Sunday, July 31, 2011

"This Solitude Of Cataracts"

William Wordsworth's meditation on the soothing qualities of moving water leads me to one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens.  (Come to think of it, it is one of my favorite poems period.)  It begins with two lovely variations on Heraclitus's well-known dictum:  "You cannot step into the same river twice."  Stevens then heads off in his own beautiful direction.

                    This Solitude of Cataracts

He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing

Through many places, as if it stood still in one,
Fixed like a lake on which the wild ducks fluttered,

Ruffling its common reflections, thought-like Monadnocks.
There seemed to be an apostrophe that was not spoken.

There was so much that was real that was not real at all.
He wanted to feel the same way over and over.

He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing.  He wanted to walk beside it,

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,

Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (1950).

With regard to "thought-like Monadnocks," Stevens writes:

The expression "thought-like Monadnocks" can best be explained by changing it into "Monadnock-like thoughts."  The image of a mountain deep in the surface of a lake acquires a secondary character.  From the sheen of the surface it becomes slightly unreal:  thought-like.  Mt. Monadnock is a New England mountain.    It is in New Hampshire.

Wallace Stevens, Letter to Renato Poggioli (March 4, 1954), Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), page 823.  Poggioli was a publisher who was preparing a translation of Stevens's poems into Italian. Stevens normally avoided such direct explications of his poems.

Stevens also writes:

In this same poem there is the following phrase which may not be perfectly clear to your translator:  "the oscillations of planetary pass-pass."  It means the seeming-to-go-round of the planets by day and night.


For Stevens, a river usually stands for the world in which we live:

Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (the final four lines).

              John Aldridge, "The River Pant Near Sculpin's Bridge" (1961)


Anonymous said...

Monadnock, an Indian word, denotes a solitary mountain arising out of flatter or lower terrain. When I lived in southern New Hampshire I could see Mount Monadnock out my window, The world is full of monadnocks but only one, I think, bears that name. Thoreau climbed it and wrote about it. Did Stevens visit it? --Celticus

Stephen Pentz said...

Celticus: thank you very much for visiting. And thank you for the thoughts on monadnocks and Mount Monadnock. I looked the word up in the OED and discovered that Melville wrote this in Moby-Dick: " His great, Monadnock hump." I don't know whether Stevens visited Mount Monadnock. The only reference to it in his letters is the one that I cited in the post.

Thanks again.