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1 ‘Major man’ revised: ‘Paisant Chronicle’ (1945) and ‘Description Without Place’ (1945)

1 ‘Major man’ revised: ‘Paisant Chronicle’ (1945) and ‘Description Without Place’ (1945)

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The pure good of theory


to achieve a poetry of ‘perception’ – by turns ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ in abstraction – owing much to idealism but little to an explicit idiom. Whilst the

later verse is ripe for phenomenological (especially Heideggerian) reading, I suggest Stevens’ transcending of a conceptual rhetoric created the

room for the very abstract aesthetic which attracts phenomenologists: an

account uncovered in Stevens criticism.3 Moreover, as Chapter 7 argues, it

is in Stevens’ grasping toward the ‘ordinary’ that his bourgeois abstraction

forms: a paradoxical aesthetic where the quotidian ‘normal’ is made less

familiar and more palpable through abstract meditation.

Nonetheless, Stevens did not effortlessly drop his 1942 vocabulary, neatly

dispensing with crystalline meditations on poetry, heroism and the imagination. ‘Esthétique du Mal’ may proclaim ‘We are not / At the centre of a

diamond’, but it would take Stevens more than that poem to modify his

refracting ‘mundo’.4 A linguistic residue from ‘Notes’ and Parts naturally

occupies the post-1942 verse, accentuating where Stevens shapes new poetry

from old concerns. The decline of the idealist ‘I’ is illustrative. Other early

1940s motifs, particularly Stevens’ treatment of ‘sound’, are also transformed

in the mid-1940s verse. In other words, themes that do not characterize

Stevens’ early 1940s work, but exist within it, develop in his middle period,

and it is to these less well-known areas that this chapter partially turns.

Stevens transcended his ‘figure[s] of capable imagination’ by addressing more ‘singular’ themes, writing poems and lectures on ‘description’,

‘resemblance’ and ‘analogy’.5 Brogan’s and Schaum’s ‘poetics of resistance’ argument borrows Stevens’ emphasis on ‘description’ to defend the

poet from the charge of being removed from his ‘actual world’. I have

challenged elsewhere the claim that Stevens is more politically engaged

as a poet post-1945.6 Rather, the Stevens who embraces ‘description’  –

and other aesthetic concepts – demonstrates a new-found confidence in

abstraction. Thus, whilst a political reading of this confidence is possible,

I cannot accept the argument that a) all language is ‘political’, therefore

b) Stevens’ fascination with description is politically informed. Certainly,

Stevens revised his isolationism following US entry to the war.7 But this

See Thomas J. Hines, The Later Poetry of Wallace Stevens: Phenomenological Parallels with Husserl

and Heidegger (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1976), 213–73; Krzysztof Ziarek,

Inflected Language: Toward a Hermeneutics of Nearness: Heidegger, Levinas, Stevens, Celan (Albany,

NY: New York State University Press, 1994), 103–32; Bové, Destructive Poetics, 208–15.


CPP, 283.


Ibid., 226. See CPP, 296–302, 686–91, 707–23.


Ragg, ‘Good-bye Major Man’, 97–105.


See Filreis, Actual World, 7–9; Jacqueline Brogan, ‘Stevens in History and Not in History: The

Poet and the Second World War’ WSJ 13.2 (1989), 172.



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

realignment did not yield verse more amenable to political themes. By

the mid-to-late 1940s Stevens could allow aesthetic concepts themselves

to inspire his work  – be they ‘description’, ‘metaphor’ or ‘the ultimate

poem’ – rather than rely on an advertised rhetoric of ‘abstraction’.8

Stevens’ interest in ‘description’ is, therefore, part of a more complex

response in which a self-confident abstract aesthetic presses back on the

pressure of reality by recasting ‘reality’ at large. The turn to ‘description’

informs Stevens’ enigmatic treatment of other ‘commonplace’ words  –

‘different’, ‘beyond’, ‘distance’, ‘speech’, ‘sound’, ‘centre’  – which exist

in the early 1940s work, but do not accrue full abstract currency until

Transport to Summer. In ‘Chocorua to Its Neighbor’ (1943), ‘The Creations

of Sound’ and ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ (both 1944) Stevens

attaches special importance to the words ‘beyond’, ‘speech’, ‘different’.9

‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ even defends the notion of ‘nourish[ing]’

oneself on ‘a few words’.10 But these are, importantly, not the terms of a

specialist idiom.

