the rest of the Smith-Trager symbolization. Notice that only the odd-numbered lines of the poem have verbs marked with the third singular ending -s (although all words in rhyme are inflectionally bare).

Lines one and three of the first quatrain, containing the nearly synonymous first and early, are each affirmations eroded by the following lines. These same lines contain copulas that link contrastive terms (green with gold, leaf with flower), and in each instance a "pay-off" in the subsequent line concludes the necessary transience of these contradictory equivalences. But in the second quatrain three synonymous verbs of motion (subside, sink, go down) bind lines five, six, and seven together against the last line with its quasi-copula stay. And the "pay-off" of these "transient" verbs is the absolute of the final line, so reminiscent of the conclusion to a deductive argument in logic and containing the poem's only overt negative: Nothing.

from "Language and Form in 'Nothing Gold Can Stay.'" Robert Frost: studies of the poetry. Ed. Kathryn Gibbs Harris. G.K. Hall & Co, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Katheryn Gibbs Harris.

Jeffrey Meyers

Another brilliant, complex and resonant short poem, "Nothing Cold Can Stay," reconsiders (like several lyrics in A Boy's Will) the perennial theme of mutability. The opening line--"Nature's first green is gold"--is extremely ambiguous. It could mean either that nature's first green in the springtime has now turned to autumnal gold or that nature's first growth is golden, or precious, because it lasts such a short time, cannot hold its color and fades as soon as the leaves fall in autumn. The fall of the leaves is connected to the Fall of Man, when "Eden sank to grief." Just as the dawn inevitably "goes down" (like the leaves) to day, so the negative thought in the title--which suggests the transience of all things--is inevitably and tragically repeated in the last line of the poem.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

William H. Pritchard

Frost was eager to show that his excellence extended also to the shortest of figures, as in the perfectly limpid, toneless assertion of "Nothing Gold Can Stay". . . .

The elegant "subsides" gently names the process of natural changing and metaphorical couplings within the poem; as "green is gold," as "Her early leaf's a flower" (where the contraction makes even more imperceptible the seeing of one thing in terms of another), as "dawn" changes both in fact and in words (from "dawn" to "day"). The poem is striking for the way it combines the easy delicacy of "Her early leaf's a flower" with monumentalities about Eden and the transient fading of all such golden things, all stated in a manner that feels inevitable. It is as if in writing "Nothing Gold Can Stay," Frost had in mind his later definition of poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. The poem's last word proclaims the momentariness of the "gold" that things like flowers and Eden, dawn and poems share. So the shortness of the poem is also expressive of its sense.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

Mordecai Marcus

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" combines condensed metaphor and vivid description. "Nature's first green is gold" because the pale green leaves of early spring are goldlike in their light-reflecting tints, as well as in their preciousness and promise. It is the "hardest hue to hold" because its appearance soon changes and its ideal beauty flees the mind. The green-gold leaves darken quickly, a change that symbolizes the brevity of all ideal heights. As John R. Doyle points out, the word "subsides" provides the poem's point of balance. It is a gentle replacement for an expected term of expansion or growth, and suggests a sigh of disappointment as leaf turns out to be not flower but more leaf--that is, as immature leaves are replaced by advancing ones. The fall of humanity in Eden came by such a process. Starting from a height, it plunged the race into knowledge of natural decay. Frost's view resembles Emerson's idea that being born into this world is the fall implying that the suffering and decay brought by natural processes are what we know of evil. Dawn's going "down to day" is another touch of the unexpected, for day should be life at its height, but Frost implies that at the moment when sunrise ushers in day, diminishments begin. The "Nothing" of the last line, repeated from the title, receives special emphasis; the gold that cannot stay comes to represent all perfections. Like W. B. Yeats, Frost thinks that "Man is in love and loves what vanishes."

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

George F. Bagby

The basic structure here, though extraordinarily compressed, is typically synecdochic. In the first five lines Frost describes the concrete vehicle: the delicate, yellow, flowerlike beginning of a bud, followed by its "subsiding" from that brilliant, unlimited potential to the comparative green dullness, and the inevitable limitations, of the actual leaf. These lines begin the poem with some of the "delight" which comes from a Thoreauvian familiarity with the minutiae of natural process; but—were we dealing with anyone except an American nature writer—they would scarcely prepare us for the next line. Suddenly, in a startling expansion from physical part to more than physical whole—the synecdochic analogy made explicit in the "So"—Frost moves from a detail of vegetable growth to the history of human failure and suffering. We need to remind ourselves how remarkable it is to see so slight a vehicle expanded into such a weighty tenor. And yet such an expansion is, as we have just seen, not without precedent in American nature writing: Thoreau provides a clear structural and epistemological model when he reads, in the story of the "beautiful bug" in the apple-wood table, proof of the immortality of the soul. And Emerson, in a statement that serves very well to gloss "Nothing Gold Can Stay," speaks of "the catholic character which makes every leaf an exponent of the world" (Collected Works 1:125). In short, the seemingly incongruous terms of Frost's analogy have their own kind of logic; the trope reflects Frost's characteristic way of perceiving reality, an angle of vision which is rooted in a tradition of American nature writing.

The seventh line of the poem avoids anticlimax for two reasons: because it adroitly contracts the scope of the analogy from cosmogony back to the realm of Thoreauvian natural fact (a fact which, like that in the first five lines, is also implicitly synecdochic); and because the implied idea is surprising. Here, as in "Spring Pools" and "The Oven Bird," Frost suggests an almost Blakean view of natural process or experience: that it traces an essentially and consistently downward curve from its beginning. Finally, in the closing line, Frost recapitulates his postlapsarian point: "Nothing gold can stay." Again, as he does with "heaven" in "Fragmentary Blue," Frost has used a key word synecdochically. In the first line, "gold" signifies chiefly a color; by the last line, it connotes not merely yellowness but wealth or perfection in numerous senses.

The expansive potential of a poem like "Nothing Gold Can Stay"—of the synecdochic method itself—helps to explain why Frost, unlike many of his modern contemporaries, is essentially content to write a large number of short lyrics, rather than aspire to the great long poem of which Paterson is an exemplum. One might hypothesize a priori that Frost's production of numerous short poems suggests an atomistic view of reality. But Frost does not, in fact, accept such a view; even as brief a lyric as "Nothing Gold Can Stay" projects a fairly comprehensive vision of experience.

from Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright © 1993 by the University of Tennessee Press.

Return to Robert Frost
Robert Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
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On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

John T. Ogilvie

The visible sign of the poet's preoccupation--the word is not too strong--is the recurrent image, particularly in his earlier work, of dark woods and trees, Often, as in the lyric with which we have begun, the world of the woods..., a world offering perfect quiet and solitude, exists side by side with the realization that there is also another world, a world of people and social obligations. Both worlds have claims on the poet. He stops by woods on this "darkest evening of the year" to watch them "fill up with snow," and lingers so long that his "little horse" shakes his harness bells "to ask if there is some mistake." The poet is put in mind of the "promises" he has to keep, of the miles he still must travel. We are not told, however, that the call of social responsibility proves stronger than the attraction of the woods, which are "lovely" as well as "dark and deep"; the poet and his horse have not moved on at the poem's end. The dichotomy of the poet's obligations both to the woods and to a world of "promises"--the latter filtering like a barely heard echo through the almost hypnotic state induced by the woods and falling snow-is what gives this poem its singular interest.... The artfulness of "Stopping by Woods" consists in the way the two worlds are established and balanced. The poet is aware that the woods by which he is stopping belong to someone in the village; they are owned by the world of men. But at the same time they are his, the poet's woods, too, by virtue of what they mean to him in terms of emotion and private signification.

. . . .

What appears to be "simple" is shown to be not really simple, what appears to be innocent not really innocent.... The poet is fascinated and lulled by the empty wastes of white and black. The repetition of "sleep" in the final two lines suggests that he may succumb to the influences that are at work. There is no reason to suppose that these influences are benignant. It is, after all, "the darkest evening of the year," and the poet is alone "between the woods and frozen lake." His one bond with the security and warmth of the "outer" world, the "little horse" who wants to be about his errand, is an unsure one. The ascription of "lovely" to this scene of desolate woods, effacing snow, and black night complicates rather than alleviates the mood when we consider how pervasive are the connotations of dangerous isolation and menacing death.

From "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost's Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly. Winter 1959.

Reuben A. Brower

Throughout the poem—brief in actual time, but with the deceptive length of dream—we are being drawn into silence and sleep, yet always with the slightest contrary pull of having to go on. The very tentative tone of the opening line lets us into the mood without our quite sensing where it will lead, just as the ordinariness of 'though' at the end of the second line assures us that we are in this world. But by repeating the 'o' sound, 'though' also starts the series of rhymes that will soon get the better of traveler and reader. The impression of aloneness in the first two lines prepares for concentration on seeing the strange process not of snow falling, but of woods 'filling up.' The intimacy of

My little horse must think it queer

reminds us again of the everyday man and his life back home, but 'queer' leads to an even lonelier scene, a kind of northern nowhere connected with the strangeness of the winter solstice,

The darkest evening of the year.

In this second stanza the unbroken curve of rhythm adds to the sense of moving imperceptibly into a spell-world, as we dimly note the linking of the rhymes with the first stanza. The pattern is catching on to the reader, pulling him into its drowsy current.

The lone spaciousness and quiet of the third stanza is heightened by the 'shake' of bells, but 'to ask,' humorously taking the horse's point of view, tells us that the driver is awake and sane. The sounds he now attends to so closely are very like silence, images of regular movement and softness of touch. The transition to the world of sleep, almost reached in the next stanza—goes by diminution of consonantal sounds, from 'gives . . . shake . . . ask . . . mistake (gutturals easily roughened to fit the alert movement of the horse) to the sibilant 'sound's the sweep / Of easy wind . . . 'Sweep,' by virtue of the morpheme '-eep,' is closely associated with other words used for 'hushed, diminishing' actions: seep, sleep, peep, weep, creep. The quietness, concentration, and rocking motion of the last two lines of stanza three prepare perfectly for the hypnosis of the fourth. ( Compare similar effects in 'After Apple-Picking.') 'Lonely' recalls the tender alluringness of 'easy' and 'down'; 'dark' and 'deep' the strangeness of the time and the mystery of the slowly filling woods. The closing lines combine most beautifully the contrary pulls of the poem, with the repetitions, the settling down on one sleepy rhyme running against what is being said, and with the speaker echoing his prose sensible self in 'I have promises' and 'miles to go' while he almost seems to be nodding off.

'There is nothing more composing than composition,' Frost has said, and 'Stopping by Woods' shows both the process and the effect as the poet-traveler composes himself for sleep. The metaphorical implication is well hidden, with no hint offered like

a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

The dark nowhere of the woods, the seen and heard movement of things, and the lullaby of inner speech are an invitation to sleep—and winter sleep is again close to easeful death. ('Dark' and 'deep' are typical Romantic adjectives.) All of these poetic suggestions are in the purest sense symbolic: we cannot say in other terms what they are 'of,' though we feel their power. There are critics who have gone much further in defining what Frost 'meant'; but perhaps sleep is mystery enough. Frost's poem is symbolic in the manner of Keats's 'To Autumn,' where the over-meaning is equally vivid and equally unnameable. In contrast to 'The Oven Bird' and 'Come In,' the question of putting the mystery in words is not raised; indeed the invitation has been expressed more by song than speech. The rejection though outspoken is as instinctive as the felt attraction to the alluring darkness. From this and similar lyrics, Frost might be described as a poet of rejected invitations to voyage in the 'definitely imagined regions' that Keats and Yeats more readily enter.

from The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

Richard Poirier

As in "Desert Places" the seasonal phase is winter, the diurnal phase is night, but, . . .the scene, we are reminded four times over, is a wood. Woods, especially when as here they are "lovely, dark and deep," are much more seductive to Frost than is a field, the "blank whiteness of benighted snow" in "Desert Places" or the frozen swamp in "The Wood-Pile." In fact, the woods are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely "lovely, dark, and deep." Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are "lovely, [i.e.] dark and deep"; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, an impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. It is in him, nonetheless, anxious to be acknowledged, and it significantly qualifies any tendency he might have to become a poet whose descriptive powers, however botanically or otherwise accurate, would be used to deny the mysterious blurrings of time and place which occur whenever he finds himself somehow participating in the inhuman transformations of the natural world. If Wallace Stevens in his poem "The Creations of Sound" has Frost in mind when he remarks that the poems of "X" "do not make the visible a little hard / To see," that is because Stevens failed to catch the characteristic strangeness of performances like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And if he has Frost in mind when, in the same poem, he speaks of "X" as "a man / Too exactly himself," it is because he would not see that Frost's emphasis on the dramatic and on the contestation of voices in poetry was a clue more to a need for self-possession than to an arrogant superfluity of it.

That need is in many ways the subject of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." As its opening words suggest--"Whose woods these are I think I know"--it is a poem concerned with ownership and also with someone who cannot be or does not choose to be very emphatic even about owning himself. He does not want or expect to be seen. And his reason, aside from being on someone else's property, is that it would apparently be out of character for him to be there, communing alone with a woods fast filling up with snow. He is, after all, a man of business who has promised his time, his future to other people. It would appear that he is not only a scheduled man but a fairly convivial one. He knows who owns which parcels of land, or thinks he does, and his language has a sort of pleasant neighborliness, as in the phrase "stopping by." It is no wonder that his little horse would think his actions "queer" or that he would let the horse, instead of himself, take responsibility for the judgment. He is in danger of losing himself; and his language by the end of the third stanza begins to carry hints of a seductive luxuriousness unlike anything preceding it--"Easy wind and downy flake . . . lovely, dark and deep." Even before the somnolent repetition of the last two lines, he is ready to drop off. His opening question about who owns the woods becomes, because of the very absence from the poem of any man "too exactly himself," a question of whether the woods are to "own" him. With the drowsy repetitiousness of rhymes in the last stanza, four in a row, it takes some optimism to be sure that (thanks mostly to his little horse, who makes the only assertive sound in the poem) he will be able to keep his promises. At issue, of course, is really whether or not he will be able to "keep" his life.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Guy Rotella

I have argued that the concepts of indeterminacy, correspondence, and complementarity are useful for developing a sense of Frost's poems and of their modernity. As illustration, a single poem will have to serve, a famous one. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" stages its play of opposites at typically Frostian borders between night and day, storm and hearth, nature and culture, individual and group, freedom and responsibility. It works them, not "out" to resolution but in permanent suspension as complementary counters in mens animi, the feeling thought of active mind. The poem is made to make the mind just that. It unsettles certitude even in so small a matter as the disposition of accents in the opening line: "Whose woods these are I think I know." The monosyllabic tetrameter declares itself as it declares. Yet the "sound of sense" is uncertain. As an expression of doubtful guessing, "think" opposes "know," with its air of certitude. The line might be read to emphasize doubt (Whose woods these are I think I know) or confident knowledge (Whose woods these are I think I know). Once the issue is introduced, even a scrupulously "neutral" reading points it up. The evidence for choosing emphasis is insufficient to the choice.

One of Frost's characteristic devices is to set up and undermine a case of the pathetic fallacy in such a way that both construction and collapse stay actively in play. In "Stopping by Woods," the undermining nearly precedes the setting up. "Must" gives the game away, as the speaker (exercising indeterminacy) interferes with the reality he observes, imposing his thoughts and feelings on it. "Darkest" contributes to the pattern. Is the evening, say, the winter solstice, literally darkest? Could it be, given the way that snow concentrates light? Or is "darkest" a judgment the speaker projects? In the next stanza, the speaker's "reading into" nature intensifies to the point where harness bells "actually" speak. Then, as if to emphasize that such speaking is a human addition to a speechless scene, we hear that the only other sound is the "sweep" of light wind on softly falling snow. Those two categories of evidence, the self-consciously imposed and therefore suspect yet understandable human one, and the apparently indifferent yet comfortingly beautiful natural one, seem to produce the description of the woods as "lovely" and "dark and deep," a place of both (dangerous) attraction and (self-protective) threat. The oppositions are emphasized by Frost's intended punctuation—a comma after "lovely"; none after "dark," and the double doubleness of attraction and threat complicates the blunt "But" that begins the next line. Which woods, if any, is being rejected? How far does recalling that one has "promises to keep" go toward keeping them in fact?

The poem's formal qualities, while not obviously "experimental," also contribute to its balancing act. The closing repetition emphasizes the speaker's commitment to his responsibilities. It also emphasizes the repetitive tedium that makes the woods an attractive alternative to those responsibilities. This leaves open the question of just how much arguing is left to be done before any action is taken. The rhyme scheme contributes to the play. Its linked pattern seems completed and resolved in the final stanza, underlining the effect of closure: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd. But is a repeated word a rhyme? Is the resolution excessive; does the repeated line work as a sign of forced closure? None of this is resolved; it is kept in complementary suspension. Similarly, the poem is clearly a made thing, an object or artifact, as its formal regularities attest; it is also an event in continuous process, as its present participial title announces and as the present tense employed throughout suggests. At the same time, the poem has a narrative thrust that tempts us to see the speaker move on (even though he does not), just as too much insistence on the poem as stranded in the present tense falsely makes it out as static. In the words of "Education by Poetry," "A thing, they say, is an event. . . . I believe it is almost an event." Balancing, unbalancing, rebalancing, those acts are the life of the poem, of the poet making and the reader taking it. Indeterminacy and complementarity are implicit in them.

from "Comparing Conceptions: Frost and Eddington, Heisenberg and Bohr." In On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Ed. Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Duke UP. Orginally published in American Literature 59:2 (May 1987).

George Montiero

The "dark forest" in the tradition of "The Choice of the Two Paths" and the "forest dark" of Longfellow's translation of the Inferno also foreshadow the imagery of the famous Frost poem published in New Hampshire (1923), the last stanza of which begins: "The woods are lovely; dark and deep." In spurning the word "forest" for "woods," a term that is perhaps more appropriate for New England, Frost was, whether he knew it or not, following Charles Eliot Norton, whose translation of the Inferno reads "dark wood" and who glosses the opening of Dante's poem: "The dark wood is the forest of the world of sense, 'the erroneous wood of this life' . . . , that is, the wood in which man loses his way." In "the darkest evening of the year," the New England poet finds himself standing before a scene he finds attractive enough to make him linger. Frost's poem employs, significantly; the present tense. Dante's poem (through Longfellow) employs the past tense. It is as if Frost were casually remembering some familiar engraving that hung on a schoolroom wall in Lawrence as he was growing up in the 1880s, and the poet slides into the picture. He enters, so to speak, the mind of the figure who speaks the poem, a figure whose body is slowly turned into the scene, head fully away from the foreground, bulking small, holding the reins steadily and loosely. The horse and team are planted, though poised to move. And so begins the poet's dramatization of this rural and parochial tableau. "Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though. / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow." And then, having entered the human being, he witnesses the natural drift of that human being's thoughts to the brain of his "little horse," who thinks it "queer" that the rider has decided to stop here. And then, in an equally easy transition, the teamster returns to himself, remembering that he has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. Duties, responsibilities—many must have them, we think, as echolalia closes the poem, all other thoughts already turning away from the illustration on the schoolroom wall. And even as the "little horse" has been rid of the man's intrusion, so too must the rider's mind be freed of the poet's incursion. The poet's last line resonates, dismissing the reader from his, the poet's, dreamy mind and that mind's preoccupations, and returning to the poet's inside reading of the still-"fe drama that goes on forever within its frame hanging on the classroom wall.

The ways in which Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" converses with Longfellow's translation of Dante are evident from other shared echoes and images. The Inferno continues:

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
But after I had reached a mountain's foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet's rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
That night, which I had passed so piteously.

What Frost "fetched" here (as in "The Road Not Taken") were the motifs of risk and decision characterizing both "The Choice of the Two Paths" and Dante's Inferno.

"The Draft Horse," a poem published at the end of Frost's life in his final volume, In the Clearing (1962), reminds us curiously of Frost's anecdote in 1912 about recognizing "another" self and not encountering that self and also of the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." In addition it is reminiscent of "The Road Not Taken." In each case—anecdote, autumnal poem, and winter poem—the poet must make a choice. Will he "go forward to the touch," or will he "stand still in wonderment and let him pass by" in the anecdote? He will choose the "road less traveled by" (but he will leave the other for a later passing, though he probably will not return to it). He will not succumb to the aesthetic (and perhaps psychological) attractions of the woods, which are "lovely, dark and deep," but will go forth to keep his promises—of both kinds (as Frost explained): "those that I myself make for myself and those that my ancestors made for me, known as the social contract."

With a lantern that wouldn't burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to hate,

We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.

The "little horse" of the earlier poem is replaced by "the too-heavy horse" of the later one. The "woods&
Robert Frost: Desert Places
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On "Desert Places"

Albert J. Von Frank

The poet sees the snow and the night descending together, black and white, working together to muffle sensation and obliterate perception; yet they work against each other, paradoxically, to heighten perception. The snow works against the night, giving ghastly light whereby to see the darkness, while the fast falling darkness gives urgency to the need to see, for the opportunity will not last long. What the poet sees is truly "for once, then, something." In the moments before obliteration he sees something with a positive existence, something he can put a name to—a field. He knows it is a field because, for the moment, positive signs of its identity remain: the "few weeds and stubble showing last." It is important to understand, then, that this is a cultivated field and not a natural clearing in the forest; it is nature given purpose and identity by man. Like the snow and the night, the weeds and stubble set up crosscurrents of meaning. The stubble is more clearly the hint of man's presence, the aftermath, quite literally, of man's contact with the land, while the weeds—which can exist only in (and therefore define) a cultivated area—remind us of nature's persistent reclamation of the artificial. What the snow smothers, in addition to everything else, is the vital conflict which the juxtaposition of "weeds and stubble" suggests.


As the snow piles on, obliterating all distinction, the field becomes—as the first line three times tells us—an inanimate, dead thing, unmarked by, and unreflective of, the care of man, the very thing which gave it its positive identity as a field. Remove the signs of man's involvement, and it straightway ceases to be "for once, then, something" and can only be identified negatively: it is the nothingness at the center of the encircling trees; it is the nothingness which can only be known by the positiveness which surrounds it and which can only be named in the indefiniteness of a pronoun. This annihilation is figured as death, the ultimate weight of which in cosmic fashion smothers all life, leaving the poet alone in a dead universe, touched, himself, by the death that smothers.

Confronted with the deadness, the spiritlessness, of the external world, the poet notes that he, too, is "absent-spirited"; he, too, is "included" in the loneliness, which is to say the separateness, of the universe of material objects. The paradox here is to be included in separateness, and one arrives at a perception of that paradox by recognizing the plurality of material existence and understanding one's own place in the universal array of physical facts—that is, in nature. This sense is akin to if not identical with Emerson's discovery, made "too late to be helped . . . , that we exist." For Emerson, however, we exist in positive relation to higher values; the essence of our meaning consists not in separateness but in unity. For Frost (thus far in the poem) the persona exists negatively, just as the field may be said to exist negatively. More specifically, the field (no longer a field, properly speaking) is known as the emptiness which disturbs the continuity of the woods; similarly, the poet-observer is defined by his absent-spiritedness and thus by his isolation. The analogy between the condition of nature and the condition of personal psychology is a romantic concept and one perfectly in accord with the ideas of Emerson or Wordsworth. In "Desert Places," however, the implications of the analogy are necessarily and entirely reversed since what is analogous in the persona and the field is the quality of discontinuity. For Wordsworth, and for many subsequent romantic writers including Emerson, the analogy between states of mind or dispositions of the spirit and the sympathetic universe was uplifting because it implied, or rather presupposed, an active positive alliance, a radical continuity, through God, between man and nature. Nature lives and spiritually supports us, even though it is composed in large measure of inanimate objects, because we live and God has allowed us to invest it with our lives. Wordsworth expressed this reciprocal relation when he said, "That from thyself it comes, that thou must give / Else never canst receive" (The Prelude, XII, 276-77). Frost appears, in the first three stanzas, to have reversed these implications. The analogy between man and nature appears operative, but the reciprocal relation is negative rather than positive; pluralistic rather than monistic; fragmented in its stress on aloneness rather than unified; deadly rather than life-supporting.


The third stanza appears at first the weakest on several counts. The purpose it serves seems primarily mechanical. It is necessary to shift the focus from the poet himself back to the scene before him in preparation for the final statement in the last stanza. The first two lines, as Reuben Brower has pointed out, achieve a "Poe-like melancholy," though perhaps by equally Poe-like mechanisms—the use of the archaic "ere" and the mournful reiteration of the word "lonely." A further weakness of these lines might consist in the inadequacy of the physical phenomenon which prompts them. Presumably the quondam field will become lonelier or less expressive than earlier because the snow is now deep enough to hide not only the "weeds and stubble showing last," but also the very contours of the land. Since the annihilation of the identity of the field was earlier accomplished when all signs of its use, its pragmatic definition, were covered, this added touch may strike the reader as gratuitous or insignificant by comparison.

The stanza does, of course, accomplish an intensification of mood, though again almost in spite of itself. The gentle hint of "ere it will be less" must be rejected if these lines are to be read as a genuine concentration of despair. The implied rebirth in the necessary melting of the snow and the reemergence of the field as a real thing is an unassimilated lump of hope, working for the moment in stubborn defiance of the tone and meaning of the poem as it stands at this point.

More subtly in defiance of the tone and meaning is the paradoxical assertion that the "blanker whiteness" has "nothing to express"—a proposition which the very existence of the poem appears to jeopardize. "Nothing" actually becomes "for once, then, something" in a context which is consistently negative. The intensity of nothingness—that is, the intensity which is insisted on in the third stanza—begins to lend to that nothingness an almost palpable reality. It is, after all, that quantity which had defined the field and defined the poet; and because nothingness is thus the landmark by which realities are known, it becomes a real, and in a sense a positive, quality. It is truly a case of nothing having escaped Frost's observation; he is like the listener in Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" "who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Frost evokes a similar awareness in "Neither Out Far nor In Deep" by what Trilling has called "the energy with which emptiness is perceived." That Frost could work such a paradox on us is only to say that he makes emptiness real for us as readers of the poem.


They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The protestation of the first line appears to Reuben Brower "a bit flamboyant." "The scary place," Brower writes, "is thrust off 'there' by the emerging man of wit, by the mind that won't give way to 'absent-spiritedness.' But the gesture . . . opens a worse form of terror by bringing fear where the poet lives most alone." This reading depends on the assumption that the last stanza is essentially disjointed; that something has occurred between lines two and three that leads the poet to reconsider the confident defiance he has just, perhaps too heroically, expressed. In other words, in explaining the sense of the last stanza Brower finds an implicit "but" before the third line. To be sure, the poem has proceeded by crosscurrents to such an extent that it would be easy to see another one here, but in this instance the relationship between ideas seems to be causal rather than antagonistic—a transition which is perhaps better expressed by "because": They cannot scare me with their empty spaces because I have it in me to scare myself with my own desert places.

The other assumption implicit in Brower's reading is that the recognition of private deserts in one's own mind involves "a worse form of terror" than the vision of a dead universe. This assumption also needs to be examined, but first it is necessary to determine who "they" are in the opening line of the stanza and why they cannot scare the poet.

Brooks and Warren have suggested that "they" are astronomers, and, insofar as astronomers adopt an inorganic, physical, and scientific viewpoint and speak for a standard, accepted view of the universe, the suggestion is not amiss. But if the intrusion into the poem of prosaic astronomers seems unduly reductive of Frost's intended ambiguity, it might be more appropriate to take "they" to mean nature itself, pluralistically figured, since nature has been felt throughout the poem as a collection of material objects.

In "Desert Places," then, Frost is commenting on one of the most basic romantic assumptions about the universe—that it is essentially responsive to man, that we are its vital force, its reason for being. . . . What Frost realizes at the beginning of the last stanza is that nature's empty spaces are truly empty—not only of matter, but of meaning and that it is only meaning that can scare. The tune is not in the tree, and the lesson of emptiness is not between stars.

Here, in the last stanza, the major paradox of the poem is resolved. The third stanza asserts that the "blanker whiteness" had "nothing to express," though the deadly heavy pall of nothingness was itself a very considerable thing for the "blanker whiteness" to have expressed; and were it not for that very effective expression, the poem would have had no subject. Realizing now, in the fourth stanza, that the idea of nothingness, of emptiness or aloneness, is generated from within the mind outward and not placed in the mind from exterior nature, obviously the "blanker whiteness" truly does not and can not express, but is a mere canvas on which the observer builds out his own inherent conceptions. The tune is not in the tree; the tune of nothingness is not in the snow. Thus what seemed paradoxical in the third stanza is, when seen from the vantage of the fourth, a simple statement of fact. The "blanker whiteness" has "nothing to express"; it has, literally, no meaning.

If meaning does not inhere in nature, it exists only in the mind, just as Emily Dickinson affirmed. Frost agrees with entire explicitness: "I have it in me," he says, contrasting the substantiveness of the "it" with the "nothing" that the snow has to express. "I am," in other words, "the repository of meaning." This implied assertion, in turn, gives final development to a major theme of the poem—that of location. The field has been transformed from a positively defined entity into a thing which exists only in relation to exterior fixities, by the agency of the snow. The snow, in addition to symbolizing death, symbolizes an allied concept—doubt, that quality which undermines self-knowledge and self-containment and makes us look outside ourselves for points of reference. The poet is located by a quantity which appears to be exterior, the pervasive nullity of a dead universe. But when the poet-observer comes to understand that he is himself the repository of meaning, he is relocated—or, more properly, he locates himself as definer, namer, potentially as poet—and puts himself positively at the center of the universe. The experience he observes in the field—or rather the romantic misunderstanding he has of it—literally pulls him out of himself and makes him so vulnerable to the apparent deadness that he is nearly smothered in the rarified atmosphere of aloneness and homelessness. The poem restores him to himself, equips him with a sense of who and where he is, defined positively this time, in relation to nature and to the objects to which he will give meaning poetically. He is brought home: "I have it in me so much nearer home," he says. Here again we are dealing with two concepts which are related as cause and effect. He can locate "home" because, for the first time in the poem, he can see that there is something in him which does not exist elsewhere, and that "something" is the potential to create meaning.

Perhaps the modernity of "Desert Places" is most clearly seen in its acceptance of a universe without inherent prior meaning. There is, in the last stanza, a note almost of relief at the realization that one is not tied to a dead universe; that is, to a universe whose overarching principle is death and separateness. Rather he finds a universe without overarching principles, without prior meaning—a universe which he, as a poet, can fill up and fill out with meaning from his own life. For Frost this insight and the prospect it affords represent a tremendous freedom. "They cannot scare me," seen in this light, is simply another way of saying "the universe cannot impose upon me."

For Frost, meaning is a thing people use to bridge separateness and to bring order out of real, not apparent, chaos . . . The analogy which exists between man and nature was not, for Frost, established by God, but is continually being created by man's own imagination: each time one draws an analogy between man and nature, one does so by an act of the will, not in accordance with the scheme of the universe but in defiance of its essential schemelessness. . . . What led the poet-observer into despair at the beginning of the poem was his Wordsworthian assumption that the analogy does exist a priori; by the end of the poem the mistake is discovered.

from "A Study of Frost's 'Desert Places.'" Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.

Frank Lentricchia

Probably no poem of Frost's so well accommodates the wide emotive swings of self which be probed from early on in his career. In "Desert Places" we watch the speaker go to the brink in his projection; then be comes back to normality, withdraws from dark vision, and rests in the stability of a balanced ironic consciousness. As well as any poem of dark vision that he wrote, "Desert Places" gives evidence of Frost's ability to achieve aesthetic detachment from certain sorts of destructive experience.

. . . .

The figure in "Desert Places,". . .understands that he "scare[s himself] with [his] own desert places"--that the desert places belong peculiarly to him because they are projections of the self.

From Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Copyright © 1975 by Duke University Press.

John C. Kemp

"Desert Places" . . . vividly demonstrates the power of the imagination to influence the traveler's perception of the region he observes. "I have it in me," he says (l. 15) of the fear that arises from his bone-and spirit-chilling meditation. As a result of his voyage toward the "blanker whiteness" (l. 11) of his imagination, he can barely continue that other journey across the countryside, at least not in the spirit with which he began. His vision of loneliness will dominate any future travel he undertakes, and we should recognize that this poem may represent a frightening extension of the imaginative journey implicit in "Stopping by Woods." If so, the two works testify to the poet's growing reluctance in the twenties and thirties to launch off on the speculative, figmental explorations that a decade or two earlier had animated such brilliant pieces as "Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile."

From Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Copyright © 1979 by Princeton UP.

Judith Oster

This later poem makes a fitting companion piece to "Stopping by Woods." Even the rhyme scheme (aaba) is the same, although in this poem, the poet has not chosen to commit himself to the greater difficulty of linking his stanzas by means of rhyme. This speaker too is traveling through falling snow at night fall. The woods are present in this poem as well, though we are more conscious of their darkness in "Stopping by Woods" and more conscious of whiteness here. While the opening line sounds soothing with its repetition of "s," and "f," and "o," we know as early as the second line that this speaker does not stop, even for a moment—the fields he describes are those he is "going past." What is not presented as frightening in "Stopping by Woods" is frightening in this poem. Nothing here makes one feel that the speaker finds this snowfall attractive, nothing draws him in, for this snowfall does not present a relaxing oblivion; it presents a concrete blankness. Because it is with blankness that he identifies, it presents no escape, only a reminder of self, a self that is not a welcome haven or wellspring. Withdrawal would not be "strategic" and self-preserving. It would be facing a desert.

The open space is surrounded by woods that "have it." They claim it, and the speaker willingly relegates it to them—willing not because of a decision he has struggled to make, but because he is too apathetic, "too absent-spirited to count." The structural ambiguity in this line and its seeming carelessness emphasize his absent-spiritedness, his apathy. We cannot be sure whether "count" is being used in its active sense (to count, to tell what is happening, to reckon up woods, animals and fields) or in its passive sense (to be counted, to count to anything or anyone else). The following line is also enriched by its apparently careless use of "unawares," which could modify "loneliness" or could modify "me." Again, the ambiguous use of the word illustrates that very unawareness, that carelessness that causes us to associate absent-spiritedness with absent-mindedness.

In the third stanza loneliness is in apposition to snow, and just as the snow will cover more and more, will leave nothing uncovered to relieve its smooth unbroken whiteness, so the loneliness will become still more lonely and unrelieved. That same whiteness—snow or loneliness—is what makes desert of a field, helps the woods to "have" the fields in that it obliterates clear boundaries between field and woods, raising, as it does in "Stopping by Woods," the dangerous prospect of boundarilessness. Even when the journey is into one's own desert places, one's humanity or identity is threatened, and loneliness, the apposition suggests, can do this too. What terrifies him so much, however, is not the fact that he is alone, without other people, but that alone with himself he may find nothing—no one and nothing within. Whereas "Stopping by Woods" presented an invitation to the solitude and inertia of snow, this poem presents the attendant fear that once giving in to the self, or going into the self, he will find that the journey has been for nothing. That there is nothing but loneliness, blankness, and absent-spiritedness in the sense of absence of spirit.

The "nothingness" that Frost fears is not the metaphysical void, it is the void he fears in himself. In relating this personal void to the spaces between stars, he suggests that a personal void can have—or seem to have—cosmic proportions, that it can seem at least as important, as vast and as frightening, as anything "out there." This speaker fears the void, but he does not seem, like Wallace Stevens's snow man, to be "nothing himself"; he is capable of beholding what is not there. He is not a man of snow because he has enough feeling to be afraid. His is not yet a "mind of winter," for he can still think about having one, fear that he might discover it if he explores inside himself. He has it "in him"—again, as in "Spring Pools"—the threatening potential of what lies within. The man with the "mind of winter" does not think, but to Stevens there are two kinds of nothingness—"the nothing that is" and "nothing," which is the absence of something. The greater lack is the latter—the absence of imagination in the man who "beholds nothing that is not there." In "Desert Places" the speaker fears blankness "with no expression, nothing to express." There is a difference between "nothing to express" and an expression of nothingness, as Stevens has shown us
Robert Frost: Design
On "Design"

Randall Jarrell

This is the Argument from Design with a vengeance; is the terrible negative from which the eighteenth century's Kodak picture (With its Having wonderful time. Wish you were here on the margin) had to be printed. If a watch, then a watch-maker; if a diabolical machine, then a diabolical mechanic—Frost uses exactly the logic that has always been used. And this little albino catastrophe is too whitely catastrophic to be accidental, too impossibly unlikely ever to be a coincidence: accident, chance, statistics, natural selection are helpless to account for such "designed terror and heartbreak, such an awful symbolic perversion of the innocent being of the world. Frost's details are so diabolically good that it seems criminal to leave some unremarked; but notice how dimpled, fat, and white (all but one; all but one) come from our regular description of any baby; notice how the heal-all, because of its name, it the one flower in all the world picked to be the altar for this Devil's Mass; notice how holding up the moth brings something ritual and hieratic, a ghostly, ghastly formality, to this priest and its sacrificial victim; notice how terrible to the fingers, how full of the stilling rigor of death, that white piece of rigid satin cloth is. And assorted characters of death and blight is, like so many things in this poem, sharply ambiguous: a mixed bunch of actors or diverse representative signs. The tone of the phrase assorted characters of death and blight is beautifully developed in the ironic Breakfast-Club-calisthenics, Radio-Kitchen heartiness of mixed ready to begin the morning right (which assures us, so unreassuringly, that this isn't any sort of Strindberg Spook Sonata, but hard fact), and concludes in the ingredients of the witch's broth, giving the soup a sort of cuddly shimmer that the cauldron in Macbeth never had; the broth, even, is brought to life—we realize that witch's broth is broth, to be supped with a long spoon. For sweet-sour, smiling awfulness snow-drop spider looks unsurpassable, until we come to the almost obscenely horrible (even the mouth-gestures are utilized) a flower like froth; this always used to seem to me the case of the absolutely inescapable effect, until a student of mine said that you could tell how beautiful the flower was because the poet compared it to froth; when I said to her, "But—but—but what does froth remind you of?" looking desperately into her blue eyes, she replied: "Fudge. It reminds me of making fudge."

And then, in the victim's own little line, how contradictory and awful everything is: dead wings carried like a paper kite! The dead and the Wings work back and forth on each other heart-breakingly, and the contradictory pathos of the carried wings is exceeded by that of the matter-of-fact conversion into what has never lived, into a shouldered toy, of the ended life. What had that flower to do with being white,/The wayside blue and innocent heal-al?expresses as well as anything ever has the arbitrariness of our guilt, the fact that Original Sin is only Original Accident, so far as the creatures of this world are concerned. And the wayside blue and innocent heal-all is, down to the least sound, the last helpless, yearning, trailing-away sigh of too-precarious innocence, of a potentiality cancelled out almost before it began to exist. The way- side makes it universal, commonplace, and somehow dearer to us; the blue brings in all the associations of the normal negated color (the poem is likely to remind the reader of Melville's chapter on the White- ness of the Whale, just as Frost may have been reminded); and the innocent is given a peculiar force and life by this context, just as the name heal-all comes to sad, ironic, literal life: it healed all, itself it could not heal. The kindred is very moving in its half-forgiving ambiguity; and the Biblical thither in the night and the conclusive steered (with its careful echoes of "To a Water-Fowl" and a thousand sermons) are very moving and very serious in their condemnation, their awful mystery. The partly ambiguous, summing-up What but design of darkness to appall comes as something taken for granted, a relief almost, in its mere statement and generalization, after the almost unbearable actuality and particularity of what has come before. And then this whole appalling categorical machinery of reasoning-out, of conviction, of condemnation—it reminds one of the machine in The Penal Colony—is suddenly made merely hypothetical, a possible contradicted shadow, by one off-hand last-minute qualification: one that dismisses it, but that dismisses it only for a possibility still more terrifying, a whole new random, statistical, astronomical abyss underlying the diabolical machinery of the poem. "In large things, macroscopic phenomena of some real importance," the poem says, "the classical mechanics of design probably does operate—though in reverse, so far as the old Argument from Design is concerned; but these little things, things of no real importance, microscopic phenomena like a flower or moth or man or planet or solar system [we have so indissolubly identified ourselves with the moth and flower and spider that we cannot treat our own nature and importance, which theirs symbolize, as fundamentally different from theirs], are governed by the purely statistical laws of quantum mechanics, of random distribution, are they not?" I have given this statement of "what the poem says"—it says much more—an exaggeratedly physical, scientific form because both a metaphorically and literally astronomical view of things is so common, and so unremarked-on, in Frost. This poem, I think most people will admit, makes Pascal's "eternal silence of those infinite spaces" seem the hush between the movements of a cantata.

from Poetry and the Age (Knopf, 1953). Copyright © 1953 by Randall Jarrell

Reuben A. Brower

This is a poem of finding evil in innocence, a song of experience, though the voice is hardly that of Blake's child-like singer. At first we hear the cheerfully observant walker on back-country roads: 'I found a dimpled . . .' The iambic lilt adds a tone of pleasant surprise: 'I found a dimpled darling'—'Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet!' But in 'spider' the voice betrays itself, and in 'fat' and 'white' the dimpled creature appears less charming. On a small scale the first line, like the whole poem, builds up a joke in tone, rhythm, and image that grows into a 'joke' of another sort.

In the octet the joking discovery develops gradually through a series of contradictory pictures. 'A white heal-all' suggests purity and safety, though the color echoes the white of the swollen spider. A satin-white moth has its charm, too, a party-going creature poised like Wordsworth's butterfly on its flower; but 'rigid' is too frozen, too easily reminiscent of rigor mortis or the stiff shining satin of a coffin. In the aside of the next three lines, the speaker gives away his joke, but he does it jokingly, again partly by tricks of rhythm. First there is the very correct iambic on line 4,

Assorted characters of death and blight . . .

in exactly ten syllables, every other one of which must be stressed, a little as in doggerel. The plain truth of the statement takes on a cheerful sing-song quality, an effect increased in the next line by reversing the stress and omitting the short in 'Mixed ready.' The tone now becomes quite jaunty, but 'right' hovers on a pun for 'rite,' as the poet mixes a brew worthy of the Weird Sisters, Shakespeare's most evil images of evil. The adding of unstressed syllables speeds up and lightens the next line to soften the ugliness of what is being said:

Like the ingredients of a witches' broth . . .

And with

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

more oblique joking is resumed in images of springtime freshness ('snow drop,' 'flower-like,' we hear). But the spider is there, and the fragility of 'froth' hardly conceals the link with venom. A surface of elegant gaiety is kept up, however, through symmetry of sound, as o's and I's, alliterated syllables, and apparent compounds are balanced in each half of the verse. Again we are brought up short with 'dead wings,' and if kites are fun, a 'kite' is also a bird of prey, and 'a paper kite' is another image of death-like rigidity.

The sextet brings the expected change in tone, now no longer easily observing and half-singing though in mockery, but self-questioning and increasingly serious. The first question ('What had the flower to do . . .') sounds like ordinary annoyance at a face that doesn't fit in, though 'white' out a place begins to seem like 'black.' The next question ('What brought the kindred spider . . .'), in a voice of lost innocence, brings a new note and a harsher irony with 'kindred' (as if the sweet flower and the spider had conspired to arrive at exactly that height and place). 'Steered' is more sinister, and with the last question ironic puzzlement turns into vision:

What but design of darkness to appall?—

Alliteration picks out salient impressions to give older theological and Emersonian arguments a reverse twist—'Design, yes—but for evil.' But the natural theologian pauses—he is only asking, not asserting—and takes a backward step:

If design govern in a thing so small.

It may after all be absurd to see so much in a flower, a moth, and a spider. But the 'if' stands out oddly because of the reversal of stress and because of the pause for the loss of a syllable,

If design || govern . . .

There is a glimmer of a further joke: 'If design govern in anything at all . . .'—the subjunctive and a second reversal of stress alert us to the doubt. The soothingly humorous hesitation points to something many readers may find less agreeable than design of darkness, to no order whatever.

Few poems by Frost are more perfectly and surely composed, few where the figure in the mind and in the ear are better matched. Consider, for example, the daring use of the same end-rhymes, half the total number on a single sound. Though the repetitions in the octet can be matched in other poets, the surprise comes with the rhyme in line 9, which is picked up again in 'height' and 'night.' This persistent echo might be merely curious if it didn't come in so many words that in idea and image play with the disturbing discovery of the poem: words and things that ought to mean 'good' turn out to be 'evil.' The equations of rhyme and of i-sounds within lines (ten of them!) link the ingredients of this witches' broth in insidious confusions (white=blight=right(rite)=height=night). Notice too the surprising and apt use of the many double and triple stresses on successive syllables, from 'White heal-all' through 'snow-drop spider' to 'white moth thither.' The weighting of rhythmic emphasis in these words, many of them evoking seemingly slight and charming images, directs attention to possible ugliness in 'things so small.'

from The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

George Montiero

Lecturing in 1834 on the theme of man's relationship to the globe, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked

The snail is not more accurately adjusted to his shell than man to the globe he inhabits, that not only a perfect symmetry is discoverable in his limbs and senses between the head and the foot, between the hand and the eye, the head and the lungs,—but an equal symmetry and proportion is discoverable between him and the air, the mountains, the tides, the moon, and the sun. I am not impressed by solitary marks of designing wisdom; I am thrilled with delight by the choral harmony of the whole. Design! It is all design. It is all beauty. It is all astonishment.

