The full text of this poem may be viewed here. Selections will appear below.
Helen Vendler writes in On Extended Wings (p. 63) that this poem “remains uncertain in its wild variations of mood and self-regard.” She thinks it relates to the unhappy aspects of Stevens’ marriage, while others believe the poem is about falling in love at forty. I have very little to say about this poem, because I haven’t got a clue what it’s about. Stevens himself said “I had in mind simply a man fairly well along in life, looking back and talking in a more or less personal way about life” (LWS, p.251) However, one finds that many of Stevens’ brief passages to editors about his poetry may not be reflective of his deepest and most real sense of the poem, and may be phrased more in terms of convenience. As he says elsewhere, “Explanations spoil things.”
But William Ford of the Wallace Stevens Newsletter fame, has an interesting theory that the poem may refer to a brief acquaintanceship with ‘an angel,’ as Stevens wrote of her in 1950, 48 years after the fact of meeting her during a vacation at an Adirondack lake in 1902. Perhaps he looked back on this brief interlude with that certain longing that arises in middle age for the road not taken. The poet lives by inner realities, changed by personal associations and experimentations, more than other people do, and (one assumes) more consciously. At any rate, according to Ford, this young lady’s uncle had only one good eye, and Ford finds other possibly very personal plays-on-words that might indicate the poem is about her, for example a play on her name, ‘Sybil’, in ‘the radiant bubble that she was…bursts its watery syllable.” Ford’s theory is at least nine-tenths speculation, but it does make for a more comprehensible reading of the poem.
Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, by Wallace Stevens
“Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds,
O scepter of the sun, crown of the moon,
There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing,
Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.”
And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.
The sea of spuming thought foists up again
The radiant bubble that she was. And then
A deep up-pouring from some saltier well
Within me, bursts its watery syllable.
(from Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, p.10)
The poem begins with a desperate and impassioned prayer. The ‘two words that kill’ – what were they? Some sort of refusal spoken by Sybil? Did she turn him down in some way, did she demur? Stevens writes that he “mocked her in magnificent measure.” The poem he wrote to her, ‘To Sybil Gage,’ available to read in Souvenirs and Prophecies, the Young Wallace Stevens, p. 103 was indeed mocking toward the two educational theorists she held in highest regard. If he wrote and gave her this poem before he asked her out, he made a serious tactical error. Is the “much crumpled thing” in verse ii a note from Sybil, or perhaps a copy of the unfortunate poem?
At any rate, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle seems to be an expression of the combined regret, chagrin, and pleasure over the fact that this past event can still arise with so much feeling at forty, when surely the two main players are both aging (“like warty squashes”, verse viii), have long ago made their choices in life, and have no more contact. This reading of the poem is true to Stevens’ brief encapsulation of it as “a man fairly well along in life, looking back and talking in a more or less personal way about life.” He mulls, reflects, and extrapolates all over the turf, like an oyster sifting sand around its central pearl.
More will follow on subsequent verses.