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2 Writing ‘beyond’: ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ (1944) and ‘Three Academic Pieces’ (1947)

2 Writing ‘beyond’: ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ (1944) and ‘Three Academic Pieces’ (1947)

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The pure good of theory



175



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’:

               Constantly,

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

opening:

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.



35



176



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



as ‘unreal’. If it is ‘external’, it is because it resembles the ‘actual world’ in

which soldiers step away.

Miraculously, Stevens’ soldier changes shape in an abstract state, even

if he experiences no discernible change in space and time:  ‘There is no

change of place / Nor of time. The departing soldier is as he is, / Yet in

that form will not return’. The playful ‘But does he find another?’ teases

us into considering how the abstract soldier can change if he is ‘constantly’

involved in the same repetitive stepping away. If the soldier is to find

another form it is through the reader’s and poet’s capability to project the

change. But in order to understand the full resonance of Stevens’ question we must return to ‘Three Academic Pieces’ which, although written

three years after this poem, deftly adumbrates the qualities and limits of

abstract conception.

‘Three Academic Pieces’ claims the imagination’s limits are defined by

‘resemblance’:  ‘The imagination is able to manipulate nature as by creating three legs and five arms but it is not able to create a totally new

nature as, for instance, a new element with creatures indigenous thereto,

their costumes and cuisines.’ 36 To accentuate the impossibility of creating ‘a totally new nature’ Stevens might have written ‘a new element

without creatures indigenous thereto, their costumes and cuisines’. But

what allows an abstract imagination special power is the deployment of

‘metaphor’ to unleash multiple levels of resemblance. In ‘Repetitions’ the

soldier becomes a metaphor for the very imaginative process the poem

illustrates. The difficulty in envisaging the soldier resembles the difficulty

with which one imagines an abstract idea intensifying ‘reality’. If, for

Stevens, a poem ‘is a struggle with the inaccessibility of the abstract’ then

‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ depicts this struggle in the soldier who

must ‘constantly step away’.

Such re-conception is what ‘Repetitions’ means by approaching ‘a reality beyond’. This ‘beyond’ also obsesses ‘Three Academic Pieces’:

In reality, there is a level of resemblance, which is […] nature. In metaphor, there

is no such level. If there were it would be the level of resemblance of the imagination, which has no level. If, to our surprise, we should meet a monsieur who

told us that he was from another world, and if he had […] all the indicia of divinity […] we should recognize him as above the level of nature but not as above

the level of the imagination […] [I]f […] we should meet one of these morons

whose remarks are […] a part of the folk-lore of the world of the radio […] we

should recognize him as below the level of nature but not as below the level of

36



  Ibid., 688.



The pure good of theory



177



the imagination. It is not, however, a question of above or below but simply of

beyond. Level is an abbreviated form of level of resemblance. The statement that

the imagination has no level of resemblance is not to be taken as a statement that

the imagination itself has no limits.37



‘Beyond’ does not, then, signify ‘outside human experience’. An abstract

imagination gestures to things ‘beyond’ the ‘normal sense of reality’  –

neither ‘above’ nor ‘below’ the level of nature (or imagination)  – but

which, through metaphorical ‘resemblance’, recall our own constructions

of reality. The abstract ‘may not exist’ but is immanent. The only sense in

which it is ‘beyond’ is that it requires a mind capable of abstract creation

to conceive it.

This becomes clearer when ‘Three Academic Pieces’ constructs a ‘particular abstraction’. The lecture forms a special case in The Necessary Angel

because it ostensibly generates the poem ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple

Together’. Certainly, the creation of this ‘abstraction’, and the poem

inspired by it, form the most affirmative and defensive parts of Stevens’

lecture:

There is a gradus ad Metaphoram […] A poetic metaphor – that is to say, a metaphor poetic in a sense more specific than the sense in which poetry and metaphor are one – appears to be poetry at its source. It is. At least it is poetry at one

of its sources although not necessarily the most fecundating. But the steps to

this particular abstraction, the gradus ad Metaphoram in respect to the general

sense in which poetry and metaphor are one, are, like the ascent to any of the

abstractions that interest us importantly, an ascent through illusion which gathers round us more closely and thickly […] the more we penetrate it.38



‘Gradus’ indicates a ‘step’ or ‘level’. It is the root of ‘grade’ and the adjective ‘gradual’ (OED). Stevens’ ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ creates an abstraction designed to resemble what is meant by metaphor in the commonplace

sense where ‘poetry and metaphor are one’.

The ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ also becomes a quasi-compound noun

intended as a metaphor for metaphor: the ultimate metaphor to which all

metaphors refer (metaphor at its most abstract). If metaphor, in its sense

of ‘transference’, can be defined as ‘a trope […] in which a word or phrase

is shifted from its normal uses to a context where it evokes new meanings’,

Stevens’ abstraction constitutes a metaphor for re-thinking the function

of metaphor itself.39 The following reading of ‘The Pure Good of Theory’

borrows Donald Davidson’s view of metaphor to show how Stevensian

Ibid., 687–8.  38  Ibid., 692–3.

Preminger et al., The New Princeton Encylopedia, 760.



37

39



178



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



abstraction does not create ‘new meanings’, but evokes them. What matters is how the imagination approaches its themes and re-constitutes its

world. Stevens’ ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ even serves as an illustration of

‘the ascent to any of the abstractions that interest us importantly’. So, not

only is the ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’ a metaphor for metaphor: it is also a

metaphor for abstraction.

Paul Ricoeur argues that metaphor conditions ‘reality’, although, in

Coleridgean fashion, he suggests that the solution to the question of how

metaphors function is involved in the answer to what ‘reality’ comprises:

When we ask whether metaphorical language reaches reality, we presuppose that

we already know what reality is. But if we assume that metaphor redescribes

reality, we must then assume that this reality as redescribed is itself novel reality.

[…] [M]etaphorical language […] increase[s] our sense of reality by shattering

and increasing our language […] With metaphor we experience the metamorphosis of both language and reality.40



If abstraction helps devise new metaphors, one could extend Ricoeur’s

comments to an abstract aesthetic. The obsession with metamorphosis in

‘The Pure Good of Theory’ also coincides with Ricoeur. Stevens embraces

abstraction precisely to refresh ‘reality’: even if, and indeed because, one

risks shattering language and ‘reality’ (poetry, in this sense, really is a

destructive force).41 ‘Three Academic Pieces’ understands this risk where

abstraction is ideally ‘an ascent through illusion’, but where illusion itself

‘gathers round us more closely and thickly […] the more we penetrate it’.

In ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple Together’ an imagined third person ‘contemplates / A wholly artificial nature’. This contemplation becomes part

of Stevens’ lecture, responding directly to the ‘gradus ad Metaphoram’:

O juventes, O filii, he contemplates

A wholly artificial nature, in which

The profusion of metaphor has been increased.

It is something on a table that he sees,

The root of a form, as of this fruit, a fund,

The angel at the center of this rind,

This husk of Cuba, tufted emerald,

Himself, may be, the irreducible X

At the bottom of imagined artifice,

Its inhabitant and elect expositor.

Paul Ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work ed. Charles E. Reagon

and David Stewart (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1978), 132–3.

See CPP, 178.



40

41



The pure good of theory

It is as if there were three planets: the sun,

The moon and the imagination, or, say,

Day, night and man and his endless effigies.

If he sees an object on a table, much like

A jar of the shoots of an infant country, green

And bright, or like a venerable urn,

Which, from the ash within it, fortifies

A green that is the ash of what green is,

He sees it in this tangent of himself.

And in this tangent it becomes a thing

Of weight, on which the weightless rests[.]



