James Longenbach

James Longenbach: On "The Unseen"

"The Unseen" begins with a group of tourists in Kraków, touring the death camp. The scene is "unswallowable," both unbearably familiar and unbearably horrific: "We felt bored / And at the same time like screaming Biblical phrases." Stalled between these extremes, Pinsky remembers a "sleep-time game"--an insomniac's dream of heroic destruction: granted the power of invisibility, Pinsky roams the camp, saves the victims from the gas chamber, and, as a finale, flushes "everything with a vague flood / Of fire and blood." As in "The Destruction of Long Branch," Pinsky dreams of having power over his history, remaking what made him.

It's not possible to take that dream too seriously in "The Destruction of Long Branch," of course: its act of destruction serves as a kind of metaphor for the self's struggle with language and history. In "The Unseen" the act is too literal, too historically charged, and Pinsky must back away from it more distinctly.

I don't feel changed, or even informed--in that,

It's like any other historical monument; although

It is true that I don't ever at night any more


Prowl rows of red buildings unseen, doing

justice like an angry god to escape insomnia.

Though he feels unchanged, Pinsky describes an important transformation here. Having imagined himself as the "unseen," Pinsky now recognizes a more potent invisible presence,

                                                            And so,

O discredited Lord of Hosts, your servant gapes

Obediently to swallow various doings of us, the most

Capable of all your former creatures ...

In Pinsky's lexicon, this force could be called "history" as easily as "Lord of Hosts." Having earlier found the scene "unswallowable," Pinsky realizes that he has no choice but to take in the past. And as "The Figured Wheel" suggests, the past--however sordid--is already inside him: in this sense, the force could also be called "my heart."

James Longenbach: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"

"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" or "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" are as full of the joy of language as they are of the joy of the physical world: especially in the latter poem, language becomes a physical presence, the syntax so intricate, yet so plainly apprehensible, that it begs to be turned over in the mouth. The quieter "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is, famously, a poem of immanence: angels exist because, for a moment, the mind imagines them in laundry hanging on the line. But this argument against a world-denouncing spirituality is only half of the poem's purpose. A more violent, urgent world is registered in Wilbur's diction: words like rape and hunks slip into his elegant vocabulary, and their prominence has sometimes troubled the poem's admirers. Wilbur's point is that a devotion to laundry alone--to the world's sensual pleasures, physical and linguistic--may be as world-denying as the most ascetic spirituality. While the soul cries, "let there be nothing on earth but laundry," the language of the poem has suggested that this desire is unrealistic even before the poem's final lines (spoken by the soul as it descends into the awakening body) make Wilbur's position clear.

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;

Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,

And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating

Of dark habits,

                        keeping their difficult balance."

The balance here is not only between the physical and spiritual, but between a state of mind that dallies with physical pleasures and a necessary awakening to a sterner, even more challenging ground.

I wouldn't argue that "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" has much of (in Wilbur's phrase) "an implicit political dimension." But I do think that the poem became possible because of Wilbur's earlier meditations on wartime loss and postwar deprivation.

James Longenbach: On "A Clear Day and No Memories"

. . . at the very end, Stevens was able to write a few poems that accepted silence instead of spinning a web to disguise it. In the quiet and luminous "A Clear Day and No Memories" Stevens turns away from everything once dear to him--the soldiers of two world wars, the dead he spent years mapping in genealogical charts, and the living whom he felt he loved too little.

These lines empty out the accumulation of a lifetime, even the existence of the poet's self. Yet "A Clear Day and No Memories" appeared a few months after Stevens said plainly in his essay on Connecticut: "it is a question of coming home to the American self in the sort of place in which it was formed." Two years before, Stevens had returned to Cambridge--one of the places in which he was formed--to see an exhibition at the Fogg Museum. On that day he did have memories, and he recalled the museum as a place whose only real public consisted of "young persons of honorable intentions." When Stevens was a student at Harvard in the year 1900, he visited the Fogg Museum to hear a speech by John Jay Chapman. Fired by Chapman's words, he wrote his editorial calling for all young persons to become "readily acquainted with political conditions." Looking back fifty years later, Stevens knew the haphazard fate of honorable intentions. In a poem that relinquishes the memories of soldiers in the scenery and the thoughts of people now dead, Stevens commemorates a life spent honoring the plain sense of things.

