Category Archives: notes on poems

Odin on the tree

Until lately, I had not read the Poetic Edda, but it feels familiar. It was a major source for Tolkien, Wagner, and other inventors of our northern-European medieval fantasy world. Subtract the gods from the Edda, and you have most of Tolkien’s domain of elves, dwarves, goblins, magicians, thieves, and warriors.

It includes weird and compelling poetry. For instance, the document labeled “Sayings of the High One” presents miscellaneous-seeming advice, some of it rather amoral, like the suggestion to rise early if you want to “take another’s life or property.” (Sleeping late can hurt your chances.) It is not clear who is speaking on these pages.

Suddenly, we read:

I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,  
myself to myself,  
on that tree of which no man knows  
from where its roots run.  

With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,  
downwards I peered;  
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,  
then I fell back from there. 

Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics) (p. 32, stanzas 138-9). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

I love that Odin does not introduce himself until we learn that the spear that has pierced the poem’s narrator is dedicated to Odin: “myself to myself.” And then there’s the mystifying magic by which runes flow up into him while he screams. Is he in extreme pain? Where does he land when he’s done?

The notes suggest that Odin is hanging on Yggdrasill, the vast ash tree that upholds our world. Self-sacrificially hanging from a tree sounds like Calvary, but Odin’s purposes are different. After this passage, most of the poem is devoted to listing the runes that he now knows, which have handy properties like removing fetters or putting out fires.

I certainly can’t read Old Norse, but one gets a rough sense of the alliterative language and wordplay by trying to pronounce the original text. (The letter that looks a little like a “d” is eth, and it sounds like “th.”) “Veit ek, at ek hekk” (“I know that I hung”) is a good example of wordplay.

Carolyne Larrington explains some of the poetic forms used in the Edda, but I am not sure which form is employed in these two stanzas. In general, Old Norse prosody involves regular pauses (caesuras) and stresses. The stressed syllables often alliterate. Here, I think that lines divided by a caesura alternate with shorter lines that do not.

I am reading English free verse on a glowing iPad screen. It is Larrington’s recent translation of Old Norse verses that were handwritten on vellum in 13th century Iceland–not by the original authors, but by people, presumably Christians, who recorded oral verse saved from their ancestors’ culture. It doesn’t feel as if any poet is intentionally communicating with me or us; it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on transcripts of some alien conversation. However, I am moved by the way that arresting and mystifying images suddenly emerge amid seemingly random sequences of verses.

See also: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf; Laxdaela Saga: political freedom and psychological insight; and race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

the sublime is social–with notes on Wordsworth’s Lines Above Tintern Abbey

In secular (and probably upscale) reaches of our society, two suggestions are common for restoring mental health and equanimity: we should experience nature and reconnect to our bodies through meditation or exercise.

Of course, prayer is also an option, and activities such as walking in the woods and yoga have roots and analogues in religious traditions. Here, however, I focus on practices that are open to non-believers.

Such experiences are supposed to be authentic, personal, and at least somewhat distinct from the everyday world of conscious thoughts, words, social roles, organizations, and transactions. Although you can have these experiences alongside other people, an important aspect is inward and often literally silent. Something like the pure or raw self is thought to emerge.

This post is a modest contribution to the argument–which others have also made–that it is a mistake to understand such experiences individualistically. Other people are always integrally involved, and it is wise to be maximally conscious of them.

Although practices like hiking and meditation can be routine or even trivial, they bear at least a distant relationship to notions of the sublime. That word has been defined in diverse and incompatible ways–producing an interesting debate–but a common feature seems to be an aesthetic experience that lastingly improves the self and that would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey in ordinary words. Either a sublime experience exceeds human language or else it requires particularly excellent words (such as verse by Homer or Wordsworth) to convey. The natural or religious sublime is sometimes presented as beyond speech, while the literary or rhetorical sublime defines superior speech.

The premise that a sublime experience cannot be shared using ordinary language contains the germ of the conclusion that we do not need other people to experience it. That conclusion is especially problematic in a consumerist culture with relatively loose social ties and high levels of inequality–a society that generates headlines like this one from Wired in 2013, “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career: Meditation and mindfulness are the new rage in Silicon Valley. And it’s not just about inner peace—it’s about getting ahead.”