With this notion Emerson started hares in New England that have run from his time well into the twentieth century. In Emerson's day Oliver Wendell Holmes produced his variation on the theme, seeing it in terms of what might be called Platonic evolutionism in his poem "The Chambered Nautilus." Early in this century Frost took up Emerson's notion in two versions of the poem "Design" and had serious fun with it for a decade.

Published rather inauspiciously in the same year as T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Frost's sonnet "Design" has weathered the years successfully. Its reputation has grown to such an extent that the poem, like Eliot's, is now considered one of the century's most explosive poetic statements on the metaphysics of darkness. Indeed, historically "Design" can be located somewhere between the visionary expanse of "The Waste Land" and the mind-stretching speculations of Herman Melville's chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale" in Moby-Dick (1851). In paradigm, "Design" expresses the perplexing fears that respond to evidence that (1) human existence continues without supportive design and ultimate purpose and (2) human existence is subject to a design of unmitigated natural evil. In its details the poem appears to sustain both of these complementary interpretations.

"Design" is Frost's most carefully shaped investigation of the darker implications of the classical argument from design. The poem did not spring into being fully formed after a single bout with the Muse. In 1912, apparently to put the poem on record as well as to try it on a sympathetic reader, Frost forwarded an early version to an old friend, calling it a sonnet for his "'Moth and Butterfly' book." Although he did not choose to publish this early version, the manuscript copy preserved among the papers of Susan Hayes Ward enables us to trace Frost's philosophical-aesthetic development as he reworked the draft and rethought his ideas over a period of ten years.

Frost's extant manuscript version of 1912 bears the title "In White," which, though it indicates the poem's principal image and motif, does not have the thematic resonance of the simpler and more direct later title, "Design." A more explicit, if far less effective, title for the later version of the poem might combine the two "Design in White." Still, this title, arty and somewhat arch, would compromise Frost's theme. Rather, concerned with any and all designs which would foster poetic and philosophic resonance, Frost revised his poem to make it more precise, so that each image would be appropriate and every word functional.

In White

A dented spider like a snow drop white
On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth--
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?--
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth?—
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child's delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

This early version of the poem is to be compared with the final version published first in 1922 and later gathered by Frost into his sixth volume of poetry, A Further Range (1936):

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wmgs carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

Frost's revisions turn the poem to narrative and away from unadorned lyric, thereby enhancing the mystery that surrounds the incident he wishes to describe. In removing his personal experience to the past, the poet is able to suggest as well that he has been brooding on the meaning of the tableau of spider, moth, and ritual death which he has observed, even though he has failed to reach a conclusive answer (at least for himself) on the question of design. The introduction of the poet's personal voice (as subject; into the first line, moreover, turns the spider into the object of sight and contemplation. It gives the poet more prominence than he had in the manuscript version, which begins with a sentence fragment (no verb) in apposition to the noun "sight" in the fourth line.

Little survives intact from one version of the poem to the other. Notably, only the ninth line of the early version—"What had that flower to do with being white"—survives without change in "Design." Lines 2, 6, and 11 are largely repeated, with changes only in capitalization or punctuation at the end of the line. The remaining ten lines, however, offer substantive changes, which must be taken up line by line.

The simile in the first line, "like a snow drop white," which is purely and neutrally descriptive, disappears along with another descriptive word, "dented." In their place Frost offers three adjectives: "dimpled," "fat," and "white." The first two are unexpectedly appropriate for this murderous spider. Cleverly placed in the poem, these terms more often describe a baby than an insect. By replacing neutrally descriptive terms with terms that would normally appear in another context in connection with a different sentiment, Frost both announces his theme and reveals that his approach is basically ironic. In line 3 the moth, described as "a white piece of lifeless cloth" becomes "rigid satin cloth." "Lifeless" is only vaguely descriptive of the moth's state; but it does not at all accurately reflect the tableau of the spider holding up the moth. The moth may in fact be "lifeless," but the poem is more accurately descriptive when it compares the moth with "rigid" cloth. Hovering over this image is the hint of rigor mortis and the satin fabric which customarily lines the inside of coffins.

Line 4 in the manuscript version is rather limp, lifeless. The semi-rhetorical question "Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?" seriously deflects the central argument of the poem. In the final version Frost moves the second half of the original fifth line, "assorted death and blight," to line 4 and extends it to "assorted characters of death and blight," thereby introducing the important metaphor of kitchen domesticity that he will pursue through line 7. So, too, does he decide to drop the first phrase of line 5 ("Portent in little")—this time, I would suggest, because "portent" is too potent at this point. Line 6 stays almost intact but no longer asks a question. Indeed, the two questions which dominate the octave in the manuscript version are strategically dropped, so that the only questions come in the sestet closing the poem. Lines 4 through 7 are intended, then, to suggest kitchens, cakes, and cookies ("Assorted," "ingredients," and "Mixed ready")—all as if drummed up by advertisers "to begin the morning right." The only sour note is that the whole thing resembles "the ingredients of a witches' broth." Still, it is "broth" and not "brew" (as we might expect in everyday witchcraft); "broth" echoes the culinary metaphor.

The single change in line 7 turns "beady spider" into "snow-drop spider," reinstating the adjective which Frost had discarded from his original first line. At this point the earlier poem was still fundamentally descriptive, but something was needed, apparently to keep the idea of coldness and death before us. "Snow-drop" accomplishes this aim. "Beady," however, serves another purpose. The word, less than precisely descriptive, is morally loaded. A seemingly less neutral word would keep the poem from becoming at all moralistic. In the last line of the octave "moth" turns into "dead wings," but the simile "like a paper kite" is happily retained. The simile returns us to the implicitly "childlike" description of the spider in the opening line. "Dead wings," on the other hand, moves toward precision, for it is not the "moth" in its entirety that looks like "a paper kite" but only its "dead wings." Furthermore, both "wings" and "kite" suggest the idea of flight, the image of white "dead wings" moves toward paradox.

The ninth line ("What had that flower to do with being white,") remains intact, this much about his basic poem Frost had been sure of all along. But if the appositive clause which constitutes the tenth line
Robert Frost: Neither Out Far Nor In Deep
On "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep"

Randall Jarrell

First of all, of course, the poem is simply there, in indifferent unchanging actuality; but our thought about it, what we are made to make of it, is there too, made to be there. When we choose between land and sea, the human and the inhuman, the finite and the infinite, the sea has to be the infinite that floods in over us endlessly, the hypnotic monotony of the universe that is incommensurable with us—everything into which we look neither very far nor very deep, but look, look just the same. And yet Frost doesn't say so—it is the geometry of this very geometrical poem, its inescapable structure, that says so. There is the deepest tact and restraint in the symbolism; it is like Housman's

Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.

The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault:
It rains into the sea
And still the sea is salt.

But Frost's poem is flatter, greyer, and at once tenderer and more terrible, without even the consolations of rhetoric and exaggeration- there is no "primal fault" in Frost's poem, but only the faint Biblical memories of "any watch they keep." What we do know we don't care about; what we do care about we don't know: we can't look out very far, or in very deep; and when did that ever bother us? It would be hard to find anything more unpleasant to say about people than that last stanza; but Frost doesn't say it unpleasantly—he says it with flat ease, takes everything with something harder than contempt, more passive than acceptance. And isn't there something heroic about the whole business, too-something touching about our absurdity? If the fool persisted in his folly he would become a wise man, Blake said, and we have persisted. The tone of the last lines—or, rather, their careful suspension between several tones, as a piece of iron can be held in the air between powerful enough magnets—allows for this too. This recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or palliation, is very rare and very valuable, and rather usual in Frost's best poetry. One is reminded of Empson's thoughtful and truthful comment on Gray's "Elegy": "Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem ... And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society would prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy."

from Poetry and the Age (Knopf, 1953). Copyright © 1953 by Randall Jarrell

Mordecai Marcus

The once-neglected but now much-admired "Neither Out Far nor in Deep" focuses its nature symbolism so sharply on human concerns that its haunting picture tends to dissolve into a contemplation paralleling that of the people described. The initially detached speaker observes people by the sea who make a uniform mass as they gaze away from the commonplace shore toward the depth and mystery of the ocean. Few sights are visible; a ship rising on the horizon and a gull standing on the soaked beach provide contrasting images of hypnotic motion and uneasy stasis. Implied commentary having begun with "They turn their back on the land," the speaker now philosophizes consistently. The people turn from the varying sights of land towards the distances of water, representing mysteries they hope to grasp, though the water may not really possess any more such truth than does the land. But the people continue to prefer this attempt at further vision, just as they do at the poem's opening. Despite their determination and persistence, they cannot achieve a penetrating vision of reality--nature and human nature--or what lies behind it. But they will not stop looking. In the last two lines, the speaker calmly withdraws, balancing admiration and skepticism, glad to see human speculation continuing but confident that it will not achieve much. The poem has been seen as a harsh commentary on human limitations, a charge Laurence Perrine answers by stressing Frost's insistence on the truly impenetrable depths that challenge human knowledge and the demonstrated capacity of the people to see part of the way as they strive to see farther (212). Similarly, Elizabeth Isaacs thinks the poet "joins forces with the rest of the human race when he climaxes the deceptively flat, calm poem with a grandiose, dignified ascent at its end" (34:150). Randall Jarrell takes a middle position, granting the poem a certain unpleasantness but insisting that the conclusion shows "careful suspension between several tones," making "a recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or palliation" (98:43). In an elaborate comment on the poem, Daniel Pearlman boldly asserts that it is a covert allegory expressing Frost's anger at the conformism of 1930s American radicals who turned away from the solidity and complexity of their native shores to the monistic simplicities of foreign socialist ideologies. Thus, the people Frost attacks do indeed fear to look out far and in deep. Pearlman supports this view with a close analysis of details and by citing parallels between the poem's message and conservative views evident elsewhere in Frost's writings.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Peter D. Poland

Robert Frost's cryptic little lyric "Neither Out Far nor In Deep" remains as elusive as "the truth" that is so relentlessly pursued in the poem itself. The poem is very much "about" this search for truth, and scholars, for the most part, persistently maintain that such effort is both necessary and noble, adding slowly but inexorably to the storehouse of human knowledge. Suggestive though such an interpretation might be, it distorts Frost's intentions--as a close examination of the curious image of "a standing gull," located strategically at the very heart of this enigmatic work (lines 7-8, its literal and thematic center), will reveal.

As "the people" stare vacantly seaward in search of "the truth," mesmerized by the mysterious, limitless sea, they closely resemble standing (as opposed to flying) gulls. Never directly stated, this comparison, so crucial to the poem's meaning, is clearly implied, and it works very much to the people's disadvantage. For the gull is doing what comes naturally, staring into the teeming sea that is its source of life (that is, of food), and it is merely resting from its life-sustaining labors. "The people," implies Frost, in literally and symbolically turning their backs on their domain, the land, to stare incessantly seaward, are unnatural. Their efforts are life-denying in the extreme.

Frost underscores the life-denying nature of their mindless staring by introducing not a flock of standing gulls, but a single gull only--surprising in that standing gulls (or, more accurately, terns, which typically station themselves en masse by the water's edge) are rarely found alone. The solitary gull points up just what "the people" are doing and how isolating and dehumanizing such activity is. So absorbed are they in their quest for "truth" that they have become oblivious of all else but their own solipsistic pursuit. They have cut themselves off from the land world and all that it represents (struggles and suffering, commitments, obligations, responsibilities) and from one another as well. They have become isolates, like the solitary gull that they resemble. Furthermore, Frost emphasizes not the bird itself but only its reflected image in the glassy surface of the shore; it is the reflected image that is the object of our concern, for it bears significantly on "the people" themselves. In an ironic version of Plato's Parable of the Cave, these relentless pursuers of truth have willfully turned their backs on the only "reality" they can ever know--the land world and all that it represents--and in so doing have been reduced to insubstantial images, shadowy reflections of true human beings engaged in genuinely fruitful human endeavor. Nameless, faceless, mindless, they have become pale copies of the real thing.

All of this adds up to one inescapable conclusion: "The people" are indeed "gulls"--that is, "dupes." In their search for ultimate reality they have been tricked, cheated, conned. It is all a fraud, insists Frost (for all that they do see is the occasional passing ship mentioned in lines 5 and 6), and he clearly holds their vain efforts in contempt. As the final stanzas make dramatically clear, they are wasting away their lives in a meaningless quest, for whatever it is and wherever it might be, "the truth" is surely not here. In short, they can look "Neither Out Far nor In Deep." So why bother?

The poem cries out for comparison with Frost's most famous work, his personal favorite, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," wherein the seductive woods--"lovely, dark and deep"--recall the mysterious sea of "Neither Out Far nor In Deep." But the narrator of "Stopping by Woods" realizes how dangerously alluring the woods are. He realizes that he has "promises to keep," that he can not "sleep" in the face of his societal obligations, and so he shortly turns homeward. "The people" of the present poem, however, continue to "look at the sea all day," seduced by its deep, dark, mysterious depths. Turning their backs on the land world, their world, they have violated their promises; they are asleep to their human responsibilities, as their comparison to the reflected image of a solitary gull suggests. For "gulls" they surely are.

from The Explicator 52.2 (Winter 1994)

Return to Robert Frost
Robert Frost: Provide, Provide
On "Provide, Provide"

Frank Lentricchia

The entire tone and manner is that of the public poet speaking to his democratic culture. The diction is appropriately drawn from the accessible middle level, with the exception of "boughten," a regionalist trace of the authentic life, meaning "store-bought" as opposed to "homemade," the real thing as opposed to the commodified version; no major problem if the subject is ice cream or bread, but with "boughten friendship" we step into an ugly world. The bardic voice speaks, but now in mock-directives ("Die early and avoid the fate," "Make the whole stock exchange your own"), counseling the value of money and power; how they command fear; how fear commands, at a minimum, a sham of decency from others (better that than the authenticity of their meanness). Genuine knowledge? Sincerity? Devices only in the Hollywood of everyday life. Try them, they might work."

But who, really, is Frost talking to? Who is this "you"? He appears to be addressing the audience he had been reaching (for twenty years at this point) through the press and from the platform: "For you to doubt the likelihood" is a bardic reminder to the masses. "What worked for them might work for you" is cynical and contemptuous counsel offered to the same. The penultimate stanza, however, whose triplet rhyme condenses the entire poem, makes no sense in that rhetorical scheme:

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Who among the ordinary, the unassuming, the obscure from fame, has any memory of having starred, of having lost it, of having to find a way to make up for later disregard? From a rhetorical point of view, the poem becomes incoherent here, but the incoherence is interesting and, I believe, calculated: an expressive sign. We know who has this problem: Hollywood's poet, talking contemptuously to and at himself, looking down the road at a possible fare that he would not be able to say he hadn't chosen, were it to turn out to be his -- because he had made the decision to commit himself to fame's course, within the cruel range of choices our culture offers to its serious writers, whose wares are so hard to unload. America's serious writers are all like the biblical Abishag, who, though young and beautiful, could not warm King David: she could not arouse him, and her trying only degraded her.

from Frank Lentricchia. Modernist Quartet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995: 122-123.

Return to Robert Frost
Robert Frost: The Gift Outright
On "The Gift Outright"

Albert J. Von Frank

The ominous thirteenth line of Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright" is made to appear all the more ominous by its entire lack of tonal and grammatical relationship with any thing else in the poem, an isolation signalled, of course, by the parentheses. Almost by itself this line justifies Frost's own characterization of the poem as being "about Revolutionary War," rather than, in a more general way, about the forming of a spiritual commitment to the land. Omit the thirteenth line and the poem is still a very good, though undoubtedly a very different, one—in some sense, perhaps, the "basic poem" to which the apparently gratuitous reminder of war is the poet's own gift outright. Moreover, the line is almost all that prevents us from taking the poem as simply an interesting, but finally conventional and unambiguous, patriotic effusion, something rather like what Frost must have had in mind when, in an unguarded moment, he compared the poem to "The Star-Spangled Banner." (See Reginald Cook, Robert Frost: A Living Voice [Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1974], p. 133.)

The key to the irony of the line is the curious phrase "The deed of gift," which means considerably more than merely "the act of giving." It is in fact a technical legal term, succinctly defined in Black's Law Dictionary as "A deed executed and delivered without consideration"—that is, without expectation of return, a legal promise to give or donate. Frost might have encountered this relatively esoteric term in a purely legal context, but there is reason to believe that it came to him from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, from a passage in which Mephistopheles tells the learned Doctor that he "must bequeath" his soul "solemnly / And write a deed of gift with thine own blood . . ." (II, i. 35-36). The phrase occurs again at line 60 (Mephistopheles reminds Faustus to "Write it in manner of a deed of gift," presumably as opposed to the manner of a contract), and again at line 90 (Faustus calls the completed document "A deed of gift of body and of soul," though he shrewdly goes on to include "conditions").

Frost knew this play well, having on one occasion composed a shortened version for a production put on by his students at the Pinkerton Academy. In "New Hampshire" (quoting I. iii. 81), Frost claimed that "Kit Marlowe taught me how to say my prayers: / 'Why this is Hell, nor am lout of it." (ll. 242-243). In the play as in the poem, the distinctive peculiarities of the "deed of gift" are that it is sealed in blood and that it involves the giving of the self, body and soul.

Perhaps the significance of the influence consists mainly in the implication that Frost thought of the development of American national character in terms of the Faust myth. Certainly the allusion to Faustus' compact with Mephistopheles casts a lurid light over Frost's use of the verb "possess." If in Frost's implied scheme one may be "possessed" either by a debilitating God or by an invigorating Satan, it will be seen that we remained weak so long as our political, cultural, and, by extension, our spiritual allegiances were to England, a force which figures in the poem as a distant, invisible, yet powerful governing agency; we remained weak and dependent precisely because we were "withholding" ourselves spiritually from the tempting natural environment that was supporting us materially. As in Doctor Faustus, the "deed of gift" invokes the issue of "salvation," though in Frost's parable, the Faustian spirit of America is not merely strengthened temporarily and adventitiously as Faustus was, but instead is actually redeemed from weakness by a surrender to and immersion in the violent destructiveness of nature, self-reliance and war.

from The Explicator 38:1 (Fall 1979) pp. 22-23.

William H. Pritchard

[In the poem Frost wrote to read aloud at John F. Kennedy's inauguration as President of the United States, he willed] the realities of modern power politics into an alliterative "golden age of poetry and power."

. . . .

Except that, on the occasion, he was unable to read more than a few lines of the poem, troubled as he was by the sun's glare that bright, cold January day, but at least as much by the poem's newness to him, his unfamiliarity with and uncertainty about the way it went. Or perhaps, as he had been wont to say about himself, it was a sort of judgment. He had been tempted to believe that it was a great occasion at which he would perform-not just a transfer of power from one party to another, both of which were filled with politicians. Like many others, he conceived the new president as Young Lochinvar, the perfect combination of spirit and flesh, passion and toughness, poetry and reality, Harvard and Irish. It was almost as if, in the language of his poem "Kitty Hawk," Kennedy had been sent "As a demonstration / That the supreme merit / Lay in risking spirit / In substantiation." And Frost wrote the extravagant words about the "next Augustan age," as if by proclaiming them he could help it come into being, could substantiate it. But the poet was old, the flesh was weak, and he could not utter the words he had written. At this moment of disaster, he called on some resource and rose to a level in every way superior to the pumped-up one of the new poem's advertisement. Putting behind him the stumbling uncertainties of voice and tone which characterized his attempt to deliver the new poem, he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices read "The Gift Outright" impeccably: "The land was ours before we were the land's." His performance thus attained a dramatic, even a heroic quality, which it would otherwise have lacked if things had gone off perfectly. The imperfect version had more of "life" in it: in the midst of flattery and display, the sound of sense suddenly and movingly made itself felt.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

Mordecai Marcus

Here Frost presents himself as spokesperson for Americans and adopts a tone of grieving and longing desperation that slowly yields to love and triumph. The poem opens by describing the American people's first possession of their land merely as land--before they also belonged to the land--partly because the people were subservient to their English masters. With "Possessing what we still were unpossessed by," a partly sexual metaphor is extensively punned on. We were unpossessed because ownership of the land was denied us by England and because we did not give ourselves to the land in the spiritual and physical union love demands. A variation of this idea is in the next line, "Possessed by what we now no more possessed," which means that as we began a deep involvement, it was denied by the foreigners who still ruled. These limitations were overcome when Americans realized they had to give themselves in an act of passionate surrender, for to give oneself "outright" means to do so immediately and totally, as lovers do. Again Frost puns: "deed of gift" as "deeds of war" refers to certificates of possession and sacrificial acts of possession. The land "vaguely realized itself westward" because the action proceeded spontaneously over a long period but led to a crystallization resembling the nation's birth. This vagueness is shown by the country's being "still unstoried, artless, unenhanced" as its development continued, which echoes the earlier unpossession and creates a sense of unformed spaces that have not yet achieved their myths. John Doyle points out that "artless" means simple and sincere as well as without works of art. In the high sense of convincing story and belief, these myths are projected forward in the last line, with its curious perspective from the past: looking at the present and the still-hoped-for future and asserting that they will become reality.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Jay Parini

One can hardly imagine a better brief description of our national history than Frost's image of "the land vaguely realizing westward." Both "vaguely" and "realizing" are unexpected, and perfect. The poet gets the haphazard, unplanned quality of the process in the former term and underscores the seeming historic inevitability of it in the latter; in Frost's version of social Darwinism, morality is stripped to the bare essentials: there were millions of strong transplanted Europeans in the East, and they would eventually need room to expand; they had greater numbers and better weapons than the native people, so they overcame them; indeed, they nearly wiped them out altogether! That they remained "unstoried, artless, unenhanced" is also part of the story, and Frost does not (as a lesser, merely patriotic poet might have done) overly praise these conquerors, who even seem more like a virus than a nation.

From Robert Frost: A Life. Copyright © 1999 by Jay Parini.

Bob Perelman

There was the very effective moment of performance when Frost gave up on the physical and intellectual distances involved in reading off a page and gazed out at the nation and recited, directly from his body as it were, "The Gift Outright," a poem which also insisted on a mystic connection between body and world: "The land was ours before we were the land's."

These simple words are eminently tricky: Frost is celebrating manifest destiny, but history is kept in decidedly soft focuses. . . .

After this beginning, political and historic specifics fade into even more elemental arrangements. Questions of who, at different times, lived on the land and named it are sidestepped. Jerome McGann notes this evasion: the Native American name Massachusetts "reminds us that this supremely Anglo-American poem cannot escape or erase a history that stands beyond its white myth of Manifest Destiny"; Massachusetts reveals Virginia as a "lying, European word." There are no more proper names after the three mentioned above; the rhetoric subsides into general considerations of ownership. The land becomes a woman, making us a corporate male that needs to make her ours; and the passage of historical time gives way to the drama of sexualized geopolitical possession with only a before and an after. Strength is crucially at issue in this Oedipal question, but it masked by a rhetoric of religious self-sacrifice:

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding ...
. . .[we] found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

"Giving ourselves" can be understood innocently as knowing a place well, clearing forests and cultivating farms. The land that is rhetorically the recipient of our gift and in reality the object of our possession is kept quite general and thus, beyond the poem, has room for many adherents from John Wayne in Red River to current ecological sensibilities expressed by poets such as Wendell Berry.

But the next lines reveal the limitations of the capacious optimism of the poem:

we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward.

The play on "deed of gift" / "deeds of war" does not exclude any war from the single act of giving ourselves to and taking possession of America; but the fact that war is the crucial act does exclude women from the large "we" the poem invokes. The mention of war only in parentheses and the cloudy uplift of the language keep particulars at bay; but "westward," even if it's qualified by "vaguely realizing," is still specific enough to implicate the Indian wars. If the 1942 publication date of the poem is kept in mind, "westward" stretches to--or at least gestures toward--the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

If the date of the inaugural recitation is kept in mind, then the meaning of the poem can stretch still further to foreshadow the Vietnam War. Clearly, such a reference is foreign to the poem as a specific act of writing that took place in 1942, but the poem's own prophetic-colloquial invocation of manifest destiny invites such expansion. Such vague but compelling terms as "us" and "land" were central to the rhetoric under which the war was conducted, as "we" "fought for freedom," wherever it was deemed necessary by the war managers, trying to win "hearts and minds": in this context "vaguely realizing westward" points directly at South Vietnam. Of course, Robert Frost was not Robert McNamara or General Westmoreland. As a political act, his recitation was a minor ornament. But in terms of the explicit or subterranean political allegiances of poetry, Frost's position--lone sage facing and possessing the landscape for the nation--is an affirmation of the American status quo that is difficult for poets to ignore.

From The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Copyright © 1996 by Princeton University Press.

Derek Walcott

On that gusting day of the inauguration of the young emperor, the sublime Augustan moment of a country that was not just a republic but also an empire, no more a homespun vision of pioneer values but a world power, no figure was more suited to the ceremony than Robert Frost. He had composed a poem for the occasion, but he could not read it in the glare and the wind, so instead he recited one that many had heard and perhaps learned by heart.

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.

This was the calm reassurance of American destiny that provoked Tonto's response to the Lone Ranger. No slavery, no colonization of Native Americans, a process of dispossession and then possession, but nothing about the dispossession of others that this destiny demanded. The choice of poem was not visionary so much as defensive. A Navajo hymn might have been more appropriate: the "ours" and the "we" of Frost were not as ample and multihued as Whitman's tapestry, but something as tight and regional as a Grandma Moses painting, a Currier and Ives print, strictly New England in black and white.

By then as much an emblem of the republic as any rubicund senator with his flying white hair, an endangered species like a rare owl, there was the old poet who, between managing the fluttering white hair and the fluttering white paper, had to recite what sounded more like an elegy than a benediction. "The land was ours before we were the land's" could have had no other name, not only because he was then in his old age, but because all his spirit and career, like Thomas Hardy's, lurched toward a wintry wisdom.

from "The Road Taken." In Brodsky, Joseph, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott (eds.) Homage to Robert Frost. New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1996.

Return to Robert Frost
Sherwood Anderson:
Hands; Mother; Adventure
Wallace Stevens: The Snow Man
On "The Snow Man"

Robert Pack

In the remarkable poem "The Snow man," Steven dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully.

[. . . .]

We, with the "one" of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification. Then we see with the sharpest eye the images of winter: "pine-trees crusted with snow," "junipers shagged with ice," "spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun." We hear with the acutest ear the cold sibilants evoking the sense of barrenness and monotony: "sound of the wind," "sound of a few leaves," "sound of the land," "same wind," "same bare place," "For the listener, who listens in the snow." The "one" with whom the reader has identified himself has now become "the listener, who listens in the snow"; he has become the snow man, and he knows winter with a mind of winter, knows it in its strictest reality, stripped of all imagination and human feeling. But at that point when he sees the winter scene reduced to absolute fact, as the object not of the mind, but of the perfect perceptual eye that sees "nothing that is not there," then the scene, devoid of its imaginative correspondences, has become "the nothing that is."

From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Rutgers, The State University.

David Perkins

"... When we think of a snowman, most of us visualize balls of snow placed on top of each other, coals for eyes, a carrot nose, and the like. I mention these details only to point out Stevens does not. His poem does not describe but merely invokes "The Snow Man" by mentioning him in the title; thereafter the snowman is involved in the poem only as a metaphor of a metaphor. He is a metaphor of a "mind of winter," and this, in turn, is a metaphor of something even more abstract: a mind that entertains nothingness. ...

But it is easy to imagine that whoever speaks or thinks this poem is himself looking at a snowman. In this case the poem may be related to the descriptive-meditative tradition in English poetry that comes down to us from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period. ... A convention organizing all such poems is that the poet finds himself at some place or views some prospect or object. The poem describes what is seen and, as it proceeds, enacts a train of thought and feeling occasioned immediately by the place or object and referring repeatedly to it. Stevens' "The Snow Man" presents the meditation with the description omitted. As "meditation," its form is thinking, the mind in activity, and this is also in part its subject, The poem is one sentence. It proceeds by amplification, illustrating the inherent dynamism of the mind, its fertile power to proceed on its own impulse.

Still dwelling on "The Snow Man," we may note that the poem posits two types of listener. One would hear a "misery in the sound of the wind." Through his own imaginative creativity he would project a human emotion into the scene and locate it there. Thus, he would make the landscape one with which human beings can feel sympathy. The other listener would hear nothing more than the sound of the wind. He would exert none of this spontaneous and almost inevitable creativity. The poem embodies Stevens' central theme, the relation between imagination and reality. Endless permutations of this theme were possible. Was reality the world seen without imagination? If so, was imagination the world seen without reality? That was a bitter truth, if it was the truth. But perhaps the snowman, who heard no "misery" in the wind, was projecting himself into the scene just as much as the other listener. Perhaps the snowman beheld nothing only because he was "nothing himself," since, to cite a later poem, whoever "puts a pineapple together" always sees it "in the tangent of himself."

from David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1976), 542-544.

Pat Righelato

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.

Anthony Whiting

The opening lines could almost be an imagist exercise. At the least, they avoid the "don'ts" that Pound laid down in his 1913 essay on imagism: "Use no superfluous word," "Go in fear of abstractions," "Don't be 'viewy.'" The landscape depicted in these lines, however, is far from being stripped bare of the self. The highly decorative language used to describe the landscape suggests that sight itself is a mode of self-projection. The pine trees are crusted with snow; the junipers are shagged with ice, and the spruces are rough in the distant glitter. The landscape that is seen is the landscape that the mind beautifully "decorates" with language.

This self-projection is stripped away in the next six lines, which shift from a visual to an aural mode:

and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place.

The shift from sight to sound is telling. Stevens often opposes human language to the language or speech of nature, which, being inhuman, is to us pure sound. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," for example, Stevens writes,

Whose spirit is this?
. . . . . . .
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.

We hear the "speech" of nature again in "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction," and there, as in "The Idea of Order at Key West," the language spoken by the "fluent mundo" is pure sound, what Stevens calls "gibberish" (CP 396). The sound of the wind "blowing in the same bare place" in "The Snow Man" anticipates, how-ever, not the "summer sound" of "Key West" but the "desolate sound" that is heard "beneath / The stillness of everything gone" in " Autumn Refrain" (CP 160) and "the cry of the leaves" that "concerns no one at all" in "The Course of a Particular" (OP 123, 124). The movement in "The Snow Man " from a visual mode to an aural one, then, signals a further reduction of the mind's presence in the landscape. By stripping away its decorative projections onto the landscape through the language of sight, the mind is left with the sound of bare nature.

Yet even sound in "The Snow Man" can be a vehicle for self-projection. Stevens does not directly attribute misery to the sound of the wind. He says that one must be cold a long time not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. What Stevens is asking is whether one can be cold enough to hear the language of nature and not turn it into human language by attributing misery to it. The final lines of the poem suggest that this degree of cold can be reached.

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

To behold nothing that is not there is to behold reality stripped of all that the self attributes to it. Since misery is not part of nature but something that the self adds to it, to behold nothing that is not there suggests that it is possible not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.

The reduction of all concepts from nature in "The Snow Man" turns the mind's attention from the world created by the self to the larger universe. This redirection of the mind's gaze is expressed in part through the subtle change in perspective from the particular and located to the unspecified and vast that occurs in the poem. Stevens begins this shift in perspective with the change from the very close detail of the "pine-trees crusted with snow" (CP 9; emphasis added) to the particular but more remote "spruces rough in the distant glitter" (CP 10; emphasis added). In lines 7-12, Stevens drops spatial metaphors altogether, and he shifts from the distant glitter of the spruces to the unlocated though particularized "sound of a few leaves" (CP 10). The particularity of the "few leaves" is dropped for the less specified "sound of the land," which in turn gives way to a "bare place" (CP 10). And even this bare place threatens to evaporate in the repeated "nothing"s of the final two lines.

Stevens' use of the word "behold" also contributes to the sense that the mind is apprehending the larger universe at the end of "The Snow Man." "Behold" suggests in addition that Stevens views this apprehension as an extraordinary moment of heightened intensity. As well as expressing a sense of possession, the word "behold" also expresses a sense of revelation, in the biblical sense of the revelation of extraordinary things. We "behold" acts of God, miracles, mysteries. "Behold," God said after creating the world, "I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree" (Gen. 1:29). As "The Snow Man " moves toward its reductive extreme, the perspective widens and the tone of the poem becomes elevated and more serious. At the poem's conclusion, "the nothing that is," pure being, is beheld, magisterially "revealed" and "possessed." . . .

"The Snow Man" also points to the need for creative activity. It sets itself against the modernist impulse, seen in Pound and Williams, that would restrict the mind's activity to selecting and arranging experience but not adding to it by showing that without the active contribution of the mind, the world can only be apprehended as "the nothing that is." It is a point that Stevens will return to thirty years later in his discussion of "modern reality" in "The Relations between Poetry and Painting." "She [Simone Weil] says that decreation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness. Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers" (NA 174-75). In Stevens' usage, decreation has two aspects. The first, seen at perhaps its most extreme in "The Snow Man," is "making pass from the created to the uncreated." By decreating its projections on to the world, the mind beholds not "nothingness" but "the nothing that is." This reductive process leads to a recognition of our creative power, that is, our power to create what Stevens says painters such as Cezanne and Klee create, "a new reality" (NA 174).

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

John Gery

In "The Snow Man," which was originally published in 1921, Stevens typically unleashes his imagination in an ingenious manner. But from a post-nuclear perspective, ultimately his poem is a philosophic tour-de-force that suspends the mind a little too comfortably. By its use of simple diction and concrete imagery, the poem begins by lulling us through several tercets, before turning toward its paradoxical closure about nothingness:

[. . . .]

As an imagist might, Stevens captures a specific moment on a clear, cold January day after a snowstorm. The most complicated word he uses is "junipers," hardly a mind-stumper, and the imagery of the pine trees, junipers, and spruces firmly roots itself in the mind's eye. Furthermore, with its widely varied tetrameter line, stresses are determined by syntax more than syllables, creating a fluid, conversational rhythm. Indeed, syntax provides the key to its magic. All five stanzas comprise one sentence, which Stevens carefully strings through a series of infinitive phrases and subordinate clauses to tease us out of our present thoughts into his "mind of winter," that state of mind necessary to experience this landscape for itself. The main clause of the sentence uses the impersonal pronoun "one," which suspends the identity of reader and writer alike, and the modal auxiliary verb "must," implying a prerequisite condition yet also suggesting that "one" may well not have the "mind of winter" needed to carry on through the poem. In this quickly established state of suspension, "one" adopts a "mind of winter"--either a brain made of snow like a snowman's (a virtual impossibility) or, more figuratively, the frame of mind one has during January in a cold climate.

Prompted by the clarity of the poem's first line, once we make the deceptively easy leap to a mind of winter we gain the power to perform three acts: "to regard" (an act both physical and cerebral), "to behold" (a physical act only), and "not to think" (an act most assuredly cerebral yet one that Stevens simultaneously negates). In a mind of winter, one can "regard" the scene before him or her, and if one has been "cold a long time" then he or she can look at that scene without thinking "of any misery" in its sights and sounds. Of course, not to attribute any emotional qualities to a landscape as a viewer perceives it is to be not a human but a "'snow man, so what the poet asks of us is possible only within the imagination.

From this point, we drift through the series of phrases and subordinate clauses away from our inherently "human" minds into the very "mind of winter" Stevens has created until we come to the sound of the wind. . . .

In these final six lines, Stevens includes no fewer than six subordinate clauses introduced by relative pronouns, each of which works to draw us further and further from our originally suspended state into his increasingly abstract landscape. Also, the imagery has become generalized: "The sound of the wind" and "the sound of a few leaves" have broadened to become "the sound of the land"; the vividly described trees in stanzas one and two have faded into "'the same bare place"; even the snowman has become merely "the listener" who is "nothing himself " and whose only function is to listen. Despite the visual strokes of the poem's opening, Stevens has drawn us artfully through his subtle qualifiers and negative terms until, as Robert Pack has noted, "Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snowman. We become the snowman, and we see winter through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort." Yet as Walton Litz contends, the poem is neither "a poem of negation" nor a "critique of the man without imagination," but "an affirmation of primary reality" that "'lays bare that irreducible reality upon which the poet builds his fictive structures, just as the lusher seasons build upon the frozen outlines of winter."

Finally and most pointedly, what the listener actually "beholds" in the last line is "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." In other words, the snowman beholds two phenomena: (a) "nothing that is not there" and (b) "the nothing that is" there. The overt repetition of "nothing" lures us into construing an entirely barren scene, but rephrasing the line according to its parallel structure actually creates a choice: Either the listener beholds the something that is there as well as the nothing that is not there, or, if we suspend the article "the" in the second clause, he beholds nothing that is not there and (yet) some thing that is not there. To say he beholds "'nothing that is not there" implies that he beholds only that which is there and nothing else: such a listener perceives only what is before him. On the other hand, to say he beholds "the nothing that is" (or some thing that is not there) can only mean that he beholds that which is not there, namely, nothingness--an absence which, for Stevens, is an imaginary, not a real, state of being. As Michael Davidson explains it, these "double negatives literally produce a 'nothing' that is both full and empty at the same time." No matter how we rephrase the line, the listener must admit to beholding these two phenomena of antipathetic natures--that which is only available to sense perception and that which is not available to sense perception but to the imagination.

To recall the poem's opening, for one with "a mind of winter," that "listener" who is "nothing himself," such a dichotomous, self-negating act of mind is possible with no disjunction of feeling. But for a human mind, that disjunction itself risks "misery," as the thought necessarily comes into conflict with our feeling about it. Consequently, to appreciate Stevens's expression of nothingness in this poem requires that we suspend our human part with its accompanying emotional baggage. In this way, as a modernist poem, "The Snow Man" stands as an evocative treatment of the mind in tension with its environment. As it follows the sentence's steady digressions, the mind alters its perspective on the winter landscape, while the landscape itself never changes. Instead, like Wordworth or Keats, Stevens draws us out of ourselves and sets us up for the parad
Wallace Stevens: A High-Toned Old Christian Woman
On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"

Daniel R. Schwarz

" ... [I]n "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" (1922), a poem that indicates the symmetry of Stevens's imagination, the speaker is both jester and trickster, troubador and picaro. Stevens proposes that religious fictions have no greater status than fictions of the imagination that include sensuality and play. Addressing the High Toned Old Christian Woman, the speaker comically proposes an alternative to Christianity in the form of a mummer's parade or a Mardi Gras festivity. He proposes "poetry" as the supreme fiction rather than God. He develops an alternative to the prayers and hymns - and poems - that celebrated Christ's entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. ("And palm for palm, / Madame, we are where we began.") Cast in the form of a brief Socratic dialogue, the argument with the widow is another version of an argument with himself. The poem moves toward an appreciation of paganism - perhaps evoking the late Roman empire - and sensuality in the wonderfully jazzy line "Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk" in which the pleasure principle moves beyond Christianity; note how tunk transforms "well-stuffed," "muzzy," and "sublime" by means of a symphony of "us":


Therefore, that in the planetary scene

Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,

Smacking their muzzy bellies on parade,

Proud of such novelties of the sublime,

Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,

May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves

A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.

It is not merely that Stevens argues for the necessary angel of the human, but that he enacts it with all its ambiguity, energy, misunderstanding and hopefulness. It is the alternative fictive universe to that proposed by those Christians - including the widow - upholding the "moral law" and upheld by it. That other universe cannot be controlled and takes on its own carnivalesque, ribald masks; the "hullabaloo among the spheres" is a kind of carnival, a release, a pleasure principle. And, as he has enacted in the poem, the more we would deny that aspect of life, the more it asserts itself: "But fictive things / Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince."'

Lisa M. Steinman

Stevens's remarks as well as the style he adopted suggest that his early poems continued his insistence that poetry was part of the world. The reality he claims for poetry is twofold. There is, first, the process by which the world is known, including both imaginative projection and the human urge for truths and closure--the "blessed rage for order." There is also an implicit appeal to the flux that characterizes the self and the natural world. Life is rapid, as Stevens says; he adds that "the self consists of endless images." Insofar as human observation and that which is observed are both characterized as processes, Stevens's early identification of poets as observers is not brought into question by the poetics informing his first two volumes of poetry. His early celebration of commonplace, specific details, however, is difficult to reconcile with the poetry and poetics of 1915-1936.

The early poems, of course, do maintain that poetry celebrates the imagination, which in turn gives us our sense of connection with the physical world; the woman in "Sunday Morning" is told that the earth--the "bough of summer and the winter branch"--must replace the gods, just as seven years later Stevens told "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman":

We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness.
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones.

Earthy or imaginative desire, in constant motion, without epitaphs, becomes one of Stevens's articles of faith. The early poems, however, never confuse the reality that they claim imagination can reveal with naturalism.

from Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets. Copyright © 1987 by Yale University Press.

Milton J. Bates

[In "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"] the poet attempts to ruffle the composure of this true believer by proposing a shocking version of Santayana's argument in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion--that poetry and religion are equally fictions of the human mind, reflecting the values of the human maker. If lewdness is human, why not project a heaven on this basis rather than the moral sentiment? This is the more conceivable inasmuch as the imagination is itself irreverent and protean: "fictive things / Wink as they will." "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" is calculated to elicit from the woman--and those readers who share her outlook--the "wince" that concludes the poem.

from Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Copyright © 1985 by the University of California Press.

Return to Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens: The Emperor of Ice-Cream
On "The Emperor of Ice Cream"

Helen Vendler

"For purposes of experiment, I have put the details the poem gives us into the form of a first-person narrative; I see the poem as a rewritten form of this ur-narrative, in which the narrative has been changed into an impersonal form, and the linear temporal structure of narrative form has been replaced by a strict geometric spatial construction - two rooms juxtaposed. Here (with apologies) is my conjectural narrative ur-form of the poem, constructed purely as an explanatory device:

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead - all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life - all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau - the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.

Helen Vendler

At the heart of many of Stevens's poems are harsh and unpalatable experiences revealed only gradually through his intense stylization. The famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," resisted explication for some decades, perhaps because no one took the trouble to deduce its implicit narrative from its stylized plot. (The Russian formalist distinction between "story" and "plot" is often useful for this and other Stevens poems.) The basic "story " of "The Emperor" is that of a person who goes to the house of a neighbor, a poor old woman, who has died; the person is to help "lay out" (arrange for decent viewing) the corpse in the bedroom, while other neighbors are sending over homegrown flowers, and yet others are preparing food, including ice cream, for the wake.

Stevens "plots" this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering. He "plots" it further by structuring the poem as a series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing--in a diction of extreme oddness--the neighbors in their funeral duties: "Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds. /. . . / / Take from the dresser ... / ... that sheet /... / And spread it so as to cover her face." Both the symbolic kitchen stanza (life as concupiscence) and the symbolic bedroom stanza (death as final) end with the same third-order refrain echoed by the title: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." Faced with life (however slovenly and appetitive) in the kitchen and death (with its protruding horny feet) on the bed, one must, however unwillingly, acquiesce in the reign of life.

We cannot know what personal events prompted this 1922 poem, apparently set in Key West (so the poet Elizabeth Bishop conjectured, who knew Key West, where Cubans worked at the machines in cigar factories, where blacks always had ice cream at funerals), but it derives resonance from Stevens's mother's death ten years earlier. What is certain is that it represents symbolically, with the Procrustean bed of its two rooms, the bitter moment of choosing life over death, at a time when life seems particularly lonely, self-serving, lustful, and sordid. Art is exposed as too scanty in its powers to cover up death; the embroidered sheet (a figure for the embellished page), if it is pulled up to cover the dead woman's face, reveals her "horny feet," which show "how cold she is, and dumb." In choosing to "let the lamp affix its beam," as in a morgue, and in acquiescing to the command, "Let be be finale of seem," Stevens makes his momentous choice for reality over appearance.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia UP.

