In Defense of Adam:
Prison and Paradise in Stevens and Yeats

by Jaimie Crawford

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

-W.B. Auden

In his elegy to Yeats, Auden suggests an interesting intersection between poetry and criticism: a common ground indicated by the juxtaposition of “we” (Yeats's readers and the eulogized poet) and the implied “you” (the materialistic and sterile world of the executive). Characterized by “rawness” (a naiveté robbed of purity), “isolation”(a Biblical exile), and busy griefs (toils to return to Eden), this shared ground Auden describes as the place of poetry acts as a border between the protagonist of poet and critic and the antagonist of hostile world outside of poetry. To Auden, the poet--in this case, Yeats-- is an unsung and tragic hero, laboring to return to paradise while at the same time providing a noble and necessary river of sustenance to an unappreciative and in most cases ignorant audience. Auden's “executives”-- echoed in Stevens's “rollers of big cigars” and Yeats's “noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen”--avoid and even seem to hamper poets' creation; however, these antagonists play crucial roles in writers' identities: authors' notions of themselves are directly related to how they view their adversaries.

The range of the poetic “stance” towards the “world of executives,” varying from Auden's pity to Yeats's anger to Stevens's identification, is shared by poets and critics alike and always characterized by an individual's primary motivation to write poetry or criticism. Helen Vendler quotes Yeats in her description of her own motivation to write criticism: “all things fall and are built again' and our pleasure in the building, rather than any immortality in the product, is our motive”(10). David Lehman, in his introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997 , takes another angle. By dismally comparing publishing a poem to “dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo” [1] Lehman congratulates himself on the impossible feat of not only publishing one poem, but a collection of seventy-five. Donald Hall cites Edmund Wilson and Joseph Epstein both of whom demand to know “Who killed poetry?” (Hall points out the irony of Epstein's “murdered” poets--Stevens, Eliot, Frost, Williams--being Wilson's usurpers of the “higher” minds of Pound and Sandburg. [2]) In his argument, Hall makes an astute point: these critics mourning the loss of verse have left the valley of poetry, moved on towards the more profitable halls of journalism, editing, brokering. Poetry has died for them, Hall says, because they are dead to poetry. What Hall intimates in his “selfless” mocking of Epstein and Wilson is, rather than an argument that poetry is not dead, an affirmation that he, poet and editor, has not “sold out” to the executive world.

As we near the twenty-first century and look back in the literary world, two constants appear: poetry and criticism, and poetry and criticism about poetry and criticism, a vision Hillis Miller would call a “mise en abyme.” [3] In his earnest eulogy, Auden paints this poetry as a beautiful, wild weed that twists itself through fenceposts and under pavement, flourishing in a deluge of communication, withering in the heat of direct reproach, rooted out by the latest trends, but always around the next bend, waiting for the promise of prosperous weather. What Auden describes is a vine winding its way back to Eden (to Stevens's fulfillment of desire) that the poets and critics closely following them diligently fertilize daily. Poet and critic, often indeterminable from each other, each take part in the upkeep of this weed; both proclaim as their enemy of choice, the “others,” those who will not “tamper” with this task, and worse, shed skepticism on its value.

Auden, Yeats, and Stevens identify themselves through their opposition to this “real” world of executive skepticism; each poet's “stance” against this hostile or unreachable antagonist has as its motivation an attempt to illustrate (if only to himself) the worthiness of the poet's cause. In “In Memorium, W. B. Yeats,” Auden pities the millions who won't remember the day Yeats died (as opposed to the “few thousand who will remember it as a day when one did something slightly unusual”), but his sympathy serves the purpose of elevating Yeats's “gift” of omniscient rapturer. Auden expresses reverence for Yeats, but his compassion for those who are suffering in their cells, convincing themselves of their own freedom while “roaring like beasts” at the stock exchange rivals this reverence to a point that the poem's focus slips into a sorrow for humanity rather than for the death of Yeats. Auden's sympathy for those who will not “tamper” with poetry reveals his resignation that the society he describes will never regain entrance into “the valley of poetry,” but because he excludes himself from this society “Memorium” remains emotionally objective. Moreover, Auden reminds us that much of Yeats's best poetry is dependent upon the pain and turmoil of a country, the majority of whom will never read his poems. Auden, too, sings of “human unsuccess,” but his distress, less frenetic than Yeats's, arises from the realization that the “free man” will probably not, as he wishes in the end of his poem, “learn how to praise.”

