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3 The human abstract in ‘Landscape with Boat’ (1940)
Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction
‘Landscape with Boat’ is influenced by painting, it does not necessarily engage with abstract art in the way Eeckhout and others assume.83
Recalling Chapter 3, Stevensian abstraction comprises an imaginative process which does not yield a pared-down, non-concrete aesthetic. Instead,
Stevens shares Francis Bacon’s tendency to think about artefacts in the
abstract, as imaginative catalysts for creative work. This is not the same as
embracing Abstract Expressionism or endorsing the kind of ‘non-human’
art the poet associated with Picasso a few years prior to this poem.84
‘Landscape with Boat’ presents a painterly ‘ascetic’ whose desire to cut
through appearance suggests abstract imagining:
An anti-master-man, floribund ascetic.
He brushed away the thunder, then the clouds,
Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still
The sky was blue. He wanted imperceptible air.
He wanted to see. He wanted the eye to see
And not be touched by blue. He wanted to know,
A naked man who regarded himself in the glass
Of air, who looked for the world beneath the blue,
Without blue, without any turquoise tint or phase,
Any azure under-side or after-color.
Following ‘The Poems of Our Climate’, Stevens critiques the desire to
whitewash the world. Certainly, the 1940s Stevens wants to strip away
appearance; but what differentiates a poem like ‘Notes Toward a Supreme
Fiction’ from the attempt of the ‘anti-master-man’ to strip the world bare
is that ‘Notes’ knows that the discovery of the ‘first idea’, or a ‘supreme
fiction’, is inspiringly unrealizable. What ‘Notes’ appreciates is the creative energy derived from being a ‘thinker of the first idea’.85 ‘Landscape
with Boat’, however, simply critiques the attempt to push through appearance to an impossible world without colour (a sky ‘without blue’, or any
colour, is arguably hardly a sky). That Stevens’ ‘He’ is figured in painterly
diction only testifies to the impossibility of breaking out of any medium
into pure form. If ‘He brushed away the thunder’, there remain traces of
the brush-strokes the ‘anti-master-man’ makes.86
See Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 175–6; Cleghorn, Wallace Stevens’ Poetics, 44–5.
MacLeod does, however, address how Stevens’ poetics chimes with abstract painting following
the Second World War and with the Abstract Expressionists’ responses to Stevens (see MacLeod,
Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, 143ff.).
Cohen notes Simons’ reading of the poem in connection with Mallarmé’s ‘L’Azur’ (Cohen, ‘The
Strange Unlike’, 115).
Stevens’ ‘He’ is also ironized as over-intellectualizing. Whilst this figure realizes the impossibility of discovering a ‘neutral centre’, he remains
prey to rhetoric desiring a ‘single-colored’ truth:
It was not as if the truth lay where he thought,
Like a phantom, in an uncreated night.
It was easier to think it lay there. If
It was nowhere else, it was there and because
It was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed,
Itself had to be supposed, a thing supposed
In a place supposed, a thing that he reached
In a place that he reached, by rejecting what he saw
And denying what he heard. He would arrive.
He had only not to live, to walk in the dark,
To be projected by one void into
Stevens’ playful language accentuates how this ‘He’ is already subject
to the ambiguity which questions discovering unambiguous ‘truth’.
‘Supposed’ conveys ‘assumed’, as in logical supposition and ‘imagined’,
signifying creative acts. ‘Sup-posing’ is literally ‘placing under’ (from the
French poser). Within the thought that is ‘easier to think’, truth is neatly
placed in ‘uncreated night’, awaiting discovery. But on the idealist and
pragmatist view where truth is made not found, ‘supposing’ is creating,
and creation involves changing the appearance of places – just as in ‘Blue
Guitar’ canto vi the words ‘place’ and ‘space’ change places significantly.
