Although Harmonium, Wallace Stevens’ first book of poetry contains the much more famous and enigmatic “Anecdote of the Jar,” my favorite poem in this section of Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose is “The Paltry Nude Starts On A Spring Voyage,” an elegant poem which uses
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as a contrast to the very different nude portrayed in his poem.
THE PALTRY NUDE STARTS ON A SPRING VOYAGE
But not on a shell, she starts,
Archaic, for the sea.
But on the first-found weed
She scuds the glitters,
Noiselessly, like one more wave.
She too is discontent
And would have purple stuff upon her arms,
Tired of the salty harbors,
Eager for the brine and bellowing
Of the high interiors of the sea.
Wind speeds her,
Blowing upon her hands
And watery back.
She touches the clouds, where she goes
In the circle of her traverse of the sea.
Yet this is meagre play
In the scurry and water-shine,
As her heels foam—
Not as when the goldener nude
Of a later day
Will go, like the center of sea-green pomp,
In an intenser calm,
Scullion of fate,
Across the spick torrent, ceaselessly,
Upon her irretrievable way.
The ironically humorous phrase in the title, “paltry nude” sets the tone for the rest of this poem. Modern nudes certainly can’t hold up to the sumptious, voluptous nudes of the golden days of the past, can they? I guess that must say something about our modern view of ourselves.
Even the opening line reminds me of “oyster on the half shell” rather than Botticelli’s idealized Venus. That’s not to say, though, that Steven’s lines don’t convey their own beauty, particularly in phrases like “She scuds the glitters,/ Noiselessly, like one more wave.” This is a “real” nude, described (almost) realistically. At least the sea itself is described realistically, though it would, indeed, be a paltry nude that could withstand the rigors of “the brine and bellowing/ Of the high interiors of the sea.”
The real “point,” if one wishes to push a point, which Stevens doesn’t seem in much of a hurry to do, is made in the last two stanzas where this modern nude is compared to Botticelli’s elegant Venus. Of course, Stevens is right when he, in accord with modern tastes, points out that Venus seems to be the “center of sea-green pomp,” and “pomp” probably had as even more negative connotation in the 30’s when this poem was published than it would have today.
Of course, the politically incorrect “Across the spick torrent” raises even more questions about what Stevens is trying to say, though it certainly sounds like a disparaging comment.
Not uncharacteristically, the poem leaves us uncertain of Stevens’ attitude toward his subject, though certainly questioning our own views of art and beauty more than before we read the poem.