Yeats and Stevens provide counterpoints to Auden's pity of a world excluded from poetry. Yeats's stance towards the world of the executive (evidenced by the tone of his poems) is angrier and more forceful than Auden's; this passion “against the foe” fuels poems like “The Second Coming,” “No Second Troy,” and “Adam's Curse”, yet it masks his deeper concerns about spirituality and the world after death. Stevens (1914-1955), first publishing approximately thirty years after Yeats (1885-1939) and fifteen years before Auden (1930-73), on the other hand, seems almost devoid of this forcefulness; his “Emperor of Ice Cream” comes closest to Yeats's assertiveness, but only playfully shakes a fist at “the roller of big cigars.” Stevens's own role as one of the “executives” as well as the inward glancing nature of his poetry give his lyrics a balance attained by no other poet: “In a Bad Time” is representative of his characteristic stance towards a world whom he simultaneously identifies with and fears will discover he is a fraud: “Make sure/ The audience beholds you, not your gown.” For Stevens, no rage exists towards this world that isn't also directed towards himself in an inextricable blend of desire and disappointment.

Auden's words to Yeats and about Yeats in “Memorium” express in three disparate stanzas his own recognition of a nation too addled by depression, poverty, and war to reach out to the spiritual aid of poetry. The poem has an absurdly romantic flavor: A dying poet, ever nearing the Platonic ideal governing his work, who never-the-less spends his last afternoon with “nurses and rumours” is given compassion by a fellow poet who believes “everything turns away quite leisurely from disaster”(a central concept of Auden's work expressed in “Musee des Beaux Arts”). Auden's lyrics reach the soul because they stem from an honest admiration of a fellow poet and a sympathy for those who will never care for Yeats as he does. Auden envies Yeats his ability to “sing of human unsuccess in a rapture of distress”--his ability to describe the poverty of the human experience with an idyllic mysticism. The irony of the poem's first and second parts, Auden's primary position that each man is barred in by the “cell” of his own making from the solace of poetry coupled with his praise of Yeats's ability to so beautifully describe this suffering, make Auden's final wish, that Yeats's verse “teach the free man how to praise in the prison of his days” both poignant and bitterly futile.

Although Yeats's stance appears angrier than Auden's compassionate lines to the Irish nation who lost their “unconstraining voice,” his prose is more hopeful. The political world of “Mad Ireland” may have “hurt Yeats into poetry” but a raw mixture of imagination, invention, and audacity promoted his reception as “an honoured guest” in the field. Yeats's poems are directed only secondarily by the passion fueled against “the bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen the martyrs call the world” and primarily by his passion to discover by verse a lost religion to replace the unpalatable Christian orthodoxy shed by he and his father. In this way, Yeats's and Stevens's verses contain a similar dialectic complexity. Like his Irish King Fergus, Yeats stands hesitating between two worlds: the literal world of Aristotelian order offering false but attainable material desires and the spiritual orb just beyond his reach, so illusive Plato forbid it from his republic and so ineffable Stevens could refer to it only as “nothing.” That no one can absolutely choose between these opposites, and moreover, that each one defines the other's existence is the major motif in Yeats's work (Rosenthal xxi).

