Ian Brinton reviews
by Edward Ragg
In this highly persuasive and readable account of the later poetry of Wallace Stevens Edward Ragg examines the world of abstraction and the practice of ‘the aesthetics of abstraction’ in the poet’s work. The introduction, itself a model of clarity, looks at ‘how abstract reflections conjure commonality, ordinariness and “the normal” without promulgating hollow generalizations.’ One point of reference here is the attitude adopted by Charles Tomlinson to Stevens’ early work. Looking at a 1964 interview with Ian Hamilton it is easy to see why the young English poet and artist should feel some disquiet about the American whose work he had first come across via his mentor Donald Davie whilst studying at Cambridge:
It was a case of being haunted by Stevens rather than of cold imitation. I was also a painter and this meant that I had far more interest in the particulars of a landscape or an object than Stevens. Stevens rarely makes one see anything in detail for all his talk about a physical universe.
When he published his autobiographical sketches, Some Americans, in 1981 Tomlinson’s view had become more generous. Not only did he recall how the early ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ led him for a while to look from different angles at separate instances of the meticulous but also how he had written an essay in 1951 on ‘The Comedian as Letter C’. Tomlinson sent the essay to Stevens and received a courteous reply pointing out that the poem exploited sounds of the letter c:
These sounds include all the hard and soft variations and pass over into other sounds, or rather, the sound of other letters…This grows tiresome if one is too conscious of it, but it is easy to ameliorate the thing.
An odd way to write poems, reflected Tomlinson, ‘but a regard for such minute particulars of language’ impressed him.
Ragg engages time and again with close textual criticism taking the reader back to the words of the poems themselves and one of his twenty-page tours de force is a close examination of the 1945 poem ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ where he dwells upon Stevens’ obsession with time and relates it to the allusions to Macbeth which haunt the piece. The poem, in four sections, opens with ‘All the Preludes to Felicity’:
It is time that beats in the breast and it is time
That batters against the mind, silent and proud,
The mind that knows it is destroyed by time.
Time is a horse that runs in the heart, a horse
Without a rider on a road at night.
The mind sits listening and hears it pass.
It is someone walking rapidly in the street.
The reader by the window has finished his book
And tells the hour by the lateness of the sounds.
As Ragg points out, because the mind, the intellect, knows that it is destroyed by time the metaphorical use of horse ‘creates the self-protective illusion that the mind can conquer, or at least be reconciled to time.’ Metaphorical expression can have an ameliorating effect and the ‘mind conceives time’s progress through metaphor because felicitous expressions are palliative.’ However, pursuing his argument concerning the growth of abstraction in Stevens’ poetry, Ragg suggests that this palliative metaphorical world is abandoned ‘for abstract conception’:
Even breathing is the beating of time, in kind:
A retardation of its battering,
A horse grotesquely taut, a walker like
A shadow in mid-earth…If we propose
A large-sculptured, platonic person, free from time,
And imagine for him the speech he cannot speak,
A form, then, protected from the battering, may
Mature: A capable being may replace
Dark horse and walker walking rapidly.
Here the metaphors are themselves ‘suspended in an ellipsis which implies metaphor’s limitations’:
That is, the horse remains ‘taut’ and the walker as insubstantial as a ‘shadow’ because the mind realizes metaphors cannot themselves ward off the ‘battering’ of time.
Ragg points to the abstract nature of a ‘platonic person’ who is impossibly ‘free from time’, the preserve of the imaginative mind:
Note how agency is given to the ‘we’ who propose the figure, who must ‘imagine for him the speech he cannot speak’. Rather than promulgate traditional metaphors for time, ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ re-invests the mind with abstract creative power.
The poem’s third section, ‘Fire-Monsters in the Milky Brain’, opens with a direct reference to Macbeth, ‘Man, that is not born of woman but of air’, alluding to one of the prophecies made via the agency of the witches. Macbeth of course fails to understand the double-truth and does not link the spirit’s words with the untimely ripping of Macduff from his mother’s womb. A literal reading of a man born ‘of air’ leads us to fantasy whereas reading the ‘man’ figuratively we are left to conclude that ‘the abstraction requires further metaphor to come alive’. Referring to the incorporeal nature of the witches Macbeth himself had suggested that they had disappeared ‘Into the air, and what seemed corporal/Melted as breath into the wind.’ What Macbeth fails of course to recognise is that the metaphor he uses suggests that their presence is within himself and is only given shape by his exhalations on a cold day.
The reality of Stevens is ‘like a sound in his mind’ as it occurs in one of the last of his published poems, ‘Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself’:
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew he heard it……
That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
Ragg’s totally engaging analysis of ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ endorses his claims concerning abstraction as it testifies to the pragmatic benefits of an abstract aesthetic which Stevens only fully realized in his final decade. J. Hillis Miller’s comment on the back cover of this book says it all: Anyone interested in Stevens’ poetry should have this superb book.
Ian Brinton is an English critic and scholar who reviews regularly for Eyewear.