Reading Fluidities of Self and Being

19 Dec

For Wallace Stevens, reading is the core activity and metaphor for the fluidity of self. Being and perception constitute each other in “an unremitting interchange with the clear universe of things”[1] in the quiet of night, calm and often sombre. This is the essential liminal moment and site, the juncture by which Stevens examines the metaphoric nature of perception and the permeability of being and becoming. His greatest poems are meditations on the expansive subjectivity of reading. That is, they are meta-figures for his encounter with each of his readers forever and for everyone’s encounter through perception and figuration with life. Reading is for him a metaphoric gateway to eternity and the medium for all complementarities, like individual and community to merge. In this way his works are an extended meditation on and elaboration of the issues examined by Shelley’s meditations on being, metaphor and flux in “Mont Blanc” noted above.

Most of Stevens’ poems explore these fundamental issues of perception, being and becoming. A handful focus explicitly on the quiet transformations that occur in the process of reading whose figurative senses suffuse, dissolve and extend the act. For present purposes, I will consider “The Reader,” “The House was Quiet, and the World was Calm” and the posthumously published “A Quiet Normal Life.”[2]

In his core works, reading  for Stevens is an engagement with time as seasonal process, including the passage of aging, and with eternity, often figured as the night sky. Night, like reading, is more than itself: it is the dark stillness in which the interchange of perceiver and perceived, subject and object, time and timelessness occurs. ‘Reading’ and ‘night’ are the interface of exchange, the gateway of changes.

All night I sat reading a book, / Sat reading as if in a book / Of sombre pages. [R 1-3]

This is the essential Stevens: a familiar, meditative and homey scene is set and its simple language and import immediately are made strange and bearers of transformation. The playfulness is anchored by the implied darkness of night and mood. This is his rite. The book vanishes, and the reader’s engagement with the poem, and the poet’s with “the reader” become infinitely expansive and fluid.

The substance of “the reading” however is anchored in a particular time that is romantic and expressive in its terse evocation of mood  and dark meditation in the genre of night thoughts anchored in psalms 102 and 130 that “from the depths” is one with all those “longing for the dawn.” Of course, in the mid-2oth century, with the West’s experiment in hybrid identity entering its apocalyptic and elegiac stages, the Creator is displaced by the flux of being as it engages perception, becoming and a melancholy that threatens the vitalizing power of figuration. Stevens never embraces the shattering critique and renunciation of the image project as his forebear Shelley does in “The Triumph of Life” (1822) though he does broach the breakdown directly in “The Plain Sense of Things,” a stripping of veils whose bleakness surfaces briefly from the beginning in various tonalities.[3]

The site of change is night, “it was autumn” and a ruined, “leafless garden” of “shrivelled forms” set the mood of dismay at the coldness of aging when, prompted by its analog in the annual cycle, “everything falls back to coldness” [R 4-9]. The identity of the voice that “was mumbling” is unspecified, it is part of the night, of all readers at night, in an autumn of “falling stars” when even the lavish alliteration and suggested sensuality of “the musky muscadines, melons and vermilion pears” negate their intoxicating and lush qualities to read a cold text. Indeed, along with other bushes, if bushes are intended, their “shrivelled forms crouched in the moonlight” like predators as Stevens’ pathetic fallacy blurs the line between vegetation and animal life just as reading, mumbling, thinking, aging and feeling diffuse through each other and the reader enters the book of mind, the primordial interface whose calm is truth; “the secret strength of things that governs [and constitutes] thought” [4] whose quiet is “part of the meaning, part of the mind” for “the truth, in a calm world… itself is calm, itself is summer and night, itself is the reader leaning late and reading there” [HQ 11-16]. Summer and winter alike can become context for “the access of perfection to the page” which is the calm of the reader’s consummation in reading and of his being and meditation with “the trace of burning stars in the frosty heaven” which also are the only print on “the sombre pages” [R 13-15].

Notable in “The Reader” is its evocation of the flow of seasons and life when ripeness yields to brittle coldness and dark. The stars are falling, likely an allusion to the flung down spears and fruitful weeping of the angels in Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” [5]. The garden is ruined, ominous in its ambiguous crouch. Yet “the sombre pages” that are the interface of mind, being and becoming, in the darkness of the ‘cave’ of imagination and perception ultimately are lit not by “falling stars” and grief but by “the trace of burning stars” that transform “the frosty heaven” from a sign of deathly chill to one of sparkling supernal clarity, part of the truth of the mind and aspiration of “the reader leaning late and reading there” [HQ 16]. Out of tears, brittle, shrivelling cold and gloom comes a hint of resurrection as in the fifth stanza of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” another poem of fall confronting winter; of an external storm that interfaces with internal passions, memories and hopes to look to spring in its manifoled potentiality.

