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1 Tasting ‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’ (1942)

1 Tasting ‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’ (1942)

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Abstract appetites



137



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

contemplation.’ 10

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

flavour.11



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.

6

Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 52, Stevens’ copy.

7

Ibid., 32.

8

Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 37, 46.

9

See L, 394.

10

Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 38, Stevens’ copy. Stevens also marked Mauron’s later commentary on the artist’s ‘contemplative epicurism’, 105.

11

Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 70–1.

12

Ibid., 19.



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



Mauron also opposed the ultimate abstraction critiqued in ‘Landscape

with Boat’ because in a world without colour there can be neither sense

nor feeling. Similarly, Francis Bacon criticized extreme abstraction for

lacking this human element: ‘Anything in art seems cruel because reality is cruel. Perhaps that’s why so many people like abstraction in art,

because you can’t be cruel in abstraction.’ 13 As Klee observed ambivalently

of a landscape in one of his Bauhaus lectures: ‘it is still too hard […] to

stay alive in such abstractions and not to forget entirely the bridge that

carries from natural rhythm to its precise representation’.14

Robert Motherwell, in another book Stevens owned, went further:

A weakness of modernist painting nowadays […] is inherent in taking over or

inventing ‘abstract’ forms insufficiently rooted in the concrete, in the world

of feeling where art originates, and of which modern French poetry is an

expression.15



But in a poetic that can abstract feeling, reality, cruelty and the inherent luxury of ‘pleasure’ multiple emotions may be encompassed. Stevens

learnt as much from Mallarmé, and perhaps, as Motherwell’s comparison

invites, from Valéry too.

Admittedly, Stevens is accused of writing without feeling. Some readers ponder, with Berryman, whether there was ‘something […] not there

in his flourishing art’.16 R. S. Thomas’ ambivalent ‘Wallace Stevens’ also

observes:

There was no spring in his world.

His one season was late fall;

The self ripe, but without taste.17



But Stevens’ poetry does encourage readers to taste, imagine, create

and re-create through abstract discovery. As Kermode insists: ‘There is a

poetry of the abstract; if you do not like it, even when it is firmly rooted

in the particulars of the world, you will not like Stevens.’ 18 Stevens could

Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 200.

Paul Klee, Paul Klee:  Dokumente und Bilder aus den Jahren 1896–1930 (Bern: Verlag Benteli,

1949), 11, Stevens’ copy. I am grateful to Bart Eeckhout for his translation. For Klee’s influence

on Stevens, see CPP, 750 and Chapter 7.

15

Robert Motherwell, ‘Prefatory Notice’ in Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (New

York:  Wittenborn, Schultz, 1950), unpaginated. Stevens refers to this work in ‘The Relations

Between Poetry and Painting’ (CPP, 749). He is mentioned in text by Harold Rosenberg as

one of the poets following the First World War who had been ‘enthusiastically frenchified’

(unpaginated).

16

John Berryman, ‘So Long? Stevens’ in The Dream Songs (London: Faber, 1993), 238.

17

Thomas, ‘Wallace Stevens’, 135.

18

Kermode, Wallace Stevens, 46.

13



14



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139



never be a ‘personal’ poet, if by ‘personal’ we imagine the naïve readerly response of abstracting for ourselves the precise depths of the poet’s

‘­personality’. Rather, Stevens’ poems invite readers into the celebratory,

festive imagination those texts themselves evoke and re-create incessantly.

As Blackmur observes, Stevens’ verse ‘does not so much record sensibility,

it creates it, adds to it; it is part of the regular everlasting job of making

over again the absolute content of sensibility’.19

Stevens indirectly defended this idea by underlining Mauron’s observation that artists ‘have reached this point of detachment and tenderness

through pure sensibility – their perception of differences’.20 In a revealing

marginal comment, Stevens explicitly links the epicure’s delight in suspension with the world of taste in all senses: ‘Just as the artist is immobile

before nature, so he is immobile before his own nature, at least enough

so to control it: not wholly merely to live his state of mind, nor wholly

merely to pause and taste it’.21 This is a tension we find repeatedly in the

abstract gestures Stevens’ own poems and letters make.