Stevens’ ‘He’ moves, then, from logical supposition to creating ‘truth’,
where a rhetoric of rejection paradoxically enables his speaker to move
around: ‘He would arrive’ in ‘a place that he reached, by rejecting what he
saw / And denying what he heard’. Rather than cause inertia, the refusal
‘to live’, to walk instead ‘in the dark’ enables Stevens’ ‘He’ to discover a
new locale. Note also how this third person disappears in his ‘supposing’, not reappearing until the phrase ‘a thing that he reached’. The poem
implies that the philosophical thirst for final answers disables movement.
Like the ‘un-locatable’ speaker of ‘Blue Guitar’, Stevens’ ‘He’ will not
become mobile without relinquishing logical supposition.
Stevens’ speaker is thus conceived in a specialized setting where an
idealist ‘I’ is imagined (if only ‘he’ could ‘suppose’ this for himself):
Had he been better able to suppose:
He might sit on a sofa on a balcony
Above the Mediterranean, emerald
Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction
Becoming emeralds. He might watch the palms
Flap green ears in the heat. He might observe
A yellow wine and follow a steamer’s track
And say, ‘The thing I hum appears to be
The rhythm of this celestial pantomime.’
Being ‘better able to suppose’ means imaginatively changing places: removing oneself from an ‘ascetic’ world and reclining on a balcony overlooking
the Mediterranean. Stevens’ ‘He’ seemingly discovers himself in an environment of ‘palms’, a ‘yellow wine’ and ‘a steamer’s track’: as if the boat, or
its trace, only become ‘real’ parts of the poem’s landscape when the ‘He’
relinquishes his world without colour and becomes painter of the scene.
The imagined ‘I’ shapes an idealist epiphany. ‘The thing I hum appears
to be / The rhythm of this celestial pantomime’ affirms how appearances
are mental creations. A ‘pantomime’, originally, was a ‘dumb show’ not
a festive play, just as ‘celestial’ refers etymologically to ‘the sky’ rather
than anything metaphysical. The ‘celestial pantomime’ implies the world
presents us with a spectacle, but not a language (which awaits creation, be
it musical, visual or verbal). Whatever the language, however, the poem
realizes the powers of the idealist mind upon which Stevens frequently
meditates in the early 1940s.
‘Landscape with Boat’ also illustrates the human dimensions of
Stevensian abstraction. By transforming a philosophizing ‘He’ into an
idealist ‘I’ Stevens rejects meaningless abstraction in favour of an interpersonal imagination. Some readers oppose ‘the abstract’ to the human.87
But Stevens’ modern idealism relies on abstraction for the human task
of refreshing ‘reality’. To be ‘abstract’ is to re-discover the human, reinvigorating our physical and sensual impressions.88 Eeckhout, however,
sees ‘Landscape with Boat’ as problematic, caught between critiquing its
abstract ‘ascetic’ (which he compellingly associates with Mondrian) and
the creation of the abstract ‘I’ at the poem’s close.89 Specifically, Eeckhout
opposes abstraction to Stevens’ perception of ‘sensuous particulars’:
Even if a modicum of self-irony […] inform[s] the description of the ascetic,
Stevens still manages rather easily […] to come down on one side of the debate,
ignoring […] his own strong inclination toward abstraction and his own regular
See Eeckhout’s reading of ‘The Snow Man’ (Wallace Stevens, 85) and Leggett, Wallace Stevens and
Poetic Theory, 17–26.
Leggett suggests ‘even the most sensuous detail remains radically a product of abstraction’,
Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, 40.
Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 176.
distrust of the sufficiency of sensuous particulars […] ‘Landscape with Boat’ is
an affirmation of the sensuous particulars of this world […] but it is also, surreptitiously, an exorcism.90
But Stevens never evinced a ‘regular distrust’ of ‘the sufficiency of sensuous particulars’, unless Eeckhout intends the questioning of the senses
abstraction encourages before re-configuring perception. Such particulars
become tokens of the imaginative space where an idealist poetic re-establishes contact with ‘reality’. But Eeckhout assumes these ‘sensuous particulars’ belong to the illusory realm of what Coleridge and Shelley call the
‘film of familiarity’, and that, by lauding abstraction, Stevens attempts to
transcend an indulgent, physical world rather than seeing that realm as a
portal of discovery.91
Mallarmé asks: ‘Why should we perform the miracle by which a natural object is almost made to disappear beneath the magic waving wand
of the written word, if not to divorce that object from the direct and the
palpable, and so conjure up its essence in all purity?’92 But Stevens does not
share Mallarmé’s desire to dispense entirely with habitual perception. His
aim is not to transcend ‘the direct’ and ‘palpable’, but, through abstraction, metamorphose our very sense of palpability. Eeckhout’s reading of
‘Landscape with Boat’ attributes to Stevens a Mallarméan distrust of sensuous particulars, perpetuating a tradition that ultimately opposes the
abstract to the human. But from an idealist perspective, visual and sensual tokens are opportunities. A ‘yellow wine’ might initiate novel interaction with life itself.
What, then, characterizes Stevens’ idealist ‘I’? First, it is textually invasive, appearing frequently in small chunks of verse as well as dominating
the poems in which it appears. Second, it is paradoxically non-subjective.
For Stevens’ readers the ‘I’ forms a source of abstract attraction, almost
a cipher upon which any desire may be projected. Stevens’ ‘I’ is thus an
emblem for the abstract imagination described here and earlier, a ‘self’ of
aesthetic hypersensitivity to colour, sound, smell, touch and taste. Although
a first person, it allows Stevens to abstract himself from his own poem and
to give his abstract ideas sensual reality through the aesthetic spaces the ‘I’
apparently creates (or to which it has access). Stevens’ ‘I’ invites readers into
the poem not as quasi-creators of the poem itself – which David Walker
sees as being a component of the nominally ‘transparent lyric’ – but as an
BL, II, Ch. 14, 7; Shelley, The Major Works, 698.
Mallarmé, ‘Crisis in Poetry’, 1562.
Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction
emblem for the imagination which conjures the poem’s own meditations.93
In Hegel’s sense, the poet abstracts himself from his poem, but his readers
turn the abstract ‘I’ of the poet’s imagination into the mediated spirit who
establishes fresh contact with the world.
Although Stevens criticism has addressed the role of speakers, no
prior account of this unusual first person, born of ‘Blue Guitar’, exists.94
Although idealism has been discussed, this criticism has not focused on
Stevens’ first-person speaker either.95 Certainly, Stevens’ ‘I’ does not conform to any precedent for lyric speakers in poetry written in English, and,
contemporaneously, was alien to the New Critical view of poetic voices.96 In fact, the poet’s idealist ‘I’, if it derives from Romantic philosophy,
is thoroughly Modernist; albeit more in line with Proust’s and Woolf’s
explorations of self than those of Eliot, Pound, Williams or Moore.97
Altieri asserts that Modernism is ‘characterized by the gradual domination of third-person over first-person terms’ in ‘understanding the psyche’
and conceiving ‘social relations’. Stevens’ ‘I’ paradoxically communicates
‘third-person’ concerns, transcending reduction to ‘first-person terms’ by
creating the abstract space where readers reflect on imaginative possibilities. Altieri ponders if ‘the lyric imagination’ could ‘assume a version of
the third-person position’.98 Stevens’ ‘I’ achieves this assumption precisely.
