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1 Taming ‘the guerrilla I’: the early poems of parts of a world (1942)

1 Taming ‘the guerrilla I’: the early poems of parts of a world (1942)

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111



Man with the Blue Guitar’. Far from preaching the ‘slogan’ ‘Away from

Nature!’, Picasso told Zervos that ‘abstract art’ was impossible because

the painter ‘always start[s] with something’. Even if the artist ‘remove[s]

all traces of reality’ the ‘idea of the object will have left an indelible mark’

on his creation.4 For Picasso, objects and inspiration derive from Nature.

They are not created by intellectual abstraction. As he recalled: ‘I go for

a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau. I get “green” indigestion. I must

get rid of this sensation into a picture. Green rules it.’ 5 Stevens himself

­echoed Picasso’s observation in ‘The Greenest Continent’: ‘The voice / In

the jungle is a voice in Fontainebleau.’ 6

Admittedly, Furst acknowledges that from Picasso’s ‘abstract form’ the

‘grim significance of human emotions’ appears. But the portrayal Stevens

favours renders Picasso ‘an over-intellectual designer’, one who ‘moves

one to thought, but not to feeling’. Stevens endorses Furst’s desire to have

it both ways. Picasso’s abstract art confines him to a realm of ideas, but it

is through ‘abstract form’ that the artist discloses ‘human emotions’. On

the one hand, Picasso possesses, like Wordsworth’s Coleridge, the ‘selfcreated sustenance of a mind / Debarred from Nature’s living images’

(‘Away from Nature! was his slogan’).7 On the other, Picasso conveys emotion through ‘abstract form’. On closer inspection his paintings are, Furst

suggests, not ‘as “mad” as they looked’.8

My point in highlighting how Stevens revised his view of Picasso is

to demonstrate how the poet was, by 1938, devising an abstract aesthetic

of his own.9 As Chapter 3 argued, this involved forging a modern idealism, affirming the phenomenon of a creative subject, an active ‘I’. In ‘Blue

Guitar’ this ‘I’ occupies an abstract locale, frustrating any attempt to

describe its position in dualistic terms. In fact, the ‘I’ must be ‘un-locatable’, must be continually mobile if it is to convey the fluid meditation

Hegel also discovers in his phenomenology.

Significantly, the poems Stevens wrote immediately after ‘Blue Guitar’

feature idealism and the textually invasive ‘I’ who dominates much of

the 1938–45 verse. Even more than ‘Blue Guitar’, these 1938 poems render

Stevens’ ‘I’ idealist. In 1937 Picasso’s troubling ‘image’ for ‘our society’

haunts Stevens’ speaker:

Ashton, Picasso on Art, 9.

Ibid., 10.  6  CPP, 162.

7

Wordsworth, The Prelude Book Sixth, lines 312–13: 202.

8

Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 63.

9

Stevens showed increasing frustration with derivative Modernism, complaining:  ‘There is no

painting because the only painting permitted is painting derived from Picasso and Matisse’, L,

622. See Chapter 7.

4

5



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

Things as they are have been destroyed.

Have I? Am I a man that is dead

At a table on which the food is cold?

Is my thought a memory, not alive?

Is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood

And whichever it may be, is it mine?



(CPP, 142)



By 1938, however, Stevens surmounted both Picasso and abstraction as

‘destabilizing’ influences. Simultaneously, Stevens’ first person experiences

a less traumatic textual life, becoming both theme and poetic choreographer. Although the poet overlooked his debt to Picasso in confronting

abstraction, Stevens’ 1938 poems foreground the idealist speaker born of

the poet’s own struggle with an abstract aesthetic.

The ‘Canonica’ series comprising the first twelve poems of Parts of

a World marks this transition.10 In ‘The Poems of Our Climate’ (1938)

Stevens emphasizes the unavoidable reality of the creative self. As Brogan

argues, he critiques an Objectivist poetic – especially Williams – both in

his wry title and the poem’s bare imagery:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,

Pink and white carnations. The light

In the room more like a snowy air,

Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow

At the end of winter when afternoons return.

