45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


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Why "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" ConcludesThe Auroras of Autumn


This will be an exercise in appreciating what Wallace Stevens' poem "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" enables for the attentive reader's imagination. The project entails developing two contexts. First, I will elaborate on Stevens' possible investments in having this poem recast a still life by the French painter Pierre Tal-Coat that he purchased in 1949. We have to ask why Stevens felt the need to transform the genre, especially since he had happily worked in the genre of literary still life on several occasions. How does this poem recognize and adapt Stevens' sense of Tal-Coat as "a painter finding his way through a period of abstract painting" and so "likely to pick up a certain amount of the metaphysical vision of the day"?[1]Second, I am fascinated by Stevens' choice to have this poem conclude The Auroras of Autumn by staging an appearance of "an angel of reality."1 How can this bare little adventure establish a fitting and even imaginatively provocative summary and farewell to the themes of one of the darkest and least playful of Stevens' books? The two concerns come together because we have to ask why this particular adaption of French materials has been carefully placed to enhance the effects of the volume taken as a whole.

Even superb critics of Stevens such as James Longenbach have a tendency to see The Auroras of Autumn as problematic. He argues that Stevens' usual effort to assert the "historicity of poetry and the political power of poets" lapses into "an aesthetic . . . of retreat or mere aestheticism." Ironically, Stevens' investments in buying pictures from France during these years became, for Longenbach, part of his surrender to "a narrow version of what the world 'as it is' might be." The poems here are grounded primarily in "the sensual pleasures his income afforded him and the aesthetic pleasures his accumulated capital of poetry could sustain".[2] But such judgments lead us away from the ways in which this volume might struggle with aspects of the aestheticism that Stevens was tempted to embrace.

The Auroras of Autumn as a whole explores various aspects of the dilemmas rendered in "Esthetique du Mal," a poem clearly important to Stevens for its inability to reconcile the effort to celebrate the aesthetic distance necessary to see the world steadily and see it whole with the worry that this very distance is complicit in one basic form of evil distinctive to modernity. Modern empiricism is based on an ideal of impersonal description that can provide the stability and impartiality of "the eye's plain version," "a thing apart" (397). The distance of the aesthetic object is quite different. But readers run the risk of so stressing contemplative states and formal accomplishments that they lose the work's capacity to provide distinctive modes of felt intimacy with the actual world. One can see Auroras as, among other things, a meditation on how aesthetic distance folds into its empiricist antagonist, providing a distinctively modern version of the evil with which the tragic poet must constantly struggle. This volume's negotiations with "distance" in turn provide a context for what seems the radical shift in focus presented by the lyrics of The Rock, the section of late poems Stevens included in The Collected Poems. As Helen Vendler puts it, Stevens' last volume withdraws "from the rhetorical mode in which the tragic perception voices itself" (204) to explore much more intimate lyric stances. Yet, rather than emphasize the achievement of these poems. I want to suggest that they might gain their distinctive concrete abstractness by extending Stevens' efforts to confront tragedy directly in the previous book.


Because the historical chain leading up to "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" is so fascinating, critics have been insufficiently attentive to how the poem works and why that working might matter. The most interesting writing on the poem takes two interrelated tacks-one concerning Stevens' interest in producing poems that evoke still life painting, and one concerning what Stevens does with the Tal-Coat painting.[3] Representing the first tack, Bonnie Costello concentrates on how the still lifes in Parts of a World establish a profound "reconciling of often violent historical formlessness" with "the human need for intimate arrangements" that can have "the force of epiphany" (454). Even "Angel Surrounded by Paysans," in a much more abstract volume often criticized for its aestheticism, uses the associations of still life as a low genre to retain "the mood if not the substance of still life" (454). The angel, "numen of Tal-Coat's simple pots and bowls," "is a figure both of the center and the periphery, the heroic and the common, megalography and rhopography."[4]

But Costello does not focus on "Angel Surrounded by Paysans," so we have to ask why this particular abstracting away from still life is the poem's route to common life. The poem opens with a strange way of staging the angel since "he" is introduced by his not being visible:

One of the countrymen:
There is
A welcome at the door to which no one comes.

The angel:

I am the angel of reality,
Seen for a moment standing in the door.

I have neither ashen wing nor wear of ore
And live without a tepid aureole,

Or stars that follow me, not to attend,
But, of my being and its knowing, part. (423)

Then the angel turns to defining his own identity in positive terms. Being "one of you" also involves "being and knowing what I am and know." And he what he knows is at once comprehensive and enabling:

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

Cleared of its stiff and stubborn man-locked set
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone

Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
Like watery words awash; like meanings said

By repetitions of half-meanings. Am I not
Myself, only half a figure of a sort,

A figure half-seen, or seen for a moment, a man
Of the mind, an apparition apparelled in

Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone? (423)

Alan Filreis begins to answer these questions by reconstructing from Stevens' published and unpublished letters the details of his purchasing the painting, and then Stevens' understanding of what was involved in transposing still life into an allegorical scene. For Filreis the point of the poem is to highlight this abstracting process as an experiment in placing "relations before substance as the basis of similarity" (345-46). Rather than portray what a painting is about, the poem replicates the painting only "through resemblances of relations" (346). Rather than have poetry imitate what a painter does, Stevens would have poetry celebrate its powers to define how paintings become valuable for us. He would abstract painting into part-whole relationships and then produce significance for those relations.

