Week 311: Anglais Mort à Florence, by Wallace Stevens

Every so often I have another go at reading Wallace Stevens, whose work I continue to find intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. Intriguing because the verse has such hypnotic cadences; frustrating because it seems to exist in some parallel universe where sometimes the words have meanings or associations that don’t seem to have made their way into mine. As a case in point, the last three stanzas here seem to me very fine, with the repetition of ‘But he remembered the time when he stood alone’ tolling like a bell, but what on earth are the police doing suddenly crashing in on the scene out of nowhere? Does this refer to some incident in a novel (possibly, from the poem’s title, a French novel) that I haven’t read? As usual, any enlightenment will be gratefully received.

Anglais Mort à Florence

A little less returned for him each spring.
Music began to fail him. Brahms, although
His dark familiar, often walked apart.

His spirit grew uncertain of delight,
Certain of its uncertainty, in which
That dark companion left him unconsoled

For a self returning mostly memory.
Only last year he said that the naked moon
Was not the moon he used to see, to feel

(In the pale coherences of moon and mood
When he was young), naked and alien,
More leanly shining from a lankier sky.

Its ruddy pallor had grown cadaverous.
He used his reason, exercised his will,
Turning in time to Brahms as alternate

In speech. He was that music and himself.
They were particles of order, a single majesty:
But he remembered the time when he stood alone.

He stood at last by God’s help and the police;
But he remembered the time when he stood alone.
He yielded himself to that single majesty;

But he remembered the time when he stood alone,
When to be and delight to be seemed to be one,
Before the colors deepened and grew small.

Wallace Stevens

Week 164: The Idea of Order at Key West, by Wallace Stevens

While my attitude to the writing of poetry is essentially a flexible ‘whatever works’, I suppose I do incline somewhat to traditional values: poems are made of words, and words are made of meaning, and if you don’t understand what a poem means at the literal level you are probably just fooling yourself if you claim to admire it. This gives me a bit of a problem with Wallace Stevens. I have read this poem many times, liking its musicality and imagery, but to be honest I still have very little idea what Stevens is trying to say here. The simple explanation, of course, is that it’s my fault for being thick, yet the unworthy suspicion remains that maybe Stevens wasn’t too sure either. And yet, whatever it was, he does say it rather beautifully. How tempting just to relax and go with the music, even if in the end I return to poets like Frost where the sense may be more subtle than you think but you can always trust that it is there. 

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Wallace Stevens