Stevens’ Paltry Nude

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.


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.

12 thoughts on “Stevens’ Paltry Nude

  1. Could “spick” refer to “spick-and-span”? The term is apparently nautical in origin, a shortened form of “spick and span new”, referring to a brand new ship. A spick is a nail or spike and a span I think some form of chip. Although what that form might be I am not sure – a carpentry term?

    I have also read this poem in terms of seasons – the spring giving way to summer. Did Aphrodite emerge at a specific time of year, I wonder?

  2. I’m going with that interpretation because I like it better than the alternative, qb.

    “From WordNet (r) 1.7:
    adj : completely neat and clean; “the apartment was immaculate”; “in her immaculate white uniform”; “a spick-and-span kitchen”; “their spic red-visored caps” [syn: immaculate, speckless, spick-and-span, spicic-and-span, spic, spotless]

    It still seems unlikely to me, though, that Stevens wasn’t aware of the possible negative connotations of the word, especially from someone so sensitive to words.

  3. You awoke my curiousity so I looked around a bit at Wallace. He died in his 50’s, and was an insurance company exec — there’s chance he had never heard ‘spick’ used in a derogatory manner. But seamanly metaphors abound in Connecticut.

    Still, there’s another poem, which I like much and found at the Academy of American Poets — Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — that has strongly racial overtones:

    I was of three minds,
    Like a tree
    In which there are three blackbirds.

    The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds
    It was a small part of the pantomime.

    Doesn’t this sound like the black lynchings?

    Following from this, and other poems, could Wallace have subtly been talking about the Mexican people as servant to the upper class? “Scullion of fate”, “Across the spick torrent, ceaselessly upon her irretrievable way”.

    It just seemed to me there is subtle issues of race in all of Wallace’s poems, at least those at the Academy. But then, when one looks with a certain frame of mind, perhaps you see things that don’t exist.

  4. I don’t really know enough about Stevens’ life to make any real judgements about his attitude towards blacks, Hispanics, etc.

    I do know from my brief tour in the army that we on the West Coast are relatively naive about such prejudices. I was criticized by other army officers for running around with “Jewish” lawyers from New York , and, later, for spending hours playing chess with a black civilian who worked for the Red Cross.

    We are, after all, captives of our time, and place, and I suspect that the ongoing debate in blogdom over “queer” politics and its place in the university is a reflection of these kind of differences.

  5. Wallace Stevens, when he wrote Harmonium, was concerned with the relationship between reality and the imagination — not with social convention. His poetry, however descriptive of a world, is always driven by ideas … that is not to say he is without feelings. Stevens uses the imagination to “abstract” from the physical world in order to create his poetic world.

    The physical world, in early Stevens, is a ledger that shows the poverty of facts (hence the “paltry” in the title). It is the poet’s task to infuse meaning into this world stripped of the myths of gods. This, the poet does through the imagination.

    Anyway, the work of Stevens is complex … and his work is difficult to discuss in a comment such as this. Also, I am off to my younger son’s graduation from middle school…. One of my favorite poems from his volumes is “Sunday Morning,” which, if you want a very quick and superficial summary, is about living in a post-religious, mythless world in which the poverty of the world is plenty enough inspiration for the poet to give it back some soul. Here are those famous closing lines:

    Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
    Whistle about us their spontaneous cries:
    Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
    And, in the isolation of the sky,
    At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
    Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
    Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

  6. I’m not entirely sure that you’re wrong, Shelley. Intentionally or not, there are an awful lot of “politically incorrect” references in Stevens’ poems, politically incorrect enough that I’ve never seen them appear in high school anthologies.

    My only question is whether they were intentional slights or were merely accepted terms in Stevens’ society.

  7. Hi, Loren.

    fwiw, I don’t think Stevens means anything racist by “spick torrent”–I’m guessing the poem predates that use of the word “spick.”

    I have an OT comment to make, which I’ll hope you’ll delete. I’m loving your site and want to explore the archives thoroughly, but I’m having a problem with your interface. I can’t see the sidelinks at all unless I mouse over them, and then they disappear again. Also, I can’t find any links at all on your portal page.

    If this is a subtle rendering of the theme “the eye begins to see” then I feel foolish, but I thought perhaps this was a stylesheet quirk that’s only showing up in IE5 mac and that perhaps you didn’t know about it.

    Anyway, I don’t want this post to disrupt the discussion you have going, but I couldn’t find an email link to use instead….


  8. Unfortunately, it’s a quirk that I’m aware of but haven’t found a solution to, Lisa.

    It only happens on IE5 and OS X, and only recently updated OS X. It asked on my site and everyone else said it renders correctly, as it does with Safari and Camino..

    So far I haven’t been able to find a solution or even a clue as to what it causing the problem.

  9. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first entry for “spick” is “fat meat or bacon; fat, grease, lard.” So “spick torrent” could literally mean a torrent of grease. While this is an odd image, it fits with “Scullion of fate” from the previous line. A “scullion” is “A domestic servant of the lowest rank in a household who performed the menial offices of the kitchen; hence, a person of the lowest order, esp. as an abusive epithet.” In Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” Gareth is a “scullion,” and Lynette continually complains that he smells of “kitchen grease.” Here, Stevens seems to have picked up on the archaic senses of “spick” and “scullion,” which both go back to medieval times. The modern notion of sanitation was completely alien to the medieval kitchen; it truly was a place for the lowest servants to wallow in grease.

    I would guess that Stevens wants to contrast this group of associations with those of “purple” (royalty), “goldener,” and “pomp.”

    Still, “spick” has many other possible meanings. Stevens was a master of words, and a quick exploration of the other meanings shows that Stevens’s use of “spick” is both rich and enigmatic. To continue with archaic senses, “spick” is a synonym for lavender — recall the “purple stuff upon her arms.” Thus, the word evokes royalty as well as knavery. As others have noted, “spick” is a shortened form of “spick-and-span,” with its nautical associations.

    Finally, “spick” is a variant of “spic,” derogatory term for the language and people of Hispanic America. This sense appeared in print as early as 1913; Hemingway used it in 1933. Stevens was probably aware of it; he made yearly trips from his New England home to South Florida where he absorbed Carribean culture. (He talks to “Ramon Fernandez” in “The Idea of Order at Key West”). So even this meaning would have evoked the ocean and the tropics in Stevens’s mind.

    Williams said that poems are made of words, and this is a perfect example of a poet’s ability to use a single word in the most complete way possible.

  10. I am researching scullions in medieval times. Your site came up for my search but I still don’t know what a scullion is. Please help!

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