The historical details that interest me are in three letters. The first describes how Stevens transforms Tal-Coat's still life into the terms of his poem: "The angel is the Venetian glass bowl on the left with the little spray of leaves in it. The peasants are the terrines, bottles, and the glasses that surround it. This title alone tames it as a lump of sugar might tame a lion" (L 650). The second letter makes sense of this language of "taming" because it presents Stevens praising Tal-Coat for his "display of imaginative force: an effort to attain reality purely by way of the artist's own vitality" (L 655-56). The still life concentrates on the force of an authorial act, especially in the assertive line and color that Stevens manages to transpose into a lyric mode. Then the third letter interprets the poem interpreting the painting:

In "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" the angel is the angel of reality. This is clear only if the reader is of the idea that we live in a world of the imagination, in which reality and contact with it are the great blessings. For nine readers out of ten, the necessary angel will appear to be the Angel of imagination and for nine days out of ten that is true, although it is the tenth day that counts. I have been fitted into too many philosophic frames. As a philosopher one is expected to achieve and express one's center. For my part I think that the philosophic permissible (to use an insurance term) is a great deal different today than it was a generation or two ago. (L 713)

Our task now is to see what Stevens makes in poetry of Tal-Coat's attaining "reality primarily by way of the artist's own vitality." Filreis is right that vitality has to be understood as a relational feature of the painting and of the poem. But I think we cannot isolate relations from the substances that make them visible. After all, the angel for Stevens is a figure for reality, not for abstract relatedness. In what can that sense of reality abide, and how does it differ from what an angel of imagination might bring to the scene?

There are two basic aspects of content in the poem-the images of paysans and angel that transfigure the relations in the still life, and the activities of the angel that provide for the painting what Tal-Coat's brushwork does for the vitality of the painting. I have very little to say about the first since Costello seems to me correct in proposing that transforming the still life into a scenic allegory makes explicit the painter's rejection of adornment so that the angel can be allied with the paysans' ways of being and of knowing. But this description entirely avoids the issue of what the angel adds to the poem, especially by the poet's choice to risk the awkwardness of developing a first person perspective for this character.

The first thing the angel adds is the necessity of introducing into our sense of the real a complex relation between first- and second-order states. The angel expresses the possibility of "being what I am and know." Therefore, it sharply repudiates equating reality with any sense of fact or description. Instead, the sense of reality depends on the active relation between being, knowing, and willing what one knows. Here Filreis would remind us that the angel can only represent such second-order states because he offers no specific substance. But for me the point is less the fact that the angel has no substance than the dramatic condition presenting the paysans as looking but not seeing anyone at the door. Probably they cannot see the angel because they look for something physical at the door rather than exploring what might change in their awareness of the relation between being and knowing. One might say that the angel is the spirit of Tal-Coat's vitality in the brushwork-a spirit not to be found in the specific details but in the capacity to embrace the details that frame our specific historical situations.

In short, Stevens seems to have defined the angel of reality in sharp opposition to the angel of imagination he characterizes in his letter. In order to help the paysans see the earth again, the angel must clear away the detritus that the imagination has imposed upon it. And in order to enable the paysans to feel their world as "reality," the angel must give access not only to the content of the earth but also to the framing of that content. Two lines devoted to sight are followed by five lines devoted to hearing the tragic drone that accompanies all our efforts to give these sights meaning. There is an angel of reality, but it seems inseparable from awareness that our attributions of meaning are always ultimately to be consigned to the dump. The metaphors allowing us to unite being and knowing are also the source of our necessarily tragic awareness that we are the very source of the destruction of what we celebrate.

I have still to address what is probably the most intriguing feature of the poem and certainly its most surprising modification of still life. Why is the poem in the first person, after the introduction by the paysan who opens the door? How else represent this "welcome" to which no one comes? Perhaps only a first person can create an effect of substance even though the poem deals with fleeting feelings-the first person may be that mode of being that gives a home to the insubstantial. Perhaps only the first person can naturalize the question with which the poem concludes, since there the angel worries about what kind of existence it can have, given what it knows. This kind of self-consciousness may be inseparable from the fear that it exists primarily as an "apparition." The repudiation of the earth it inherits under the auspices of used and usurious signs seems to entail this internal instability, as if here the angel felt most forcefully the tragic forces that isolate consciousness from what it would embrace. Notice how the angel's self-consciousness here occupies a strange future perfect temporality where the present tense "I am gone" is itself knowable only after the departure. (And the "I am gone" is more strangely yet cast as a first person expression within a third person point of view, since the angel is probably "gone" only from the perspective of the paysans, although there is a sense that its disappearance is also felt as subjective reality.) It seems that the angel not only knows the effects of tragedy but participates in them: its making reality visible and active depends on its knowing also the sense of mortality that has to frame any possible celebration-otherwise that celebration would collapse again into the imaginary. The angel of reality appears inseparable not just from the spirit of tragedy but also from the self-knowledge that has to recognize the limitations of any human power.

