Wallace Stevens: Meaning in Nature and Its Elements

Haley Vasquez, author
Dr. Gordon Van Ness, faculty advisor

At the time of his death in 1955, poet Wallace Stevens was largely considered a master of language within the modernist movement, able to look at physical reality and find value and purpose in it through the imagination. “all his [Stevens’] work is an attempt to explore the endlessly variable perspectives from which reality can be viewed by the imagination” (Miller 225). Sharing this idea is author Susan B. Weston, who explains that this process demands a cleansing of constructs within reality, even commanding her readers to “Erase [ . . . ] all mental activity—dream, desire, religious belief, political conviction, and language” to gain the ability to perceive reality as naked, allowing the imagination to give meaning to tangible things. Weston believes that “The symbol-mongering mind quickly intervenes between blankness and self. But at least for a moment we have started where Stevens starts: with blankness” (5). For Stevens’ poems, the imagination of the reader brings meaning to dull objects that have no significance without the reader’s imagination giving them significance.

In life, Stevens was one of the most criticized poets, often called overly obscure and repetitious (Unterecker x-xi). However, these stylistic qualities of ambiguity have been celebrated as enticing and “particularly appealing among students and academicians” (“Wallace Stevens”). In the midst of Stevens’ abstruseness is the motif of nature. One of his most famous poems, “Sunday Morning” (1915), uses nature as a replacement for religious doctrine, pointing out that there is beauty and immortality in the constant change of nature. Additionally, this poem “is affirming our need for fictions” instead of dismissing them, as many critics have inaccurately claimed (Weston 5). Condemned by his detractors as a poem that “eluded [ . . . ] understanding,” others have instead praised it as being engaging for these same aspects, describing Stevens as “an artist whose precise abstractions exerted substantial influence on other writers” (“Wallace Stevens”). Additional poems by Stevens, “The Key to Order in Key West” (1936) and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1931), all share this stylistic trait of nature described ambiguously. Throughout his career, Stevens would continue the exploration of nature in stylistic obscurity—intentionally taking the tangible and blurring its canonized boundaries to find the greater meanings behind it: a channel to immortality, beautifully changing, and a secular religion that replaces Christianity.

In a letter to L. W. Payne, Jr., who is only addressed as “Dear Sir,” Stevens clarified that “Sunday Morning” is “simply an expression of paganism,” despite the opposing conclusions Payne drew from the poem, which Stevens quickly disagreed with. In another correspondence to critic Hi Simons, Stevens verified that “Sunday Morning” suggests the replacement of supernaturalism with a naturalistic religion (W. Stevens and H. Stevens 250, 464). The world in the poem is then left with no deity; what remains are only physical absolutes. Death is specifically focused on by the female speaker because she expresses her concerns when she feels death approaching. Finding peace when in nature, she seeks it in the darkening times. One of Stevens’ critics, Yvor Winters, “suggests that ‘Sunday Morning’ is the ‘greatest American poem of the twentieth century’ because it renders the ‘consciousness of the imminence of death’” (Willard 28). However, Winters fails to mention in his criticism that death is seen in the poem as an inescapable process of nature, and thus, the only way to achieve immortality. The poem lacks a fear of death because it announces the dissolvent of God into nature, liberating people to exist simply in the enduring of earth. Therefore, “In the absence of God there remained the earth” (Lensing 120-121). What is left is a physical world, which is seen as “an endless round of birth, death, and the seasons” and also, “more lasting than any interpretation of it” (Miller 222) A unique image of death is established in the poem because it is not the usual dark and despairing event that foreshadows everyone’s fate. Instead, Stevens writes that “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams / And our desires” (“Sunday Morning” 63-65). The assertion of death as both a mother of beauty and of earth removes the innate human response to despair the coming of death, and instead, presents death as a natural occurrence: a result of nature changing. The image of death as a natural result of nature’s influxes is done by the added description of the mother of death being beautiful: “Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, / Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly” (88-90). Stevens is ambiguously stating that since death is a natural occurrence, it is therefore beautiful.

Because death is the only remaining natural certainty in a purely physical world, Stevens claims it is the only means to immortality, since in death, a person will ultimately join the earth in a secular afterlife. For this reason, the Poetry Foundation believes “‘Sunday Morning’ shatters the tenets . . . of Christianity essentially, the spiritual afterlife—and substantiates nature—the joining of corpse to earth as the only channel to immortality” (“Wallace Stevens”). Although the speaker never explicitly states she is targeting Christianity, the poem alludes to it, especially when it brings in a god of myth.

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.

No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave

Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.

