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Generally classified as modernist post-Romantic, Wallace Stevens’s poetry is principally a philosophical exploration of the self and its relation to the outside reality. The central theme which weaves through and patterns much of his poetry is a hypothetical exchange between the external world and the human imagination. That is, still largely held back by the Romantic tradition of poetic expression, Stevens showed a penchant for philosophical musings, especially as regards the connection between nature and the thinking subject. Under a thorough examination, however, his poetry does not qualify as exactly Romantic in its portrayal of imagination. While its philosophical aspirations draw existence from romantic idealism, by and large, Stevens’s oeuvre comes out distinctly, yet irregularly, indented under the pressures of existential anxiety characteristic of the early twentieth century.

Imagination as a subject of philosophical inquiry underwent a major transformation with the rise of Romanticism and transcendentalism. Plato’s “mimetic model of representation” was ousted by Immanuel Kant’s “transcendental model of formation”[1]. No longer a “mirror” that reflected some external reality but rather a “lamp” that projected its own light onto the surrounding world[2], its function switched from a mimetic to a productive one and it was invested with the quality of transcendence becoming “the immediate source of its own truth”[3]. In his first Critique, Kant asserted that “the a priori concepts of space and time are only creatures of the imagination, the origin of which must really be sought in experience”[4]. For Kant, the world was not divorced from human consciousness needing to be mediated into perception by means of imagination; rather, imagination was the ultimate, transcendental source of all human experience and knowledge.

This romantic optimism was later stifled by the advance of existentialism, which ultimately toppled Kant’s imagination from its transcendental heights back down to earth, shattering it to a mere nothingness[5]. Friedrich Nietzsche, a leading existentialist figure, exposed human creativity as pure “will to power” [6]  in an absurd and meaningless world grounded only in a desire for truth—not truth itself[7]. Truth, he declared, is “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms”[8] constructed by man as “an artistically creative subject”[9]. Imagination for him was neither mimetic nor productive but simply delusory. At last, tracing echoes of Kant and Nietzsche in Stevens’s poetry is an attempt to accurately locate the origins of his imagination amidst the dialectic tensions of modern philosophy.

In a pronounced alignment with the idealist “lamp” metaphor, Stevens’s imagination generally seeks to project its own, subjectively generated meaning onto nature in an effort to order the disorderly universe. In “The Idea of Order at Key West” the line “The song and water were not medleyed sound” articulates the fundamental problem of the relation between humanity and nature[10]—the impossibility of concurrence, as the voice sings beyond but not with the sea[11]. This basic condition of non-referentiality accords autonomous power to human imagination. Seeing that the singer does not derive meaning from the sea as something pre-existent but rather is shown to confer mental significance on nature, the poem crucially sustains Kant’s assertion that “the order and regularity in appearance, which we entitle nature, we ourselves introduce[12]. The voice in the poem “portions out the sea,” “arranges” the night, “utters” the world “word by word,” giving human expression to the inhuman and therefore unintelligible “speech of air” and sound of water that “never formed to mind or voice.” There is therefore a sense of complementarity between the singer’s “rage to order” and “the chaotic world that demands words to describe it”[13]. Evidently, the poem is meant as a kind of Romantic celebration of the mastery of the human mind over nature.

Similar to the Key West singer, the speaker in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” is presented as “the compass of [the] sea.” Akin to a measuring device, his experience derives not from an extraneous materiality but from his own interpretive powers. To “What was the ointment sprinkled on by beard?” the answer comes later: “Out of my mind the golden ointment rained.” Here, the mind does not perform a mimetic function, infinitely generating copies of a world seemingly beyond it in the Platonic sense, but rather artistically produces a rendition of the chaotic world impervious to reason, a world invested with meaning after the creative act.

This “a priori” function of imagination[14], its antecedence to experience and understanding, is what one also encounters in “Of the Surface of Things:”

From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
“The spring is like a belle undressing.”

The world is initially “beyond” the speaker’s comprehension. He has to artistically and linguistically encode the randomness of nature into “The spring is like a belle undressing” to make sense of the view from the balcony. This also serves as a commentary on the poetic imagination and poetry itself. Unlike the classics who believed in the mimetic role of language, Stevens, in keeping with Kant’s philosophy, advocates its productive power. Poetry in this sense is not mere articulation or even beautification of an autonomous external world. Quite the opposite: it embodies a reality of its own making. If anything, Stevens challenges the reader to immerse in the artistic reservoir of his poetry as “the immediate source of its own truth”[15], not as a vessel of meaning catering to those in need of a surer grasp on reality.