Kia Penso

Here is an interesting experiment anyone can try if he or she has followed me this far: first, find an intelligent and discerning person who is perhaps not very interested in or familiar with Stevens' poems; this is not as difficult as it might seem. Get this person to read "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." (This person, obviously, has to be honest and not trying to ingratiate himself with you, i.e. willing to say "I don't get it.") Then try to explain, using only the one poem, why it is about belief. What details of that scene have anything to do with belief? "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is frequently anthologized, and yet, standing by itself it reads like lively wordplay that has carefully crafted the illusion of referring to something. We start out hearing some of the objects as symbols. But what could a deal dresser missing a few glass knobs be a symbol of? And a dead woman's protruding feet are much too distracting as objects in themselves to be pointing to something transcendent. The poem does refer to something, of course. The line "let be be finale of seem" can be explained. But it is not a simple task to explain what it has to do with the action in the rest of the poem. Part of the meaning of the poem comes from the speaker's zest for details, which he possesses even in this setting. The attitude is expressed in the tone of voice and in details such as the fantails embroidered on the sheet. Why notice the embroidery now? These little, illuminated details nevertheless come to the narrator's attention in the flow of the practical tasks. It's the bright, unillusioned sufficiency of all this together that makes the narrator say "Let be be finale of seem." All of which can be explained to someone, but doesn't guarantee that they will see it for themselves. This experiment reveals two things: 1) how Stevens' poems are interrelated, and 2) how even though they are interrelated the individual poem makes a very vigorous claim--it demands that we learn to think in its idiom.

From Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, and The Whole of Harmonium. Archon Books. Copyright © 1991

Milton J. Bates

That Stevens could write a pure poem without recourse to Symbolist metaphysics or exoticism is brilliantly demonstrated in a piece like "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." Here, the impending night of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Domination of Black" has descended, quenching not only the woman's life but also any possibility of protest. Instead, the poem affixes its relentless beam up[on the common, even repellent details of the woman's room and her corpse. In a voice that suggests the sideshow barker rather than the unctuous minister or funeral director, the speaker of the poem insists that the naturalistic "be" replace the religious or romantic "seem." He calls for a wake devoid of pomp and ceremony; the mourners (or are they celebrants?) are to wear their workaday clothes and one of them, the muscular cigar maker, will serve ice cream--a symbol not only of life's ephemeral pleasures but also, as Stevens told R.P. Blackmur, "of the materialism or realism proper to a refugee from the imagination."

Not that "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is an unimaginative poem. Though Stevens spoke of its "deliberately commonplace costume" when he chose it as his favorite in 1933, he also said that it seemed to him to contain something of the "essential gaudiness" of poetry. These remarks seems contradictory until one remembers that Stevens, in keeping with a fundamental precept of pure poetry, typically inverted the usual hierarchy of subject and style. Since poetry is the true subject of a pure poem, the ostensible subject is, relatively speaking, mere "costume." Such costume is not dispensable, however. "Poetry is like anything else," Stevens told Latimer; "it cannot be made suddenly to drop all its rags and stand out naked, fully disclosed." Consequently, though the "essential gaudiness" of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" lies in its expressive diction and oratorical flair, "The Emperor" does have clothes: the woman's wake. Because its costume is so prosaic--as compared, for example, with "Domination of Black"--the poem is a triumph of attitude over reference. Ostensibly an endorsement of "be," it testifies still more eloquently to the power of "seem." One is not surprised to learn that Stevens, when he tried to recall the inception of the poem years later, could remember the "state of mind" which gave rise to it but not the external occasion.

from Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Copyright © 1985 by the University of California Press.

Kenneth Lincoln

This little nonsense ditty takes a serious turn at the stanza break. Someone and somethings are missing. The woman's dresser, where she "used to wear" lingerie, lacks "three glass knobs" (three-in-a-jar trinity?), and her bedding may be too short to cover both head and feet. Her prone body, mocking how the wench lived, lies flat in the indignity of death. "If her horny feet protrude," those limb ends tell us "how cold she is, and dumb."

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal "knobs" transpose to "horny" bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman's body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her "horny feet" index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and "dumb" as the "slovenly wilderness": feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate "base" of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered "fantails" on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, "Let the lamp" of nature "affix its beam," the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset. As elsewhere, the well dressed man with a beard finds,

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Dreaming jouissance is critical. The imagination, Stevens said in his Letters, is "like light, it adds nothing, except itself." The "supreme fiction," lighting us to the end, is to believe in our world, "my green, my fluent mundo," as one lives and faces death in others (no less than Emily Dickinson a-wake or Sitting Bull the sash-wearer). Poetry is to imagine well what must be. "The final belief is to believe in a fiction," Stevens wrote in Adagia, "which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly" (reflective chronotope turned precept).

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of "The Snow Man"). There's a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in "cream" made of "ice" (Carolina "aspic nipples" sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter's absence, the snow man's "nothing" curdled by sweet belief.

from Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.

Return to Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens: Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
On "Disillusionment of 10 O' Clock"

John Gould Fletcher

Over the roof-tops race the shadows of clouds:
Like horses the shadows of clouds charge down the street.

Whirlpools of purple and gold,
Winds from the mountains of cinnabar,
Lacquered mandarin moments, palanquins swaying and balancing
Amid the vermilion pavilions, against the jade balustrades;
Glint of the glittering wings of dragon-flies in the light:
Silver filaments, golden flakes, repulse and surrender,
The sun broidered upon the rain,
The rain rustling with the sun.

-- John Gould Fletcher (from Poetry 3:3 [December 1913], 85).

Robert Pack

Stevens' titles often provide us with his attitude toward the action that takes place within a poem, and therefore they have a special function in the structure of the poem. If the title is humorous, ironic or ambiguous, it is necessary to regard the poem from this perspective. "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" contrasts people who "are not going/ To dream of baboons and periwinkles" with the old, drunk and dreaming sailor who "Catches tigers/ In red weather." The inability of these people to live in the colored world of the imagination, to be ghosts dressed in "purple with green rings," is their disillusionment. Stevens' irony is severe in its judgment; clearly he would not have the sailor abandon the illusion that enables him to catch tigers. And we may conjecture further: why are ghosts in "white night-gowns" any more real than ghosts attired in color? The color red suggests the intensity of the sailor's commitment to imagination, and if we believe with Stevens that the imagination is "The magnificent cause of being, the one reality/ In this imagined world," then surely the dreaming sailor's illusion saves us from the disillusionment which reduces modern life to a drab reality.

The "disillusionment" in this poem would deprive us of the fictions that enrich our lives.

From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Rutgers, The State University.

Robert Buttel

Another poem which is like the work of the Imagists is "Here the grass grows" (1909, "Concert of Fishes"), which later become the third poem of "Carnet de Voyage." Framed by the grass and wind at the beginning and end, the vivid description of the fishes suggests perhaps the beauty and depth of life within the flux of nature:

Here the grass grows,
And the wind blows,
And in the stream,
Small fishes gleam,
Blood-red and hue
Of shadowy blue,
And amber sheen,
And water-green,
And yellow flash,
And diamond ash.
And the grass grows,
And the wind blows.

The Impressionistic use of color is similar to what some of the Imagists were up to, again concurrently, with Stevens, though unlikely to have influenced him directly. F. S. Flint's "The Swan" and Allen Upward's poem "The Gold Fish," both included in [the anthology of Imagist poems entitled] Des Imagistes, are examples of this; here is a stanza from " The Swan":

Under the lily shadow
And the gold and the blue and mauve
That the whin and the lilac
Pour down on the water,
The fishes quiver.

... Stevens must certainly have been discovering some of the same sources that inspired these poets.

One such source, at least for Stevens, was Japanese color prints; an entry in his journal for May 1909, reads: "Kakuzo Okakura is a cultivated, but not an original thinker. His 'Idols of the East' was interesting." Then shortly thereafter: "Japanese color prints: Pale orange, green and crimson, and white, and gold and brown. / Deep lapiz-lazuli and orange, and opaque green, fawn-color, black and gold." Earlier (March 18, 1909), he had written a letter to Elsie Moll in which he referred to Okakura and then listed the colors above plus these: "lapis blue and vermilion, white, and gold and green." From these lists emerged, following the orders of colors in the journal entry, this manuscript poem:



Pale orange, green and crimson, and
White, and gold and brown.


Lapiz-lazuli and orange, and opaque green,
faun-color, black and gold.

... In "Colors," as in "Here the Grass Grows," Stevens aimed at an orchestration of color values, with a vital clarity of description evident in the latter, and a contrast of overtones in the former.

From Robert Buttel, The Making of "Harmonium" (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1967), 68-71.

Anthony Whitting

"... The disillusionment of the title refers in part to the poverty described in the first part of the poem. The middle-class American goes to bed at ten o'clock and haunts his own house by wearing a white nightgown. The title may also refer to [James MacNeill] Whistler"s "Ten O'Clock" Lecture. Though Stevens" emphasis on color might recall poems such as [Oscar] Wilde's "Impression du Matin,"

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold

Changed to a harmony in grey:

A bare with ochre-colored hay

Dropped from the wharf,

the use of color in Stevens" poem does not seem intended to render a "mood" or "impression." Rather, the contemplation of colors in various combinations seems to be a pleasurable end in itself, and the poem appears to endorse the pure good of artifice and decoration ("socks of lace / And beaded ceintures") in a landscape that would otherwise be blank.

Stevens, though, is not giving another "Ten O'Clock" lecture in "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock." In imagining the nightgowns these Americans might wear, Stevens is envisioning a meeting of art and life that is unaesthetic in emphasis. In the "Ten O'Clock" lecture Whistler says that he wants to lift the burden of art from the shoulders of the middle class:

The boundary line is clear. Far from me to propose to bridge it over - that the pestered people be pushed across. No! I would save them from further fatigue. I would come to their relief and would lift from their shoulders this incubus of Art.

Why, after centuries of freedom from it, and indifference to it, should it now be thrust upon them by the blind - until wearied and puzzled, they know no longer how they shall eat or drink - how they shall sit or stand - or wherewithal they shall clothe themselves - without afflicting Art.

"Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" does not seem to follow this separationist policy. It colorfully investigates how the middle class might "clothe" itself with art. The disillusionment of the title, then, refers not only to middle-class lack of illusion, but also to Stevens" disillusionment with "Ten O'Clock" aestheticism.

Aesthete and middle-class burgher are used in "Disillusionment" to point to each other's limitations. Both of these personae, however, are criticized from a third perspective, that of the old drunk sailor, a figure Stevens perhaps borrowed from Baudelaire, who writes in "Le Voyage" of "ce matelot ivrogne" [the "drunken sailor" who, in Baudelaire's poem, also "invents Americas"]. The sailor"s dream life sets him apart from the burgher. As Milton Bates writes, "[T]he people who want to keep regular hours are unlikely to dream of baboons and periwinkles." And his tiger hunting is unlikely to appeal to the aesthetes. (Try to imagine [Huysmans' notoriously decadent "hero"] Des Esseintes traveling to another continent to go on safari!)

from Anthony Whitting, The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens" Romantic Irony (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1996), 83-84.

Return to Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens: Sunday Morning
On "Sunday Morning"

J. Hillis Miller

If the natural activity of the mind is to make unreal representations, these are still representations of the material world. "The clouds preceded us / There was a muddy centre before we breathed"; matter is prior to mind and in some sense determines it. So, in "Sunday Morning," the lady's experience of the dissolution of the gods leaves her living in a world of exquisite particulars, the physical realities of the new world: "Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; / Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness." This physical world, an endless round of birth, death, and the seasons, is more lasting than any interpretation of it. Religions, myths, philosophies, and cultures are all fictions and pass away, but "April's green endures." "Sunday Morning" is Stevens' most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture, the culture of those who are "wholly human" and know themselves. This humanism is based on man's knowledge that "the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly." There is "nothing else"--the alternatives are to be nothing or to accept a fiction. To discover that there never has been any celestial world is a joyful liberation, and man says of himself: "This happy creature--It is he that invented the Gods. It is he that put into their mouths the only words they have ever spoken!"

From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Copyright © 1966 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Merle E. Brown

"This final movement of the poem, in contrast to the stasis of its beginning, is bridged by a passage at the very middle of the poem:

nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endured; or will endure
Like her remembrance of wakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.

Taken it itself, the passage is truly beautiful. In autumn, when the swallows are sweeping through the air, gathering for their flight away from "their warm fields," the woman experiences a desire "for June and evening," for the time when she could take for granted the presence of "awakened birds" the next morning. Thus the joy of "June and evening" which she desires and the joy of "April's green" are torn by the poignancy of her sense that what she desires is absent and that the birds in autumn are about to be gone. The fixed spread of the cockatoo's wings upon a rug has been transformed to a true consummation, the spread of the swallow's wing as it reaches the peak of its upward movement. Implicit in this consummation is her recollection of birds that were just beginning to fly, wakened birds, testing "the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings"; and ominous in this consummation is her sense that it will be followed by the movement at the end of the poem, a movement "Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

Every passage in the poem, for that matter, is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence. It is Death that

makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

These maidens have been caught up in the dreamy daze of the immediate present, very like the woman who was taking her "late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair." They sat upon the grass, their arms about their knees, gazing at the grass at their feet, relinquished after they had gathered it or simply because they are forgetting it in their dreaminess. The shiver of the willow, willow, willow, however, brings the chill death into their presence and even the sun turns cold with the imminence of death. Unlike the woman in her sunny chair, they are ripe for love, they will taste not late oranges but new plums and pears offered them by their lovers, and they will "stray impassioned in the littering leaves," loving and loveable because feeling their oneness with "the leaves of sure obliteration."

Even the chant of the ring of supple and turbulent men, expressing their boisterous devotion to the sun, is quite different from any primitivism or barbarism based upon a mere acceptance of sensual indulgence as an ultimate good. Their devotion to the sun, unlike the comforts of the sun cherished by the woman in her sunny chair, is dependent on their mutual sense of frailty, on their constant sense that they will perish, on their feeling that their strength is as fragile, as delicate, as transient, as the dew upon their feet. They chant in orgy, it is true; but a part of their chant is the echoing hills "That choir among themselves long afterward." And those choirs of dying echoes establish a oneness between the men with their chant and the pigeons in their descent "Downward to darkness on extended wings."

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act (Detroit: Wayne S U P, 1970), 160-162.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing

Stevens's search for a rhetoric more than fiction and a nature less than an external fate begins with "Sunday Morning" and its realignment of the Emersonian and romantic dualities. The poem mourns at once the loss of Christian and romantic mythologies, which offer versions of the same fusion of temporal and eternal realities. "Sunday Morning" does not judge religion to be a fiction and Christ to be but a man in order to exhort us to a species of nature worship. For Stevens portrays the world of sense impressions as a fantastic play of surfaces. The painterly interior, the various trees and fruits, "April's green," and the cockatoo, swallows, and pigeons—birds represented, literary, or "observed"—all become equally phantasmal, passing like "things in some procession of the dead." In these terms, the sun-worshippers of stanza 7 reduce to mere "personae of summer" (CP, 377 ), their bookish status reinforced by Biblical imagery, for pantheism would be as foreign as the religion of Palestine when the sky itself is "isolated" and appears as alien as the "icy Elysee" (CP, 56) seems to a temporal speaker. The poem proceeds by contrasting the surfaces and the depths of things: the surfaces of nature—its false flicks and forms, its rhetoric—contrast with its depths, which turn out to be internal to the subject. A "wide water" silently flows below the welter of visible and audible phenomena, and, in contrast to the sensory experience of surfaces, this archetypal river of the unconscious carries the truth of "blood." The river of meditation courses to death—the "dominion of the blood and sepulchre"—and to erotic reveries of "supple and turbulent" men; Christian and romantic mythologies only code its natural course.

Thus Stevens dislocates the Emersonian alignment of nature with fate and the mind with freedom. The imagistic contrast of light and dark in the first stanza corresponds to the thematic contrast of freedom and fate, life and death, rhetoric and truth, the claims of the life of the senses and the life of the mind. It is nature and its sensuous attractions that are free, and their extravagant, ornamental "rhetoric" cannot satisfy the mind. For the mind and its course of meditation give us access to the truth of Eros and Thanatos. In Stevens's realignment, the mind alone knows nature: an undomesticated nature that is more than "a widow's bird" (CP, 18) is accessible only in the meditation of the "virile" poet. When Stevens announces, "Death is the mother of beauty," he is talking not only about the changes in nature that constitute its rhetorical appeal to the senses—senses equipped to register and take pleasure in change—but about the truth of the mind. For the seasonal repetitions of nature are temporal changes and intimate death only to the human consciousness, and these temporal changes open up the mental space of remembrance and anticipation, of memory and desire (stanza 4), of poetry and its measures. Death is the mother of the imagination—of the mind and memory, the "muttering" that engenders "myths" in the "burning bosom" of a destructive mother. The final stanza reaffirms this alignment:

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable. [CP, 70]

Our dependence on the "chaos" of natural processes, our "freedom" from sponsoring deities, and our being constituted "of that wide water" are grammatical appositives and substantive equivalents. The "wide water" is the "wide water" of stanza 1—the inseparable and inescapable concourse of Eros, death, and meditation that constitutes us and our freedom. In linking the mind with death, Stevens is able to displace the terms of the Emersonian debate: freedom and fate are no longer aligned with the subject and object. Stevens's existential project is to show that our freedom is our fate, our discourse is our nature, our imagination is our destruction.

"Sunday Morning" also marks the beginning of Stevens's stylistic development beyond the reductive dichotomy of rhetoric and meters that arrested Emerson's growth as a poet. In Stevens, the discursive and the Orphic modes are not polar opposites but inflections of the same conventional, exoteric, poetic voice. The range and flexibility of Stevens's diction and blank verse enable him to incorporate the course of nature and the discourse of the mind in the same internal monologue. In the first stanza of "Sunday Morning," for example, he signals the shift from observation to meditation with a switch in diction from polysyllabic, Latinate words to one- or two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words; with vocalic modulations from front or "light" vowels to back or "dark" vowels; with metrical variations like the increased use of trochees and spondees; and with an insistence on alliteration, assonance, and repetition:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. [CP, 66-67]

The fatal truth has been internalized as an inflection of a poetic language that traces the course of an explicitly eccentric and inherently rhetorical meditation.

The language of "Sunday Morning" remains nostalgic, however, and Stevens has difficulty in developing a form that does not rely on the "magnificent measure" (CP, 13) of the English romantics yet can register the truth of rhetoric, the centrality of an explicitly eccentric poetic language. His development of a language both exoteric and central leads through an excessively rhetorical style that remains merely exoteric and thus is ironic about its decorative excesses. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," for example, engages this issue. Isabel G. MacCaffrey writes that the methodology of the poem, as well as its subject, addresses the "relationship between opaque, visceral depths and dazzling verbal surfaces," and she suggests that the poem rejects its own rhetoric as "inadequate, bombastic, bland, or self-deceiving," so that another, counter "meaning" can be apprehended "behind the words," which is the "wordless world" of Eros and Thanatos. Stevens's rejection of his own rhetoricity comes in the lines,

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords. [CP, 17 ]

which pass judgment, in Harold Bloom's words, on "all amorous diction." Nevertheless, however inadequate it may be to Eros, rhetoric remains the necessary substitution by which love becomes love, for even the chords of the frog's mating call are natural substitutions for the "foremost law":

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth

The "foremost law" is itself apprehended in and as substitution. If we are fated, we are fated to substitute one thing for another, to remain at the edge, and to play with words—"le monocle de mon oncle"—stringing together metaphoric or phonetic substitutions. For the poem demonstrates that no one language is more natural or less rhetorical than another.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

John Timberman Newcomb

Harmonium offered readers a very different version of "Sunday Morning" from the one they had seen in Poetry in 1915. In Poetry, the fifth and final stanza, now recognized as the seventh stanza, had expressed the exalted paganism of "a ring of men" chanting "Their boisterous devotion to the sun." This ecstasy of human physical feeling, the only divinity of humankind, would then be recreated and sustained by echo throughout the environment. In Harmonium, however, this ringing affirmation of human and natural coexistence was no longer the poem's final emphasis. It was followed by an eighth stanza in which Stevens's persona massively qualified his own construction and brought his divine concept of death down to earth with a resounding thud. Just as the tomb of Jesus was only a cave "where he lay" in physical death, the earth was merely a place where humans live and then die, "an old chaos of the sun" in which the processes of life, embodied by deer and "casual flocks of pigeons," went on oblivious to the echoing chants of human meaning. The imposing position of "Sunday Morning" within Stevens's oeuvre made this subversive ending more than simply another assertion of the world's chaotic meaninglessness. The poem's subject matter, formal precision, and glorious blank-verse line all fostered the expectation of a strong affirmation of man's existence and artistry. The last stanza then functioned to do just the opposite, implying that such an affirmation was no more than an invention of the human mind which tended to vanish once the field of vision was broadened to include the inhuman realities of the earth.

To confront the poem's last stanza thus is to understand better why the eight-stanza version of "Sunday Morning," submitted to Poetry in 1915 as it would appear in Harmonium, had disturbed Monroe into editorial butchery. It must have been incomprehensible to her that the poet would have meant to end on such an anticlimactic note. At that time, Stevens's extreme newness on the scene (and his personal unfamiliarity to her) no doubt enabled her to see his arrangement as the odd fruit of artistic inexperience. Following her own muse, which counseled ending with those triumphantly echoing human chants, she placed Stevens's seventh stanza last. [. . . .] The disturbing effects of 'Sunday Morning" also produced Arthur Davison Ficke's bizarre and often quoted remark: "'Sunday morning' tantalized me with the sense that perhaps it's the most beautiful poem ever written, or perhaps just an incompetent obscurity." The total incommensurability of these two alternatives indicated Ficke's sense of the extent to which the poem challenged readers' conventional dualisms of form and meaning. Whatever else he meant by it, Ficke certainly implied, as Fletcher and Kreymborg later openly acknowledged, that "Sunday morning" eluded the understanding--which a poem of spectacular affirmation should not do.

From Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons. Copyright © 1992 by the University Press of Mississippi.

Janet McCann

"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
Wallace Stevens: Anecdote of the Jar
On "Anecdote of the Jar"

Pat Righelato

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.

Glen MacLeod

[Note: The "readymade" described herein is defined as the urinal that Marchel Duchamp upended and signed as "R. Mutt" and submitted to the 1913 Arsenal Show as "Fountain by R. Mutt." "Mutt" was a notoriously debased name, one half of a popular cartoon strip, Mutt and Jeff.]

"It is not the execution but the idea behind the work that makes the readymade interesting. In the creation of a readymade, emphasis is thrown upon the object itself, placed in a strange environment and divorced from its practical function, so that it is viewed solely as a "thing" without relation to its use. As Duchamp put it, "functionalism was ... obliterated by the fact that I took it out of the earth and onto the planet of aesthetics." And equal emphasis is placed upon the artists, not as a craftsman, but as gifted perceiver whose choice of an object is seen as a creative act. ... The readymade thus becomes the focus of a meditation on the relation between external things and our perception of them or - to use the terms Stevens would later employ to describe the same effect in his own poetry - a self-conscious meditation on the relation between reality and the imagination.

... Characteristic of both "Anecdote of a Jar" and Duchamps' Fountain is an essential ambiguity: To place a jar on a hill in Tennessee, and to place a porcelain urinal on its side atop a pedestal, are both ambiguous (as well as strange) gestures. In each case the nature of the object is also ambiguous: Is it to be considered a machine-made object, without aesthetic value in itself, an instance of anti-art? Or is it, on the other hand, to be considered a worthy example of utilitarian design? It is the nature of the readymade to inspire these questions without resolving them. ...

If we are willing to consider "Anecdote of a Jar" as a readymade, then Roy Harvey Pearce may well have discovered the particular mass-produced object Stevens had in mind when he wrote the poem [see photo of "Dominion" canning jar]. This fruit jar was in use in Tennessee in 1919 when Stevens traveled there prior to writing "Anecdote of a Jar." It is specially designed to take "Dominion" everywhere" and it is unquestionably "gray and bare." In meditating on such an object, Stevens was adapting Duchamp's enigmatic art form to his own poetic purposes. And this meditation resulted in one of his most successful and popular poems. That fact alone suggests the importance of Duchamp to Stevens' poetic development."

From Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism (New Haven: Yale U P, 1993) 20-22.

Frank Lentricchia

Formalists must all sooner or later come to the grievous conclusion about "Anecdote of the Jar" that the aged Ezra Pound came to about his Cantos: it will not cohere. And things only get worse: the imposing jar is also a "port" (haven? gate? but for whom?). The original structural opposition of "jar" and "wilderness," an opposition of nouns as substances, modulates into an opposition of verbs or actions: jars "take," the wilderness "gives." Jars take power--"dominion" (supreme authority, sovereignty, absolute ownership). Who is responsible for this power? Certainly not "I"; the jar did it. No longer can we avoid the question of tone; the postulate of the literary universe will not help us now, no amount of knowledge--not even Frye's--about literary structure will help us here to hear. Structuralists, by definition, cannot attend to non-repeatable textures of voice; structuralists, by definition, are tone-deaf. So what are we to make of the reiterated sounds of jar music, in the major key of "round"? A whole lot of "round" for such a short poem: surround, around, round (twice), ground. "Round": an insidiously invasive sound which evokes at this poem's aural level all of the big thematic points condensed in the key word of the poem: "dominion." Dominion "everywhere"--"everywhere"/"air"/"bare"--this triplet, in a poem otherwise devoid of rhyme, is unavoidable to the ear: a saturating totality, a faceless totality of authority. The jar is into every damn thing. In the world according to the jar, this aural imperialist, there is barely, just barely, one letter's worth of ground: mainly, in this world, there is "g-round." This madly incisive and potentially scary jabberwockian sense is the decisive entry to the poet's panoramic point of view, his presiding tonality: detached, above it all, neither for jars nor for nature, he writes in playful self-possession (whatever else you can say about him he's certainty not frightened of anything) this line, best read in the manner of W C. Fields: "The jar was round upon the ground."

From Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, and Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1988 by The University of Wisconsin Press.

Donald Gutierrez

Being placed on top of a hill gives the jar an apex of human purpose through nature. But the jar asserts authority even more through the implied design of its own rotundity. It is the design of a created object embodying a human, cultural purpose. Further, the roundness is the symbolic design of purpose placed in nature, which in itself lacks purpose or order. The jar's roundness, exerting a centripetal force on the "slovenly wilderness," endows the wilderness (including the hill) with the order of a center. All the natural disorderliness of the wilderness acquires a purposive spatial character through "centering," and is given a figurative order in the way "rounded" and rounding human purpose shapes significance into the raw matter of earthly phenomena. Accordingly, human circularity, human centralization, civilizes "wilderness," not only the wild, that is, but chaos, nullity, meaninglessness, by providing it structure. This governing force is so powerful that even in its plainest, simplest representations ("grey and bare") the jar compels a "surrounding."

"Anecdote of a Jar" is a metaphor about the magnetic power of mind and art to order a void (and the void). Stress is laid upon its non-naturalness (11.10-12) to accentuate the crucial power of artistic and thus human purpose. Art (mind) governs its antithesis, nature—"It took dominion everywhere," even, indeed, especially, in a non-civilized, non-human place.

The shaper here is himself "round"; he rounds significances through symbolic artifacts which express his desire to dominate all that is senseless or shapeless or wild by compelling it into pattern, thus transferring from God to art and man the force of the ancient gnosis that "God is a Circle, whose Circumference is nowhere and whose Centre is everywhere."

from "Circular Art: Round Poems of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams." Concerning Poetry 14:1 (Spring 1981).

Roy Harvey Pearce

' ... I think it worth noting that Stevens as he wrote the poem must have had in mind a specific fruit jar, the "Dominion Wide Mouth Special."... Although manufactured in Canada, the jar has been widely distributed in the United States from 1913 to the present, The exemplar photographed dates ca. 1918; Stevens was in fact traveling in Tennessee in April and May 1918. ... As a "wide mouth special," the jar is particularly notable, of its kind, as "tall and of a port in air." And its glass, compared to that of other fruit jars, is especially "gray and bare." Whether in Tennessee in 1918 fruit jars were used as containers for "moonshine," I have not been able to establish definitively. Surely, granting Stevens' penchant for "moon" and "shine," the matter is worth investigating.

From Roy Harvey Pearce, "'Anecdote of the Jar'": An Iconological Note," The Wallace Stevens Journal 1:2 (Summer 1977), 65.

John Vernon

There is a persistent strain in modern poetry that has a great deal to do with this sense of objects. The conclusion to Yeats's "Among School Children" is one example:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The answer to both questions is each possible answer. The chestnut tree manifests itself in each of its parts, as with the Tree of Life; and the tree can be a unity of these parts only because it is totally proliferated in each of them. Similarly, the dancer is and is not herself in the perfect unity of the dance. The dance is not a shape imposed upon her body; it is shape as act, as the unity of the dancer with her motion and her medium, her space, just as in modern physics a particle is perfectly united with its trajectory, its act.

Many of Wallace Stevens' poems are also about this sense of objects. His persistent theme is the relationship of seer, world, and object. In "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together" he asserts that each person sees in the pineapple a "tangent of himself," and that "the fruit so seen" is also "a part of the nature that he contemplates." In "Connoisseur of Chaos" be says that "the pensive man ... sees that eagle float / For which the intricate Alps are a single nest." The point of both poems is that the wholeness of the world is composed by a single object that opens upon it, the pineapple or eagle, and this unity of object and world in turn passes through the perspective that opens upon it, the someone who puts the pineapple together or "the pensive man" who sees the eagle.

This is why the jar in "Anecdote of the jar" can "Make the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill." And it is why such an object as the jar couldn't possibly be an inert thing enclosed in its shape; it reaches out for the eyes of whoever is watching and with those eyes arranges the world around it--it infuses the world with itself and itself with the world by means of the point of view, the body, it is anchored in. Objects are like the glass of water in the poem of that title; they are both defined and released by their boundaries:

That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles.

The two poles are not only heat and cold but also the seer and the world. If objects are events as Whitehead says, they are events that mediate between the body of the seer and the world, events that carry that body into the world and the world into that body.

The sense of an object as an event rather than a thing goes hand in hand with the sense of form as act, as temporal form, which characterizes a great deal of modern poetry.

From The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Joseph Carroll

"Anecdote of the Jar" (1919) . . . celebrates a moment of aesthetic triumph. Stevens achieves this triumph by means of a tactic similar to that of "The Snow Man"; he transfers his own imaginative activity to an inhuman medium. The effect of this tactic in "Anecdote of the Jar" is to represent the conflict between the mind and external reality as an impersonal play of aesthetic forces:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill. (CP, 76)

The three stanzas of the poem move in a circling pattern, repeating first elements in a jubilant manner and gradually coming closer to the concentrated focus of the third stanza: "The jar was gray and bare." The jar serves as an extension of the poet's own drive to order, but it achieves dominion over the chaotic wilderness precisely because it is inanimate. "It did not give of bird or bush." The jar does not itself move or change; it merely sheds influence. The source of its power is its perfection of empty form. It is "of a port in air," stately and imposing but also vacant, a mere circular opening in the air. The dominion of the jar is evoked on the level of sound and image by the repetition of the word round. The jar is round upon a rounded piece of ground, a hill, and the image of roundness is picked up again, phonetically, in the word ground: "The jar was round upon the ground." Stevens catches the assimilation of chaos to order in the moment of transformation. The wilderness, though "slovenly," surrounds the hill, and though it sprawls, it sprawls "around." The transformation to controlled pattern is reflected even in the metrical structure of the poem. The smoothness of contour in the short, tight iambic lines is broken only once, by "slovenly wilderness," and at this point the wilderness is already being rounded up. The word slovenly is a backward glance at irregularity. Whatever potential form or roundness there may be in the wilderness answers to the realized form of the jar. The jar simply is round, and because it is round, the wilderness moves to surround it.

The jar in Tennessee represents a purely formal principle of order, and this kind of order cannot satisfy the deepest needs of Stevens' imagination. He ultimately seeks not only to impose order on the external world but to integrate the mind and the world within a sentient unity of being. As long as he remains fixed within a dualistic conception of the world, this fulfillment will elude him.

From Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism. Copyright © 1987 by Louisiana State UP.

B.J. Leggett

Although other sounds are more numerous, round is what we hear as it imposes itself on the poem:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

Just as the sound of round appears to dominate the poem once we fix on it---that is, once we read from a perspective that concentrates on roundnes
Wallace Stevens: Peter Quince at the Clavier
On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

Robert Buttel

"In "Peter Quince," with its precise emphasis of meaning and emotion supported by variations in rhythm and sound, Stevens created a remarkable example of his musical Imagism. For the musical form of this poem, he had several possible models. Grace Hazard Conkling, for example, who was a trained musician as well as a friend of Amy Lowell, had her "Symphony of a Mexican Garden" published with Amy Lowell's support, in the first number of Poetry (1912). The poem is divided into four sections ("The Garden," "The Pool," "The Birds," and "To the Moon") according to technical musical terms - "Poco Sostenuto in A Major," "Presto in F Major," and so on - and the sections have their appropriate rhythms and tonalities. The general quality of the poem is not Imagistic; it is, rather, a mixture of a lush Impressionism and tired echoes of Romantic and Victorian poetry. But nonetheless it is part of the general movement to bring music and poetry closer together, and it contains elements which could have served as hints for Stevens, such as the following:

An unimagined music exhales
. . .
Symphonic beauty that some god forgot,
If form could waken into lyric sound
. . .
Where the hibiscus flares would cymbals clash,
And the black cypress like a deep bassoon
Would hum a clouded amber melody.

John Gould Fletcher's similar but vaguely defined musical arrangements were not measurably tightened by his more Imagistic practice. Fletcher, too, was fond of cymbals in "Irradiations, I":

A clash of cymbals - then, the swift swaying footsteps
Of the wind that undulated along the languid terraces.

Indeed, his Preludes and Symphonies (1914) contained many of the elements which Stevens was experimenting with: the arabesque, pavilions, terraces, pagodas, willows, quiverings and undulations, winds that "came clangering and clattering," clouds, the sea, and, of course, color.

But Stevens, the musical imagist, created in "Peter Quince" his own more succinct "Symphony" or "quartet." In contrast to the tenderly reflective music of the beginning of the first section there is at the end the sudden intrusion of the elders" bass music. ... The throbbing and pulsing are made aurally acute as well as comic by the repetition of the b and p sounds. The comic grotesqueness of their excitement is augmented by the double meaning of "basses" and by the combination of "witching" and "pizzicatti." Similarly, Susanna's poignant and spiritual music in section II of the poem - in which the few rhymes subtly interlace thought and emotion - is interrupted by the crash of the cymbal and the roaring horns. In section III, the nervous rhythms and the couplets create a mincing, simpering music appropriate for the Byzantine servant girls. And yet there are modulations between the "noise" of their arrival and departure and the delicacy of their hushed refrain: "And as they whispered, the refrain / Was like a willow swept by rain." ... The music of Section IV is stately and sweeping, and close to the grand manner of "Sunday Morning." This section also evokes a sense of the continuity underlying change, partially by the use of the series of four rhymes ending in ing and of the word "interminably," which creates a drawn-out effect ...

So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing,
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.

What might have been mere program music, mere effect, as it so often is in Fletcher's symphonies, is turned in "Peter Quince" into a musical architecture which organically serves the whole thematic and emotional conception."

From Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens and the Making of "Harmonium" (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1967), 137-140.

Eleanor Cook

Peter Quince at the Clavier is Stevens' version of the story of Susanah, the story of how a private place is violated. Here, as in Le Monocle, there is tension, tension that is obvious in the poem's plot, its rhetoric, and its uncertainty about its own possible comedy. We have taken a long time to hear the odd disjunctions between the opening and closing lyric voices, and between the figures of Peter Quince and the red-eyed elders. Why is it that we have accepted with so little comment the analogy that follows this: "what I feel, / Here, in this room, desiring you, / Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, / Is music." So far, so good, even if this sounds like no Peter Quince (except as the fruit of desire). It is the next parallel that causes trouble, or ought to, given the tone of the opening lines: "Is music. It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna. . . ." The simile is so astonishing that it questions itself, and becomes a query or plea: It is like. . . . It is what? Let it not remain like, or why must it be like? Stevens' word "strain" is a fine choice: a musical strain, first of all ("that strain again; it had a dying fall"); the strain of the elders' eyes, and of their desire; most of all, the strain of the simile itself. Why should thinking in desire about a woman awaken thoughts of this story? It is as if a woman, thinking in desire about a man, is reminded of the story of Hosea and his wife, or of Potiphar's wife. And to say this to the addressee, unless the poem is about to turn comic--is this Peter Quince's bumbling?

In the poem's last section, Stevens contains his story of desire, as Peter Quince's drama is contained. Later, he did not contain the better-known biblical story of a woman spied on in her bath, the story of Bathsheba. In a 1924 poem, a man accuses himself, using Nathan's words to David: "You are the man." What husband, what Uriah, what shepherd, has this accused man killed? Peter Quince simply turns back to song and praise on the viol without resolving the strains of desire.

From Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1988 by Princton University Press.

Mary B. Arensberg

The myth of the dream is the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders, the wife accused by two church elders of unchastity, probably because she had repelled their advance. Daniel exposed their treachery, and as a result, she was vindicated, and they were put to death. The retelling of the myth occupies the central portion of the text, over which is superimposed a musical structure that empties into the famous coda. As in a dream, time and space are eclipsed, and as the poem moves back and forth in time, the two events of the poem (Quince at the clavier and Susanna and the elders in the garden) seem to occur simultaneously. When reading "Peter Quince," we enter into the landscape of the dream where the artificial limits of linearity, history, and time are erased. In its deep structures, the myth itself is grounded in sexuality, betrayal, and death, while the manifest imagery consists of varied symbols: the clavier, the garden, the woman, and the portal. Throughout the dream-text too, there is a chain of metonymic signifiers that lead from touch, to desire, to language; and they form a kind of erotic bracelet between desire and death, arousal and climax. . . .

In these stanzas, Susanna's autoerotic explorations are thinly disguised as ablutions, but they are also tropes for poetic "imaginings." As a figure for the muse, Susanna submerged in the green water is herself a locus amoenus, self-possessed and participating in the pleasure of her own creation. Her solipsism, here, has been noted by harold Bloom, and as Meyer and Baris suggest in a more recent reading of the poem, Susanna in this archetypal setting provides Stevens with "the garden [and] its dual theme of caritas and cupiditas, celebration and danger, realization and ravishment. Linking all the variations of the garden motif is the double strain of sensual and spiritual." Yet the muse-virgin can never be ravished by the poet, because she is the poet, the mirrored "self-object" of his own femininity.

The elders inhabit the space of Otherness in the dream: they are both the poet who would gaze on the primal scene of poetic invention and the principle of thanatos or the fall of language from myth into time and history. Here the brief glimpse of female sexuality is a link to the center of generative myth, which is, metaphorically, the precursor of language and poetic voice. The "presence" of the Elders in the dream-text also registers the voyeurism of the repressed poet, whose superego permits him to gaze on the onanistic activity of the muse but prevents him from entering her garden. Her discovery of the Elders' gaze, troped into the catachresis of "roaring horns" and "clashing symbols" is equivalent to the death of poetic vision that is killed by the intrusion of the reality principle. Like the child in a crib, exiled from the scene of his own origins yet seeing the source of his being enacted, the poet can only gaze at but never participate in the primal scene of creation.

from Wallace Stevens and the Feminine. Ed. Melita Schaum. University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Janet McCann

"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.

Mark Halliday

His most convincing expression of sexual desire, though, is in "Peter Quince at the Clavier," where the red-eyed elders are bewitched into a dissonant concerto of yearning by the sight of Susanna bathing. Does this poem endow Susanna with human identity? Is she more than just an attractive shape beside a garden pool? She at least has a name, which is more than can be said for the other beauties referred to so far (except Ursula). It is true that in section II of "Peter Quince" Susanna is given a point of view. Her thoughts, though, are awfully nebulous:

She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

So nebulous that we are certainly not encouraged to think of her as a particular woman with a particular personality. Meanwhile, it is easy to overlook the fact that the poet's reverie about Susanna is apparently stimulated by the beauty of another woman, a present woman:

what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

As I will explain later, I don't think the mere attribution of a blue garment to this present figure (blue being associated with the imagination in Stevens' oeuvre) suffices as proof that the "you" is an aspect of the speaker's mind rather than a woman, nor can I believe that Stevens intended us to hear the passage only in that way. When the poet informs the woman in the blue dress that what he feels for her is music, she might be forgiven if she replied, "Oh, is that so? Does this mean we won't be going to bed together?" Also she might be wise to wonder whether this lover who claims to be thinking not exactly of her but of her blue-shadowed silk will be able and willing to give her the kind of personal attention she deserves.

Such thoughts on her part would, one feels, be unlikely to please Mr. Stevens (or Mr. Quince), if she were to voice them. Here I think it is apposite to quote a reminiscence by Naaman Corn, who was the chauffeur for the Stevenses on family outings:

He didn't carry on any conversation with Mrs. Stevens much about something. She wouldn't talk on account of he would snap at her quickly. So she got where she just went in a shell, and she wouldn't say anything. One time I thought she couldn't talk because she never did say nothing, but I found out why. If every time you say something to a person, you're going to snap at them, they quit talking. They go underground. You could hear that, and you figured that's the reason why she clams up.

With no one to help her in her victimization except "simpering Byzantines," Susanna has no chance to make her case against the guilty elders; trapped in a poem controlled by Peter Quince, she can only clam up and go underground.

By being so attractive, Susanna causes a lot of trouble, for the elders and for her Byzantines as well as for herself (even though "The fitful tracing of a portal" is a lullingly cleansed way of alluding to rape fantasies). The very simplicity and clarity of her appeal make her alarming, an unavoidable disturbance of the peace. In situations when our poet, or his male speaker, cannot for some reason commit himself to a decisive, simple sexual response to such a woman's appeal, he is inclined to propose revisions of her behavior, or reconceptions of her nature, so that her appeal will not be so bluntly sexual in its impact. . . .

Stevens himself would perhaps disdain my literal-minded argument on behalf of the actual human women glimpsed in his poetry. He would feel amused pity for readers who find the wrong kind of solace in his "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour." Readers who worry about the strength and value of their love relationships with other people feel a powerful attraction in the matching of the word "together" with the word "enough" in the poem's ending: "We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough" (CP 524). Alas, it is not a man and a woman who live together in this poem; it is not two persons; the title of "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" makes this clear. Note, however, that if the poem is looked at without its title, a reader can justifiably feel invited to think of two persons who have joined in love. And in many Stevens poems, including those I have discussed thus far and most of those I will soon speak of, the female lover is not so decisively dehumanized, nor the idea of an actual human lover so firmly repudiated, as the title of this particular poem requires.

I think we are wrong to so readily accept the notion that Stevens can evoke a beautiful "woman" in poem after poem and mean "only" an idea, a conception, an attitude, a principle, but not an actual woman. My argument is that you cannot describe something as "a woman" without meaning something about actual women. Metaphors are not innocent in either direction. When you say that A is like B, you reveal something about your sense of A and your sense of B as actualities in your experience. Stevens' critics, fascinated by the metaphysical meaning of his female presences, have indulged him too gently in accepting them as only metaphysical. Critics sometimes go to absurd lengths to let Stevens escape from moral implications in this way. Here, for example, is Eugene Paul Nassar on "Peter Quince at the Clavier":

"Peter Quince" is really a poem about the imaginative faculty, its seasons and its value. It is not a poem about love between the sexes, nor in any way about relations between people. It is, rather, about the poet in solitude carrying on his sometime love affair with his "interior paramour," she who brings forth each "spring" children of desire that of necessity must be raped in "autumn." "Peter Quince" is an "amoral" poem in that it does not deal with moral problems at all, but with the inevitable cycle of creation and destruction that is the life of the poetic mind. The skeptical poet has his own obligations to his poems, the "Susannas" he creates, which are antithetical to the obligations that obtain in the love of one person for another.

To some extent, I'm afraid, Stevens would endorse Nassar's rather repellent interpretation. Yet consider: Stevens knew perfectly well, when he was writing his stanzas about Susanna and the elders, that he was causing us to think about (among other things, yes, but first and most vividly) an actual vulnerable woman and actual lustful old men and actual
Wallace Stevens: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

Helen Vendler

The blackbird is the only element in nature which is aesthetically compatible with bleak light and bare limbs: he is, we may say, a certain kind of language, opposed to euphony, to those "noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms" which Stevens used so memorably elsewhere in Harmonium. ... There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird because thirteen is the eccentric number; Stevens is almost medieval in his relish for external form. This poetry will be one of inflection and innuendo; the inflections are the heard melodies (the whistling of the blackbird) and the innuendoes are what is left out (the silence just after the whistling) ...

... The blackbird has perhaps something in common with Eliot's "shadow" that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation [in "The Hollow Men"]. But Stevens would deny that it is remediable or accidental intrusion between two things that without it would be better off. It is, rather, of one substance with the things it relates:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after. (iv)

Between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the man's mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood which is man's response to nature (stanza vi); between the man of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their "artifice of eternity" (vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird (xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony and lucidity/ It is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions, first of all,

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying. (xii)
and, lastly, our despair at death:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs. (xiii)

But neurosis and death are only instances of a pervasive relational eccentricity. Our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes - the blackbird is our "line of vision" (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of two minds (or, as Stevens presses it, "of three minds"), it is not as if we had a blackbird, an oriole, and a pigeon in view, but only "a tree / In which there are three blackbirds" (ii). The blackbird is by no means all - it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow - but though only a small part, it is the determining focus of relation.

From Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens; Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1969), 75-77.

Beverly Maeder

[I]t both unmakes the logical expression of ontological being, and creates a new linguistic field for speculative exploration. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is, from my way of looking here, one of Stevens' primary testing grounds for combining older uses of metaphorical and symbolic meaning with new nonrealist and nonidealist--non-ontological--uses of to be. Although widely applauded, it has received surprisingly little close attention.

Sections I and XIII embrace a sequence of great diversity and even dispersal, unified, it might seem, only by the presence of a referential blackbird (or blackbirds) in each section. Each of the thirteen sections demonstrates a fragmentary instantaneousness that relates it to Imagist poetry of the period and may distract us from the fact that the framework itself creates a very strong sense of location or setting; that is, it posits a spatial context and indicates the extent of this context for the sequence it embraces.


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

The closing section XIII reiterates the sense created in section I of a solid geographical or "natural" landscape. Through the Stevensian technique of prepositional foregrounding, Stevens attaches the very grammatical subjects of his sentences to the material stuff of signifiers like "Among . . . snowy mountains" and "In the cedar-limbs." The referentiality of the setting might be thought of as preexisting since there is a pretense of artlessness coupled with inertness, as though nature's handy perches were simply ordinary givens. They offer themselves as the place for "the only moving thing" to begin a series of movements that finally still themselves in XIII. But of course, this assertion relies on a premise of ontological fullness—somewhere--in nature, in the speaker's choice from among external givens, or in the human imagination's constructs from nature. The past tense of the frame may contribute to this sense.

In section I, the given, "Among twenty snowy mountains," is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of "A-mong . . . moun-tains" encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives "tw-en-ty" and "sno-wy." Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the "rhyme"-ing, unstressed in "moving" and stressed in "thing." The final "moving" of the sentence's subject, the "eye of the blackbird," moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality--a bird's eye is anatomically incapable of movement--stresses its metaphorical value.

Indeed, as a synecdoche for the activity of the viewer and a metaphor for the work of a poet, that roving, moving "eye" signifies the initial impulse for the movement needed to find "thirteen ways of looking." The blackbird's eye represents the shifting, animated, spirited world of creatures in the midst of the frozen world of geology. It also forms part of a delicately traced visual image that we might imagine as contrasting the dark glint of the blackbird's eye with the supposed whiteness of the mountains, a tiny eye point with a vast expanse, and lively and attentive movement (fictive and anatomically impossible though it is) with frigid immobility. Considering the blackbird's potential symbolic import as a bird of ill omen, this function of glinting, shifting, living, moving must relativize any simple contrast between its blackness and the white background. The eye of the blackbird must embrace a range of symbolic meanings across a spectrum from the benign to the malign, like Melville's whale. Although ominous in its blackness, it is also promising for its ability to escape all but the determinism of movement itself. We have seen in "The Motive for Metaphor" how a demiurgical chain of unexpected transformations can be set off by "Desiring the exhilarations of changes." For besides leading back to the quasi-ontological eye of the blackbird, the "moving thing" also implicates the emotions of the looker who is moved. The eye of the "I" implicitly scans the frozen landscape to pick out the one object that moves or that moves him--that is, the only object that signifies: blackbirds. The "I"'s desire determines the terms in which the fiction of the poem can be constituted.

The verb form "was" in this case predicates the first step toward fulfillment of the speaker's purpose, which is to examine one object from English grammar, and it makes us hesitate not only about the rules of metaphorical resemblance, or its supposed basis in described empirical reality, but also about deduction and its basis in linguistic logic.

The first four sections, however, constituting our way into the poem, play a predeterminant role in foregrounding to be. They encourage us as readers to problematize the question of "being" we will encounter in later sections in other developmental schemes. The speaker in the opening sections I to IV reaches into language and removes it from its common sense and ontological ground. For instance, the speaker predicates himself saying that he "was of three minds," not two. He then proceeds not by exegesis but by a simile in which he trickily deploys the tactic of reshuffling mere letters: He strips "three" of its h to make "tree," pseudo-ontologically puts it back in "there are," and leaves the "tree" again, through the copular bond of "are," to produce "three blackbirds." This is the new definition of "I" as sleight-of-hand man. Switching tactics, the speaker's trinity of minds and trinity of blackbirds give way in section IV to another trinity consummated by a simpler copular use of the verb to be: "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one." The paradox begotten of this copula may be an even more convincing play against ontology. "Are one" suggests the commonsense possibility of the union of flesh, love, knowledge, social life, and being within the semantic paradox of "one" being two. Including the blackbird in the "one" of man and woman in the second statement introduces the difference of an alien species, making the union a perhaps unholy one. In this vein, the resolution of the two statements into a hypothetical third statement of the implied syllogism would produce nonsense. A man and a woman are a man and a woman and a blackbird. The minor point is that syllogism is in any case for Stevens an example of philosophical or rational language that has no validity as poetic statement. What Wordsworth in his Prelude called the "syllogistic words" of a wizard are an apt simile for the logic chopping of rationalism, in that both wizards and rationalists "unsoul" the mysteries that bind humankind together into "one brotherhood." The major point lies elsewhere: equivalence in poetic language is shown to result from the accretive movement from "man" to "wo-" + "man," to a second movement that adds "blackbird;" poetic unity is created by the syntactic parallel of "Are one." That is, it is the copula that is the unifying force of the speaker's world. Semantically or lexically weak, it obtains its strength from establishing pivotal relations and balancing forces. It is a point around which degrees of distinction and equivalence, and diversity and unity, can be deployed experimentally.

Such moves take place within very small poems whose referential boundaries are established by visual, spatial images. In sections I to III these images are expressed with the verb to be combined with prepositions which incorporate it into the locative function. In addition, the "tree / In which" we meet the "three blackbirds" in II signals a unified grammatical and graphic space created by language for the poet's creative free play. This is given phonetic expression in section III, where the blackbird thing and "blackbird" word "whirled in the autumn winds." Who knows what the antecedent of "It" is in "It was a small part of the pantomime"? (Is it "The blackbird," the whole preceding sentence, or the phonetic play?) "It was," however, is what holds the speculative balancing act together among the vast possibilities of which the poem illustrates just a few. The "pantomime" is not just a "natural" mimicry but also a linguistic one, the great space of English.

Although it is difficult to extend such readings beyond the merely self-reflexive or metaphorical, we notice that the semantically weak locative is foregrounded as one of the main structuring principles for the extra-ontological cognitive work of the poem. Once the principle of location has been firmly established through the verb to be, it is constantly reiterated in other verbal contexts. The prepositional phrases have extremely diverse syntactic functions, as in:

"The mood / Traced in the shadow / An indecipherable cause" (VI)
"the black bird / Walks around the feet" / "Of the women about you" (VII)
"the blackbird is involved / In what I know" (VIII)
"the edge / Of one of many circles" (IX)
"the blackbird flew out of sight" (X)
"At the sight of blackbirds / Flying in a green light" (X)
"He rode over Connecticut / In a glass coach" (XI)
"The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs" (XIII) (emphasis added)

The referential looking denoted in the poem is focused on delimited spaces or even on the very elements that delimit them. Language is an analogous space whose limitations or boundaries are thus also inherently defined through a process of foregrounding and reiterating linguistic functions rather than affirming semantic meaning.

This is one of the senses of sections VI-VII and IX-XI, in which the locative is joined with verbs of filling, crossing, tracing, walking, flying, marking, riding. Inscribed within the space under a Roman numeral, they suggest the various motions of drawing, barring, scratching, dotting, jotting, coloring, and running off the page effected by the writing. The location is the necessary precondition, whether the frame be a "long window" or "shadow" (VI), the positioning of women "about" the men (VII), "the edge / Of one of many circles" (IX), "in a green light" (X), or the "glass coach" in which a man goes riding "over Connecticut" (XI). Both "looking at" a natural blackbird in a natural world and attempting resolution by logic are displaced by speculation (also looking, even spying) of another sort. On the one hand, this new speculation should avoid the fantastical deformations imagined of the "thin men of Haddam"--Adam (VII) or mistakes made despite seeming transparency (XI). On the other hand, it should deal with the material given by the "shadow" inscribed within the writer's frame rather than pursue an irretrievable and "indecipherable cause" (VI). Crossing and walking around within the poetic context and testing it metaphorically by flying "out of sight" (X) graft small-scale but bold experimentation onto an acute awareness of grammatical artifice and convention.

Symbolic conventions are also subordinated to the foregrounding of grammatical ones. Among the archetypal spatial symbols Stevens evokes in "Thirteen Ways" is the circle, dear to Saint Augustine and Emerson.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

Stevens' image disperses the unifying mystical force of Saint Augustine's God whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere. Stevens' circles are akin to the material illustrations with which Emerson opens his essay, "Circles"; "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second." The circle is indeed that through which we see and the limit of what we see. But whereas Emerson goes on to say that "throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end," Stevens, rather than looking for a First Idea here, affirms an undifferentiated plurality that strips his circles of the Ideal that Emerson calls in this essay "the highest emblem in the cipher of the world." The linguistic circles Stevens inscribes in this poem are not all variants of the same but all differently shaped spaces of looking as well as of speculating. The role of locative constructions, of which the word circle is a semantically full sign, is to establish the linguistic architecture of 'Thirteen Ways"--a confined space of verbal looking or speculation. What is beyond the circle is not seen; its edge erects a boundary for the thought of the poet.

The liminal situation of the poet's vision in section IX is paralleled by the situation of his language in it: it signifies, on the one hand, the constraints given by language, materialized in an "edge" at the end of a line, a graphic shape that borders on the void but is saved from conclusion by the following line, "Of one of many circles." If there are other circles, with other edges then, the "edge" mentioned here is the only one that is related to this blackbird. The section also affirms a movement that surpasses or passes over the edge of any single circle--the section's metaphorical unity--into a plurality of other circles or the space containing those circles. Each section in "Thirteen Ways" inscribes its own distinctive logico-grammatical movement within a specific syntactic space that has only tangential rational or ontological relevance.

As poets have always known, the acceptance of certain material limits allows creativity to concentrate itself. Stevens' limits are less the traditional ones of versification than the ambiguous boundaries of the grammatical functions of some of the most common words in English, most strikingly to be and prepositions. The reference to the panto- = "all" and mime = "imitation" (III) affirms an ambition to point beyond the minutiae that are denoted. It would be wrongheaded to deny the idealist aspirations of Stevens' project, or to overlook his search for a concrete poetic utterance that would be adequate to some metaphysical or noumenal form like "The thing I hum" that "Appears to be the rhythm of this celestial pantomime" in "Landscape with Boat. But his chosen medium, language--not clay, paint, dance movements, or musical sequence--must find "all" it can do in its own terms. And in "Thirteen Ways" we discover that language inevitably narrows itself in order to expand and circumscribes in order to "whirl" (related to Old Norse hvirfill = "circle, ring, summit") as "in the autumn winds" (III). Stevens' English shows that its power comes from revolving within a space it is familiar with in order to make strange new relationships within it.

As a last movement in this chapter, then, I would like to look at sections V and VIII, which signify the difficulty of the poet's balancing act. They illustrate in particular the impossibility of choosing between external and internal speculation. In imagistic terms, sections V and VIII suggest alternatives: the pleasure felt during the blackbird's whistling, as compared to that felt after it in V; a rhythmic or sound-oriented model for poetic knowing, as compared to the primarily cognitive and/or symbolic model of the blackbird in VIII.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

On the level of the signified, but on this level only, section V seems to propose an ontologically "full" choice between "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes," that is, for example between the modulations of voice (parallel to the "whistling" of the blackbird) and the meaningful suggestions that come to the mind with a slight delay (parallel to "just after"). On the level of the metaphors, there is an impossible choice between poetry itself and its resonance in the mind. This relatively simple metaphor becomes a complex place of poetic rather than ontological speculation when we consider the playful use of etymology in "inflections" and "innuendoes." We recognize that the word "inflections" illustrates the principles of English word building, like the use of different prefixes already present in Latin (inflect, deflect, reflect) and the Anglicization of the marks of different parts of speech, such as the common substantive suffix -tion here, or such forms as inflected, inflectional, inflexibility. It thus belongs to a large family of regularized and domesticated English words derived from the Latin root, flectere, now considerably impoverished in terms of its morphology--that is, its inflections. The hidden genealogy of the word "innuendoes" is quite different. Despite sharing with "inflections" the in-prefix meaning "in or toward, "innuendo" derives from the ablative case of the Latin gerund and is thus less a fixed thing and more a function or means. Appropriated as an English noun, its unusual -endo form nonetheless separates it from the static abstractness of -tion and relates it to musical terminology like "crescendo" and "diminuendo." It suggests not only by its etymology (nuere = "to nod") but also by its form a process or unfurling. It brings with it the functional or relational aspect of innuere = "to nod, to signify." Contrasted with the unbending bendingness of the word "inflections," the word "innuendoes" moves toward another gerund, another holder for that moving suffix -ing but a Germanic one this time: "whistling." The blackbird's inflections increase in sensuousness through
Wallace Stevens: Death of a Soldier
On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

Helen Vendler

The blackbird is the only element in nature which is aesthetically compatible with bleak light and bare limbs: he is, we may say, a certain kind of language, opposed to euphony, to those "noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms" which Stevens used so memorably elsewhere in Harmonium. ... There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird because thirteen is the eccentric number; Stevens is almost medieval in his relish for external form. This poetry will be one of inflection and innuendo; the inflections are the heard melodies (the whistling of the blackbird) and the innuendoes are what is left out (the silence just after the whistling) ...

... The blackbird has perhaps something in common with Eliot's "shadow" that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation [in "The Hollow Men"]. But Stevens would deny that it is remediable or accidental intrusion between two things that without it would be better off. It is, rather, of one substance with the things it relates:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after. (iv)

Between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the man's mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood which is man's response to nature (stanza vi); between the man of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their "artifice of eternity" (vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird (xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony and lucidity/ It is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions, first of all,

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying. (xii)
and, lastly, our despair at death:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar limbs. (xiii)

But neurosis and death are only instances of a pervasive relational eccentricity. Our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes - the blackbird is our "line of vision" (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of two minds (or, as Stevens presses it, "of three minds"), it is not as if we had a blackbird, an oriole, and a pigeon in view, but only "a tree / In which there are three blackbirds" (ii). The blackbird is by no means all - it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow - but though only a small part, it is the determining focus of relation.

From Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens; Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1969), 75-77.

Beverly Maeder

[I]t both unmakes the logical expression of ontological being, and creates a new linguistic field for speculative exploration. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is, from my way of looking here, one of Stevens' primary testing grounds for combining older uses of metaphorical and symbolic meaning with new nonrealist and nonidealist--non-ontological--uses of to be. Although widely applauded, it has received surprisingly little close attention.

Sections I and XIII embrace a sequence of great diversity and even dispersal, unified, it might seem, only by the presence of a referential blackbird (or blackbirds) in each section. Each of the thirteen sections demonstrates a fragmentary instantaneousness that relates it to Imagist poetry of the period and may distract us from the fact that the framework itself creates a very strong sense of location or setting; that is, it posits a spatial context and indicates the extent of this context for the sequence it embraces.


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

The closing section XIII reiterates the sense created in section I of a solid geographical or "natural" landscape. Through the Stevensian technique of prepositional foregrounding, Stevens attaches the very grammatical subjects of his sentences to the material stuff of signifiers like "Among . . . snowy mountains" and "In the cedar-limbs." The referentiality of the setting might be thought of as preexisting since there is a pretense of artlessness coupled with inertness, as though nature's handy perches were simply ordinary givens. They offer themselves as the place for "the only moving thing" to begin a series of movements that finally still themselves in XIII. But of course, this assertion relies on a premise of ontological fullness—somewhere--in nature, in the speaker's choice from among external givens, or in the human imagination's constructs from nature. The past tense of the frame may contribute to this sense.

In section I, the given, "Among twenty snowy mountains," is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of "A-mong . . . moun-tains" encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives "tw-en-ty" and "sno-wy." Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the "rhyme"-ing, unstressed in "moving" and stressed in "thing." The final "moving" of the sentence's subject, the "eye of the blackbird," moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality--a bird's eye is anatomically incapable of movement--stresses its metaphorical value.

Indeed, as a synecdoche for the activity of the viewer and a metaphor for the work of a poet, that roving, moving "eye" signifies the initial impulse for the movement needed to find "thirteen ways of looking." The blackbird's eye represents the shifting, animated, spirited world of creatures in the midst of the frozen world of geology. It also forms part of a delicately traced visual image that we might imagine as contrasting the dark glint of the blackbird's eye with the supposed whiteness of the mountains, a tiny eye point with a vast expanse, and lively and attentive movement (fictive and anatomically impossible though it is) with frigid immobility. Considering the blackbird's potential symbolic import as a bird of ill omen, this function of glinting, shifting, living, moving must relativize any simple contrast between its blackness and the white background. The eye of the blackbird must embrace a range of symbolic meanings across a spectrum from the benign to the malign, like Melville's whale. Although ominous in its blackness, it is also promising for its ability to escape all but the determinism of movement itself. We have seen in "The Motive for Metaphor" how a demiurgical chain of unexpected transformations can be set off by "Desiring the exhilarations of changes." For besides leading back to the quasi-ontological eye of the blackbird, the "moving thing" also implicates the emotions of the looker who is moved. The eye of the "I" implicitly scans the frozen landscape to pick out the one object that moves or that moves him--that is, the only object that signifies: blackbirds. The "I"'s desire determines the terms in which the fiction of the poem can be constituted.

The verb form "was" in this case predicates the first step toward fulfillment of the speaker's purpose, which is to examine one object from English grammar, and it makes us hesitate not only about the rules of metaphorical resemblance, or its supposed basis in described empirical reality, but also about deduction and its basis in linguistic logic.

The first four sections, however, constituting our way into the poem, play a predeterminant role in foregrounding to be. They encourage us as readers to problematize the question of "being" we will encounter in later sections in other developmental schemes. The speaker in the opening sections I to IV reaches into language and removes it from its common sense and ontological ground. For instance, the speaker predicates himself saying that he "was of three minds," not two. He then proceeds not by exegesis but by a simile in which he trickily deploys the tactic of reshuffling mere letters: He strips "three" of its h to make "tree," pseudo-ontologically puts it back in "there are," and leaves the "tree" again, through the copular bond of "are," to produce "three blackbirds." This is the new definition of "I" as sleight-of-hand man. Switching tactics, the speaker's trinity of minds and trinity of blackbirds give way in section IV to another trinity consummated by a simpler copular use of the verb to be: "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one." The paradox begotten of this copula may be an even more convincing play against ontology. "Are one" suggests the commonsense possibility of the union of flesh, love, knowledge, social life, and being within the semantic paradox of "one" being two. Including the blackbird in the "one" of man and woman in the second statement introduces the difference of an alien species, making the union a perhaps unholy one. In this vein, the resolution of the two statements into a hypothetical third statement of the implied syllogism would produce nonsense. A man and a woman are a man and a woman and a blackbird. The minor point is that syllogism is in any case for Stevens an example of philosophical or rational language that has no validity as poetic statement. What Wordsworth in his Prelude called the "syllogistic words" of a wizard are an apt simile for the logic chopping of rationalism, in that both wizards and rationalists "unsoul" the mysteries that bind humankind together into "one brotherhood." The major point lies elsewhere: equivalence in poetic language is shown to result from the accretive movement from "man" to "wo-" + "man," to a second movement that adds "blackbird;" poetic unity is created by the syntactic parallel of "Are one." That is, it is the copula that is the unifying force of the speaker's world. Semantically or lexically weak, it obtains its strength from establishing pivotal relations and balancing forces. It is a point around which degrees of distinction and equivalence, and diversity and unity, can be deployed experimentally.

Such moves take place within very small poems whose referential boundaries are established by visual, spatial images. In sections I to III these images are expressed with the verb to be combined with prepositions which incorporate it into the locative function. In addition, the "tree / In which" we meet the "three blackbirds" in II signals a unified grammatical and graphic space created by language for the poet's creative free play. This is given phonetic expression in section III, where the blackbird thing and "blackbird" word "whirled in the autumn winds." Who knows what the antecedent of "It" is in "It was a small part of the pantomime"? (Is it "The blackbird," the whole preceding sentence, or the phonetic play?) "It was," however, is what holds the speculative balancing act together among the vast possibilities of which the poem illustrates just a few. The "pantomime" is not just a "natural" mimicry but also a linguistic one, the great space of English.

Although it is difficult to extend such readings beyond the merely self-reflexive or metaphorical, we notice that the semantically weak locative is foregrounded as one of the main structuring principles for the extra-ontological cognitive work of the poem. Once the principle of location has been firmly established through the verb to be, it is constantly reiterated in other verbal contexts. The prepositional phrases have extremely diverse syntactic functions, as in:

"The mood / Traced in the shadow / An indecipherable cause" (VI)
"the black bird / Walks around the feet" / "Of the women about you" (VII)
"the blackbird is involved / In what I know" (VIII)
"the edge / Of one of many circles" (IX)
"the blackbird flew out of sight" (X)
"At the sight of blackbirds / Flying in a green light" (X)
"He rode over Connecticut / In a glass coach" (XI)
"The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs" (XIII) (emphasis added)

The referential looking denoted in the poem is focused on delimited spaces or even on the very elements that delimit them. Language is an analogous space whose limitations or boundaries are thus also inherently defined through a process of foregrounding and reiterating linguistic functions rather than affirming semantic meaning.

This is one of the senses of sections VI-VII and IX-XI, in which the locative is joined with verbs of filling, crossing, tracing, walking, flying, marking, riding. Inscribed within the space under a Roman numeral, they suggest the various motions of drawing, barring, scratching, dotting, jotting, coloring, and running off the page effected by the writing. The location is the necessary precondition, whether the frame be a "long window" or "shadow" (VI), the positioning of women "about" the men (VII), "the edge / Of one of many circles" (IX), "in a green light" (X), or the "glass coach" in which a man goes riding "over Connecticut" (XI). Both "looking at" a natural blackbird in a natural world and attempting resolution by logic are displaced by speculation (also looking, even spying) of another sort. On the one hand, this new speculation should avoid the fantastical deformations imagined of the "thin men of Haddam"--Adam (VII) or mistakes made despite seeming transparency (XI). On the other hand, it should deal with the material given by the "shadow" inscribed within the writer's frame rather than pursue an irretrievable and "indecipherable cause" (VI). Crossing and walking around within the poetic context and testing it metaphorically by flying "out of sight" (X) graft small-scale but bold experimentation onto an acute awareness of grammatical artifice and convention.

Symbolic conventions are also subordinated to the foregrounding of grammatical ones. Among the archetypal spatial symbols Stevens evokes in "Thirteen Ways" is the circle, dear to Saint Augustine and Emerson.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

Stevens' image disperses the unifying mystical force of Saint Augustine's God whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere. Stevens' circles are akin to the material illustrations with which Emerson opens his essay, "Circles"; "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second." The circle is indeed that through which we see and the limit of what we see. But whereas Emerson goes on to say that "throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end," Stevens, rather than looking for a First Idea here, affirms an undifferentiated plurality that strips his circles of the Ideal that Emerson calls in this essay "the highest emblem in the cipher of the world." The linguistic circles Stevens inscribes in this poem are not all variants of the same but all differently shaped spaces of looking as well as of speculating. The role of locative constructions, of which the word circle is a semantically full sign, is to establish the linguistic architecture of 'Thirteen Ways"--a confined space of verbal looking or speculation. What is beyond the circle is not seen; its edge erects a boundary for the thought of the poet.

The liminal situation of the poet's vision in section IX is paralleled by the situation of his language in it: it signifies, on the one hand, the constraints given by language, materialized in an "edge" at the end of a line, a graphic shape that borders on the void but is saved from conclusion by the following line, "Of one of many circles." If there are other circles, with other edges then, the "edge" mentioned here is the only one that is related to this blackbird. The section also affirms a movement that surpasses or passes over the edge of any single circle--the section's metaphorical unity--into a plurality of other circles or the space containing those circles. Each section in "Thirteen Ways" inscribes its own distinctive logico-grammatical movement within a specific syntactic space that has only tangential rational or ontological relevance.

As poets have always known, the acceptance of certain material limits allows creativity to concentrate itself. Stevens' limits are less the traditional ones of versification than the ambiguous boundaries of the grammatical functions of some of the most common words in English, most strikingly to be and prepositions. The reference to the panto- = "all" and mime = "imitation" (III) affirms an ambition to point beyond the minutiae that are denoted. It would be wrongheaded to deny the idealist aspirations of Stevens' project, or to overlook his search for a concrete poetic utterance that would be adequate to some metaphysical or noumenal form like "The thing I hum" that "Appears to be the rhythm of this celestial pantomime" in "Landscape with Boat. But his chosen medium, language--not clay, paint, dance movements, or musical sequence--must find "all" it can do in its own terms. And in "Thirteen Ways" we discover that language inevitably narrows itself in order to expand and circumscribes in order to "whirl" (related to Old Norse hvirfill = "circle, ring, summit") as "in the autumn winds" (III). Stevens' English shows that its power comes from revolving within a space it is familiar with in order to make strange new relationships within it.

As a last movement in this chapter, then, I would like to look at sections V and VIII, which signify the difficulty of the poet's balancing act. They illustrate in particular the impossibility of choosing between external and internal speculation. In imagistic terms, sections V and VIII suggest alternatives: the pleasure felt during the blackbird's whistling, as compared to that felt after it in V; a rhythmic or sound-oriented model for poetic knowing, as compared to the primarily cognitive and/or symbolic model of the blackbird in VIII.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

On the level of the signified, but on this level only, section V seems to propose an ontologically "full" choice between "The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes," that is, for example between the modulations of voice (parallel to the "whistling" of the blackbird) and the meaningful suggestions that come to the mind with a slight delay (parallel to "just after"). On the level of the metaphors, there is an impossible choice between poetry itself and its resonance in the mind. This relatively simple metaphor becomes a complex place of poetic rather than ontological speculation when we consider the playful use of etymology in "inflections" and "innuendoes." We recognize that the word "inflections" illustrates the principles of English word building, like the use of different prefixes already present in Latin (inflect, deflect, reflect) and the Anglicization of the marks of different parts of speech, such as the common substantive suffix -tion here, or such forms as inflected, inflectional, inflexibility. It thus belongs to a large family of regularized and domesticated English words derived from the Latin root, flectere, now considerably impoverished in terms of its morphology--that is, its inflections. The hidden genealogy of the word "innuendoes" is quite different. Despite sharing with "inflections" the in-prefix meaning "in or toward, "innuendo" derives from the ablative case of the Latin gerund and is thus less a fixed thing and more a function or means. Appropriated as an English noun, its unusual -endo form nonetheless separates it from the static abstractness of -tion and relates it to musical terminology like "crescendo" and "diminuendo." It suggests not only by its etymology (nuere = "to nod") but also by its form a process or unfurling. It brings with it the functional or relational aspect of innuere = "to nod, to signify." Contrasted with the unbending bendingness of the word "inflections," the word "innuendoes" moves toward another gerund, another holder for that moving suffix -ing but a Germanic one this time: "whistling." The blackbird's inflections increase in sensuousness through
Wallace Stevens: The Idea of Order at Key West
On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Mutlu Konuk Blasing

Only when Stevens can harmonize the philosopher's exoteric voice with the esoteric voice of the poet can he remain philosophically rigorous yet sound the "watery syllable" of the "saltier well." We hear this language of meditation again in "The Idea of Order at Key West," where he replaces linguistic and metaphysical dichotomies with a triangular arrangement and places the meditating mind at the apex. The poem returns to the discovery of "Sunday Morning" and to its dramatic form but casts the philosopher, the Emersonian essayist, as its central speaker. While it may revert stylistically to the "magnificent measure" that the post-romantic—with his eccentric truth—must learn to relinquish, "Key West" points to Stevens's way out of the impasse of poems like the "Comedian" and "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." It enables us to understand his subsequent insistence that poetry is the proper subject of poetry to be not a solipsistic withdrawal but an adequate response to just that danger.

The sea that "never formed to mind or voice" is, in "Key West," both the "inhuman," "veritable ocean" and an inner "nature" of Eros and death. And Stevens counterpoints the "grinding water and the gasping wind" of nature with the "song" of the "artificer" in such a way that neither subject nor object speaks through the other:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word. [CP, 128]

Both the pathetic fallacy and realism are rejected. The "plungings of water and the wind" are "meaningless" indeed, and we do not hear them, any more than we ever hear nature in poems. And the woman's song does not copy nature; it is "the voice that is great" (CP, 138) within her—her human "spirit" (stanza 3) or "breath"—rising in response to the sea's body and the "gasping wind." Yet we never hear the words of her lyric, either. The sea is an external nature with its meaningless, "constant cry"; its image and counterpart is the "she" who sings "word by word." Her measures and meters utter her song's law, just as the sea's cry sounds nature's law.

Stevens distances the lyric voice to the same extent that nature's echolalia is distanced. Instead, he centers on the speaker, the "connoisseur of chaos," and the "idea of order" he entertains. This meditating and mediating speaker is not a singer but a rhetorician, something of a critic even, and in his words, letters, and internal rhymes "relation appears" (CP, 215") between the "she" and "sea." Here Stevens goes beyond "Sea Surface" by explicitly affirming a relation between the sea and song—but only as the subject and predicate of a metaphor about the relationship of life and art. The Emersonian precedent for this poem is "The Snow-Storm," which also centers on the metaphor-making imagination, and invites us to "come see" a process "unseen"—a process not visible to the eye. In "Key West" such "seeing" becomes the link between "sea " and "she."

In this deconstruction of a romantic fusion of nature and subject, Stevens constructs a central rhetoric. In the words of the poem's speaker, the alien depths of a nature at once external and internal meet in the surfaces of a poetic language that glosses

The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. [CP, 130]

The song has a transforming significance only for its hearer, who hears a new, "amassing harmony" as much beyond the song as beyond the sea. For the critic, the singer's voice makes "the sky acutest at its vanishing" and measures "to the hour its solitude." Her measures open intercourse between nature and "ourselves," mastering and portioning out the darkness of inner and outer seas—but only in the "meta-phoric" speech of the critic who "inter-prets" and outlines the connection between artifice and sea, form and nature, music and death. He occupies the center, which is a portal or passageway—spatially and temporally "measured" by the singer—from a dark sea outside us to a darker sea inside, "dimly-starred" either way.

This metaphoric passage is, appropriately, a "fragrant" portal: the synesthesia makes the image a proper vehicle for its tenor, the earthly and earthy truth of figurative language. Measuring a space and time, the singer opens a door that delivers us into yet "separates us from the wind and sea" (CP, 87). The metaphoric/temporal passage is guarded by the "fragrant mother" of "Fictive Music," who belongs to the same "sisterhood of the living dead" (CP, 87), and the poet's muse—the mother of memory and imagination, the "mother of heaven, regina of the clouds" (CP, 13)—is also his earthly source, the "bearded queen" who would "feed" on him (CP, 507 ). All are imaginings of the same "mother" who opens and closes our earthly discourse, who binds the "handbook of heartbreak" (CP, 507 ). Thus Stevens understands metaphoric language as the threshold of fiction and truth, where the philosopher's "human should or would" and the poet's "fatal is" meet. In Stevens's impure voice, Emerson's "fatal is" becomes a copula that marks metaphoric unions.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

James Longenbach

Stevens always insisted that "Ramon Fernandez" was "not intended to be anyone at all," and, in a sense, like the "Mr. Burnshaw" of "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," he is a caricature [Stanley Burnshaw, as addressed in Stevens' poem, was active as a Marxist critic in the 1930s]. Yet most of Stevens's readers will know that Fernandez was a critic familiar to Stevens from the pages of the Nouvelle revue française, the Partisan Review, and the Criterion (where he was translated by T. S. Eliot). Fernandez's criticism became increasingly politically engaged in the 1930s, especially after the violent riots and the general strike he witnessed in Paris in the wake of the Stavisky Affair. (The mastermind of illicit financial deals in which the French government was implicated, Stavisky was found dead - apparently by his own hand, though his suicide seemed to most French citizens to have been far too convenient.) After the riots, Fernandez published an open letter to Gide in the Nouvelle revue française, asserting that while he had not opposed the fascist cause before the riots, he was now converted to the struggle of the proletariat. The letter provoked a number of letters in response, some of them challenging Fernandez, others simply canceling subscriptions to the Nouvelle revue française.

That this controversy lay behind Stevens's use of Fernandez's name in "The Idea of Order" would have seemed apparent to anyone who read Stevens's poem in Alcestis along with the current issue of the Partisan Review, which contained a translation of Fernandez's "I Came Near Being a Fascist." There Fernandez confessed that he had "a professional fondness for theorizing, which tends to make one highly susceptible to original 'solutions.'" It was just that susceptibility that bothered Stevens and made him challenge Fernandez to answer a question to which he knew there was no certain answer. Stevens's interest in the ambiguity of ideas did not mean that he took ideas lightly; on the contrary, he lamente what he thought of as "the Lightness with which ideas are asserted. Held, abandoned" in "the world today." Nor did Stevens mean to equate ambiguity with the intentional obscuring of an ambiguous world; he condemned the poet "who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure" as "an impostor." With his public announcements of political commitments and conversions, Fernandez was the opposite of Stevens, who recoiled at the idea of associating himself with any group or program that offered "solutions." Fernandez, suggests Stevens in "The Idea of Order," might have been certain about the source and effect of the singer's song, but the only thing Stevens was sure of was that in his certainty, Fernandez would have been wrong.

... Stevens believed that we cannot live without ideas of order, but like [R. P.] Blackmur he understood that he could not talk about order without raising the specter of disorder, and that any idea of order that did not leave space for its own dissolution could not be tolerated. In this sense, responding to Fernandez's dogmatism, Stevens might have titled his poem "The Idea of Disorder at Key West." As he would put it in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," "even disorder may, / So seen, have an order of its own." In the terms of Kenneth Burke that both Blackmur and Stevens admired, these poems of order do not offer "the seasoned stocks and bonds of set belief," but "a questioning art, still cluttered with the merest conveniences of thinking, a highly fluctuant thing often turning against itself and its own best discoveries.""

From James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford U P, 1991), 161-162.

J. Ronald Latimer

Excerpt from the editorial defining the policy of Alcestis, where "The Idea of Order at Key West" appeared as the lead-off poem in the first issue:

"Is it the poet's function to attack social evils (as Messrs. Spender and Auden do) and make him merely the instrument of an economic theory or shall he (like Mr Stevens and Miss Sitwell) rather try to capture and intensify the beauty of things as the aesthetic?

... It will therefore be the policy of Alcestis to publish only verse concerned with presenting artistic (as opposed to social) ends. The poet's politics do not concern the editor, but his aesthetic themes and the manner in which he expresses them are of real importance.

From J. Ronald Latimer, editorial for Alcestis.

Gyorgyi Voros

Stevens's sense of the American experience of the Nature / culture relation was that modern awareness of Nature--whether Nature be manifest as wilderness, as the human body, or as the human unconscious--had diminished dangerously. Stevens complained, "The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial. It has become an image in the mind." Human preconception had so blunted the human experience of and relation to nonhuman Nature, upon which the human rested, that indeed nothing but empty anthropocentric image remained. Stevens knew that a cancerous humanism diminishes human experience. "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real," he asserted.

This interdependence of imagination and reality is, of course, the subject of "The Idea of Order at Key West." The poem's speaker, walking on the shore, listening to the singer, posing questions and propositions about the nature of art to his companion, posits a series of antinomies which can be reframed as usefully within the categories of Nature and culture and human and nonhuman as they can within reality and imagination. The speaker pits mind against Nature's "body wholly body," singer's song against the "meaningless plungings of water and the wind," the glassy lights of the town against the darkness of the sea, and language against the "words of the sea." While he asserts the mutual influences between sea and song, he emphasizes an essential discontinuity between them and averts any suggestion of an easy synthesis: "The song and water were not medleyed sound / Even if what she sang was what she heard," he cautions and stresses that "it was she and not the sea we heard."

The poem's central question asks, "Whose spirit is this?" That is, what interface exists between human and Nature in song, the poem's metonym for art? The speaker has already shown that the singer's song fails as direct translation of the sea's "constant cry," nor can song effect a seamless identification between singer and natural elements. Is it then a production of individual vision against the spectacular stage set of Nature? After all, "she was the maker of the song she sang. /... [the] sea / Was merely a place by which she walked to sing."

The poem's final third is customarily read as an avowal of the romantic doctrine of the mind's ultimate superiority over Nature: after all, "It was her voice that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing" and the aftermath of her song that answers to the human "rage for order." In the resounding silence that follows the song, the lights of the fishing boats

Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Indeed, Helen Vendler's reading of this poem places it within the Wordsworthian mind / Nature dichotomy and reads it as asserting the romantics' sense of "the power of poetry over nature." Similarly, Harold Bloom writes that the poem "remains equivocal and perhaps impossible to interpret" because it simultaneously "affirms a transcendental poetic spirit yet cannot locate it, and the poem also remains uneasily wary about the veritable ocean, which will rise up against Stevens yet again."

Placing this poem too squarely within the romantic framework of mind over Nature, however, discounts the poem's true dynamic, which does not rest solely on the dichotomy between singer and song. The two listeners themselves engage in creation (song making) by attending to sea and singer. The stimuli around the speaker--singer, song, companion, "bronze shadows heaped / On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres / Of sky and sea," night descending, lights emerging--engender in him a flow of propositions, questions, and highly charged perceptual experiences. Rather than depicting the power of poetry over Nature, the poem depicts the power of the sum of perceptual experiences created by human and nonhuman components in the speaker, whose main role in the poem may be summarized as that of creative listener. . . .The night deepens after the song has ended; the resounding silence, as it were, heightens the effects of song and what might be regarded as the visual analogues to song, the lights, boats, town, and other human productions that order and "portion out" the natural scene. This difference--the juxtaposition and interface between before and after--is more significant than any element of the experience. It is finally the speaker, not the singer or the song, who effects the enchantment of the night.

From Notations of the Wild: Ecology in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Iowa Press.

Janet McCann

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.

Pat Righelato

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 &
Wallace Stevens: A Postcard from the Volcano
On "A Postcard from the Volcano"

Merle E. Brown

What might seem at first a very simple poem is in truth extremely complex as a result of the feelings evoked from the presence in the poem of three actual presents: the present of the thinking poet, trembling as in another ether, supratemporal and supraspatial; the present of the scene on the postcard, the future imagined as present, with its children weaving budded aureoles and picking up bones and saying things about one's mansion and himself; and the present of one's bodily self which is the past of the future as present.

What are the feelings evoked by this temporal complex? Despair, of course, is the most obvious feeling, the despair of one's actual bodily self, of "A spirit storming in blank walls," a spirit so sensitive to the fact that its living reality is boxed in the immediate present, with no sense of a rich tradition in its own past and no hope that it will be part of a rich tradition in the future. Its world is a gutted world because it has no future to hope for. Its despair, curiously enough, is produced by its very sureness that children, though they will speak of it and its dwelling with its own speech, will never know that their speech is the speech of him on whom they comment. The quality of objects is determined by the way they are felt and observed by those who live along them. The children observing the mansion of the bodily self of the "I" will see it and speak of it as they do because the "I" saw it and spoke of it as he did. But he saw it and spoke of it as he did because of his certainty that the children, in their innocent unawareness of the continuity of history, would treat the past as if it were not a living part of their present, would treat the bodily self's present a if it were utterly dead in their present.

Thus, the second obvious feeling of the poem, the children's innocent wonder as they sit weaving wreaths of flowers and commenting on the ghostliness of the mansion and its dead owner, is saturated with its opposite, the guiltiness of their innocence, of their ignorance that they owe their very eyes and speech to the dead man, that their vitality is in many ways a perpetuation of his vitality, which was a despairing vitality because he was sure in his very bones that they would wonder about him with their innocent ignorance of history and its efficacy.

The dominant feeling of the poem, then, that of the living present of the poet's immediate thinking, may be summed up in the phrase, "The gaiety of language." The poet shares the despair, the aching desolation, of his bodily self but, as experienced by this man as poet, the despair become "a literate despair" that cries out in all three presents, but mainly in the supratemporal present, as above and "Beyond our gate and the windy sky." From that other ether, the poet experiences the jubilance of knowing the intricate relationships between past and present and future within the time series. As a result of such knowing, the whole of the world of the poem, the dirty mansion, the children, the bones left behind, the way things are seen and felt, and speech itself are all "Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun," with that supratemporal source of light and awareness that is the very moving of the poet's thought in the present of his poem as living, imaginative experience. The despair of what will become mere bones to be picked up by children, the guilty innocence of the children, these remain the anguish and the ignorance of this desolate world. While the words continue to tremble and echo from the volcano, however, while this supratemporal linguistic awareness continues to smear the dirt and poverty of the scene with the gold of its opulence, the despair felt cries out as "a literate despair" and "The gaiety of language is our seignior." The gold is merely smeared on the dirt; the dirt remains what it is, covered with the gold, but as real as if exposed. Despair, guilt, ignorant wonder, jubilance and gaiety, all survive and contribute vitally to this richly historical and desolately unhistorical affirmation of an imaginative truth.

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act (Detroit, Wayne State U P, 1970), 167-169.

James Longenbach

"A Postcard from the Volcano" offers its readers a few simple words delivered after the apocalypse; but the language survives from a past that is only apparently destroyed, and the historical continuities of the language that forms the poem itself undermine the poem's evocative sense of an ending. Stevens begins by recognizing a new generation's inevitable sense of its distance from its heritage. Yet he speaks with the voice of the dead.

[. . . .]

"You ought to understand the pasts destroyed," said Stevens apropos of the conclusion of "Sombre Figuration," but in "A Postcard" he points out that the effect of a past destroyed will linger whether it is understood or not; the children "least will guess that with our bones / We left much more."

We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know.

Marx described this paradox in the famous opening paragraphs of the "Eighteenth Brumaire": "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." In Stevens's "Postcard" the sky cries out "literate despair" to the new generation, literate because the children themselves have given it words and the words themselves were spoken by the dead. Like the apocalypse of "Sombre Figuration," this is a "wished-for ruin"; the image of modern society as a decayed casino in "Academic Discourse at Havana," the children's vision of the past as a shuttered mansion-house is an "infinite incantation of our selves." Stevens does not want to condemn the children for being seduced by such an incantation--he understood how difficult it is to separate "fatalism" from "indifferentism" in a time of social unrest; rather, he hopes the new generation will see that its swan song is also a prelude to a great new poem. "A dirty house in a gutted world" is also "tatter of shadows peaked to white, / Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun."

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

Return to Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens: Study of Two Pears
On "Study of Two Pears"

Charles Altieri

"The title establishes the new space abstraction must explore, a site between art and perception, while also suggesting the basic problem that such exploration must face. I take it that the "study" refers to a painting, which in turn affords us an opportunity to study how we go about seeing in a vital way. Yet the very framework of the study may eventually prove as limiting and self-mocking as the Latin pedagogy that sets the scene. For as we become aware of how our attention becomes vital, we may feel trapped by the frames that reward its visual orientation. ... Realization represents, but what is represented is not a world of ordinary objects and conventionalized vision, Indeed, once the process begins it soon exceeds the object eliciting it. So in the central stanzas we move from specific negations and sharpened attention to what must be taken as purposive aspects of appearance. We think of a modeling will. But then the will quickly leads to grounds beyond the subjective maker through Stevens" remarkably inventive use of the clichéd metaphor "flowering." As perception becomes active, and especially as it comes to recognize a dynamic principle at work in eliciting its activity, straightforward names must yield to metaphor if they are to be at all adequate to the situation. Stated this baldly, however, we find ourselves making an observation which would hold true of any intense situation. Stevens" specific metaphor complicates matters considerably. Up to this point the poem had relied on a presentational movement but had not sought an abstract situating - quite the contrary. Now the action shifts from seeing to reflecting upon one's seeing. As the pear becomes most fully itself before the eye. It must become something else: the fruit must act as a flower does if the mind is to appreciate fully its appearance as a fruit. Then, as flowering seems to capture the particular act of emergence, we recognize that the term applies to a good deal more than the pear. The flowering is also a process of the mind's own blossoming within a world formerly perceived as only from a distance. The painting brush, the writer's recasting, and the observer's attention all here flower, suggesting that when the mind too becomes fully itself it must at the same time become other, must take on an identity that no perception qua perception can register. Perception at its most intense requires our entering the order of metaphor, requires the intensification of art. This indeed is why we need a painting to learn how to see a pear.

From Charles Altieri, "Why Stevens Must be Abstract, or, What Poets Can Learn from Painting," in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism, ed. Albert Gelpi (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 97-98.

