Notes on Form: The Elegance of Wallace Stevens

For Stevens elegance was a pathway to the divine, but it also reminds us that the divine may be just one more product of the imagination

One cause of embarrassment for the literary critic occurs when an author makes most clear the purposes of his art in inferior work. We want to engage with an author’s highest achievements. To mine the lesser ones that might otherwise pass unnoticed, merely because they clarify the author’s larger aims because they make the critic’s work “easier,” feels, at once, like a betrayal of one’s aesthetic judgment and like a turning aside from the earnest challenge of interpretation.

Such a feeling besets me when I read Wallace Stevens’ “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay.” Though not the worst of his poems, it is very far from the best. The rhythm is crabbed and prosaic, a short story in free verse with little to please the ear. It offers clever phrases here and there, but ones that pale in comparison with other Stevens poems. And yet the poem makes a fine aid to understanding Stevens’ poetry in general. Indeed, “Mrs. Uruguay” is so schematic and, by Stevens’ standards, direct in its meaning that, merely by describing the poem, one can graph out the field on which and terms in which the rest of Stevens’ poetry operates. The major terms, as we shall see, are “reality” and “imagination;” however, the poem gives us one other word it will be the purpose of these reflections to explore: Stevens’ concern with “elegance.”

As the poem begins, the sun has gone down and, “in the brown blues of evening,” a woman, presumably Mrs. Alfred Uruguay, is riding a mule up toward the peak of a mountain. She says into the donkey’s ear that “elegance / Must struggle,” by which she means that she is refusing all ornate beauty in order to arrive at some end opposed to such things. She says “no / To everything.” Why? Where is she trying to get? Toward a bare vision of herself and, above all, toward a “naked” vision of reality:

And for her,

To be, regardless of velvet, could never be more

Than to be, she could never differently be,

Her no and no made yes impossible.

Her climb pursues a desire to see things as they really are, but she is convinced that, in order to do so, we must have a very bare vision indeed. We must be able to say “no” to every ornament or grace or beauty. The donkey, for instance, wishes for a bell to adorn this otherwise austere flight from fullness toward a poverty of being, but the bell would just be “falsifying,” it would be untrue to reality.

As Mrs. Uruguay phrases it, to see the real is to see that “To be . . . could never be more / Than to be.” To be is to be, that is all. To see reality as it is is to see being, the fundament of reality, as nothing but bare existence. At most, one could affirm with the philosopher Rene Descartes that reality consists of “extended being,” that is, as so much material stuff that takes up space but is otherwise lacking in qualia of any kind.

The vision Mrs. Uruguay pursues on muleback Stevens had tried to imagine many years earlier in one of his best-known poems. In “The Snow Man,” he tells us that the austere and eliminative way of seeing that Mrs. Uruguay seeks, the vision of reality toward which she struggles, requires “a mind of winter.” Such a mind would see the stuff of a winter landscape and find nothing in it except the physical details of the landscape. Only a mind of winter can

. . . behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves

Such a mind has eliminated something from itself—what exactly “Mrs. Uruguay” will soon tell us—in order to render itself “nothing.” Being “nothing himself,” the snowman now has the kind of clarity of bare vision to behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Mrs. Uruguay represents the human urge or impulse for reality. We desire to see things as they really are. We want to know the truth. Alas, indicates Stevens, the truth itself, reality itself, is such a barren mass of stuff as to be utterly alien to the human. Indeed, in “The Man on the Dump” we learn that even “truth” is a superaddition imposed upon the raw stuff of being. Only a man who has remade himself as “Snow” can see reality with such clarity. What he sees is a vast extension of “nothing,” an abyss. Mrs. Uruguay recognizes that all “velvet,” all the cloth that would clothe and cover over this bare, naked vision like a gown, is so much “elegance,” by which she means, so much “falsifying.”

Where does it all come from then? Bare reality could never of itself generate a fictive gown to conceal itself, could it? That would make the “velvet,” the “bell,” and also the hint of “misery in the sound of the wind” as real as the being they seem to enhance.

In the second half of “Mrs. Uruguay” we get an answer. Stevens gives two stanzas to his reality principle, as it were, and the second pair of stanzas to another principle: the “capable imagination.” As she rides up, “A youth, a lover . . . arrogant of his streaming forces” rides down. She labors toward the rare atmosphere of the real, he journeys down toward a village, where “reality” is given form and measure by “village clocks,” and where “dreams were alive” in the villagers’ imaginations. He moves toward a place rich with velvet, loud with bells, where every physical detail bears within itself some other, more human significance. As he descends, the world grows richer even as reality itself remains poor:

And, capable, [he] created in his mind,

Eventual victor, out of the martyrs’ bones,

The ultimate elegance: the imagined land.

The poem is not a whole lot more complex than a microeconomics graph of supply and demand. We have two impulses, one toward the bare and stripped real and another to elaborate or build a world by the faculty of the imagination.