What makes Stevens’ later work attractive to phenomenologists is not

only its capacity to evoke ‘being in the world’, but its ability to convey

experience in language. Without the symbolic overtones of ‘major man’,

‘the first idea’, or even a ‘supreme fiction’, Stevens allows greater room

for his readers to embrace abstraction. ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ even

critiques the ‘desire to believe in a metaphor’.11 Although that poem ironically and self-consciously succumbs to metaphor, Stevens questions the

‘literariness’ of his early 1940s writing throughout the mid-1940s and

later verse. Either nominally ‘bald’ aesthetic concepts (‘description’,

‘metaphor’, ‘resemblance’) become imaginative catalysts or the simplest

words (‘beyond’, ‘different’) take on new status as the catalysts of Stevens’

abstract writing.

Stevens justified this shift in emphasis as follows:

From the imaginative period of the Notes I turned to the ideas of Credences of

Summer. At the moment I am at work on a thing called An Ordinary Evening

In New Haven […] [M]y interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the

common-place and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. It is not a question of grim reality but of plain reality. The object is of course to purge oneself

of anything false […] This is not in any sense a turning away from the ideas of

Credences of Summer: it is a development of those ideas.12

See CPP, 310, 369–70, 381. 

Ibid., 273.  11  Ibid., 291. 

  See ibid., 263–8, 271–4, 274–5.

  L, 636–7.





The pure good of theory


Stevens’ early 1940s verse is replete with ‘ideas’. But the poet refers to

a poetic change where the luxurious configurations of ‘Notes’ differ

in degree from his later aesthetic, one content without supportive figures or characters in a poetic drama. Rather than invite an ‘ephebe’

to ponder ‘the first idea’ Stevens seeks novel ways to purge himself of

‘anything false’.13 He does not experience a ‘turning away’ from previous ideas but the development of what was only incubating in his 1942


In 1945 José Rodríguez Feo asked Stevens to explain what he meant by

the phrase ‘major men’. Although Stevens observed the ‘major men’ of

‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ meant ‘merely the pick of young men’ –

implying they had little in common with his idealized ‘major man’ – he

interpreted Feo’s request by explaining a symbolic ‘major man’:

The major men […] are neither exponents of humanism nor Nietzschean shadows. I confess that I don’t want to limit myself as to my objective, so that in

notes toward a supreme fiction and elsewhere I have at least trifled with the

idea of some arbitrary object of belief: some artificial subject for poetry, a source

of poetry. The major men are part of the entourage of that artificial object.14

Stevens characteristically evades tying down his poetic figures. ‘The major

men’ are only ‘part of the entourage’ that comprises his ‘object of belief’: a

source of poetry. Stevens would later downplay some of the major players in his own entourage precisely to define an object of belief. A muchquoted biographical note reads:

The author’s work suggests the possibility of a supreme fiction, recognized as

a fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfilment. In the creation of any such fiction, poetry would have a vital significance. There are many

poems relating to the interactions between reality and the imagination, which

are to be regarded as marginal to this central theme.15

Not only are ‘reality’ and ‘the imagination’ marginal here, a ‘supreme

fiction’ (Stevens’ ‘central theme’) is, remarkably, no longer poetry itself.

In 1942 Stevens wrote:  ‘in the long run, poetry would be the supreme

fiction’.16 But by 1954, when Stevens compiled the above, the creation of

such a ‘fiction’ could involve poetry but would not comprise poetry alone.

Stevens was himself aware that his early 1940s figures were part of a project – achieving a centre, defining a source – which had itself changed. If

he came closer to ‘reality’ in his later career it was through dispatching his

personal entourage of attendant symbols and terms. The ‘supreme fiction’,

See CPP, 329ff. 



  L, 489, 485. 

  Ibid., 820. 



  Ibid., 430.


Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

if a viable object, need not be literary at all. It would remain a poetic idea

without need of the advertisements of ‘Notes’ or Parts.

Stevens became aware of this aesthetic shift as early as 1945. When he

wrote ‘A Word with José Rodríguez Feo’ (1945), Stevens also composed

‘Paisant Chronicle’ ‘for’ Feo:

In the other poem [‘Paisant Chronicle’] I have defined major men for you. I realize that the definition is evasive, but in dealing with fictive figures evasiveness

at least supports the fiction […] [W]e have to fix abstract objectives and then

to conceal the abstract figures in actual appearance. A hero won’t do, but we

like him much better when he doesn’t look it and, of course, it is only when he

doesn’t look it that we can believe him.17

Stevens’ ‘definition’, however, says more about his 1945 concerns than

about the ‘major man’ of ‘Notes’. ‘Paisant Chronicle’ paints a hero-­figure

of convincing ‘appearance’, one who is credible precisely because ‘he

doesn’t look’ the part; an abstract figure who re-connects readers with

the world paradoxically through being ‘conceal[ed]’ in actuality, or what

Stevens playfully calls ‘actual appearance’. But the poem also marks the

distance between this mediated abstract figure and the ‘major man’ of

‘Notes’, who is only rendered ‘actual’ by the rather awkward introduction

of ‘the MacCullough’ as Everyman.18

‘Paisant Chronicle’ begins by questioning ‘the major men’:

What are the major men? All men are brave.