The concluding question is the poem's finest gesture. This angel of reality turns out to need allegory in order to become visible, and then perhaps only as an "apparition." Allegorically, this angel of reality has to recognize how fleeting a sense of reality is. Facts are stable, stable enough to invite angels of imagination. But "reality" is not fact; it is the accommodation of the imagination to those facts. It is the "realization" of fact. That realization depends on combining the intensity of presence with a sense of the lag produced by a self-consciousness that is always afraid that the intensity is caused only by an apparition. No wonder the repeated doublings such as "liquidly in liquid lingerings," "an apparition appareled in Apparels," and "quickly, too quickly, I am gone." Beverly Maeder remarks that "quickly, too quickly" creates an odd slowing down or "pause" at the threshold of appearance (185). But she does not recognize how the poem labors here to have the angel take on substance at the very point of its disappearance, as if the angel's accepting that transience were fundamental to the very conditions of its existence.

Now I have to face the basic problem with my own interpretation. Why is it so labored and abstract in relation to so playful a poem? How can we integrate the playfulness into the reading, and perhaps make the lugubriousness of my allegorizing about the allegory a little more dynamic? "Quickly, too quickly, I am gone" comes with its own quickness, surprising the reader with its abrupt finality crossed with a delicate ruefulness-an intriguing combination difficult for criticism to address. Dramatically, this assertion matters because it acknowledges that there can be only momentary satisfactions of our investments in knowing reality.

The real is not substantial, or it might be substantial only if we can adapt to the processes the poem embodies. All of the references to tragedy and to loss in the poem indicate that a sense of reality as presence is inseparable from a sense that the nature of realization is entwined with the nature of loss. Then, meta-dramatically, the poem adds two further considerations-the more telling because they are so playful. First we are invited to notice that this departure is not only a figurative assertion within the poem, but also a literal assertion about the volume: since this is the concluding poem, so all of the "angelic presences" have to depart after their all too brief presence. This poem about the angel of reality as apparition turns out to be completely adequate as description, at least on one level. For it embodies the virtual condition of our possible identification with the angel. The medium in which the angel can appear literally now disappears. We are left with this instance of the same tragic sense that the angel sees as the precondition of its providing an emblem of realization.

But if we are left with this sense of realization because of the lightness by which the angel handles its disappearance, then perhaps tragedy does not have the last word. This is the second consideration the ending invites. We cannot stop with how the poem realizes loss. In the angel's disappearance there may be the appearance of the very knowledge that he is to mediate-the knowledge of the relation between what we can see if we destroy the shape of meanings and what we can hear because we recognize the tragic dimension that this shape has come to constitute. Perhaps then, at the ending, the poem itself actually functions as angel-both referring to and becoming a real instance of what can be realized as present when one is prepared to break from one's defenses and recognize how transient the realization of our values has to be. The lugubrious themes can be treated lightly because there remains a path to the angel based on how it stages its own disappearance. This path invites the reader to accept that transience so fully that all of the reader's efforts to make the world real can be framed within it. The encounter with loss itself becomes a partially positive condition because it is manifest as the precondition for appreciating how the angel of reality can speak as first person-indeed has to speak as first person because the speaking itself becomes a dance echoing Yeats's "Among School Children" where being, appearing, and disappearing are inseparable from one another. As Stevens put it in a slightly different context, "the physical never seems newer than when it is emerging from the metaphysical" (L 595). The lightness of being in this poem celebrates its metaphysical capacity to recuperate the tragic sense and make it a condition for understanding how reality is a matter of subtlety and not substance (see CPP 750). Subtlety is a matter of finding the angel in the very processes of becoming and transforming by which its reality and its powers of de-realization become one state.

Now the back story of the that painting became a poem comes into affective play for those familiar with it. Stevens has transformed a still life into a dramatic scene in order to bring out two aspects of how this poem manifests an angel of reality rather than of the imagination. The first is the poem's staging of the importance of the maker as manifesting the power to adapt to the world of fact even as it transforms our sense of what contexts are necessary for this sense of realization. The second aspect then is the poem's capacity to articulate how the painting can be the instrument for eliciting an interpretive language stressing circulation and transformation. Even though the poet has transfigured the still life, the inspiration it provides offers a means of absorbing the worldliness of still life, so dear to Costello, into figures of the sociality that must provide the frame for such worldliness. The poem offers the angel as the boundary condition of that sociality. The angel expresses the force of what cannot be seen as substance, yet proves the precondition for recognizing how a society might be constituted by this fusion of the sense of the tragic and the sense of presence that this awareness of tragedy makes possible. What better figure of recognizing tragedy and recognizing what the angel can still provide in relation to tragedy than this French painting-from a culture now encountering after the war "something much more tragic than a literary panorama" (L 492).[5] Stevens has in effect realized that what this French still life shows about the passion for life in a time still riddled by the sense of death could itself not be articulated in a literary version attempting only to picture a still life. That conjunction of being and knowing requires dramatic allegory, and it teaches this poet, himself comfortable in his bourgeois accoutrements, how the tragic can be transfigured into the expressiveness of art.