That any experience is possible in the first place because of the creative capacity of the human mind is perhaps a theme more evident in “The Snow Man” than in any of his other poems. “One must have a mind of winter,” the speaker straightforwardly declares, to experience anything like it: the sight of “the frost and the boughs,” “the January sun,” “the sound of the wind.” One might be confused as to whether the poem draws a mental picture of winter or describes as it were an actual bodily exposure to the wintery cold. But, ultimately, the poem is not about what it represents. It is the totality of images, sounds, and sensations that it invokes that count, that pull the reader into the scenery and into the snow, deep into the poet’s imagination. Reality is in the imagination is what it seems to say. In this and the other poems, meaning is projected through the artistic medium of the human mind onto things. In this manner Stevens follows in the footsteps of Kant and other transcendental philosophers.

But imagination was not merely a projection for the Romantics; it was the ultimate source of truth, transcending the worldly materiality and transporting the subject into a state of spiritual perceptiveness. And while Stevens did not indulge in the idea of divine revelation, his long poem “Sunday Morning” for instance attesting to his belief in the finitude of the human mind and experience, he nonetheless celebrated the supremacy of the imagination: “Imagination is the value by which we project the idea of god into the idea of man… Imagination is the only genius”[16]. Therefore, his lyric is above all a celebration of the productive, generative power of creative thought, in spite of its earthly limitations. In “Key West,” for instance, the speaker expresses his fascination with the imaginative capacity of the mind to “order words of the sea” and make “the sky acutest at its vanishing”—that is, to “transform the given appearances of things,” to refer back to Kant[17]. The thinking subject is presented as an “artificer of the world” as she sings that world into a mental existence. In a similar fashion, the speaker in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” thinking brings to life the sunset and the rain and the “buzzing hymns” and comes to embody “the world in which [he] walk[s].” Reality is likewise interiorized in the ending lines of “On the Surface of Things:”

The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.

In prose, the “singer” pulls a metaphoric cloak over his head capturing the moon within the folds of his imagination. This act signifies not just the process of creative thinking but the everyday interaction of men with their environment, which is always automatically filtered through the imagination. Ultimately, what makes the world comprehensible for Stevens is the ingenuity of the human mind as he was apt to illustrate through rich poetic imagery.

In spite of its artful assimilation of the tenets of idealism, however, Stevens’ poetry seems to have been somewhat affected by the contesting existentialist philosophy that was acquiring prominence in the interwar period. Under a close examination, the overall celebrative mood of his poems reveals an undercurrent of anxiety about the allegedly transcendental nature of the imagination. Notably, Nietzsche’s claim that we “impose upon chaos as much regularity and form as our practical needs require”[18] seems to resonate on a profound level in “Key West.” That is, while the poem explicitly commends the creative powers of the human mind, there appears to be an underlying fear that, to quote Nietzsche, “the will to truth” is “merely the desire for a world of the constant” (270)—that the “rage for order” is not a manifestation of a hungering imagination but an expression of a deep longing for meaning when faced with a meaningless universe. The choice of adjectives in the following fragments: “empty sleeves,” “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” “meaningless plunging of water and the wind,” “theatrical distances,” evinces a latent pessimism within the poem. The elements seem to engage in a “tragic-gestured,” inherently “meaningless” pantomime aiming to expose the futility of human striving in the global search for meaning, the uncertainty of the human condition, and ultimately the fallibility of the romantic belief in transcendence. The objective reality is “ever-hooded,” veiled by the human imagination, and the tragic figure of the sea conveys that what only one would find underneath is emptiness.  On this last note, what might be concluded about the poem is that occasional existential reveries threaten the romantic optimism that Stevens attempts to invoke and sustain throughout. Although it ends with a cheerful “Oh! Blessed rage,” it leaves a bitter aftertaste of existential insecurity.

The image of nothingness or emptiness is not unfamiliar to Stevens’s readers. “The Snow Man,” while it reads to the effect of seeming to triumph over its ability to “produce” winter in the mind, ends up questioning the nature of reality and human existence. The listener, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The multiple use of “nothing” and the play with negation in the last verse are an instance of nihilistic digression. From an exploration of human ingenuity Stevens’s poetic rambling lapses into the very abyss of existential doubt and uncertainty. Being amounts to nothing and the universe is but a white insipid void, a “bare place,” is the crushing conviction of the speaker. And as the symbolic whiteness of the snow engulfs a stray admirer, just so is the reader enveloped in the whiteness of the page and becomes “nothing himself” beholding “the nothing” that is human language: an “army of metaphors,” as Nietzsche once memorably defined it[19], creating an illusion of meaning when none is to be attained. This is then the function of poetry: to maintain that illusion with dignity in the face of abysmal absurdity.