B. J. Leggett

A number of the poems of Parts of a World record the moments in which conventional seeing is destroyed through reduction of the commonsensical to a kind of obscurity. Although "Study of Two Pears" is not usually read in this manner, it is in part an exercise in freeing the world of conventional meaning, reducing the pears to "blobs." The exercise begins by resisting the impulse to see the pears through analogy with familiar objects, which would domesticate them, rob them of their uniqueness: "The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles. / They resemble nothing else." The temptation to think of them in terms of paintings of pears is also resisted ("They are not flat surfaces / Having curved outlines"), and the result is to convert them to form and color--"yellow forms / Composed of curves" . . . "touched red" . . . "round / Tapering toward the top." The farther from the conventional descriptions of pears the poem retreats, the more unpearlike the objects become. They reveal uncharacteristic "bits of blue," and the pear-yellow now "glistens with various yellows, / Citrons, oranges and greens." The final stage in this reduction is that of a formlessness in which the object loses its familiar look and resists the mind's attempt to dictate its appearance or meaning:

The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

Properly obscure, the pears are now presumably ripe for the "early" or "first" seeing, a result not of the will or intelligence but of what Stevens [in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"] calls "candid" seeing, an "ever-early candor" by which "Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation."

From Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory: Conceiving the Supreme Fiction. Copyright © 1987 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Bonnie Costello

The problem of Modernism's negations (especially Cubist negations) is again the subject of "Study of Two Pairs," whose title clearly invokes visual arts. The concerns of the body of the poem - shape, color, outline, resemblance - also derive from painting. As does Cubist painting, the poem suggests both a struggle to see reality as it is and to create and imaginative reality. The poem ends ironically, for while the pears are not seen as the observer wills (not as viols, nudes, or bottles), it is only these willed images that are seen. The poem seems to move in this direction toward the last two stanzas where the reality of the pears is entirely elusive - a glistening at bests. Even their shadows are only defined as "blobs on the green cloth." The dull, flat language of "Study of Two Pears" may reflect the dullness of bandage to visual fact. Such objectivism is only an "opusculum paedagogum." But the poem also perhaps testifies to the failure of language to represent adequately the allure of visual fact (it "glistens"). Without metaphor (without viols, nudes, or bottles) language is nothing, and yet metaphor implies an evasion, a removal from positive direct experience. Stevens' ambivalence about the eye centers, then, on his allusions to painting. Here his own stance as observer/describer seems inadequate to capture observation. The poem does not offer an equivalence in language to Cubist concerns and techniques, but rather a description of those concerns and techniques, a substitution rather than an apposition.

from "Effects of an Analogy: Wallace Stevens and Painting. In Albert Gelpi (ed.) Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Cambridge University Press.

Anthony Whiting

Stevens undermines a single, reductive point of view again in a later poem, "Study of Two Pears." . . .

. . . the speaker of the poem is the reductionist. The speaker insists that pears are unique natural forms that have no resemblance to anything else. "The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles. / They resemble nothing else" ( CP 196). And the poem ends with the words, "The pears are not seen / As the observer wills" (CP 197), which can be read as a final assertion that the pears resist the observer's will to transform them into something else through resemblance. Stevens writes in "Three Academic Pieces" that ''as to the resemblance between things in nature, it should be observed that resemblance constitutes a relation between them since, in some sense, all things resemble each other" (NA 71). He goes on to discuss resemblances between things in nature and things of the imagination, and he comments that "Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance" (NA 77). In denying that the pears resemble anything else, then, the speaker of "Study of Two Pears" takes a decidedly antipoetic stance. But it is a stance that the speaker unknowingly subverts. In the process of defining what the pears are not, the speaker creates resemblances between them and other things in nature (viols, nudes, bottles), and between them and artistic representations of them. . . . In trying to define the pears by excluding everything else, the speaker shows us that it is impossible not to relate the pears to things in nature and to things created by the imagination. Ironically, the speaker's attempt to eliminate resemblances results in a "satisfying of the desire for resemblance."

. . . In "Study of Two Pears," the speaker's attempt to describe the pears by denying their resemblance to other things results in showing us how many things they do resemble. The centripetal force of reduction and exclusion becomes the centrifugal force of differentiation and dispersion as, through resemblance, the contexts in which Stevens presents the pear expands.

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

Return to Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens: Of Modern Poetry
On "Of Modern Poetry"

David Walker

"... [I]n an age of disbelief, we play the role of the actor as well. Stevens emphasizes the point by saying that the audience, hearing the actor's words, "listens, / Not to the play, but to itself," thus becoming actor and audience at once. The entire movement of the poem is toward the moment of creative fusion in the mind, "as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one." The actor's sole responsibility - and by analogy, the poet's - is to discover the text that will provoke this degree of imaginative sympathy, which may draw upon the whole range of human activity:

It must

Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may

Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman

Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

""Of Modern Poetry" is constructed as a scenario of the kind of text the modern "theater" requires; at the same time, it furnishes us with an example of that text. It provides the reader not with an idea but with the dramatized imaginative experience of an idea, and concludes with precisely the sort of emotional resolution it describes. The three figures of the final lines are abstract illustrations of a concept, yet they are also perfectly realizable images. The sense of the sentence suggests that Stevens might have used any three verbs, but clearly these are not random choices, since skating, dancing, and combing reflect the combination of activity and solitude that characterize the actor's performance. Imagining these figures, the reader completes the scenario, and in that act of the mind discovers the sufficient theater the poem set out to find.

From David Walker, The Transparent Lyric (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1984), 48.

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan

But in "Of Modern Poetry," written two years before, and later in "Burghers of Petty Death," we find men and women together, more successfully figured as equal representatives of humanity. "Modern Poetry," Stevens says, "has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time." In the second poem, written in 1946, Stevens says:

These are the small townsmen of death,
A man and a woman, like two leaves
That keep clinging to a tree,
Before winter freezes and grows black--

This "woman," equal in her humanness to the "man," marks a new moment in Stevens in which "she" is not only validated but recognized both as a presence and as a human being, rather than tracing in either idealized or "monstrous" discourse the path of failed signification and signifiers. If I were to indulge in psychological explanations, I would consider the possibility that the sheer, overwhelming and uncontrollable violence of the Second World War reduced all human beings in Stevens' eyes to the position of "women" in the ironically-realized, metaphorical sense of the word. We are all without power, not just women, in this modern world, unable to control the world and possibly our own lives.

from Wallace Stevens and the Feminine. Ed. Melita Shaum. The University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Mark Halliday

His Collected Poems is not the book a reader might expect from the author of these appealing lines about what modern poetry requires:

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time ...
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman

Admittedly, to quote only these lines from "Of Modern Poetry" is to distort the poem by avoiding the lines where Stevens stresses the subjective and solitary quality of the poetic event as it occurs wholly within the mind, performed by and for the mind. Nevertheless, the lines quoted above have crucial force in the emotional effect of the poem. They seem to propose a tenderly accurate perception of the lives of individual human others as an obligation of the modern poem, an obligation whose respectful fulfillment will lead to satisfaction. Surely it is hard to hear those lines without feeling that the satisfaction to be derived from the kind of poetry thus recommended will involve, or will at least facilitate, some amelioration of the relations between people, between the poet and the men and women who are to be faced and met. Stevens undoubtedly knew, and intended, that such encouragement concerning interpersonal relationships (as a matter beyond the scope of the solitary mind's satisfaction with itself) would be a palpable component of the poem's emotional impact. He knew, moreover, that to give this lovely emphasis to poetry's capacity for the imaginative encountering of other persons was to invoke an available tradition in English and American poetry distinguishable from, though often co-present with, the tradition of the lyrical "I" who contemplates his own relation to life (Nature, time, memory, love, death) and distinguishable as well from the tradition of the representative speaker who can use the word "we" in uttering something true for all human beings. One kind of great precedent, in the work of achieving penetrating awareness of the lives of persons different from the poet, is of course provided by the dramatic monologues of Tennyson and Browning. But Wordsworth and Whitman are the poets whose efforts to recognize other persons give the cited lines of "Of Modern Poetry" their most resonant ancestry.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1992 by Princeton UP.

Charles Altieri

For my example from Stevens I want to skip ahead to a time when the Modernist experiments had been digested, so that an artist might reflect on the entire historical process, distilling the formative years of Modernism into a single abstraction about abstraction. No one lyric quite does that, but, as the criticism it has spawned indicates, Stevens's "Of Modern Poetry" comes as close as we are likely to get to the goal. Whereas Williams, in the essay on Matisse, saw the energy of the compositional act as the means to renew our sense of writing's possible relations to the concrete world, Stevens presents an introspective meditation on the significance of that ability to focus. He is less interested in the world of appearances per se, however composed, than in the way the powers of composition displayed in art afford principles for defining the self and for recovering, within a lucid Modernist consciousness, vital forms of old evaluative predicates such as "nobility" and .'freedom." That quest entails indulging in the same quasi-mystical language as that used by the founders of nonrepresentational art. But Stevens presents his claims so self-consciously, and so concretely, that he suggests the possibility of such diffuse abstractness making plain secular sense. . . .

The poem's concerns are obviously Romantic ones, yet both its vision and the basic means for realizing it are distinctively Modernist. Were this a meditative lyric by Wordsworth or Coleridge, looking within would be a corollary of aligning the self with energies in the natural world, but in Stevens's poem the world beyond the self has no symbolic resonance. That world enters the poem only as the force of historical change, destroying old fictions and making the demands that dominate the third stanza. As the mind tries to respond to all that history contaminates, it locates the necessary resources in its power of self-reflection. Different as these concerns are from Williams's, they still demand a version of his basic strategy: An authentic Modernism must be based on a fundamental contrast with some blocking condition in the very center of our capacity to represent experience. Only by such contrasts can the foregrounded compositional act exemplify a possible cure of the ground. But whereas Williams resists a flawed condition of apprehension (the woman's nakedness cannot be told), Stevens resists a flawed condition of judgment (the old theater's fixed scripts neither match modern reality nor indicate our capacity to fulfill ourselves in adapting to that reality). The new theater must prove itself by developing new ways of handling the baggage of discursive thought. At stake is not simply how we see objects, but how we conceive the nature of objectivity and the powers that produce it: how, in other words, we face the domestic entrapments so horrifying to Duchamp. Stevens's is a poetry about how the mind's eye can represent itself, when it reflects on its acts as metaphoric equivalents to the sun's.

A lyric with such ambitions must render the mind as simultaneously subject and object of the poem: The essential affirmative content of the poem must reside in the quality of its self-defining activities. Thus, instead of seeking symbolic or dramatic resolutions in some illusionary world, Stevens's poem relies on its own structural and metaphoric processes as its means to express, and to test, its capacity to escape the initial state of bondage. The initial dramatic situation is defined simply by the mind's awareness of change and the sense of lack that this awareness generates. Modernist self-consciousness emerges as a process of negation, orienting itself through the lens of all we have lost or can no longer be: yet that sense of loss is not without compensations. It brings in its wake a harsh realism, no less threatening to our vanity, but nonetheless offering terms by which the mind can take responsibility for its situation. Therefore the poem quickly turns to a list of necessities, which takes form as a strange litany based on the refrain "it has to. " The formal repetition enables the mind to focus its attention on its own needs, processes, and powers, so that it can sustain a sense of responsibility sufficiently intense to inaugurate a counterpressure to the spirit of negation.

Defining that counterpressure poses the poem's most difficult challenge. Stevens must show how reflecting on necessities creates a stage for a responding act capable of a great deal more than contemplating its own victimization:

It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation. speak words that in the ear . . .

Notice how the movement of these lines establishes a set of capacities entirely different from the poem's initial entrapment in its own pathos. The introductory theater metaphors had sustained a flat, prosaic syntax of isolated, brief clausal units. Self-consciousness begins in a domain of fact and tired language. With the litany, the language shifts to simple descriptive expressions, charged with syntactic urgency. Now the language once again changes, as we arrive at the need to construct on a stage. Similes and qualifications enter, and direct urgency gives way to a series of slowly unfolding repetitions and aural echoes that suspend the flow of thought into a lush state of reflective self-absorption.

The poem becomes its own subject, in every sense of that term. Its hovering over its own metaphors arouses, and justifies, an increasingly erotic inwardness (in the delicatest ear of the mind), suggesting that we participate on a new stage, where the process of abstraction can withdraw into itself that reality pursued by lovers of truth. Now it must be the words that become our actors, "heroic" by virtue of what they let an audience realize about its own powers. as it listens, "not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one." What this heroism entails is perhaps clearest in the intricate evasions of the repeated ''as." An emotion that is ''as of two people" holds out the promise of also conjoining the two emotions into one, because anyone can share that ''as." Anyone can step back from her activities as an empirical subject in order to explore other forms of intentionality defining possible transpersonal forms that our desire can take. Is this not precisely what the poem is doing in asking us to participate in its own depersonalized structure of internal relations, as if we entered a work of music? When we share the ''as'' of comparison, linking the two emotions, we also share the ''as'' of temporal and qualitative equivalences linking the states of mind produced in, or as, those emotions.

These equivalences return us to Williams's "so." Now, though, the focus is less on the physical space that the equivalences make possible than on the processes of self-consciousness required to negotiate this poem. Stevens's equivalences serve primarily to compose a self-reflexive world that minds must admit they share. For then the poem, an act of mind, can provide concrete testimony for the values that can be attributed to such acts. Because we realize that it is ultimately the audience that gives substance and depth to the ''as," as it reads, we must treat reading as bound to the same stage and capable of sustaining the same process of self-articulation. We enter a strange intentional state in which we must look at our own reading processes as if they were not quite our own, not quite the possession of any one subject, because of the way that they distribute emotional investments, ''as of two emotions becoming one." Not as overtly radical as Duchamp, Stevens nonetheless demands the same flexible imagination in his audience, as it watches itself enter new structures of intentionality. The transpersonality there realized is, at best, potential or virtual, but once we see how the poem refers to its own activity, those virtual dimensions are inseparable from our reflections on the text. And once we allow such virtual states to take on reality , everything that Stevens had said about "nobility, " in his prose statement, begins to make clear sense. Substance has become subtlety, and the actor's composing of this theater has defined "precious portents of our own powers. " Yet these portents owe nothing to the bitter glass. They depend on minimal ideological claims and require no representation. Rather, they depend on our ability to look beyond the contents of our representations to the shareable virtual space produced by reflecting on what we must bring to the representations that can satisfy us. Eloquence itself floats free of its anchors in ideology, to embody powers that we cannot but see enacted in our own constructive activity as we participate in this theater.

Having so constructed this complex stage, Stevens goes on to describe the actor. The hero composed of these processes has the combined traits of the metaphysician and the musician, a blend of the most abstract and the most sensual of properties. Music provides the objective rhythms that physically align our bodies to the becoming of the emotions, and metaphysics adds the metaphoric scope that allows the bodies to inhabit the romance space initially opened by traditional ideals of truth. The hero, then, is anyone able to internalize the language that can make "rightnesses" out of listening to the music that the poem produces within the erotic movements of its own syntax. Because philosophy becomes less a descriptive quest than a means for positioning the mind so that it can appreciate what takes place in the self-reflexive acts that the discipline engenders, the poem's clarity about its own processes ultimately establishes a self-subsuming structure that literally enacts its basic claims. A mind displaced from the fixed scripts of a symbolic theater finds, simply in its own articulate rendering of its condition, a "strong exhilaration / Of what we feel from what we think" (Collected Poems 382).

By identifying itself with these "portents of its own powers, " the mind can reject the dangerous alternatives otherwise inescapable for self-reflexive Modernism. At one pole is the temptation to "rise" to a mystical aesthetics or a translunar paradise, where one imagines oneself dwelling in a realm beyond secular appearance. The other pole is an entrapment in infinite irony, the demonic "other" of transcendence. A mind unable to find a home for its powers descends to violent satiric energies or to self-negating processes as the only remaining authentic or lucid use of imaginative energy. For Stevens, though, the aim is to eliminate any sense that desire requires a specific domain where it can find adequate objects. Desire is fulfilled, not by possession but by reflection: by the satisfaction that comes from feeling that one's imaginative terms are defining the very needs they construct. Then there need be no fear of displacement, because there are no energies of thought that cannot be expressed and understood as potential lyric grounds for engaging self-reflexively in our common humanity at its most intense.

Full "containment" of the mind, however, demands more than this state of participation. Stevens wants us to be able to reflect upon that condition as itself composing a distinct imaginative site, where we see, in concrete figurative terms, what these levels of containment make available. So Stevens turns to another aspect of form, using his conclusion to indicate how the poem's abstract patterns give substance to the self-reflection that they free from dramatic illusionism. Formal structure becomes the means to articulate the ultimate grounds that warrant the poem's status as a transpersonal schema for the experience of value.

First, the climactic "[it] may be," in the last stanza, connects these concluding lines to the earlier pressures imposed by the "it has to" and "it must." The pattern so formed defines a thematic progression from the recognition of external necessity, to an internal alignment of one's choice with one's fated chance, to a resulting freedom to revel in all contingencies. Having accepted his confinement within history, the mind can value all of the particulars that constitute its place and provide it with terms for reflecting on its relation to that place. This acceptance then produces a second, pronounced formal pattern that clarifies the relational principles on which the entire act of mind depends. As the poem steps free at the end into pure particulars, it also steps back, to repeat the sense and syntax of the opening line, thus making "the poem of the act of mind," a physical framework that is literally the ground for the theatrical gestures. That echo, that end in its beginning, insistently refuses all transitive verbs, as if the delicate sonorities of the third stanza were only segments of a finer, more encompassing, quasi-physical space that only words can compose. The framing gestures give the poetic voice the aura of serving as the mind's body, now able to account for the eros charging all of the particulars that enter this action. By syntactically projecting a dimension of the "act of mind" that exists outside of time, the denial of transitivity and the repetition suggest the quality of meditative theater, composed by and hushed for the sounds that can wholly contain the mind as it links author with audience in a site on the margin of history.

To view these static qualities as pure aesthetic form, however, would be to impose contraries where Stevens sees complements operating on different levels. His point is not how space contrasts to flux, but how a constructed space makes it possible to feel one's own activity of mind as physically occupying that space, in way that renders it transpersonal (as if one could not distinguish scene from act) .Therefore Stevens is careful to eliminate all active verbs from the act of mind that sets that scene: Rather than let any specific action set the stage, Stevens wants language to emerge as if the desires underlying all verbs called the poem into being. That is why, when particular verbs finally do appear, they seem in effect to channel those desires into specific permissions. The poem moves from "must," to "may be," to a series of participles that serve as emblems for the continual generating of imagined objects of attention—all poised between the substance of nominalized states and the activities that elicit and satisfy desire. Details such as combing are absolutely casual, and the casualness is never transformed into symbol. The transformation that does take place is on a different level: Casualness itself becomes resonant and reverberates, without ever tempting us to confuse the energies of composition with putative meanings in the world, and thus infectible by it.

As a treatment of objects, the poem inhabits a poetic universe completely defensible before modern analytic thought. Instead of relying on symbols, it depends solely on the energies of perception and construction. Such energies make no direct claims upon the practical world: "Nothing has been changed at all." But, as Wittgenstein suggested in his early works, there can be total transfigurations of the world that alter none of its factual qualities. Simply by understanding that one "must" construct some attitude toward objective processes, Stevens sees that one may be able to envision one's own desires as the very source of the world's vitality (perhaps a secula
Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things
On "The Plain Sense of Things"

Charles Berger

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.

Barbara M. Fisher

"[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: U Virginia P, 1990), 50-53.

Anthony Whiting

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.

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William Carlos William: The Young Housewife
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On "The Young Housewife"

Peter Baker

The details of this poem are so unassuming that they may easily be missed. The young woman is not in a negligee, she is "in negligee." One also must do a sort of double-take to figure out how the speaker could know this if she is behind the walls of a house. Though the standard line on Williams is that he freezes moments of perception (language used to render perceptive instants), this poem, while apparently simple, utilizes a three-part temporal framework. The first stanza describes a moment when the speaker passes "solitary." Is he on his way back in the second stanza which begins "Then again . . ." or is this possibly a fantasy on his part? In relation to the only, self-consciously stated, image: what are we to make of the implicit connection between the woman as a leaf and the leaves crushed by the car's wheels? Is the woman something crushed or discarded? All of these questions, as well as the implicit motion of the speaker who is driving by in a car, tend to place the interlocking phrases and descriptions in a kind of metaphorical suspension. Underlying this suspension of what is, after all, a small drama, has to be the speaker's unstated desire for the woman. Once again, the poet's desire structures the details, progress, and interrelation of elements in the poem.

from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Barry Ahearn

The encounter between the passing doctor and the young housewife is scrupulously polite and legitimate. Yet the poem hints at potential sexual contact. We should remember that in the days when doctors made house calls it would have been no cause for public comment for Williams to drive freely about Rutherford.

. . .

The poem focuses attention on various tangible barriers and containers, as if the poet were mulling over the structures that physically restrain the young housewife. The "wooden walls," for example, "of her husband's house" are the major physical barriers that hide her from the view of patrolling males, though it seems that this doctor's view has the advantage of x-ray vision, for he discerns her moving "in negligee" behind those walls. When she finally emerges, further physical limitations appear. The "curb" seems to be one barrier that marks the boundary between herself and delivery men. Another constraint is prominent by virtue of its absence: she is "uncorseted." Furthermore, the adjective beginning line 8, "stray," suggests her possible predilection for escaping orderly confines, whether in terms of hair arrangement or in terms of more serious transgressions. The poet, too, exists in a physical container--his car.

More pressing than these tangible barriers, however, are the intangible taboos that keep the young housewife and a potential lover from casual consummations. The marriage vow and the doctor's professional code of ethics are the two strongest inhibitors. Yet it is a fact that they are sometimes violated, and the poem recognizes this. Williams surely knew the joke involving the cuckolding of the husband by the ice-man that ends with the punch line, "No dear, but he's coming now." Perhaps there is some slight emphasis on the notion of sexual coming when the young housewife "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man."

We should also note the way in which two line breaks in the poem reinforce the poem's concern with boundaries and the possibility of crossing them. The first line break of the second stanza ends with "curb," as if to emphasize the physical nature of the line between public and private property, between the rights of deliverymen and the provenance of a marriage. The transition from line 7 to line 8 ("shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair...") relies for its effect on the reader's assumption that what the young housewife would be "tucking in" would be some loose folds of a garment--her robe perhaps. Yet the next line reveals an element of vanity on her part. She wants to look attractive. The line break catches the tension between the housewife's wish--however unconscious or automatic--to appear desirable and the community's prescription that only her husband's desires should be accommodated.

That the doctor entertains thoughts about some sort of convergence with the young housewife appears in the parallels between the two of them. In the first stanza the state of the young housewife being left alone in "her husband's house" makes the poet aware of his similar position: "I pass solitary in my car." The housewife's self-consciousness about her appearance in the second stanza is echoed in the doctor's self-consciousness about his art: "I compare her...." There is outward turning in this poem--the woman leaves the house and encounters other males, the doctor frequently leaves his home to call on women who need his professional services--but there is also inward turning; the woman toward her appearance, the poet toward his art. (Note the parallelism of roles: she emerges as a housewife but also meets people at the curb as an object of desire; he passes by as a doctor, but also acts as a poet.) Finally, the meeting, of housewife and doctor is defused of sexual anxiety by the doctor's slightly pompous and ridiculous final act: "I bow and pass smiling." The courtly bow he exhibits at the close can only be executed with difficulty from the seat of a moving car.

If there is a balancing act in this poem between the mores of the present century and the behavior of the last one, there is also a balancing act in the poem between two tropes: carpe diem and memento mori. The former appears most vividly in the second stanza, with the desirable young housewife compared to "a fallen leaf." "Fallen," of course, is a term that evokes a number of sexual references--especially to ladies of easy virtue. And the suggestion that the housewife is a leaf carries with it the traditional references to the fleeting life of vegetation as an analogy for human life. But the appearance of "dried leaves" crushed by the"noiseless wheels" of the doctor's car equally as well suggest the noiseless wings of devouring Time and the ephemeral nature of the merely physical. The faint presence of the two contradictory traditions mingling in the poem reflects the contrary impulse (desire vs. fear of scandal) that move the poet.

By Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright © 1994 Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie Perloff

The typography is in many ways the poem's substance. Take a poem like "The Young Housewife," a short lyric often praised for what James Breslin has called its "tough colloquial flatness," its "matter of fact" verse, but which, more precisely, uses that flatness for playful purposes:

. . .

Here the three stanzas are parody stanzas, the first, a neat-looking quatrain that has neither rhyme nor meter but slyly designates the young housewife by the same rhythmic group we find in "At ten A.M.":

At ten A. M. the young housewife

The second line, with its odd construction "in negligee" on the model of "in furs" or "in silks," is cut after the word "behind," a word that thus gets construed as a noun (her "in negligee behind") rather than as a preposition. The same sexual innuendo occurs in line 7:

shy, uncorseted tucking in

where the separation of the verb from its object ("stray ends of hair") makes us expect a reference to what one usually tucks into a corset. The next line produces even greater surprise:

stray ends of hair, and I compare her

To what, we wonder?

to a fallen leaf.

An absurd comparison, since surely the young housewife--she is constantly doing things, moving about, calling the ice-man or fish-man, tucking in stray ends of hair--is the very opposite of a fallen leaf. Or is she? Never mind the parody period after "leaf": the tercet now brings it all out into the open:

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

In his erotic fantasy, the poet wants to make this attractive housewife a "fallen leaf" to the "noiseless wheels of his car," to "rush with crackling sound over / her dried leaves." But it is, after all, only a daydream; normal life must continue and so "I bow and pass smiling." The tercet has lines of 7, 8, and 9 syllables (3, 4, and 5 stresses) respectively; the diagonal created by its line endings thus presents an image of one-step-at-a-time accretion, as if to say that, fantasize all we like, we must get on with it. Typography, in a case like this, is destiny.

By Marjorie Perloff. From The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.

Marjorie Perloff

Generically, to begin with, "The Young Housewife" is best read as a parodic courtly love poem: the "solitary" physician at the wheel of his car recalls the knight on his charger, approaching the fortified castle where his lady is kept in captivity by the tyrannical lord of the manor. Given this context, the analogy between busy young housewife, coming to the curb "to call the ice-man, fish-man," and "fallen leaf" seems patently absurd. If anything, the young housewife seems to resemble a flower in early bloom or a budding tree; there is nothing the least bit "fallen" about her. The odd construction "in negligee," for instance (the normal syntax would be "in her negligee"), implies that being "in negligee" is the young housewife's inherent state, an implication borne out by the curious line break after "behind" so that we visualize the woman's "in negligee behind." The same thing happens in lines 7-8, where the poet, passing "solitary in [his] car," first surmises that the young woman is "uncorseted" and then observes her "tucking in" what the line break anticipates will be her flesh, deliciously not yet tucked into her corset, but which turns out to be, in the next line, "stray ends of hair."

With the image of those enticing "stray ends of hair," the poet's erotic fantasy reaches its peak. Far from presenting a "prosaic" subject with "tough, colloquial flatness," the poem presents its speaker as secret voyeur, longing to penetrate those "wooden walls of her husband's house" and wishing the lady of the house would call, not the ice-man or fish-man (with the obvious double entendre those "calls" entail) but himself to her side. Only by making a mock-Whitmanian grand gesture--"and I compare her/to a fallen leaf"--can the poet play out his fantasy. For look what happens:

The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

To say that these lines embody a rape fantasy would be accurate although it would also be to ignore the delicacy and humor of their tone. The poet-doctor knows that normalcy must prevail, that it is 10 A.M. on an ordinary weekday and probably time for him to make hospital rounds. The desire to "rush with a crackling sound over/dried leaves" is fleeting and subliminal, a momentary wish to "have" what belongs to another man. But because, within the suburban context of the poem, such things are possible only in fantasy, nothing happens: the driver "bow[s] and pass[es] smiling."

What especially interests me in "The Young Housewife" is the shift in the position of the fallen or dried leaf. Whereas the lover of The Tempers walks with his sweetheart over the "leaftread" in the brown forest, now, in the lyric that follows Williams' marriage, there is a split between man and woman, the woman becoming, so to speak, the object of man's "tread." We have already seen that in "Love Song," the "stain of love" "eats into the leaves" and then "drips from leaf to leaf." No longer, then, are the lovers viewed as a pair, silhouetted against a recognizable natural world. Rather, the natural world splits and fragments, challenging the poet-lover to find what are, so to speak, new fields to conquer. Or at least to fantasize about.

From "The Fallen Leaf and the Stain of Love: The Displacement of Desire in Williams's Early Love Poetry." In The Rhetoric of Love in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Ed. Cristina Giorcelli and Maria Anita Stefanelli. Copyright © 1993 by Edizioni Associate (Rome).

Cary Nelson

Along with Hughes and Frost, Williams is one of the three betterknown modern American male poets whose work includes a wide range of portraits of individual women. The difference, however, is that Williams's interest is consistently both social and erotic. Like Ransom, women are indispensable to Williams's work; without their presence in his poetry, his oeuvre would be substantially impoverished. Unlike Ransom, however, his perspective on women is rich and varied and generally affirmative; moreover, Williams often treats men and women in much the same way, something Ransom is disinclined to do. That does not exempt Williams from charges of sexism. No doubt many contemporary readers would be troubled by the characterization of women at various points in his work and find many of his "affirmations" reifying. Indeed no one who has grown up in a sexist culture will be entirely free of sexism, but Williams's work often partly triumphs over these limitations and it is, if anything, strengthened by comparison with other men and women writing at the same time.

Williams regularly wrote poems about men's and women's interactions and love poems to women throughout his long career; their approach can be sacralizing, irreverent, erotic, mythologizing, or realistic. His brief imagistic portraits of individual women remain among the best-known poems he wrote. These portraits are often sexually charged, but then almost everything Williams describes is. Like Amy Lowell's flower imagery, for example, or Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings, Williams's flowers are charged with sexuality. Indeed, even his most spare descriptions of natural objects, as in the 1927 "Young Sycamore," are highly sensual. It is possible that the human body (and, more specifically, a woman's body) is the implicit object underlying many of the individual things he celebrates. Notably, however, his physical descriptions of men, as in the 1919 "The Young Laundryman," are also quite sensual and equally focussed on telling details:

. . .his muscles ripple
under the thin blue shirt; and his naked feet, in
Their straw sandals, lift at the heels, shift and
Find new postures continually.

Williams certainly fragments men's and women's bodies to describe them, but he most often does so in order to assemble either telling portraits of whole persons or representative characterizations of people's social positioning. If there is a hint of objectification in the process of representation in Williams's work, then, it seems relatively harmless; that is a cultural and political judgement on my part, but I am willing to make it. Representation wholly without objectification may in fact be impossible. When it predominates and when there is nothing else, that is another matter. But treating any trace of it in earlier periods as a fatal heresy is irrational. Recent fervor about objectification may be a contemporary neurosis we would be better off not imposing on our predecessors. At the very least, there is the chance that such charges are hopelessly anachronistic. On the other hand, as I suggested earlier, the arguments disseminated simultaneously with modernism by the first wave of modern feminism give more than sufficient warrant to read Pound's and Ransom's sexism severely and consider it misogynist even within its historical context. Williams, again, presents a more complex and nuanced case.

Part of what sustains poems like Williams's 1916 "The Young Housewife," in which the woman observed "moves about in negligee behind / the wooden walls of her husband's house," beyond its spare, precise description, is Williams's willingness to acknowledge and mock his presence as an observer. As with "Woman Walking" (pp. 66-67), the poet is never simply an invisible figure who wields the power to name and describe but rather a speaker whose voice effects a relationship in verse. And that relationship typically includes a genuine if sometimes whimsical reflection on the ontological issues at stake in the poet's role:

The poem masquerades at once as a piece of literal reportage and a fantasy surveillance, a celebration and critique of voyeurism. We may credit the speaker with some sensitivity to women's social status when the house is described as the husband's property, but we may also wonder (as one of my students suggested) if we can hear "negligent" and "negligible" judgmentally echoing within the negligee she wears, a garment as well that suggests more corporeal property rights. Whether the speaker would protect her, take advantage of her, or merely observe her in her shy vulnerability we cannot say. We cannot even be certain whose innocence wanes most notably in the poem's autumnal season, the speaker's, the young housewife's, or even the reader's, for we too are implicated in the poem's final recognition. Is it guilty self-recognition, mutual recognition, an exchange of glances, shame, regret, or delight in transience that sounds in the crackling leaves of the last stanza? One critic suggests that "the young housewife is metaphorically crushed in the last stanza," since, in the previous stanza's Shakespearean conclusion, she is herself compared to a fallen leaf. But it is as easily the moment and the fantasy relationship that give way as the car passes. Moreover, the only real pressure exerted is the poem's descriptive act of possession. Indeed, no fixed reading of Williams's short poems will survive sustained reflection, for--despite their straightforward narrativity--they remain so ambiguous and unresolved that one interpretation continually displaces or reverses another. Thus a particular poem may from one moment to the next seem distinctly sexist and generously understanding.

As many of Williams's critics have noted, there is also a strong mythologizing element in the image of women in his longer poems, from "The Wanderer" to Paterson. The woman who is his guide in "The Wanderer" is both young and old, virgin and whore. The latter identity, moreover, is partly celebratory; she is a "reveller in all ages-/ Knower of all fires out of the bodies Of all men." For Williams, anticipating an argument that I do not accept but that some feminists would later make explicitly, women have stronger links to the transformative natural processes that all of us must undergo if we are to rise above the pettiness and violence of so much of human history. Though they are closer to nature, at least as some cultural feminists would claim, women are of course in no way unconscious figures. Rather they have special knowledge that men must seek to share and that Williams would bring into his poetry. Williams is also aware that not every mythic vision of women is beneficial. In In the American Grain, in a journey that Pound completed in the opposite direction (minus the monarchist component, which Pound left to another American expatriate), Walter Raleigh fantasizes himself on a voyage on the body of his queen when he plunges "his lust into the body of a new world."' It is a fantasy that ends in disaster.

What Williams shows us, finally, is one route to a substantially affirmative and generous heterosexuality in poetry. Williams clearly believed that sexual relations could reorient people toward restorative natural processes and away from the destructive tendencies in modern culture. This differentiates him from Eliot, for example, for whom failed sexual relations in The Waste Land and other poems exemplified the modern condition; indeed, for Eliot nature itself no lon
William Carlos William: Portrait of a Lady
blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Portrait of a Lady"

swing.jpg (40369 bytes)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, probably c. 1765.
Samuel H. Kress Collection
Copyright © 2000 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Online Source: http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?45833+0+0+gg5

Thomas R. Whitaker

"Portrait of a Lady," which is really another paradoxical self-portrait, amusingly renders the descending movements of that fiber of swift attention with which Kora in Hell was primarily concerned. . . .

The descent, of course, is not merely visual. The poem moves, through interior dialogue, from an easy formalized tribute toward a more disturbing contact. The witty and sentimental style of Watteau or of Fragonard (whose "The Swing" does leave a slipper hanging in the sky) defines that delightful art which is yet a means of fending off immediacy. The sequence of initial composition and sardonic question or retort carries the speaker beneath such decorative surfaces toward an inarticulate contact from which he attempts (with half a mind) to defend himself: "Which shore?- / the sand clings to my lips-" And, in the poem's final line, the tribute has lost the simplicity of its formal distance: "I said petals from an appletree." As a whimsically protective mask, the tribute becomes an accurate figure of the speaker's relation to himself and to his lady.

Thomas R. Whitaker. From William Carlos Williams. Copyright ©1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Jeanne Heuving

Williams, in his portrait, like Moore, utilizes the Renaissance convention of the beauty depicted by her parts:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky . . . .

Your knees
are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow . . . .

Ah yes—below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore . . . . (35)

In the quixotic last line of the poem—"I said petals from an appletree"—the speaker unequivocally asserts his presence over the parts, for it is he who "says" them (36).

from "Gender in Marianne Moore's Art: Can'ts and Refusals." Sagtrieb. Vol. 6, No. 3

Mordecai Marcus

Although commentators have recognized that the painting alluded to in William Carlos Williams' "Portrait of a Lady" is by Fragonard and not by Watteau, as far as I can determine no one has noted the particular nature and function of the overlapping references to these painters, nor, it seems, has anyone made an exact attribution of the poem's alternating voices. Both these clarifications are essential for interpreting the poem.

The poem presents a dialogue between a man and a woman or an imaginary dialogue within a man's mind reflecting the likely reactions of a woman to his elaborate and somewhat artificial but nevertheless delicate, tender, and mellifluous praise of her loveliness and sexual appeal. Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) were both French painters of the baroque or rococo style, much of whose work presents aristocratic people in elaborate poses. The painting which portrays a lady's slipper suspended in the air in front of the lady on a swing is incorrectly attributed to Watteau by one of Williams' speakers. The painting is "La Balancoire" ("The Swing") by Fragonard. The reference to Fragonard must, then, be a correction of the statement about Watteau. This makes it very likely that the sentence "The sky / where Watteau hung a lady's / slipper" is spoken not by the woman but by the man and is his answer to the question "Which sky?" The sentence, then, represents a complication of the interacting voices, for the man is capable of satirizing his own viewpoint, or at least of placing it in perspective as rather mannered. If the sentence about Watteau's supposed painting were spoken by the woman, it would almost certainly take a question mark as an implied continuation of "Which sky?"

After speaking this phrase, the man proceeds to call her knees a southern breeze. The immediately following "—or a gust of snow" is her deflating continuation of his description and a playful rebuff of the direction of his sexual advance. The question about Fragonardis asked by the woman as a correction of his remark about Watteau. Surely ''as if that answered anything" cannot be spoken by the same voice. Rather it is the man's acceptance of her factual correction and also an insistence that the mentality or artistry of Fragonard is not relevant to his own sincerity or accuracy, or even to his own right to an elaborate mode of expression. "Ah, yes" represents the man's attempt to recover his composure and his line of thought, and he proceeds to incorporate the woman's cooling of the description by sardonically accepting the fact that attention moves below rather than above the knees, though he recovers the note of praise by assigning delicate summer loveliness to the portion of her body below the knees. With "the sand clings to my lips—" the man accepts a tentative and self-mocking defeat, the sand representing her success at warding off his incipient physical gesture, and the "Agh, petals maybe" shows him trying to recover his stance by suggesting that the shore is made of fallen petals rather than of rebuffing sand. But with the woman's insistence on knowing "Which shore?" his pride in the genuineness of his expression and feeling surges up and he attempts to retrieve his position through assertion that by being made of petals the elevated world of her body does indeed defy the world of logic. This interpretation assigns passages with the exclamation "Agh!" to alternate speakers (though it has the exclamation mark only with the first occurrence), but awareness of how the man almost shares and partly conducts the woman's deflation of him should justify Williams' use of an identical expression of feigned disgust by both speakers.

from "Dialogue and Allusion in William Carlos Williams' 'Portrait of a Lady.'" Concerning Poetry 10:2 (Fall 1997).

R. Peter Stoicheff

Williams' desire to take words as they are found, "Without distortion which would mar their exact significance," for example, seems to assume that words have an "exact significance" and, further, that such precision can be kept intact through the inevitable process of interpretation that one's "perceptions and ardors" into "an intense expression" contains problems similar to those embedded in Ezra Pound's claim that his "In A Station of the Metro" records "the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective." Each statement nonchalantly waves off the tremendous difficulties inherent in the act of translating the world into words.


Consider the flamboyant frustration that makes the poem "Portrait of a Lady"—it is born of the inability to find univocal words that do not confusingly point to a host of possible signifieds. Although it begins confidently enough:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.

by the third line the poem becomes a recognition of its own failure to differentiate its language and clarify its intention—". . . sky / Which sky?" How to distinguish for the reader or, indeed, for himself, the very "sky" Williams envisions from all other "skies"? And how thereby to focus this sky, which is touched by the blossoms of an appletree, for the reader? Ultimately, such a distinction can only be partially accomplished; it is not the sky, for instance, of a Reubens or a Rembrandt, but the sky "where Watteau hung a lady's / slipper." (This, as we know, is in itself a blurring of distinctions, for Watteau never hung a slipper in it—Fragonnard did.) But, by its own admission, that sky cannot exist for the reader in isolation from the slipper which places it in relief, nor from its artistic interpretation into paint. And so the problem of verbal clarity or differentiation multiplies exponentially,

the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which Shore?—

until the poem sputters in frustration, stumbles between question and declaration, and stalls:

Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

The poem begins with a hyperbolic metaphor ("Your thighs are appletrees") in order to illuminate an error—that of attempting to create identity instead of difference. This error is an example of what Williams terms "an easy lateral sliding" in "Prologue to Kora in Hell" in 1920: "The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding." The quotation implies the imagistic characteristics of Williams' interests, and illuminates how keenly he perceived poetry in terms of focusing. Instead of the blurring of metaphor which identifies two things—the clarity of differentiating them. And instead or a "lateral sliding"—a focusing of perception. It is in this way that "Portrait of a Lady" is a parodic indictment of T. S. Eliot's symbolism which, Williams believed, created the blurred impressionism of his 1915 poem of the same title.

Williams "Portrait of a Lady" is a parodic recognition of the failure of metafor to do what he wants a poem's language to do: create a verbal grid in which marring, blending, distortion do not occur.

from "Against 'An Easy Lateral Sliding': William Carlos Williams' Early Poetry of Differentiation." American Poetry 5:3 (Spring 1988): 14-23.

Barry Ahearn

One exception to the dearth of love lyrics is "Portrait of a Lady". . .from 1920. This poem anticipates what will become a major pattern in Paterson: the poet's monologue disrupted by a woman's comments. The lady Williams addresses in "Portrait" seems to inquire closely into his claims and assertions. We hear her voice secondhand, in Williams's increasingly irritated echoing of her questions. What Williams tries to do--at least ostensibly--is to address a poem of praise to the lady. His nettled response to her questions, however, suggests that he may be more interested in playing the poet than the lover. "Portrait of a Lady" indicates how the impulse behind the love lyric (to enumerate the beloved's attributes) can be rapidly divorced from the subject of praise. The poem becomes a mechanism subject to its own laws. Its operating principles, in other words, make it more closely related to other lyrics than to the beloved. This warping of the poem away from the person described may be reflected in the gap that opens between "Your" (the first word of the poem) and "I" (the first word of the last line). Other details in the poem indicate a tendency for love lyrics to turn self-referential: portions of the lady's anatomy are designated simply because they offer convenient rhymes ("knees" with "breeze"); the poem gradually shifts its focus away from her head (we proceed from "thighs" to "knees" to "ankles") and hence away from that part of her which speaks; the poem's diction lapses into the vernacular when Williams grows weary of her questions: "How / should I know?" The beloved in "Portrait of a Lady" refuses to be entombed by praise. She resists being effaced by the operations of the traditional love lyric. How does she accomplish this?

She inquires into the nature of his metaphors in such a way as to call them into question. She asks for a larger context for the metaphor; if her "thighs are appletrees," she wants to know where these trees are located. The lady commits poetic sabotage, because the metaphorical machinery of the love lyric requires a swift transition from one metaphor to the next. To ask the lyric to dwell on a detailed extrapolation of one metaphor is to ask it to relinquish the basis for its form. A virtuoso performance such as Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent," which sustains a single metaphor over fourteen lines, demonstrates how difficult it is to restrict a love lyric to a single metaphor.

In a way, "Portrait of a Lady" shows Williams being forced to choose between two loves: (1) the lady who is the subject of the poem and (2) the form memorialized and rededicated in the poem. Finally, the poem also demonstrates Williams's comprehension that the traditional love lyric had to acquire a new form to be viable in a world where some women were no longer content to receive the artist's ambiguous accolade in becoming silence.

Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

Thomas Dilworth

Veiled by metaphors and changing tone, the eroticism of this poem has not been fully unappreciated. The poem works and partly disguises itself by means of contrasts between subject and imagery and by distraction, as the bumbling speaker progresses through interruptive rhetorical excursions and returns. Emotionally he rings the changes from erotic adulation through nonchalance to petulance. Having begun in a metaphorical vein, he feels obliged to continue inventing metaphors, and the obligation strains his patience. He makes "mistakes," which frustrate him and distract the reader from his subject, a woman's lower extremities. This is a "portrait" only from the waist down, and it begins, at least, as a love poem in the Renaissance mode of direct address, comparing body parts to aspects of nature.

The initial metaphor is appletrees for thighs. "Blossoms" above the trunks suggest lacy underwear or pubic hair, which, in turn, touches "the sky." The metaphorical sky must be the lady's bottom, a designation initially emphasized by the question "Which sky?" The erotically charged tactility of the word "touch" is canceled, however, by its metaphorical relationship to sky, which no one ever really touches. And the speaker short-circuits the logic by which the sky is her bottom when he identifies the sky as that in a picture, remembered as by Watteau, in which a young woman's slipper hangs in air.

