(An International Journal of Poetry)
Volume-1 december-2011 Number-2
Objects as Symbols; Objects as Things;
Objects as Red Herrings: A Brief Investigation of The Words of Stevens and
by Dr. Vicky Gilpin (Dept. of English, Millikin University)
(Abstract: Although many poets and readers assert that object words merely identify utilitarian functions of “things” and do not require or suggest further exploration, object words' symbolisms are inescapable, and master word-smiths can develop poems with layers of meaning based on their expertise in crafting their poems through careful word selection. A search for self and authenticity underscores Stevens' poems. Though often academic or intellectual, Stevens' poems contain lush images even when it appears he rigorously attempted to excise them. Although seemingly obsolete, chock-full of allusions with personal connotations, or so rooted in one personal event as to limit their universality, some of Robert Lowell's early poems hint at themes relevant to the modern age and youthful readers. These themes become clear when the reader delves beneath the words themselves. Both poets' works demonstrate the importance of word-smithing in developing poems that have maintained their resonance for modern readers and those which should attract modern readers.)
Different aspects of poetry draw people to different authors or works. For some people, a recognition that a certain poem might or might not be enjoyed or shared with others as poetry to “read for recreation” (Landon Chapman, personal communication, July 21, 2011) holds the key to engagement with a work. For other readers, poetry that agitates or makes them uncomfortable or sheds new light on familiar topics beckons them. Interplay between word connotations and overall themes create tensions within the works or within the readers. Although many poets and readers assert that object words merely identify utilitarian functions of “things” and do not require or suggest further exploration, object words' symbolisms are inescapable, and master word-smiths can develop poems with layers of meaning based on their expertise in crafting their poems through careful word selection.
Section One: Objects as Symbols
Wallace Stevens’ works create a patchwork map that support each other and reinforce Emersonian Transcendental ideals, particularly those of unapologetic reflection as part of a journey toward recognition of personal and universal truths. A search for self and authenticity underscores Stevens' poems. Rather than merely serving as an atheist’s manifesto or a base appreciation of reality outside of spiritual expectations, Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (66-70) depicts personal transcendence through an appreciation of reality that pierces beyond utilitarianism through phenomenological exploration that embraces the metaphysical aspects of the objects, the essence of the form beyond the particulars. The poem refutes Ruskin’s concept of pathetic fallacy by recognizing objects’ powers to potentially alter one’s internal, as well as external, landscapes. “Sunday Morning” encourages self-reflection in conjunction with an examination of the spiritual symbolism of everyday objects as equal to the power of religious ritual.
Within “Sunday Morning,” the everyday items for which the protagonist avoids traditional Christian ritual initially appear to be nothing more than what they are, mere objects, mere “things” used to assuage a woman’s guilt about staying home on a Sunday morning rather than conforming to societal religious expectations. One might argue that the “things” chosen represent nothing more than a selection of items to demonstrate the potential and innumerable possibilities with which the woman might surround herself while not in church. Certainly, connecting the work to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” (534) encourages the interpretation in “Sunday Morning.” However, neither poem indicates that the objects, the “things,” are imbued with something they do not possess, but that they already possess qualities that may encourage “A new knowledge of reality” (534). As Ralph Waldo Emerson notes in “Self-Reliance,” “All things real are so by so much virtue as they contain” (30). Even the unnamed but gendered protagonist in “Sunday Morning” is objectified and requires examination to discover the virtues within the poem. The poem’s emphasized objects encourage readers to delve beneath Marxist utilitarian codification to discover underlying spiritual symbolism because “it's almost impossible to look at a thing and see it” (Halpern, personal communication, July 7, 2011). Each thing –each word- connects to and affects the woman in the poem, the world of the poem, and, potentially, the reader.
Wallace Stevens’ poems are not comfortable; they share no complacency –whether
of nature or artifice- with the peignoir in “Sunday Morning.” In fact, Wallace
Stevens’ poems act as the blue guitar depicted in his “The Man with the Blue
Guitar” (165). When the audience comments that the artist does not play “things
as they are,”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
However, the audience is unsatisfied. Some readers of poetry, or imagined agitators and opponents on the outskirts of the poems, like some members of musical audiences and certain adherents in all religions, only want as much transcendence as can be recognizable in connection to their own views:
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.” (165)
The words in Wallace Stevens' works hint at a deeper or different authenticity or truth than can be expressed through utilitarian definitions or denotation devoid of connotation. “Sunday Morning” challenges the reader to realize that merely perceiving “things exactly as they are” hinders personal growth, but an appreciation of “any balm or beauty of the earth” (67) can be just as important or transcendental as “the holy hush of ancient sacrifice” (67). However, the woman’s defense of the nature of secular or mundane objects does not justify a lack of religious feeling; instead, her defense demonstrates an alternate Sunday morning ritual equivalent to the other rites depicted within the poem. In fact, her defense of her ritual echoes the start of “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” (65): as the narrator in that work insists actions did not cause him or her to be lessened, so too does the woman in “Sunday Morning” fight to escape guilt and tradition and insist –whether successfully or unsuccessfully- that her participation in another type of ritual does not diminish her. The argument echoes Emerson’s comments about nature in “Circles”: “We can never see Christianity from the catechism:--from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds we possibly may” (150). If in these objects, why could one not find God “in pungent fruit and bright, green wings,” the other natural objects with which the protagonist of “Sunday Morning” defends her choice? (67).