So much for this poem as a particular aesthetic object. We now have to ask why Stevens might think it could provide a satisfying conclusion to The Auroras of Autumn? The answer has to reside in the way the poem handles the relation between the process of realization and the acknowledgment of the tragic as the affective awareness necessary for full appreciation of that process. To flesh out a concrete version of this answer, we have to go back to "Esthetique du Mal," a profoundly unsatisfying but also profoundly generative poem where Stevens clearly stretched himself beyond his lyrical comfort zone. This poem stands at the opposite pole from "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," which concludes the volume Transport to Summer with triumphant but familiar figures of heroic fluency. "Esthetique du Mal" is far more troubling in its uneasy engagement with the difficulty within modernity of telling one's desire from despair. For a typical critical response to the poem I cite Helen Vendler: "Esthetique" lapses from the general topic into "a more lyric examination of the evil most tempting for Stevens-the evil of nostalgia and self-pity, the appetite for sleek ensolacings-or worse a scholarly interest in his own pain" (207). But rather than add my own voice to the critical chorus, I suggest that we imagine Stevens himself worrying that the poem settles far too easily for lyrical resolutions to the tragic conditions it projects as necessary responses to a world at war.[6]

My evidence is the way the opening poems of the next volume, The Auroras of Autumn, return to the motifs of evil and of tragedy, but this time without quite relying on the lyrical effusions Stevens called upon toward the conclusion of the earlier poem. He seems to have felt that he had to engage these motifs yet once more in a way that evaded any temptation to reduce those phenomena to any thematic resolution proposed by the imagination. What might suffice had to be located more intimately within the very processes of how the imagination takes its stances toward the world.

"Esthetique du Mal" tried a fundamentally psychological approach to the poet's sense of the pressure of evil on any imaginative effort to establish fictions that might suffice for a satisfying life. The beginning shows the poet trying to create a protective shell that might insulate him from the pain elicited by observing historical events. But then how can one adequately engage that pain or speak for those who are unwilling or unable to protect themselves from it? More concretely, how prevent the poem from becoming an instance of the very problem of distance that brings it into being?

Stevens resolves "Esthetique du Mal" with a gorgeous hymn to the physical world, in the hope that this vehicle will provide a means of addressing "all the ill" (287) oppressing his society. But the problem of evil ultimately extends beyond that physical world to the human one-to the historical world and to the ways humans frame or fail to provide frames for the elements of that world. Stevens has to return to the issue of evil in "The Auroras of Autumn," but with a substantial difference. Now he is not content to provide an image of an observer. Rather he analyzes the terms of the observing as the speaker grapples directly with what seem the inherently figurative aspects of that physical world. The poet finds himself torn between the acts of looking at the auroras of autumn and reading the auroras for the analogies that they might suggest for the extraordinary violence of the War years. The poet does not want to turn the auroras into romantic symbols. But he wants in some way to recuperate the meditative space symbols provide by indulging in the temptation to draw affective analogues from what he sees.

The difference from "Esthetique" will be clear if we attend to how "The Auroras of Autumn" calls attention to its own efforts to create a bridge from seeing to interpreting. For the evil resides there, not in what the poem discovers so much as in what it suffers in securing any interpretation at all. At first the poem tries to be content with sheer seeing, or accepting a roughly empiricist attitude toward the scene. Six of the eight stanzas in the first poem begin with "this," the favorite empiricist expression because it promises the sufficiency of what can be observed in detail, with no irritable reaching after meaning or edification. But this feeling of distance, of constraining affective connection, also invites the very symbolic echoes that it seeks to repudiate. These are the last stanzas of the first section, where the figure of the serpent returns:

This is his poison: that we should disbelieve
Even that. His meditations in the ferns,
When he moved so slightly to make sure of sun,

Made us no less as sure. We saw in his head,
Black-beaded on the rock, the flecked animal,
The moving grass, the Indian in the glade. (355)

The serpent is not Satan, but the poet cannot not develop analogies for the fall, even as he tries to maintain the distance enabling sheer fascination with the objects of attention. Once the analogies start, the last stanza turns them into a rush of standard metaphors. One could treat this situation as a process of description flowering into metaphor, as in "Study of Two Pears." But I feel an uneasiness here, a sense that the metaphors are being asked to supplement a dissatisfaction with the effort to stabilize the night scene by selective description. In almost a parody of Hegel, "this" turns out to problematize the very empirical certainty it tries to secure. The mind is left with the distance from its own desires that is also a distance between the facts of observation and any sense that they embody a reality capable of making the observer's stance into a participant's.[7]

I stress the problems here because the next four sections involve elaborate elegies to what were the poet's trusted ideas, and perhaps an elegy to the faith in forming ideas of any kind. These sections can be seen as a farewell also to romantic treatments of landscape because sheer observation simply cannot satisfy the mind's needs as consciousness finds itself projecting into these violent and sublime eruptions in the night sky. After the elegiac spirit forces the poet to a somewhat sentimental fantasy for restoring what imaginative force he can to maternal and paternal roles, sections five and six turn from the effort at sheer observation to treating the auroras in grand theatrical terms. However, this ironically brings the sublimity of the auroras too close to what in recent historical events has challenged reason all too successfully. The speaking voice turns to a self-abnegating figure for the fear he now feels. It seems as if entering this theatricality risks surrendering all boundaries providing "the frame / Of everything he is" (359). There must be another possible path. Section VII proposes a shift from unwieldy theatrics to the sleek consolations of the gay ironist. Now the auroras can be given their innocence, their pure naturalness not sullied by the demands of sheer observation. Yet this produces the poem's most disturbing social position because the price of pursuing this innocence is denying the modes of consciousness that distinguish humans from other beings. This claim to innocence cannot but stir memories of what the serpent once did. It destroyed paradise, but it also created the possibility of deep compassion, sponsoring a renewed dedication to labor on what had become an entirely historical stage.

