A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts
The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --
There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.
To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;
Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full
And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,
You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.
Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).
Is August "the most peaceful month"? There is a sense of fullness, of culmination, isn't there? Yet, in about a week or so, an ever-so-slight slant of yellow light will become noticeable, accompanied by an ever-so-slight lengthening of shadows. Something will be announcing its approach . . .
Norman Rowe, "Span" (1985)
On a previous occasion, I made a feeble attempt to explain what this poem may "mean," but ended up suggesting that it may simply be about a rabbit that was eating the bulbs in Stevens' garden at night, beneath the bedroom window. This seems perfectly acceptable to me.
But let's put "meaning" aside for a moment and consider only the sound of the poem. Notice the lovely repetitions (something at which Stevens is a master) -- unobtrusive, but with a cumulative effect: "And August the most peaceful month.//To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time"; "The grass is full/And full of yourself"; "The trees around are for you,/The whole of the wideness of night is for you"; "A self that touches all edges,//You become a self that fills the four corners of night."
And then there are the lines that are simply marvelous in their own right as perfect combinations of words, regardless of what they mean: "Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk"; "And east rushes west and west rushes down"; "The whole of the wideness of night is for you"; "the four corners of night"; "And the little green cat is a bug in the grass." Not to mention the title. (As I have noted before, reading the table of contents or the index of titles in Stevens' Collected Poems is a delight in itself.)
In one sense, the poem is a humorous nursery rhyme. In another sense, it is a deeply serious meditation on how we ought to live our life, and what it means to be truly human.
Norman Rowe, "Garden with Chairs" (1978)
Turning back to "meaning" for a moment, perhaps a good way to approach "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" is to compare it with another poem by Stevens. The two of them play off one another quite well.
The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
Wallace Stevens, The Rock (1954), in Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America 1997).
I would suggest that, in both poems, Stevens is describing the same unique and fundamental human activity. The activity that, he would say, makes us human.
Norman Rowe, "Water Lilies" (1979)