Like the jar in “Anecdote of the Jar,” which “took dominion everywhere” (76) objects as symbols and as themselves alter their environments because of how they alter people’s perspectives of and experience within those environments. Individuals may use religious imagery to focus themselves on a higher concept of deity or internal reflection. For example, the lingam, mandala, Buddha statues, crucifixes, menorahs, or other religious symbols are not always worshipped, in the Western expectation of the term, but often serve to remind believers of particular concepts or attitudes through their existence. In “Sunday Morning,” the emphasized objects act as symbols or referents to concepts of divinity or internal spirituality. For example, blood, whether in regard to Christian Communion/Crucifixion, virgin sacrifices, or as fuel for chants, still is an object, a “thing.” It is powerful because it represents life, but also because it is life. The seventh stanza of Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (one of my all-time favorite poems) indicates that natural objects’ qualities –or the objects’ ultimate forms- are more meaningful than intricate rites or opulent imaginings:
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you? (93)
In addition, other objects in “Sunday Morning” indicate the connection of humans to nature, a particularly Transcendental notion. Emerson indicates, “The true doctrine of omnipresence is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb” (“Compensation” 57). For Emerson, God is found in natural objects, and all of nature is beautiful by necessity (“Fate” 197). In addition, he asserted that natural environments and images allow humans to connect more fully with divinity as well as some deeper authenticity or truth: “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (“Nature” para. 2). Similarly, in “Sunday Morning,” Wallace Stevens not only emphasizes blood, but also fruit and birds. Instead of finding transcendence in a coffee cup, sporting endeavors, or even great literature, the woman finds solace and divinity in the forms of natural objects.
The repetition of fruit and bird images reiterates the connection of natural objects to reminders of transcendence. The poem mentions oranges as part of the woman’s chosen Sunday ritual, plums and pears in the scene with the boys and maidens, the unnatural event of ripe fruit that never falls as a questioning metaphor about paradise without the change of death, pears and plums as anachronisms on the shores of such a paradise, and berries at the end of the work. Fruit, not only indicative of Gan Eden and “The Fall,” represents the natural cycle of the greater world as well as the woman’s internal conflict. Emerson uses fruit to indicate how following one’s nature and doing acts of work are constant repetitions of falling: “When the fruit is ripe, it falls” (“Spiritual Laws” 86). In the end of “Sunday Morning,” the pigeons sink “downward to darkness, on extended wings” (70), indicating a continuance or adherence to the laws of nature within the poem.
The bird-related objects featured are the cockatoo and its “green freedom” (66), awakened birds who sing across misty fields, swallow’s wings, and pigeons. In Judaism, God’s grace is often referred to in connection to wings, and the term shekhinah is used to reference the Divine Feminine with a correlation to the maternal protection of wings; in Christianity, the dove often connotes peace and Jesus. In addition, many birds are connected to the souls of the dead or harbingers of death as part of life’s cycle. In “Sunday Morning,” the bird song over an open field may be as effective as the men chanting to create a spiritual mood. Many religions use sound to create an atmosphere or to remind individuals of the sacred without and within. Repetition of the Buddhist phrase om mani padme hum, “the jewel is in the lotus,” reminds people that they can find their answers within, that the world of suffering is external, but internal enlightenment is within reach. The natural bird sounds may provide a similar reminder for some people, particularly the woman in the poem.
In “Sunday Morning,” the birds must also be appreciated for themselves, not just as symbols or utilitarian objects: The cockatoo is exotic and far from home in the woman’s house; swallows are more common, and pigeons, the birds’ wings on which Wallace Stevens ends his poem, often reside in cities and have negative connotations because of their vast populations. From the exotic to the commonplace, the birds in the poems could represent the woman’s internal journey from the superficial societal expectations of exotic ritual to an inward investigation of what she might feel is more common, her own beliefs, attitudes, and actions. An alternative interpretation is that the woman gives in to the guilt of her upbringing at the end and is no longer lured by the exotic notions of secularity or personal ritual but now settles back into her inescapable tradition.
One might merely read “Sunday Morning” as a dichotomy between pagan and Christian rituals or a manifesto of nonspiritual secularity that depicts secular choices and all religious rituals as equally ineffective; however, the layers of the work indicate more richness than can be expressed in such Cartesian dualities. Instead of merely refuting Christian or all religious rites, the protagonist demonstrates the validity of her path in conjunction with the others. Phenomenological investigation encourages an examination of aspects of a situation equally; in this case, the protagonist struggles to define her views and place them before the morning light for equal consideration of validity. In addition, her central defense appears as a keening soul-cry that tends toward self-reflection and transcendence: “Divinity must live within herself” (67). Her following list of natural images refutes any human-based authority toward ritual beyond herself as she declares “These are the measures destined for her soul” (67). The revocation of the power held by traditional authority and authoritative expectations, even in her own mind, echoes the thoughts expressed in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”:
When we have broken our god of tradition and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence….The faith that stands on authority is not faith. The reliance on authority measures the decline of religion, the withdrawal of the soul. (133)
“Sunday Morning,” the inclusion of the word soul is important, signifying depth
of self or analysis of metaphysical agency, no matter the definition of the
object “soul,” that underscores the work as more than an atheist or secular
explanation of recurring or regressive Christian guilt.
In Judaism, a part of prayer is the idea of kavannah, the meaning or emphasis or personal connection to the words. Rote prayer or unfeeling actions lack kavannah. In “Sunday Morning,” the woman’s experience with organized religion as “some procession of the dead” and as something that can “come only in silent shadows and in dreams” (67) seem to have leeched the kavannah from traditional religious ritual for her. Participating in ritual devoid of meaning reeks of base conformity, and “whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist” (Emerson, “Self-Reliance” 14). However, being a nonconformist seems to be an ill-fitting role for the protagonist of the poem, as she cannot escape the echoes from Palestine. If she is still railing against common opinion or the indoctrination of her early religious life, the woman remains within her journey rather than at a satisfied end-point. Emerson notes:
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude (“Self Reliance” 17).
“Sunday Morning” does not indicate that the woman has a companion; she appears to be in solitude, but her choice to “live after [her] own” does not rest easy on her. She may be most valiantly arguing against a part of herself, the part that has fallen prey to the idea that she should attend a religious activity even if she receives nothing spiritual from it. No indication is given that the protagonist might find a balance between secular spirituality and more active religious observance, such as going to religious services when she feels drawn to them and getting the most out of personal observance when she does that. Instead, the desperate argument between her joy in natural objects and her “need of some imperishable bliss” (68), probably instilled in her youth, cause her to ponder the nature of paradise and death.