The ninth section of the poem desires both innocence and the social compassion that in Christian mythology (and Hegelian phenomenology) comes only after the fall. I cite the first and last stanzas of this section to dramatize how Stevens tries to use the sensuality of language as an instrument for producing a belief to which the analytic mind will not yield:

And of each other thought-in the idiom
Of the work, in the idiom of the innocent earth,
Not of the enigma of the guilty dream.
It may come tomorrow in the simplest word,
Almost as part of innocence, almost,
Almost as the tenderest and the truest part. (362)

Only when one hears the hesitations informing these lines will one fully appreciate the abrupt yet fairly quiet transition to a much more abstract mode of thinking in the final section:

An unhappy people in a happy world-
Read, rabbi, the phrases of this difference.
An unhappy people in an unhappy world-

Here thinking becomes theatrical, literally calling for the rabbi to take the stage and perform something that can compensate for the loss of the Christian mythology in the background of this poem. The result is a striking gulf between the imperative, "Now, solemnize the secret syllables . . . to contrive a whole" and the reality of this particular imagined rabbi's individual meditation:

In these unhappy he meditates a whole,
The full of fortune and the full of fate,
As if he lived all lives, that he might know,

In hall harridan, not hushful paradise,
To a haggling of winter and weather, by these lights
Like a blaze of summer straw in winter's nick. (363)

Stevens wants a stance that can adapt to this late autumn reality without feeling trapped by the demands to rest content with languages of observation. To achieve that, he has to extend the domain of perception so that it has social implications, or, less abstractly, so that it can at least be responsive to this unhappiness within a happy world without replacing hall harridan by a fantasized "hushful paradise." But to accomplish that here, he has to rely on a quite romantic image, not unlike Eliot's "midwinter-spring" that opens "Little Gidding." The scene for meditation tries to make up in intricacy of sound for what it abstracts away from any actual sense of contact with the sources of unhappiness. More important, and more devastating, "know" is hauntingly intransitive and "whole" disturbingly vague. Whatever release here from the serpent's poison is at best tenuously poised on the cusp of becoming another idea to which one must say farewell. The rabbi cannot do much for an unhappy people in any kind of world.

This introductory poem imposes several burdens on the volume. We have seen the most important-it manifests a need to read its own range of attitudes so that the poet and the audience can hear their inadequacies and recognize as temptation what had in the past provided lyric satisfaction. Although Stevens breaks from the thematized introspection of "Esthetique du Mal," his effort to deal explicitly with the unhappy world as an objective condition again risks collapsing into lyrical gestures that do not provide significant extension into the actual world. Yet here at least Stevens makes the extraordinary gesture of beginning a volume with a long poem so that he can acknowledge the difficulties of dealing with the topic of evil. It is true that he might have decided to begin this way simply to balance the volume by providing separation from its other longer poem, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven." But I think Stevens also wanted the initial shock of refusing any of the satisfactions of the short lyric because he wants a measure of their inadequacy in dealing with the recurrent motif of tragedy and the tragic. Opening with a long poem, especially a poem that also gives the volume its title, helps cast the short lyrics that follow as aspects of continuing meditations rather than isolated gems offered for the reader's delectation. That decision makes it seem that aesthetic criteria simply will not suffice for these poems: these poems must be difficult, in large part because they can be only "parts" of an endless effort to resist the satisfactions of traditional lyricism. The poems cannot rest in the fiction of a happy world, or in the gestures by which the rabbi manages to find contentment in the unhappy one.

Two of these lyrics in particular sharpen Stevens' sense of the continuing demands on the imagination to deal with the fact and the ramifications of evil. "The Novel" measures the adequacy of prose fiction "in a bad time." Here identification with the characters produces only "a knowledge cold within as one's own":

And one trembles to be understood and, at last,
To understand, as if to know became
The fatality of seeing things too well. (392)

"The Bouquet" provides a devastating summary of what still life can become under the new dispensation, where seeing simply cannot overcome the distance that is both source and result of our awareness of a pervasive unhappiness. Just the length of the poem suggests how difficult it is to create the illusion that by poetry one can supplement the eye and bring a sense of the real to what registers on the eye. Then the poem's final section attempts to perform literally what Costello claims the previous still lifes have done, bring into poetry a sense that imagination can inhabit the actual world. But neither still life nor the lyric has the necessary resources:

A car drives up. A soldier, an officer,
Steps out. He rings and knocks. The door is not locked.
He enters the room and calls. No one is there.

He bumps the table. The bouquet falls on its side.
He walks through the house, looks round him and then leaves.
The bouquet has slopped over the edge and lies on the floor. (387)

Each short indicative sentence could be what for Eliot becomes "the last twist of the knife," eloquent in its refusal to be absorbed within the lyrical imagination. There is only the serpent's poison of description without analogy.


It is one thing to notice a pervasive uneasiness in the volume, another to explain it. Here I can only propose to account for one feature of that uneasiness. I think Stevens realizes that there is a dangerous conjunction between the distance demanded by the culture's epistemic ideals of description and by the aesthete's ways of composing a present tense isolated from past and future (or from felt history and possibility). He thought he could build the aesthetic order on the possibility of replacing matter by manner and description by imaginative participation in the flux of experience. Although the contrast between description and participation does establish a distinctive value for "the edgings and inchings of final form," that emphasis on epistemological differences cannot account for the painful quality of those processes. To address this pain, Stevens had to examine what might block even the imagination from grasping its own historical situation. He needed to explore in what ways imagination may be complicit in one mode of evil and then to see how he might reconstitute his projections so that he could foster an imagination capable of taking responsibility for this complicity and so working toward a different mode of self-consciousness.