Pink and white carnations – one desires

So much more than that.



(CPP, 178)11



‘Pink and white carnations’ remain insufficient because Stevens cannot evade the desirous mind that lends his carnations colour. The poem

allows an unmediated ‘objective’ view articulation only to query its validity. Imagining a scene where the ‘snowy scents’ and unruly, perceiving ‘I’

are purged of ‘evilly compounded’ subjectivity, the poem wryly re-affirms

the existence of the ‘I’ that creates the scene.

Stevens imagines the impossibility of a world where carnations and

their perceiving ‘I’ are merely objects. But even if such a world is imagined, a desirous ‘I’ returns to haunt the scene:

Say even that this complete simplicity

Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed

Wallace Stevens, ‘Canonica’ The Southern Review 4.2 (1938): 382–95.

See Jacqueline Brogan, ‘Wallace Stevens: Poems Against His Climate’ WSJ 11.2 (1987): 75–93.



10

11



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The evilly compounded, vital I

And made it fresh in a world of white,

A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,

Still one would want more, one would need more,

More than a world of white and snowy scents.



113



(CPP, 179)



Even if, then, a re-created ‘vital I’ could become ‘fresh in a world of white’ (a

totally abstracted environment) one cannot avoid subjective desire: ‘Still one

would want more, one would need more’. As the poem insists: ‘There would

still remain the never-resting mind’. Significantly, Stevens cannot accept a

Mallarméan ‘pure poetry’, despite his obvious inheritance of Mallarméan

themes and ideas.12 His ‘vital I’ evades neutralization just as, for Brogan, the

poem resists the illusion of an Objectivist poetic in which ‘pink and white

carnations’ stand for themselves unmediated by a perceiving mind.

‘The Poems of Our Climate’ implies, therefore, that every environment

has a creator, even ‘unmediated’ aesthetics:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,

So that one would want to escape, come back

To what had been so long composed.

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.



(CPP, 179)



This is a major crossroads for Stevens. The turn to ‘what had been so

long composed’ and the insistence that the ‘imperfect is our paradise’

anticipate ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’, especially the view that

the world requires perpetual stripping of its veneers before imaginative re-composition. Stevens’ poem does not, however, prefer a purely

abstract space stripped of veneers, as, for the idealist, unmediated environments do not exist. Instead, as Focillon observes:  ‘technique must

extract from matter forces that are still vital and not vitrified beneath a

flawless varnish’.13 This positive abstract quality, as Longenbach notes,

would attract Robert Motherwell to this very poem in his 1944 essay

‘Painters’ objects’.14

For example, Stevens inherits Mallarmé’s drive to transcend ‘the poet’s own personal and passionate control of [the] verse’ (‘Crisis in Poetry’, 1561).

See L, 427; Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, 106.

14

‘Stevens’s poem bolstered his [Motherwell’s] assertion that […] a purely abstract painting,

divorced from the historical world, would be undesirable – even if it were possible’ (Longenbach,

Wallace Stevens, 254).

12

13



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



Stevens’ idealist ‘mind’, however, can only re-invigorate a created

world if, as for Wordsworth, brute ‘reality’ – a necessarily ‘imperfect’

paradise – is its starting point. Our climate is already ‘composed’ and

cannot be whitewashed. It is necessarily imperfect because the ‘neverresting mind’ cannot rest content with perfection (an inhuman ‘world

of white’). Stevens also engages ‘sound’ here, a persistent preoccupation

of the 1938–45 verse, as ‘stubborn sounds’ inform the mind’s ‘delight’.15

Stevens’ abstract poetic is undeniably preoccupied with sound, as is

its idealist speaker; as if it is only through sound(s) that the senses of

poetry and world unite. But it will take a fuller study of ‘sound’ in

Stevens to chart the poet’s changing uses of this word; and to assess

how the sonorous qualities of his verse relate, or otherwise, to abstraction (‘sound’ is addressed here in discussion of ‘The Noble Rider’,

however).