Forty years prior to Auden's eulogy, Yeats mockingly chastises the same world Auden decries as peopled by “brokers roaring like beasts,” divided into nations “sequestered in hate.” But Yeats's irritation with a world in which only a handful will remember his death as “one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual” is less firmly rooted in anger towards a “hollow” world of executive materialism than in his own obsession to discover the spiritual depths on the other side. In his early poem “Adam's Curse” this irritation bubbles to the surface sporadically, disclosing more about Yeats than about the society he mocks. In a dramatized hysteria, Yeats advises the women with whom he discusses poetry:

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather,

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these.

“Adam's Curse” and Auden's “Memorium” each speak of poetry, but they also share an interesting feature indicative of the dialogue on poetry begun by Plato: more light is shed on the poet's or critic's personal reasons for poetry--what Yeats describes as a “fascination of what's difficult”--than on the world's shunning of the poetry he writes.

While “Adam's Curse” can be catalogued as one of the many Yeats wrote spiraling from fury over an unrelenting quest to woo Maud Gonne, the poem is more centrally about his love affair with impossibility than it is about his love for Gonne. What keeps him writing about Gonne is the same magnetic force which attracts him to poetry and mysticism: an unattainable knowledge that he desires to simultaneously capture and keep pristine. This tension is central to Keats's desire to at once be and admire the nightingale, and to Stevens's repeated use of remembering and forgetting.

During a summer's “blue-green” moon-blanched evening, Yeats decries first a poet's fate, rooted in God's curse on Adam, and finally, his own failure at love. With neither subject does he convince us of his pain. Under a grumbling facade reminiscent of many a scholar who ponders the fate of ideals in “this day and age”, Yeats seems to rejoice in the poet's affliction: the lure of the pleasure-spoiling “difficult”. Although he feigns irritation with God's curse on men after Adam's fall (“It's certain there is no fine thing/ Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring”), Yeats's overall intention, like most poets and critics offering mock-arguments against those who are somehow responsible for the death of ideals, is to describe and praise his own difficult task of writing rather than to defame those who seem ignorant of poetry's creation.

To this end, Yeats strives for the mutual existence in his poem of a Platonic ideal (based in the unlimited potential of he and Maud Gonne to create “sweet sounds together”) and the Aristotelian reality of the here-and-now (describing the difficulties which do not but could happen: “yet we [would have] grown/ As weary hearted as that hollow moon”). Adding to his early poems' dreamy and idyllic lyrics, influenced by the London Rhymers' Club, in “Adam's Curse” Yeats combines “impersonal beauty” and a sense of “passionate reason” grounded in the mundane experience of two couples sitting together “one summer's end” to discuss poetry.

Midway through the first stanza and disturbing the ephemeral nature of what begins as an enchanted conversation about verse (“That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,/ And you and I...talked of poetry”), Yeats positions his rebuke of middle-class martyrs who judge poets to be “idlers”:

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.

Although Yeats seems bothered by the martyrs of the poem, this voiced frustration is just a posture. His worries that the world is an Aristotelian maze of businessmen and bankers who have lost sight of ideals masks his greater fear that the martyr “calling the world” something it is not, is neither schoolmaster nor clergyman, but poet, himself. A fear that a poet's emotional and intellectual commitments are merely vain stabs at a cold universe. The imperative tone and intrinsically poetic rhyme broken only in the final, jolting line of each stanza mask an anxiety in Yeats common to all poets: that their sweet sounds, though painstaking to produce, are as “skeletal” as the marrow-bones of their existence; that after all his effort, he will remain “a tattered coat upon a stick.” (Stevens reverses both of these metaphors to ask similar questions about the value of his toils: in “First Warmth,” he ponders, “I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life, /As a questioner about reality,” but answers in “As You Leave the Room”: “Today's character is not /A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.” In “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” he describes a poet's “peace after death” not as a “tattered coat” but as “an immaculate personage in nothingness /With the whole spirit sparkling in its cloth, /Generations of the imagination piled /In the manner of its stitching.”)