179



(CPP, 693–4)



Stevens recalls here a number of his own poems whilst illustrating what

abstraction achieves. ‘The husk of Cuba’ echoes ‘Academic Discourse at

Havana’, which suggests the world should not ‘import a universal pith to

Cuba’. The ‘irreducible X’ echoes ‘Anecdote of Canna’ and the abstract

‘X’ from ‘The Creations of Sound’. The ‘jar’ containing ‘the shoots of an

infant country’ recalls ‘Anecdote of the Jar’.42

If the poet’s imagination disinters the ‘root of a form’, or the ‘angel

at the center of this rind’, it is through perceiving an object on a table,

which opens the universe, adding ‘the imagination’ to the run of familiar

planets. Abstraction ‘fortifies a green’ through conceiving ‘the ash of what

green is’. Imagining the destruction or transmutation of ‘green’ to ash –

the ‘green altar’ of Keats’s urn hovering here  – abstraction re-conceives

that ash and, through it, what ‘green is’. Such capability is ‘of human

residence’, proceeding through self-directed sight: ‘If he sees an object on

a table […] He sees it in this tangent of himself’. Imaginative re-conception fortifies because it confers ‘weight’ and rigging for the ‘weightless’.

Stevens’ image indicates how one abstraction supports another, where

insubstantial ‘ephemeras’ are imaginatively substantiated.

The ‘beyond’ comes down, then, to the imaginative projection reflecting back on our own mental creations. As with Blake’s ‘The Human

Abstract’, what defines the extent of our idea(s) of a ‘beyond’ is the range

and scope of the imagination itself.43 ‘Three Academic Pieces’ revels in

abstraction as concept, whilst ‘Someone Puts a Pineapple Together’ illustrates how abstract conception behaves. That ‘someone’ could be anyone.

Ibid., 116, 44, 274–5, 60–1.

See William Blake, Blake: The Complete Poems ed. W. H. Stevenson (London: Longman, 1989),

111, 216. Kermode suggests:  ‘Blake’s “minute particulars” are of the essence of his [Stevens’]

“abstract”’, Wallace Stevens, 102.



42

43



180



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



‘This is everybody’s world’, the poem claims, because in re-conceiving

‘reality’ everyone utilizes abstraction to form ‘that which is distilled’.44

Every conception derives from the distillate of inherited ideas; but abstraction enables re-distillation of new senses and impressions.

Like ‘Three Academic Pieces’, ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ aims

to move beyond ‘rhetoric’, to create an abstract aesthetic without literary

embellishment. However much the ‘gigantic’ has ‘a reality of its own’, the

poem’s abstract leanings force the speaker toward dispatching ‘rhetoric’

for other forms of idealist mediation. Rather than persuasive oratory, ‘a

few words’ provide the imaginative sustenance required:

On a few words of what is real in the world

I nourish myself. I defend myself against

Whatever remains. Of what is real I say,

Is it the old, the roseate parent or

The bride come jingling, kissed and cupped, or else

The spirit and all ensigns of the self?

A few words, a memorandum voluble

Of the giant sense, the enormous harnesses

And writhing wheels of this world’s business,

The drivers in the wind-blows cracking whips,

The pulling into the sky and the setting there

Of the expanses that are mountainous rock and sea;

And beyond the days, beyond the slow-foot litters

Of the nights, the actual, universal strength,

Without a word of rhetoric – there it is.



(CPP, 273)



Several qualities suggest a mid-1940s Stevens poem here. First, the

speaking ‘I’ is no longer an idealist ‘I’. This ‘I’ refers to itself – ‘I nourish myself’  – and possesses a voice traceable to a persona:  the captain

who speaks. Second, the poem conceives a ‘universal strength’. Achieving

a ‘centre’ or ‘universal’ is a quality of many Stevens poems, but when

couched in this variety of ‘beyond’ we are experiencing an immediate

post-‘Notes’ poem. It is ‘beyond the days, beyond the slow-foot litters /

Of the nights’ that the poem approaches ‘the actual’. That approach is

possible only without ‘rhetoric’ (‘Without a word of rhetoric – there it is’).

However, the persuasive poise of ‘there it is’ reminds us how Stevens’ own

‘rhetoric’ goads pursuit of the ‘actual’.

  CPP, 696.