Soft and warm, the "knees" of the speaker's lady are "a southern breeze." The silly rhyme may indicate an amateur (the speaker, not Williams) at work. Wishing to add the tactile to the visible, and because the knees are white, he says that they are also "a gust of snow." A poet might want to revise here, because the warm breeze and the snow are contradictory. (The warmth would melt the snow, or the snow cancel the warmth.) So when the speaker exclaims, "Agh!" the reader might assume that he has caught his mistake, but the speaker is thinking of an earlier, factual error. The painting in which "a lady's / slipper" hangs is not by Watteau but by Fragonard. Distracted by realizing his error - which he does not go back to correct, because the fictional pretext is that this is a transcript of thinking - he wonders "what / sort of man" Fragonard was. We shall see that this question has sexual implications. He quickly dismisses the question and recalls his purpose, "Ah, yes," and resumes his selection of metaphors, moving "below / the knees, since the tune / drops that way." This statement is risque, implying that the tune might just as easily have risen above the knee. Furthermore, the word below is ambiguous here, because in the painting by Fragonard the young woman raises her right leg so that "below" the knee might literally mean above it.(2) But here the ordinary convention applies - and unlike Fragonard's woman, this one will have her feet on the ground. The speaker feels obliged by having moved almost inadvertently from thigh to knee to continue in that direction to calves, "those white summer days," and ankles. The latter are flickering "tall grass," an image that decorporealizes and de-eroticizes. In fact, none of the metaphors, except possibly "blossoms," is erotic. Carried by momentum of descent, the speaker kisses not the ground but "the shore," a word connoting destination. According to the logic of anatomy, this "shore" is her feet. He asks, "Which shore?" (line 16), recalling his previous short question, "Which sky?" (3), with its initially erotic suggestion. Shore and sky are feet and bottom, at each of which legs terminate. These terminations may have affinity with one another, because feet is sometimes a euphemism for genitals.(3) The word feet is not mentioned, however, and the erotic suggestion is faint.

We saw that the first question, "Which sky?" leads to a reification of metaphor that transforms its effect. We shall see that the corresponding second question may signal another transformation. In answer to this second question, the speaker decides that his "shore" has a beach: "the sand clings to my lips." Because this image elicits discomfort ("Agh"), he tentatively revises: "petals maybe." Then, in a return to the opening metaphor of the poem, he makes the choice definite: not sand but "petals from an appletree." Passive now, he is petulant at having to make the choice: "How should I know?" Twice he asks, "Which shore?" to help him decide whether his lips will take away from the kiss sand or petals. But why, in the penultimate line, does he repeat the question? He has already exchanged sand for petals, albeit tentatively. The question now seems inappropriate, its third and fourth repetition excessive - unless another choice is being considered.

What other shore is there from which he might come away from a kiss with "petals from an appletree?" He may kiss the blossoms themselves. This possibility requires that her bottom also be a "shore" and, implicitly, a destination - which is how a man might regard the female genital area. If her groin is now his shore, the "blossoms" must be pubic hair. (Whether dropped onto feet or still in place, "blossoms" are unlikely to be lacy underwear, because the notion of underwear clinging to his lips after a kiss is ludicrous.) The reasons a reader might suspect the exchange of feet for pudendum are: the choice of the word "shore," with its connotation of destination; the excessive repetition of "Which shore?": the suggestiveness of "feet"; the ambiguity (in the context of the painting) of "below"; the suggestion that movement from thigh to knee might have gone in the other direction; and the return to the opening metaphor, which may be a reversal in direction.

The allusion to Fragonard's The Swing emphasizes interest above the knee. In that painting, a young woman exposes her open legs to the enraptured gaze of a voyeur hidden in a bush directly in front of her. Few modern viewers realize what the painter knew and what Williams may have known, that eighteenth-century women did not wear underpants. These, in the shape of bloomers, were inventions of the nineteenth century. When the speakers asks, "what / sort of man was Fragonard" (7-8), he implies an interest in the Frenchman's sexual preferences and may wonder whether Fragonard was a voyeur. Because the title of the poem identifies the speaker as a metaphorical painter, an analogous question would be, "What sort of man is he?" There is a hint, at least, of interest in cunnilingus. As the few commentators who have thought it requires analysis agree, this poem is much more a portrait of the speaker than of the lady. If he is revealed to be whimsical, lackadaisical, petulant, and not a very good poet, something about his erotic inclinations is also at least implied. He is not, however, a voyeur like the youth in the painting. That role is reserved for the reader, the viewer of this "portrait."

from The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998)

Linda A. Kinnahan

. . . "Portrait of a Lady," written in 1920 though not included in Sour Grapes, consciously parodies the catalogue convention and calls into question poetic inscriptions of the feminine. In an image linking it to "A Cold Night, " the poem begins: "Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky" (129). Proceeding, as is customary within the catalogue structure, to comment (gaze) upon the lady's knees and ankles, the poem interrupts itself in a fashion uncustomary of its genre. With each image of a body part, questions break the sequence, until the syntax disintegrates into uncertainty:

it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which shore?—
the sand clings to my lips—
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

Through suffering a disruption of the catalogue convention, the poem has undergone a process of revision on numerous
William Carlos Williams: Queen-Anne's-Lace
On "Queen-Anne's-Lace"

Peter Schmidt

Stieglitz' experiments with combining the still life and the landscape are also reflected in Williams' work. The four flower studies he published in Sour Grapes (1921), "Daisy," "Primrose," "Queen Anne's Lace," and "Great Mullen," are especially interesting for their sense of scale. "Daisy," for example, moves from a rapid overview of "Spring . . . gone down in purple," "weeds . . . high in the corn," a clotted furrow, and a branch heavy with new leaves, to a close-up of the poem's flower: "One turns the thing over / in his hand and looks / at it from the rear: brown edged / green and pointed scales / armor his yellow." Along with these visual devices Williams introduces metaphor, personification, dramatic debate, and apostrophe, and varies their tone from the restrained, dignified voice of "Queen Anne's Lace" to the grotesque shouting-match of "Great Mullen."

In "Queen Anne's Lace," literal and figurative description have been carefully joined, rather than simply juxtaposed as in "Daisy." And the poem's breadth of focus is breathtaking-it is a still life, a landscape, and a time-lapse photographic sequence. As if the poet were a botanist and we his best students, Williams shows us how the stem splits into a cluster of stems radiating upward, each supporting a white flowerette which, edging the others, composes the flower's lacy head. When Williams personifies the plant, his rhetoric carefully preserves its unique structure. The sun becomes an ardent male who creates a lover for himself touch by touch: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one." Williams then rapidly accelerates the pace of the poem, so that we see the field becoming populated in spring and the lovers increasing the momentum of their lovemaking. Then, suddenly, winter has come again, and the couple lies spent: ". . . stem one by one, each to its end, / until the whole field is a / white desire, empty, a single stem, / a cluster, flower by flower, / a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing." Pumping blood into Emerson's rather cerebral equation of natural and spiritual facts, Williams' "Queen Anne's Lace" shows them to be signs of sexual facts as well. Metaphor, personification, and myth-making accompany literal description, and the still life's landscape is emptied or filled within the leap of a line of verse.

from "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406.

Sharon Dolin

"Queen-Anne's-Lace," from the 1921 Sour Grapes collection, is an early example of Williams' use of the Cubist model as a way to confuse two frames of reference—to subvert the hierarchy of tenor over vehicle in the structure of metaphor via the poem's enjambments: . . .

The title, "Queen-Anne's-Lace," suggests that this is a poem whose subject (tenor, or Base) is a flower, though Williams, in commenting about this poem, has said "Flossie again" ( comment to Thirlwa1l, CPW 498), thus framing the entire poem as metaphoric expression. The first line foregrounds through litotes the metaphoric or simile-making function of the poem: "Her body is not so white as.'' This coincidence of ''as'' with the first line's jamb (my term for the first part of an enjambed pair of lines), along with the negation, undercuts any tendency to make one pole of the metaphor primary and the other secondary. For "[h]er body" already contains a metaphoric transformation (of the flower into the feminine body) that is in tension with the title, leading a reader to wonder what function the simile can serve, if not to call the body back into the form of the flower—thus switching perspectives.

These visual transformations are similar to those that occur in Cubist paintings; for example, in Juan Gris' famous Harlequin with Guitar (1919), the black right forearm of the figure transposes itself into the top of the guitar—and vice-versa—creating a two-way visual metaphor. On first appearance, the major difference between the Cubist model and the poem is that the painting doesn't prescribe an order for reading; some will see the guitar shape first, others the arm, which then metamorphoses into the other shape. The poem, on the other hand, clearly begins with its title as the name of a flower, which is itself already a metaphor for a regal woman's garment. Furthermore, without the title, the opening of the poem reads like a description of the beloved: A woman's body is not here compared, through litotes, a Shakespearean trope, to anemone petals (as in Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"). Instead, here a modern-day dark lady doesn't measure up to some standard of whiteness. And it's possible to see this use of negation foregrounded by the line's edge as analogous to Cubist negative space, which gains parity with so-called positive space. With the title, there is a reversal of metaphor: Queen-Anne's-Lace to woman to anemone petals to flower to woman to flower. The perspectives switch across the line boundaries: the title, in a sense, is line 0 of the poem, establishing our initial perspective. And the switch in perspective often coincides with the jamb or rejet, as: "Her body is not so white as / anemone petals . . . white as can be with a purple mole / . . . Each flower is a hand's span / of her whiteness. . . . Each part / is a blossom." The line breaks question the hierarchy of values (is it woman as flower or flower as woman?) in order to create a new "field" of "wild carrot taking / the field by force."

"His hand" creates the erotic potential, the "white desire" of the poem, which is the metaphor shuttling back and forth, between flower as woman and woman as flower. The hand is the metaphor for metaphor—creating all "or nothing":

. . . Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end, . . .

Where "his hand" touches, the flower becomes woman (wounds her into being), then woman becomes flower. "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being" records the transformation from woman's body ("part") to flower ("blossom") to woman ("her being"). Then the next line, "stem one by one each to its end," marks the return to flower—with the rejet "stem" marking the specific point of intersection in cognition of the woman and flower: read as a verb, "stem" refers to the woman; read as a noun, "stem" is a flower part. These metaphorical transpositions are "a pious wish to whiteness gone over— / or nothing." For this kind of poem wants to have it both—or all—ways. Williams claims to have studied with care the natural flowers depicted in the four-fold group of poems in Sour Grapes, of which "Queen-Anne's-Lace" is one. "I thoughtt of them (the four poems about flowers in Sour Grapes) as still-lifes. I looked at the actual flowers as they grew" (quoted in Marling 167). But this poem bears equally the sign of the studied process of metaphor, and of an attention to paintings which broke up the picture plane so completely it became impossible to distinguish figure from ground, or to have one-way metaphors: the harlequin's hat is also the orange and brown striped background or vice-versa. And in a similar way, Queen-Anne's-Lace becomes wild carrot by violating the conventions of a uni-directional metaphor in favor of a perspective that works through linear dislocation.

from "Enjambment as Modernist Metaphor in Williams' Poetry." Sagetrieb 9.3

Peter Baker

As in some of the poems of Whitman, a predominantly natural description enlists humanizing metaphorical elements. Is a woman's body actually "present" in the scene described?

I would say that the structure of the fantasm helps to resolve this question. The body of the beloved is invoked as a term of comparison. The field of Queen Anne's lace is thus charged with this association, though it takes on imaginal qualities that are partly natural, partly human—in short, an invention, a device for the speaker's purposes. The metaphor of the flower as "a hand's span / of her whiteness" likewise introduces the association of a hand with the lover caressing the woman's body, "Wherever / his hand has lain . . ." The shimmering quality of the field of flowers is gradually transformed into a woman's body tingling with sexual pleasure: "under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one . . ." This metaphorical union is carried to its highest point: "until the whole field is a / white desire . . ." And then an emptying out occurs. Yes, the world can be imagined as the realm of the poet's desire—but what is really there has no more substance than a fleeting image. This is what I take Williams to be saying. This poem, then, is a sort of map or guide in the study of desire as a structuring force. We see here the relational qualities inherent in a poetic practice both engaged with the world and open to impulses stemming from the deepest regions of the psyche.

from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Barry Ahearn

"Queen-Anne's-Lace" also questions the subordination of floral imagery to female attributes. Poets have so often tended to link women with flowers that it has become a cultural commonplace, one so well established that the association has become automatic. But Williams forestalls that automatic cultural reflex. He begins with a negation rather than an affirmation: "Her body is not so white as. . ." He then begins removes the woman's body from the insubstantial and decorative floral confines and asks us to think in terms of a field. Later he drops that for a larger metaphor: the field plus the flowers in the field. It may be that Williams aims to revive an archaic comprehension of the earth as a goddess, an interpretation that poets had long since discarded.

We also find a suggestion of class struggle in the poem. "Queen-Anne's-Lace" comes fourth in a quartet of poems about flowers, but it is the only one to bear a woman's name. In fact, most common flowers are not named for women. (One obvious exception--The Blackeyed Susan--appears at the end of Spring and All.) Williams uses this plant with a regal name because the poem emphasizes the "whiteness" of the woman/flower. In Williams's younger days, pallor was still associated with the upper-classes and aristocratic leisure. But the poem gives short shrift to aristocratic reserve and high-mindedness. The regal becomes rooted in a "white desire," "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--" as if the true test of sovereignty is its origin in the soil and in fertility ritual.

Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

Peter Halter

In "Queen Anne's Lace," a paysage de femme poem which fuses the white of a woman's body with a field of white flowers, a basic tension is expressed through the different impact of the two shades and textures of white embodied in the anemone on the one hand and the wild carrot on the other.

. . .

The smooth, delicate, and pure white of the anemone petals seems passive, fragile, almost incorporeal and related to the virginal when compared to the wild carrot, which is not "so remote a thing" but active to the point of "taking / the field by force"--a paradox which recalls the androgynous nature of flowers. With the wild carrot there is "no question of whiteness, / white as can be"; the added purple mole at the center of each flower makes it approachable. It is turned into a flower-woman that is desired by the sun-poet and desirous of him, caressed and caressing: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch / to which the fibres of her being / stem one by one."

Here, where there is desire, love, warmth, and fertility, whiteness does not reign supreme; it is not the spotless purity of the dematerialized absolute. Although it still contains the "pious wish to whiteness," it is "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--." Gone over to where? Whiteness of Apollonian clarity

and restraint gone over to whiteness of Dionysian ecstasy, gone over to the climactic moment in which the field of erotic encounter is "empty" of everything but the "white desire" to collapse into the "nothing" at the very end of the poem, when the imaginative ecstatic union of the male sun-poet with the female field of flowers has reached its orgasmic height and the poet is thrown back on himself, on his own separate consciousness.

. . .

Such a pan-erotic empathetic identification of the poet with the sun in his encounter with the field of flowers is only possible in a poem whose aesthetics of energy transcends the fixed categories of the rationalist technological outlook and makes no fundamental difference between human and nonhuman realms. The poem becomes a field of action into which the poet's consciousness enters, in the double movement of appropriating it and being exposed to it with "the mind turned inside out." And the colors in this field of action are an essential part of the basic forces interacting with each other.

The specific process that gives direction to these interacting forces is often that of form being born out of the formless ground. In this context "Queen Anne's Lace" is of particular interest because it paradigmatically enacts this process on the level of colors: It begins and ends with color being born, so to speak, through the subtlest distinction of white. The white of the wild carrot is not "white as can be," which, as an endpoint on a scale, turns into its own negation into an absence of color which is an absence of life, the "nothingness that is before birth." Hence the sense of purity conveyed by total whiteness can only be a purity beyond fruition.

Approached from this angle, the "nothing" of the last line acquires a second meaning, which becomes clearer when we realize that syntactically it stands in opposition to the previous eight lines: "Each part / is a blossom under his touch ... until the whole field is ... a pious, wish to whiteness gone over - / or nothing." Life begins where the sterility and nonform of absolute whiteness "[goes] over" into something else - life begins where color begins, and a color can be perceived only in its relation to another color.

Thus the interaction of colors enacts in a paradigmatic way what happens also on all other levels (that is, the level on which the sounds and forms of the words making up the poem interact as well as the level of the interaction of the things denoted).

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

Brian A. Bremen

Originally entitled "Queenannslace" when it was first published in Others for 1919, Williams's poem begins by distancing itself historically from an earthy, anti-extravagant love song like "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"--" Her body is not so white as / anemone petals nor so smooth--nor / so remote a thing"--only to turn away from simile altogether. Instead, Williams's "post-Darwinian botanist's language of flowers" avoids becoming a simple "grammar of signs" for his wife Flossie by obscuring distinctions between tenor and vehicle. More than simple analogies of each other, flower and wife occupy that "field" both simultaneously and separately--"until the whole field" is a projection of "white desire." The "Queen-Anne's-Lace" is neither simple conceit nor Darwinian allegory. "It is a field / of the wild carrot taking / the field by force"; the pedestrian "grass / does not raise above it." "It" is an epistemological field that generates analogous situations without reducing one--flower or wife--to the terms of the other. Williams's "diagnostic treatment" here acts within a "grammar of translations that maintains the particulars of both woman and flower in their analogous relationship to the poet.

Both flower and wife become "representative anecdotes" for each other in the "development" of their relationship to the poet's "hand" that measures and caresses the particulars of each as it re-presents the other. Additionally, in the same way that empathy can only be generated by an appeal to previous experience, neither "development" can be understood alone. Both are a part of that "space of projection with depth, of coincidence with development" that is the space of Williams's diagnostics. The particular signs of the flower are read analogously with the particulars of the woman, and in doing so Williams avoids the spatial reduction of one in terms of the other. Instead, Williams creates that "intersubjective space" that we explained in Chapter 2. And, in the unfolding of the development of this analogical relationship, Williams gives the coincidence of his particulars a temporality that rescues them from the detached condition of "schizophrenia" that we also saw in the previous chapter. As a projection of desire, however, Williams's poem shows the danger of having its "grammar of translation" become a "grammar of transference" in its recognition that "Wherever / his hand has lain there is / a tiny purple blemish." This kind of poem is what Thom Gunn, in his reading of "The Term," called "a completely new poem." Neither allegory, nor conceit, image or object, Williams's creates a "field" that is, in part, all of these things, as well as "a pious wish to whiteness gone over--/ or nothing." In Chapter 5, we will see how Williams uses this "diagnostic field" as a part of his "modern medicine," but first we need to understand Williams's method of "cure."

From William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP.

Linda A. Kinnahan

. . . Despite the many representations of women and proclamations of a feminine essence present within Williams's oeuvre, he intuits a quality his verbal constructs cannot circumscribe. "Queen-Anne's-Lace" suggestively evokes a feminine desire ultimately unrepresentable through language and, hence, ultimately resistant to poetic control: . . . The poem begins with the female body and moves to the final one-word utterance of "nothing." In between the lines proceed by negation ("not, " "nor, " "no") to a final series of imagistic reversals and inversions: the "tiny purple blemish" becomes a "blossom," the field is full of white flowers yet "empty," the "single stem" is a "cluster." Singleness is plurality, fullness is emptiness, depletion is replenishment: These dualities merge within a field of "white desire," the desire of "her body," which is both "the wild carrot taking / the field by force" and "empty," "nothing." It is a desire marked and blemished by "his hand," but it "blossoms under his touch"; here, the difference in nuance between his hand (an image connoting force) and his touch (an image of contact) suggests alternative ways to approach this desire. Touch leads to blossom and to the paradoxical empty-fullness of the field. This is the paradox of the imaginative process for Williams and the "nothing" of a feminine creative capacity; this is feminine desire as a force overtaking the field while remaining empty to discourse—a void in language but what language continually yearns for.

from Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge UP.

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William Carlos Williams: The Widow''s Lament in Springtime
On "The Widow's Lament in Springtime"

Peter Halter

In another spring poem, "The Widow's Lament in Springtime," in which the confrontation with the awakening life is extremely painful because it throws the woman back on her own deprivation, this confrontation culminates in the experience of the overwhelming whiteness of the blossoming trees. . .

A white that rouses the desire to merge with it and get lost in it is experienced as an extreme: Oppositions fuse, ecstasy leads to oblivion and annihilation, the color of joy turns - as in China - into the color of mourning. In Williams's poems, writes James E. Breslin, "'[c]rowds are white,' the sea is dark: immersion in either gives relief, a union with One, but halts the cyclic process of renewal." Kandinsky in turn writes: "White is a symbol of a world from which all colors as material attributes have disappeared. The world is too far above us for its structure to touch our souls. There comes a great silence which materially represented is like a cold, indestructible wall going on into the infinite. White, therefore, acts upon our psyche as a great, absolute silence, like the pauses in music that temporarily break the melody.... White has the appeal of nothingness that is before birth"

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press

Linda Welshimer Wagner

The persona in this poem is not the poet but the widow whose soliloquy reflects clearly her state of mind through simple vocabulary and somewhat irrational transitions. The paradox of flaming "cold fire" foreshadows the conflict between bright colors and her life's drabness; the enclosure of the same cold fire foreshadows the conclusion, in which she is smothered both physically and emotionally by whiteness. The widow tries to speak in short restrained sentences but her emotion breaks through three times--once in the initial metaphor, then more forcefully midway through the poem, and finally in the last sentence, where the two and's imply another surge of feeling.

The simplicity of the vocabulary also adds poignancy; it reveals the woman as distraught and inarticulate. One does not question the genuineness of the stark "Thirtyfive years/ I lived with my husband." The contrast of "formerly" and "before" with "this year" and "today," the last used three times in the short poem, stresses the immediacy of the widow's loss.

Structurally the poem is much more complex than "Le Medecin." Williams worked here with two kinds of statement--emotional and descriptive--the juxtaposition of the two serving almost as figurative expression. Beyond the first metaphor, personal narrative precedes factual description, the two sections culminating in the flowers-grief figure. Then the pattern is repeated, leading to the climax in which the sacramental white flowers are correlated with the ultimate of sorrow, the death wish. This use of section as a kind of metaphor, which I have termed "transitional metaphor" for ease of reference, occurs often in later poems. The alert reader assumes that the poet has a reason for this positioning, and so relates the two sections.

From The Poems of William Carlos Williams: A Critical Study. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1964. Copyright 1964 by Linda Welshimer Wagner.

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William Carlos Williams: Spring and All
On "Spring and All"

James E. Breslin

This poem does not simply describe the physical qualities in a landscape; its center is an act of perception, "the stark dignity of / entrance," the slow penetration of a desolate landscape by an awakening observer. We follow the thrust of his imagination downward, through obstacles, to a new union with the physical environment. The progression in the poem is literally downward: the observer goes from "the blue / mottled clouds," across a distant view of "broad, muddy fields," to the quickening plant life right before him--and then penetrates even further downward, into the dark earth, as he imagines the roots taking hold again. The panoramic view, with its prospect of "muddy fields," dried weeds, "patches of standing water," offers nothing with which the imagination might joyously connect itself. At first an apparently blank and "lifeless" nature invites the observer to passivity and despair; but Williams pushes through vacancy to uncover dormant life.

Implicitly, "By the road" argues that Eliot's despair derives from his cosmopolitanism, his detachment from a locality. What the tenacious observer here finally perceives is no "waste" land but a "new world" and he makes his discovery by narrowing and focusing Whitman's panoramic vision upon the near and the ordinary. In the torpor of ordinary consciousness, what we find by the road to the contagious hospital is a desolate landscape. But the awakened consciousness, focused sharply and including everything in the scene, discovers novelty and life, the first "sluggish / dazed" stirrings of spring. Hence poet and landscape are gradually identified--as he too grips down and begins to awaken.

From William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. Copyright 1970 by James E. Breslin.

John Hollander

This is a poem of discovery, of the gradual emergence of the sense of spring from what looks otherwise like a disease of winter. The "contagious hospital" is both a colloquial usage, by doctors and patients, for the longer name, and a hospital that is itself contagious, that leaks its presence out onto the road. The cold wind will be revealed as a spring wind, but not before the poem's complex act of noticing has been completed. The meter here is a typographic strip about 30 ems wide with a general tendency to break syntax at tight points (lines 3 and 4 are normal, rather than exceptional); but notice the traditional use of discovery-enjambment in lines 2 and 3—"under the surge of the blue" because of its audible dactylic melody aims the syntax at a noun version of "blue," a metonymy for sky. But the next line discovers its mere adjectival use, appositively with "mottled," and the hopefulness of upward motion, the brief bit of visual and perhaps spiritual ascendancy is undercut by the bleakness of the wintry scene, and the totality of the non-greenness, even the exclusion of available blue. For the buds of spring do indeed look, at first, like tumorous nastinesses of the branch. But the poem moves toward the avowal of the discovery: "Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf." Its real conclusion, however, is revealed in the final moralization: "One by one objects are defined-- / It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf." The action of the poem is specifically discovered to be one of focusing; as one rotates a knob on the consciousness, the objects are defined, both in the world of the poem and by the poem, by poems in general. In its moralization, the poem is like "The Red Wheelbarrow," a manifesto about poetry. It is full of light, too, which it does not directly confront, the light that, as a younger poet has put it "wipes each thing to what it is,'' the light that takes us past what Stevens called "the evasions of metaphor." This is as visual a poem in every sense as one could find, a soundless picture of a soundless world, its form shaped rather than incanted, its surface like that of so much Modern poetry, now reflecting, now revealing its depths and, as the conscious wind of attention blows over it, now displaying the wavy texture of its surface. Put together from fragments of assertion, it has virtually no rhetorical sound. But its shape has become a familiar one—particularly for contemporary poetry of the eye—about its possibilities, betrayals and rewards, about rediscoveries of the visionary in the visual.

[. . . .]

Williams employs an enjambment which is directly in the line of Milton's type of revisionary disclosure:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

"Blue" in the second line might be nominal, and the surge of azure sky might be a too-easily gained sign of spring; the enjambment pulls it back into adjectival status, paired with, and half-modifying, "mottled." The fairly hard but merely systematic enjambments of "the" in the next two lines tend to soften, in retrospect, the modulation of "blue," as if to suggest, perhaps, that closure is no norm, that linearity has no marked integrity other than the rough typographical width of somewhere around thirty ems.

from Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. Copyright 1975 by Oxford UP.

Peter Schmidt

As the poem begins "on the road to the contagious hospital," Williams has difficulty seeing any outline or order: "mottled," "patches," "waste," and "scattering" are some of the words he uses.His problems culminate in the third stanza, where inexact adjectives, often afflicted with the suffixes "-ish" or "-y," glut an entire line before a noun can be found. And even then the noun is imprecise: "All along the road the reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff . . . " Like the contagious diseases in the hospital Williams drives toward, imprecision is a contagion of the mind, potentially fatal.

As "one by one objects are defined by the advancing season, however, Williams' language is also reborn, and he can identify the wildcarrot, the only named species in the poem. His battle to see and to name has a "stark dignity" equal to spring's battle with winter, or a chicory's battle to create light from darkness. Like the plants, the poet's mind must "grip down," struggling to wrest a name from anonymity, The right name is a strong root; new poetry, and a new world, will grow from it as invincibly as the wildcarrot leaf uncurls,

"Spring and All" shows that Williams' pastoral lyrics use an archetypal plot borrowed from and Biblical myth: the occurence of an Eden or a Golden Age, man's loss and its eventual return. In the Bible, of course, such an advent signifies the end of history, whereas in Vergil inaugurates yet another historical cycle. Williams well represents romanticism's distinctive revision of this myth. The large historical cycles between Iron and Golden Ages, or Old Adam and New Messiah, are internalized and speeded up; the rebirth experienced in "Spring and All" is continually lost, found, and lost again.

from "Some Versions of Modernist Pastoral: Williams and the Precisionists." Contemporary Literature 21:3 (1980), 383-406.

Richard R. Frye

Williams' Spring and All begins with a straight-forward set of impressions in a poem that moves into a quickened vision, by way of imagination, of what is stirring into being beneath the surface. The first four stanzas of poem I, quoted above, consist of a succession of what Kenneth Burke, in a well-known instance, called "minute fixations"; but those serried minutiae that follow in the stanzas thereafter are much more than the resolute observations of a connoisseur of perception (48). In stanza five a subtle change in tone signals a shift in perspective:

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

Hitherto a literal rendering of a series of visual fixations of objects in fields past which the poet is apparently driving, in this second phase the poem moves into a realm something like visionary personification. An emergent consciousness begins an intrinsic identification with "sluggish / dazed spring." The "objects" in the fields, as Stephen Tapscott notes, narrowly miss anthropomorphosis, assuming an energetic sentience flexible enough to service a complex network of analogous meanings (41).

This "second phase" constitutes a kind of clarified vision on the part of the mind within whose field of consciousness the scene appears that develops over the first four stanzas. Poem I, like the poems that follow it in Spring and All, represents (among other of Williams' assignments) a conscious attempt to externalize the form of the mind's perceptual intake of sense-experience. In the transition from perception to imagination, reality isn't changed but more fully and imaginatively entered. The description of a late-winter landscape metamorphoses, once the poet apprehends in advance the miraculous quickening of incipient life. In stanzas six and seven the process through which "dazed spring approaches" displays unmistakable dramatic elements; as a consequence, life in the poem bursts imaginatively into being:

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

The point at which the planes-in-relation converge in poem I penetrates many subtle disguises; the "process of miraculous verisimilitude," the agent of which is the regenerative power of the imagination, compels the barren late-winter landscape into flourishing life—and resonates on several levels (SAA 95). Perhaps one is a swipe at T. S. Eliot, in whose "waste" Williams discovers merely dormant life:

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches— (my emphasis)

These lines appear to have been written within weeks after The Dial published Eliot's "The Waste Land." The connecting series of verb phrases, primarily participles, with which Eliot's poem begins is perhaps subtly parodied in Williams' own series of prepositional phrases at the start of poem I. Here is Eliot's famous opening to The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

These sentences act to appeal ironically to the reverdie tradition in English poetry (especially as rendered in Chaucer's "The General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales: "Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote"). Eliot reverses the reverdie's popular form: a celebratory dance poem which serves as herald to spring. In The Waste Land, Tiresias instead laments the coming of spring; winter is recalled fondly, "feeding / A little life with dried tubers" but, mostly, "covering Earth in forgetful snow." Williams' opening lines, on the other hand, evoke an ostensibly sterile winter scene, the objective correlative, it would seem, of Tiresias' state of mind:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

Significantly, however, "the stark dignity" of Williams' barren field is "Lifeless in appearance" only; eventually, at the poem's close, "dazed spring approaches," its new green celebrated.

Another plane-convergence in the poem, the ambiguous pronoun reference in stanzas six through eight, also reaches several ways. While the "it" in stanza eight may refer exclusively to the burgeoning plant growth, it may also refer to the poet's perceptual linguistic rendering of that process. Perhaps it insinuates as well the early American settlers, about whom Williams was writing in 1923; most of In the American Grain (1925) was composed that year:

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

These stanzas relate as well the transition of the vegetal world of vines to Williams' obstetrics; the poem's pronouns themselves intimate this: "All along the road the reddish . . . stuff . . . / They enter the new world naked." Why else this change in subject? And Audrey T. Rodgers, in Virgin and Whore (1987), offers yet another possible untrammeling: "The mythic theme of Kore—the rebirth and return to life to the soil out of pain and suffering"—which has "its counterpart in human birth" (36).

In Williams' idiosyncratic use of "planes in the geometric sense" the thrust is away from individual "signifiers" and toward the immutable structure of relations by which all the elements in a given poem are patterned. The tone of starkness and sterility early in poem I is a carefully crafted embodiment of a late-winter landscape. Williams apparently decided that if he could simulate in poetry the process of incipient growth which experience had taught him to be only latent beneath the barren ground, it would stand also as a linguistic graph of the mind's perceptual process. Ideally, the notion that the landscape and the mind share what amounts to a common process might provoke in the reader an awareness of systems of interconnectedness in which, conceivably, countless versions of a single process could be layered, one atop the other, in a unified, "objective" vision of the oneness of all initiation into life.

The use of geometric planes promotes multiple perspectives by careful arrangement of sentence elements. The primary syntactical unit by which setting-in-relation is enacted linguistically is the preposition:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

From these exertions a veritable landscape emerges, presupposing, as it heaves itself into focus, a mind quite experienced in distinguishing among such apparently familiar objects and in acknowledging their relation to one another.

from "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

Albert Gelpi

The poem is a fine example of Williams' verbal Cubist Realism. The descriptiveness of the verses seems straightforward but is actually a carefully contrived verbal effect. The first line brings Whitman to Eliot's ailing world, the open road has led to the contagious hospital at the bleak end of winter. The first group of irregular, unrhymed lines seems to gloss The Waste Land, published the year before. "The wind / Crosses the brown land, unheard," Eliot wrote, and Williams' redaction also uses the reiterated dental consonants--d's and t's--especially at the end of words and syllables, to suggest the balked stasis of the scene: "road," "clouds," "cold," "wind," "mottled," "northeast," "cold wind," "beyond," "waste," "broad," "muddy," "fields," "dried weeds," "standing," and so on. In addition, the alliteration, assonance, and internal near rhymes further link the details in a pervasive sterility: "road," cold"; "driven, ""wind"; "northeast," "waste"; "broad," "brown"; "fields, "weeds"; "dried weeds." Though there is no human person present, the implications of the scene for human life are intimated not just by the hospital but by the anthropomorphic associations of words like "standing and fallen," "upstanding," "forked," and "naked" (the last two perhaps echoes of Lear's unillusioned description of man), So, from the very beginning, the word play and sound play insist to the reader on the character of the medium as medium and thus on the verbal composition of the scene.

The dropping of the expected capital letter at the beginning of each line insists on the interplay between lines, as does the heavy enjambment. But paradoxically, the enjambment also emphasizes the fact that each line is an individual structural unit shaped to reinforce the dynamic process of sensory and intellective apprehension rather than the syntactic organization of the sentence. The Whitmanian free verse line, capitalized and end-stopped, stretches itself out to be as long and inclusive as possible, gathering in detail after detail, phrasal group after phrasal group, concluding only when the breath has run out, to begin again with the next breath to sum up the interrelatedness of all things; the lines accumulate paratactically as repeated efforts to submerge the particulars in the cosmic design. Williams' line is shorter, tenser, more nervous; the enjambment cuts and splices the grammatical elements of the sentence, using the highlighting at the beginning and end of the verse to focus on the discrete but related elements of the re-created scene. The line units work against, rather than with, the sentence; and the resulting line fragments remake the sentence--and the scene--into a unique pattern.

Thus the suspension between "blue" and "mottled" emphasizes both adjectival qualities, individually and in contrast, before substantiating them in "clouds." The next two lines end, startlingly, in the unspecified article "the," emphasizing even more the nouns at the beginning of the following lines. The effect of such Cubistic rearrangement can be easily grasped if the same words are lineated to observe grammatical groupings:

under the surge
of the blue mottled clouds
driven from the northeast--
a cold wind.
Beyond, the waste of broad muddy fields

Or, in longer lines:

under the surge of the blue mottled clouds
driven from the northeast -- a cold wind.
Beyond, the waste of broad muddy fields.

The vivid particularity of details is muted without the hang and turn and shift of Williams'jagged enjambment, maintained throughout the poem. . . .

The turn in the poem takes place between the third and fourth verse paragraphs. The first-word rhyming of "leafless" and "lifeless" signals the association between "leaf" and "life." "Lifeless" repeats "leafless," just as "sluggish" picks up on "reddish, purplish ... stuff." But in the second half of the poem the association between "leaf" and "life" turns from negation to renewal: "wildcarrot leaf," "outline of leaf." Even from the start, the poem has given clues that spring will arrive to break winter's deadlock. The word "surge" is the first premonition (recall "Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world" from the third section of "Song of Myself"), and the wind as the breath of spring, though "cold" in the first paragraph, becomes "familiar" as it blows life in, the process punctuated by temporal markers: "Now," "tomorrow," "One by one," "But now," "Still." The last "all" finds the transformative wind "all about them," and the waste land is a "new world."

From A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950. Copyright 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Philip Bufithis

Without involving ourselves in the intricacies Bloomian anxieties of influence, it is enough to say that poems answer poems and that in the June 1923 Issue of TheDial Williams answered The Waste Land with his now famous lyric "By the road to the contagious hospital," which in The Dial was simply titled "Poem."

"The contagious hospital" is a spring poem and so, really, is The Waste Land, the whole of which is a waiting for revivifying spring rain. It begins

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (473)

Then, after fourteen monological lines beginning with "Winter kept us warm," Eliot resumes his meditation on spring with

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say or guess, . . . (474)

This desolate imagery continues for nine lines, and then

Frishch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irish kind,
Wo weilest du?
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl."
—Yet when we came back, lat
William Carlos Williams: To Elsie
blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "To Elsie"

Thomas R. Whitaker

"To Elsie" focuses three of Williams' main concerns: a despoiled America, the alienated and self-alienating human condition, and the ravished Eden of the imagination.

The considerable power of this poem resides neither in the summary image of Elsie herself, which occupies so few lines, nor in any texture of precise particulars. The diction is often general and seemingly flaccid: "devil-may-care men who have taken / to railroading / out of sheer lust of adventure," or "young slatterns, bathed / in filth." As a dramatic monologue, however, the poem surmounts such language. Its major focus is the speaker himself, who sums up--in swift, passionate, and broken utterance --the human condition in which he participates. The well-worn

counters give the speed and immediacy of actual speech; but, through the careful disposition of those words, Williams presents the speaker's fresh awareness. . . .

Here a fresh juxtaposition of cliches ("pure products . . . go crazy") leads into precise, natural description that is symbolically resonant ("ribbed north end" and "Isolate lakes"), and on into parallelism that pulls together seemingly disparate elements in the syndrome of degradation ("lakes and / valleys, . . . deafmutes, thieves / old names / and promiscuity"). And later the emptiness of

succumbing without
save numbed terror

is sharpened by a sudden movement into more specific (and suggestive) naming, the two sequences bound together by sound-pattern:

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum--
which they cannot express--

However, this texture could not sustain a mounting intensity for 66 lines without the poem's major syntactical and prosodic devices. Syntactically, most of the poem is one long sequence of progressive subordination--a sequence that is not anticlimactic because it renders the proliferation of the speaker's thought. He does not set forth a position; instead, be discovers and seeks to express the increasingly immediate and stifling implications of his first brief intuition. Hence the poem's forward thrust; and hence the fact that every phrase comes as a present apprehension. . . .

But that flow of commonplace diction and progressive subordination plays against a quite regular prosodic structure. By means of the long-short-long triplets (a more rigorous scheme than the later triadic line), with each line a unit of attention, Williams renders the varying pace of the concerned mind, as it feels its way among the data of experience, rushes on, revises, pauses to give a phrase deliberate weight or ironic point, searches again, shifts the angle of vision, or suddenly hits upon a new meaning.

After that sustained and intense sequence of subordination, the following brief assertions (with unexpected shorter lines and a final sentence fragment) carry unusual weight. . . .

The vague phrases render the speaker's own straining to perceive and articulate. He too "cannot express." But "isolate flecks"--with its reminders of "isolate lakes," "desolate," "voluptuous water / expressing," and the distant image of deer--transcends that inarticulateness. And so does the final colloquial metaphor. The imagination in this poem does not merely strain after deer; it confronts our chronic and devastating blindness and inflexibility.

From William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1968 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

James E. Breslin

Williams found himself in a culture devoted to success via purposive action; and it is toward the devastating consequences of that idealization of ascendancy that he turns in the well-known "To Elsie." A pure product of America, one of the famous Jackson Whites of northern New Jersey, Williams's hulking half-mad maid Elsie expresses with her "broken / brain the truth about us." Addressing herself "to cheap / jewelry / and rich young men with fine eyes," she embodies the national desire for quick, easy wealth. The myth of success, with which Williams had been imbued in his youth, has now become part of his mature demonology. For Elsie expresses the truth about a culture in which aspirations are not fed by an organic relation to the physical environment. As Williams argues, most Americans, like the original settlers of the continent, believe that this world is a dunghill.

Our dreams of heavenly tranquility, our straining after a paradise above, separate us from the real sources of life under our bootsoles; the result is dehumanization. At the end of "To Elsie," Williams delineates his culture with the image of a driverless car.

The pure products of America have gone crazy: abstracted, swift-moving, brutal. The driverless car is another modern version of Pluto, god of avarice and rape, the mythic embodiment of man's dream of dominion. It is from this narcissistic dream that Williams's poems attempt to jolt us awake.

From William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. Copyright 1970 by James E. Brolin.

Bram Dijkstra

"To Elsie," Williams' poem about America, reflects the concepts about the nature of life in this country which Hartley, Frank, and Rosenfeld had expounded in their essays, and which Williams was to reiterate in In the American Grain: The reason why "the pure products of America," such as Elsie Borden, "go crazy," is because they are rootless. They have "imaginations which have no / peasant traditions to give them / character." Consequently they have no emotion

save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum--
which they cannot express--

Williams here left the reference of "which" deliberately ambiguous, so that it becomes clear that not only the numbed terror is inexpressible to them but also the hedge of choke-cherry and the viburnum. They are incapable of seeing, of understanding nature, the organic object. Girls like Elsie, who have a slight, instinctive longing for contact, for an understanding of the objective world, because they were born "perhaps / with a dash of Indian blood," will go insane due to their inability to establish this contact, due to the desolation, disease, and murder with which they are hemmed round. But such an Elsie can, "with broken brain," express the truth about us, showing us how we behave

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky . . .

These are the things which destroy the American. Until he can force his imagination to take account of, rejoice in, the pure, immediate reality of the earth under his feet, and so establish his contact with his own, local, consciousness, instead of letting himself strain after the otherwhere of "deer / going by fields of goldenrod," until such a time, the American is doomed to go crazy. In the meantime,

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

The poem is primarily a diagnosis; its solution is implied. But there are the isolate flecks of understanding which intimate some hope for the future, if only someone can be found to "drive the car." Doubtless Williams considered his poetry a record of the "isolate flecks" and one of the means by which America could be driven to understanding, just as the photographs of Stieglitz and the work of his painters fulfilled that function in their own media.

Clearly Williams by this time had been infected with the photographer's sense of mission and firm belief in the possibility of a new and independently "local" America.

From Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1969 by Princeton UP.

Richard R. Frye

Williams was certain his friends and neighbors (and in particular the mentally handicapped young nursemaid, Elsie, who came over from time to time to help Flossie clean house) were out of contact with the "American place," and the image that came into his mind was that of a driverless automobile careening out of control. The doctor's well-known directive, from poem XVII, is to steer clear of empty material aspirations and establish roots in "the earth under our feet":

some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky

Williams' grouse "to" Elsie, among those Zukofsky selected for the elder poet's Collected Poems: 1921-31 (1934), prescribes this remedial "grounding" act as an alternative to self-destruction.

from "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

Roger Gilbert

William Carlos William's great poem "To Elsie," . . . begins with the famous declaration "The pure products of America / go crazy—" and then immediately starts offering examples of the "products" in question: "mountain folk from Kentucky /or the ribbed north end of / Jersey. . . ." These phrases are wholly generic in their reference, of course, and the poem continues at this level for several stanzas,. speaking of "devil-may-care men" and "young slatterns" without fully individuating them. When Williams finally turns to the particular he does so with a gesture that looks like a qualification of his initial statement:

[Gilbert quotes lines 28-51]

Much of the pathos in this extraordinary passage has to do, I think, with the way Williams stations Elsie just on the border between the particular and the generic. Robert Pinsky has called attention to the insistent use of the word "some" in this poem, a word that, as I hope to show, has a profound significance for American poetry as a whole. Here it serves to locate Elsie, an utterly particular human being, within the societal and discursive contexts that "produce" her. "Some hard-pressed house," "some doctor's family" are conventional phrases that simply point to a specific member of a class; "some Elsie" is devastating, because it identifies individual and class in a way that leaves no room for the saving difference of selfhood. And indeed Williams' portrait brutally physicalizes Elsie, reducing her to a mute symptom of cultural degradation, "expressing" only by her brokenness what has been done to her. We may well conclude that Williams himself does as much to rob Elsie of selfhood as her culture; it is after all his language that transforms her to "voluptuous water" and that dwells on the tawdriness of her desires. Yet it is also Williams, like the state, who has plucked Elsie out of her original context, who has made her an example, a special case, part anomaly and part specimen.