The poem emphasizes the importance of Mother Death to paradise and implies paradise needs death to balance it: “Death is the mother of beauty” (68). Without the immediacy, the sense of urgency, brought to life and nature by the existence of death, paradise is hollow and insipid. The fruit may not fall, just remain perfect forever in an unnatural stasis. In connection, in “The Poems of our Climate” Wallace Stevens writes that “the imperfect is our paradise” (194) Humans do not want stasis of perfection; instead, they require imperfection combined with or caused by the threat of death. The thrill created by the fear of mortality echoes within other art forms; in “Just Around the Corner,” from the Addams Family Musical, Morticia Addams sings of how thinking of death causes her mood to brighten:
I can't let these latest problems
rob me of my bliss.
For when I'm scared of true disaster,
I remember this:
Death is just around the corner
waiting patiently to strike.
One unplanned electrocution
that's the kind of end
I can comprehend.
When I'm feeling uninspired
Or I need a little spree
I'm reborn knowing
death is just around the corner
coming after me.
Similarly, in “Sunday Morning,” exciting transgressions of boys and maidens under shivering willows occur because the threat of death makes life feel brief and adds an immediacy to their actions. One might assume the presence of death encourages people to “stray impassioned” (69) and to, as Herrick advised, “gather ye rosebuds….” The gendered nature of the protagonist (rather than the neutral “one” or “I”) combined with the indication of death as a personified female create a fascinating dichotomy when compared to Jesus as the authoritative representation of the Christian rituals the protagonist is avoiding. Female figures in literature or religious mythology often represent birth, nurturing, or even the fall of mankind. Swinburne and other poets explored the combination of sexual and maternal elements in female personifications of death. In Hinduism, Kali Durga is one aspect of female deity with destructive powers that are viewed less as malicious and foreboding and more as part of the natural cycle of the universe. In his Sandman series, Neil Gaiman's depiction of Death appears to be a cute perky-goth girl filled with more compassion than terror-inducing traits. By making death a female, Wallace Stevens creates a bond between death and the female protagonist. In addition, a female death image not only creates a connection between death, the stereotypically maternal cycle of life, and the protagonist, it also uses the literary connotations of females as “other” in comparison to the male normalized standard. Wallace Stevens uses the same technique by using a female protagonist.
Who is “she?” and, more importantly, why is “she” female? An anonymous female arguing against traditional religious observance with visions of pre-Christian ritual and her own Sunday morning rituals might be more acceptable to readers than a male character doing the same because of emotional, hysterical, or sentimental female stereotypes; as the gender with traditionally lesser agency, a woman railing against tradition or oppression makes symbolic sense. In addition, the phrase “complacencies of the peignoir” (66) evokes memory and emotion in a way that “complacencies of the boxer-short” does not. However, the combination of a female protagonist with the gendered nature of death indicates Wallace Stevens’ thoughtful wordcraft. Through a Transcendental lens, nature not only peers or peeks through the lines involving blood, flora, and fauna; instead, the female protagonist of the poem could represent Mother Nature’s opinion that the paradise developed by many religions does not fit into the cyclical reality of nature because it does not allow for the Mother Death aspect. If one way for readers to understand poetry is as “a musical score for you to play” (Halpern, June 30, 2011), the female protagonist of the poem may not necessarily represent a coded version of the author. Instead, “she” could stand in for the reader, encouraging self-reflection on the nature of ritual and objects. One might view the first-person narrator of “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” as simultaneously representative of the reader as well as depicting what a deific incarnation descending to earth (ala Christ, Krishna, Shiva) might feel:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange. (65)
this case, the “what” the narrator experienced again connects to physical,
human, or mortal objects, the “things” upon which death has a claim, not the
loftier concepts of what one may be expected to feel and experience through
religion. The “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” may provide direction in how to unlock
self-reflection and transcendence through a connection to all things. The narrator
could only discover him or herself “more truly and more strange” by
experiencing the “what” of the mortal plane, the actual objects themselves,
those mortal objects touched by the potential of death.
To understand the truth of mortal life and the objects therein – to comprehend the reality behind the symbols explained in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave- one must be immersed in acts of appreciation of those objects. To reach a paradise that is not insipid, that somehow maintains the shiver inspired by death, one might choose a Sunday morning ritual incorporating birds and fruit or other “balm or beauty of the earth” (67). As well as in Emerson’s statements asserting his Transcendental ideals, many religions also recognize the power of ritual of everyday activities when those activities are heightened by an individual's awareness of their sacred nature. Even if the protagonist feels the “things” themselves are as much an illusion as the hope granted by the various religious rites in her visions, both the things and the rites lead to a form of self-reflection: “Divinity must live within herself” (67). Her reflection emphasizes that the transitory nature of life makes life passionate; a Sunday morning drinking coffee, eating oranges, and looking at the beauty of the bird may be more meaningful when one recognizes how easily death can change everything than a morning giving “her bounty to the dead” (67). In this case, “bounty” refers to finite nature of time. Why should “she” give her time in an activity that has lost meaning for her?
