Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"You Like It Under The Trees In Autumn, Because Everything Is Half Dead"

The line "He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit" in A. S. J. Tessimond's "Portrait of a Romantic" got me to thinking of a poem by Wallace Stevens.  Given his belief that Imagination is the source of a well-lived life, Stevens certainly has a Romantic side.  Although the ostensible subject of the following poem is "metaphor," the Romantic preoccupations with Imagination, transience, and mortality are present as well.

                         William Rothenstein, "Wych Elm in Winter" (1919)

        The Motive for Metaphor

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.

In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon --

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,

The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound --
Steel against intimation -- the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).

I need to correct myself:  the subject of the poem is not "metaphor"; rather, the subject is "the motive for metaphor."  It is the activity that is of crucial importance in our lives.  In the titles of a few of his poems, Stevens makes the point better than I can.  For instance:  "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination."  Or:  "Anything Is Beautiful If You Say It Is."  Or: "Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It."  (As I have noted before, simply reading the table of contents or the index of titles of one of Stevens's collections is a delight in itself.)

It all boils down to "desiring the exhilarations of changes."  These changes are wrought by Imagination and Reality (the World outside) engaging in a constant back-and-forth:  "Where you yourself were never quite yourself/And did not want nor have to be."  Each side is empty and cold without the other.  A Romantic notion.

                                Francis Dodd, "Willow in Winter" (c. 1925)


E Berris said...

I like the very consoling third verse - how to live with your imperfections. I usually scan the text more quickly so I can enjoy the paintings - but every so often a line catches my eye. I regularly follow your blogs with pleasure. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: thank you for visiting again, and for your kind words.

Yes, I think I see what you mean in the third verse: i.e., we shouldn't be overwhelmed or cowed by "the weight of primary noon/The A B C of being." Better to accept (and enjoy) things with a bit of necessary obscurity and a recognition of constant change.

I appreciate hearing from you.

WAS said...

I loved your little riff on the Romantic movement, but to me it's always been primarily about subjectivity, and that's what aligns Stevens so clearly with the Romantics for me. It's a subtle thing, not the moon that causes me such pain and ecstasy, but that I will never know that moon that has so undone me.

To your wonderful gloss on Stevens' meaning here, I'd add to "each side is empty and cold without the other" yet they cannot co-exist. That's what make the x of reality "fatal" and "dominant." A Romantic notion as well, as any thoughtful reading of Wordsworth (for example) will attest. Still, Stevens takes it to a new level of awareness of how all the truths we tell ourselves are myths, personalizations - that's what makes the stunning metaphors of this poem (one of my very favorite Stevens poems) so special.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thank you for those thoughts -- I always like to hear what you have to say about Stevens. I agree with you about the poem: it was one of the first poems that I read by Stevens in my younger years, and it confirmed to me that he was someone I needed to catch up with.

(I suppose that "You like it under the trees in autumn,/Because everything is half dead" is always likely to attract the attention of a melancholy, dreamy 20-or-so year old. The thing is, it attracts me still . . .)

It's good to hear from you again. Thanks for the visit.