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

James Longenbach: On "A Postcard from the Volcano"

"A Postcard from the Volcano" offers its readers a few simple words delivered after the apocalypse; but the language survives from a past that is only apparently destroyed, and the historical continuities of the language that forms the poem itself undermine the poem's evocative sense of an ending. Stevens begins by recognizing a new generation's inevitable sense of its distance from its heritage. Yet he speaks with the voice of the dead.

[. . . .]

"You ought to understand the pasts destroyed," said Stevens apropos of the conclusion of "Sombre Figuration," but in "A Postcard" he points out that the effect of a past destroyed will linger whether it is understood or not; the children "least will guess that with our bones / We left much more."

We knew for long the mansion's look

And what we said of it became


A part of what it is . . . Children,

Still weaving budded aureoles,

Will speak our speech and never know.

Marx described this paradox in the famous opening paragraphs of the "Eighteenth Brumaire": "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." In Stevens's "Postcard" the sky cries out "literate despair" to the new generation, literate because the children themselves have given it words and the words themselves were spoken by the dead. Like the apocalypse of "Sombre Figuration," this is a "wished-for ruin"; the image of modern society as a decayed casino in "Academic Discourse at Havana," the children's vision of the past as a shuttered mansion-house is an "infinite incantation of our selves." Stevens does not want to condemn the children for being seduced by such an incantation--he understood how difficult it is to separate "fatalism" from "indifferentism" in a time of social unrest; rather, he hopes the new generation will see that its swan song is also a prelude to a great new poem. "A dirty house in a gutted world" is also "tatter of shadows peaked to white, / Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun."

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

James Longenbach: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Stevens always insisted that "Ramon Fernandez" was "not intended to be anyone at all," and, in a sense, like the "Mr. Burnshaw" of "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," he is a caricature [Stanley Burnshaw, as addressed in Stevens’ poem, was active as a Marxist critic in the 1930s]. Yet most of Stevens’s readers will know that Fernandez was a critic familiar to Stevens from the pages of the Nouvelle revue française, the Partisan Review, and the Criterion (where he was translated by T. S. Eliot). Fernandez’s criticism became increasingly politically engaged in the 1930s, especially after the violent riots and the general strike he witnessed in Paris in the wake of the Stavisky Affair. (The mastermind of illicit financial deals in which the French government was implicated, Stavisky was found dead – apparently by his own hand, though his suicide seemed to most French citizens to have been far too convenient.) After the riots, Fernandez published an open letter to Gide in the Nouvelle revue française, asserting that while he had not opposed the fascist cause before the riots, he was now converted to the struggle of the proletariat. The letter provoked a number of letters in response, some of them challenging Fernandez, others simply canceling subscriptions to the Nouvelle revue française.

That this controversy lay behind Stevens’s use of Fernandez’s name in "The Idea of Order" would have seemed apparent to anyone who read Stevens’s poem in Alcestis along with the current issue of the Partisan Review, which contained a translation of Fernandez’s "I Came Near Being a Fascist." There Fernandez confessed that he had "a professional fondness for theorizing, which tends to make one highly susceptible to original ‘solutions.’" It was just that susceptibility that bothered Stevens and made him challenge Fernandez to answer a question to which he knew there was no certain answer. Stevens’s interest in the ambiguity of ideas did not mean that he took ideas lightly; on the contrary, he lamente what he thought of as "the Lightness with which ideas are asserted. Held, abandoned" in "the world today." Nor did Stevens mean to equate ambiguity with the intentional obscuring of an ambiguous world; he condemned the poet "who wrote with the idea of being deliberately obscure" as "an impostor." With his public announcements of political commitments and conversions, Fernandez was the opposite of Stevens, who recoiled at the idea of associating himself with any group or program that offered "solutions." Fernandez, suggests Stevens in "The Idea of Order," might have been certain about the source and effect of the singer’s song, but the only thing Stevens was sure of was that in his certainty, Fernandez would have been wrong.