He moved among us, as a muttering king,

Magnificent, would move among his hinds,

Until our blood, commingling, virginal,

With heaven, brought such requital to desire

The very hinds discerned it, in a star. (“Sunday Morning” 31-38)

With the mention of Jove, the poem contrasts a pagan deity with Christ, especially at the mention of a mother and the description of Jove as “a muttering king” (32, 34). This is similar to Christ within the Christian religion, which believes Christ was born to a mother and is received as a king. By removing the heavenly afterlife promised in Christianity, Stevens’ naturalistic religion claims that only when the body is joined with nature can immortality be reached.

Stevens’ poetry describes nature in constant motion. This notion is also mentioned by Miller, who comments how “A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement. The space of the poem is filled with things which slip away and evade the observer’s grasp” (226). Although this is true, Miller never credits nature as the tool Stevens utilizes to create the motion in his poetry. In “The Place of the Solitaires,” the sea is described as one of the many reasons behind this motion.

Whether it be in mid-sea

On the dark, green water-wheel,

Or on the beaches,

There must be no cessation

Of motion, or of the noise of motion. (3-7)

Because motion creates change, it can also be said that nature is constantly changing. This change is described as necessary in the poem, implying that the earth could not function without this change. However, it is not intended to be analyzed as symbolic. Stevens simply wanted it understood; nature is constantly changing because it is in motion. It is the way of physical reality. Miller states this also, and uses a quote from Stevens’ to support the claim: “Natural objects and poetic images simply exist. ‘A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have’” (228). Any greater meaning drawn from it would be false. The idea of meaningless objects and images is also made clear in “The Idea of Order at Key West” where the “plungings of water and the wind” are described as “meaningless” (30). It is in the changing of nature that mankind can find liberation from intangible ideas: religion, myth, and mental fictions. Stevens saw the changing of nature as something to be celebrated.

Nature replaces Christianity in Stevens’ poetry, and it becomes a secular religion. Weston even interprets “Sunday Morning” as a “revelation of a secular religion” (41). Because “God is dead, and with him died the heaven of consecrated symbols coming down through the Christian or Platonic ages,” only the reality of nature remains. (Miller 230-231) Throughout his poetry, Stevens often replaces the symbols of Christianity with nature and its elements. For instance, in “Sunday Morning,” the sun replaces the son of God.

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men

Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn

Their boisterous devotion to the sun,

Not as a god, but as a god might be. (92-94)

In the following stanza, the speaker even notes that Jesus is dead, and there is a grave “where he lay” (109). In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” aspects of nature are not distinguished from man. Instead, they are described as being one and the same when the poem brings up the unification of a man and a woman.

A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one. (9-12)

In the first and second lines of the stanza, the physical joining of a man and a woman is often how sex is described in Christianity, specifically what happens to the souls of the individuals involved. By adding the blackbird into this unification, Stevens is arguing that mankind is one and the same with nature; no distinction exists. Nature is able to replace the role of the Christian deity, since reality consists only of physical absolutes.

Overall, the entirety of Stevens’ poetry “is an attempt to explore the endlessly variable perspectives from which reality can be viewed by the imagination” (Miller 225). He achieves this by wiping away mental realities: myths, symbols, and religions. In return, this gives way to a blankness of the mind, which allows mankind to see reality through the unique view of imagination, ultimately shaping reality, and giving it significance. Stevens utilizes nature and its elements to present this secular reality. Nature is presented in his poetry as a means to immortality, a changing beauty, and a replacement for Christian doctrine. Although several critics have mentioned nature in Stevens’ poetry, many fail to recognize it as a stylistic tool, condemning their analyses as being superficial, since it clearly transcends a single poem. It is instead a conscious decision by the author, which shows his own appreciation for nature, and the ambiguous role it plays for mankind. Stevens’ use of nature reveals it is not a product of the imagination; nature simply belongs to physical reality, and it is as it is. Although taking greater meaning from it would be futile, mankind is able to appreciate it as beautiful and obscure.



Works Cited

Lensing, George S. “Stevens’ Seasonal Cycles.” The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. Ed. John N. Serio. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 118-32. Print.

Miller, Joseph Hillis. Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-century Writers. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. “The Place of the Solitaires.” Hello Poetry. Hello Poetry, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

—. “Sunday Morning.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 285-88. Print.

—. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 293-94. Print.

—. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 291-92. Print.

Stevens, Wallace and Holly Stevens. Letters of Wallace Stevens. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1966. Print.

Unterecker, John. Foreword. Wallace Stevens: An Introduction to the Poetry. By Susan B. Weston. New York: Columbia UP, 1977. ix-xii. Print.

“Wallace Stevens.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Weston, Susan B. Wallace Stevens: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1977. Print.

Willard, Abbie F. Wallace Stevens: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1978. Print.

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