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Sometimes, he, too, is human and difference disappears and the poverty of dirt, the thing upon his breast, the hating woman, the meaningless place, become a single being, sure and true.

January 15, 2010

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Image from the Bettmann Archive.

WORLD WITHOUT PECULIARITY

The day is great and strong—
But his father was strong, that lies now
In the poverty of dirt.

Nothing could be more hushed than the way
The moon moves toward the night.
But what his mother was returns and cries on his breast.

The red ripeness of round leaves is thick
With the spices of red summer.
But she that he loved turns cold at his light touch.

What good is it that the earth is justified,
That it is complete, that it is an end,
That in itself it is enough?

It is the earth itself that is humanity . . .
He is the inhuman son and she,
She is the fateful mother, whom he does not know.

She is the day, the walk of the moon
Among the breathless spices and, sometimes,
He, too, is human and difference disappears

And the poverty of dirt, the thing upon his breast,
The hating woman, the meaningless place,
Become a single being, sure and true.

Wallace Stevens first collected this poem in his 1950 volume Auroras of Autumn, the last volume of new lyrics he was ever to publish. (“The Rock” and its associated poems were brought together as a part of Stevens’ 1954 Collected Poems.) Auroras won the National Book Award in March 1951, from which point until his death four years later Stevens at last—how hard to believe now that there were ever the slightest reservations as to the matter, and yet there were;—from which point, at last, as I say, Stevens received the general acclaim his work merited.

The first three stanzas of “World Without Peculiarity”—written in the somewhat reserved and abstract tercets Stevens favored in his later work—parallel one another, of course: something in the intimately “social” world (father, mother, lover) is set over against something in the “natural” world (the day, with its sun; the moon, with its night; the red ripeness and round leaves of summer; and so on). We might suppose the impersonality of the pronouns applied to the father and mother (“that” and “what,” e.g.) to be of little significance—until we reach the latter stanzas of the poem, and realize that Stevens is doing something queer, something counter-intuitive, something quite sad and unnerving, with the idea of “humanity”: “sometimes, / He, too, is human and difference disappears / And the poverty of dirt, the thing upon his breast, / The hating woman, the meaningless place, / Become a single being, sure and true.” Sometimes this happens to the “hating woman,” and to “thing” upon his breast that we know to have been his mother. At all other times no unity holds them (that “single thing”), nothing is “sure,” and nothing “true.” And he is the “inhuman” son of an earth he cannot know, as he puts it. I anticipate myself here a bit, and will attend to the tercets as they fall. But an animosity animates the poem—a perfectly humane sort of resentment, as it happens—notwithstanding its graceful movements, its clean and abstract diction. This deftly managed bitterness is what has always touched me. It confesses well, without confessing—this late lyric of family romance, as hard as it is clear, and lovely in the way it partakes of unspeakable grief.

Some biographical background may be helpful here, and for it I draw on Joan Richardson’s biography of the poet (no relation, by the way, to the administrator of this web-log), and on a fine recent essay by Dan Chiasson in The New York Review of Books. Stevens’ father disapproved of his marriage to Elsie Viola Kachel Moll in 1909, and neither he nor Stevens’ mother attended the wedding.

The Mercury Dime

The poet never again spoke to his father, who indeed did go down into the poverty of earth, if not of “dirt,” some two years later, soon to be followed by his wife, the poet’s mother.

Stevens’ relation to his own wife was, by most accounts, never an easy one. Quite the contrary. Their daughter Holly reported that Elsie suffered from a “persecution complex” of some kind, though the meaning of that is not clear. Chiasson states the problem with fine epigrammatic force: Stevens’ “poems were unread at home, where he and his wife were about as intimate as two adjacent gravestones.” (It is a matter of merely incidental interest, though often noted, that sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, from whom the young married couple rented an apartment in New York, made a bust of Elsie in 1913, which so struck Weinman that it later became the model for his 1916-1945 Mercury dime design.) So much anyway should do for my purposes here, which are not really biographical, of course, as the lyric dislocates Stevens at least so far as third person pronouns can. Anyway, the poem tells us most everything we need to know, in its lovely, awful, melancholy way. I will begin where Stevens does, with that stanza about the father:

The day is great and strong—
But his father was strong, that lies now
In the poverty of dirt.