Stevens’ ‘vital I’ has not yet become an active poetic agent. It remains a

theme. His concern with the transformative mind and, implicitly, the ‘I’

who speaks in his verse is hypothetical, just as in ‘Notes’ Stevens advertises ‘the abstract’ before creating his mature post-1942 aesthetic; one

where ‘abstraction’ is no longer a required term, even if Stevens cannot

help but refer occasionally to his primary aesthetic transformation in significant instances.16

‘Prelude to Objects’ (1938) also features the ‘self ’ as theme. But this

poem does anticipate the potential of Stevens’ ‘I’, by lauding a ‘self ’ who,

through beholding himself, perceives the world more intimately:

If he will be heaven after death,

If, while he lives, he hears himself

Sounded in music, if the sun,

Stormer, is the color of a self

As certainly as night is the color

Of a self, if, without sentiment,

He is what he hears and sees and if,

Without pathos, he feels what he hears

And sees, being nothing otherwise,

Having nothing otherwise, he has not

To go to the Louvre to behold himself.



(CPP, 179)



See Anca Rosu, The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens (Tuscaloosa, AL:  University of

Alabama Press, 1995), 138–58.

16

For ‘abstraction’, ‘abstract’ and ‘the abstract’, see John N. Serio and Greg Foster, Online

Concordance to Wallace Stevens’ Poetry (www.wallacestevens.com/concordance/WSdb.cgi).

15



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Stevens affirms here his favourite painter Cézanne’s dictum that ‘Nature

is on the inside’ (a comment Merleau-Ponty also cites approvingly).17

Like the speaker in ‘Blue Guitar’ who asserts ‘I am, I speak and move /

And things are as I think they are’ the poem celebrates a ‘self’ who both

‘feels what he hears / And sees’ and ‘is what he hears and sees’ (note Stevens

inverts these phrases because feeling confirms perception of self rather

than signalling fleeting emotion).18 For all the Cézannes in ‘the Louvre’,

Stevens’ ‘self’ needs neither to commune with art nor travel the world to

achieve his nature: very much the Stevensian stance epitomized by Hardy’s

injunction in ‘Shut Out That Moon’ to ‘[s]tay in’.19 Like ‘The Poems of

Our Climate’, ‘Prelude to Objects’ also identifies sound as a source of selfrealization, lauding the self who ‘hears himself / Sounded in music’.

But if Stevens apparently swings free from his ‘actual world’  – particularly in stating ‘he has not / To go to the Louvre’ – he is ironically

accentuating Émile Bernard’s recollections of Cézanne’s conversation and

aphorisms. Stevens paints a ‘self’ who is not solipsistic but an aesthetic

creator, in the model Cézanne proposes. Bernard published his description of Cézanne and the painter’s aphorisms in L’Occident in 1904. But

Stevens could have read Cézanne’s views in any number of texts (the aphorisms profoundly influencing Picasso, Braque and the Cubists, as well as

Matisse).20 Bernard writes:

[H]e [Cézanne] made himself a new optics, for his own had been obliterated,

swept away by a boundless passion for too many images, print, paintings. He

wanted to see too much; his insatiable desire for beauty made him examine the

multiform tome of Art too much; henceforth […] if he now goes to the Louvre

[…] it is in view of stripping down appearances[.]21



Thus, although Cézanne still ‘goes to the Louvre’, it is to strip down

‘appearances’; an aim Stevens obviously shares with the painter in ‘Notes’

(and, of course, in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’).

But Cézanne was actually keener on communing with Nature than

visiting the Louvre. As he wrote to Bernard:

The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We should not, however,

content ourselves with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind’ in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on

Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics ed. James M. Edie

(Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 164.

18

CPP, 148.

19

See Chapter 2.

20

See Franỗoise Cachin et al., Cộzanne (New York:Harry N. Abrams, 1996), 36.

21

Émile Bernard, ‘Paul Cézanne’ L’Occident (1904) in Cachin et al., Cézanne, 37.

