Poem: Invective against swans
Poet: Wallace Stevens
Invective against swans
The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind.
A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures
Like one who scrawls a listless testament
Of golden quirks and Paphian caricatures,
Bequeathing your white feathers to the moon
And giving your bland motions to the air.
Behold, already on the long parades
The crows anoint the statues with their dirt.
And the soul, O ganders, being lonely, flies
Beyond your chilly chariots, to the skies.
It is a rare thing, the poem-as-polemic that succeeds at both tasks. This poem manages that balance. This success begins with the invective itself, which may be found in the middle four stanzas. Here, Stevens summons the clichés of bad poetry to attend their own public humiliation. The difficulty, of course, is that Stevens must himself not lapse into cliché. This he manages in a few ways. The “bronze rain” is saved by Stevens’ wise choice to have this beleaguered description be endured, not by the reader, but by time itself. The “listless testament / Of golden quirks” is livened, in Stevens’ hands, by the just-strange-enough invocation of the “Paphian caricatures” (suggesting illicit sexual love).
The entry of sex into the poem brings out a clever pun that Stevens leaves below the surface, as he ought. A “gander-moon” is the month after a woman’s confinement, i.e. childbirth. Thus Stevens quietly hints at the consequences of this illicit love, consequences likely lost in the vapid descriptions of “golden quirks.” Meanwhile, “bequeathing” hits just the right note of purple, and Stevens doesn’t pour it on too thick, allowing the swans’ “motions” to be, not bequeathed, but more modestly given. And then, of course, comes the most direct satire, the contrast between the swans and the crows that come in droves in autumn and shit on everything (I know from experience). Here, again, we Stevens brings out the consequences that are absent in the poems he is mocking: if summer is ending, that means the crows are arriving, and with them their shit.
But what takes this poem out of the realm of mere invective and makes it into something more satisfying is the pair of stanzas that bracket the poem. Here we get a sense of the loneliness that the narrator feels upon reading such uninspired poetry. He cannot fly with them. Even if it is haughty and aristocratic, it gives the poem a human touch. It is not mere mockery.
I was at first surprised that this poem should have appeared second in Harmonium, Stevens’ first collection. But, on reflection, it makes some sense. For the crows that tell the end of summer usher in the cold, and it is in the cold that Stevens thrives as a poet, as I have discussed before on this blog.