As Valéry also observes: ‘The most enduring “I” is the most impersonal’.99
Chapter 3 suggested that Stevensian terms beg for physical realization, noting how the poet’s ‘supreme fiction’ exerts a ‘physical’ hold over
Stevens’ quotidian imagination. When he reports liking ‘Rhine wine,
blue grapes’ and ‘good cheese’ as much as ‘supreme fiction’, Stevens does
not compartmentalize the abstract term as different in kind from these
gastronomic items. If anything, insurance work requires putting ‘supreme
fiction’, like the enjoyment of food and wine, temporarily ‘to one side’.100
See David Walker, The Transparent Lyric: Reading and Meaning in the Poetry of Stevens and
Williams (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
See Daniel Schwarz, Narrative and Representation in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (New York: St
Martin’s Press, 1993), 7; Vendler, Words Chosen Out of Desire, 15; Eeckhout, Wallace Stevens, 39.
See Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945), 224–6; Peterson,
Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition; Whiting, The Never-Resting Mind; Jennifer Bates,
‘Stevens, Hegel, and the Palm at the End of the Mind’ WSJ 23.2 (1999), 152–66.
See Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry, liv.
To appreciate the distance between Stevens’ speaker and Romantic selfhood, see Michael
O’Neill, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), xiii–xiv; and
Leon Waldoff, Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation
(Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 8.
Altieri, Painterly Abstraction, 333.
Valéry, Cahiers/Notebooks vol. i, 322.
But Stevens’ sense of his profession affording him the possibility of living
the good life is clear.101 What is less obvious is how all these elements are
inextricable in the poet’s quotidian meditations.102
The next chapter illustrates the importance of understanding Stevens’
gastronomic references as involving much more than the occasional reflections of a gourmet, reading ‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’ as a special
case in which Stevens’ idealist ‘I’ speaks, before embarking on a longer
analysis of ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’.103 The physical and sensual in Stevens
are often the sites for the catalysis of his abstract imagination, and the
tendency to oppose the sensual to the abstract denies readers insight into
this aspect of Stevens’ work. The ‘mastery of life’, of which Stevens speaks
later in his career, is explored in greater detail, along with his gastronomic
aesthetic, in Chapter 7. The next chapter begins by exploring how Stevens’
idealist speaker thrives on the gourmet spirit that makes its poet a ‘spiritual epicure’ in every sense of the phrase.104
But Stevens also ruminated imaginatively on office life (see L, 776). In ‘Surety and Fidelity
Claims’ (1938) he commented of the ‘claim man’: ‘After twenty-five years or more […] he finds
it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles and comes almost to
believe that he and his papers constitute a single creature, consisting principally of hands and
eyes: lots of hands and lots of eyes’, CPP, 799.
Stevens wrote ironically to Feo: ‘the […] Valery which I read yesterday got mixed up with a
lot of Rhine wine that I had for lunch and kept falling out of my hand. When I had finished I
thought it was a truly wonderful work and felt relieved that it was over […] Either one of these
books with Rhine wine or Moselle would be hard to improve on’ (L, 757).
Frank Lentricchia argues Stevens’ ‘good cheese’, Rhine wine, grapes and books are ‘substitutes
for supreme fiction money can buy’, Ariel and the Police (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1988), 228–9. They are not substitutes but inspirational, even symbolic, objects which play
an active role in Stevens’ quotidian imagination, where the humdrum and ‘sublime’ unite in
C H APTER 5
Abstract appetites: food, wine
and the idealist ‘I’
5.1 T a s t i ng ‘C e r ta i n Ph e nom e n a of S ou n d’ (194 2)
Stevens’ gastronomic references could inform an entire study in their own
right. The elusive ‘lobster Bombay’, mango chutney, Burgundian wines
(Meursault, Le Montrachet, Chablis, Corton), Champagne, persimmons, pears, peaches, strawberries, even a glass of water: these are only
some of the stimulants affecting Stevens’ literal and abstractive palate.1
Gastronomy in Stevens often unites ‘high ideas’ with living, immediate
pleasures. As the poet wrote to Henry Church: ‘Being, as I think of it, is
not a science but merely eating duck, or doing some such thing.’ 2 Such
calculated flippancy is a reminder to Stevens’ more earnest Heideggerian
readers that ‘being’ was hardly the ‘be-all and end-all’ for this poet.