Much hinges on the "Unless" that opens the passage: what does it imply? That Elsie somehow escapes or transcends the misery and the madness that beset the more generic "products" of America, those nameless deaf-mutes, thieves, and slatterns? Does the naming of Elsie itself constitute an act of rescue or merely one of humiliation and display? The poem's subtlety forbids clear-cut answers to any of these questions. What we can say is that the grammar of exemplification in this poem beautifully reproduces the tension between the irreducible singularity of a human being, an Elsie, and the way social and cultural systems can turn such a human being into a generic product, like the car in the poem's closing lines: "No one to witness and adjust, / no one to drive the car." The poem's language frames Elsie as both an exception to and an example of that law that "the pure products of America go crazy," and this grammatical ambiguity is what accounts for her nearly tragic stature. For Williams, exemplification becomes a discursive version of the dehumanizing social forces that turn people into types: hence the poet's refusal to make Elsie just an example, his insistent granting of special powers and qualities to her, can be taken as an effort to "rescue" her from those forces, to give her a life of her own. This effort may be no more successful than that of the state agency, but at least it reminds us of the extent to which language itself always participates in the making and unmaking of selves.

from "Some Parts of a World: Example as Trope in American Poetry." WHR (Summer 1994).

Linda A. Kinnahan

. . . A poem that takes as its subject the very dynamics of representation it enacts, it turns essentialized conventions of the feminine inside out by situating them within material frameworks of power involving sex, race, and class. A poem also about the imagination, it ties a cultural diminishment of imaginative potential to the workings of masculine systems of control and desire marking the female body. The poem's first nine stanzas describe the "pure products" of America, the "peasant" class of workers and "mountain folk" who live "desolate" lives because their imaginations have been severed from "peasant traditions to give them / character." Escape from deprived conditions occurs through gender-specific means; the men can take to "railroading / out of sheer lust of adventure," their mobility assured by their sex, their "lust" assuring their mobility. The women may only escape through the stasis of sexual surrender, and the "young slatterns," in "succumbing / without emotion" to the conventions of male desire, face their submission through "numb terror / . . . which they cannot express. " The women are defined (as sluts) and silenced through the operations of male desire, or more precisely, when the mechanisms of male desire are enabled , through the severance of the "imagination, " through the rigidification of habits of thought rooted in male supremacy.

Elsie embodies both the result of this system and the potential to disrupt or break it. Recalling the feminized cross-culturization of Jacataqua as well as the old Carib woman who resists Ponce de Leon, Elsie is a product of a "marriage / perhaps / with a dash of Indian blood." Yet she is also "hemmed round," closed in by the conditions the poem has described in terms of gender and class. Her movement to better circumstances, financially speaking, retains much of the old, for as a young woman she remains "hemmed round" by the male-identified institutions that continue to define her: the agent who rescues her, the state who rears her, the suburban doctor who employs her—the "us" about whom Elsie's "broken / brain" expresses the "truth." Against these sanctuaries of public authority, this "us," the poem suddenly insists upon Elsie's body, the "voluptuous water," the hips and breasts; moreover, in a significant doubling back upon itself, the poem goes on to alert us to the process of reading the female body within the contexts of masculine power that the poem both describes and joins. The poem begins to deconstruct itself, its own representation and objectification of the female body linked to the hierarchies of state, class, and gender that "read" and "re-present" women in our culture:

. . . some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes

The hips and breasts, "addressed" like a written text to the male gaze or the "fine eyes" of men, also undergo the objectifying gaze of the poet who here defines the female body according to cultural standards of beauty, male systems of desire. But even as we are told that her hips are "ungainly" and her breasts "flopping," the poem confronts us with the mechanism underlying definitions of the feminine, metonymically signified by the "fine eyes" of rich men. The devil-may-care men, the agent, the state, the doctor, the poet all join in creating this bodily text of "woman." The repressed, oppressed body, however, is a site for exposing this process, the "truth about us" that is revealed in how we "read" our culturally sanctioned texts of convention and meaning; the textualization of the female body, performed by the fine eyes of men and the representational gestures of the poem, is underscored by hierarchies of gender, class, and race that shape a reading of the female body and, furthermore, is self-consciously linked to a lack of imagination—a lack that "seems to destroy us." The objectification and suppression of the female body is contextualized within a denigration of earth and nature, a binarism necessary to perpetuate such hierarchy. Elsie's body is submitted to the male gaze

as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in
the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

The "imagination " here is not liberating for it is not transformational; it is the imagination without peasant character, the imagination of the "plagiarists" earlier criticized in Spring and All. This imagination labors and strains after desired but absent forms of beauty rather than generating itself through contact with the material world; it reads itself through convention and habit of thought, the "stifling heat of September," longing for a pastoral or illusory vision of the world—deer in fields of golden rod. This seems a pretty poetic image precisely because we are taught that such subjects and images are "poetic." Here, the poetic privileging of tradition (suggested by the pastoral vision) is part of what denigrates Elsie and what seems "to destroy us."

Thus, in contrast with the young women who "cannot express" the sexual terror engendered by male authority, Elsie expresses "with broken / brain the truth about us." More precisely, the speaker's recognition of linked systems of power that inscribe, represent, and "hem round" the female body unfolds in the act of his own participation, through his inscription and representation of Elsie. The poem problematizes the act of representation and its place and power within a (masculinely authored) poetic tradition yearning after deer in goldenrod; or within a middle-class suburb where the exotic and voluptuous racially mixed woman represents an objectified sexuality of otherness to the "rich young men with fine eyes." The poem identifies itself as a "hemming round" of the female Elsie while seeking the "broken" expression she embodies and that conventions exclude. The final lines of the poem recall this expression, a brokenness that reveals "isolate flecks":

It is only in isolate flecks that something
is given off
No one to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

This final stanza revises, in a sense, the earlier poem "The Young Housewife," which associates the car's power with a poetic mastery that destroys (through erecting metaphoric boundaries) the poem's subject (see Chapter 1). The car image in "To Elsie" recalls the railroading men of the first stanzas and stands as an emblem of male power and mobility, enabled in part by female submission and terrified silence. Here, though, there is no adjustment, no control of the car's movement; significantly, it is not that there is "no one to witness," but that there is no one to witness and adjust when the "driver" opens to the imagination's broken, isolate flecks. The labor of this process, a painful relinquishment of authority on various levels of language, culture, and epistemological habit, is a movement in and out of the "filth" that one discourse perceives and the deer that the plagiarizing imagination desires: "Somehow I it seems to destroy us." The poem itself moves in and out—Williams witnessing and adjusting, while realizing the "broken" truth and the "isolate flecks" such adjustment (or the habit of thought encouraging this adjustment) diminishes. Elsie is both diminished (by one reading of Williams's description of her) and stands free from diminishment through the deconstructive act the poem suggests, leaving us to strain after the isolate flecks, the traces, the feminine betweenness that the dominant text ("the rich young men with fine eyes"; Williams himself) overwrites. The poem is painful in its desolation over the loss of authority to "drive the car," yet by these final lines it has held this desire up for self-implicating inspection.

from Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge UP.

John Lowney

The most famous poem in Spring and All that presents the automobile as a figure of modern American mobility is "To Elsie." In this case, the automobile has no driver, and mobil
William Carlos Williams: The Red Wheelbarrow
On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

EXPLANATION: "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Lines 1-2

The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. Since the poem is composed of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that "so much depends upon" each line of the poem. This is so because the form of the poem is also its meaning. This may seem confusing, but by the end of the poem the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees an image of an apple, the apple represents an actual object in reality, but since it is part of a painting the apple also becomes the actual piece of art. These lines are also important because they introduce the idea that "so much depends upon" the wheelbarrow.

Lines 3-4

Here the image of the wheelbarrow is introduced starkly. The vivid word "red" lights up the scene. Notice that the monosyllable words in line 3 elongates the line , putting an unusual pause between the word "wheel" and "barrow." This has the effect of breaking the image down to its most basic parts. The reader feels as though he or she were scrutinizing each part of the scene. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and color, Williams breaks up the words in order to see the object more closely.

Lines 5-6

Again, the monosyllable words elongate the lines with the help of the literary device assonance. Here the word "glazed" evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. This new vision of the image is what Williams is aiming for.

Lines 7-8

The last lines offer up the final brushstroke to this "still life" poem. Another color, "white" is used to contrast the earlier "red," and the unusual view of the ordinary wheelbarrow is complete. Williams, in dissecting the image of the wheelbarrow, has also transformed the common definition of a poem. With careful word choice, attention to language, and unusual stanza breaks Williams has turned an ordinary sentence into poetry.

Source: Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001. Online Source.

John Hollander

[I]n twentieth-century verse, an enjambment can occur without interest in shock or abruptness as a mimetic effect by itself. . . . A paradigmatic case is from William Carlos Williams in a well-known poem which uses the device almost as if in a manifesto. . . .

The rigorous metrical convention of the poem demands simply three words in the first line of each couplet and a disyllable in the second. But the line termini cut the words "wheelbarrow" and "rainwater" into their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first noun is to be part of a compound, with the implication that they are phenomenological constituents as well. The wheel plus the barrow equals the wheelbarrow, and in the freshness of light after the rain (it is this kind of light which the poem is about, although never mentioned directly), things seem to lose their compounded properties. Instead of Milton's shifting back and forth from original to derived meanings of words, Williams "etymologizes" his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one. The formal device is no surface trick.

Vision and Resonance: Two Sense of Poetic Form. Copyright © 1975 by Oxford UP.

Stanley Archer

Interpretation of "The Red Wheelbarrow" must rely heavily on its visual imagery. There is the vague, casual beginning, "so much depends," then the images of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens. The reader might be justified in considering the poem merely flippant, or perhaps he might think that the poet intends only to entertain through images, that he asks us to imagine, from these juxtaposed images of red and white, a pleasing photograph or painting as we read. Yet the tone does not invite a dismissal of the generalized introduction. We wish to know what these things matter, to whom they matter.

The answer may be suggested by the poem's one metaphor: the wheelbarrow is described as glazed with rainwater—that is, shining, with a suggestion of hardness. The speaker sees the wheelbarrow immediately after the rain, when the bright sun has created the wheelbarrow's shiny surface and has made the chickens immaculately white. In nature, this scene occurs when dark clouds still cover a portion of the sky, often giving an eerie yellow—or blue—green tone to the landscape, a tone seen in the paintings of El Greco. In this short time after the rain has ceased, the chickens have emerged from whatever refuge they sought during the storm. They are reassured that they can begin normal living again and do so calmly (simply "beside" the wheelbarrow).

The metaphor "glazed" captures time in the poem. In a moment, the wheelbarrow will be dry, its sheen gone; yet the hardness suggested by the metaphor is not irrelevant. This moment is like others in life (of the chickens, the speaker, the reader). Periods of danger, terror, stress do not last. The glaze, like the rainbow, signals a return to normality or restoration. The poem creates a memorable picture of this recurring process; reflections upon its meaning may provide the reassurance that makes us more durable.

from "Glazed in Williams' 'The Red Wheelbarrow.'" Concerning Poetry 9:2 (1976).

Barry Ahearn

. . . what are we to make of "The Red Wheelbarrow"? We are back in the neighborhood of Rutherford, or perhaps any rural location. Chickens and wheelbarrows are found in proximity in many parts of the world, though they would not be found in the middle of Greenwich Village. But numbers and the red wheelbarrow do have one thing in common: both are elementary in the sense that civilization depends on them. The wheelbarrow is one of the simplest machines, combining in its form the wheel and the inclined plane, two of the five simple machines known to Archimedes. Just as civilization depends on number, civilization depends on simple machines - both in themselves and in their increasingly complex combinations. "So much depends upon" the wheelbarrow in its service not only through the centuries, but as a form whose components are indispensable to the functioning of a highly industrialized civilization. We can identify two contrasts in the poem. One is between the latest advances in machine technology and the continuing but overlooked importance of elementary machines. The other is between the universal and age-old scene depicted in the poem and the radically new free verse form in which it exists. . . .

In terms of its sounds, quite apart from its images or its vocabulary, Williams intricately tunes the poem. The first and second stanzas are linked by the long "o," in "so" and "barrow" and by the short "uh" in "much," "upon" and "a." "L" and "r" interlace the core stanzas (the second and third); these two sounds, however, are not in the first and fourth stanzas. This simple device distinguishes the framing stanzas from the central stanzas. One result of this distinction is that the central stanzas are mellifluous, the frame stanzas choppy. Then again, however, the honeyed and the choppy are linked in the third and fourth stanzas. They are joined by means of a parallel construction; the long vowels in "glazed with rain" match those in "beside the white," In the last stanza, another loop is closed when the sounds "ch" and "enz" in the last word of the poem echo the sounds in the initial line, "so much depends."

From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright by the Cambridge University Press.

Richard R. Frye

In part, Spring and All manifests certain ontological reassurances. One of these is that the artist's relation to nature is not causal; Williams' poems become sullen in the company of Edmund Husserl's phenomenological applications. Instead, the different realms of nature and art are homologous; the former "possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves. It is opposed to art but apposed to it" (121). Poem interrogates ontology; it begs the question—"is perception reality or figment?":

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Hugh Kenner, in A Homemade World (1975), locates the poem's typographical "suspension system" in an imaginative zone as precarious as art; but Williams may be troping on an adjacent zone (59). Any special space that art inhabits implies another to which it is apposed; Williams, adducing from the synthetic cubists independent but homologous structures for nature and art, early in the twenties began calling that space the imagination:

Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it—It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but— (SAA 149-50)

One point that emerges from poem XXII is that there is a world to begin with for art to affirm; not that Williams possesses categorizations, etc. of a particular kind unnecessary for the poem to verbalize (Kenner's remark: "he has cunningly not said what depends"), but that "out there" are chickens, rainwater, and wheelbarrows to evoke; they aren't some purely solipsistic image. The ontological status of the image depends upon whether or not the poem constitutes a psychophysical event; for only then is it useful both as a psychological correlative and as a way of understanding human experience.

from "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

Henry M. Sayre

So much depends upon the form into which Williams molds his material, not the material itself. . . .

From this point of view, the material which composes Williams's poem, material chosen from Williams's position as artist, begins to take on the aura of Marcel Duchamp's famous readymades. Duchamp had written that the aesthetic dimension of his urinal, Fountain, which he had purchased in a plumbing store and submitted to the 1917 New York Independents Exhibition, rested in the fact that he had taken "an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object." Just as Duchamp revitalizes our aesthetic sense by placing a urinal in the context of art, Williams places his material in an equally strange environment--the poem--and the wheelbarrow's accidental but very material presence in this new context invests it with a new dignity. It is crucial that Williams's material is banal, trivial: by placing this material in the poem, Williams underscores the distance the material has traveled, and the poem defines a radical split between the world of art and the world of barnyards, between a world which crystallizes the imagination and a world which is a mere exposition of the facts.

From The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1983 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Hugh Kenner

Not what the poets says, insisted Williams; what he makes; and if ever we seem to catch him saying ("So much depends upon. . ."), well, he has cunningly not said what depends. He has levered that red wheelbarrow into a special zone of attention by sheer torque of insistence.

Attention first encounters the word "upon," sitting all alone as though to remind us that "depends upon," come to think of it, is a rather queer phrase. Instead of tracing, as usage normally does, the contour of a forgotten Latin root, "depends upon" ignores the etymology of "depend" (de + pendere = to hang from). In the substantial world "upon" goes nicely with "wheelbarrow": so much, as it were, piled upon. In the idiomatic world, inexplicably, "upon" goes with "depends." In the poem, since we're paying unaccustomed attention, these two worlds are sutured, and "depends" lends its physical force, an incumbency as though felt by the muscles, to what must be a psychic depending. . . .

[A]fter "upon," there's what looks like a stanza break. What are these stanzas? Small change symmetrically counted, always three words and then one word, the one word, morover, always of two syllables, but the three-word line having four syllables the first time and the last, but only three syllables on its two middle occurrences. These are stanzas you can't quite hear, especially as one very simple sentence runs through all four of them. They are stanzas to see, and the sight of them, as so often in Williams, inflects the speaking voice, the listening ear, with obligations difficult to specify. "Upon," "barrow," "water," "chickens," these words we puncuate with as it were a contraction of the shoulders, by way of doing the stanzas' presence some justice. And as we give "barrow" and "water" the emphasis their isolation requests, two other words, "wheel" and "rain," isolate likewise. . . .

"Wheelbarrow" and "rainwater," dissociated into their molecules, seem nearly kennings: not adjective plus noun but yoked nouns, as though new-linked. And "red" goes with "white," in a simple bright scheme, and "chickens' with "barrow" for an ideogram of the barnyard, comporting with the simplicities of rain; and the rain glazes a painted surface but (we are left to imagine) does not glaze the chickens, merely soaks them if they are chickens enough to stand in it. (And yet they need it, and may not be wise enough to know how much depends, for them, on the rain.) So much depends on all that pastoral order: food, and the opportunity to touch actualities (while trundling a wheelbarrow), and the Sabine diastole to counter the urban systole.

Are these reflections penumbral to the poem? Probably. Probably even external to it. This poem tends to ignore what it doesn't state. But let them serve to remind us that a farmer would know every one of the words in this little poem, but would be incapable of framing the poem, or even uttering its sentence. We need to be at a picturesque distance from such elements to think of how much depends (for us) on them.

"Mobile-like arrangement," said Wallace Stevens. Yes. The lines, the words, dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system. This was one thing Williams meant by "making," not "saying." Yet you do say, you do go through the motions of saying. But art lifts the saying out of the zone of things said. For try an experiment. Try to imagine an occasion for this sentence to be said:

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.

Try it over, in any voice you like: it is impossible. It could nonly be the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown's barnyard. And to go on with the dialogue? To whom might the sentence be spoken, for what purpose? Why, to elicit agreement, and a silent compliment for the speaker's "sensitivity." Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it you'd wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings.

That zone is what Williams in the 1920's started calling "the Imagination."

From A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. Copyright 1975 by Hugh Kenner

Charles Altieri

The work of edge-to-edge contact here does not need commentary; the effects of such connectives do. Why begin with that abstracting opening clause, if one is committed to the dominant force of the particular images? And why use a word count, rather than a syllable count, as one's organizing pattern? What can possibly be "realized" by drawing such parallels between word positions? Clearly, the sentence is once again the primary model of agency. But in "Flowers by the Sea," the agency was a fairly simple one. The sentence defined and complemented oppositions organized by our investments in seeing, so that the poem exercised a significant force, simply as visual rendering. Here, despite the confident realism attributed to it by critics, the visual rendering flirts with bathos. The picture as image is no more compelling a version of an actual scene than the abstracted vision Braque gives of the village at Estaque. Our interest must focus on the pronounced formal qualities. There resides our only route to substantial extraformal content. For example, one could concentrate on the way in which this structure calls attention to the material quality of these isolated words, as if, in glazing them, their power to make direct significations could be made manifest. But that is still to leave words in search of agency. For the poem to have much depth—to not be only about the lack of depth—we must define how the semantic force of that opening clause brings those material qualities to life and connects them to the poem's obvious concern for the nature of reference. We must show what can be realized through this treatment of dependency as a poetic site.

Ten years later, Williams made explicit the implications of that site: "This is, after an, the substance, therefore the explanation, of my poems and my life in which there exists (instead of you exist)" ("A Novelette and Other Prose," in Imaginations 302). Dependency, in other words, becomes a means of exploring ways in which subjectivity is subordinate to other, more inclusive and transpersonal models of intentionality. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow, because so much depends on understanding what is at stake in the dual attributes of that "so much depends"; the mind's manifestation of an abiding principle of care, inherent in this "there is," and the mind's becoming itself virtually tactile, in its efforts to compose the world so that those cares can reside in actual phenomena.

I take the formal equivalent of this care to be the force of predication set in motion by the structural pattern of dividing the poem into four equal compositional units, with only one verb. The position of the verb is occupied, in the succeeding stanzas, by three adjectival functions, each literally depending, for its complete grammatical and semantic functioning, on the single words that complete the stanza. The effect is to have the completion of meaning constantly delayed, and to make the delay a means of slowing us down or defamiliarizing the process of conferring meanings, so that we are led to recognize the miraculous quality of words and cares eventually taking hold.

As we read, the mind is made to hover over details, until its waiting is rewarded—not only within the stanza, but also as each independent stanza emerges to fill out this waiting and to move us beyond details to a complex sense of a total life contained in these objects. How resonant the word "depends" becomes, when we recall its etymological meanings of "hanging from" or "hanging over." The mind acts, not by insisting on its own separateness, but by fully being "there": by dwelling on, depending on, the objects that depend on it. And words themselves take on that same quality, because each part of speech reveals its capacity to transfer force. Each first line ends in what could be a noun—a substance allowing rest in the flow of meaning—but that turns out to function adjectivally. As adjectives, the words define aspects of an intending mind—Locke's secondary qualities, perhaps—seeking a substance in which to inhere. But the words' nominal qualities do not disappear. Their incompleteness, and their shared position with the verb "depends," combine to create an effect of substance in action. In effect, concrete qualities seem verbal—seem capable, as Fenollosa insisted, of transferring force from object to object and from the mind's intentions to concrete events.

We are starting to recognize the justice of that initial abstract expression of emotion, "so much depends / upon." Because "so much" has no clear antecedent, the phrase itself expresses a sense of emotional possibilities, to be filled out and clarified only when the mind completes its action and finds a place. Ultimately, so much depends upon our recognizing the complex ways in which we depend on the scene (as the farmer depends on these specific objects for his sustenance). Moreover, the scene itself turns back to give concrete aspects to this initial abstraction—both by giving it a local habita
William Carlos Williams: This Is Just to Say
On "This is Just to Say"

Stephen Matterson

The poem, cast in the form of a note left on the refrigerator, sounds found. As with the found poem, the lack of a mediating voice leaves the reader with a wide range of potential meanings. Oddly, although this much-anthologized poem is firmly in the canon of twentieth-century poetry, there is no general agreement as to its theme. Any thematic interpretation is made self-consciously and somewhat uncertainly. As with the found poem, Williams's poem allows the reader a wide range of possibilities. He or she is free to decide whether it is "about" temptation, a re-enactment of the fall, or the triumph of the physical over the spiritual. Each reader is left free to construct a poem, and the reader becomes the owner of the resulting poem.

For example, I might suggest three possible readings. The poem could be concerned with the uselessness or self-entrapment of sexual desire, comparable to "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame." There's the potential Oedipal reading, with the boy thwarted in an attempt to comprehend his origin; to learn of it from his mother. Or there's the reading that would suggest self-referentiality; it is the poem itself that "means nothing."

From World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets." Ed. Leonard M. Trawick. Copyright © 1990 by The Kent State University Press.

Marjorie Perloff

Stanzas to see - it is interesting that Williams himself never quite understood the workings of his own prosody. Thus when, in an interview of 1950, John W. Gerber asked the poet what it is that makes "This Is Just To Say" a poem, Williams replied, "In the first place, it metrically absolutely regular. . . .So, dogmatically speaking, it has to be a poem because it goes that way, don't you see!" But the. . .stanzas exhibit no regularity of stress or of syllable count; indeed, except for lines 2 and 5 (each an iamb) and lines 8 and 9 (each an amphibrach), no two lines have the same metrical form. What then can Williams mean when he says, "It's metrically absolutely regular"? Again, he mistakes sight for sound: on the page, the three little quatrains look alike; they have roughly the same physical shape. It is typography rather than any kind of phonemic recurrence that provides directions for the speaking voice (or for the eye that reads the lines silently) and that teases out the poem's meanings.

From The dance of the intellect: Studies in the poetry of the pound tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.

Return to William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
On "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

icarus.jpg (80610 bytes)Audrey T. Rodgers

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" touches upon the Greek myth of the tragedy of Icarus. As we know, according to Ovid and Appolodorus, Icarus, son of Daedalus, took flight from imprisonment wearing the fragile wings his father had fashioned for him. Heedless of his father's warning to keep a middle course over the sea and avoid closeness with the sun, the soaring boy exultantly flew too close to the burning sun, which melted his wings so that Icarus hurtled to the sea and death. The death of Icarus, the poet tells us "According to Brueghel," took place in spring when the year was emerging in all its pageantry. The irony of the death of Icarus, who has always been an emblem for the poet's upward flight that ends in tragedy, is that his death goes unnoticed in the spring--a mere splash in the sea. The fear of all poets--that their passing will go "quite unnoticed"--is an old and pervasive theme. That Williams reiterates the theme is significant in the life of a poet who always felt the world had never fully recognized his accomplishments.

From Virgin and Whore: The Image of Women in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1982 by Audrey T. Rodgers.

David W. Cole

William Carlos Williams ends his poem with these lines:

a splash quite unnoticed this was Icarus drowning

He had begun it with an appeal to his authority, Brueghel, before going on to describe The Fall of Icarus in detail: the farmer doing his plowing, the awakening of spring, the self absorption of life at the edge of the sea, and the small detail of Icarus's fast disappearing legs. A crucial aspect of Brueghel's painting is its perspective. The landscape and the action are seen from above-- from the viewpoint, in other words, of Daedalus. The force of the picture is thus, I think, to move the viewer not only to recognize the unconcern for catastrophe inherent in the preoccupation of ongoing life, but also to register a horrified protest that it should be so. Perspective allows the painter to make this protest. How is the poet to do it?

In "Musee des Beaux Arts," Auden does not try, contenting himself with rueful recognition of the world's indifference to individual martyrdom. But Williams achieves a more subtle, more faithful, more deeply felt response to the painting by means of carefully controlled imagery, grammar and diction, punctuation (or rather the absence of any punctuation whatsoever), and order. His method is evident first in the title of the poem. We know the painting simply as The Fall of Icarus. Williams's revision of the title grammatically subordinates the tragic event to "Landscape," just as the painting subordinates the image of Icarus to all that surrounds him. Yet the last word in the title, emphatic in its position, is "Icarus." The tension between grammatical subordination and rhetorical emphasis is paralleled and amplified in the stanzas that follow.

Williams does not dwell on the images of the poem, showing us even less than Auden does. The matter-of-fact language, the absence of any punctuation (which I take to indicate an absence of expressive inflection), and of course the explicit assertion of the event's insignificance, all work to understate, if not undercut, the pathos of Icarus's headlong plunge to death. And yet the last words of the poem are "Icarus drowning." The words resonate, and the splash is not quite unnoticed. The reader is forced to take notice, forced paradoxically not only to see but to feel the painful irony of death in the midst of life. Williams's remarkable, forceful understatement brilliantly captures the protest expressed through the perspective of Brueghel's painting.

from The Explicator 58.3 (Spring 2000)

Return to William Carlos Williams
Ezra Pound: Portrait d'une Femme
On "Portrait d'une Femme"

Jeanne Heuving

In Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme," the partial and secondary nature of this "femme" made of parts is openly declared:

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else.
You have been second always.

The poem concludes:

and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that's quite your own.
Yet this is you. (Personae 61)

Pound may not be projecting his bodily parts onto his beloved, but his femme is certainly a projection of partial and somewhat worthless knowledges.

from "Gender in Marianne Moore's Art: Can'ts and Refusals." SAGETRIEB 6.3

Walter Sutton

The blank verse "Portrait d'une Femme," a Browningesque yet modern vignette, depicts the emptiness and sterility of the life of a cultured woman, surrounded by an exotic assortment of objects of art: "Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, / London has swept about you this score years / And bright ships left you this or that in fee. . . ." Despite her acquisitions, often the "fee" of casual alliances with cultured lovers, the lady is without a sense of identity or fulfillment: "No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, / Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you." This subject and theme, anticipatory of Eliot's hollow men and women.

From American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry. Copyright © 1973 by Walter Sutton.

Christine Froula

The title recalls Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (1881), much admired by Pound. Pound later spoke of Mauberley (1920) as "an attempt to condense the James novel," and this poem is an early exercise in that vein, a character sketch recalling the descriptive vignettes of the Jamesian novel of manners. Pound first met "the Master" in a London drawing room in February 1912, and after James's death he composed a lengthy essay honoring him for "book after early book against oppression, against all the sordid petty personal crushing oppression, the domination of modern life."

Pound uses a prosaic and flexible blank verse and portrays the "lady" by means of the extended metaphor of the "Sargasso Sea," a relatively static area of the North Atlantic stretching between the West Indies and the Azores, where the currents deposit masses of seaweed (or "sargasso"). As the Sargasso collects seaweed, so this woman has, after twenty years of backwash from London's social currents, accumulated the flotsam and jetsam which makes her, paradoxically, both a "richly paying" institution in the eyes of the young and an impoverished self whose only interest is as repository of this "sea-hoard."

From A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.

Hugh Witemeyer

Kenner has noted that the women in Pound's poetry tend to merge into two basic archetypes: the goddess, radiant with a virtú which organizes the world about her; and the fragmented woman, lacking identity and organized by her environment. . . .

The subject of "Portrait" is a modern woman without identity or virtú. She is but "a sort of nodal point in the flux," defined by her environment. Whereas the lady of "Apparuit" is organically inseparable from her setting ("Green the ways, the breath of the fields is thine there"), the London femme gains no identity from her oddments ("No! There is nothing ... that's quite your own"). She is the cultural "Sargasso Sea" of London, and her "spars of knowledge" are lifeless and stationary in that backwater. The light in her world is not self-generated, but reflected from above, shifting and uncertain: "the slow float of differing light and deep." Yet despite her lack of unity, the lady is not nothing. The poem is a study of the second-rate qualified by the poet's implied awareness of third, fourth, and fifth rates. If we say that this fragmented lady is the prototype of the figures satirized in Lustra, we must add that the perspective and balance of the "Portrait" are missing from most of Pound's later sketches. It was probably this poem that Eliot had most in mind when he spoke of "the effect of London" and said that Pound had become "more mature."

From The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewals, 1908-1920. Copyright © 1969 by Hugh Witemeyer.

Michael Alexander

'Portrait d'une Femme' is an essay in something new, but the comparison with Eliot's 'Portrait of a Lady' is to Pound's disadvantage. Like Masefield's 'Quinquireme', the woman is interesting chiefly for her cargo; she is a Sargasso Sea of quaint wrecks, of cultural trophies and memories. Like other ladies in early Pound, Eliot, or Lewis, she is and has long been a hostess in the salon world, the object of ambiguous feeling on the part of the iconoclasts who drink her tea. The lady is a collection of curiosities, not a person; her identity is defined by her trophies. Very good; but Pound is too interested in the cultural rarities, too much the museum visitor. And the pot-hunter is not saved by his irony. His 'brilliant' dismissal of the dear old relic at the end 'falls heavily among the bric-à-brac'; but, unlike Mr. Eliot's young visitor, he doesn't notice.

from The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by Michael Alexander.

Cary Nelson

For some poets an attack on women became a kind of set piece of their early careers, almost a necessary apprentice undertaking, one of the decorously validated component of an appropriately marketed literary career. The two most famous instances are no doubt Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (1911) and Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (1912), poems that embody attitudes quite characteristic of their authors' work at that time. In both cases the poets have apparently come to believe that Western civilization, in a period of decline, has erroneously given over to women the authority to maintain its threatened traditions. Yet women's essential being itself either threatens or diminishes everyone who becomes entangled with them. For Eliot, women's precious triviality makes for a life of empty, gestural anxiety. Pound admits these creatures have their allure; one alas repeatedly turns to them in fascination to see glittering "trophies fished up," bright riches that distract but have no substance. Indeed that is the core of female being -- gaudy found objects masking an inner emptiness: "In the whole and all," the speaker in Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" concludes, there is "Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you."

Yet neither of these two poems is quite uniformly or simplistically misogynistic. Eliot's is a historically specific engagement with the early twentieth-century culture of female patronage, salons, and hostessing and thus partly a class- rather than gender-based critique. Nevertheless, its picture of a certain time and class is clearly gender differentiated, and the structural maintenance of this fragile world of empty forms seems to fall distinctly to women. What Eliot implies in his style of partly self-reflexive revulsion Pound explicitly projects and personifies. Thus the two poems are written in quite divergent voices. Eliot, whose quintessential male protagonist at this time was Prufrock, adopts the voice of self-incriminating critique; he returns to sample the very social world he savages. Pound, on the other hand, casts out and castigates the alluring if vacant sirens whose voices would drown him. Pound's prototypical male figure at the time was Mauberley, and unlike Eliot he saw himself as a man of action. Eliot to some degree shows us both men and women implicated in the world of fallen social relations women have come to oversee; Pound here is Odysseus trying to get past the sirens. Both, however, can be seen as revising and reversing James's map of gender relations in Portrait of a Lady (1881), which offers us a woman who in some ways is the one uncorrupted, if assimilated, figure in a corrupted world. Thus Eliot in his much looser, more meditative and dialogic "Portrait of a Lady" and Pound in his rhetorically focused and almost univocal "Portrait d'une Femme" both show us women of baubles and bric-a-brac who lead men and their civilization to its collective doom.

That is not to say that there is nothing to admire in these poems. Eliot presents a world in which no position external to social life exists from which we might securely critique it, a stance many contemporary theorists would endorse. And there is unquestionably pleasure to be had in the layering and counterpointing of elegance, exhaustion, and wit in his rhetoric. Pound on the other hand offers a bravura performance that elevates complex metaphoricity to something approaching declamatory public speech: "For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, / Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff." Yet both poems are also instances, whether deliberate or not, of the backlash discourses that swept across America in the wake of nineteenth-century feminism's gains and that would intensify in response to early twentieth-century feminism. It is not anachronistic, then, to question what sort of cultural work these poems do; there would have been good reason for a reader sensitized to feminism to have found them offensive when they were first published in journals or later reprinted in books by Eliot and Pound. In tracking grounds for both approval and disapproval, in recognizing that both textual and socio-historical complexities are at stake in any full evaluation of the poems, I am of course undermining and purely aesthetic response to them. Marketed for decades by academic readers as unproblematically aesthetic objects, the poems in their own time were arguably efforts to reach out to audiences troubled by women's changing roles and identities. Indeed, the poems are clear enough in their distaste for women that some readers of this essay have found anything other than their unqualified rejection unacceptable. On the other hand, a more conservative reader thought my criticism of them seriously misguided. Such are the politics of contemporary criticism; it may be that I can please neither of these camps. It is the conservative reader, however, whose position seems to me to be the least defensible.

In case such a reader were inclined to underread the attitudes toward women unhesitatingly put forward in these and other poems, or to find some exculpatory explanation for them -- note, for example, Pound's "Canto II" and his gendered offer to breathe a soul into New York ("a maid with no breasts") in his poem "N.Y." -- one could turn to Pound's most remarkable programmatic statement of his misogyny, his substantially more than half mad introduction to his translation of Remy de Gourmount's The Natural Philosophy of Love. In putting forth the notion that the human brain is basically "a great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve (p. vii)," Pound allows that this is so obvious and reasonable a hypothesis that it needs little proof. In human creativity and on the evolutionary scale, of course, men predominate. The brain is, after all, essentially male seminal fluid. Insects, on the other hand, are inherently female: "the insect chooses to solve the problem by hibernation, i.e., a sort of negation of action (p. ix)." Men act, "the phallus or spermatozoid charging, head-on, the female chaos . . . . Even oneself has felt it, driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London (p. viii)." It takes Pound eleven pages to lay all this out in detail and by the end it is quite impossible to take it as Swiftian satire. By now, of course, the effect is partly comic, at least in part because Pound mixes his overwrought paeans to phallic creativity with a clubby, chatty style that implies he is casually gathering representative anecdotes from the limitless evidence available to all of us. But make no mistake about the bottom line: Pound believes all of this, and the arguments here underwrite his poetry.

Return to Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound: A Pact
On "A Pact"

Christine Froula

The ambivalence of Pound's response to his poetic forefather Walt Whitman reflects his complex sense of his American literary heritage. As he was well aware, whatever he might say in explanation of Whitman would also in some measure define himself. While Pound recognized the authentic American eloquence of Whitman's "barbaric yawp," the self-conscious craftsman in him winced at the "exceeding great stench" of Whitman's "crudity," "an exceedingly nauseating pill" which he parodically exemplified as "Lo! Behold, I eat watermelons."

In his 1909 essay "What I Feel About Walt Whitman," his distaste for Whitman's expansive self-singing struggles with an even more powerful conviction that Whitman "is America. . . . He does 'chant the crucial stage' and he is the 'voice triumphant.'" In the end, Pound subordinates the superficial quarrel with Whitman's poetic means to the profound bond of their common origin and message. Whitman is to America "what Dante is to Italy"; "the vital part of my message, taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his"; "It is a great thing, reading a man to know, not 'His Tricks are not as yet my Tricks, but I can easily make them mine' but 'His message is my message. We will see that men hear it.'"

from A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.

Hugh Witemeyer

Pound's new style in Lustra was due in part to his reconciliation with Whitman - or more accurately, to his giving freer rein to the Whitman in himself. He had recognized (and suppressed) this aspect of his poetic personality since 1909, the date of his essay on "What I Feel About Walt Whitman." There he admitted: "The vital part of my message, taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his. Mentaly, I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a colar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both)." The image was apt, for he distrusted Whitman's nakedness and considered him something of an artistic barbarian. "Now Whitman was not an artist," he declared in another mood, "you cannot call a man an artist, until he shows himself capable of reticence and restraint. . . ." Pound's attitude toward Whitman was highly ambivalent.

The ambivalence is reflected in "A Pact," which registers Pound's reconciliation with Whitman in 1913, but adds an important qualification: . . . the demand for greater conscious technique implied by "carving." Whitman broke the "new wood" of free verse, and Pound seeks to carve a finer product (with the chisel of absolute rhythm). Whitmanism is thus tempered with the ideal of "poetry-as-sculpture" which Pound took over from Gautier.

The result of this mixed acceptance was a curious hybrid form - the Whitmanian envoi. This form combined the democratic stance of Whitman with the artistic sophistication of the Troubadours, the vagabondism of the American open road with the vagabondism of the Provençal byways, Whitman's democracy of the spirit with Daniel's aristocracy of craftsmanship. Pound raised the medieval envoi to a satiric form by infusing it with Whitman's scope and inclusiveness.

From The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewal, 1908-1920. Copyright © 1969 by The University of California Press.

Return to Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound: In a Station of the Metro
On "In a Station of the Metro"

Ezra Pound (from Gaudier-Brzeska, 1916)

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that - a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, of even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour.

And so, when I came to read Kandinsky's chapter on the language of form and colour, I found little that was new to me. I only felt that someone else understood what I understood, and had written it out very clearly. It seems quite natural to me that an artist should have just as much pleasure in an arrangement of planes or in a pattern of figures, as in painting portraits of fine ladies, or in portraying the Mother of God as the symbolists bid us.

When I find people ridiculing the new arts, or making fun of the clumsy odd terms that we use in trying to talk of them amongst ourselves; when they laugh at our talking about the "ice-block quality" in Picasso, I think it is only because they do not know what thought is like, and they are familiar only with argument and gibe and opinion. That is to say, they can only enjoy what they have been brought up to consider enjoyable, or what some essayist has talked about in mellifluous phrases. They think only "the shells of thought," as de Gourmont calls them; the thoughts that have been already thought out by others

Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language, just as a painter must have pigments or shades more numerous than the existing names of the colours.

Perhaps this is enough to explain the words in my "Vortex": --

"Every concept, every emotion, presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. It belongs to the art of this form."

That is to say, my experience in Paris should have gone into paint. If instead of colour I had perceived sound or planes in relation, I should have expressed it in music or in sculpture. Colour was, in that instance, the "primary pigment"; I mean that it was the first adequate equation that came into consciousness. The Vorticist uses the "primary pigment." Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary application.

What I have said of one vorticist art can be transposed for another vorticist art. But let me go on then with my own branch of vorticism, about which I can probably speak with greater clarity. All poetic language is the language of exploration. Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments. The point of Imagisme is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.

I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch as say, "Mamma, can I open the light?" She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art. It was a sort of metaphor, but she was not using it as ornamentation.

One is tired of ornamentations, they are all a trick, and any sharp person can learn them.

The Japanese have had the sense of exploration. They have understood the beauty of this sort of knowing. A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can't say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet. The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

"The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:

A butterfly."

That is the substance of a very well-known hokku. Victor Plarr tells me that once, when he was walking over snow with a Japanese naval officer, they came to a place where a cat had crossed the path, and the officer said," Stop, I am making a poem." Which poem was, roughly, as follows: --

"The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:

(are like) plum-blossoms."

The words "are like" would not occur in the original, but I add them for clarity.

The "one image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work "of second intensity." Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence: --

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals, on a wet, black bough."

I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. I a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.

Ralph Bevilaqua

Recent critics, commenting on Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," have invariably referred to the connotative power of the word apparition in the first line of that poem. Accordingly, one critic has called it "the single word which lifts the couplet from bald statement to poetry." Many have commented upon the various connotations of the word. It has been stated that the word suggests "the supernatural or the immaterial and a sudden unexpected experience"; that it "first establishes the sensation of unreality and the lack of precision which is then reinforced by the metaphor, and which, therefore permeates the mood of the poem," and that through its use Pound seems to suggest that life "can be made to seem bearable only by the metaphor of an 'apparition,' a ghost of the bright beauty of things that grow freely in the sunlight." All of these remarks direct our attention to that fortunate lack of precision inherent in the word apparition which results in its particular richness within the poem. While I agree that in the context of the poem several connotations of the word apparition are possible, I should like to suggest the probability of Pound's having a particular and very specific idea in mind that he wished to convey by the use of this word. Once this meaning is made evident, furthermore, it should become apparent that the poem is a clear example, in verse, of Pound's own conception of the manner in which the Image poem operates, which he later defined in a prose essay for Poetry magazine.

That Ezra Pound has a sophisticated knowledge of several European languages, especially French and Italian, is a well-established fact. Accordingly, it should be assumed that he is well aware of the subtleties and nuances in the vocabularies of those languages. Of major concern to us here is a particular nuance of the French word apparition, which is one of a large group of words known technically as a false cognate, a word the orthography of which in one language is the same as that in another, but which carries a different meaning from that similarly-spelled word. In French apparition can and often does carry the special meaning of the way something appears to a viewer at the precise moment it is perceived (italics mine). It is my contention that this French word, in addition to its false cognate in English, was in Pound's thoughts as he composed the poem. That Pound knew French well and that the poem was written in France about a French subway station make this contention all the more plausible. Furthermore, not only does this particular sense of the word suit what seems to be the intention of the first line (to suggest the unique way in which the faces appeared to the viewer at the precise moment of their being perceived), but it also enhances with its notion of suddenness that stimulus-response transferral suggested as objects perceived are metamorphosed by the creative imagination into their metaphorical counterparts. If we accept this sense of the word, then the poem seems to exemplify perfectly Pound's notion of the Image (stated in Poetry, March 1913) of an "emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time." Equally significant is Pound's own discussion of the genesis of the poem in question in which he placed substantial emphasis on the precise moment when the objects that moved him dashed before his eyes:

Three years ago [1911] in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. . . . [Italics mine. ]

Later in the same essay Pound speaks of the Image in terms that are significant to an understanding of his conception of this type of poem :

The "one-image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion.

I wrote a thirty-line poem and destroyed it because it was what we call work of the second intensity. Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later [1912] I made the following hokku-like sentence:

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals, on a wet, black bough."

I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. [Italics mine.]

What could be more illustrative of the effect Pound speaks of than the function of the word apparition with its connotations of suddenness and first perception? In addition, the word enriches the quality and effectiveness of the entire metaphor illustrating, to be sure, Pound's understanding of what Elizabeth Sewell speaks of as the "good metaphor," that which "from its very fittingness and precision should emanate in the mind a divining impetus which communicates to the organism receiving it, hints, unformulable yet convincing, of future interpretative power." It was Aristotle who declared that the faculty for analogical invention and thought was the hallmark of the poet. Surely "In a Station of the Metro" evinces Pound's mastery of this faculty and suggests that Eliot was not without justification in calling him il migilior fabbro.

from "Pound's 'In A Station of the Metro': A Textual Note." English Language Notes 8.4 (June 1971).

James F. Knapp

"In a Station of the Metro" relies on just two images, both presented in a simple, direct way, plus the catalyst of one word which is not straightforward description: "apparition." Through the metaphoric suggestion of that word, Pound fuses the mundane image of "faces in the crowd," with an image possessing visual beauty and the rich connotations of countless poems about spring. And because "apparition" means what it does, he is able to convey the feeling of surprised discovery which such a vision in such a place must evoke.

From Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.

Hugh Witemeyer

In practice, the presentation of the Image involves the search for an equation that will approximate a beautiful but ineffable psychic adventure. This much pound made clear when he described the process of composing "In a Station of the Metro."

. . . .

The moment of delightful psychic experience and the subsequent search for the precise equation could not be more clearly described. In some way, the poem can be interpreted by means of the definitions in "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste": the complex is presented "instantaneously," the transition from the Metro station to the wet bough somewhere outside liberates us from "space limits," and the transition from the present faces to the remembered petals breaks down "time limits." But the "Don'ts" don't account for one peculiarly powerful word in the poem - "apparitions." This word veils the faces in mystery, for it suggests that they are not a mere visual impression but a vision of beauty appearing to the poet from another realm. "Apparition" links "Metro" with the aesthetic of The Spirit of Romance.