Most thoughtful analysts are aware that words, conscious thoughts, and other people do not go away when one experiences the sublime. For one thing, we are always morally indebted to other people. We can’t go for a walk in the woods unless someone has preserved that forest and built those trails. In the Americas, the land was previously conquered from indigenous people. The shoes on our feet and the food in our stomach were made by other human beings. In many cases, the aesthetic experience was skillfully shaped by people: landscapers and foresters, yoga instructors, or whoever else is relevant. It is wise to thank those who made the sublime possible, yet empty expressions of thanks can be worse than nothing.

In addition, we acquire our tastes, our aesthetic values, and our ability to process experience from other people. As I wrote in a previous post, “I do not simply see the snow; I see it with things already in my mind, like Christmas decorations, paper snowflakes on second-grade bulletin boards, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow,’ Han-shan’s Cold Mountain lyrics, Robert Frost’s ‘lovely, dark and deep’ woods, Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of wintry Japan, Rosemary Clooney with Bing Crosby. In short, I have been taught to appreciate a winter wonderland, a marshmallow world, and a whipped cream day.” None of us understands all the ways that our experiences have been shaped by our predecessors, but we all absorb the development of our societies as we develop from infants into adults. There is no raw self.

In fact, many have sought to combine explicit records of past human experiences with direct experiences of nature and one’s body. Thoreau says of his time alone at Walden Pond, “My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world.” And David Morris reminds us, “Whether meditating by the sea, contemplating the night sky, or crossing the Alps, eighteenth-century enthusiasts for nature rarely forgot their reading: the classics were Addison’s guidebook to Italy, while Joseph Warton’s vision of unspoiled nature comes straight from Lucretius and Shaftesbury” (Morris 1972, p. 7).

Whether to combine introspective experience with literature is a personal choice; it is surely not the only path. But I do believe that the current tendency to see the sublime as purely personal is self-centered, in a consumerist way, and we must bring other people in.

With that in mind, let’s consider one of the most famous depictions of a restorative experience in nature, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”. The narrator says that his memories of this spot on the Wye River have given him a “gift / Of aspect more sublime,” a “blessed mood” …

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

This seems like a perfect example of what people nowadays might call self-care through nature.

The story told in the poem is a little complicated. We learn, but not in chronological order, that Wordsworth first came to the Wye River Valley “in the hour / Of thoughtless youth,” when he could still enjoy nature spontaneously, almost as a part of it, “bound[ing] o’er the mountains … wherever nature led” with “animal movements.” In those days, he did not need concepts or words (“a remoter charm, / By thought supplied”) to filter his experience.

Memories of those “boyish days” sustained the narrator while he was busy in the human world of “joyless daylight; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” hung over him. Now he has returned to the same spot and finds that he cannot again feel the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of the place, but he is compensated by a new insight. Now in nature he hears “the still sad music of humanity” and realizes that “the mind of man, a motion and a spirit … rolls through all things.”

At the outset, he is eager to portray what he sees as nature, not as culture. For instance, he mentions “hedge-rows” (which are planted and maintained by human beings) and then corrects himself: “hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild,” as if they were nature’s free creations. But by the midst of the poem, he acknowledges that mind and nature are “deeply interfused.”

And then a third person appears in the poem (counting the narrator as one and the reader as two). This is a “you” who is “with me here upon the banks.” This “dearest Friend” emerges as his sister, Dorothy. The poet’s objective becomes to record her experience of the natural scene so that she can better recall it as her life proceeds, and so that she can vividly remember sharing this experience of nature with her brother. His poem will be a mnemonic (see Rexroth 2021) to give her “healing thoughts” amid the “dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Thus Wordsworth’s sublime is not private or individualistic in a simple sense. But perhaps it is not admirably social, either. In an influential 1986 article, Marjorie Levinson noted that Wordsworth not only chose not to describe Tintern Abbey in this poem (even briefly), but he also omitted many obvious features of the Wye River at that time: “prominent signs of commercial activity” such as “coal mines, transport barges noisily plying the river [and] miners’ hovels.” Tintern was a mining village, and the woods were full of “vagrants” who “lived by charcoal-burning” or begging from tourists (Levinson, pp. 29-30). The abbey was a literal ruin–albeit picturesque to some–because it had been suppressed in the Reformation and sold to landlords who had dispossessed the agricultural population, creating whatever unpopulated vistas one could see in 1798.

Levinson argues that Wordsworth knew all this well, and that “the primary poetic action” of the whole poem “is the suppression of the social.” It “achieves its fiercely private vision by directing a continuous energy toward the nonrepresentation of objects and points of view expressive of a public–we would say, ideological–dimension” (pp. 37-8). The poem is a sign of Wordsworth’s retreat from political engagement in the late 1790s.