All men endure. The great captain is the choice

Of chance. Finally, the most solemn burial

Is a paisant chronicle.

(CPP, 293)

That opening question suggests there is no need to construct an ideal

‘major man’ because all men are major for themselves. By asking ‘what’

and not ‘who’ the ‘major men’ are Stevens also implies they are dangerously abstracted, without credible reality. ‘Paisant Chronicle’ is not interested in arriving at a definition and makes Stevens’ comment to Feo ironic,

as if defining the ‘major men’ meant consigning them to a poetic past –

perhaps something Stevens, by 1945, desired. Moreover, the poem aims

to wrest a totally abstracted theme from its icy sphere and invest it with

palpable ‘reality’. Its concern is, as Hegel argues for the abstract artwork,

See Wallace Stevens, ‘New Poems’: ‘The Pure Good of Theory’, ‘A Word with José Rodríguez

Feo’, ‘Paisant Chronicle’, ‘Flyer’s Fall’ Voices 121 (1945): 25–9; L, 489.


CPP, 334.


The pure good of theory


to mediate its abstract inspiration with the garb of ‘actual appearance’: to

make ‘the major men’ palpable men.

If the ‘major men’ are ‘different’, then, the ‘fictive man’ they comprise

finds salvation only by becoming the commonplace hero seated at a café

table:  the classic milieu for Stevensian meditation.19 Although Stevens

discredits the ‘major men’ as ethereal abstractions, he rescues the ‘fictive

man’ they represent, suggesting the creation of a novel ‘fictive’ figure, one

whose abstract character is concealed in ‘actual appearance’:

                 The major men –

That is different. They are characters beyond

Reality, composed thereof. They are

The fictive man created out of men.

They are men but artificial men. They are

Nothing in which it is not possible

To believe, more than the casual hero


The baroque poet may see him as still a man

As Virgil, abstract. But see him for yourself,

The fictive man. He may be seated in

A café. There may be a dish of country cheese

And a pineapple on the table. It must be so.

(CPP, 294)

If the ‘major men’ are ‘nothing in which it is not possible / To believe’

their value as an ‘object of belief’ is minimal. They are so abstract they

lack identity; so protean any value can be ascribed to them. Together they

comprise ‘the fictive man’ but one made from ‘artificial’ figures. The ‘artificial’ of ‘Paisant Chronicle’ seems pejorative, whereas in Stevens’ letter to

Feo ‘an artificial object of belief’ is affirmative (where ‘artificial’ signifies

possessing an artificer). This collective ‘fictive man’ is an ‘easy projection’

because the imagination can invest any value in the cipher ‘major men’.

To be ‘as still a man / As Virgil, abstract’ is to have lost mobility (Stevens

plays on ‘still’ as in ‘unchanged’ and ‘immobile’). Whatever the perspective, the ‘fictive man’ risks becoming as meaningless as any other character ‘beyond reality’.

Stevens’ tone, however, turns from censure to affirmation: a movement

mimicking the shift in imagination he encounters during 1942–45. The

‘fictive man’ is rehabilitated not as the figure dreamt by a ‘baroque poet’

but one constructed by the reader:  ‘[S]ee him for yourself, / The fictive


See the ‘cool café’ of ‘Esthétique du Mal’ and the ‘crisp café’ of ‘Forces, the Will & the Weather’,

CPP, 277, 210.


Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

man. He may be seated in / A café. There may be a dish of country cheese /

And a pineapple on the table. It must be so’. The use of ‘may’ invites

the creation of a personal ‘fictive man’ from potential appearances. The

tongue-in-cheek ‘It must be so’ is hardly peremptory. Stevens concedes

the reader is a vital creator in providing his ‘fictive man’ meaning.