17



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



predecessors. Let’s take leave of them to study beautiful nature, let’s understand

to disengage our minds from them, let’s seek to express ourselves in accordance

with our personal temperaments.22



Cézanne’s insistence on personal temperament undoubtedly appealed

to Stevens. Of the twenty aphorisms Bernard recorded, several illustrate Cézanne’s conviction that ‘[p]ainting after nature is not copying

the objective, it’s realizing our sensations’.23 This does not mean the artist

‘occupies’ his work, however, as Bernard quickly observed:

[T]he more the artist works […] the more he distances himself from the opacity

of the model serving as his point of departure, the more he enters into a painting

without adornment whose sole aim is itself. The more he abstracts his painting,

the more he gives it a simplified amplitude[.]24



The artist’s painting thus reveals ‘personality’ but not personal individuality. As Cézanne wrote to Bernard: ‘The thesis to develop […] is to give

the image of what we see, forgetting everything that appears in front of

us. Which, I think, should permit the artist to give all of his personality,

large or small’.25

Both Cézanne and Stevens imagine ‘personalities’ who do not need to

go to the Louvre to behold themselves. Anchored in nature, such idealist figures reveal their perception of the world through the ‘personality’

of their art. They forget ‘everything that appears in front’ of them not

because the world is bereft of physical reality but because in a world of

appearances perception matters. As Proust’s Marcel observes:  ‘The only

real journey […] would be to travel not towards new landscapes, but with

new eyes.’ 26 Cézanne’s ‘new optics’ conveys precisely the ‘personality’

embodying novel vision. Likewise, in the late 1930s, Stevens creates an ‘I’

who has definite ‘personality’ but is not a cipher for individual gripes or

reflections.

In 1937 Stevens copied extracts from Graham Bell on Cézanne into his

commonplace book. Citing Bell’s observation that ‘Cézanne’s peculiar

determination [is] to pin down his sensation’, Stevens added:

I note the above both for itself and because it adds to subject and manner the

thing that is incessantly overlooked: the artist, the presence of the determining

personality. Without that reality no amount of other things matters much.27

Cited in Cachin et al., Cézanne, 18.  23 Bernard, ‘Paul Cézanne’, 37.

Cachin et al., Cézanne, 37.  25 Cited in ibid., 17–18.

26

Marcel Proust, The Prisoner and The Fugitive trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier

(London: Penguin, 2003), 237.

27

Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 53, 55.

22



24



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In ‘The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’ (where Cézanne’s letters are

quoted successively) Stevens’ ‘personality’ follows Cézanne’s term closely,

indicating the refracted traces of perception the artist communicates and

the ‘personality’ the artwork seemingly attains for itself.28 Stevens read

similar observations in Focillon, also a prominent element within his

1943 lecture: ‘the life of forms is undoubtedly more or less affected by the

temperament’.29 If Picasso ended up, for Stevens, at the abstract remove

Wordsworth detects in Coleridge, then Cézanne is exemplary because he

exudes personality without falling into solipsism or imaginative indulgence: ‘It was of the temperament of the artist that Cézanne spoke so frequently in his letters’. This ‘temperament’ engages what Stevens calls the

‘whole personality’ shaping works of art.30

Cézanne also epitomizes the idealist strain outlined in Chapter 3.

For Stevens, the painter becomes the exemplar of an abstract aesthetic

the poet realizes in the late 1930s. Stevens would have recognized how

the term ‘abstraction’ accompanied Cézanne. In 1945 Lionello Venturi

applauded the painter’s abstract style:

[He] could so abstract his style […] from any given experience of nature and yet

convey through his abstractions so profound an interpretation of the nature of

things, that every artist and also many laymen have in the last forty years seen

nature with the eyes of Cézanne himself.31



Venturi marvels at Cézanne’s ‘new optics’, enabling one to see through

‘the eyes of Cézanne himself’ but without the intrusion of the painter’s

individual struggle to create. For Stevens this variety of vision derives

from a ‘determining personality’. Such an abstract artist is also the idealist

creator Hegel favours in Phenomenology of Spirit. Stevens’ ‘self’ does not

need to visit the Louvre because – as with Cézanne’s view that ‘Nature is

on the inside’ – his palette already comprises himself interacting with the

world.