“The House was Quiet” frees the reading interface more from the seasonality, albeit its locus in the calm warmth of a summer night, and more radically engages in the ‘unremitting interchange’ of subjectivity with “the clear universe of things around,” of being with becoming. Reading here is a metaphysic of infinite metamorphic fusion: “The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book” for “the summer night is like a perfection of thought.” The similes acknowledge the limits of identification and dissolution of being even as Stevens proceeds to assert that “the truth in a calm world… itself is calm, itself is summer and night, itself / Is the reader leaning late and reading there” in an attitude of prayer. Here is the confluence Shelley asserts in “Mont Blanc’s” opening stanza; here is the same stillness, the quiet and calm of night, as in the Talmudic meditation on weeping and prayer in which the reader becomes the book which itself is calm, is suumer and night” is “the truth in a calm world” in which “words were spoken as if there was no book” but the desire of a scholar for full realization of being.

The incantatory “quiet” (four repetitions in eleven verses) of this “access of perfection to the page” which bears the traces of words like stars, words whose meaning is desire for being, is a necessity of this quest: “The house was quiet because it had to be” [HQ 10]. A similar necessity of surrender, an end of life that yet is affirmation of light and the fusion of artifice and substance, of light, speaks from the late “A Quiet Normal Life.” It is night, a winter night; night and winter both have their imperatives and character, “gallant notions” to which the palpably old man’s “oldest and warmest heart was cut” as he becomes an inhabitant not of what he heas constructed which is “so frail, / So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught” that it is a world of snow like the nothing of “The Snow Man,” the perfect nothing and clarity of “The Poems of Our Climate.”

Yet Stevens never places himself with more physical certitude than in this poem “in his house, and in his room, / In his chair.” This is the place in which he grows old and “even the most tranquil thought grew peaked.” The calm now is not that of summer but winter and mortality in its last phase (he was dying of stomach cancer). But the cold is set not only in cutting contrast to the “warmest” diamond that is his heart: it itself is undercut by “the crickets’ chords, / Babbling each one, the uniqueness of its sound.” The self-deprecating “tootings at the weddings of the soul” in “one’s Sunday baths” [6] is recalled in this “shucks” to poetic aspiration which yet is unique, each cricket “babbling” an imperative that contrasts with the random but assertive motions of nature: “the leaves of the rhododendrons rattling their gold,” the wind throwing its contorted strength around the sky” in a release both spontaneous and inexorable as ejaculate, as a spring released [7]. Just as “the wheel” of a bluejay and the ‘wheel’ of radiance around the sun “survive the myths” made on their glory and seeming plenitude of truth, so, Stevens denies “transcendent forms” their fury to assert that oneness and identity of the actual and the image, the “flowers wrapped in yesterday’s newspapers” presented to the dawdling wenches are one with the memento mori that lets “be be finale of seem.” So Stevens makes his diminished self, cold and dying, an “Emperor of Ice Cream” both summer and winter as “his actual candle blazed with artifice” (QNL 15]. It is another of a recurring confessions of fundamental ignorance in its mute fertiility, “required as a necessity requires” that can “mate his life with life.. the sensual pearly spouse, the life / That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze. [8]. This fluency and consummation is the immortal flux of being, the candle that burns truly in its stream of artifice, sensual and luminous. Stevens ultimatelyl is more accepting and embracing of the espousal of life via the image, the sensual pearly spouse, albeit in the muteness of night and an end of metaphor than his master Shelley whose transformative hopes were so great could be. Imagery and artifice are not the antithesis of “the fury and the mire of human veins” but their spouse in a blaze of light and imperative of voice that at times seems “a repetition in a repetitiousness of men and flies” or merely the hardwired mindless of crickets in heat; but it is a path of grace, sensual in even the wintriest bronze [9].

1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1816), verses 1-11, 35-40 focus the issue

2. Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems (NY 1954; 1982), 146-7, 358-9, 523; “The Reader” [R]; “The House Was Quiet…” [HQ]; “A Quiet Normal Life” [QNL]

3. For example in works as disparate as “Domination of Black,” “Disillusionment at 10 O’Clock” and “The Man on the Dump.”

4. Shelley, “Mont Blanc” 134-44, the site of elemental and eternal interchange correlative of “the still cave of the witch poesy” in which the individual “human mind…renders and receives fast influencings” with the “everlasting universe of things.”

5. William Blake, Book of Experience (1794); Blake’s esoteric lyric, long thought to be irreducibly ambiguous likely is derived from his studies of Hebrew texts of many kinds (he depicts himself – Los, the imaginative descriptor — as a Hasid in an early plate of Jerusalem). The ulimate source of the intriguing lines, “when the stars threw down their spears / and watered heaven with their tears” is in a Talmudic discussion of the unique power of grief expressed in prayer and tears alone in the night, the precise condition of Stevens’ paradigmatic ‘readers’: “when one weeps at night, the stars and constellations weep along with him… in the night his voice is heard [on high] more readily than in the day.” Talmud tractate Sanhedrin, 104b elaborated by Maimonides in Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (“Foundations of Torah”), 3:9

6. Stevens, “The Sense of the Slight of Hand Man,” 1-2

7. ibid 3-8 passim

8. These last quotations, unless noted as [QNL] are from “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (1923) and “The Sense of the Slight of Hand Man,” 9-19

9. The last quotes are from Yeats, “Byzantium” and Stevens, “The Plain Sense of Things” 11-12, 20; the great pond of mind with “its waste of the lilies…inanimate in an inert savoir” still “has to be imagined. It is a necessity like the mating of life with life, required, an imperative of our being.


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