Yeats's break in form at the end of the first stanza of “Adam's Curse” suggests that “the banker, schoolmaster, and clergymen the martyrs call the world”, are all straw men, appearing to block the poet's virtuous quest but actually essential to his articulation. Without them, an insurmountable obstacle would arise. If no ultimate knowledge existed, no core (the repressed anxiety seeming to underlie Yeats's “get thee to a nunnery” rebuke of the women who discuss poetry with him) --the path would be futile to follow. In other words, with no “noisy set” to muddy Yeats's vision, he fears a fate worse than opposition: a clear view offering no promise of enlightenment, no new religion, no spiritual truth. Yeats's triple roles as visionary, unrequited lover, and Irish nationalist have in common his position in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” At his core, he is a passionate rebel, a fighter searching for “the truth man can embody but not know.” Whereas Stevens's dialectic includes the “be” and “seems” of this world, Yeats's poetic stance captures the relationship between this world of the material and the afterlife world he imagines and depends on the coexistence in his poem (and in life), of a “noisy lot” of others.

Yeats's tension in “Adam's Curse” is double-edged. In one sense, he juxtaposes the dirty and necessary household chores with the more noble task of writing. Both of these labors, Yeats suggests, rank above the “noisy”, disillusioned “set” of businessmen, educators, and religious leaders thought to make up the “world.” In a second sense, however, Yeats separates the world into those who perform and those who judge; while the “idle” toil over manuscripts and the paupers “break stones” and “scrub kitchen pavement” and even the women “know that [they] must labour to be beautiful”, the martyrs of the poem sit back and judge who is working hardest and whose work matters most. A certain indignation underscores Yeats's envy of those who cheat difficulty, and he mourns for the “old high” lovers who once:

Thought love should be

So much compounded of high courtesy

That they would sigh and quote with learned looks

Precedents out of beautiful old books;

But he quickly tosses them away with a flick of the wrist: “Now it seems an idle trade enough.” His dispute is with himself, as he is the one forever striving for the “difficult.” Like Fergus of “Fergus and the Druid,” he stands holding a bag of dreams:

Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow,

Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing.

This double-edged nature grounded in Yeats's unflinching loyalty to ideals but inability to quite attain the level of imaginative transcendence he desires reveals, through a repressed irony, his pact with Maud Gonne, a promise indicative of the one between the poets and the “noisy set” of the poem: he will sacrifice being part of “the real world” for the much loftier quest of exploring the spiritual one of poetry. Moreover, the more challenging his articulation (“A line will take us hours maybe”) the sweeter it will be. The metaphor for this ascetic pleasure is Yeats's own love for Gonne, more passionate because it is never realized:

I had a thought for no one's but your ears:

That you were beautiful, and that I strove

To love you in the old high way of love;

Yeats's disappointment in love (like Sidney's and Petrarch's) adds a Romantic idealism to his modern verse. The fluctuation between the “scrub of a kitchen pavement” and “bankers” and “that beautiful mild woman”--almost a fairy child, whom he never mentions is Gonne's sister-- and “Adam's fall” produce an ephemeral effect, as if the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation in a dream; a similar juxtaposition occurs in Stevens's work as he combines formal strains (concupiscent curds, the hue of heliotrope) with the mimetic (wenches, newspapers, and bad times). This blend of the decorative and the ordinary illustrate in Stevens the splendor of Adam's prison turned paradise; in Yeats, an ambivalent glance towards a world in which Adam remains in Eden.

