In The Carolinas
The lilacs wither in the Carolinas.
Already the butterflies flutter above the cabins.
Already the new-born children interpret love
In the voices of mothers.
How is it that your aspic nipples
For once vent honey?
The pine-tree sweetens my body.
The white iris beautifies me.
(from , Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose , p. 4)
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One thing I agree with Helen Vendler about, is that Stevens experimented a lot before he truly found his voice. Nevertheless, his unique voice can be heard even in these (very successful) experiments. I find this to be the case in ‘In the Carolinas.’
In the first stanza, he fools around with trochaic metre, with ‘l’, ‘t,’ ‘b’ and hard ‘c’ to create a thrumming rhythm, regular yet slightly irregular like the rhythm and motion of a butterfly's wings, and alternating, with a southern soft and feminine drawl, especially through the use of ‘th,’ and through a slowing of the pace due to the difficulty of executing that sound. In addition, the repetition of the word ‘already’ slows down the pace of the rhythm and of thought. The softness of the short ‘o’ in ‘mothers’ and in ‘love’ contributes to this softening effect. The softening is southern, the thrumming is the soft thrumming of butterfly wings. We feel as if we are in the mountains of Carolina in a vacation mode.
He brings in the issue of mother’s love. The ‘aspic nipples’ caught my attention. My Compton’s Etymological Dictionary defines aspic as a ‘savoury meat gelatin.’ Indeed, the female nipple does have a gelatinous quality, and Stevens was far more earthy than most of us, sitting behind our computers, have had opportunity to be. His forbears were Dutch Reformed country people of Pennsylvania. My own forbears hail from the same region and I recognize the ‘plain’ earthiness of the consciousness of a man who once said that the words of his poem: “’The hair of my blonde/Is dazzling,/As the spittle of cows/Threading the wind’….(was) suggested to him by seeing his wife’s hair streaming in the wind when she was a girl.” (p.108, P.Brazeau, Parts of a World). Due to our rather hackneyed and conventional way of seeing things, most of us would think it was a sort of left-handed compliment on Stevens part to make this comparison. But my experience of people from a similar background is that they truly are capable of appreciating the beauty of silvery strands of bovine spittle in the wind. They are a contemplative lot, and anything that shines in nature is appreciated.
Stevens loved the south, so perhaps that is why he remarks upon the beneficence of southern weather: the ‘timeless mother’ (Nature) ‘vents honey’ in the south.
The opening line is summarily explained by The Gardener’s Net: “Weather will have a lot to do with how long your (lilac) blooms last. Once the buds begin to open, pray for a cool dry spell.” Lilacs are a flower of northern climes. The warm humid climate of the Carolinas cannot be home to the hardy northern plant which is Stevens' usual fare. Instead the soft, playful sweetness and beauty of the Carolinas envelopes and suffuses him. "The pine-tree sweetens my body, the white iris beautifies me."
Is this a nature-ecstasy poem? The closing couplet would suggest it. The italicized lines identify the poet with nature, suggesting the consciousness of ‘final participation’ that Owen Barfield speaks of. I wish I knew more about the development of poetry in the twentieth century, so I could more fully understand what Stevens was about in this poem.