Friday, October 5, 2012

"The Hermitage At The Center"

Autumn is not autumn without a visit to Wallace Stevens.  I do not know exactly what the following poem "means."  Perhaps it has something to do with autumn being both an end and a beginning, and having at its heart both an emptiness and a fullness.  Whoa!  That's way too high-falutin'. Let's just say that it sounds lovely.

And consider this:  the poem is three poems in one.  The first poem consists of the first line of each stanza; the second poem consists of the second and third lines of each stanza; the third poem consists of all three lines of each stanza.  Think of it as something like a round in music: "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Frere Jacques."

Then again, it may simply be about the walks that Stevens often took around Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut.  The park has a duck pond.

        Christopher Sanders, "Study of Long Grass near Polstead" (c. 1961)

         The Hermitage at the Center

The leaves on the macadam make a noise --
     How soft the grass on which the desired
     Reclines in the temperature of heaven --

Like tales that were told the day before yesterday --
     Sleek in a natural nakedness,
     She attends the tintinnabula --

And the wind sways like a great thing tottering --
     Of birds called up by more than the sun,
     Birds of more wit, that substitute --

Which suddenly is all dissolved and gone --
     Their intelligible twittering
     For unintelligible thought.

And yet this end and this beginning are one,
     And one last look at the ducks is a look
     At lucent children round her in a ring.

Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954), in Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).

A comment on "one last look at the ducks" (line 14):  a "last look" because the ducks are about to fly south for the winter, yes; but it should also be noted that Stevens wrote the poem when he was in his mid-seventies, within the last year or so of his life.

   Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (c. 1958)

4 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

Thanks for the coda on Stevens’ birthday week with a striking but perhaps underappreciated late poem, Mr. Pentz. The word tintinnabula – both a cultivated violet and a ringing bell – blends with the electric wind of this to make it, to your suggestion, a nice echoing madrigal, perhaps in spite of the care in each word choice that is intense even for Stevens (ha). There are some things that only poetry can express, and what’s covered here (the utter cluelessness and solitude of man in front of nature, the inexplicable yet transporting flux of all we perceive) can’t be easily philosophized or glossed except in the way Stevens does it. Hermitage means hermit’s dwelling, and I like the way Stevens balances here the old (the reflection on a life, as you suggest, as it is nearing its close) and the new (fresh and unique poetic perceptions and expressions from a seemingly normal Autumn day).

bruce floyd said...

Helen Vendler has some interesting comments on this poem in her essay "Stevens and the lyric speaker," which I read in "The Cambridge Campanion to Wallace Stevens." She says that the "first" poem, the first lines of the poem's five tercets, "make up an evocation of old age . . . of a dying universe." The "second" poem, the following lines of the tercets, "make up, by contrast, a praise of the eternal freshness of a maternal nature." She adds that "although the old man who speaks 'Hermitage at the Center" (as he walks in the park near the duck pond) cannot reconcile his own imminent death with the perpetual freshness of nature, he is able to conclude by presenting simultaneously his two undeniable if antithetical intuitions; the last look of the poet will always be directed toward the inamorta-Muse and her ever-young progeny . . . . The lingering regret of the dying look is relieved by the speaker's love of the regular, perpetual, and beautiful fertility of the terrestial muse."

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as always, thank you for your thoughts -- much better and much more lucid than my "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." As you can see from Mr. Floyd's comment above, your take on the poem has something in common with Helen Vendler's reading. (I leave to one side how one feels about her style of criticism. I appreciate what she does, but she does make me gnash my teeth. She can get carried away.)

And thanks for the reminder: I had forgotten that this is his birthday week.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: thank you very much for the excerpts from Vendler's reading of the poem. I hadn't come across this piece by her before, so I appreciate seeing it. Her approach seems on point to me.

Thanks for visiting again.