Unlike the narrator in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” the protagonist of “Sunday Morning” does not trumpet her success. Instead, she fights to justify her methods while being bombarded by images of other rites and rituals or by using images of other rites and rituals as examples of various methods of worship. As she dreams or has visions or dredges up metaphysical theory, she progresses deeper into self-reflection, but the “we” of the final stanza indicates the universality of her fight, as the pigeons sinking “downward into darkness” could represent different interpretations of the result of her defense. The protagonist of “Sunday Morning” still fights the guilt from her indoctrination, as evidenced by continuing to hear voices across the water from Palestine, potentially demonstrating she has not attained a balance or level of comfort between her choices and how societal expectations have affected her perceptions of those choices. She has not reached Emersonian self-awareness: “As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action” (“Self-Reliance” 35). Seeing prayer in all action connects to personal transcendence through internal reflection as catalyzed by natural objects; that natural objects are “the measures destined for her soul” agrees with Emerson, that “the soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth” (“The Oversoul” 124). In fact, the soul may be the sole “perceiver and revealer of truth” because the limits and complications of language mean that human methods of communication cannot be the sole method to understanding truth or discovering personal authenticity. Within “Sunday Morning,” the author and critics may resist the connotative power of the object-words by emphasizing a need to avoid pathetic fallacy, but Stevens' poem uses those symbols to great effect. Not merely utilitarian choices, the objects encourage reflective transcendence through what they are, do, and symbolize.
Section Two: Objects as Things and Symbols
Tensions abound in Wallace Stevens' poetry. Whether between chaos and order, religion and secularity, or the world of imagination and the world of reality, tension underscores his lines. However, the most rigorous tension may be that between the attempted refutation of pathetic fallacy and the poetic necessity of symbolism. Although many of his works illustrate a poetic exploration of situations or objects in an effort to depict a phenomenological analysis aimed at “Not Ideas of the Thing but the Thing Itself” (534). Stevens' poems cannot eliminate the symbolism necessary to allow such explorations to transcend mere categorization, documentary, or chronology. Though often academic or intellectual, Stevens' poems contain lush images even when it appears he rigorously attempted to excise them. His work “On the Road Home” demonstrates the tension caused by the dichotomy of an attempted refutation of pathetic fallacy and the poetic necessity of symbolism. The poem can be approached through three lenses: through the words containing the ideas themselves, through the juxtoposition of the two speakers to each other and to the wood, and through the natural images used. The minimal symbolic images in Wallace Stevens’ poem thwarts his attempt to create a spartan work that contains nothing but ideas.
Although brief, the images which occur in “On the Road Home” are evocative even when removed from the poem's possible meanings. Like in many of his other works, natural objects pervade the scene to underscore the interpretation. Creating the environment that surrounds the dialogue of intellect and ideas, the natural creatures and objects demonstrate the importance of the words by reacting to the words or the ideas within through a series of cause and effect relationships. Even when paring down his work to primarily ideas, Stevens engages in pathetic fallacy to maximum effect. His poem may be a manifesto in miniature against pathetic fallacy, but he uses pathetic fallacy in the form of symbolism to emphasize his meanings. In his past tense recounting of the situation, the first person narrator remembers that when he said, “There is no such thing as the truth” (203) caused the grapes to seem fatter and the fox to leave his den. He remembers the second person response of “There are many truths, But they are not part of a truth” (203) caused the tree to change, “smoking through green and smoking blue” (203). Finally, the part of the conversation where the narrator talked about the world needing to “be measured by eye” (204) and his companion responded that idols have not seen the truth, the entire forest responds with silence and an increased scent of autumn.
Before examining the ideas which caused the reactions of the natural creatures
and objects, readers must ponder an analysis of those specific image's
connotations. Although “the world must be measured by eye” (204), humans do not
merely accept information from their eyes in a robotic or mathematical way of
binary zeros and ones, yes and no. Instead, humans perceive situations through
connotation and prior experience. Whether they wish to or not, humans do
attribute emotions and reactions to natural objects, so the use of natural
objects within a poem demonstrates an intentional recognition and attempt to
manipulate the readers' response. For example, the only mammal in the work
other than the speaker and his companion, the only sentient being which might
be capable, without pathetic fallacy, to respond to the approach of the couple
in the woods or the sound of their voices, is the fox. Poems exist by design,
not accident, and the choice of the fox in this poem emphasizes the crafted
nature of poetry. Rather than having a rabbit or snake, both creatures which
would bring their own differing symbolisms to the work, Stevens chose a fox to
become startled by or react to the words in the conversation.
Foxes bring many connotative aspects to works in which they appear. Perhaps because their coats defy the many traditional or expected facets of natural camouflage by glowing russet in dim light, foxes are interpreted as being crafty, sly, and clever, as they would have to be to outwit predators, including humans, with the disadvantage of gleaming coats. In addition, that the fox runs from his den in the same stanza that “the grapes seemed fatter,” thus, in reaction to the comment that “there is no such thing as the truth” (203) evokes Aesop's fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” In that tale, the fox desperately attempts to reach some grapes to eat. Unable to attain them, he leaves, telling himself that they were probably sour anyway. The story not only indicates the idea of cognitive dissonance, thinking two opposing ideas at the same time (wherein the fox simultaneously wants the grapes and disdains them), but also the practice of encouraging resiliency in the face of failure. In the tale, the fox comforts himself by trying to convince himself that he did not want the grapes because they were probably sour or unripe. In “On the Road Home,” the grapes “seemed fatter” after the narrator spoke, indicating lushness, ripeness, opportunity, and bounty. The alteration of the grapes or the alteration of the perception of the grapes by the speaker could indicate the natural rightness or acceptability of his comment. Combined with the fox leaving his den, either after the fat grapes or for an unconnected reason, Stevens' natural world appears to be supporting the narrator's claim that “there is no such thing as the truth” (203) by positive responses, as natural foxes do not rush from their dens straight into danger or, as it would be in this case, falsehood.
Similarly, Stephen Frech uses the sudden appearance of a fox-image in his poem:
The Dark Villages of Childhood
On the road leading out
of the dark villages of childhood,
a simple wooden wagon
reports over every stone and rut:
the loose joints creak; a split board screams;
the rusty gate-pin chatters in its place.
Light spills like fine grain through the cracks.
Catch up with the wagon;
tell the driver he’s dropping light everywhere.
He won’t stop -- he’s factored loss into his haul.
But he may let you look
into the wagonbed at the grain
passing as through the waist of an hourglass,
but never running out.