The setting of a summer's end conversation where the lovers “grow quiet at the name of love” until “the last embers of the daylight die” emphasizes this element of fantasy, yet Yeats's anxiety is tangible. The stillness of the couple is compounded by the said and the unsaid: a fear that England and Ireland have grown “as weary-hearted as that hollow moon” and a gratefulness that the speaker and lover are protected by the vehicle of the poem from the same fate. More than the poverty of Ireland, Yeats fears its stagnant lack of growth (symbolized by the “weary-hearted” moon); his switch from past to past perfect tense in the last stanza, from “We sat...We saw” to “I had...I had seemed...yet we'd grown” allows him to skip from present to future without experiencing the heartbreak of rejection and without ending his poem with the finality of closure:

That it had seemed happy, and yet we'd grown

As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

The irony of the last lines of “Adam's Curse” is ripest when we note that before publishing the poem in 1903 in a volume entitled In the Seven Woods, Yeats, influenced by Nietzsche's publishings, declared he had “mistaken the poetic ideal.” Norman Jeffares explains that Yeats decided to forego a poetic focus on “impersonal beauty” in order to write poems that would “ascend out of common interests, the thoughts of the newspapers, of the market place” but at the same time spring from “the personality of the whole.” [4]

The ending of “Adam's Curse” is both affirmatively alive and intensely personal; Yeats focuses not on the impersonal beauty of Maud Gonne, but on the impersonal beauty of nature, characteristic of Stevens and Keats. As Heaney notes about the end of Yeats's “The Man and the Echo” (“A stricken rabbit is crying out./ And its cry distracts my thought.”), there is a powerful element of freedom in the final lines of “Adam's Curse”: “There is a strong sense...that the mind's options are still open, that the mind's constructs are still vital and reliable” (163). Yeats's dialogue on poetry and idealism, momentarily suspended, does not end. He urges his own generation that this dialogue should not go “out of fashion”(Rosenthal xxxii)--that “the old high way” of love-making (and poetry), a method based on ideals and “compounded of high courtesy” is not, as he half-heartedly proposes in his poem, defunct. In this plea, he joins Sidney, Heaney, and Stevens in their collective defense of poetry. By the end of the poem, Yeats exchanges an angry stance towards the “noisy set of bankers” for an entreaty for a continuation of dialogue. His love for Gonne, requited, would have resulted in an end of this dialogue, but a glance up at the moon simply temporarily postpones an answer.

To voice his defense of poetry: poetry pursues truth in a hostile (albeit helpfully hostile) world, Yeats uses the metaphor of Adam's curse--a paradoxical exile from knowledge and freedom (and motivation) to attain it --to illustrate the task of the poet. Aligning himself (and all poets) with this first man and sinner, Yeats channels the Romantic restlessness nestled in the debate between the Platonic ideal and Aristotelian order into a deceptively simple discussion of the poet's dilemma. The “world” of the martyrs (of Plato's cave dwellers) offers distractions; these distractions give the poet a role: to seek perfection (voiced in Aristotle's message to disregard imperfections in order to seek universal truths).

Yeats laments both the “labouring” caused by Adam's fall and the society to whom this labouring now seems “idle trade.” His use of “curse” resembles Dylan Thomas's plea to his dying father (“Curse, bless, me now”) in its ambivalence, and while Yeats “passionately beats on the wall of the physical world in order to provoke an answer from the other side”(Heaney, 148), [5] he has no time to question whether there is another side; all doubt and hope are tossed into the turbulent energy of the poem. Through the process of his poem, however, Yeats's own “energy and order,” testify that “there exists a much greater, circumambient energy and order within which we have our being”(149).

Stevens's poems describe the poet's “curse” in a more private and secular manner (though quite clearly neither poet practiced formal Christianity). Whereas Yeats “beats on the wall” to achieve entrance into the spiritual unknown while all the time glancing back at his audience, Stevens's fascination with earthly matters is so intense it distracts him from both a worldly “audience” and an otherworld spirituality. Stevens eschews the “invented... the clam made to play accordion” (as well as the personal mythology of Yeats), and focuses instead on the “discovered”--“the observation of the unconscious...not the familiar things of which we have been conscious plus imagination” [6]; his poems evince an anxious dose of guilt when he feels he is “imposing,” posturing as fraud. Although both Stevens and Yeats are often labeled visionaries, Yeats's verse has little of the serenity, patience, and self-inspection of Stevens's. Yeats describes himself in jest as the translator of revelations he does not fully comprehend (see “The Phases of the Moon”). Stevens, on the other hand, stands perplexed, introspective, and as much involved with a second-order pondering of his relationship with the unknown as with the underlying understanding of its existence. Even in Yeats's most mature poems there is a first-order rapture which Stevens's verse lacks. In “Byzantium,” for instance, as Yeats conjures a “peace after death” where the living are transformed to dead, “material into eternal,” he maintains a frenzied excitement:

