Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
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,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
About Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania and died on August 2, 1955, in Hartford, Connecticut. He won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, along with the Bollingen Prize and the Frost Medal. He was one of the American poets who were considered the high priests of literary modernism, along with T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Frost. He was a presence in poetry for more than four decades and had an enormous impact on poetry’s substance and direction.
Stevens, an impressive intellect, was both a poet and a kind of philosopher of aesthetics. The two can’t really be separated. He explored aesthetics as much as if not more than most other subjects. As a young man working in New York City after his graduation from Harvard, he was strongly influenced not only by poets but also by the contemporary art scene. He was in his early 30s when the New York Armory Show rocked the art world (and the American public) in 1913. He was friends with artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and poets like William Carlos Williams.
Wallace Stevens was also a businessman. He first tried his hand at journalism, turned to law school, and then took his law degree to the insurance industry. After working with a number of smaller firms, he eventually joined the Hartford Insurance Company, where he worked until his death in 1955.
His work required him to travel extensively, all over the eastern United States, the Midwest, and Texas, and he maintained a blistering travel schedule for a long time. The schedule had occasional benefits to his poetry, such as stopping by the offices of Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine when he was in Chicago. But while he was often encouraged to teach or pursue a more academic profession, he chose to stay with his insurance company, eventually reaching the office of vice president of the Surety Division.
As for Wallace Stevens the family man, the portrait is less flattering. His parents did not attend his marriage to Elsie in their hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, as they did not consider it a suitable match. He broke with his father over it, and he didn’t see him again until his father’s funeral. He was not especially close to his two brothers or his two sisters, but he would grow closer to their children after his siblings’ deaths. As for his relationship with his wife, while there’s not even a wisp of a rumor of unfaithfulness, it’s clear that Stevens was unhappy in his marriage. Elsie rarely traveled with him, even for vacations; Stevens loved his trips with his drinking friends to Key West and similar points south. And his drinking often begat boorish behavior, such as when he insulted Ernest Hemingway and paid for it with black eyes.
Stevens left behind an extensive writing record: eight poetry collections published during his lifetime, including The Collected Poems, published in 1954 (which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and a collection of essays, The Necessary Angel (1951). Works published after his death include Opus Posthumous (1957), Collected Poetry and Prose published by the Library of America in 1997, and Selected Poems published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2009. His daughter Holly Stevens also edited his letters, published in 1966.
Stevens was a major presence in American poetry and letters. He was often controversial but never boring. He wrote in the flood time of literary modernism and helped shape it and channel it.
(bio by Glynn Young)