In the gloaming, dimmed imperceptibly
by the little light your vision
wrests from the world,
a fox steps onto the road.
He is in disguise, posing as someone
costumed as a fox -- a brilliant
and dangerous game pretending to be what one is.
lovely poem filled with rich imagery, “The Dark Villages of Childhood” appears
as the antithesis of “On the Road Home,” due to the former's extensive use of
obvious symbolism and sentimental, evocative word choice. The fox in “The Dark
Villages of Childhood” demonstrates the same connotative power of fox symbolism
as Stevens drew upon for “On the Road Home.” In Frech’s work, the fox-image is
simultaneously the natural object-creature, the symbolism behind foxes in
literature, and a comment on the nature of truth and perception. The fox
costumed as a fox demonstrates layers of truth involved in “pretending to be
what one is.” In Stevens' poem, less likely than the two people who were
involved in the discussion (the speaker and “you”) pretending something is that
the topics of the conversation acts as the costumed fox: the truth or integral
moment plays the “dangerous game pretending to be what one is.” In a discussion
about truth, where one person begins “there is no such thing as the truth”
(203) and the participants continue to investigate what truth is not, the truth
itself hides within and around their conversation. In addition, not only is the
topic of conversation “pretending to be what one is,” the natural object-images
pretend as well. They pretend to be mere words. In a poem honed down to the
necessities of intellect to eliminate pathetic fallacy, the natural objects
hide in plain sight, both as objects, as “things,” and as the symbols they are,
with all of the connotative and mythic power their names contain.
The tree and “the fragrance of the autumn” are the last object-images in Steven’s poem depicted as potentially responding to or affected by the conversation. Because of the assumption that these natural objects cannot be scared by voices, as one might argue the fox was, the changing aspects of the forest may only be viewed as symbolic changes in reaction to the words or content of the conversation or as alterations in perception by the speakers themselves. The changing colors of the tree may not be attributed to sunbeams sliding through the topmost foliage of the woods, as the remembered situation occurred during night time. In addition, the verb “smoking” in regard to the tree evokes a haziness, a mistiness, an elusively transitory quality that Stevens' work seems desperate to avoid. The tension between “is” and “seems” underscores the relationship between the images and the meanings of the words themselves. After the dialogue about words and idols, the silence and scent of the woods seems to emphasize the claims made by the speakers. For example, if, at that point, their solitude was broken by animals fighting, or lightning, or some other symbolically evocative image, the reader might be led to believe that the prior conversation was incorrect or dangerous and disregard the implications of the conversation. In various folktales and mythology, natural symbols were used as omens from deities. If something died after the conversation or something natural but destructive occurred, the reader could be manipulated, through the juxtoposition of the comments and the negative acts, to assume that the comments were faulty or anathema to the natural order of life. Instead, the woods or nature or the season itself appears to bless the conversation and topics therein.
The comments in the remembered conversation discuss the nature of truth. The opening salvo that “there is no such thing as the truth” (203) causes the grapes to seem fatter, even if they are not actually changed, and the impression that the fox left his den in response. Perhaps, without the appearance of the natural world's acceptance of the conversation, the discussion would not have continued. The narrator may have meant that humans cannot codify one single truth because people's perceptions are unique to the individual; he might also have meant that the truths indoctrinated or propagandized by religions, governments, or societies are not applicable in the wildness of nature or is not correct to their situation. He could also have been drunk, thus the mention of the grapes, and making an offhand comment, the kind used to boggle the minds of impressionable youths on the way homes from parties. The several modern wine bottle labels featuring grapes and foxes, in a reference to Aesop's tale, could support this theory of drunken egotism. However, the dive directly into his concept that “there is no such thing as the truth” (203) indicates this is a viewpoint with which the narrator has been struggling and is making the effort to convey to his companion.
In the narrator's memory, he hesitates, falters, or stutters when recounting the tale back to “you” (203). Perhaps he is in the grip of extreme emotion (one could argue easily for love or grief or wonder), or he is overcome by the awe of their topic of conversation, the analysis of truth. Caroline Hall described the relationship in the poem as “an affair that takes place in intellectual conversation,” a brilliant statement to capture the almost erotic thrill of the moment of shared epiphany (personal communication, July 7, 2011). Such a moment certainly appears to affect the world or the participants' perceptions of the world when viewed through the lens of the enormity of the conversation. The response of his companion, which caused the tree to change, was “there are many truths, but they are not parts of a truth” (203). This statement could directly respond to the religious concept that all religions struggle toward one ineffable concept or truth. However, the companion's response could also refer to the idea that human utterance is inept, that the act of forming ideas into words automatically renders the words less truthful than the original concepts, loosely referencing Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Words themselves become shadows or imitations of the essences of the actual object-things. In addition, the word “truth” could be used two different ways, that there are many ideas, beliefs, strictures, or doctrines that people believe or follow, but those human-created items have nothing to do with the real truth of the universe, whatever that truth may be.
The fourth and fifth stanzas act together to create a duet between the narrator and “you” to which nature responds as a single assertion, or at least which produces a single response. The narrator says that “words are not forms of a single world. In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts. The world must be measured by eye” (204). On one hand, when one looks at words through Latin and Greek analysis, through the morphemes, words are actually the sum of the parts. Therefore, the narrator may be discussion words not as words but as language, as meaning, even as a response to religion. In Christianity particularly, the Word is used often simultaneously to mean Jesus, the Bible, God, and God's expectations. The narrator could be continuing the discussion in the religious vein and recommending the world not be viewed through that lens or a through a single viewpoint. He suggests that viewing something as the “sum of the parts” is an inadequate method to discover the truth. However, in advising that “the world must be measured by eye” (204), the narrator appears to reject the effects that connotation and symbolism have on human perception and reaction to situations.
