Stevens’ “Parts of a World”

Although there were only a few lines and phrases that I liked in Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar, there are so many poems that I liked in Parts of a World, that I’m not quite sure where to start. So, I’ll just start with:


It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You....You said,
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
"Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye."

It was when you said,
"The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth;"

It was at that time, that the silence was largest,
And longest, the night was roundest.
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest, and strongest.

At first glance, the narrator’s line “There is no such thing as the truth” seems rather shocking, and it’s hard to see how it could make grapes fatter, much less make the fox run out of his hole. However, when the listener makes the distinction that there are many truths but they are not parts of a truth, we begin to see how such constructs determine how we see the world. In a very real sense, certain words separate us from the world, make us stand alone.

Only when we realize words are just words, there is no magical Word that will allow us to see the Truth, only when we realize that no prophet, no idol, has ever captured the Truth only then do we realize that we must “measure” our world by eye.

When we escape all “truths,” all “concepts,” the world will seem “largest,” “longest,” “roundest,” “warmest,” “closest,” and “strongest.”

"Landscape With Boat" develops this concept even further:


"An anti-master floribund ascetic.

He brushed away the thunder, then the clouds,
Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still
The sky was blue. He wanted imperceptible air.
He wanted to see. He wanted the eye to see
And not be touched by blue. He wanted to know,
A naked man who regarded himself in the glass
Of air, who looked for the world beneath the blue,
Without blue, without any turqouise hint or phase,
Any azure under-side or after-color. Nabob
Of bones, he rejected, he denied, to arrive
At the neutral center, the omnious element,
The single colored, colorless, primitive.

It was not as if the truth lay where he thought,
Like a phantom, in an uncreated night.
It was easier to think it lay there. If
It was nowhere else, it was there and because
It was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed,
Itself had to be supposed, a thing supposed
In a place supposed, a thing he reached
In a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw
And denying what he heard. He would arrive.
He had only not to live, to walk in the dark,
To be projected by one void into

It was his nature to suppose
To receive what others had supposed, without
Accepting. He received what he denied.
But as truth to be accepted, he supposed
A truth beyond all truths.

He never supposed
That he might be truth, himself, or part of it,
That the things that he rejected might be part
And the irregular turquoise part, the perceptible blue
Grown dense, part, the eye so touched, so played
Upon by clouds, the ear so magnified
By thunder, parts, and all these things together,
Parts, and more things, parts. He never supposed divine
Things might not look divine, nor that if nothing
Was divine then all things were, the world itself,
And that if nothing was the the truth, then all
Things were the truth, the world itself was the truth.

Had he been better able to suppose:
He might sit on a sofa on a balcony
Above the Mediterranean, emerald
Becoming emeralds. He might watch the palms
Flap green ears in the heat. He might observe
A yellow wine and follow a steamer's track
And say, "The thing I hum appears to be
The rhythm of this celestrial pantomime"

Although I'm not sure that I agree with, or completely understand, the underlying philosophy of this poem, it does make one who subscribes to transcendentalism or romanticism step back and re-examine their beliefs. In essence, Stevens, much like a painter, seems to be arguing that it's a mistake to reject the concrete reality of nature for some abstract reality. In one sense, he seems to reject Emerson's platonic ideal of transcendentalism, though it might be argued that he seems to be confirming Whitman's celebration of every aspect life.

Stevens rejects the "floribund ascetic," as someone who ignores the very reality of nature, the thunder, the clouds, the blue of the sky for something much more abstract, for the "neutral center, the omnious element,/ The single colored, colorless, primitive. " In other words, the ascetic rejects the physical world and seeks a Platonic truth that underlies this natural world. He seeks a "truth beyond all truth."

Stevens suggests as an alternative that the man himself, not some abstraction of himself, "might be truth, himself, or part of it." Perhaps, "divine things might not look divine." Even, blasphemy of blasphemy, that the "world itself was the truth." Truly seeing this world as it is, seeing "the palms/ Flap green ears in the sun," may be the only was to truly perceive the holiness of the world.

3 thoughts on “Stevens’ “Parts of a World”

  1. When I read Stevens , and that’s something I don’t do often, I like to ask myself what Blake would have made of the Emperor of Ice Cream and the same line always comes to mind: ” We are taught to believe a lie when we see with and not through the eye”
    But then it seems to me that Stevens wants to plant his Vegatable jar and cremate it’s contents too …..and then it occurs to me that somewhere in the hermeneutica of the i Imagination things both are and are not what they are.
    Then i think of that old song about ” forever blowing bubbles ” and wonder what becomes of them and I see Blake sticking pins in Stevens Bubbles and hear him saying that it’s just Epicurius come back again……


  2. Stevens’ “The Solitude of Cataracts” seems to have borrowed some of its imagery from Baudelaire’s
    “Formal Life”. If so, I wonder if this has ever been pointed out.

  3. With all the commentary out there it’s hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t have noticed such similarities, but, not having read Baudelaire, I certainly didn’t, Charles.

What do you think?