WS Quote

  • "Compare the silent rose of the sun. And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell, With this paper, this dust. That states the point." ~ Wallace Stevens


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April 26, 2005



I've been following your Stevens commentaries for some time now; I find them both fascinating and illuminating. Mountains of criticism stand in the way of newcomers to Stevens' poetry, and your thoughts and quotations are an indispensable aid to making sense of it all en route to achieving my own understanding. I've also recently become interested in Daoism, thanks in part to Stevens' poetry, this blog, and Qing Jao's "The Modernist Response to Chinese Art."

"On the Manner of Addressing Clouds" is one of my favourite Harmonium poems. I thought that I might share an alternative reading of it, based on a comparison with other poems that seem to share some of its elements.

The "gloomy grammarians in golden gowns" can be read, I think, as a depiction actual clouds in the sky. The cheeky solemnity of this appellation matches the mock-seriousness of "On the manner of addressing..." in the title. The clouds may be "gloomy" because they obscure the sun, which is the source of light and life in Stevens' universe. They are "grammarians" because they are a part of nature that inspires and informs - "elicits" - our speech. The "golden gowns" they wear might refer to their illumination by sunlight, which is occluded, yet still shines through and around them.I think an echo of this image may be found in the opening lines of A Fading of the Sun:

Who can think of the sun costuming clouds
When all people are shaken...

If clouds are our grammarians, i.e, if our words and ideas are shaped by our environment, then the "funest philosophers and ponderers" are those who respond to natural processes that seem stale, repetitive, and inexplicable. Their pessimistic appraisal of existence ultimately derives from, and conforms to, the meaningless motions of clouds. Their words are such words as clouds would speak, were they to give voice to their restlessness and indifference towards human affairs.

Whereas Stevens' "poems of the sun" affirm the transfer of vital energy between nature and the imagination, his "poems of clouds" seem to evoke solitude and mystery. The processions of clouds are stately and remote, beyond our mortal comprehension:

It comes about that the drifting of these curtains
Is full of long motions; as the ponderous
Deflations of distance; or as clouds
Inseparable from their afternoons;
Or the changing of light, the dropping
Of the silence, wide sleep and solitude
Of night, in which all motion
Is beyond us...

(The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician)

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

(The Death of a Soldier)

This leads me to interpret the music "of meet resignation" as that which presupposes an inhospitable universe whose governing principles are alien and unknowable to us. The precise nature of the relationship between our "speech" and the natural phenomena that give rise to it is characterized, on the one hand, by philosophers who evoke, respond to, and sustain reality, and clouds which elicit, and subsequently magnify, the exalted speech of the imagination. It seems to me that this is one of many scenes taken from Stevens' central drama. The singer at Key West who orders the words of the sea, the Doctor of Geneva who transforms its voluble delugings into oracular notations, and the botanist among Alps to whom "corridors of clouds / and corridors of cloudy thoughts / seem pretty much one", all seem to be involved in the same partnership with nature as these philosophers addressing lofty clouds in the sky.

A particularly striking instance of reenactment occurs in "Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction":

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

We are the mimics. Clouds are pedagogues
The air is not a mirror but bare board,
Coulisse bright-dark, tragic chiaroscuro

And comic color of the rose, in which
Abysmal instruments make sounds like pips
Of the sweeping meanings that we add to them.

Here clouds are pedagogues and we, the philosophers, are mimics; the "drifting waste" becomes a hostile place that is "not our own" and "not ourselves". (I find it fascinating to speculate on the way various other elements that occur in the earlier poem might be expressed in this one, for instance, "bright-dark" and "chiaroscuro" as descriptions of the essential unity of a reality that is at once "gloomy" and "golden". The "comic color of the rose" is perhaps rendered in the former poem in terms of playful alliteration and humorous anthropomorphization, as in "Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.")

As far as my own personal beliefs are concerned, what I appreciate most about "On the Manner of Addressing Clouds" is its assertion that nature, for all its majesty and indifference, is impoverished by our absence. A world without philosophers and mimics is splendid, but also mute and bare; our "sweeping meanings" and "still sustaining pomps" are a vital part of the universe.

- Sammy

Hi Sammy,

I really wanted to respond to your wonderful comment, and I sent you an email, but now have no record of it having been mailed, so I want to make sure I give you a response, hence I'm writing one here. I wanted to say how much I love your approach to this poem and how interesting I found your reasoning and interweaving of Stevens' cloud imagery. I love your vision of the clouds as 'golden grammarians in golden gowns,' and your sense that nature 'spoke' to Wallace Stevens, and it seems he understood that speech.

Scholars agree that with Stevens, 'mountains are mountains,' and 'a tree is a tree.' Yet there does also seem to be some discussion of his having been influenced by the symbolist tradition. I don't know about all of this yet, as I am still at the beginning of my self-study of his poetry, still in my first year. But one idea that I've picked up on, in my reading, is that Stevens wanted to do with poetry what modernists (cubists, abstract artists, of whatever stripe) were doing in art and music. So, for me, he succeeded in doing this - not only do his poems work on many levels, but can mean something entirely different to different readers (and hearers) from what he consciously intended when he wrote it. It's just beautiful to read all the many and varied analyses of his poetry by different people, each with tremendous internal consistency and persuasive force. I find his work moves me through many layers of my own - psyche, for lack of a better word - my own multi-layered mind, and I appreciate so much the journey he's taking me on.

Right now I especially am enjoying the work of Thomas Lombardi who related Stevens' poetry to Reading Pennsylvania. My family also lived in Berks and adjacent counties and i grew up in philadelphia, so I find all of this very real and present to me.

I hope you'll write more comments, and even perhaps contribute a post, if you'd like to. Your essay has given me much food for thought. Also, thanks for introducing me to the word apophenia - if not to the reality of it! Cheers, please visit again,

great work with this poetry, in my opinion poetry is one of the most ancient and beauty way to express feelings, for that reason I want to say thank for sharing with the rest of the world.

I had always wanted to learn about this topic ... I think it's great the way you expose .. great work and continuing on with this great blog

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