Numerous Stevens poems refer to bread and wine, where such staples
imply imaginative and domestic well-being, whether present or disturbingly absent.3 Following Santayana, Stevens gave the word ‘poverty’ a particular resonance; sensing economic and imaginative hardships frequently
conjoin.4 Domestic comforts thus take on aesthetic significance in the
poetry, not least through gastronomy. That significance chimes with the
argument I make for Stevensian abstraction: namely, that aesthetic meditation re-connects us with the world and that an abstract aesthetic potentially maximizes its number of gourmet readers.5
See CPP, 347, 234–7; L, 682, 684, 761, 682, 393; CPP, 180, 206, 207, 181–2.
See CPP, 106–7, 142, 229, 246, 350 and 352.
See ibid., 8–9. Santayana argues that poetry ‘shakes us out of our servile speech and imaginative
poverty’ (Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 266). In a more abstract vein, he claims: ‘[T]he
superiority of the distant over the present is only due to the mass and variety of the pleasures that
can be suggested, compared with the poverty of those that can at any time be felt’ (The Sense of
Feo early pondered Stevens’ aesthetic love of wine (see Brazeau, Parts of a World, 141). Rehder
mentions the poet’s gourmandism, suggesting Stevens wrote poetry because the ‘feelings’ he nurtured in his ‘private, homemade, mundane connoisseurship’ were ‘not self-sufficient’ (Rehder,
The Poetry of Wallace Stevens, 30). However, Stevens’ gastronomic loves should not be relegated
Stevens no doubt delighted in Mauron’s claim that ‘[w]ithout the originality of artists our human world would lose half its taste’ (underlining
the phrase in his personal copy). Stevens added a marginal note: ‘It is originality [that] enriches the world’, a comment indicating his conviction
that poets, among other artists, should be the acknowledged legislators.6
Mauron’s notion that artworks arrest present sensation rather than implying future action is also gastronomically expressed:
In ordinary life we sometimes pause […] before a tree […] or at a table even,
with a mouthful of wine, our attention concentrated wholly on the delicate black
savour […] rolling between the palate and the tongue. In such moments […] we
are all like artists, because instead of putting an end to the stimulus by a prompt
reaction, we keep it in suspense.7
The artist thus ‘transforms us, willy-nilly, into epicures’. Mauron finds
the ‘bliss of gourmets’ to be coterminous with the pleasure artworks create.8 Stevens undoubtedly enjoyed being a ‘spiritual epicure’ himself, and
appreciated aesthetic suspense, underlining Mauron’s ‘Through our very
immobility, the excitement is multiplied.’ 9 He also wrote marginally of
Mauron’s ‘epicures’: ‘and constitutes a stimulus, which we enjoy in its
own sense, since it entails no reaching beyond the enjoyment of the sensation it provokes. Thus the basis of the aesthetic emotion is the aesthetic
attitude; contemplation without any idea of making use of the object of
Like Stevens, Mauron understood the vitality ‘luxury’ can afford
(Stevens underlining the first two sentences of the following):
Biologically, human pleasure is a luxury […] a point in our curve above the perfect zero which represents absence of pain. Art is part of this luxury. We add
aesthetic joys to our life as we add condiments to our soup, to give it a little more
No doubt Stevens appreciated Mauron’s defence of the ‘luxury’ of
abstraction, which appeals to ‘the domain of the senses’ precisely because
we hold our perception of our own senses ‘in suspense’.12 Like Stevens,
beneath the aesthetic values of poetry or painting. His imagination welcomed perceptual pleasures whether or not they became pretexts for poetry.
Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 52, Stevens’ copy.
Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 37, 46.
See L, 394.
Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 38, Stevens’ copy. Stevens also marked Mauron’s later commentary on the artist’s ‘contemplative epicurism’, 105.
Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 70–1.