44



The pure good of theory



181



‘Three Academic Pieces’ ponders how ‘hypotheses relating to poetry,

although they may appear to be very distant illuminations, could be

the fires of fate, if rhetoric ever meant anything’.45 As ‘The Pure Good

of Theory’ reveals, an abstract aesthetic vies with rhetorical excess, however much that aesthetic utilizes stock poetic effects. ‘Repetitions’ shows

similar self-awareness when it locates an ‘orator’ in its close. But, first, I

want briefly to illustrate the distance between Stevens’ negotiation of ‘the

real’ in the early 1940s and the more self-confident abstraction informing ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ by comparing the remainder of the

poem with the earlier ‘Examination of the Hero in a Time of War’.

Like ‘Repetitions’, ‘Examination of the Hero’ desires a centre. Even

the ‘fury’ of war must discover ‘its noble centre’. But Stevens’ earlier

poem too keenly satirizes the aesthetes, or ‘ghosts’, who merely ‘dally /

With life’s salt upon their lips’, savouring a taste they dare not consume.

Such ‘imaginative’ figures ‘secrete within them / Too many references’.

Stevens aims to check the solipsism which prefers ‘reference’ or ‘conception’ over ‘reality’. The poem essentially critiques the power of abstraction where ‘reality’ is wilfully shaped and re-moulded, the dangerous

habit Wordsworth observes in Coleridge.46 But, more stridently than

Wordsworth, this earlier poem seemingly assaults the imagination’s associative powers: ‘Destroy all references’.47

By 1944, however, ‘reference’ and that ambivalent verb ‘secrete’ – which

connotes concealment and the separation of substances – play different roles

in ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’. The ‘real’ is defined by the ‘universe’

itself and whatever ‘reference’ an idealist imagination lends to ‘reality’:

A few words of what is real or may be

Or of glistening reference to what is real,

The universe that supplements the manqué,

The soldier seeking his point between the two,

The organic consolation, the complete

Society of the spirit when it is

Alone, the half-arc hanging in mid-air

Composed, appropriate to the incomplete,

Supported by a half-arc in mid-earth.

Millions of instances of which I am one.



(CPP, 273)



  Ibid., 692.

See Wordsworth, The Prelude Book Sixth, lines 297–317:  200, 202 (discussed in Chapter 3

above).

47

CPP, 245, 249.

45



46



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Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



‘Repetitions’ recognizes that ‘what is real’ is contingent on conception. Because it welcomes what ‘may be’, it is more accommodating

than ‘Examination of the Hero’ toward a ‘reference to what is real’. But

‘Repetitions’ deftly balances the two-way transference abstraction entails

by affirming the ‘universe that supplements the manqué’. The ‘manqué’

is that which ‘might have been but is not’:  whatever has ‘missed being’

(OED). The ‘universe’ supplies what is missing, constituting the base

from which ‘reality’ is mentally projected (as ‘Three Academic Pieces’

argues, there is a ‘level of nature’ from which the imagination draws). The

‘millions of instances of which I am one’ are strong contenders for the

instance that ‘I’ becomes. In a ‘complete / Society of the spirit’ the mind

achieves an ‘organic consolation’, content that both the ‘universe’ and its

conceptions harmonize. This ‘organic consolation’ is more tempered than

the thirst after the ‘organic centre’ ‘Examination of the Hero’ craves.48

The conclusion of ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ also marks the

distance between Stevens’ 1942 stance and his mid-1940s confidence in

abstraction. Like ‘Three Academic Pieces’, ‘Repetitions’ explores the same

mistrust of ‘rhetoric’ observed earlier in the poem. Stevens casts his mind

back again to ‘Examination of the Hero’, but discovers a more positive

sense for ‘secrete’:

And if it be theatre for theatre,

The powdered personals against the giants’ rage,

Blue and its deep inversions in the moon

Against gold whipped reddened in big-shadowed black,

Her vague ‘Secrete me from reality,’

His ‘That reality secrete itself,’

The choice is made. Green is the orator

Of our passionate height. He wears a tufted green,

And tosses green for those for whom green speaks.

Secrete us in reality. It is there

My orator. Let this giantness fall down

And come to nothing. Let the rainy arcs

And pathetic magnificences dry in the sky.