Levinson’s 1986 article has provoked some responses in defense of Wordsworth; I have not tried to assess the controversy. For me, these are the key points: Wordsworth exemplifies a currently popular way of addressing discontent or even anguish–enjoying nature–and he is conscious that “humanity,” human language, and human relationships are part of that experience. Yet he is notably apolitical. An analysis of why nature looks as it does–who has profited and suffered from it–is missing from the poem. And this seems to foreshadow many contemporary versions of the sublime.

Sources: Marjorie Levinson, “Insight and Oversight: Reading ‘Tintern Abbey,’” in Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems (1986), pp. 14-57; David B. Morris, The Religious Sublime Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th Century England (University Press of Kentucky 1972); and Grace Rexroth, “Wordsworth’s Poetic Memoria Technica: What ‘Tintern Abbey’ Remembers,” Studies in Romanticism 60.2 (2021): 153-174. See also the sublime and other people; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; Foucault’s spiritual exercises; and when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

when you know, but cannot feel, beauty

In his “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge describes the sparkling stars and crescent moon above but bemoans his own state of mind:

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

The reason is what we would call depression:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
         A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
         Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
                In word, or sigh, or tear—

I consulted Coleridge’s “Dejection” thanks to Anahid Nersessian’s essay on Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (Nersessian 2021). Nersessian is great at wiping away that sense of Keats as a languorous aesthete, a maker of pretty lyrics. As she shows, the Nightingale ode reports suicidal thoughts. The narrator is “half in love with easeful Death” and seriously considering whether it is time to end it all: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” The three hard opening words, as Nersessian notes, violate iambic pentameter and ignore the ostensible addressee of the ode. Keats doesn’t begin, “O, Nightingale …” but rather, “My heart aches.”

Nersessian’s essay is not a close reading, but it made me turn back to the text of the ode. I wondered: what exactly is the narrator’s mental condition? (Remember: Keats had medical training, and the first stanza seems almost clinical.) The presenting complaint is a heart that aches. More specifically, “a drowsy numbness pains / My sense.”

This is complicated. Being drowsy and numb suggests a lack of sensation, and that interpretation is reinforced by the analogy to a “dull opiate” that suppresses the narrator’s conscious thoughts, sending him toward Lethe. But the numbness “pains” his sense, as though he had drunk hemlock. I am not sure whether we should assume that hemlock causes a quiet, sleepy death or an agonizing one: Wikipedia suggests that it triggers respiratory distress. I think that the question of lacking consciousness versus suffering is central to the poem as a whole.

In any case, what is the etiology of this numbness/ache? The narrator denies that he is envious of the nightingale’s “happy lot.” (The word “thy” in that sentence is the first mention of the ode’s subject.) When people deny that they are jealous, sometimes they actually are. But the narrator follows with a subtler point. He does not envy the bird’s “happy lot,” where “happy” could mean “favoured by good fortune; lucky, fortunate; successful” (OED). The bird’s lot is to sing in the mid-May evening, and Keats denies being envious of that. Instead, the nightingale causes heartache by “being too happy in [its] happiness”–in other words, by enjoying its role. This is precisely what Keats’ narrator, being depressed, cannot do. The poem describes beauty, yet the narrator cannot feel what such precise and evocative words as these should convey:

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
                Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
                        And mid-May’s eldest child,
         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Do we think that the nightingale is happy, in the subjective sense–happy in its happiness? Keats writes that the bird “sing[s] of summer in full-throated ease.” I suppose I doubt that it sings “of” summer. I assume it sings because the month is May, and its song is a component of what makes an English early summer lovely. I don’t believe that the bird is describing summer, as a poet could.

To modify an example from Robert B. Brandom (who discusses a parrot trained to say “red” in the presence of red objects), the nightingale reliably informs us that it is summer by singing, but the bird cannot express the premises and conclusions that relate to this information. The bird cannot say, “It is summer; therefore, it is not winter,” or “It is summer because spring is over,” or “Since it is summer, we should spend evenings outdoors.” To express points like that would be to talk of summer. Instead, the nightingale sings because it is summer, and as an aspect of summer.

Indeed, its happiness relates to its ignorance. Keats wishes to forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies ...