The post's father, Garrett Barcalow Stevens. Photo in the Huntington Library.

What’s meant is simply that the father died. How “strength” and “greatness” inhere in “the day” is not made precisely clear (though it will become clearer later in the poem); it is at first simply stated. The day belongs to the sun, of course, if not to the father or to the son. But the logical hinge in this tercet is odd, and creaks a bit in the telling way of old doorways into the past: “The day is great and strong—but. . .” But what? But “his father” died. His “strength” was of a different kind than that possessed by “the day,” which is a measure of Time, a marker of “the times” worth marking, and also a thing that falls, with its sun, only to rise again and again and again. This father had had his day, as all men do, but it wasn’t really his day. The day overtakes all of us, overtakes us into night. The day has us.

But what’s most queer are the “poverty” and the “dirt.” We usually speak not of “dirt,” in referring—respectfully, anyway—to where the dead lie, but of “dust,” or of “earth.” (The counter-examples are such Americanisms for dying as taking a “dirt nap.”) A faint air of recrimination hangs about these lines, as the father is consigned not merely to “dirt” (as against, say, the more familiar Anglican “dust”), but to the poverty of dirt. Some might object that the recrimination is leveled not against the father so much as against the fact of death. Perhaps. But I rather doubt this poem merely rages against the dying of the light, given what follows in the wake of these opening lines, and in the poem as a whole:

Nothing could be more hushed than the way
The moon moves toward the night.
But what his mother was returns and cries on his breast.

The poet's mother, Margaretha Catharine Zeller. Photo in the Huntington Library.

Not the dead mother, but “what” the dead “mother was” returns and “cries,” as if laying unwelcome claim on the man’s (slightly disingenuous) commitments to the “hush” of the moon as it “moves toward the night,” as moons do, at dusk. The feeling here, the affect, is against whatever it is that “cries” out upon us from merely human and familial motives—unless we are to suppose that Stevens invites us to condemn the man inhabiting this poem for (what would it be?) his cold-hearted sensibility. I don’t think he is. Because soon, as I have already suggested, Stevens does something quite unusual and difficult with our notions of the “human” and the “inhuman.” And as he does it we come to feel the bitter fact that the social world, the familial world, offered such poor requital to his overtures, his desires (insofar as he and the man spoken of in the poem are of a kind). But first, the next party to this most estranging “family romance” of a poem, the lover, the wife:

The red ripeness of round leaves is thick
With the spices of red summer.
But she that he loved turns cold at his light touch.

King Midas with his daughter, from "A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (illustrated edition of 1893). Here Midas turns his daughter, not his wife, into cold gold "at his light touch."

One is, I suppose, allowed to wonder what Elsie Stevens thought of this if it ever passed before her eyes, notwithstanding, again, the slight dislocation of the poet from the “he” of the poem. But as Chiasson reminds us, Stevens’ poetry wasn’t read at home anyway. So what we have here is an expression of one kind of despair—frustrated desire—offered up with disarming, if oblique, candor: after all, Stevens simply must assume that he writes for readers who know, at least implicitly, that he is himself party to a family that includes a wife. This tercet is a kind of plea.