Secrete us in reality. Discover

A civil nakedness in which to be,

In which to bear with the exactest force

The precisions of fate, nothing fobbed off, nor changed

In a beau language without a drop of blood.



(CPP, 274)



  Ibid., 249.



48



The pure good of theory



183



The poem’s ‘choice’ is canny, involving no decision between ‘Her vague

“Secrete me from reality”’ and ‘His “That reality secrete itself”’. Stevens

chooses neither alternative but proffers ‘Secrete us in reality’, a brilliant

ambiguity because the phrase has no agent. ‘Secrete us’ might be an

imperative for an unknown figure. But, equally, ‘secrete us’ could be selfreferential: ‘let us secrete ourselves’.

‘Repetitions’ ironically echoes ‘Notes’ with its ‘choice between’ and a

‘choice of’:

He had to choose. But it was not a choice

Between excluding things. It was not a choice

Between, but of. He chose to include the things

That in each other are included, the whole,

The complicate, the amassing harmony.



(CPP, 348)



‘Repetitions’, by contrast, moves beyond a dialectic where a ‘choice of’

is preferable to a ‘choice between’. The ‘powdered personals’ (a thespian

force not dissimilar from the aesthetes of ‘Examination of the Hero’) are

not chosen in preference for ‘the giants’ rage’ or vice versa. The colour

‘blue’ and the ‘deep inversions in the moon’ are not chosen over the ‘gold

whipped’ and ‘reddened in big-shadowed black’. ‘Repetitions’ chooses

another phrase and another colour: green.

‘Green’ is emblematic of the very quality Stevens illustrates in ‘Someone

Puts a Pineapple Together’, where abstraction ‘fortifies / A green that is

the ash of what green is’. In ‘Repetitions’ ‘green’ becomes ‘the orator /

Of our passionate height’. No sooner than this ‘green’ is conceived, it is

appropriated: ‘He wears a tufted green’. In diction anticipating ‘Someone

Puts a Pineapple Together’, the figure ‘tosses green for those for whom

green speaks’. The poem is mimetic, transforming an immediate abstraction into a mediated entity: a ‘he’ with his own attire. If Stevens’ reader

goes the distance in conceiving this ‘Green’, he or she becomes one ‘for

whom green speaks’.

‘The Noble Rider’ had previously observed how the poet addresses

himself ‘to a gallery of one’s own, if there are enough of one’s own to

fill a gallery’.49 The unapologetic need to address an ‘élite’ persists in

‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’ with ‘those for whom green speaks’.

Such an ‘élite’ is not negatively exclusive. What ‘The Noble Rider’ argues

is that the poem requires the audience who can achieve the work for

  Ibid., 661.



49



184



Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction



itself and poet alike. For Blanchot, a ‘work’ only achieves ‘being’ when it

‘becomes the intimacy between someone who writes it and someone who

reads it’.50 For Hegel the writer ‘impart[s] perfection to his work only by

emptying himself of his particularity, depersonalizing himself and rising

to the abstraction of pure action’. As Hegel suggests, ‘[t]he work by itself

is not […] actually an inspired work; it is a whole only together with its

genesis’.51

‘The Noble Rider’ likewise argues:  ‘[T]hat elite, if it responds […]

will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to

say, receive his poetry’.52 If, in 1942, Stevens attaches more agency to the

poet, by the mid-1940s he prefers to choose between neither poet nor

audience, offering instead the allure of abstraction itself. For ‘The Noble

Rider’, the poet ‘fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become

the light in the minds of others’.53 But Stevens’ mid-1940s poetry opens

wider, inviting ‘the minds of others’ into a more reciprocal process where

poems stand or fall on their receptiveness to abstract creation, for reader

and poet alike.