One way to clarify what was at stake is to reflect on one particular generalization that seems to me to summarize how "Esthetique du Mal" haunts the poems that follow it: "The death of Satan was a tragedy / For the imagination." On one level, this statement refers simply to the fact that once Satan dies the imagination is no longer free to attribute evil to the machinations of a metaphysical personage. The imagination must face the possibility that evil is not caused by an outward agency: evil is simply an aspect of the secular world that neither needs nor invites the poet's supplements. But another possible meaning cuts deeper and honors the care with which Stevens uses the term "tragedy." The death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination because we now know that the imagination is often culpable in such evil. There is the simple but elemental fact that as the imagination turns to its home in romance, it theatricalizes evil and ignores the ways that evil is embedded in quotidian practices. Those thinkers and writers who rely on fleshing out imaginative scenarios might in fact miss those locales of evil that the mind and the ordinary human will might have the power to address.

This concern for evil embedded in quotidian practices will obviously not address all evil. But it might help to foster distinctions that enable writers to separate what they can address as sources and effects of evil from what only produces fantastic modes of explanation, each with a story of heroes and victims that is likely to miss what most humans can in fact control. To clarify what I mean, I suggest that we distinguish between three basic kinds of evil. The first two inflict the greatest harm, but that magnitude dwarfs any effort by writers to do anything but register and mourn the sufferings created. First we can isolate gross collective suffering from phenomena, which it is impossible to attribute to particular human agents. Ultimately this class comprises all the factors that we attribute to the sheer facts of mortality and contingency-to what Satan cost in provoking the expulsion from Paradise. The second category consists of evil that is clearly attributable to weaknesses or excesses in specific human agents and associations of agents. This class extends from cases of particular persons who will to wreak havoc to cases where agency is more diffuse but no less active, for example, in places where people persecute others for reasons of race, class and religion.

Classical writing thrived in such circumstances because it could identify with the suffering and intensify it by emphasizing the social costs for all the participants. But with the shift to romantic values and the centrality of first person stances, it became increasingly difficult to find writerly stances that could engage these modes of suffering: Tolstoy would have to yield to Dostoyevsky. As self-conscious subjectivity is foregrounded, writers become uncomfortable in identifying with victims, however heroic or however pathetic the victimage. For the writer in the writing feels tempted to two unfortunate alternatives-lapsing into self-aggrandizing self-pity or calling upon powers of moral judgment to change conditions even though it cannot be sure what authority sustains such moral judgments. In both cases it seems that the writer and the writing stand apart from the evils it represents, and the writer's role becomes an imaginary substitute for impotence. If only one could believe that Satan exists, figuratively if not literally, then the author could postulate agency behind the evil and could stage powerful dramas of freeing itself from complicity-Stanley Fish's version Surprised by Sin comes to mind. Once we believe Satan is dead, tragedy seems almost as much a product of the rhetorician's imagination as it is a condition to which the writer is trying to respond.

This is why it is important for writers such as Stevens to postulate a third kind of evil where writers can imagine their presentations making a difference in how an audience might behave. In these cases, one must begin by admitting that such audiences are for the most part not responsible for the major evils in the world. But they are responsible for how they develop or fail to develop modes of attention and of recognition that affect the quality of social life. They are responsible for how they engage with those who suffer from the more dramatic forms of evil. Here the writers do have significant power to affect how self-consciousness gets deployed. For Stevens at least, the poet could try to model or demonstrate ways of resisting the temptation to treat self-consciousness as a mode of protective distance from both the weaknesses of the agent and the reality of the suffering experienced by others. He could show how debilitating this sense of distance is, in part because it is so intimate and fundamental a structure governing how we process a wide range of experiences.

Stevens' critique of description brings him quite close to Stanley Cavell's magisterial analysis of how skepticism can be located as the deep cause of much of this distance, and especially of modern thought's comfort with this distance.[8] Skepticism cultivates doubt and forces most of its opponents into stark empiricist claims that jettison all trust in psychological labors. There is only the subject apart from the world, a condition that elicits fantasies of revenge on that very world that will not accord with our fantasies. But Stevens gradually saw that skepticism was only part of the problematic heritage for modernist culture. The very aesthetic attitudes that were developed by romanticism to re-enchant the world now had become strangely conjoined with the very forces of disenchantment. For aesthetic attitudes also insisted on a distance from the world, a difference that was necessary for the labors of formal intelligence. He increasingly became insistent on working out how his poems might become parts of the world, parts of the very flux from which the speaker of "Esthetique du Mal" seeks his distance.

In other words, Stevens increasingly felt that he had not only to resist romanticism but to resist the temptation to treat all values on a romantic model. Therefore, he could not share a Cavellian missionary enthusiasm preaching a change in belief: therapeutic ambitions on that level only reinforced the fiction that values were set by beliefs rather than by the dispositional qualities affecting how we attend to what the world might present at any given moment. The sense of distance he worries about is rarely a matter of will and even more rarely is responsive to any kind of talking cure. That indeed is why poetry might actually make a difference, or at least why Stevens' poetry might make a difference by converting substance into subtlety. For this poetry does not seek the kind of understanding that might shape our principles. Rather it tries to engage dispositions by modeling how thinking moves and how thinking might have internal modifications that give different kinds of affects a presence they might not otherwise have. Poetry can keep open the rift between fact and reality, and it can explore the feelings and filiations possible when analogy works to fuse the metaphysical to the physical. As Stevens put it in discussing the angel of reality, "reality and contact with it are the great blessings."