Gastronomic and aesthetic meditation also combine in several poems

where Stevens’ idealist ‘I’ predominates. ‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’

is the best example, but the less well-known ‘Anything Is Beautiful If You

Say It Is’, ‘The News and the Weather’ and ‘Holiday in Reality’ are close

in spirit.22 Aesthetic ‘characters’ in Stevens, often seated at café tables, also

symbolize the pleasures of imagining abstractly.23 As Chapter 6 argues,

when Stevens jettisoned an explicit abstract vocabulary his verse still

retained abstract aspects in poems where figures meditate or consume.

My interest in ‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’, however, is to show how

Stevens’ idealist ‘I’ behaves. But I will also observe how sound, gastronomy and narrative affect this first person’s textual behaviour.

‘Certain Phenomena of Sound’ teems with images of sound:

The cricket in the telephone is still.

A geranium withers on the window-sill.

Cat’s milk is dry in the saucer. Sunday song

Comes from the beating of the locust’s wings,

That do not beat by pain, but calendar,

Nor meditate the world as it goes round.

Someone has left for a ride in a balloon

Or in a bubble examines the bubble of air.

Blackmur, ‘Poetry and Sensibility’, 271.

Mauron, Aesthetics and Psychology, 51, Stevens’ copy.

21

Ibid., 61.  22  CPP, 191–2, 237–8, 275–6.

23

See CPP, 210, 277, 294.

19



20



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

The room is emptier than nothingness.

Yet a spider spins in the left shoe under the bed –

And old John Rocket dozes on his pillow.

It is safe to sleep to a sound that time brings back.



(CPP, 255–6)



Several images communicate how silence contextualizes sound. Just as

peace and quiet aid listening, the chances of hearing the ‘cricket in

the telephone’ are paradoxically enhanced if it is ‘still’. In a ‘bubble

of air’ or room ‘emptier than nothingness’ the possibility of hearing

the infinitesimal sound of the ‘spider’ that ‘spins in the left shoe under

the bed’ is likewise enhanced. The specificity of ‘left shoe’ helps us

imagine an ear sensitive enough to locate the exact space where the

spider spins.

Such imaginative activity enables sounds inaudible or from the past

to be ‘heard’. ‘Old John Rocket’ is antiquated or derives from a narrative

concerning the past. Stevens imagines him dozing on his pillow, and this

‘sound’ comforts the imagined sleeper of the poem’s ‘present’. If ‘[i]t is safe

to sleep to a sound that time brings back’ we actively imagine the sound

of ‘old John Rocket’ asleep. An abstract imagination ‘hears’ sounds either

dead to the world or inaudible, which partly accounts, paradoxically, for

the poem’s later concern with vision. Stevens’ imagination acts out that

synaesthesia where what we see is what we hear, where we ‘visualize’ what

is otherwise thought inaudible.

Section ii turns from impersonal ‘narrative’ to a conversational

register:

So you’re home again, Redwood Roamer, and ready

To feast… Slice the mango, Naaman, and dress it

With white wine, sugar and lime juice. Then bring it,

After we’ve drunk the Moselle, to the thickest shade

Of the garden. We must prepare to hear the Roamer’s

Story…



(CPP, 256)



Here, leisured consumption – Moselle and dressed mango – contextualizes a compelling narrative, as does reposing in the protective ‘thickest

shade of the garden’; just as, in ‘Notes’, ‘lobster Bombay’ and Meursault

are preludes to the Canon Aspirin’s meditation on his sister.24 Stevens’

24



By ‘Moselle’ Stevens probably means the little-known French region rather than Germany’s

Mosel; see CPP, 347–8 and discussion of ‘Notes’ in analysis of ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’.



Abstract appetites



141



ellipses accentuate the delight in preparing to hear the story the poem

merely suggests, as we infer the experience of preparing to hear the

‘Roamer’s Story’.

But ‘Certain Phenomena’ reverts to its initial abstract meditation on

sound:

         … The sound of that slick sonata,

Finding its way from the house, makes music seem

To be a nature, a place in which itself

Is that which produces everything else, in which

The Roamer is a voice taller than the redwoods,

Engaged in the most prolific narrative,

A sound producing the things that are spoken.



(CPP, 256)



This ‘place’, where ‘The Roamer is a voice taller than the redwoods’,

defines the very abstraction in which Stevens specializes. Music does not

convey what ‘nature’ is. Rather, sound and music ‘seem / To be a nature’.

The Roamer’s voice is a ‘sound producing the things that are spoken’.

Although this is literally true, Stevens also implies the voice creates these

‘things’, the meanings they possess. What The Roamer’s narrative conveys

is proof-positive that the human imagination creates its world.