‘Prelude to Objects’ focuses a self untroubled by epistemological doubt,

where self-knowledge and knowledge of the world are coterminous in

poem and person alike (Stevens will later elide poet and poem directly).32

He also applies a kind of verbal paintbrush. Another reason the self does

See CPP, 671–2.

Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, 125.

30

CPP, 671.

31

Lionello Venturi, Painting and Painters: How to Look at a Picture, from Giotto to Chagall (New

York: Scribner’s, 1945), 179.

32

See L, 346, 354. Stevens does not articulate a final position, but does affirm ‘the thing and its

double always go together’, L, 354.

28



29



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



not need to ‘go to the Louvre’ is not because it rejects what Bernard calls

the ‘tome of Art’; rather, ‘reality’ is conditioned by ‘the eyes of Cézanne

himself’. Our vision is influenced by art and the personalities who determine that vision. As Stevens insisted in 1938: ‘Cézanne has been the source

of all painting of any interest during the last 20 years’.33

Accordingly, even if one visits the Louvre, one sees more than pictures

on the wall. The world itself is revealed through artistic creation, a revelation that for Stevens equals self-revelation:

Granted each picture is a glass,

That the walls are mirrors multiplied,

That the marbles are gluey pastiches, the stairs

The sweep of an impossible elegance,

And the notorious views from the windows

Wax wasted, monarchies beyond

The S.S. Normandie, granted

One is always seeing and feeling oneself,

That’s not by chance.



(CPP, 179–80)



This idealist confection of painting (‘each picture’), reflection (‘glass’,

‘mirrors multiplied’) and metamorphosis (the ‘marbles’ turned ‘gluey pastiches’, the world beyond the Louvre a ‘wax’ work) marks the inescapable fact that one ‘is always seeing and feeling oneself’. Even the S.S.

Normandie, whose regular route could have conveyed Stevens from New

York to Le Havre – whence he could proceed to the Louvre – lacks aesthetic allure. There is no prelude to objects. The ‘prelude’ is certainly not

the ‘self’ who views a world of objects. Stevens’ title is playful because

radical idealism privileges neither the self who manipulates objects nor

the objects themselves because it denies a subject–object dualism. In the

absence of that distinction there can be no prelude privileging either perceiver or perceived.

But Stevens’ poem does offer a ‘determining personality’ of its own: ‘It

comes to this: / That the guerilla I should be booked / And bound’.34 This

‘guerilla I’ is an assailant operating outside conventional practices: a first

person specializing in ‘irregular fighting’ (OED). Stevens battles with this

speaker in ‘Blue Guitar’, but by 1938 can joke about the need, in marked

legal language, to bring his ‘guerilla I’ to book because he had already,

bibliographically speaking, booked and bound that speaker in The Man

33



  Stevens to Wilson E. Taylor, 31 March 1938, WAS, 3853.

CPP, 180.



34



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119



with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems. The ‘nigger mystics’ of this ‘I’ – an

alarming caricature of ‘voodoo’ spell-binding? – are also ironized; paradoxically, because the poem insists they be transformed from ‘foolscap’ to

‘wigs’. ‘Foolscap’ is a size of paper, but obviously elides ‘fool’s cap’, denoting the jester with his cap and bells. Stevens quips his ‘I’ is both a serious

textual phenomenon – bound in paper – but also an object of mirth, lacking a serious audience (the ‘I’ desires the solemnity of a legal ‘wig’ rather

than a fool’s cap). The poem implies, however, that ‘wigs’ can be taken no

more seriously than any other definitive headgear (Stevens’ tone is similar to the apostrophe to the ‘beards’ of ‘Extracts from Addresses to the

Academy of Fine Ideas’).35 However, if the ‘guerilla I’ is not as dangerous

as Stevens maintains, his idealist ‘I’ does invade the early 1940s poetry.