The narrator may ignore the importance of connotation, but Stevens has not, as evidenced by his word choices in the next stanza. The companion responds that “the idols have seen lots of poverty, snakes and gold and lice, but not the truth” (204). In this reaction, “idols” could refer distinctly to physical idols as revered by non-Christian practitioners; however, the companion's comment could also refer to the mention, emotional, or spiritual poverty of all religions. Like the words the narrator mentioned, these idols do not reach the truth. In fact, the term idols need not merely refer to religion. Humans have many overarching passions that may blind them to the natural truths, whatever Stevens believes or asserts those to be. People blinded by their quest for money, their love of ambition, their desire for prestige, or even their adoration of education may not be able to measure the world accurately or see the truth beneath their lice-ridden idols. These paired comments by the narrator and his companion are what the narrator remembers right before the perception of a response from nature. At the end of the discussion, the natural world seems directly connected to the speakers; despite his refutation of pathetic fallacy within the work, Stevens uses symbolism and connotation to positively manipulate the reader into perceiving nature's affirmation of the ideas inherent in the conversation.
Not only do the images combined with the concepts within the conversation evoke the tension between refutation of pathetic fallacy and the irony of using symbolism throughout the entire work, but the emotional relationship of the couple, companions, or lovers also adds another layer to the analysis. In the third stanza, the narrator remembers “We were two figures in a wood. We said we stood alone” (203). This comment appears to merely place the speakers in a setting, the wood. However, this explicit statement of location is unnecessary, particularly in such a linguistically spare poem as this one, as the fox and the tree indicate being in a wood. Therefore, Stevens indicates the isolation of humans in the natural environment of the wood.
They may not only be alone as in not with other humans, but they may also be alone emotionally because nature encompasses them in a way that the modern human realms of civilization cannot. In addition, integral to the piece is that “We said we stood alone” [emphasis mine]. The remembered conversation does not logically have a place for either or both communicators to say “we stand alone” or “I stand alone.” In this case, something about the way the characters interact indicates that although they are together in the wood, they stand alone, isolated from each other. Before the conversation, they may have felt distanced from each other. Their relationship and perceptions of each other may be different now that they are in the wood and away from society's supposed truths. The Scarlet Letter and the libretto of the musical Into the Woods have many examples of how being in the woods and away from the strictures of society changes perceptions. However, the inclusion of “we said” indicates that although the companions may have said they stood alone, or were isolated emotionally from each other, they may have been incorrect or faltering under societally influenced mis-perceptions. Although they said they stood alone, they were together, at least ideologically. The conversation itself acts in conjunction with the natural images to bring the speakers together. The further they go from conventional truths and the more they are affected by being in nature, the closer together they may become. The closeness of the people, the ideas, and nature are underscored particularly as the autumn fragrance is “warmest, closest, and strongest” rather than other autumnal words indicating chill, death, or isolation.
Although “On the Road Home” examines truth and the necessity for truth to be “measured by eye” (204), Stevens uses the tension between attempted elimination of pathetic fallacy and poetic symbolism to heighten the emphasis on the concepts within his poem. One might argue that the fox, the grapes, the smoking trees, and the fragrance of autumn are unnecessary because the conversation about the nature of truth is evocative on its own. However, although the individual concepts may be interesting to ponder by themselves, much like the narrator and his companion who “said we stood alone” (203), the philosophical discussion is enriched by the connotations of the choices of natural images and the perception that nature reacted to and had agency within the discussion of truth.
Section Three: Objects as Red Herrings
Despite massive reprinted collections and appearances in several canonical texts used in high school or college classrooms across the country, Robert Lowell's works may not be as popular with the younger generation of poets and readers as some of his contemporaries, such as Wallace Stevens, which is surprising, as his poems appear to use more accessible language than that in Stevens' poems. As the credited originator of “confessional poetry,” Lowell's works, or the style of many of his works, have influenced the style of innumerable authors' later poems, so his poetry is relevant to the modern era. Perhaps the reason many of his works, particularly those of his early period, have not retained their popularity is because of the disservice traditional classroom-encouraged poetic analysis does to his poems, and -in fact- most poetry. Although seemingly obsolete, chock-full of allusions with personal connotations, or so rooted in one personal event as to limit their universality, some of Robert Lowell's early poems hint at themes relevant to the modern age and youthful readers. These themes become clear when the reader delves beneath the words themselves.
While Wallace Stevens repeatedly “rehearsed his obsessions” (personal communication, Halpern, 2011) within his poems in an ever-tightening spiral of objects, truth, and ritual, Robert Lowell's works appear to be about exactly what they say they are about. If a poem is entitled “Cow,” then surely it is about a cow (458). Through various classroom-friendly styles of close-reading, students can quickly recognize and examine the referents in the poem. For example, in “As a Plane Tree by the Water,” the words Babel, Lady of Babylon, Virgin, Bernadette, and Jericho scream, “Hello! I am an allusion! Research me!” in a command for the reader to analyze those allusions and discover modern Bostonion equivalents to underscore meaning within the poem (49). This strategy to understanding poetry is a utilitarian and methodical approach of which both readers and poets are familiar; they share the understanding that if a poet uses eminent or specific allusions, the reader will do the work to understand how those allusions are being used to parse meaning for the specific work and, possibly, discover universality within the poem. Usually, this method leads the reader to deeper meaning of a work beyond the allusions. However, poets are tricksters.
