Wallace Stevens’ “Evening Without Angels” begins with an ambiguous question, ambiguous not in meaning but in tone:
Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d’orchestre?
Our poet might here be asking, innocently, what is the cause or reason for this task with which he finds himself presented, to conduct these angels, to evoke beauty out of them. But he equally might, more nefariously, be suggesting that there is something wrong with this picture.
This latter suggestion immediately seems to be borne out:
…………………………………..Air is air,
Its vacancy glitters round us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.
The air, the wind, does not speak with the voice of angels but in a human voice, as yet “unfashioned” and “more furious,” not yet tamed by the forms of words and syntax. And even light, that trickster who presents us to us seraphic illusions, is shown up for what it is:
Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.
The angels are our own concoction (as are the ghosts of night, to which we shall return).
So angels are unreal. The second reading of the opening question is confirmed. What remains is to present the alternative. Here, complications arise. We are:
Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.
In the wind we hear ourselves, and in echoing its sounds we echo ourselves, find our own speech. This act of repetition, for me, becomes indistinguishable from the creation of angels. Once we realize that, speaking now in the voice of the hard-nosed scientist, the idea that the wind presents our primordial speech, and we merely repeat it, lacks sufficient sense even to be false—once we realize that, what difference is there between finding our speech in the wind and finding angels in the wind? Both, at least, are acts of imaginative creation.
This becomes more apparent in the following stanza.
Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings…
Light is insubstantial in itself. What it does is merely make visible what precedes it, “the motions of the mind,” those “moodiest nothings.” The mind is primordial. The material takes on form only under the mind’s provocation.
We have remained, thus far, within the realm of the day, with only a hint of night, and even then the night served merely to lead us back to angels, those tricks of light. And for good reason, for “we are men of sun / And men of day and never of pointed night.” Yet—if I have correctly parsed the penultimate stanza—“desire for rest” is as much a moody nothing as “desire for day,” and will be given its due.
The poem ends with a vision of evening, “when the measure skips a beat / and then another” (note here the metrical trick, the stanza-opening headless iamb that, though it skips somewhat less than a full beat, still works to underscore the sense). Once evening arises, our earlier insistence on the day ceases. Now, “Bare night is best. Bare earth is best.” We huddle low in our houses,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.
In this gazing at the moon, this rising of our great voice, have we really escaped the creation of ghosts? And just as night gives way to day, will not these ghosts lead us “back to angels, after death”?