the world without imagination
Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,
The sovereign ghost. As such, the Socrates
Of snails, musician of pears, principium
And lex. Sed quaeritur: is this same wig
Of things, this nincompated pedagogue,
Preceptor to the sea? Crispin at sea
Created, in his day, a touch of doubt.
An eye most apt in gelatines and jupes,
Berries of villages, a barber’s eye,
An eye of land, of simple salad-beds,
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hung
On porpoises, instead of apricots,
And on silentious porpoises, whose snouts
Dibbled in waves that were mustachios,
Inscrutable hair in an inscrutable world.
(from Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose, p.22)
* * * * *
Most critics agree that this poem is a comic, baroque recitation of his own adventures in poetic consciousness, from home-port in Reading, Pennsylvania to Harvard U, Mass, and the Big Apple. This theory is bolstered by one Stevens scholar who has discovered that Stevens read about an explorer to Yucatan, named John Lloyd Stephens and his illustrator, Frederick Catherwood, (called Mr. C. throughout the book). Stevens begins part two with the subtitle: Concerning the Thunderstorms of Yucatan. This may explain in part the enigmatic ‘letter C’. We know that Stevens wanted to be comic in his poetry, so we know that the poet is the comedian.
In a letter to Hi Simon on January 12, 1940, Stevens wrote that ‘as Crispin moves through the poem, the sounds of the letter C accompany him.’ I love that Stevens felt the inner freedom to play with sound in this way. He remarks that whether hard c or soft c, x, k, ts, and z are all included, and I would add s, as that is soft c sound, and q as the hard c sound. Anyway, it’s just so beautiful when it’s read just for these sound values, all the while noticing its florid imagery, its obscure hints, as in, for example, the ‘silentious porpoises, whose snouts dribbled in waves that were mustachios,’ and still following along a story that develops and makes sense.
Okay, so here’s my take: the opening paragraph begins with the accepted (in his day) Christian credo that ‘man is the crown of creation,.’ but stated in a non-religious, pro-Darwinian way. (This crowning gift, by the way is his intelligence, his Reason - it is invisible, 'spiritual' and hence a 'ghost). But, growing up around farmers, Stevens is perhaps not terribly impressed, as he sees that this ‘sovereign ghost’ is, in fact, ‘the Socrates/of snails, musician of pears.” But let us not forget, he parodies with comic pomposity, this ghost is also named ‘principium and lex.’ In the next sentence, the poet asks, can this dullard possibly be ‘preceptor to the sea’? And he goes on to show us how the farmyard bumpkin, Crispin (or ‘everyman’), with his ‘eye of land, of simple salad-beds, of honest quilts’ was ill-prepared to meet the vast and changeable mysteriousness of the sea.
He remarks that Crispin had had his ‘barber’s eye’ fixed on ‘porpoises, instead of apricots.’ So we knows he doesn’t want to be a farmer, but rather has his eye on higher ‘porpoises’ (purposes?) that are silent and mustachioed – does this refer to his elders, the men of nineteenth century? I might tend to think it refers to the elders, rather than to the great men he admired, read, etcetera, because they are ‘silentious’ (silent) porpoises. But those silent men held a gravity of ‘purpose’ about life, derived from their religious faith. (the salvation story is the model, and also the settling of the ‘new world’ under a Christian rubric was also important to them, but connected them to the old world at the same time.) We know that Stevens' father attempted to influence his son in the direction of 'great purpose' and success. But how much sense, 'in an inscrutable world', did these 'porpoises' make? Were they, along with their mustachios, from another era, a different time and place?
At any rate, Crispin’s life (and Stevens') is all about mom, apple pie and inscrutable, solemn 'porpoises' up to this point. As a joke, I put a quote on my knitting blog that illustrates this point. It was written by Wallace Stevens, as a young man attempting to woo a girl from home. He writes : “The young man with his star, or the young woman with her dreams are not as happy as the man with his cow – and the woman with her knitting.” This is where young Crispin is coming from, purportedly.
But Lisa Steinman in 'Teaching Stevens, Practical Essays,' has a better take. She sees this poem as part of Stevens' ongoing dialogue with William Carlos Williams about realism and imagination in poetry. Williams takes the side of realism, and Stevens tries to show him that reality is always imagined, in poetry and in life. Stein sees Crispin as 'surely a parody of Williams.' (p.176) The two men were also interested in an American poetry, not an extension of European poetry. The poem reads awfully well from these twin points of view. Let's continue.