If one of Robert Lowell's goals of his early poetry was to subvert or defy expectations, he surely was not going to stop at merely teasing with iambic pentameter or startling readers with two-word lines in the midst of regular-seeming stanzas. Robert Lowell knew the rules, the tacit understanding between poet and reader, as well as anyone---possibly better than most if he wished to compete with Milton. Therefore, a classroom analysis that stops at the allusions---the words--- falls into Lowell's trap: The reader has stopped at the red herrings that mask the depth of the work. While, with Wallace Stevens' poetry, a reader may immediately respond with, “Yes, that's right; I have absolutely no idea what's going on, so I better read this poem another six or sixty times,” readers of Lowell's poetry may feel a sense of accomplishment after decoding the allusions, figure they have unmasked his work fairly easily, and move on to the next without time for reflection or true analysis. Lowell's superficial appearance of subject or content are merely the first layer of the works; much like the stalling to appear immersed by societally-encouraged small talk that occurs in the first five stanzas of “Skunk Hour” before the all-important line that states “My mind's not right” (191), the allusions in his other works are window dressing, important and necessary to the structures and moods of the poems, but not the entirety of the poems themselves. Although Robert Lowell's early poems may appear to be about a few fixed concepts that defy universality, I propose that those fixed concepts are jokes or masks that hide themes or suppositions that may have been so controversial they required disguise.
Robert Lowell's disguise may be too effective for modern readers: high school students often expect poetry, particularly poetry that appears to be in unified stanzas with the potential for rhyme scheme, to be boring or incomprehensible. Because poetry, neither the reading nor writing of, is not featured on most standardized tests, the area often becomes hidden in the back of literature anthologies used at the high school level; poetry, if focused on at all, often becomes something shoved in “if we get time” unless the teachers have a specific love of poetry or understand how poetry can be used to allow students to grasp the “testable” concepts more easily than novels or short stories. However, those instances are rare, so poetry units often get slammed into limited time or eliminated entirely. Therefore, students used to ripping through poems at a breakneck pace or those who do not read the works aloud, may dislike Robert Lowell's work, not with a fiery passion, but with dazed apathy. However, this dislike may have more to do with modern education and Lowell's own poetic games than the subject matter or underlying themes themselves. Ironically, some of Lowell's darker themes might connect to some aspects of youth culture even more so than the works of modern musicians.
In fact, some currents of Lowell's poems, particularly about intensity and trying to feel human, may have more resonance in today's society than during the time they were written. If a perspective about poetry in general pits the poets who aligned themselves with the darkness (such as Byron, Baudelaire, Voltaire) with those who have a moral center (such as justice-based anger of spoken word poetry), one immediately ponders why can a poet not have a moral center that attempts to balance the darkness, and what happens to a poet who attempts to balance morality and darkness in his or her life or his or her works? Some of Lowell's works can be viewed as psychic temperature checks: Each demonstrates where the personal, as well as cultural or societal, war between darkness and morality stands in that crystallized moment. For the father in “Home After Three Months Away,” the experience of being “frizzled, stale and small” (186) may be worth getting to shave with his baby. However, the darkness of the early poems is ever present: perhaps even in this moment of almost-rightness, of finally getting back to his real life of day-to-day concerns, of remembering how to live inside his life, perhaps even then he wishes to command his heart to “beat faster, faster,” as in “Colloquy in Black Rock” (11).
While Lowell had to ride out and try to just survive the effects of his mental illness, people today have more options, one of which is to choose to revel in those effects. In fact, many “young people enjoy their mania” (Halpern, personal communication, 2011) or are convinced that it is the world and not themselves that needs to be fixed. Even a review of “After the Surprising Conversions” (61-62), a response to The Great Awakening and Jonathon Edward's November 6, 1736 letter “Narrative of Surprising Conversions,” might inspire one to argue that the language of self-annihilation is more seductive than that of the belief of religious good works to which the new converts ascribed. For example, the reiteration of Edward's thought that it seemed the people had been told to “Cut your own throat. Cut your own throat. Now! Now!” cannot be softened or rescinded by the possibility that nature continues as it ever did with boughs heavy with apples and bass “gorged with spawn” (62). Edwards and the reverend speaker (perhaps even Lowell's reinterpretation of Edwards himself) of the poem blamed Satanic influence, but that interpretation may be the poem's mask, the red herring.
The tone may be hidden beneath the poem's words; why is the poem responding to or reinterpreting Jonathon Edward's letter? If the work is not merely a reinterpretation, perhaps it mocks or refutes a society in which mass conversions are encouraged over internal reflection and personal decision-making. For example, the line “too much or too little wit” (61) barely hides the condescension regarding the family of the first suicide. Although Lowell's poem suggests that undergoing conversion, wearing a religious label of identity, and practicing good works associated with that label are not enough to quell the internal battle between intensity and morality, the speaker is unable to distance himself from the battle: He says, “God/Abandoned us to Satan, and he pressed/Us hard, until we thought we could not rest/Till we had done with life” (61). Therefore, this letter is not merely a documentation of events; the reverend himself had felt the lure of suicide. Because of the contagious nature of suicide, that even the reverend felt the pull, the potentially dark readings of the last two lines, and the phrase “The multitude. . .jumped at broad noon” (62), one interpretation of the poem suggests that many people committed suicide, not just the single man.
Dr. Halpern noted that one way Lowell tried to subvert poetry of the time was to “add rawer emotions” to the works. Interestingly, that comment has phonetic similarity to the phrase “add 'rawr' emotions” to the poems. The word “rawr” is a 21st century slang term. It is a joke or meme that has trickled into common parlance: “rawr” initially meant “right answer, wrong reason” in roleplaying jargon, developed into a cutesie way of saying “roar,” and also evolved into a term with sexual undertones. In order to connect Lowell's work to modern high school readers, one could argue that Lowell's poems added “rawr” emotions: the initial superficial analyses that rely primarily on footnoted material rather than sounds of words or repeated phrases or areas of underlying intensity could certainly be considered shades of “right answer, wrong reason,” and the implicit sexual elements of the works are also important in regard to the rawr/rawer elements. Obviously, one can develop theories of sexuality based on the explicitly referenced sexual nature of “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” “The Ghost,” or “Skunk Hour,” but in those works, the sexuality may be part of the mask or the red herrings of the poems, where the sexual themes may be hidden but more important or more relevant to modern audiences in other poems.
