The delights of being cocooned beneath the trees are innumerable and ever-changing, but one sunny afternoon this past week it was the sound that enthralled me. In a strong breeze out of the northwest, coming off the water, the boughs and leaves soughed and rustled and whispered overhead. "Yet still the unresting castles thresh." I thought of this two-line poem, which has appeared here on more than one occasion:
The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.
Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber and Faber 1987).
Recently I have been thinking about the presence of rivers in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Heaney's lovely joining of trees and rivers has much in common with Stevens's preoccupation with the motion of rivers: rivers as rivers, and rivers as the World flowing around us and past us.
The River of Rivers in Connecticut
There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.
In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,
No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.
It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.
It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
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 Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1954).
The poem was published for the first time in a section of The Collected Poems titled "The Rock." "The Rock" was the final collection of Stevens's poems published prior to his death in 1955. "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the collection. A note: Farmington and Haddam are towns in Connecticut near Hartford, where Stevens lived and worked (as a lawyer and executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company).
"The River of Rivers in Connecticut" has appeared here several times. It is perhaps my favorite poem by Stevens. In fact, it is one of my favorite poems, period. But please, I beg you, don't ask me to explain what it "means." I can only tell you that my life would be different without it.
James Paterson (1854-1932), "Moniaive" (1885)
Vast tracts of Stevens's poetry remain impenetrable to me. He can fall into an abstract philosophizing that is baffling and, at the same time, cold. Yet he is one of my favorite poets. Why? Because he wrote a large number of poems that I return to again and again (even though a fair number of them still puzzle me). I long ago concluded that the beauty outweighs the obscurity.
Randall Jarrell has observed of Stevens's poetry: "the poems see, feel, and think with equal success." (Randall Jarrell, "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Poetry and the Age (Alfred A. Knopf 1953), page 133.) Of course, what Jarrell says is not true of every poem that Stevens wrote. In particular, there is often far too much thinking going on in many of the poems. But Jarrell's point is an excellent one: at their best, Stevens's poems capture what it means to be fully human. For that reason, they can provoke an exhilaration that is hard to find in poetry. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Another of those Romantic effusions that turn out to be exactly right.
In the same essay, Jarrell writes: "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great." (Ibid, page 134.) As long-time readers of this blog know, I am not fond of classifying poets as "good" or "great" (or as "major" or "minor"). But I do believe that Stevens was struck by lightning quite often.
Swatara, Swatara, black river,
Descending, out of the cap of midnight,
Toward the cape at which
You enter the swarthy sea,
Swatara, Swatara, heavy the hills
Are, hanging above you, as you move,
Move blackly and without crystal.
A countryman walks beside you.
He broods of neither cap nor cape,
But only of your swarthy motion,
But always of the swarthy water,
Of which Swatara is the breathing,
The name. He does not speak beside you.
He is there because he wants to be
And because being there in the heavy hills
And along the moving of the water --
Being there is being in a place,
As of a character everywhere,
The place of a swarthy presence moving,
Slowly, to the look of a swarthy name.
Wallace Stevens, The Auroras of Autumn (Alfred A. Knopf 1950). Swatara Creek is a tributary of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. It lies to the west of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Stevens was born and raised.
"The Countryman," which was written several years prior to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," feels like a rehearsal for the later poem. It retains some of the wordplay of Stevens's earlier years: "Swatara" and "swarthy;" "cap" and "cape." But the characteristic mood of Stevens's final years -- the willingness to accept the World on its own beautiful terms -- emerges in the final stanzas: "He is there because he wants to be/And because being there in the heavy hills/And along the moving of the water --//Being there is being in a place."
Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Poplars in the Thames Valley"
I am one of those who believes that Stevens wrote his most moving, most human (and his best) poetry in the last five years of his life, between the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in September of 1950 and his death on August 2, 1955, at the age of 74. These poems are found in "The Rock" and in a section titled "Late Poems (1950-55)" in Collected Poetry and Prose (edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson) (The Library of America 1997).
Mind you, Stevens's essential theme never changed from beginning to end: the belief that the back-and-forth between the Imagination and Reality is the central element of what it means to be human. This opens him to the dangers of abstraction and coldness that I mentioned above. Stevens seems to have been aware of this: "I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,/As a disbeliever in reality,//A countryman of all the bones in the world?" (There's that word "countryman" again.) These lines appear in "As You Leave the Room," parts of which were written in 1947 (when he titled the poem "First Warmth" -- a hint in itself), but which he apparently revised as late as the year of his death.
But there is a softening and a warming at the end. "As You Leave the Room" contains the following lines: "as if I left/With something I could touch, touch every way." These lines contain a single revision of the same lines in "First Warmth: "as if I lived/With something I could touch, touch every way." (Italics added.) Interestingly, a speech that Stevens gave in 1951 when he received an honorary degree from Bard College contains an echo of the lines:
"The poet finds that as between these two sources: the imagination and reality, the imagination is false, whatever else may be said of it, and reality is true; and being concerned that poetry should be a thing of vital and virile importance, he commits himself to reality, which then becomes his inescapable and ever-present difficulty and inamorata. In any event, he has lost nothing; for the imagination, while it might have led him to purities beyond definition, never yet progressed except by particulars. . . . He has become like a man who can see what he wants to see and touch what he wants to touch. In all his poems with all their enchantments for the poet himself, there is the final enchantment that they are true."
Wallace Stevens, "On Receiving an Honorary Degree from Bard College," in Collected Poetry and Prose, page 838 (italics added).
Here is the first poem in "The Rock." Stevens did not place it there by chance.
An Old Man Asleep
The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.
The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;
The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.
Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
Given that the "explication" of Stevens's poetry is an academic cottage industry in the United States, a great deal of ink has been spilled over what "An Old Man Asleep" "means." I will only say that "the river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R" is an exceedingly lovely line. There is no need to speculate as to whether the "R" in "the river R" stands for "reality" or "are." Read in conjunction with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Countryman," the line makes perfect sense (in addition to being perfectly beautiful).
James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)
See how easy it is to get diverted into a discussion about "the poetry of Wallace Stevens"? But it is the words of the poems that matter. "There is a great river this side of Stygia . . ." In the beginning, and at the end, the river is always present.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
Wallace Stevens, Poem XII, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).
"Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing." "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R." "Call it, again and again,/The river that flows nowhere, like a sea."
From out of the darkness
Of the short night
Comes the River Ōi.
Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 29.
Alfred Parsons, "Meadows by the Avon"