Spirit after spirit:

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget

Charles Berger addresses this fundamental difference between the mythology of death (a path both poets view as one towards an Eden-like peace) of Yeats and Stevens: “Stevens sees peace as being clothed in a ceremonial robe...the imagination is literally wrapped up in its (earthly) material... `fictive weavings' spun by the living”(172). Yeats's view of earthly peace is more “ambivalent,” his smithies must convert their souls to “eternal” rest to bring them peace, and these smithies busy themselves with a whole crowd of spirits: an inclusive mass audience that Stevens rarely addresses. Furthermore, the “Emperor” Stevens depicts in his elegy of humanity (and of poetry, itself) is one of a tongue-in-cheek ice-cream and not of a golden otherworld. The “begettings of the broken world” in Stevens's “Notes” echoes Yeats's “images beget”(173); but while for Stevens these “begettings” are “of the broken (earthly) world,” for Yeats they are images channeled “freshly” back to earth from the eternal.

Whereas Yeats seeks a return to Eden in the afterlife, Stevens is forever caught between a willing acceptance of Adam's curse (in his focus on the earthly world and the “discovered” rather than “invented”) and what Vendler refers to as an (unwilling) human “desire” [7] Yeats curses the necessity of “difficulty”; Stevens is quite comfortable with the “difficult” but is both fascinated and dominated by the illimitable human pattern of “desire” and “despair.” Stevens's poems seldom include the braggadocio that fuels Yeats's poetry, but they always include a deep introspective and unanswered dialogue on desire. To Stevens, there is a combination of innocent seduction and stoic New England guilt attached to the fulfillment of this desire as “The Rock: The Poem as Icon” indicates:

“It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves,

We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground

Or a cure of ourselves, that is equal to a cure

Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness.

The repetition of “cure” and insistence of “must” and “it is not enough” in the first four lines of this part of the poem capture Stevens' stoic intentions to discover “a cure beyond forgetfulness.” He will take no short-cuts, and his “ourselves” implies “myself.” However, at the moment of greatest turmoil and serious devotion to cause, Stevens lapses into daydream:

And yet the leaves, if they broke into bud,

If they broke into bloom, if they bore fruit,

And if we ate the incipient colorings

Of their fresh culls might be a cure of the ground.

Here, the triple “if” and the allusion to a second exile are playful. Like Yeats who only dreams about a life with Gonne, Stevens can safely play in the poem with the possibility of finding a “cure”, a fulfillment to desire. His fruit is fiction, blended from the same batch as his “concupiscent curds” and created by the same earthly “Emperor”:

The fiction of their leaves is the icon

Of the poem, the figuration of blessedness,

And the icon is the man.

The “desire” and “despair” of Vendler's Stevens is also the paradoxical human condition gained with God's exile of Adam: an imposed “desire” to attain knowledge (the poet's quest) leading inevitably to “despair.” His wish to find a “cure” beyond Keatsian “forgetfulness” for the curse of this imposed desire leads him to the vehicle of the poem, “the supreme fiction,” and full circle (“the icon is man”) back to despair. This repeated embrace of despair is translated into many of Stevens poems as the speaker's relationship with a stark winter or the “writhing” sun.

The closest Stevens comes to the addressing the material “hollowness” of his audience, Yeats's “noisy set of bankers” and Auden's “world of executives,” is in his early poems, but even in these poems (“The Death of a Soldier,” “Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream”) his tone is less chastising than resigned, the inquiries and affirmations less addressed to others than to himself:

What word have you, interpreters, of men

Who in the tomb of heaven walk by night,

The darkened ghosts of our old comedy?