Such ‘opening up’ is clear in ‘Repetitions of a Young Captain’, with its

desire for ‘nothing fobbed off, nor changed / In a beau language without a drop of blood’. The ‘beau linguist’ of ‘Notes’ is pointedly resisted.54

Certainly, if Stevens writes ‘Secrete us in reality. It is there / My orator’, this is deft poetic rhetoric: an ironic inversion of section v where ‘the

actual’ is summoned ‘[w]ithout a word of rhetoric – there it is’. Stevens’

reader is persuaded that what ‘is there’ really exists because of the anaphora ‘Secrete us in reality’. But the deliberate lack of punctuation between

‘It is there’ and ‘My orator’ also suggests such evocation is itself the ‘orator’. Saying ‘it is there’ is the source of whatever rhetoric ‘Repetitions’

practises. Had Stevens written ‘It is there, / My orator’ the comma might

suggest an apostrophized ‘external’ orator. But ‘Repetitions of a Young

Captain’ shares with ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ the conviction that a

single word  – ‘reality’, ‘there’  – can inspire the imagination to abstract

meditation. This stance reflects the broader sweep of Stevens’ career in

which a specialized idiom is largely jettisoned post-1945 as a more confident abstraction orchestrates the poet’s work. But let us turn to ‘The Pure

Good of Theory’ to see the pragmatic benefits of such conceptual thinking as a source of poetic inspiration.

Blanchot, ‘The Essential Solitude’, 23.

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 429.

52

CPP, 661.  53  Ibid., 660–1.  54  Ibid., 334.

50

51



The pure good of theory



185



6.3 Pr ag m at ic a b s t r ac t ion v . m e ta phor :  ‘Th e Pu r e

G o od of Th e or y ’ (1945) a n d m a c b e t h

‘The Pure Good of Theory’ was published as part of a group entitled ‘New

Poems’ in a Voices issue devoted to Stevens.55 The new poems appeared

alongside selections from Stevens’ earlier works including Notes Toward a

Supreme Fiction.56 The most recent poems were presumably submitted as

representative of Stevens’ early 1945 poetry. What distinguishes ‘The Pure

Good of Theory’ from the other 1945 poems, however, is the confidence

with which Stevens forges a maturing abstract aesthetic. The poem has

none of the retrospection of ‘Paisant Chronicle’ (‘Paisant’ also appearing

in the Voices issue), and, despite its title’s emphasis on ‘theory’, does not

follow ‘Description Without Place’ in trumpeting an aesthetic concept.

Unlike ‘Paisant Chronicle’ and ‘Description Without Place’, ‘The Pure

Good of Theory’ also resists self-consciously referring to Stevens’ early

1940s poems. It has no interest, for example, in questioning the dated

‘major man’.57 In 1946 the poet would highlight his desire to discover,

as one title quips, ‘A Completely New Set of Objects’.58 But in early 1945

Stevens was already experimenting, if not with new themes, then with

a maturing aesthetic  – one that had absorbed abstraction rather than

merely announcing the arrival of ‘the abstract’.

‘The Pure Good of Theory’ also transforms items of Stevens’ early

1940s fascination – sound, distance, speech, hearing, oratory, music, the

‘beyond’  – into tokens informing the texture and theatrical density of

the poem. This breaks new ground, as Stevens discovered he no longer

required the master-vocabulary of ‘Notes’. Without constituting a surrogate idiom, such ‘terms’ take on a subtler function in a poetry suspicious of domineering or ‘literary’ rubrics. Where in ‘Notes’ Stevensian

terms achieve metaphysical or ontological imperatives, ‘The Pure Good of

Theory’ questions privileging any one vocabulary, however abstract (even

querying ‘the desire to believe in a metaphor’).59 Stevens’ imagining of an

abstract ‘poetry’ enables the poet to scrutinize the workings of metaphor

itself. ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ not only embodies the positive claims

this study makes for abstraction, it testifies to the pragmatic benefits of an

abstract aesthetic which Stevens only fully realized in his final decade.

‘The Pure Good of Theory’ pivots on a battle between abstraction and

metaphor, a contest informed by deft allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The

Stevens, ‘New Poems’ Voices. 

See CPP, 293.  58  Ibid., 307. 



55



57



 Edelstein, Wallace Stevens, 219.

  Ibid., 291.



56



59



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