… Stevens believed that we cannot live without ideas of order, but like [R. P.] Blackmur he understood that he could not talk about order without raising the specter of disorder, and that any idea of order that did not leave space for its own dissolution could not be tolerated. In this sense, responding to Fernandez’s dogmatism, Stevens might have titled his poem "The Idea of Disorder at Key West." As he would put it in "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue," "even disorder may, / So seen, have an order of its own." In the terms of Kenneth Burke that both Blackmur and Stevens admired, these poems of order do not offer "the seasoned stocks and bonds of set belief," but "a questioning art, still cluttered with the merest conveniences of thinking, a highly fluctuant thing often turning against itself and its own best discoveries.""

From James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 161-162.

James Longenbach: On "The Death of a Soldier"

"Here indeed is an early manifestation of Stevens the reductionist. As a poem about death, these lines [from "The Death of a Soldier"] call for no pity; they call for no metaphor and little meaning. The dead soldier does not partake of the grandeur of Jesus’ rebirth" the death calls for no pomp, in either the rituals of culture or the gaudiness of language. Even the one rather weak metaphor offered for the death ("As in a season of autumn") is protracted into meaninglessness when it is repeated in the third tercet, not to enlarge the single death by locating it in a natural cycle but to reveal that this seasonal decline is indifferent to human sorrow. In "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" Frost says that one would need to work hard "not to believe the phoebes wept" at the charred remains of a house; but Frost also shows those birds rejoicing "in the nest they kept," humanizing the birds who have no human values. More stringent still, Stevens offers even less consolation …

Stevens’s poem is this stern because he is writing not about the death of his mother, say, but the death of the soldier – and not an ambiguously "fictive" soldier but Eugène Lemercier [the young French painter killed in 1915 whose letters were collected as Lettres d"un soldat and read by Stevens in the summer of 1917]. … And its utter bareness derives from the fact that Stevens was writing not about natural death (the death of a loved one that, however terrible, can be accepted in its inevitability) but about a new kind of unnatural death, the daily death of thousands of soldiers on French battlefields.

From James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 69-70.

James Longenbach: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

Often considered the purest of Stevens’ poems, bearing no "relation" to society (in Wilson's terms), "Sea Surface" is really his best approximation in poetry of what a claims man's work is like on a bad day. If surety claims at all resemble poems because they offer a refreshing variety within a framework of similarity, then "Sea Surface" is a bridge game in which all tricks are the same, or (more to the point) a poem in which all iambic pentameter lines are identical: "In that November off Tehuantepec" begins each of the five movements of the poem. The movements play variations on the sun's rise on the ship's deck, which may make one "think of rosy chocolate / And gilt umbrellas" or "chop-house chocolate / And sham umbrellas" or "porcelain chocolate / And pied umbrellas" or "musky chocolate/ And frail umbrellas." The water's green may be, in turn, paradisiacal, sham-like, uncertain, or too-fluent. The machine of ocean may be perplexed, tense, tranced, or dry. Those two parties, variously denoted, may stand to each other in the relation of giving suavity, capping summer-seeming, holding piano-polished, or suggesting malice. This is a poem written by a claims man, late one night, filling in the standard forms with different names, and having trouble isolating any life beyond this sheet of paper.

Know All Men by These Presents.

That ……………of……………….as Principal and……………of………………. 

as Surety are held and firmly bound unto…………………of……………in the penal

sum of……………..Dollars to the payment whereof to the said…………they bind 

their heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns.