Let be be finale of seem

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

His questions center on the extent of depth the unconscious yields (without fraudulent invention): the “interpreters” he queries are poets like himself (Emerson, Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats) who have no “words” or answers, but only more questions. Likewise, the finale couplet of “The Emperor of Ice Cream” offers what Hillis Miller has coined a “mise en abyme”: an Escheresque stairway leading inescapably to its own first step.

“In a Bad Time,” written at the end of Stevens's writing career, emphasizes the “let be” or “to be” of this famous couplet. Offering one of the most genuine of Stevens's defenses of poetry, it is directed to an audience with whom he identifies; his “beggar” is Adam, who answers Milton's “heaven of hell” challenge, and the poem captures all the richness of human experience. Drawing upon the poverty of winter he feels so akin with in “The Snow Man” and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” Stevens continues his dialogue on desire:

But the beggar gazes on calamity

And therefore he belongs to it, to bread

Hard found, and water tasting of misery.

Voicing Stevens's revelation that “the cold order of the northern sky can be accepted only by a man who has renounced, momentarily, the world's summer richness”(Kessler 50), Stevens, at least for a moment, attains the composure against which his earlier poems struggle. The water “tasting of misery” has melted from “The Snowman” as Stevens shifts from “listening to the misery of the wind” to ingesting the misery of water. The beggar's “cold glacial beauty is his fate” and the need to understand this fate is much less important than the ability to “belong to it.”

As Stevens renounces the summer, he embraces the “poverty” of the wind, and this embrace becomes a trademark in his late poems. In “The Planet on the Table” he eschews the identification with Caliban characteristic of his earlier work for an identification with the released prisoner/fairy Ariel (Adam? ), and hopes his toils will produce “some affluence, if only half perceived, /In the poverty of their words.” In “The Sail of Ulysses,” in response to “What is the shape of the sibyl?”, Stevens answers, “Not, /For a change, the englistered woman, seated in colors harmonious, dewed and dashed /By them...[but] The self as sybil, whose diamond, Whose chiefest embracing of all wealth /Is poverty.” Roland Wagner suggests that this shift in Stevens “from the male feminine passivity”--from an identification with Ulysess to an identification with Penelope--reveals a serenity “of a single mind in relation to itself”(96).

The same serenity is present in “The Rock” where Stevens's composure comes from a final acceptance “of man's fate as unknowable”(Kessler 51):

He has his poverty and nothing more,

His poverty becomes his heart's strong core--

A forgetfulness of summer at the pole.

The end rhyme of these lines recalls the gamboling rhythm of “The Man with the Blue Guitar”; Stevens's “madness” in the first line of the poem (“How mad would he have to be to say, `He beheld /An order and thereafter he belonged to it?”) has shifted in connotation to a Platonic “enthousiasmos.” The “forgetfulness” of his former poetry also takes on a different meaning in these lines as Stevens specifies the “forgetfulness” he strives beyond in “The Rock” as “a forgetfulness of summer”--an embrace of “human” despair over an otherworldly and terminating fulfillment of desire. This is a powerful moment for the poet: he realizes that “man's greatest nobility results from his power to endure barrenness, to survive the `bad time' of his insatiable hunger for final answers”(Kessler 51).

The blending of Stevens's dialect of “seem” and “be”, the mixture of the “blue” of winter, water, and the guitar with the “red” of “The Large Red Man Reading” into, instead of inconstant “heliotrope,” a loftier “purple” in the final lines of this poem signifies the tremendous calming effect of this revelation:

Sordid melpomene, why strut bare boards,

Without scenery or lights, in the theatre's bricks,

Dressed high in heliotrope's inconstant hue,

The muse of misery? Speak loftier lines.

Cry out, “I am the purple muse.” Make sure

The audience beholds you, not your gown.

