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Wallace Stevens

The World Imagined

I finally finished reading Stevens’ collected poems, all 477 pages of them, and, though they weren’t easy to finish, I’m glad I did. Unfortunately, there’s another 500 pages in the book, and I’m simply not up to finishing it right now. Although I’d like to read “The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination,” I’m going to set the book aside and come back to it later. For me at least, reading Stevens is hard work, rather than an act of love.

Considering that I came to his work with a prejudice against it, I’m actually surprised that I liked it nearly as much as I did. Though I don’t think I really accept his view of the importance of imagination, I did find his ideas stimulating, and fear I may have more sympathy for his ideas than I’d like to admit. Of course, if I wasn’t sympathetic to the importance of imagination, I seriously doubt that I’d be spending so much time on poetry.

Somehow, the following poems from the section entitled “The Rock” provide a better summary of Stevens’ philosophy than I ever could:

NOT IDEAS ABOUT THE THING BUT THE THING ITSELF

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry–It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Perhaps I like this poem because it reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” a poem I’ve mentioned earlier. If that’s true, it is indeed ironic, because it would be hard to imagine a poet more different from Hardy than Stevens. Hardy admired and elevated the common man, while Stevens seemed to disdain him. In answering the question “As a poet what distinguishes you, do you think, from an ordinary man?” Stevens replied, “Inability to see much point to the life of an ordinary man. The chances are the ordinary man himself sees very little point to it.” As I read Stevens, I realized just how biased I am toward a particular kind of modern poetry, the kind of poetry that made Hardy the first “modern poet.” Although Hardy’s poetry was soon to be eclipsed by the formal poetry of Eliot and others, it is still that strain of poetry that I find most moving.

“Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour” almost sounds as Stevens wrote it to make his final statement on imagination:

FINAL SOLILOQUY OF THE INTERIOR PARAMOUR

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one “
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

The line, “The world imagined is the ultimate good.” could almost serve as the thesis for Stevens’ Collected Poems and Prose
, as could “We say God and the imagination are one”” This seems to me to roughly equivalent to Descartes’ famous line, “I think, therefore I am.” I’m not sure I’m any more impressed by Stevens’ position than I was by Descartes’ argument when I read it in college.

Still, I find it difficult to deny “How high that highest candle lights the dark.” I cannot even imagine how sad it would be to live without the inspiration of imagination. My world has been shaped by the imagination of great writers, and thankfully so. Still, I am no “Miniver Cheevy,” trying to escape the reality of my everyday existence by living in an imaginary past that never truly existed but in the mind of great writers.