That last line may describe the recent and agonizing death of Keats’ brother from tuberculosis, and it eerily foretells Keats’ own death from the same cause two years later. These are serious matters, wrenching tragedies, and the bird’s enviable condition is to know nothing of them. Its mental state is like that of a human being who has forgotten memories and fears of suffering.

We might expect that the bird’s song would cause Keats to forget pain, at least briefly, as he becomes absorbed in the music; but that doesn’t work for this narrator, because he is depressed. “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain.” Instead, the narrator considers artificial solutions: “some dull opiate,” “a draught of vintage,” distracting reveries of “faery lands,” or–most effective of all, intentional death.

The darkness and anger of the poem should be taken seriously; it is not some pretty thing. Yet it is rapturously beautiful, the source of such nuggets as “tender is the night” and Ruth “amid the alien corn.” It is about not being able to feel beauty, yet it conveys beauty from that ailment.

In the fourth stanza, Keats commits to join the nightingale not by drowning his sorrows in drink but through the power of verse:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards ...

His brain is a problem: it perplexes and retards. “Poesy” looks, at least temporarily, like a way out. But why is it “viewless”? That word could mean invisible: we cannot observe how poetry moves the writer or the reader to a better place. Or it could mean unable to see. Certainly, this poet has trouble seeing. Due to the deep darkness where the nightingale sings, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.” Poetry offers words that name objects, but it does not actually allow us to see them. I think the central idea in the fifth stanza (Keats knows which flowers are present from their scent but cannot see them) is a metaphor for literary description. A poem conveys information but not actual experience.

Then he addresses the bird: “Darkling, I listen.” Calling a nightingale “darkling” is a clear allusion to Book III of Paradise Lost, where Milton writes:

            ... as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal note. ....

The argument of this passage is that God is light; beautiful things reflect God’s love. Since Milton is blind, he cannot see these objects. He misses the “sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose …  the cheerful ways of men.” Yet a miracle occurs. God makes the “celestial Light, / Shine inward,” and by purging and dispersing all the ordinary sights of life, allows Milton to “see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight.” Milton is like the nightingale, whose song tells of grace even though the bird cannot see in the darkness.

No such consolation is available to the narrator of Keats’ ode, who offers no hint that nature has a benign author. Nature is what gives people tuberculosis. Keats’ narrator is not only depressed but angry about it.

I will offer an alternative perspective, even though I don’t think Keats would agree with it. We are all like the nightingale; our vocalizations and other behaviors are caused by natural processes. (“Dependent origination.”) We cannot escape suffering, which is intrinsic to sentience and afflicts the bird as well as us. (“The first noble truth.”) Mental pain arises naturally. For instance, Keats must think of his recently deceased brother, because he is physically designed to feel grief. Forgetting such things is impossible, and drowning them out would be unethical. (“The middle way.”) However, Keats is not a real entity, and his condition needn’t interest the poet as much as it does. As he writes elsewhere, the poet “has no self”; “not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature–how can it, when I have no nature?” (“No-self.”) His protean mind can, however, fill with thoughts such as appreciation, gratitude, and compassion. (Mindfulness, the “third noble truth.”) The beauty of the night is real, just like suffering, and he can focus on the former.

Those who make it across the river and come back to help others over do the most good (“karma”), and Keats’ lyrics provide an example. They enrich the inner lives of us who read them. Keats claims no satisfaction from doing this, because he is depressed and because he doesn’t hold a Buddhist-ish theory. But he achieves what he cannot recognize, and we can read him compassionately for that reason. After all, the last five words (“Do I wake or sleep?”) are no longer addressed to the nightingale, which has departed for the “next valley-glades.” They must pose a question for us, opening a dialogue with readers and perhaps seeking our compassion, which we can give. If our minds are filled with compassion, we have less space for pain.

Keats was an unbelievably good poet. What if we can’t write immortal verse–can we then return to help others cross to a better place? I would say: Keats is a stranger to us, dead two centuries, and worth reading because his words are so excellent. The rest of us just say mundane things, like, “Did you hear that bird?” But we can say such things in relationships–to people we know and like or love. When embedded in a friendship or love, a remark like “Did you hear that bird?” conveys pleasure and care. By that means, we can alleviate suffering even if we could never come up with a phrase as good as “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim.”

Sources: Robert B. Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Anahid Nersessian, Keats’ Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). See also the sublime and other people; the politics of negative capability; “Keats against Dante: The Sonnet on Paolo and Francesca“; a poem should; empathy: good or bad?; and three endings for Christabel.

sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.