‘Certain Phenomena’ iii, however, features an idealist ‘I’ who seemingly ingratiates the reader into sympathy with the very philosophy and

spirit of the poem itself:

Eulalia, I lounged on the hospital porch,

On the east, sister and nun, and opened wide

A parasol, which I had found, against

The sun. The interior of a parasol,

It is a kind of blank in which one sees.

So seeing, I beheld you walking, white,

Gold-shined by sun, perceiving as I saw

That of that light Eulalia was the name.

Then I, Semiramide, dark-syllabled,

Contrasting our two names, considered speech.

You were created of your name, the word

Is that of which you were the personage.

There is no life except in the word of it.

I write Semiramide and in the script

I am and have a being and play a part.

You are that white Eulalia of the name.



(CPP, 256–7)



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



In so sound-obsessed a poem, these visual themes are striking. Eulalia’s

appearance justifies and is informed by the ‘light’ of her name. St Eulalia

is the Spanish patron saint of rain, miscarriages, torture victims and sailors. That Stevens’ Eulalia is bedecked in sunlight seems tongue-in-cheek.

But Stevens knows Eulalia, as martyr, can represent any article of pious

devotion. Stevens’ ‘I’ views Eulalia through a ‘blank’. The speaker’s parasol becomes ‘an interior’, and if the ‘interior of a parasol’ is ‘a kind of

blank in which one sees’ then Stevens’ ‘I’ embraces indirect vision. Just

as, earlier in the poem, the very absence of sound invites ‘listening’, this

‘blank’ enables Stevens’ speaker to see Eulalia. The idealist ‘I’ conjures

images for the very act of mind through which Stevens’ poems derive.

The aim is not to create a speaker who explains what it means to create Eulalia, but to evoke the process in which Eulalia is created by an

imaginative voice.

What complicates this imagery is another name: ‘Semiramide’. Stevens’

idealist ‘I’ does not usually assume personae. But, conventionally speaking, the speaker is not Semiramide. Written words contrast with the currency of names here as names become privileged over textual nomination.

‘Semiramide’ is the eponymous queen of Rossini’s tragic opera. But to

appropriate her name is simply to play a part: ‘I write Semiramide and in

the script / I am and have a being and play a part’. That ‘Semiramide’ is

italicized accentuates her textual nature. Eulalia, by contrast, is, beguilingly, the thing itself. She is credited as being ‘that white Eulalia of the

name’.25 But it is Stevens’ genderless speaker who, in appropriating diction,

creates Eulalia’s significance. The speaker innocuously claims:  ‘I beheld

you walking, white, / Gold-shined by sun, perceiving as I saw / That of

that light Eulalia was the name’. Beholding constitutes visual acquisition,

deriving from the Old English bihaldan (‘to keep’). Perceiving, likewise,

derives from the Latin capere (‘to take’). Eulalia does not so much inspire

this mysterious ‘I’ as gain her inspiration from Stevens’ speaker.

‘Certain Phenomena’ involves multiple changes of tone: moving from

impersonal narrative, to a first-person plural conversational register (reverting to impersonal reflection in section ii), before mounting a first-person

‘lyric’. The poem seemingly gestures toward the realization of its ‘I’: the

speaker self-identified seven times in section iii alone. But the poem’s

close hardly constitutes conventional lyric. Recalling Altieri, the poem’s

lyrical ‘I’ assumes the authority of ‘third-person terms’, representing not

25



Perhaps the name also conjures the ‘tall grasses of the Eulalia family’ (L, 28) Stevens enjoyed in

various hues.



Abstract appetites



143



a subjective but an interpersonal space. Certainly, the speaker does not

refer to itself self-consciously (this ‘I’ never says ‘my’). It is, rather, the

textually invasive speaker Stevens’ early 1940s poetry adopts, who disappears from the corpus around 1945 once Stevens dispatches an explicit

abstract vocabulary.

But I want next to turn to ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’, perhaps the most

elusive poem exhibiting Stevens’ marriage of gastronomic and abstract

concerns. Following analysis of this pivotal long poem, I briefly outline

what should be carried over to Chapter 6’s discussion of Stevens’ re-casting of his overtly abstract 1942 idiom.