“Palaz of Hoon,” another victim of anxiety, addresses the existential predicament of a speaker who declares to have found himself “more truly and more strange” in a world where objective reality is beyond his reach:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

The poem seems to address the existential crisis of the self as, through the imagination, it becomes divorced from—instead of reconciled to—truth and reality and is left in a state of self-estrangement. Here are evident the conflict and the fragmentation—primary characteristics of the existentialist imagination, contrasted against the totality and coherence of a transcendental self (Kearney 1988: 216). Nietzsche’s observation[20] that it is because the subject recognizes himself as artistically creative that he begins to experience deep angst also rings true in the context of the poem. Indeed, a certain anxiety and unease distinctly penetrate the ending lines. This is not however to claim that Stevens was consciously engaging in the philosophical tendencies of his time. The analysis merely shows that despite its idealist aspirations, history and the philosophical permutations it engendered left their exclusive mark on his otherwise distinctly post-Romantic oeuvre.

In the final analysis, the philosophical theory of imagination in Stevens’s work entails a theory of poetry itself. As Davidson has noted, for Stevens poetry is inherently philosophical because it reifies “problems of poetry itself”[21]. And indeed, his poems are considerably self-referential as they embody the artistic expression thematically engaged in the text. On several occasions the metafictional dimension of his poetry has been remarked upon. It only remains to bring the analysis to a conclusive point. In a transcendentalist manner, Stevens’s work declares itself subject to no reality outside of the text. Just as the song in “Key West” is an artistic product of the mind that exists on its own, unmoored to the physical shore of reality, poetry for Stevens is a creation in its own right. It does not mirror the external world in the Platonic sense but projects an internally generated light onto reality—it orders the chaotic world on its own terms. In this sense, it is “not so much descriptive of reality but is itself signifying”[22]. The poetic text brings reality into being through linguistic signification and the poetic imagination.

Under the influence of existentialism, however, his poems seem to be repeatedly arrested in their transcendental pursuits. Occasionally, the poetic spirit subsides reflecting on the futility of the same linguistic signification and the imagination itself: poetry as a “free-floating nothingness, pure will and desire”[23]. In this, it seems Stevens still manages to find a redeeming quality in creative writing (and reading): it builds an illusion of meaning which once recognized as an illusion can be guiltlessly applied to alleviate modern ailments: anxiety, dread, depression. As Kearney has put it, as long as it is “authentic to the extent that it acknowledges its illusions as illusions,” poetry may still “exult in the freedom of its own creativity”[24].

Certainly, the above analysis does not examine Stevens’s work en masse in light of the transcendental and existentialist theories of imagination. But while an attempt at generalization, it yet means to provide some practical insights into the relation of his poetry to modern philosophy.

[1] Kearney, R. (2003 [1988]). The Wake of Imagination. London: Routledge, p. 168.

[2] Ibid., p. 155.

[3] Ibid., p. 155.

[4] Kant, I. (1998 [1781]). Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 167.

[5] Kearney, R. (2003 [1988]), ibid.

[6] Nietzsche, F. (1968). The Will to Power, in W. Kaufmann (ed.). New York: Vintage books.

[7] Nietzsche, F. (1989 [1896]). On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, in S. L. Gilman, C. Blair & D.J. Parent (eds.) Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 246-257.

[8] Ibid, p. 250.

[9] Ibid, p. 252.

[10] Righelato, P. (1995). Wallace Stevens, in C. Bloom & B. Doherty (eds.) American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. London: Macmillan Press, p. 87.

[11] Ibid, p. 87.

[12] Kant, I. quoted in Kearney (1988), ibid., p. 171.

[13] Davidson, M. (2005). Philosophy and Theory in US Modern Poetry, in S. Fredman (ed.) A Concise Companion to Twentieth-century American Poetry. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, p. 233.

[14] Kant, I. (1998 [1781]), ibid, p. 167.

[15] Kearney, R. (2003 [1988]), ibid, p. 155.

[16] Stevens, W. quoted in Kearney (2003 [1988]), ibid., p. 186.

[17] Kant, I. quoted in Kearney (2003 [1988]), ibid., p. 173.

[18] Nietzsche, F. (1968), ibid., p. 278.

[19] Nietzsche, F. (1989 [1896]), ibid., p. 250.

[20] Ibid., p. 252.

[21] Davidson, M. (2005), ibid., p. 233.

[22] Righelato, P. (1995), ibid., p. 90.

[23] Kearney, R. (2003 [1988]), ibid., p. 212.

[24] Ibid., p. 213.

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Ecaterina Mazur

Ecaterina Mazur is an MA student of English Philology at Vilnius University. Her academic interests include modernist and postmodernist literature, with a special interest in absurdist fiction; animal critical theory and posthumanism.