Stevens' fullest response to the crisis of distance occurs in many of the poems in The Rock. Consider an especially acute and concise overcoming of distance in "An Old Man Asleep," the poem that introduces the volume. The poem opens with a scene of dumb sense where "The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping now" in "a kind of solemnity" (427). Then it focuses on the sleeper, offering a simple poem of reconciliation to old age:

The self and the earth-your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R. (427)

In order to appreciate the full resonance of that simplicity, we have to see how the poem comes very close to representing the man as one of "The Things of August." Yet the poet manages to give the sleeping person a psychology that on the most elemental level fully transforms fact into "reality." That is why the poem moves from "asleep" to "are sleeping," why the sleeping is attributed to an elemental relation between self and earth, and why there is such smooth transition between that general condition and the terms of direct address: "your thoughts, your feelings . . ." It is as if the poem found a level of being where the condition of address and the condition of description were almost identical. Although those conditions are fundamentally related, they are diametrically opposed. Description here provides the fact of the matter. Something else, something carried in the play on sounds and play of perspective, provides access to the reality of the scene, to its being irreducibly inhabited by a particular person's "peculiar plot." Seen descriptively, this plot consists largely of simply sleeping. But considered in terms of how the situation is represented, the scene pulses with the investments the sleeper still makes in his world.

How otherwise can we explain the resonance of "drowsy" in this poem? The addition of "drowsy" to the repetition of "river motion" provides a little climax in relation to the poem's use of address, because even when the self is reduced almost to the object, it can elicit something excessive and at least somewhat distinctive. Here I have to admit that the distinction is mostly on the level of sound, since the ow sound in "drowsy" so picks up and extends the o's in the line that it takes the line itself beyond description to an affirmation of peculiar presence. But once we see how "drowsy" operates, all of the markers of possession become resonant reminders of the difference between a simple body asleep and a subject sleeping as one of the possible actions still left that it can possess. Agency itself seems something that we can recognize and honor simply by accepting the minimal yet completely expansive shift that occurs when something compels us to move from description to address.

The Stevens of The Auroras of Autumn was not quite ready or willing to project this calm winning of elemental dignity from an awareness of the pressures of mortality. This Stevens was still caught in an uneasy struggle to tease out a more general and reflective stance toward tragic necessity. Looking backward from The Rock may be the best way to appreciate the enormous pressure the motif of distance creates for "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," the poem most fully summarizing how Stevens has been able to go beyond the contradictory movements of "Esthetique du Mal." Vendler makes my job considerably easier because she offers extended (and superb) commentary on how the poem works variations on its first line, "The eye's plain version is a thing apart" (285-88). All I need to point out is how part of that meditation involves Stevens' finally resolving a basic tension in his other long poems written in the 1940s. There he seems torn between still imagining an argumentative sequence where the poem arrives at some discovery, stated imagistically, and developing a mode where the resolution consists simply in coming to accept the poem's ways of circulating. "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" goes a long way toward resting within the processes of constant transformation as the mind attunes itself to the constant possibilities of what is seen. For the mind there simply is never "the eye's plain version": "The eye does not beget in resemblance. It sees. But the mind begets in resemblance as the painter begets in representation; that is to say as the painter makes his world within a world" (689). Where there is a mind working there is an "as," more or less suppressed. Even plainness is not a condition of the object but primarily an attribute of the seeing. Objects are always more or less plain, so they are necessarily related to needs or desires that contextualize the seeing as well as affording various possibilities of further realization.[9]

Stevens' first essay in "Three Academic Pieces" emphasizes how poetry's work with resemblance "enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it" (691). He is not explicit about how that intensified sense of reality might be inseparable from a tragic awareness of the instability of such satisfactions. But I think the connection is not difficult to make. Where there is constant resemblance, and so constant transformation, there is also always playing out the drama of mortality. If it is the case that "there is not grim / Reality but reality grimly seen" (405), then "tragedy" becomes "tragically." The adverb is in constant interplay with other attitudinal modifiers. A lesser thinker than Stevens might conclude that therefore modern thinking has reduced tragedy to one of many dispositions. But the shift to seeing things "grimly" does not at all banish thinking shaped by considerations of tragedy. It only entails seeing tragedy as also fundamentally a part of the world, always potentially fused with other frameworks, just as resemblance is always a mix between deconstruction and construction. Reality as a force becomes inseparable from the shade it traverses:

And something of death's poverty is heard.
This should be tragedy's most moving face.

It is a bough in the electric light
And exhalations in the eaves, so little
To indicate the total leaflessness. (407)

Even this total leaflessness frames the light and a sense of the exhalation it gives. The reminder of mortality is also a coming to terms with it by using the reminder as a metaphysical light allowing the qualities of the physical world to manifest themselves in their particularity.