More particularly, we have, on the one hand, the sensuous and erotic allure of the summer heat, with its “red ripeness” and “round leaves thick / With the spices of red summer”; and, on the other hand, a manifest (domestic) “winter” in reply to the touch of the man spoken of (if not of the poet speaking). She “that he loved turns cold at his light touch.” As a lover, he has—or is made to have by the supposed frigidity of the woman he loved, or was yoked to—a kind of Midas touch: only the consequence of his touch is cold, not gold. (And it is, as with Midas, a curse.) Three strikes, three blows, in these opening nine lines: a death into dirt, “what” a mother “was” crying against the “hush” of the moon, and a lover who cannot or will not (or both can’t and won’t) requite a “light touch.” I shall set aside whether there may be something invidious here; I do not chiefly have to do with the family of the poet, but with the family of the man evoked in the poem. Though I do think of what Stevens says in Adagia: “Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me it is an affair of places and that is the problem.” All of which brings us to the more difficult lines in the poem:

What good is it that the earth is justified,
That it is complete, that it is an end,
That in itself it is enough?

It is the earth itself that is humanity . . .
He is the inhuman son and she,
She is the fateful mother, whom he does not know.

Cover of "Harmonium," in its second edition.

The first two lines here might well second-guess (so to speak) the poet’s most oft-reprinted work, “Sunday Morning,” which appeared first in Poetry Magazine in 1915, and then was collected in Stevens’ first volume, Harmonium. “Shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?” the poet asks there. To which he makes quick reply: “The sky will be much friendlier then than now, / A part of labor and a part of pain, / And next in glory to enduring love.” Should all this follow upon our recognition that the earth—the natural, as against the super-natural, the mundane as against the ultra-mundane—is all of paradise that we shall know, or need to know;—should all of this follow upon that great recognition, well, what of it, when even the lightest touch of the man spoken of here turns his lover to cold gold (as if, say, she somehow really did inhabit the Mercury Dime)? What of it, when the father lies in his dirt—is, now, in fact the dirt? What of it when “what” one’s mother “was” eternally returns with “cries” upon the breast of her son, as if in some odd reversal of childhood and child-bearing roles? And from there we move from real mothers to the Mother of All Things: Earth. “It is the earth itself that is humanity . . . / He is the inhuman son and she, / She is the fateful mother whom he does not know.” The alienations grow too manifold to bear at this point. Dead fathers, weeping mothers, cold lovers, and a “son” who doesn’t even know, as the poet who penned “Sunday Morning” did, the love of the earth, with its deer at play in the mountains, its plums and pears, its “sweet berries” ripening “in the wilderness.”

This earth mother is said to be “fateful” (where one might prefer, I suppose, to hear “faithful,” at least in relation to familial mothers). “Fateful” in what sense? In O.E.D. sense 3, say? “Marked by the influence of fate; controlled as if by irresistible destiny.” Or in OED sense 4? “Bringing fate or death; deadly.” Both, I should think. “We people are thrust forward,” as Robert Frost says in his 1935 “Letter” to The Amherst Student, “out of the rolling clouds of nature.” The natural world, the earth, simply casts us up, into existence, and into consciousness of our suffering (if we are men and women). It casts us up into vitality and all that follows from it: “birth, copulation, and death,” as T.S. Eliot’s “Sweeney” puts it—all of which facts underlie, needless to say, the first three tercets of “World Without Peculiarity,” as a kind of standing admonition. All animals live to suffer. But only we live to suffer lovers grown cold at the lightest of touches. That sort of pain, intimated, but never made confessional in the way of later poets, is simply the data of this poem.

So how can we “know” our “fateful mother,” the “earth itself”? We shall, to be sure, be in her embrace soon enough, given our three score years and ten. But the knowing of the earth that gives such piquancy to “Sunday Morning” is foreclosed in “World Without Peculiarity.” Chiasson again: “Stevens had once, in ‘Sunday Morning,’ observed those ‘sweet berries ripen[ing] in the wilderness.’ It is hard for readers, just as it was for Stevens and for the same reasons, to allow ‘the little reds / Not often realized,'” of which he writes in the late poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” “to take their place: one can eat a bowl of berries, but not a bowl of reds. Stevens had seen too much decay to throw his lot in, this late in life, with matter.”

