David Sexton

Agnostic Faith

Wallace Stevens: The Critical Heritage

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Routledge & Kegan Paul 480pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Long Poems of Wallace Stevens: An Interpretative Study

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Cambridge Universi ty Press 236pp £21 order from our bookshop

Sheer bluff, calling a book like this The Critical Heritage. The Critical Detritus would be nearer the mark. Any good writer needs to be read in a new way; it might be argued that the creaks and groans of contemporaries in the presence of an original are instructive, deserving of record. But in fact reading through a collection such as this is simply penitential.

The Critical Heritage series claims to re-print reviews ‘significant for their intrinsic critical worth or for their representative quality’. In the case of writers from earlier centuries, this is a useful service. With modern writers it means that for each worthwhile piece one gets half a dozen snorts and whinnies from the hacks. Hacks are hacks, wherever and whenever; they strongly resent being asked to go out of their way. Stevens was quite warmly received in America from fairly early on, but few of the acclamations display more understanding than the detractions. I was embarrassed for my trade by some of these reviewers. Eda Lou Walton of the New York Times Book Review (‘In rhythms that precisely approximate guitar playing and singing, he talks out his ideas’) for example, and Ruth Lechlitner of the New York Herald Tribune Books (‘Wallace Stevens plucks at these strings with the assured, sensitively controlling fingers of the practiced artist’), could more kindly have been left in the archives. Llewelyn Powys says ‘Mr Wallace Stevens’ poetry is beyond good and evil, beyond hope and despair, beyond thought of any kind, one might almost say.’ Others were less enraptured by their own bafflement. ‘Determined obscurity’ was often detected. Some ventured to explain. ‘The key critical document in advancing Stevens’ reputation is [sic] RP Blackmur’s brilliant and extended “Examples of Wallace Stevens”,’ says Doyle. He seems not to know Stevens’ own comments about such critics. Of Blackmur Stevens wrote: ‘It takes him twenty-five pages to say what would be much better said, if said, in one.’ He praised the TLS review of his Selected Poems as ‘wise and understanding…probably written by a poet or someone close to poetry’. (Doyle perversely prints only the last sixth of this piece.)

One of the routine complaints is of a perceived lack of social and economic reference in the poems. There is a burst of Marxist indignation in the Thirties, notably Stanley Burnshaw’s ‘Turmoil in the Middle Ground’, from a magazine called New Masses: ‘It is the kind of verse that people concerned with the murderous world collapse can hardly swallow today except in tiny doses.’ Stevens replied to this in a section of ‘Owl’s Clover’, (‘Mr Burnshaw and the Statue’) but the attack was returned to throughout his career. Robert Lowell formulated it thus: ‘As with Santayana, one feels that the tolerance and serenity are a little too blandly appropriate, that a man is able to be an imagination and the imagination able to be disinterested and urbane only because it is supported by industrial slaves. Perhaps if there are to be Platonists there must always be slaves.’ (Perhaps, but perhaps, too, Stevens the insurance man was his own slave.)

The other debating point is whether the vivid, concrete early poems or the stark late work are superior. The 21-year-old Yvor Winters called him ‘the greatest of living and of American poets’ before he had even published a book, but later in ‘The Hedonist’s Progress’ took him to task for the ‘rapid and tragic decay’ in his style. Stevens did not much care for Britain, and the British did not care for him. Incredibly no book of his was published here before the Selected Poems in 1953; he was then 74. Geoffrey Grigson had volunteered his notorious piece ‘The Stuffed Goldfinch’, however, as far back as 1936, calling him ‘the finicking privateer, prosy Herrick, Klee without rhythm, observing nothing, single artificer of his own world of mannerism’, ‘an “imagist” emanation of dies non we do not remember and do not bother to recall’. (It is not reprinted here – at long last shame and refusal of permission?) In 1940 Julian Symons took ‘A Short View of Wallace Stevens’: ‘An unfriendly criticism of Stevens would conclude that he has not much to say, but an unusual facility in saying it.’ William Empson echoed this in 1953, in a disappointing piece.

These remarks are surely much mistaken. Stevens’ poetry has something quite definite to say: ‘After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.’ The question about him is not if he is saying anything but whether what he is saying here is, or could ever be, true. That question is hardly addressed by the assembled critics.

One surprising exception is Bernard Bergonzi: ‘As Maritain once remarked, “It is a deadly error to expect poetry to provide the super-substantial nourishment of man”; and ultimately one will read Stevens’ poetry less for pabulum than for style.’ This is the Eliot line, as found in his essay on Arnold: ‘…if you find that you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it.’

‘Eliot and I are dead opposites and I have been doing everything that he would not be likely to do,’ wrote Stevens to a critic trying to compare them.

Any worthwhile criticism of Stevens must concern itself finally with tenability of his neo-Arnoldian position – his ‘magnificent agnostic faith’, as Geoffrey Hill has paradoxically called it. Very little of the professionalised explication does.

The latest and one of the most thorough pieces of academic exegesis is Rajeev S Patke’s done-up thesis. It is mortifying to read; he writes a dead prose. The book clearly is intended to supplant Helen Vendler’s On Extended Wings: Wallace StevensLonger Poems of 1969 but won’t, because she makes valuable stylistic criticisms. All Patke does is provide ‘a selective collation or concordance of words, phrases, images, metaphors, symbols and fables’. In other words, minimal critical content. Although he evidently knows Stevens’ writings inside out, or backwards, the interpretative method is that ‘symbology’ is all; things incessantly ‘represent’, ‘stand for’, or are ‘a figure of’, something else. What makes the poems poetry, how they are written, is ignored, and overall evaluation not attempted. That he accepts Stevens’ poetry as some sort of religious substitute is revealed by such gross comments of his own as: ‘”The Blue Guitar” Plays John the Baptist to the Jesus of the “Notes”.’

Patke’s book is more difficult reading than Stevens at his densest. The publication of those two books is a depressing reflection of current priorities. Stevens’ Letters are out of print, as is Opus Posthumous. His early letters, journals and poetry, Souvenirs and Prophecies edited by his daughter, have never been published here, despite their great interest. Instead we have The Critical Heritage, a fourth gathering of criticism about him. In America there has also been published Parts of a World, Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (by Peter Brazeau, Random House, 1983) unobtainable here. This includes the quite remarkable discovery that ‘the poet, who spent all his life in evolving a new poetry to replace the lost belief in God, had himself been received on his deathbed into the Roman Catholic Church. The event went unrecorded because the local bishop was reluctant to have the Catholic hospital, in which Stevens was treated for his final illness, get a reputation for importuning the dying to change their religion’ (Richard Ellmann’s review).

What are we to make of this? Does it make a nonsense of the whole of his poetic project or not? It can perhaps be seen as consistent with the tendency of his last poems. (This was the argument of a book by Lucy Beckett in 1974, discarded by the Stevensians, but perhaps somewhat vindicated by this discovery.) But on the other hand, John Ashbery described Stevens’ career in the light of this news as ‘just another example of the hypocrisy necessary to great poetry’. And Stevens himself wrote in Adagia: ‘In the long run the truth does not matter.’ Perhaps in the long run, that is how his work must be judged.

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