In writing ‘Paisant Chronicle’ Stevens began, therefore, to refine his

own abstract aesthetic. It was not that Parts of a World and ‘Notes’ had

issued a crystalline world removed from ‘reality’. Both those works have

too much range and tension to suggest Stevens was doomed to irreverent

solipsism. Rather, Stevens had doubts not about abstraction but about the

priority of an abstract idiom. ‘Notes’ itself understood how every abstraction must be ‘blooded’ to achieve resonance.20 In Hegelian terms, ‘the

abstract’ becomes mediated to attain ‘self-consciousness’; just as, conversely, the artist removes himself from his work in order to communicate

that work to a wider audience. Stevens’ difficulty in ‘It Must Be Abstract’

was that he required more than an evocative vocabulary or the invocation of ‘the MacCullough’ to attract an empathetic readership. Canto

viii ponders if ‘the MacCullough’ ‘might take habit’, achieve a form in

which, as an abstraction, he could be ‘blooded’. But he remains a ‘beau

linguist’.21 Stevens would remember this phrase in the close of ‘Repetitions

of a Young Captain’, a poem troubled by a ‘beau language without a drop

of blood’.22

Whilst ‘Notes’ is hardly inhuman, Stevens felt it lacked the blood

and bones his later verse would possess. He even pondered about adding

another section, something omitted from his 1942 masterpiece: ‘It Must

Be Human’.23 ‘Paisant Chronicle’, by contrast, re-invests the human. If it

defines ‘major men’ it is not ultimately to critique the 1942 ‘major man’

as bloodless abstraction. Stevens implies that ‘major man’, or even his ‘fictive man’, only has significance if he belongs to an affirmative abstract

imagination. For Stevens, this imagination takes precedence and not the

vocabulary upon which his 1942 aesthetic depends.

‘Description Without Place’ also covertly critiques Stevens’ earlier need

for an abstract idiom. Written not long after ‘Paisant Chronicle’, the

poem implicitly dispatches ‘major man’. Stevens criticism has not given

this manoeuvre due attention, perhaps because ‘Description Without

Place’ principally attracts scholars for its pragmatist and poststructuralist conviction that ‘it is a world of words to the end of it’.24 Brogan

See CPP, 333. 



  Ibid., 334. 


  Ibid., 274. 

  See L, 863–4. 



  CPP, 301.

The pure good of theory


and Schaum focus on ‘description’ in order to exonerate Stevens of the

guilty aestheticism of which Perloff accuses him.25 As noted, in their view,

Stevens’ interest in ‘description’ signifies a poet with new priorities, post‘Notes’, to meet the ‘actual world’ head on, a position similar to Filreis’

argument concerning Stevens’ ‘agreement with reality’ in ‘The Figure of

the Youth as Virile Poet’.26

But, whilst Stevens can be exonerated of aloofness, ‘Description

Without Place’ is better read as an exercise in heaving off an old vocabulary rather than as evidence for wanting to subvert received political discourse. Where Stevens aimed to rehabilitate a modified ‘pure poetry’ in

the mid-1930s, by 1945 he abandoned ‘pure poetry’ itself, a clear departure

from Mallarmé: ‘[N]o one proposes to practice pure poetry. I think the

feeling today very definitely is for an abundant poetry, concerned with

everything and everybody.’ 27 ‘[A]bundant poetry’ depends largely, for

Stevens, on the poet’s descriptive powers. As he remarked to Feo, then

founding the Cuban magazine Orígenes:

[T]he power of literature is that in describing the world it creates what it

describes. Those things that are not described do not exist, so that in putting

together a review like origenes you are really putting together a world. You are

describing a world and by describing it you are creating it.28

Stevens’ programme for ‘Description Without Place’ chimes with this


I am going to read a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard […] I am about

to settle down to my subject: description without place […] It seems to me

[…] an interesting idea: […] that we live in the description of a place and not in

the place itself, and in every vital sense we do.29

‘Description Without Place’ would re-create Stevens’ poetic world not as

a specifically named place, like the crystalline ‘mundo’, but as a descriptive terrain without explicit, abstract figures:  no ‘major man’, ‘supreme

fiction’ or ‘first idea’.30 I have noted elsewhere that ‘Description Without

Place’ even ironizes a ‘major manner’: a covert reference, perhaps, to the

rhetorical flourishes that enabled ‘major man’.31 As already suggested,

See Ragg, ‘Good-bye Major Man’, 97–105; Brogan, ‘Wallace Stevens:  Poems Against His

Climate’, ‘Stevens in History and Not in History’ and ‘Wrestling with those “Rotted Names”’,

19–39; Schaum, ‘Lyric Resistance’, 191–205.


See Filreis, ‘An Interview with Stanley Burnshaw’, 28, and Chapter 4.