The muse Stevens addresses is the muse of the human and the self. In the last lines of “The Sail of Ulysses” he first begins this revelation: “the englistered woman is now seen /In an isolation, separate /From the human in humanity...known /And unknown, inhuman for a little while.” “Inhuman,” Stevens accepts, until death separates him from the world in which he lives. In paying homage to this “muse of misery,” the muse of his poetry, Stevens compels us to transcend tragedy, to ingest it, roll it around on our tongues (as he does in “On the Way to the Bus”: “pronouncing the word inside of one's tongue”); he compels us to feel its power and accept its beauty.

Yeats experiences a similar revelation in “The Cold Heaven.” In what Heany portrays as “a spasm of consciousness,” Yeats looks up at the winter sky, realizing, “there is no hiding place, that the individual human life cannot be sheltered from the galactic cold”(148):

...I took all of the blame out of the sense and reason,

Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,

Riddled with light.

But this revelation leaves Yeats, not composed, but a little shaken. He “rejects the carrion comfort, Despair” and remains in the final lines of the poem preoccupied with questions of “the soul, the afterlife, and eternity”(Heany 149):

Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,

Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent

Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken

By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

Yeats dismisses the “dispair” to which Stevens “belongs.” He rejects Stevens's “muse of misery” in exchange for the “englistered woman: the gorgeous symbol seated /On the seat of halidom, rainbowed, /Piercing the spirit by appearance.” He curses Adam's fall.

Stevens, on the other hand, accepts this curse, teaching us, under Auden's direction, “how to praise... in the prison of [our] days,” and forever reminding us of our humanity: that we are

Not that Adam that keeps the Paradise

But that Adam that keeps the prison.

-Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors (IV.iii)


Work Cited

Berger, Charles. “The Mythology of Modern Death.” Modern Critical Views of Wallace Stevens. New York: Chelsea, 1985.

Bloom, Harold, ed. The Best of the Best: American Poetry: 1988-97. New York: Scribner, 1998.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views of Wallace Stevens. New York: Chelsea, 1985.

Jeffares, A. Norman. W.B. Yeats, Man and Poet. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.

Heaney, Seamus. The Redress of Poetry. New York: Noonday, 1995.

Kessler, Edward. Images of Wallace Stevens. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 1972.

Macleod, Glen. “Surrealism and the Supreme Fiction: `It Must Give Pleasure.” Wallace Stevens Journal 14 (1990): 33-38.

Miller, Hillis J. “Stevens's Rock and Criticism as Cure.” Modern Critical Views of Wallace Stevens. New York: Chelsea, 1985.

Rosenthal, M.L., ed. Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1954.

--- The Necessary Angel. New York: Knopf, 1957.

Vendler, Helen. Words Chosen Out of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Wagner, Roland C. “Wallace Stevens: The Concealed Self.” Wallace Stevens Journal 14 (1990): 92-99.


[1] David Lehman in his introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry recalls Marquis' futile comparison of publishing a book in verse.

[2] Donald Hall discusses the state of poetry in his introduction to Best American Poetry: 1989.

[3] In Bloom's Modern Critical Views of Stevens, Miller explains Michel Leiris's description of L'age d'homme--represented by a Quaker Oat's box on which there is an icon of a girl holding a Quaker Oat's box with an image of the same girl holding the box, ad infitum--as a “mise en abyme,” translated as “an enigma of the nameless.”

[4]The abandonment of this impersonal beauty for “the normal, passionate, reasoning self” also occurs in The Green Helmet and Other Poems(1910).

[5]Seamus Heaney suggests Yeats's preoccupation with the soul's destiny in his Redress of Poetry, p. 149

[6] Glen Macleod in “Surrealism and the Supreme Fiction: `It Must Give Pleasure” quotes Stevens Opus Posthumous ed. Samuel French Morse (New York: Knopf, 1957).

[7] Helen Vendler `s Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen From Desire.

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