Wallace Stevens’ idea of order

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
     from Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West." 

Anchored fishing boats at night will send luminous streaks across the water to point directly at you, the viewer. They seem to partition the sea in an ordered way that gives you the central place. By doing so, they make the dark sea more attractive: organized, deepened, enchanted. Although you are not hallucinating or succumbing to egoism, your impression is misleading, for anyone else will see the streaks pointing at them. From the sky, the sea would not appear partitioned at all, although it must seem that way to you.

George Eliot uses a comparable metaphor:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …

Eliot, Middlemarch, part 3, chap. 27

Eliot is concerned about moral egoism. I think Stevens’ main interest is the subjectivity of any order that we impose on nature. If we push such skepticism far, nature vanishes entirely and all we have is our description. But the boats really are at anchor off Key West.

This image from the end of the poem might offer some hints about how to read the earlier portions. It seems that the narrator is by the sea with his friend, Ramon Fernandez, and they have heard a “she” singing. Stevens said he invented the name of his friend, but he later acknowledged that he might have suppressed the memory of the real literary critic, who was not actually his friend, and who might have been too keen to impose order. (The real Fernandez was a communist at the time Stevens wrote this poem, on his way to becoming a fascist collaborator.)

As for the “she,” this is a pronoun without any concrete noun. She has no name and is not called a woman or anything else specific. She has a complex relationship with the sea: she may be describing it, or communicating the sound it makes, or creating it with her song; or she may have been invented by the narrator as a metaphor for the experience.

The narrator explores each of those hypotheses:

  • [the ocean’s] mimic motion /  Made constant cry … [The sea is singing.]
  • Even if what she sang was what she heard … / it was she and not the sea we heard. / For she was the maker of the song she sang. [She is singing.]
  • If it was only the dark voice of the sea / That rose … / But it was more than that, /
    More even than her voice, and ours …
    [It is more than she who is singing.]

Perhaps this section–about the moment of a subtropical sunset–offers a synthesis to follow the various theses and antitheses:

        It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

One can read the poem very literally and imagine that Wallace Stevens, a man from the mainland, and his friend, a man with a Spanish surname, have seen a woman striding along the beach and singing about the sea. But her song has the very special power of making the whole world. Even though the narrator insists that “she was the maker of the song she sang,” her song is coterminous with the object of her singing–the sea–which suggests that she is not different from it but another way of naming it.

At this point, the literal reading collapses–much as a naive interpretation of the streaks of light collapses when you realize that they are not really pointing at you. The poem does not give us direct access to a real moment in the past when a woman, two men, and some boats were visible at Key West. The poem is the object that we see, and it has a writer and some readers.

Under the title of the poem is the name “Wallace Stevens,” which stands for an actual man, married to a woman, who became famous for writing words. It’s reasonable to begin with the assumption that the narrator who tells us, “She sang …” is this man, and that he either really heard her singing or made her up from scratch, thus functioning as her artistic creator.

It’s then reasonable to place the poem in a very long tradition of men writing about women who are their muses, objects of love, creatures of their art, and/or metaphors for abstractions, such as nature. The politics of this tradition is problematic, since the poet with the he-pronouns typically controls the “she” of his verse.* He certainly gets credit for the words that attach to his name. Stevens either maintains this tradition or possibly subverts it, depending on what you think of the phrases “mastered” and “maker’s rage for order” near the end.

I don’t disagree with using gender to analyze the poem, but I think it also asks us to question our metaphysics. Why are we so sure that the narrator is Wallace Stevens, the poet with the he-pronouns? Couldn’t she be speaking, or the ocean, or the reader?

In one recorded dialogue with a student, Basho instructed, “The problem with most poems is that they are either subjective or objective.” “Don’t you mean too subjective or too objective?” his student asked. Basho answered, simply, “No.” 

Jane Hirshfeld, The Heart of Haiku

The moment of sunset is neither day nor night. Stevens’ poem is neither objective nor subjective but right on that edge. Basho avoids tipping either way by means of imagism. His poems do not mean; they are. Stevens attempts it in a very different way–by arguing explicitly about the nature of his own verse in ways that skillfully undermine any fixed conclusion about who is saying what about what.

*For a good reading along these lines, see Brooke Baeten, “Whose Spirit Is This?”: Musings on the Woman Singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’ The Wallace Stevens Journal 24.1 (2000): 24-36. See also: nostalgia for now; homage to Basho; a poem should; and the tree and the rock.