Whereas the said……………….has been employed by the said………………..as



Now, therefore, the condition of the foregoing obligation is that if the said

……....... shall well and truly perform the duty of……………..then this bond 

shall be null and void, otherwise it shall be in full force and effect.


Signed, sealed and dated this ………….. day of……….. 19.…..

With a self-consciousness that is difficult to measure, "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is more or less calculatedly monotonous. The poem commemorates the sea voyage during which Stevens's daughter was conceived, and the force of the poem's final lines, invoking that event, depends on their contrast with the increasingly tedious repetitions that precede them: "Then the sea / And heaven rolled as one and from the two / Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue." Just what kind of transfiguration Stevens had in mind is not clear. Each movement of "Sea Surface" pushes for some kind of unveiling, especially the fourth, where the too-fluent green suggests malice in the dry machine of ocean. But each movement is checked by stasis, and the poem's structural repetitions overcome the wish for difference. To use the terms of "Surety and Fidelity Claims," "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" reveals a mind made of papers, a mind too immature to see a world alive and expanding beyond the page. As Stevens said in "The Noble Rider," speaking out of his own fears, "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real."

To continue with the terms of "Surety and Fidelity Claims," Stevens wrote a more mature poem than "Sea Surface" on Valentine's Day in 1925. These occasional verses are perhaps the only poetic effort Stevens mustered during the second silence.

Though Valentine brings love

And Spring brings beauty

They do not make me rise

To my poetic duty


But Elsie and Holly do

And do it daily--

Much more than Valentine or Spring 

And very much more gaily.

If "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" is as close as Stevens could come to the work of surety bonds, then these lines are as far away from that work as he could get. To say so seems willfully paradoxical, since "Sea Surface" is one of Stevens's most esoteric poems, while this Valentine's Day verse is among his most occasional. But "Sea Surface" comes close to surety bonds precisely because it is so self-enclosed; it is to poetry what suretyship is to insurance--like the department of Oriental languages at the university. In contrast, the Valentine's Day poem (though much closer to the daily life that surety bonds engage) stands utterly apart from the discourse of suretyship. As a poem about "poetic duty," it is itself paradoxical since Stevens wrote almost no other poetry in the later 1920s. The poem suggests that Stevens fulfilled his duty to his family by rising at daybreak, shaving, exercising, eating his therapeutic breakfast, walking to work, and putting in his full day at the Hartford. Such actions became his "poetic duty" when they helped him out of the aesthetic cul-de-sac epitomized by "Sea Surface Full of Clouds."

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

James Longenbach: On "Gerontion"

Hugh Kenner has noticed that Eliot's characterization of Senecan drama provides a fair description of "Gerontion." In the Greek drama, says Eliot, "we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality," while in the plays of Seneca "the drama is all in the word, and the word has no further reality behind it." Part of the reason for the extraordinary difficulty of "Gerontion" is its conspicuous lack of the concrete visual images that illuminate even the most obscure passages of The Waste Land. "Gerontion" is all talk.

    Signs are taken for wonders. "We would see a sign!" 

The word within a word, unable to speak a word, 

Swaddled with darkness.

Here Gerontion has quoted St. Matthew's report of the pharisees' challenge to Christ ("We would see a sign!") and has followed it with a line from Lancelot Andrewes's Nativity Sermon on that text ("The word within a word, unable to speak a word"). In his 1926 essay on Andrewes, Eliot remarks that Andrewes is "extracting all the spiritual meaning of a text" in this passage. That is precisely what Gerontion cannot do. Andrewes is talking about the logos, the Word within the word. Gerontion's words have no metaphysical buttressing, and his language is studded with puns, words within words. The passage on history is a series of metaphors that dissolve into incomprehensibility:

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors

And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,

Guides us by vanities.

Gerontion has already described himself as "an old man in a draughty house," and his "house" of history has its corridors and passages and issues. Written histories also have "cunning passages," and historians write about "Issues." Gerontion's history is also a woman:

She gives when our attention is distracted

And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions

That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late

What's not believed in, or if still believed,

In memory only, reconsidered passion.