‘Prelude to Objects’ signals that the poet (and a poetic ‘I’) need not fear

solipsism or perverse abstraction. The poem’s last section addresses the

‘Poet’ himself, insisting that, just as Cézanne shapes our vision of everything, the poet creates our sense of self-image: ‘We are conceived in your

conceits’. Stevens could joke about a ‘guerilla I’ because he had already

wrest control of that assailant in ‘Blue Guitar’. Realizing an ‘I’ and affirming an abstract imagination are, in fact, one and the same manoeuvre

in Stevens’ late 1930s work. But before demonstrating how his idealist ‘I’

choreographs the early 1940s poetry, I want to turn to ‘The Noble Rider

and the Sound of Words’ and ‘The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’,

re-interpreting these lectures through their interest in speakers and what

Stevens calls the ‘process of the personality of the poet’.36 The chapter then

demonstrates how Stevens presents his idealist ‘I’, among other abstract

figures, in milieux distinguished by food, wine and aesthetic meditation,

concluding with a short reading of ‘Landscape with Boat’. This is preliminary to Chapter 5’s exploration of ‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’

and Stevens’ most abstract ‘gastronomic’ poem ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ as

we move into further uncharted critical territory:  namely, the relations

between gastronomy, desire and abstraction in Stevens’ mature writing.

4 .2 F rom ‘robus t poe t ’ to i de a l is t ‘I’: ‘Th e Nobl e

R i de r a n d t h e Sou n d of Wor ds’ (194 2) a n d ‘Th e

F igu r e of t h e You t h a s V i r i l e Poe t ’ (1943)

‘The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words’ provides a rare instance of

Stevens critically reading another author’s work, namely Plato’s Phaedrus.

Ibid., 229. 



35



36



  Ibid., 670.



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



This reading illustrates Stevens’ growing awareness of how textual speakers influence readers. Although Stevens borrows Plato’s ‘charioteer’ primarily as an example of a figure of lost imaginative resonance (as a waning

symbol of ‘nobility’), what is often overlooked in this lecture is Stevens’

relish for Plato’s speaker. In fact ‘The Noble Rider’ initially foregrounds

Plato’s words rather than Stevens’:

In the Phaedrus, Plato speaks of the soul in a figure. He says:

Let our figure be of a composite nature – a pair of winged horses and a charioteer.

Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the gods are all of them noble […] while

ours are mixed; and we have a charioteer who drives them in a pair, and one of

them is noble and of noble origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin […]

I will endeavor to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal

creature. The soul or animate being has the care of the inanimate, and traverses the

whole heaven in divers forms appearing; – when perfect and fully winged she soars

upward, and is the ruler of the universe; while the imperfect soul loses her feathers,

and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground.37



Stevens knows it is not Plato who speaks here but Socrates. The lecture

postpones reading the text as a dialogue  – each speaker possessing his

own rhetorical agenda – because Stevens wants to influence his audience’s

response(s) to Plato.

Stevens is, in fact, peremptory, as he aims to delimit our understanding

of Plato’s figure:

We recognize at once, in this figure, Plato’s pure poetry; and […] we recognize

what Coleridge called Plato’s dear, gorgeous nonsense. The truth is that we have

scarcely read the passage before we have identified ourselves with the charioteer,

have, in fact, taken his place […] [S]uddenly we remember, it may be, that the

soul no longer exists and we droop in our flight and at last settle on the solid

ground. The figure has become antiquated and rustic.38



But whilst Plato’s passage might constitute ‘pure poetry’ – what Stevens

labels ‘all imagination’ – the reader/listener does not necessarily identify

‘with the charioteer’ or take his place as Stevens prescribes.39 ‘The truth is

that we have scarcely read’ forms a rhetorical ploy through which Stevens

delimits the interpretation with which he can account for Plato’s figure

having become ‘antiquated and rustic’. For if we ‘identify ourselves with

the charioteer’, we automatically participate in the experience of this figure’s downfall. Indeed, if we agree the figure falls for its unreality then

Stevens’ reading gives credence both to our nominally fine reading skills

37



Ibid., 643. 



38



  Ibid., 643. 



39



  Ibid., 645.



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