We see Stevens sorting this out—whether or not to “throw his lot in” with “matter,” or with the merely natural—in the poem under review here. Which brings me back to that first great counter-intuitive line, the one that casts the reader off his expectations, and which trails off into meditative ellipsis: “It is the earth itself that is humanity . . .” It isn’t easy to give sense to this line. But—to take one tack anyway—if we say that the “earth itself is humanity,” if we identify “earth” with “humanity,” we do two things: first, we speak a kind of Darwinian language, for Darwin was the man who brought “humanity” down to earth and out of the bright and ordered heaven; and, second, we engage in the kind of etymological excavations that Stevens’ poetry is full of. He runs through the usual and probably correct derivation of the word “human,” from the Latin “humanus” (“of or belonging to people”), and courts the oft-made suggestion that that word is related also to the Latin “humus,” which means what sales-clerks in the gardening department of your local Lowes still use it to mean: the organic part of the soil, as opposed to the mineral part, and which, as Darwin devoted his later years to showing, is the stuff of earth-worms, who work us, and everything else organic, over in the poverty of dirt. (“The worms” dwell “at heaven’s gate,” as Stevens puts it in another poem.) Alienation from the earth, in this sense, is what being alive means: we are its “inhuman” sons and daughters—until we become, in due course, what the father in this poem, who was once strong (though not “great”), becomes: food for worms. As our On-Line Dictionary of Etymology has it: “mid-13c., from M.Fr. humain ‘of or belonging to man,’ from L. humanus, probably related to homo (gen. hominis) ‘man,’ and to humus ‘earth,’ on notion of ‘earthly beings,’ as opposed to the gods (cf. Heb. adam ‘man,’ from adamah ‘ground’).” From earth we came, to it we return: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, human to humus. Insofar as we are “conscious” creatures, able to suffer in the ways implied or stated outright in the poem’s first three tercets, we are, in some strange sense, “inhuman”—precisely because we are other than merely natural.

I realize that I’m working this rather hard. But I want to give sense to these lines. Say what you will or won’t about them, there they stand, astonishing in implication if you take them at all seriously, which I think you must, in a poem about “the hating woman,” “the thing” his mother “was,” and “the meaningless place”—with whom, and in which, the “he” of the poem finds himself entangled. The earth is human, and we, her sons and daughters, are not. We have to do, here, with something other than “man’s inhumanity to man,” or similar truisms—and this notwithstanding the suffering registered so clearly, if abstractly, in the poem. Take Stevens at his word. Most of our lives are spent in “inhuman peculiarity,” not in “human similarity.” And this lyric craves a world where no such peculiarity obtains. And so we arrive at the last two tercets:

She is the day, the walk of the moon
Among the breathless spices and, sometimes,
He, too, is human and difference disappears

And the poverty of dirt, the thing upon his breast,
The hating woman, the meaningless place,
Become a single being, sure and true.

When, in American poetry more or less allied with pragmatism, as Stevens’ poetry is, we find a man speaking of those rare moments when “difference disappears”; when such discord amongst nearest kin as has been logged in “World Without Peculiarity” resolves itself into “a single being, sure and true”; when we find identity in a state of happy dissolution (in this case, a dissolution back into the “fateful mother” that is “the earth,” rather than the actual mother, the “thing upon his breast”);—when all these things are brought to bear on us, we are nearing our man Ralph Waldo Emerson, though in a revisionary way. I have in mind two passages from Nature (1836):

Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.

R.W. Emerson, in the late 1850s.

Let us suppose that, for Stevens, “the earth itself,” and “all other men,” are what “Nature” is for Emerson: the not him. (Recall again that “Life,” for him, is not “an affair of people.”) And let us suppose that, for Stevens, his own “peculiarity,” his own “peculium,” is what the Soul is for Emerson: the him of it all. I have in mind O.E.D. sense 1 for “peculium”: “That which is allocated to a particular individual; a private or exclusive possession; (also) the particular concern of an individual.” And O.E.D. sense 2.a for “peculiar” (adj.): “Of property, possessions, etc.: that belongs or relates to one person, place, or group, as distinct from others; that is a person’s private property. Usu. modified by a possessive.”