Although seemingly referring to a desire for the love of God, the line “though a thirst/ For loving shook him like a snake, he durst/ Not entertain much hope of his estate/In Heaven” from “After the Surprising Conversions” (61) has darker undertones to which the modern audiences might connect. For example, desiring something so much one shakes has less a religious tone than an addictive one: people in the throes of addiction may shake with need, and the mention of “thirst” creates an undercurrent of reference to the shaking need some people have for alcohol as well as when one attempts to refuse the addiction and shakes with delirium tremens. In addition, the combination of the words “loving,” “snake” and “entertain” connect back to the Fall in Gan Eden as well as sexual entertainment to illuminate a potential theme regarding what society might consider sexual deviancy. The snake symbol is often used to represent sin, temptation, and lust, and combined with a “thirst for loving” which “shook him,” the sexuality of the image seems more relevant than the religiosity which most interpretations would emphasize. Later, the two lines of “Abandoned us to Satan, and he pressed/Us hard, until we thought we could not rest” (61) also might contain sexual suggestion. One could argue that a society that oppresses human passions would be more to blame for the suicide(s) in the poem than Satanic influence.
A review of section five of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” (14-18) caused one student to comment, seemingly incongruously, that “violence can be a form of intimacy; it's a way to know you are both alive together” (Lindsay Neves, personal communication, 2011). This comment indicates the potentially controversial underlying tones of some of Lowell's works. If Lowell added rawer (or rawr) emotions to his work in a way to subvert tradition, his desperation for intensity and emphasis on trying to feel human coincide with many aspects of the BDSM lifestyle, a lifestyle whose mores, signals, phrases, and beliefs have permeated modern popular culture. In An End to Shame: Shaping Our Next Sexual Revolution, Reiss posited that sexual pluralism, including aspects of BDSM, needed to be the next element of sexual parity and revolution. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says:
Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as distraction instead of a rallying toward exalted moments. (56)
For some people, “rallying toward exalted moments” requires an intensity that may not be found in socially-accepted mores or behaviors. An intensity to passion or to sensual experience may provide a similar “rawr” element to human interaction that Lowell strives for in his poetry, as in “Colloquy in Black Rock” when his heart starts to “race and stagger and demand” increasing intensity from its “stunned machine of your devotion” (11). These lines may suggest that the desired method or methods of increased intensity stun the part of his self that is still bound by socially acceptable methods of self-control as well that in thrall to external controls, like a prison or insane asylum.
The connections between violence and lust as a method for increasing intensity to connect to one's humanity are not modern ideas; Swinburne's (1866) “Dolores” uses religious construction to echo sadomasochistic themes throughout its prayerful lament to an alternate sacred dark female figure. In fact, “As a Plane Tree by the Water,” which alternately appears to use Christian ideas to chastise Boston as a modern Babylon or develop Christian ideas to save Boston, could also be viewed through the lens of “Delores” because of the lines “Our Lady of Babylon, go by, go by,\I was once the apple of your eye.” Although appearing directly after Christian allusions and seeming to reference the Virgin Mary, the “Lady of Babylon” is not one of Mary's many monikers. Instead, it echoes the “whore of Babylon” slur redolent of lust, pain, and lack of connection to traditional religion.
Though tongue in cheek about “Skunk Hour,” the comment “of course we can't think about sex without thinking of death immediately” (Halpern, personal communication, 2011) demonstrates the cognitive dissonance within Lowell's works: sex and death represent the two ends of the spectrum of human existence. If sex represents the passion or the deviancy or the fulfillment of human endeavor, death represents the cooling of passion, the conformity to the inevitable, or the final achievement. As noted in Stevens' “Sunday Morning,” death adds an immediacy to the enjoyments of life. In the works of poets who seem to relish their darkness, death and passion/sex/lust are often intertwined, as in Swinburne's “Dolores.” However, death always wins; as Lowell noted in in “Colloquy in Black Rock,” “All discussions end in the mud-flat detritus of death” (11). Whether in jail, an insane asylum, one's home, or the sun-dappled yard of an Ivy-league university, all conversations do end in death, sooner or later. The central phrase from “Colloquy in Black Rock” seems to drive many of the poems: “My heart, beat faster, faster” (11). Although that poem is relentless with images and words and ideas that move so fast, this phrase, this command, for more intensity drives many of the works. The directive for one's heart to “beat faster, faster” also has sexual connotations because of the connection of increased heart rate to sexual activity. His poems give the feeling that he was trying to aim for Walter Payter's goals:
“Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy. To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
However, one might argue that, with his changeable poetic nature, Lowell did not succeed in maintaining his ecstasy, his intensity, and that is one reason his poems are not as popular as they once were. His confessional poems demonstrate how burning bright with constant ambition or intensity involves sacrifice, a soul-deep sacrifice that may end with one being “cured” of the passions that drive the intensity, resulting in one becoming “frizzled, stale and small” (186). Perhaps if he had continued to work and rework his obsessions, a la Stevens, the power of his early works might not have needed to hide underneath masks and allusions, and his popularity would never have waned. However, if Lowell had not transitioned from the prophetic stance to the more conversational and accessible language of his confessional works, perhaps he would not have lasted the night, as Edna St. Vincent Millay's work (and my email signature), “First Fig,” declares:
candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
Poets craft their poems, using careful word choice to manipulate the reader through symbols, connotation, and allusions in an attempt to comment on authenticity, or humanity, or truth. Despite a desire to retreat from pathetic fallacy and revel in the intellectual possibilities of the ideas behind the words, Wallace Stevens' use of natural object-images imbues his works with the weight of those words' connotations. For some of Wallace Stevens' works, intricate interwoven words create various access points into multiple levels of meaning. For some of Robert Lowell's poems, the allusions may act as red herrings, distracting readers trained in a particularly type of poetic analysis that emphasizes “cracking the code” of the words over discovering multiple relevancies of the works. Both poets' works demonstrate the importance of word-smithing in developing poems that have maintained their resonance for modern readers and those which should attract modern readers.
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