Wallace Stevens

In The Book of Forms—which, when I was teaching myself the rudiments of meter, was perhaps the most helpful source I encountered—Lewis Turco includes a few “rules of scansion in English” (p. 19). Here is one of the rules:

In any series of three unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.

There is a corresponding rule for three stressed syllables in a row: one of them will fail to take a stress. Turco calls these “rules of thumb,” an appropriate designation since they have exceptions. The famous exception to the rule for stressed syllables is Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. The heavy pauses between each “break” allow each stress to emerge fully, without the middle being demoted.

Can something similar happen with the rule against three consecutive unstressed syllables? It can. The poem Fabliau of Florida by Wallace Stevens is a nice illustration:

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

The lines range from monometer (are dissolving) to trimeter (foam and cloud are one), though many lines can be scanned in multiple ways, depending on just how heavy the stress is. For this particular poem, I prefer to count only the heaviest, clearest stresses, for reasons detailed below.

The lines I am most interested in are the last two lines. To satisfy the rule forbidding three consecutive unstressed syllables, the lines must be scanned as being at least trimeter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

—and perhaps even as tetrameter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

But both of these ways of scanning the line fundamentally mishear it, and miss the rhythm of the poem. Let us drop immediately the fantasy of stressing the first syllable of each line: they both clearly open with anapests (there will nev-; to this dron-). The entire poem is lightfooted, giving each stress space to breathe, except where it takes a heavier hand for a specific, local effect: “fill your black hull / with white moonlight.”

The only real question concerns “be” and “of”, syllables that are naturally unstressed, but which seem to be likely candidates for promotion as the middle occupants of a string of three unstressed syllables. Read the lines aloud, however, and listen. Each falls into two natural units:

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both “be an end” and “of the surf” are natural anapests, and this comes out in reading the line. The key is that, in reading the lines, there is the slightest of pauses where I have placed the “|”. That pause eliminates the need to stress “be” and “of”. Thus the proper scansion is (with the vertical bar now indicating a break between feet):

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both lines are anapestic dimeter, with the first anapest of each line containing what might be called a mid-line feminine ending. This is the only reading of the lines that does justice to their lightness.

Why insist on this? It reveals a more general point about meter. While there is a clear distinction between heavy stresses and the complete absence of stress, there is a whole range of intermediates whose proper treatment is less clear. A system of meter should introduce some ordered way of approaching them. That is what Turco’s rules do, and they do it ably, in a way that works for the majority of metrical English language poems. But there is nothing inherent in the language that requires that syllables that take a light stress count toward a line’s stress count. It really depends on the sort of regularity one is trying to create. Stevens, in Fabliau of Florida, was writing in a loose, light meter where it is only appropriate to emphasize the heavier stresses, and that creates a context in which the very slight stresses placed on “be” and “of” should not be counted as proper stresses.

In the end, the ear is the supreme judge, and will tolerate system only so far.

Poem: Infanta Marina
Poet: Wallace Stevens

Her terrace was the sand
And the palms and the twilight.

She made of the motions of her wrist
The grandiose gestures
Of her thought.

The rumpling of the plumes
Of this creature of the evening
Came to be sleights of sails
Over the sea.

And thus she roamed
In the roamings of her fan,
Partaking of the sea,
And of the evening,
As they flowed around
And uttered their subsiding sound.

A woman steps out on her terrace, carrying a fan, and as she opens up the delicate instrument and begins those familiar movements of her wrist, her mind reaches out and makes of the fan a world, a boat on the sea, carrying her nowhere in particular, carrying her over the sea that gives to the evening air a briny tang.

And then it ends and, we imagine, she goes back inside.

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.


Poem: No Possum, No Sop, No Taters (link)
Poet: Wallace Stevens

Legend tells us of a race of people far in the north, further north than even the cold can reach. There they lead a blessed life, these Hyperboreans. Pindar knew them, and spoke of them. Nietzsche was sometimes convinced he was one of them.

But Wallace Stevens knows the earth is round, knows the north terminates in cold, in regions where:

Snow sparkles like eyesight falling to earth,

Like seeing fallen brightly away.

But in this harsh solitude, devoid of sun, is a certain truth, the primordial truth. Indeed, “bad is final in this light,” and yet:

It is here, in this bad, that we reach
The last purity of the knowledge of good.

The poem has to this point proceeded with four-beat lines, hovering in the vicinity of iambic tetrameter, but only in the vicinity. Yet here Stevens substitutes in a line of anapestic trimeter, with commas separating out each foot: it is here, in this bad, that we reach. But where anapestic substitutions normally lighten a line, an effect that here should be only enhanced by the loss of a beat, the line here is heavy. The heavy mid-line stoppages make each stress especially weighty, forbids them to blend into the rush of speech. Such blending occurs in the next line, where the first ‘of’ takes a stress so faint as to be almost absent altogether. Thus the bad, though short in syllables and in stresses, dominates the couplet, as if it itself were one of the broken stalks of this wasteland.

Sparseness is the Moral Law of this landscape, a law that governs even companionship. The crow, with bright “malice in his eye,” is our only companion, and then, still:

One joins him there for company,
But at a distance, in another tree.

Such an image may, for another, be a grim and lonely vision. Not for me. Too well I know such wastes—too well, certainly, to hope for Hyperborean revelry. No, what this image tells me is, company is possible. Today, of all days, when it seems most incredible, this poem has saving power.

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”?