In theory there remains only the need to let the metaphysical exhale in the background, leaving the foreground to the figures of dwelling in the great last poems. But this solution is not yet quite available for The Auroras of Autumn. Therefore Stevens follows "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" by two concluding poems. The first, "Things of August," is a poem of lament rather than of celebration. Here when things lose their metaphysical aura, as things have a tendency to do in August, even transformation becomes "exhausted and little old" (422). But this exhaustion brings substantial vitality to two qualities emphasized by giving the final place in the volume to "Angel Surrounded by Paysans." The first is the poem's playfulness, its capacity to insist on a metaphysical dimension to the earth's becoming, while, as poetry, it naturalizes the metaphysical by making it an extension of the imagination's irreducible capacity to escape the lugubrious and the pious. The second is its remarkable ability to insist on a series of transformations that dramatize that very power to resist exhaustion. The painting transforms a still life into poetry, and the poetry manages to make the vitality Stevens celebrates in Tal-Coat's painting intensely visible by a second transformation into a dramatic scene presenting a brief and enigmatic narrative. Perhaps so reducing the narrative allows Stevens a new blend of concreteness and abstraction where he does not have to represent these concrete transformations but can concentrate on composing a figure for the vitality of constant transformation. Perhaps "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" takes pride of place in its volume because that concreteness there is most intimately rendered as aspects of processes that have little to do with the shaping of arguments and the forging of beliefs. Pride of place here is given to the poem that most fully blends the appreciation of realization with a sense of inevitable suffering that is belied by any abstract formulation.

Finally, I suspect that this poem for Stevens works another transformation of distance, this time on a much larger cultural scale. In 1945 Stevens wrote sympathetically to Paule Vidal, "At the moment, France is something much more tragic than a literary panorama" (L 492). Stevens might have seen Tal-Coat's "display of imaginative force" attempting "to attain reality purely by way of the artist's own vitality" as illustrating a will to significance born in this sense of tragic exhaustion and capable of incorporating it within a more capacious sense of life. This still life comes to exemplify, in the poem's address to the "paysans," the one explicit French touch in the poem, how the serpent and the angel might be one. In that process, the poem made of that still life can testify to an intricate and delicate wit in the face of suffering that the poet had always attributed to the France that commanded his fascination. Or, as Stevens put in "Imago" a few years later in a poem about all of post-war Europe:[10] 19

Lightly and lightly, O my land,
Move lightly through the air again. (377)

University of California, Berkeley


Works Consulted


Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Costello, Bonnie, "Planets on Tables: Still Life and War in the Poetry of Wallace

Stevens," Modernism/Modernity 12 (2005): 443-458

Eliot, T.S.

Filreis, Alan "Beyond the Rhetorician's Touch," American Literary History (Spring

1992: 230-63.

..., .. . "Still-life without Substance: Wallace Stevens and the Language of

Agency," PoeticsToday 10 (1989): 345-46. [345-72

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin.

Lawder, Bruce, "Poetry and Painting: Wallace Stevens and Pierre Tal-Coat, " Word and

Image (18): 348-56

Longenbach, James, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford

University Press, 1991.

Maeder, Beverly, Wallace Stevens' Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Mulhall, Stephen ed. The Cavell Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Richardson Joan, and Frank Kermode, eds. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose.


Vendler, Helen, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems. Cambridge Mass.:

Harvard University Press, 1969.

Yeats, William Butler.


[1] 1 Holly Stevens, ed., The Letters of Wallace Stevens ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966):595. For this citation and for her extraordinary generosity and support I want to thank Anne Luyat. For example she points to a letter (L 655) where Stevens says to Paule Vidal that "it is obvious this picture is the contrary of everything one would expect in a still life." How could Stevens not then try out a different genre in his attempt to mediate on what the foregrounded "vigor of the artist" might imply about how art can engage a distinctively modern reality? And she suggests that the transformation of genre here indicates how Tal-Coat has opened Stevens to the possibility of a metaphysical path for evaluating why this foregrounded activity by the artist might matter in the actual world.

[2] Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, p. 397. I will cite this work hereafter as CPP within my text.

[3] In addition to the essays I mention below, I found helpful on the poem, especially on the presence of Wordsworth and Whitman in the poem, Bruce Lawder, "Poetry and Painting: Wallace Stevens and Pierre Tal-Coat." Lawder also gives a fine, sophisticated account of Tal-Coat's career.

[4] On page 477 Costello defines "megalography" as presentation on a grand scale while "rhopography" is "mediation on small scale decorative and domestic objects" or "low plane reality."

[5] The rarely noticed poem "Imago" (CPP 377) is more elaborate on this point, and so close in spirit to "Angel" that it supports my desire to see them both as dealing fundamentally with how poetry can deal with the tragic. "Imago" is even explicit on the role of the lightness that I think is the central feature of "Angel." But "Angel" makes lightness a property of the action rather than a lyrical motif.

[6] See for slight evidence of Stevens' own dissatisfaction LWS, 472.

[7] No wonder the next stanzas enact an ascetic turn from three basic ideas of how the observer might be participant-from the Cezannian sense of that there can be a visibility of the visible satisfying to the imagination, from fantasies of union with the mother, and even from the illusion of patriarchal mastery forced to accommodate the world of observation by saying "yes to no," and so saying farewell to any satisfaction even in the acts of observation.

[8] The Cavell Reader, Stephen Mulhall, ed., (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) succinctly explores the many ways Cavell engages the consequences of skepticism.

[9] Notice how section IX in particular resolves the tension between particularity and generality in "Auroras" by insisting that "We seek/ Nothing beyond reality. Within it,/ Everything, the spirits alchemicana / Included" (CPP 402) see also end of XXVII. I have written on how "Ordinary Evening" enacts what it asserts in Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 343-47.

[10] Even though this poem refers to England and Germany as well as France, it is not difficult to think that France is what most elicits this ending.