From Eliot's point of view, this is merely self-deception. Given the idealist historicism that Eliot inherited from Bradley, history cannot possibly be an "other," separated from the self who conceives it. By presenting history as something other than an "ideal construction," a product of his own mind, Gerontion shifts the blame for his own situation from himself onto history:

                                                Gives too soon

Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with 

Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think

Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices 

Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues

Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

Neither passive fear not active courage will save us, says Gerontion, because history has duped us, perverting our heroic intentions. Gerontion's understanding of history is a rationalization of his own inability to act or feel. It is to his advantage to be what Bradley calls an "uncritical historian" or what Eliot calls an "imperfect critic."

Unlike Eliot, the speaker of "Gerontion" does not understand that his knowledge of history is his own "ideal construction," and that a vision of historical chaos is a product of the mind that cannot unify the present and the past. As I mentioned in the introduction, Eliot's drafts for "Gerontion" show that the passage on history was finished in all but one crucial point before other sections of the poem were given their final forms. In his last revision, Eliot altered only one word: he substituted "history" for "nature." Had the change not been made, our sense of the entire poem would be drastically different; on a much smaller scale, I want to point out that Eliot's substitution of "history" for "nature" confirms the fact that the word "history" is to be understood in "Gerontion" not as a sequence of events in the "real" past but as an "ideal construction" of those events: history is not the same thing as nature, the real world outside us. Even nature is an "ideal construction" for Eliot, a fabrication of the mind: in his essay on Tennyson's In Memoriam (1936) he writes of "that strange abstraction, 'Nature.'" Eliot's substitution of the word "history" emphasizes what his persona in "Gerontion" does not understand: that history is not something separate from the life of the individual in the present.

From Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

James Longenbach: On "At the Fishhouses"

The final lines of Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" articulate the notion of historical understanding on which her poems, early and late, come to rest. Bishop speaks here of a sea so cold that, should you dip your hand in it, "Your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn."

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, dear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold hard mouth of the world, derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

These lines offer a charged metaphor for the origins of knowledge, the rocky breasts, an image Bishop often associates with the Nova Scotia landscape where she lost her mother. At the same time, the lines caution that, like all metaphors, this one is made and therefore provisional--doubly so: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be."

The realization that "knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown" raises not only questions of poetic structure but questions of value. In "At the Fishhouses," Bishop links the Nova Scotia landscape with the female body but reminds us at the same time that the equation is historically contingent.

From Modern Poetry after Modernism. Copyright © 1997 by James Longenbach.

James Longenbach: On "The Fish"

In her famous poem "The Fish" [. . .] Bishop was able to demonstrate the value of openness and discovery within the poem's unfolding of its thematic content. She provides at the beginning of "The Fish" no sense of its conclusion; instead, the poem seems to discover its direction only as we read it, and (as in Bishop's parable) both the target and the hunter are in motion. The fish and the fisherman become apprehensible to us through the sequence of similes characterizing the fish. (Metaphors, suggesting firmer equivalencies, are avoided.)

Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper, and its pattern of darker brown was like wallpaper: shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost though age.

This fish is not "imaginary" (Bishop emphasizes its brute otherness by dwelling on its sharp gills and sea-lice) but it is, unlike the iceberg, "imagined": that is, it makes sense—tentatively--only as values are attributed to it. By its very otherness the fish seems to teach the speaker how to imagine and therefore appreciate her world. The epiphany in the poem's final lines, when everything is "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," becomes possible when the speaker turns from the fish and sees a rainbow in the oil spread out in the ugly rented boat. Having begun by setting down the poem when still "incomplete" (to borrow the terms of her essays), Bishop ends by demonstrating "not a thought but a mind thinking."


From Modern Poetry after Modernism. Copyright © 1997 by James Longenbach.