5.2  H a r t f or d B ou rgu ig non: ‘Mon t r ac h e t-L e -J a r di n’

(194 2) a n d c y m b e l i n e

‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ was published in early 1942 in Partisan Review.26

Stevens’ poem appeared alongside Victor Serge’s ‘On The Eve’ (a graphic

account of the humiliation of the French under Nazi occupation) and

‘On The “Brooks-MacLeish Thesis”’, a heated dismissal of Van Wyck

Brooks and Archibald MacLeish’s nationalist call for a patriotic, preferably non-Modernist, literature in time of war.27 ‘On The “BrooksMacLeish Thesis”’ involved condemnation from Allen Tate, John Crowe

Ransom, Louise Bogan, Lionel Trilling, William Carlos Williams and

Henry Miller. Stevens’ poem thus occupied a milieu debating the direction literature should take only three months after Pearl Harbor and US

entry to the Second World War.

‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ does not speak directly to that conflict, with

regard to either the Occupation or American involvement. However, like

‘Esthétique du Mal’, the poem confronts an increasingly disturbing world

(‘the x malisons of other men’); speculates – like many other Parts of a

World poems  – on the figure of the hero (‘Man must become the hero

of his world’); and is preoccupied with appropriating spaces (‘of Terra

Paradise / I dreamed’) or existing at the mercy of occupying influences

(‘Consider how the speechless, invisible gods / Ruled us before, from

over Asia’).28 Although ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ is not concerned with

‘war literature’, it is representative in the sense, albeit vague, expounded

by Partisan Review’s editors: ‘Our main task now is to preserve cultural

values against all types of pressure and coercion. Obviously we cannot even speak of the survival of democratic civilization apart from the

Partisan Review 9.1 (1942), 34–7. 



26



  Ibid., 23–33, 38–47. 



27



  CPP, 235–6.



28



144



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



survival of our entire cultural tradition.’ 29 Stevens would never write the

war poetry of Shapiro, Jarrell or Douglas, just as he refrained from the

literary-political invective of Tate and the New Critics.30 But, as I have

argued elsewhere, this demanding poem, with its engaging French title,

must have appealed symbolically to Partisan Review’s editors, especially

to their belief that literature under war should be as challenging as ever,

if not more so.31

Initially, ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ appears far from partisan. Yet it

emerges as a ‘pro-French’ poem retaining the poetic advantage of saying

nothing overtly pro-French.32 My analysis here focuses on Stevens’ favourite French wine region, Burgundy, discussing the place of Stevens’ title

in a poem that eroticizes imaginative terrains and plays with vinous allusion. Although I have previously discussed the poem’s portrayal of love,

I return here to Stevens’ ingenious allusion to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline,

one illuminating how ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ shares that play’s taste for

assumed names and beguiling identities.33 If the shape-changing of the

amour characterizes the imaginative work of this ‘Francophile’ poem, its

Protean subtlety resides in appearing to wrest a piece of France and project it into Stevens’ own backyard: an abstract appropriation implicit in

the poem’s very title.

Few discussions of ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ have considered the relationship between the poem and its title, perhaps because, unlike those

of Stevens’ other ‘Francophile’ poems, this particular title remains coy,

refusing to invite a ‘manner’ of reading. ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’

ironizes ‘men at forty’, themselves prone to irony; ‘Esthétique du Mal’

confronts the relationship between aesthetics and human suffering.34 The

title ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’, however, does not offer explicit clues as to

how to read a poem which itself forges no sustained relationship with

France. The closest it gets is the ‘chateaux’ of stanza twenty-six, combined

Partisan Review 9.1 (1942), 2.

His distaste for MacLeish was, however, aired to James Thrall Soby (see Brazeau, Parts of a

World, 119).

31

See Ragg, ‘Love, Wine, Desire’, 183–209.

32

Longenbach suggests Stevens’ early 1940s abstract writing marks ‘not a retreat from the political content of the social realism of the 1930s’ but ‘a rebellion against the coercive demand

of ideological explicitness’ and ‘an assertion of internationalist values’ (Wallace Stevens, 253).

The ‘internationalist’ ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ may indirectly represent an aesthetic corrective to

‘Brooks-MacLeish’.

33

See Ragg, ‘Love, Wine, Desire’. For love, desire and erotic attention, see Vendler, Wallace Stevens

and Barbara M. Fisher, Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous (Charlottesville, VA: University

Press of Virginia, 1990). ‘Montrachet-Le-Jardin’ does not feature in either study, however.

34

CPP, 12.

29

30



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