The second line of the haiku "super-poses" a concrete image which gives a sensory equation for the rare perception. The heart of the poem lies neither in the apparition nor in the petals, but in the mental process which leaps from one to the other. "In a poem of this sort," as Pound explained, "one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective." This darting takes place between the first and second lines. In the simplest possible verbal equation (a=b), the adventure lies in the unstated relation between the elements. The factors exist for the sake of the equivalence, the images for the sake of the Image. As Stanley Coffman puts it, "the images are so arranged that the pattern becomes an Image, an organic structure giving a force and pleasure that are greater than and different from the images alone."

From The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewals, 1908-1920. Copyright © 1969 by the University of California Press.

Hugh Kenner

He tells us that he first satisfied his mind when he hit on a wholly abstract vision of colors, splotches on darkness like some canvas of Kandinsky's (whose work he had not then seen). This is a most important fact. Satisfaction lay not in preserving the vision, but in devising with mental effort an abstract equivalent for it, reduced, intensified. He wrote a 30-line poem and destroyed it; after six months he wrote a shorter poem, also destroyed; and afer another year, with, as he tells us, the Japanese hokku in mind, he arrived at a poem which needs every one of its 20 words, including the six words of its title. . . .

We need the title so that we can savor that vegetal contrast with the world of machines: this is not any crowd, moreover, but a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Korè saw crowds in Hades. And carrying forward the suggestion of wraiths, the word "apparition" detaches these faces from all the crowded faces, and presides over the image that conveys the quality of their separation:

Petals on a wet, black bough

Flowers, underground; flowers, out of the sun; flowers seen as if against a natural gleam, the bough's wetness gleaming on its darkness, in this place where wheels turn and nothing grows. . .

What is achieved, though it works by the way of the visible, is no picture of the things glimpsed, in the manner of

The light of our cigarettes
Went and came in the gloom.

It is a simile with "like" suppressed: Pound called it an equation, meaning not a redundancy, a equals a, but a generalization of unexpected exactness. The statements of analytical geometry, he said, "are 'lords' over fact. They are the thrones and denominations that rule over form and recurrence. And in like manner are great works of art lords over fact, over race-long recurrent moods, and over tomorrow." So this tiny poem, drawing on Gauguin and on Japan, on ghosts and on Persephone, on the Underworld and one the Underground, the Metro of Mallarmè's capital and a phrase that names a station of the Metro as it might a station of the Cross, concentrates far more than it ever need specify, and indicates the means of delivering post-Symbolist poetry from its pictorialist impasse. "An "Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time": and that is the elusive Doctrine of the Image. And, just 20 months later, "The image . . . is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." And: "An image . . . is real because we know it directly."

That is pure Pound. It is validated by the fact that he wrote numerous poems to which it applies before he had formulated it. . . .

All the confusion about Imagism stems from the fact that its specifications for technical hygiene are one thing, and Pound's Doctrine of the Image is another. The former, which can be followed by any talented person, help you to write what may be a trivial poem. The latter is not applicable to triviality.

. . . .

This setting-in-relation is apt to be paratactic. "In a Station of the Metro" is not formally a sentence; its structure is typographic and metric. Words, similarly, without loss of precision, have ceased to specify in the manner of words that deliver one by one those concepts we call "meanings." "Apparition" reaches two ways, toward ghosts and toward visible revealings. 'Petals," the pivotal word, relies for energy on the sharp cut of its syllables, a consonantal vigor recapitulated in the trisyllabic "wet, black bough" (try changing "petals" to "blossoms"). The words so raised by prosody to attention assert themselves as words, and make a numinous claim on our attention, from which visual, tactile and mythic associations radiate. Words set free in new structures, that was the Symbolist formula. And as we move through the poem, word by word, we participate as the new structure achieves itself.

From The Pound Era. Copyright © 1971 by Hugh Kenner.

Steve Ellis

In spite of its celebrated succinctness, the most famous of Imagist poems yields a surprising variety of readings whilst opening up interesting questions about the reading process itself. These readings are influenced to an extent by the frequent changes Pound made to the punctuation of the poem in the early years of its existence, though this topic has received surprisingly little attention from Pound's commentators. Indeed, "In a Station of the Metro" is quoted widely in modern criticism with very little distinction being made between its various stages, as if the differently-punctuated early versions are interchangeable. It is true that the changes Pound made to the poem are small, but they remain far from unimportant, as I hope to show.


[A]ssessments of Pound's poem have a good deal to do with the relationship that is being assumed between line one (with the title) and line two; and that the readings looked at above have tended to assert a predominance of the first line of the poem over the second or vice versa. An attention to this relationship has also figured in much critical writing on the poem; thus Earl Miner's well-known expositions describe it in terms of Pound's use of a "super-pository method": "There is a discordia concors, a metaphor which is all the more pleasurable because of the gap which must be imaginatively leaped between the statement [of line one] and the vivid metaphor [of line two]." But here we come on to Pound's punctuation, Miner having neglected to consider the care that Pound himself took to indicate to the reader how that gap should be "imaginatively leaped." The earliest printing of "In a Station" in the April 1913 issue of Poetry was spaced and punctuated thus:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough .

The same version of the poem then appeared in the New Freewoman on 15 August 1913. In the meantime however, Pound had published an account of the genesis of the poem in T.P.'s Weekly, on 6 June 1913, where the poem is quoted as follows:

The appari
Ezra Pound: The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter
On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

EXPLANATION: "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

Lines 1-6

This opening stanza of 6 lines is organized around a central image of the river-merchant and his wife as a child, confirmed by the first component of the central image: the picture of a little girl with her hair cut in bangs. (The mark of an adult woman in the ancient Chinese culture was elaborate arrangements of uncut long hair.)Each line contributes to a clearer understanding of the central image of the children. The repetition in three separate lines of the verb "playing" to describe the little girl's activity at the front gate, as well as the little boy's presence on stilts and his circling around where she sits, emphasizes the natural, contented activity of children — almost as a part of the natural world referred to here by "flowers" and "blue plums." This stanza establishes the presence of the "I" and the "you" in the world of the poem.

Lines 7-10

The second stanza places the girl and the boy, the "I" and the "you," as a woman and man in the adult world. In ancient cultures, and in some cultures today, early marriages are customary, and it is often also the custom for the wife to refer to her husband by a respectful title. In the case of this poem the formality of the title is softened by the direct address of "you" added right after it. Lines 8-9 establish the child-wife's shyness in this formal adult situation by offering a picture of her bent head and averted eyes, a shyness so extreme that she could not respond to her husband, no matter how many efforts he made.

Lines 11-14

The central image of this stanza is the growth of love between the young husband and wife. Her face, which in the first stanza has the bangs of childhood across her forehead, in the second stanza is averted and unsmiling, "stops scowling" in the third stanza. The vows of the marriage ceremony, "till death us do part," are evoked in lines 12 and 13 and poignantly reinforced by the triple repetition in line 13 of "forever." It is unclear whether "climb the lookout" in line 14 is a reference to a ritual performed in this culture by a wife after death, perhaps to look for other offers to marry that might come her way. If it is, it means that the wife as a widow does not want to do this. In any case, it is clear that there is nothing she wishes for after the death of her husband, so deep is her love for him now.

Lines 15-18

An image of separation is developed in these lines as the husband takes on his role as a river-merchant and travels the waters, conducting his work in the world on a distant island. The wife's statement of the length of his absence is expressed in one line, giving it full and emphatic force. And in line 18 the effect of this long absence is brought to full comprehension by the use of the natural image of the sounds of the monkeys that reflect back to her the sound of her own sorrow. The sounds that monkeys make are generally interpreted as chirping, happy sounds, but the weight of the wife's sorrow is so great that she can only hear the monkeys' noise as "sorrowful."

Lines 19-21

The first three lines of this final 11-line stanza are centered on the image of the river-merchant's absence. Line 19 indicates that he was as averse to this separation as she was. In line 20 the phrase "by the gate" (perhaps the same gate they played about as children), indicates that she has returned to this gate and in her memory sees him reluctantly leaving again. For her it is the scene of the beginning of his absence. And evidently she knows this scene well: not only is there moss growing there, but she is aware that there are different kinds of mosses, which she has not cleared away since his departure. They are now too deep to clear away.

Lines 22-25

In line 22 the sadness of the river-merchant's wife is again reflected back to her by the natural world, by the falling leaves and wind of autumn. This image becomes more defined with her observation of the butterflies in the garden, for they are "paired" as she is not, and they are becoming "yellow" changing with the season, growing older together. The butterflies "hurt" her because they emphasize the pain of her realization that she is growing older, but alone, not with her husband.

Lines 26-29

In these closing lines of the poem and the "letter" the river-merchant's wife reaches out from her lonely world of sorrow to her husband in a direct request: Please let me know when and by what route you are returning, so that I may come to meet you. This, however, conveys more than it would at first appear. Her village is a suburb of Nanking and she is willing to walk to a beach several hundred miles upstream from there to meet her husband, so deeply does she yearn to close the distance between them.

Source: Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001. Online Source

Walter Sutton

The precise, Imagist technique of these poems, in Pound's rendition, can be seen in "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter." The speaker is a young wife, married at fourteen, who expresses, largely through images, the loneliness and isolation she feels in separation from her husband, absent on a five-month business trip, and her eagerness to be reunited with him. . . .

The effect of an intense, repressed emotion is conveyed through carefully selected images and minimal statement -- a method productive of the kind of poetry at which the Imagists were aiming: a precise, objective rendering.

From American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry. Copyright © 1973 by Walter Sutton.

J. Paul Hunter

The "letter" tells us only a few facts about the nameless merchant's wife: that she is about sixteen and a half years old, that she married at fourteen and fell in love with her husband a year later, that she is now very lonely. And about their relationship we know only that they were childhood playmates in a small Chinese village, that their marriage originally was not a matter of personal choice, and that the husband unwillingly went away on a long journey five months ago. But the words tell us a great deal about how the young wife feels, and the simplicity of her language suggests her sincere and deep longing. The daily noises she hears seem "sorrowful" (line 18), and she worries about the dangers of the far-away place where her husband is, thinking of it in terms of its perilous "river of swirling eddies" ( line 16). She thinks of how moss has grown up over the unused gate, and more time seems to her to have passed than actually has (lines 22-25). She remembers nostalgically their innocent childhood, when they played together without deeper love or commitment (lines 1-6), and contrasts that with her later satisfaction in their love (lines 11-4) and with her present anxiety, loneliness, and desire. We do not need to know the details of the geography of the river Kiang or how far Cho-fu-Sa is to sense that her wish to see him is very strong, that her desire is powerful enough to make her venture beyond the ordinary geographical bounds of her existence so that their reunion will come sooner. The closest she comes to a direct statement about her love is her statement that she desired that her dust be mingled with his "For ever and for ever and for ever" (lines 12-13). But her single-minded vision of the world, her perception of even the beauty of nature as only a record of her husband's absence and the passage of time, and her plain, apparently uncalculated language about her rejection of other suitors and her shutting out of the rest of the world all show her to be committed, desirous, nearly desperate for his presence. In a different sense, she has also counted the ways that she loves her man.

from The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Copyright © 1986, 1981, 1973 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Christine Froula

This is one of the most delicate poems in Cathay, a verse "letter" in which the speaker communicates indirectly, by means of vivid images and shifting tones, the history of her feelings for the absent husband to whom she writes. First, she remembers their friendly play as children. In describing their feelings then as being "without dislike or suspicion," she implies that she did have those feelings at a later time, and they carry over into her description of her unhappiness in their first year of marriage. "At fifteen," she begins to love him, though her imagery and ceremonious language convey a certain reserve: to stop scowling is not to smile, and the image of their mingling dust looks past desire to death. Only in the last section, in which she remembers his departure and voices her present feelings, do we see how that timeless love has changed. In his absence, she has become conscious of time passing and of the preciousness of love in the natural world where nothing can last "forever." Now, his absence makes her miss him, and a language of natural imagery expresses, with eloquent reserve, her desire for his return.

From A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.

Susan Schweik

Pound's Cathay: For the Most Part From the Chinese of Rihaku, From the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa is, as Hugh Kenner has disclosed, "largely a war book."

. . . .

Speaking the war poem in Chinese, speaking it translated, was one way for Pound the noncombatant to speak the language of femininity in wartime without risk. As translator he could protect himself, exploring his civilian situation without exposing too much; as translator, he could also prevent the Cathay poems from in any way, however inadvertently, feeding the war machine. Even in late 1914, certainly in 1915, the gulf between England's "two nations" -- front and home -- was yawning, and soldiers' antiwar poetry was building that gap into its ideological and polemical structures. Choosing a third nation, the emblematically foreign China, Pound could write poems sympathetic to the values and experiences of those "left behind" without betraying the "frontier guard."

Read next to Owen's "The Letter" or "S. I. W.," Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" seems a discreet defense of the noncombatant, a validation of what she (and he) feels and knows. This poem about dedication to absence allowed Pound to affirm delicate feeling and an ethic of care and relation which extended beyond the brotherhood of combatants in wartime (qualities linked to the sensibilities of art); it allowed him to represent elegiac grief without gush, since the Chinese effect of the poem lies in large part in its tightly stressed reticence. Since the letter's strongest implication is of a deep, almost unspoken erotic and affectionate bond between the absent man and the waiting woman, a bond which seems to carry some kind of vital knowledge outside social convention, it seals the gap which a text like Owen's "The Letter" opens between the genders.

The exotic Chinese setting of "The River-Merchant's Wife" calls the modern English reader's attention to the patriarchal obedience structure which has shaped and constrained the wife's voice. The poem, like many Western texts, exploits the Western projection of sexual oppression onto the "Orient" -- but only in order to deny it. The wife's arranged marriage is, her letter "artlessly" reveals, a love match after all. One of the rhetorical effects of this move in the context of Great War discourse is to repudiate charges that women cheerfully wave "adieu" out of resentment, vicarious glee, or aggression; another is to locate women's renewing loyalty to men outside systems of sexual inculcation and familial arrangement, to recover a pure heterosexual alliance untainted by war's gendering systems. Kenner argues that the Cathay poems "paraphrase an elegiac war poetry nobody wrote"; but I would argue that in its defense of women and of remaining bonds between men and women "The River-Merchant's Wife" bears strong resemblance to any number of Great War poems written by women, including Farjeon's "Easter Monday" and Lowell's "Patterns," in which adieus are shown to falter and significant connections to persist.

The river-merchant's wife's position was, in fact, to some extent Pound's own. He was, after all, sending typescripts of some poems in Cathay as literal letters to the front, to Gaudier-Brzeska. (After the book came out in print his friend wrote from the Marne that he kept it at all times in his pocket.) Pound's choice of poems to send to the trenches in manuscript is interesting, for he selected not examples like his "River-Merchant's Wife" which represent some version of his own situation, that of the one "left behind," but poems which explore the position of his correspondent, the ones which speak in the voice of combatants -- the sorrowful, obliquely outraged "Song of the Bowmen of Shu" and "Lament of the Frontier Guard." Gaudier-Brzeska very much appreciated these choices; "the poems," he wrote after receiving them, "depict our situation in a wonderful way." "Our situation" means primarily, I assume, the condition of trench warfare, the implied combatants' "we" excluding the civilian Pound even as the praise of Pound's poems, and that simple verb or realism "depict," embrace him into the corps.

In Cathay as a whole, then, speaking the war poem in Chinese, speaking it translated, was one way for Pound the noncombatant to speak without obvious falsehood or reprisal the one language of masculinity in wartime which seemed to matter: the language of the soldier. He could do so through Rihaku (Li Po) without making illegitimate or exploitative claims. Instead of the audacity of dramatic monologue, he offered the simple mediations of the interpreter. Depicting men's war "in a wonderful way," he confirmed his own poetic manhood. In Pound's "non-Chinese" Great War poems, that confirmation is even more pronounced; the delicately fetishized women and discreetly semieroticized male bonding in Cathay are replaced by gender in extremity. Parts IV and V of "Mauberley," with their critique of the "dulce et decorum" formulation, openly enlist in the ironic "war poem" tradition of the soldier poets. Any reader who doubts the heightened and declared masculinity of that tradition in Pound's hands should consult the famous line concerning the "old bitch gone in the teeth," one of the most overtly misogynist moments in twentieth-century war literature.

From A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Garret Kaoru Hongo

"The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" contains, for me, the keys to a method and a style in free verse, coupling with the Whitmanic principle of the syntactic and rhythmic integrity of the line with Pound's insistence on an imagistic "hardness" he found in the Provençal and Anglo-Saxon poetry he was also translating at this time. Notice the method of imagistic indirection by way of descriptive statement here, Locke's "simples" as opposed to his "compounds" -- what Pound called, in that famous essay he developed from Fenollosa's notes, the "ideogrammic method." Here also is the Chinese principle of poetic and metaphysical parallelism at work, with the added attraction of the enumerative, complex sentence -- a contribution from English rather than the Chinese. These are techniques which have all become the familiar stock-in-trade of free verse practitioners through the Modern and contemporary periods. The style also imports a tender, melancholic tone into English that is at once intimate and nostalgic without being overtly sentimental or formally elegiac as was so much of the late Victorian work against which Pound was trying to rebel. It is a new sound and somehow, for me, it remains as much so as does the saxophone and trumpet of John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the sextet that recorded Kind of Blue in the late 1950s.

From The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Ed. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Wai-Lim Yip

One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealing with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central consciousness of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.

In a similar vein, we find Pound producing these lines from "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" (i.e. "The Song of Ch'ang-kan"):

1. While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
2. I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
3. You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
4. You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
5. And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
6. Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
7. At fourteen I married My Lord you.
8. I never laughed, being bashful.
9. Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
10. Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

Arthur Waley was apparently very unhappy with Pound's translation, and he decided to show Pound a few things by re-translating some of Li Po's poems that Pound had rendered. These are found in a paper he read before the China Society at the School of Oriental Studies, London, on November 21, 1918. One of these efforts is "Ch'ang-kan." This is how he rendered the above lines:

1. Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead
2. I was plucking flowers and playing in front of the gate,
3. When you came by, walking on bamboo-stilts
4. Along the trellis, playing with green plums.
5. We both lived in the village of Ch'ang-kan,
6. Two children, without hate or suspicion.
7. At fourteen I became your wife;
8. I was shame-faced and never dared smile.
9. I sank my head against the dark wall;
10. Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn.

What we consider good in Waley is already forged in Pound, for instance, line 10. "Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn," can hardly be considered Waley's own nor does it show any improvement upon Pound's "Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back." The gesture of "looking back" (or of her refusing to look back) which helps to vivify the visualization of her shyness and which in turn makes the entire picture even more lovable than it is, is totally lost in Waley's "I did not turn." One may argue that Waley is more literal, for the line in question is, word-for-word, "thousand/ call/ not/ one/ turn(-head)." But in translation, one should always go beyond the dictionary sense. And here Pound does and Waley does not. This is even truer in line 1 and line 6. Line 1 in word-for-word translation is: "'My' (humble term used by women when speaking of themselves)/ hair/ first/ cover/ forehead."

WALEY: Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead
POUND: While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

Pound has crossed the border of textual translation into cultural translation and Waley has not, though he is close enough to the original. Whether the credit for the phrase "hair still cut straight across" should go to Fenollosa or to Pound's own observation in Laurence Binyon's Department of Oriental prints and drawings in the British Museum is of no important consequence here. What is important is that this picture is culturally true, because the characters for "hair/ first/ cover/ forehead" conjure up in the mind of a Chinese reader exactly this picture. All little Chinese girls normally have their hair cut straight across the forehead.

Even more stimulating than this visual recreation of cultural details, which restores flesh to the skeleton of dictionary meanings, is Pound's ability to go beyond the "word-sense" and "phrase-sense" and capture the voice and tone of the speaker, something which no dictionary can ever provide and which it takes a student years of familiarity with the language to grasp. Waley translates line 6. "two/small (children)/no/ hate/ suspicion," into "Two children, without hate or suspicion." It is obvious that he is accurate in the sense that he has not changed a bit from the given dictionary meanings. Yet Pound, keeping close to the dictionary meaning, has done something more:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

It is indeed difficult to describe in another language the tone and attitude with which the two characters [two Chinese characters here] (two/small) are spoken. However, we can at least say this: it implies that a grown-up person is speaking to a person (an imaginary audience) about two children's innocence. And, in this case, the wife is speaking to herself and her husband together (imagining that he
Ezra Pound: Canto 1
On "Canto I"

James F. Knapp

Pound's journey through history begins with canto 1, which translates a passage in the Odyssey in which Odysseus travels to the underworld to speak with Tiresias. Like Odysseus, Pound seeks knowledge, and he seeks it in the minds of men long dead. He cannot speak to them directly, as Odysseus does, but their ghosts remain, nevertheless, if only in the words of old books. Pound begins The Cantos with a concrete representation of the way in which language contains the past. On one of his earliest trips to Paris he had picked up a Renaissance translation of the Odyssey, by Andreas Divus, published in 1538, and it is this version that he himself translated in canto 1. However, in translating it, he chose to use poetic conventions derived from Old English verse. Pound knew that the shape of Odysseus's quest has survived through millenia, but he also knew that the means for its survival has been a long series of metamorphoses into the particular words of new places, new times. If we would seek ancient visions, we must seek them wherever they have reappeared in the matter of successive cultures, and in canto I Pound reveals the complex filter of language and changing culture which is nevertheless his only way of viewing the past.

From Ezra Pound Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.

Michael Alexander

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea. . . .

There is no more splendid testimony to Pound's resource as a translator than the account of his visit to Hades with which Odysseus opens the Cantos. A salute to Homer is traditional in epic openings, yet to begin with a translation of a translation of Homer is exceptional, as Pound acknowledges with his placatory

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

This epic, which Pound described as 'the tale of the tribe', is also a tribal encyclopaedia, and in places resembles an archive.

This is the first acknowledgment of a source in a poem much given to quotation and adaptation. Bibliographically speaking, it is a much fuller style of reference than we usually get -author, edition, date, subject - and it comes in the right place. We are to know that Pound has been translating, or cannibalizing, a Latin translation of Homer. Those who consult Pound on Andreas Divus in the Literary Essays will find the Latin sources of Canto 1, though little about the translator or his printer, Wechel. Yet, to understand what the poet is doing here, we must turn to his prose. At such points, however available the ancillary material, the primary communication of the poem must be weakened. The bond of continuous understanding between poet and reader is broken, although appreciation of this interplay between poem and source may eventually strengthen a reader's involvement. Direct access to Pound's masters - Homer, Ovid, Dante, Confucius, Jefferson - is more worthwhile than such a cross-reference to the poet's own prose, and is equally a part of reading Pound. Both source and cross-reference, however, must remain subordinate to the uses they assume in the poem.

'And then went down to the ship' is a genuine plunge in medias res, into an action immediately invigorating and significant. The res here - Odysseus' nekuia, or journey to the underworld, seeking direction from the dead - being older than the matter of Homer himself, has conscious symbolic intention for Pound. Like Eliot's recourse to Sanskrit in The Waste Land, it goes back to the original ground of knowledge for its author, a respecful if enquiring relation with nature and with the human past, gained through arduous submission. We ascend to the source of Western literature and wisdom in order to get our bearings. This consultation of the oracle declares the huge cultural role of the Cantos, the epic of knowledge. But Calliope as well as Clio is the Muse of this poem, and the role of Odysseus the solitary explorer also has a more personal as well as a cultural significance. The Canto is strikingly prophetic of the course of Pound's life; it records a dedication.

Pound translates from a Renaissance humanist crib, making a point about translation and tradition. Divus had helped him to see a Homer without a Victorian halo. The last line taken from Divus - the suppressed reference to Odysseus' mother - is printed in lighter ink in some editions; but there is no typographical device before 'Lie quiet' to indicate a change of speaker. In effect, Odysseus, the first-person speaker of the Canto, is deliberately not distinguished from Pound, and the identification is significant. Pound half-dramatizes his relationship with what he is rendering by glossing his aside to Divus for our benefit; but we are meant to see that Pound is protagonist as well as author.

The remaining lines begin the movement of the next Canto: 'And he sailed, by Sirens ... and unto Circe.... Aphrodite ... thou with dark eyelids.' The direction towards a different kind of knowledge is adumbrated in the progression of these names and fulfilled in the sensory, then carnal, then visionary awareness of nymphs and of Dionysus in the next Canto. We can distinguish three levels of interest for the reader of the envoi to Canto 1: the subject-matter (sexual and mystical knowledge); the poet's relation to his subject-matter (intent, rapt, awed); and the sources. Just as in the body of Canto 1 we perceived clearly Odysseus' journey, and, more briefly, Pound's identification with Odysseus, and then, more briefly and less clearly, Andreas Divus 'out of Homer', so in the end of the Canto we have the same diminishing scale of intelligibilia, though the scale is compressed.

To recapitulate: we gather (1) Odysseus sails on his appointed voyage past the Sirens to Circe's enchantment, leading to a worshipful encounter with Aphrodite; (2) Pound, not easily distinguished from his hero, repeats her praises in a fervent cadence until he conjures up her presence; (3) Pound the craftsman is dealing with a Latin text in praise of Aphrodite, from which he cites and renders phrases.

From The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by Michael Alexander.

Joseph G. Kronick

Think of how Pound's Cantos is constrained by such arbitrary events as his chance happening upon Andreas Divus' Odyssey. In Canto 1, Pound writes in several languages—Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, English—every language but his own. The Nekuia traces the voyage of the poet into the realm of death and mourning. Odysseus discovers among the dead the unmourned Elpenor, who bids him

"remember me, unwept, unburied,
"Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
"A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
"And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows." (1:4)

Odysseus is to undertake what Freud calls the work of mourning. Through assimilation—introjection, in psychoanalytic terms—he is to sustain the memory of his shipmate and free his libido to attach itself to a new object of affection. But what can this tale be but an allegory of Pound's theft of Divus' translation of Homer's Odyssey, which is itself a theft? In fact, Pound carries into his text Divus' corrupted text that reads "'A second time?'" The whole canto is riddled with repetitions that mark the failure to carry over into Pound's own language the translation unmarred by the presence of death. For as Pound repeats the text in another language, he seeks to assimilate the Homeric epic into his own poem, but like Elpenor in the underworld, Divus, and with him Homer, arises from the grave. Thus, Pound tells Divus to "Lie quiet." The resurrection, though, is a partial one. A remnant always stays beyond the grasp of translation, hence the absence of the proper name on the tomb. But it is the absent name that allows the continuation of the journey and the narrative. The name Elpenor will be translated in later cantos when Pound puns on the el in Sordello, Elizabeth, Helen, and Eleanor. He even steals from Aeschylus' Agamemnon a series of puns on Helen—"helandros," "helenaus," and "heleptolis" ("man-destroying," "ship-destroying," and "city-destroying")—which he then applies to Eleanor of Aquitaine (7:24,25). Pound also weaves the epitaph on Elpenor's tomb into this complex of puns when in the Pisan Cantos he too becomes "a man of no fortune and with a name to come" (74:439; 80:513, 514). Finally, the man with no name is Odysseus himself, who tells Polyphemus that he is called "No-man."

Pound's periplus takes him back to the books and places he has already visited, just as Odysseus, after his second visit to the underworld, must return to Circe's island to bury Elpenor on the sea-bord. Indeed, the sea-bord is but the border between texts and between languages that sets Pound's text afloat upon a sea of texts. Another text embroiled in thefts and translations—so much so that it sinks beneath the burden—is Eliot's Waste Land, more specifically, "Death by Water." In its rather lengthy early version, it is a web of allusions to the Ulysses canto of Dante's Inferno, Tennyson's "Ulysses" and In Memoriam, the Odyssey, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and, most important, "Dans le Restaurant," a poem by Eliot written in French from which he translates the Phlebas passage that forms the final version of this section. (We might also say that "Death by Water" looks forward to the Four Quartets, as it contains Eliot's first mention of the Dry Salvages.) "Death by Water" consists of false starts—does it begin in "Dans le Restaurant," the manuscripts he sent Pound, or in the published version? Does it end in the Four Quartets? Eliot's final decision to of follow Pound's advice to keep only the Phlebas section from "Dans le Restaurant" in the poem suggests his own inability to keep afloat in/on the edges of his text.

If the Cantos lives on, it is as translation, as a poem that never begins but only "starts": "And it 'starts' only with living on (testament, iterability, remaining [restance], crypt, detachment that lifts the strictures of the 'living' rectio or direction of an 'author' not drowned at the edge of his text)." What comes before the "And" of line 1 is not, as Kenner claims, an ancient past "reclaimed by Homer as he [Pound] reclaims Homer now." In his Eliotesque reading of Pound, Kenner interprets Pound's translations and quotations as a rejuvenation of the past; consequently, his dissociation of the poem from its language allows him to posit a metalanguage that would guarantee translation without remnants. When he quotes approvingly Pound's advice, "Don't bother about the WORDS, TRANSLATE the MEANING," he ignores Pound's comments about interpretative and exegetical translation. In a note to Cantos LII-LXXI, Pound says that the foreign words add little to the text and merely serve as underlinings. The foreign words serve neither as an expansion of the English (or is it American ?) text into a universal language nor as an archaeological recovery of the past. The foreign words are the supplement that reveals the irreducible untranslatability of all languages, thus marking the limits of a humanism that maintains national boundaries while insisting on internationalism as well.

from American Poetics of History: From Emerson to the Moderns. Copyright © 1984 by Louisiana State UP.

Return to Ezra Pound
T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land
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On The Waste Land

Cleanth Brooks

The bundle of quotations with which the poem ends has a very definite relation to the general theme of the poem and to several of the major symbols used in the poem. Before Arnaut leaps back into the refining fire of Purgatory with joy he says: "I am Arnaut who weep and go singing; contrite I see my past folly, and joyful I see before me the day I hope for. Now I pray you by that virtue which guides you to the summit of the stair, at times be mindful of my pain." This theme is carried forward by the quotation from Pervigilium Veneris: "When shall I be like the swallow." The allusion is also connected with the Philomela symbol. (Eliot's note on the passage indicates this clearly.) The sister of Philomela was changed into a swallow as Philomela was changed into a nightingale. The protagonist is asking therefore when shall the spring, the time of love, return, but also when will he be reborn out of his sufferings, and--with the special meaning which the symbol takes on from the preceding Dante quotation and from the earlier contexts already discussed--he is asking what is asked at the end of one of the minor poems: "When will Time flow away."

The quotation from "El Desdichado," as Edmund Wilson has pointed out, indicates that the protagonist of the poem has been disinherited, robbed of his tradition. The ruined tower is perhaps also the Perilous Chapel, "only the wind's home," and it is also the whole tradition in decay. The protagonist resolves to claim his tradition and rehabilitate it.

The quotation from The Spanish Tragedy--"Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe"--is perhaps the most puzzling of all these quotations. It means, I believe, this: The protagonist's acceptance of what is in reality the deepest truth will seem to the present world mere madness. ("And still she cried . . . 'Jug jug' to dirty ears.") Hieronymo in the play, like Hamlet, was "mad" for a purpose. The protagonist is conscious of the interpretation which will be placed on the words which follow--words which will seem to many apparently meaningless babble, but which contain the oldest and most permanent truth of the race:

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Quotation of the whole context from which the line is taken confirms this interpretation. Hieronymo, asked to write a play for the court's entertainment, replies:

Why then, I'll fit you; say no more.
When I was young, I gave my mind
And plied myself to fruitless poetry;
Which though it profit the professor naught
Yet it is passing pleasing to the world.

He sees that the play will give him the opportunity he has been seeking to avenge his son's murder. Like Hieronymo, the protagonist in the poem has found his theme; what he is about to perform is not "fruitless."

After this repetition of what the thunder said comes the benediction:

Shantih Shantih Shantih

The foregoing account of The Waste Land is, of course, not to be substituted for the poem itself. Moreover, it certainly is not to be considered as representing the method by which the poem was composed. Much which the prose expositor must represent as though it had been consciously contrived obviously was arrived at unconsciously and concretely.

The account given above is a statement merely of the "prose meaning," and bears the same relation to the poem as does the "prose meaning" of any other poem. But one need not perhaps apologize for setting forth such a statement explicitly, for The Waste Land has been almost consistently misinterpreted since its first publication. Even a critic so acute as Edmund Wilson has seen the poem as essentially a statement of despair and disillusionment, and his account sums up the stock interpretation of the poem. Indeed, the phrase, "the poetry of drouth," has become a cliché of left-wing criticism. It is such a misrepresentation of The Waste Land as this which allows Eda Lou Walton to entitle an essay on contemporary poetry, "Death in the Desert"; or which causes Waldo Frank to misconceive of Eliot's whole position and personality. But more than the meaning of one poem is at stake. If The Waste Land is not a world-weary cry of despair or a sighing after the vanished glories of the past, then not only the popular interpretation of the poem will have to be altered but also the general interpretations of post-War poetry which begin with such a misinterpretation as a premise.

Such misinterpretations involve also misconceptions of Ellot's technique. Eliot's basic method may be said to have passed relatively unnoticed. The popular view of the method used in The Waste Land may be described as follows: Eliot makes use of ironic contrasts between the glorious past and the sordid present--the crashing irony of

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

But this is to take the irony of the poem at the most superficial level, and to neglect the other dimensions in which it operates. And it is to neglect what are essentially more important aspects of his method. Moreover, it is to overemphasize the difference between the method employed by Eliot in this poem and that employed by him in later poems.

The basic method used in The Waste Land may be described as the application of the principle of complexity. The poet works in terms of surface parallelisms which in reality make ironical contrasts, and in terms of surface contrasts which in reality constitute parallelisms. (The second group sets up effects which may be described as the obverse of irony.) The two aspects taken together give the effect of chaotic experience ordered into a new whole, though the realistic surface of experience is faithfully retained. The complexity of the experience is not violated by the apparent forcing upon it of a predetermined scheme.

The fortune-telling of "The Burial of the Dead" will illustrate the general method very satisfactorily. On the surface of the poem the poet reproduces the patter of the charlatan, Madame Sosostris, and there is the surface irony: the contrast between the original use of the Tarot cards and the use made by Madame Sosostris. But each of the details (justified realistically in the palaver of the fortune-teller) assumes a new meaning in the general context of the poem. There is then, in addition to the surface irony, something of a Sophoclean irony too, and the "fortune-telling," which is taken ironically by a twentieth-century audience, becomes true as the poem develops--true in a sense in which Madame Sosostris herself does not think it true. The surface irony is thus reversed and becomes an irony on a deeper level. The items of her speech have only one reference in terms of the context of her speech: the "man with three staves," the "one-eyed merchant," the "crowds of people, walking round in a ring," etc. But transferred to other contexts they become loaded with special meanings. To sum up, all the central symbols of the poem head up here; but here, in the only section in which they are explicitly bound together, the binding is slight and accidental. The deeper lines of association only emerge in terms of the total context as the poem develops--and this is, of course, exactly the effect which the poet intends.

[. . . .]

The poem would undoubtedly be "clearer" if every symbol had a single, unequivocal meaning; but the poem would be thinner, and less honest. For the poet has not been content to develop a didactic allegory in which the symbols are two-dimensional items adding up directly to the sum of the general scheme. They represent dramatized instances of the theme, embodying in their own nature the fundamental paradox of the theme.

We shall better understand why the form of the poem is right and inevitable if we compare Eliot's theme to Dante's and to Spenser's. Eliot's theme is not the statement of a faith held and agreed upon (Dante's Divine Comedy) nor is it the projection of a "new" system of beliefs (Spenser's Faerie Queene). Eliot's theme is the rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited. Dante did not have to "prove" his statement; he could assume it and move within it about a poet's business. Eliot does not care, like Spenser, to force the didacticism. He prefers to stick to the poet's business. But, unlike Dante, he cannot assume acceptance of the statement. A direct approach is calculated to elicit powerful "stock responses" which will prevent the poem's being read at all. Consequently, the only method is to work by indirection. The Christian material is at the center, but the poet never deals with it directly. The theme of resurrection is made on the surface in terms of the fertility rites; the words which the thunder speaks are Sanscrit words.

We have been speaking as if the poet were a strategist trying to win acceptance from a hostile audience. But of course this is true only in a sense. The poet himself is audience as well as speaker; we state the problem more exactly if we state it in terms of the poet's integrity rather than in terms of his strategy. He is so much a man of his own age that he can indicate his attitude toward the Christian tradition without falsity only in terms of the difficulties of a rehabilitation; and he is so much a poet and so little a propagandist that he can be sincere only as he presents his theme concretely and dramatically.

To put the matter in still other terms: the Christian terminology is for the poet a mass of clichés. However "true" he may feel the terms to be, he is still sensitive to the fact that they operate superficially as clichés, and his method of necessity must be a process of bringing them to life again. The method adopted in The Waste Land is thus violent and radical, but thoroughly necessary. For the renewing and vitalizing of symbols which have been crusted over with a distorting familiarity demands the type of organization which we have already commented on in discussing particular passages: the statement of surface similarities which are ironically revealed to be dissimilarities, and the association of apparently obvious dissimilarities which culminates in a later realization that the dissimilarities are only superficial--that the chains of likeness are in reality fundamental. In this way the statement of beliefs emerges through confusion and cynicism--not in spite of them.

From Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Copyright © 1939 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Joseph Frank

In the Cantos and The Waste Land, however, it should have been clear that a radical transformation was taking place in aesthetic structure; but this transformation has been touched on only peripherally by modern critics. R. P. Blackmur comes closest to the central problem while analyzing what he calls Pound's "anecdotal" method. The special form of the Cantos, Blackmur explains, "is that of the anecdote begun in one place, taken up in one or more other places, and finished, if at all, in still another. This deliberate disconnectedness, this art of a thing continually alluding to itself, continually breaking off short, is the method by which the Cantos tie themselves together. So soon as the reader's mind is concerted with the material of the poem, Mr. Pound deliberately disconcerts it, either by introducing fresh and disjunct material or by reverting to old and, apparently, equally disjunct material."

Blackmur's remarks apply equally well to The Waste Land, where syntactical sequence is given up for a structure depending on the perception of relationships between disconnected word-groups. To be properly understood, these word-groups must be juxtaposed with one another and perceived simultaneously. Only when this is done can they be adequately grasped; for, while they follow one another in time, their meaning does not depend on this temporal relationship. The one difficulty of these poems, which no amount of textual exegesis can wholly overcome, is the internal conflict between the time-logic of language and the space-logic implicit in the modern conception of the nature of poetry.

Aesthetic form in modern poetry, then, is based on a space-logic that demands a complete reorientation in the reader's attitude toward language. Since the primary reference of any word-group is to something inside the poem itself, language in modern poetry is really reflexive. The meaning-relationship is completed only by the simultaneous perception in space of word-groups that have no comprehensible relation to each other when read consecutively in time. Instead of the instinctive and immediate reference of words and word-groups to the objects or events they symbolize and the construction of meaning from the sequence of these references, modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity.

It would not be difficult to trace this conception of poetic form back to Mallarmé's ambition to create a language of "absence" rather than of presence—a language in which words negated their objects instead of designating them; nor should one overlook the evident formal analogies between The Waste Land and the Cantos and Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés. Mallarmé, indeed, dislocated the temporality of language far more radically than either Eliot or Pound has ever done; and his experience with Un Coup de dés showed that this ambition of modern poetry has a necessary limit. If pursued with Mallarmé's relentlessness, it culminates in the self-negation of language and the creation of a hybrid pictographic "poem" that can only be considered a fascinating historical curiosity. Nonetheless, this conception of aesthetic form, which may be formulated as the principle of reflexive reference, has left its traces on all of modem poetry. And the principle of reflexive reference is the link connecting the aesthetic development of modern poetry with similar experiments in the modern novel.

From The Idea of Spatial Form. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Grover Smith

The Waste Land summarizes the Grail legend, not precisely in the usual order, but retaining the principal incidents and adapting them to a modern setting. Eliot's indebtedness both to Sir James Frazer and to Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance (in which book he failed to cut pages 138-39 and 142-43 of his copy) is acknowledged in his notes. Jessie L. Weston's thesis is that the Grail legend was the surviving record of an initiation ritual. Later writers have reaffirmed the psychological validity of the link between such ritual, phallic religion, and the spiritual content of the Greek Mysteries. Identification of the Grail story with the common myth of the hero assailing a devil-dragon underground or in the depths of the sea completes the unifying idea behind The Waste Land. The Grail legend corresponds to the great hero epics, it dramatizes initiation into maturity, and it bespeaks a quest for sexual, cultural, and spiritual healing. Through all these attributed functions, it influenced Eliot's symbolism.

Parallels with yet other myths and with literary treatments of the "quest" theme reinforce Eliot's pattern of death and rebirth. Though The Tempest, one of Eliot's minor sources, scarcely depicts an initiation "mystery," Colin Still, in a book of which Eliot has since written favorably (Shakespeare's Mystery Play), had already advanced the theory in 1921 that it implies such a subject." And Tiresias is not simply the Grail knight and the Fisher King but Ferdinand and Prospero, as well as Tristan and Mark, Siegfried and Wotan. In his feminine role he is not simply the Grail-maiden and the wise Kundry but the sibyl, Dido, Miranda, Brünnhilde. Each of these represents one of the three main characters in the Grail legend and in the mystery cults--the wounded god, the sage woman (transformed in some versions of the Grail legend into a beautiful maiden), and the resurrected god, successful quester, or initiate. Counterparts to them figure elsewhere; Eliot must have been conscious that the "Ancient Mariner" and "Childe Roland" had analogues to his own symbolism.

In adopting fertility symbolism, Eliot was probably influenced by Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du printemps. The summer before writing The Waste Land he saw the London production, and on reviewing it in September he criticized the disparity between Massine's choreography and the music. He might almost have been sketching his own plans for a work applying a primitive idea to contemporary life:

In art there should be interpenetration and metamorphosis. Even the Golden Bough can be read in two ways: as a collection of entertaining myths, or as a revelation of that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation. In everything in the Sacre du Printemps, except in the music, one missed the sense of the present. Whether Stravinsky's music be permanent or ephemeral I do not know; but it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.

In The Waste Land he imposed the fertility myth upon the world about him.

Eliot's waste land suffers from a dearth of love and faith. It is impossible to demarcate precisely at every point between the physical and the spiritual symbolism of the poem; as in "Gerontion" the speaker associates the failure of love with his spiritual dejection. It is clear enough, however, that the contemporary waste land is not, like that of the romances, a realm of sexless sterility. The argument emerges that in a world that makes too much of the physical and too little of the spiritual relations between the sexes, Tiresias, for whom love and sex must form a unity, has been ruined by his inability to unify them. The action of the poem, as Tiresias recounts it, turns thus on two crucial incidents: the garden scene in Part I and the approach to the Chapel Perilous in Part V. The one is the traditional initiation in the presence of the Grail; the other is the mystical initiation, as described by Jessie L. Weston, into spiritual knowledge. The first, if successful, would constitute rebirth through love and sex; the second, rebirth without either. Since both fail, the quest fails, and the poem ends with a formula for purgatorial suffering, through which Tiresias may achieve the second alternative after patience and self-denial--perhaps after physical death. The counsel to give, sympathize, and control befits one whom direct ways to beatitude cannot release from suffering.

From T.S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Copyright © 1956 by The University of Chicago Press.

Stephen Spender

Conrad's Heart of Darkness is of course one of the "influences" in TheWaste Land. It seems to me, though, much more than this. Conrad's story is of the primitive world of cannibalism and dark magic penetrated by the materialist, supposedly civilized world of exploitation and gain; and of the corruption of the mind of a man of civilized consciousness by the knowledge of the evil of the primitive (or the primitive which becomes evil through the unholy union of European trade and Congolese barbarism). The country of them as described by Conrid is a country of pure horror. Eliot is usually thought of as a sophisticated writer, an "intellectual." For this reason, the felling of primitive horror which rises from depths of his poetry is overlooked. Yet it is there in the rhythms, often crystallizing in some phrase which suggests the drums beating through the jungle darkness, the scuttling, clawing, shadowy forms of life in the depths of the sea, the spears of savages shaking across the immense width of the river, the rough-hewn images of prehistoric sculptures found in the depths of the primeval forest, the huge cactus forms in deserts, the whispering of ghosts at the edge of darkness. Probably this is the most Southern (in the American sense) characteristic of Eliot, reminding one that he was a compatriot of Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner. And Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a landscape with which Eliot is deeply, disquietedly, guiltily almost, familiar, and with which he contrasts effects of sunlight, lips trembling in prayer, eyes gazing into the heart of light or hauntingly into the eyes, a ship answering to the hand on a tiller as a symbol of achieved love and civilization.

From T.S. Eliot (New York: Viking Press, 1975): 120-21.

Eloise Knapp Hay

The Waste Land, Eliot's first long philosophical poem, can now be read simply as it was written, as a poem of radical doubt and negation, urging that every human desire be stilled except the desire for self-surrender, for restraint, and for peace. Compared with the longing expressed in later poems for the "eyes" and the "birth," the "coming" and "the Lady" (in "The Hollow Men," the Ariel poems, and "Ash-Wednesday"), the hope held out in The Waste