A world “without peculiarity” would be a world without individuation, without manifold identities—which would also imply a world beyond, or bereft of, the social. It would be a world in which “difference disappears.” And here “difference” means both “antagonism” or “dispute” (in the affective register) and “dissimilarity” (in a more neutral register). And that is what the poem announces itself as desiring: a world where nothing is separated, articulated, variegated, “peculiar.” This brings me to the next, and best known, passage in Emerson’s Nature:

Christopher Cranch's famous caricature of Emerson as a "transparent eye-ball."

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. 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. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

“Uncontained and immortal beauty” is beauty disembodied, beauty no longer “peculiar.” Emerson finds it in the wilderness, in the “tranquil landscape”; Stevens finds it in “the earth itself,” that “fateful mother” whom, when he is bound up in his peculium—which is to say almost always—he “does not know.” But notice this: Stevens has inverted Transcendentalism. On those rare “sometimes” when his differences “disappear”—when, let us say, “all mean egotism vanishes”—he is taken down into identity with the “fateful mother” that is “the earth itself,” not upward toward any divinity. He loses the “inhumanity” that sets him apart from the humus.

Let’s say, then, that Stevens’ chief problem, the one he both poses and attempts to overcome, in such works as “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction,” is this: What to do in a world in which Transcendental possibilities are not live options? Or rather, let’s say, to further refine the matter, that Stevens poses the following question in “World Without Peculiarity”: What to do in a world where, to paraphrase Emerson, men and women do not treat one another well, do not treat one another “as if they were real,” ignorant (as they are) of the possibility that men and women may be real. “Let us treat the men and women well,” Emerson says in “Experience,” “treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.” If—as I have said elsewhere in these web-pages—you would trace the origins of American pragmatism back to Emerson, as for example Richard Poirier does, in such books as Poetry and Pragmatism (which treats, of course, Wallace Stevens), then I think you must do it here. All virtue lies in that “perhaps,” and all contingency, and all solidarity (as another American pragmatist, Richard Rorty, might put it). That “perhaps” holds off all final vocabularies, all foundations, and it allows for what any embrace of Emerson within pragmatism must allow for: an escape from Transcendentalism.

Stevens frustrated himself in that escape; he never really achieved its velocity. Why? Because that “single being” spoken of in the last line (“sure and true”) is both one in which, for Stevens, his difference with the earth disappears, and “the name of the nearest friend” implicitly sounds “foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance”; and also one in which the several peculia (so to speak) of the family here invoked (father, mother, wife/lover) are at last harmonized, as they never were in Stevens’ own household—though harmonized in an identity with “the earth itself,” as if some occult wish underlay the poem that the whole botched family enterprise be consigned to “[roll] round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees,” as Wordsworth puts it in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” another poem on the work of mourning. In short, “World Without Peculiarity” is at once, and equivocally, a wish for the negation of of the “inhuman” world of people, and a terrifically moving wish that it were possible to inhabit, with ease and satisfaction, exactly that.

I’ll close with three epigrams from Steven’s Adagia, one of which I have already twice cited:

Happiness is an acquisition.

The highest pursuit is the pursuit of happiness on earth.

Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.

We are concerned here not with the fabled Jeffersonian “pursuit of happiness,” but with the pursuit of it on earth, where it must be acquired (because it is never given, is never a given: that data just isn’t in). And the “trouble” is that this “pursuit,” and this “acquisition,” must be, and can only be, an “affair of people”: the hating woman, the maternal “thing,” with all its “cries,” and fathers who are dead to the world.

N.B.: For a link to the pages devoted to Stevens at the Modern American Poetry site (University of Illinois), click here. For a link to the Wallace Stevens Journal, click here. For Wallace Stevens at the Poetry Foundation, click hereI should also note here that this “post,” as we call such things when found in web-logs, appeared also, in a slightly different form, in one of the journals published “in-house” at my university. 

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