… “I despise the uninitiated crowd, and I keep them at a distance.” It is obscure, and its obscurities are largely calculated; it is intended to be impenetrable to the vulgar. More than this, it is intended to exasperate them.
There is something of this in all art that is genuine. For the genuine in art is that which attains distinction, and the distinguished is uncommon and not accessible to the many. It is different, it must be different, and as such provokes the hostility of the many, and provokes it the more in that its difference is a claim to distinction, to prestige, and to exclusion. This claim is diminished by time. Wordsworth is now regarded as quite traditional, quite stuffy and conventional. For the particular qualities of difference in an older body of poetry that has been absorbed into the tradition become part of that tradition, and so something that the reader actually need not see since he does not know it is different. He may then in his early years and through his school days develop a set of social responses to the received body of poetry; he may enjoy that poetry without effort, be pleased by his conditioned responses, and think of himself as a lover and judge of poetry. When the audience for poetry becomes satisfied with a customary response to a customary poem, when they demand of the poet that he write to their expectations, when distinction is lost in commonness, there is need for the modern in art, for a poetry that is consciously different, even if it often mistakes difference for distinction. The poet must exasperate his reader, or succumb to him.
… [Wallace Stevens' motive] is disdain — disdain of the society and of the literary tradition in which he grew up, of himself as a part of that society, and of his readers so far as they belonged to it. He sought, he tells us:
…… when all is said, to drive away
The shadow of his fellows from the skies,
And, from their stale intelligence released,
To make a new intelligence prevail.
How did he go about it? He celebrated the rankest trivia in the choicest diction. He was a master of the traditional splendors of poetry and refused to exercise his mastery in the traditional way; he displayed it in the perverse, the odd:
….. he humbly served
Grotesque apprenticeship to chance event.
… The hero [of Stevens' poem The Comedian as the Letter C ] is portrayed as having been before this trip a man who was master of his environment, but he was a little man, “the Socrates of snails,” “this nincompated pedagogue,” and the environment itself was trivial; it was a land “of simple salad-beds, of honest quilts.” It was, in fact, to quote Stevens‘ own summary of his early environment in an essay of later date, “the comfortable American state of life of the ‘eighties,’ the ‘nineties, and the first ten years of the present century.” It was the time and place when the sun
With bland complaisance on pale parasols,
Beetled, in chapels, on the chaste bouquets.
It was that middle class culture of business, public chastity, and official Christianity which we often call, with some historical injustice, Victorianism. In this world, Crispin [Stevens' voice in the poem] wrote the conventional poetry of the times. He was one
…… that saw
The stride of vanishing autumn in a park
By way of decorous melancholy …
That wrote his couplet yearly to the spring,
As dissertation of profound delight.
However, he found that
He could not be content with counterfeit.
It was this dissatisfaction with the conventional — in society and in poetry — “That first drove Crispin to his wandering.” He alludes to it as “The drenching of stale lives,” a life of “ruses” that was shattered by the experience of his voyage.
He found the sea overwhelming; he “was washed away by magnitude.” “Here was no help before reality.” It was not so much that he was cut off from the snug land; he was cut off from his old self:
What counted was mythology of self,
Blotched out beyond unblotching.
and hence from his environment. He was destitute and bare:
The salt hung on his spirit like a frost,
The dead brine melted in him like a dew
Of winter, until nothing of himself
Remained, except some starker, barer self
In a starker, barer world.
From this experience he came to Yucatan. The poetasters of that land, like the poetasters at home, in spite of the vividness of experience around them
In spite of hawk and falcon, green toucon
still wrote conventional verses about the nightingale, as if their environment were uncivilized. But Crispin’s conversion at sea — for it was obviously a conversion — had enlarged him, made him complicated
…… and difficult and strange
In all desires.
until he could reduce his tension only by writing an original and personal poetry, different and unconventional.
The experience at sea is now reinforced by another experience in Yucatan, of the same elemental, overwhelming sort:
Of many proclamations of the kind,
Proclaiming something harsher than he learned
from the commonplace realism of home:
From hearing signboards whimper in cold nights.
It was rather “the span / Of force, the quintessential fact,”
The thing that makes him envious in a phrase.
It was the experience that altered and reinvigorated his poetry, the source from which he drew that distinction of style that marks off his published work from the sentimental verses he had printed in the college magazine some twenty years before. The experience was of the type of a religious experience:
…… His mind was free
And more than free, elate, intent, profound
And studious of a self possessing him,
That was not in him in the crusty town
From which he sailed.
[ ... ]
… Now, there is an experience depicted from time to time in the romantic tradition — it is common in Wordsworth — and one that has perhaps occurred to each of us in his day, a human experience of absoluteness, when we and our surroundings are not merely related but one, when “joy is its own security.” It is a fortuitous experience; it cannot be willed into being, or contrived at need. It is a transitory experience; it cannot be stayed in its going or found when it is gone. Yet though fortuitous and transitory, it has in its moment of being all the persuasion of permanence; it seems — and perhaps in its way it is — a fulfillment of the Absolute:
…… It is and it
Is not and, therefore, is. In the instant of speech,
The breadth of an accelerando moves,
Captives the being, widens — and was there.
… there is a poem in [Stevens' book] Transport to Summer, one of the perfect poems, as far as my judgment goes, in his later work, that achieves and communicates this experience. It is a short poem in couplets entitled The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm. There is no fiddle-dee-dee here. The setting is ordinary, not exotic. It is about a man reading alone, late at night. The phrasing is exact and almost unnoticeable. The style is bare, less rich than Sunday Morning, but with this advantage over that poem, that none of its effect is drawn from forbidden sources, from what is rejected. The meter is loosened iambic pentameter, but loosened firmly and as a matter of course, almost as if it were speech becoming meter rather than meter violated. It has in fact the stability of a new metrical form attained out of the inveterate violation of the old. It is both modern and traditional:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like the perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.