L, 495.  28  Ibid., 495.  29  Ibid., 494.


Interestingly, Mallarmé also resists nomination: ‘To name an object is largely to destroy poetic

enjoyment […] The ideal is to suggest the object’, ‘The Evolution of Literature’, 1561.


CPP, 297. See Ragg, ‘Good-bye Major Man’.



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction

‘Notes’ is a nominating poem; despite its alleged provisionality, it cannot resist creating a symbolic nomenclature. As if to resist the ‘mundo’,

‘Description Without Place’ baldly illustrates its preference for description

over naming. As such, the poem enacts in microcosm what the Stevens

corpus from 1945 onwards achieves at large: the dismantling of the familiar ‘names’ of the earlier poetry.

But it is in texts like ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ and ‘Three

Academic Pieces’ that Stevens more effectively allowed aesthetic concepts

to inspire his abstract imagination. ‘Repetitions’, especially, follows the

imaginative process Stevens spells out in ‘Three Academic Pieces’ as both

texts question the role of ‘rhetoric’ in poetic speech, even as Stevens draws

on his most rhetorically resourceful strategies in poem and lecture alike.

After turning to these pivotal works, the chapter closes by reading ‘The

Pure Good of Theory’ as an example of the pragmatic impetus the mature

Stevens came to derive from an abstract aesthetic.

6.2 W r i t i ng ‘be yon d’: ‘R e pe t i t ions of a You ng

C a p ta i n’ (194 4) a n d ‘Th r e e Ac a de m ic Pi e c e s’ (1947)

In 1943 Stevens observed:

The abstract does not exist, but it is certainly as immanent: that is to say, the

fictive abstract is as immanent in the mind of the poet, as the idea of God

is immanent in the mind of the theologian. The poem is a struggle with the

inaccessibility of the abstract.32

Stevens’ letters and the early lectures of The Necessary Angel often attempt

to make immanent ideas palpable. By ‘Three Academic Pieces’, however,

instead of painting a ‘virile youth’ or ‘possible poet’, Stevens discovered a

more direct means of illustrating the virtues of abstraction: addressing the

relatively ‘bare’ subject of ‘resemblance’. Stevens defends what seems a pejoratively abstract subject with the claim: ‘Poetry is a satisfying of the desire for

resemblance […] it touches the sense of reality, it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it.’ 33 This leads to an idealist defence:

What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one’s meditations on the

text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of

reality […] The eye does not beget in resemblance. It sees. But the mind begets

in resemblance as the painter begets in representation […] as the painter makes

his world within a world[.]34

L, 434. 



  CPP, 690. 

  Ibid., 689.


The pure good of theory


The ‘world within a world’ becomes a further defence for the imagination

that creates ‘a reality of its own’. Stevens adds: ‘[A] sense of reality keen

enough to be in excess of the normal sense of reality creates a reality of its

own. Here what matters is that the intensification of the sense of reality

creates a resemblance: that reality of its own is a reality.’ 35

That a ‘resemblance’ exists between a created ‘reality of its own’ and

quotidian ‘reality’ accentuates the crux of Stevensian abstraction. The

imagination conceives ‘reality’ in order to re-establish fresh contact with

the world (‘it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it’).

‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ imagines a departing soldier locked in

a perpetual present to illustrate such an enhanced ‘reality’. Stevens echoes the poem in his 1947 lecture, not least given its insistence that ‘[t]he

gigantic has a reality of its own’:


At the railway station, a soldier steps away,

Sees a familiar building drenched in cloud

And goes to an external world, having

Nothing of place. There is no change of place

Nor of time. The departing soldier is as he is,

Yet in that form will not return. But does

He find another? The giant of sense remains

A giant without a body. If, as giant,

He shares a gigantic life, it is because

The gigantic has a reality of its own.

(CPP, 272–3)

The reader ‘creates’ this soldier ‘constantly’. Stevens draws a distinction between a figurative ‘external world’  – ‘external’ because it has

‘nothing of place’ like the descriptive terrain of ‘Description Without

Place’ – and the ‘external world’ of the decimated theatre at the poem’s


A tempest cracked on the theatre. Quickly,

The wind beat in the roof and half the walls.

The ruin stood still in an external world.

(CPP, 271)

But the ‘external world’ where the soldier exists defies the distinction

between figurative and literal realms. For, if the soldier occupies something which ‘has a reality of its own’, his world cannot easily be discredited

  Ibid., 691.


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1 ‘Major man’ revised: ‘Paisant Chronicle’ (1945) and ‘Description Without Place’ (1945)

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