Almost the whole of Stevens’ poetry, and certainly all his major poems, explore in more elaborate, often obscure, fashion what is mapped out for us in “Mrs. Uruguay.” Poems of winter, such as “The Snowman” attempt to envision the unknowable: reality itself unformed by imagination. “The Auroras of Autumn” meditates on the impulse toward reality and the consequent “farewell” the mind bids to quality and beauty. In contrast, poems of more tropical or warmer climates give expression to a movement toward a capacity and fullness of the imagination. “Credences of Summer” is a helpfully self-explanatory title. In the warmth of summer or the paradisal warmth of Key West as Stevens will elsewhere show, the mind finds it possible, easy even, to believe that reality and the imagination are one. Reality itself comes to appear as an overwhelming fullness. At the beginning of the poem, he observes,

the roses are heavy with a weight

Of fragrance and the mind lays by its trouble.

Further on, he proclaims,

Things stop in that direction and since they stop
The direction stops and we accept what is
As good.

What “is” can only be “good,” Stevens knows, if the imagination is allowed to bequeath goodness to reality. In the pleasant warmth of summer light, the two blend into an experience of one. What we imagine and create as a world full of qualities comes to seem as if it were given to us by reality itself.

Others among his more ambitious poems can be understood in terms of this dialectic between reality and imagination. The magisterial “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is the reticent outline of a new, as yet unbegotten, religious imagination that will give us a “Supreme Fiction” in which those who have once seen reality in all its barrenness can come to believe. We must author a new religious fiction more believable than the old, Stevens holds. We are waiting for the man of capable imagination to make this possible; the poem itself outlines the conditions of possibility.

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On the other hand, he confesses here and elsewhere, the very idea of disillusion, of stripping away all imagination, until one sees with a mind of winter—that is itself an act of the imagination. As he asserts in “The Plain Sense of Things,” “the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined.” We do not actually get to choose between Mrs. Uruguay’s impulse to the real and the man of “capable imagination,” although we often think we do. In fact, we stand always somewhere between the two poles of reality and imagination, the reduction to one extreme or the other literally unknowable to us—but, perhaps, just barely imaginable. “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which I think is Stevens’ greatest single poem, gains much of its power from the way its blank verse rhythms suggest the irreducible interweaving of reality and imagination.

“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” explores the poetry—that is to say, the imaginative work—of seeking reality. He sets out not to imagine a new religion but to envision the real in itself. “Reality is the beginning not the end, Naked Alpha,” he writes, adding, later on, that “We seek // The poem of pure reality, untouched / By trope or deviation.” This very seeking to proceed through “disillusion” to “Reality as a thing seen by the mind” still entails the mind’s mediation, such that “disillusion” is also “the last illusion.” Late poems such as “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” and “The Course of a Particular” are just such exercises of the imagination drawn to opposite ends: the imagination as the God who creates the world, or the imagination of “the absence of fantasia” leading to a chilling encounter with the real.

Within this scheme, however, the true quest of Stevens’ life was for what he calls in “Mrs. Uruguay” the “ultimate elegance.” All he ever wanted in life or in poetry was the elegant. A skeptical and reductive vision of reality as the bare stuff of being threatened Stevens’ obtaining it. After all, Mrs. Uruguay seems to think of elegance as the opposite of the reality toward which she journeys. But the impulse toward reality was not the only threat Stevens had to overcome. What, for Stevens, was “elegance”?

Elegance might be summed up as Stevens’ catch-all term for whatever it was he sought that went beyond and was opposed to, the utilitarian spirit and straitened Lutheranism of his father, back in Reading, Pennsylvania. It began to take form during Stevens’ years at Harvard, where he encountered the Spanish poet and philosopher, George Santayana. Santayana had a slightly infamous reputation, as Stevens’ biographer Paul Mariani writes, as a “Catholic atheist or, better, aesthetic Catholic.” He held “the beauty of Catholic thought” in high regard even as he did not assent to “the Church’s spiritual claims.” In Santayana’s late memoir of his childhood, we find him acknowledging reality but disparaging it; disbelieving the imagination, but making it the exclusive place of value:

I learned my prayers and catechism by rote, as was then inevitable in Spain, I knew that my parents regarded all religion as a work of human imagination: and I agreed, and still agree, with them there. But this carried an implication in their minds against which every instinct in me rebelled, namely that the works of human imagination are bad. No, said I to myself even as a boy: they are good, they alone are good; and the rest—the whole real world—is ashes in the mouth.

As Santayana’s essays in poetry and philosophy argued, the Catholic religion was the highest kind of poetry, the finest act of the imagination, building up upon the bare flux of matter (which it also concealed from view) the stability and order of a “cosmic landscape.”

Elegance was any elaboration of beauty upon the cold ashes of reality. It was the work of the imagination. It was the extravagance that went beyond utility. Through Santayana, he came to see it as the European refinement and civility that left American life looking crude and primitive, but he also came to see it as the rising up of the beautiful toward the sacred things of God.

Stevens would sometimes “haunt” Catholic churches—visiting them for no clear purpose, when they were empty—among them Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York City. When he visited St. John’s German Lutheran Church, a church perhaps more familiar to the religion of his childhood, Stevens felt the impoverishment. An older Catholic world lay steeped in a “wealth of symbols, of remembrances,” Stevens wrote. The Church must deepen “mystery and enhance the spirit” with its “temples full of sacred images, full of the air of love and holiness—tabernacles hallowed by worship that sprang from the noble depths of men familiar with Gethsemane, familiar with Jerusalem.” Santayana has clearly planted a longing for sacred beauty in his disciple. Stevens longed for it in imagination and in reality alike.

Elegance also comprehended the artistic bohemia of New York. His first book of poems, Harmonium (1923), is more various and playful than most of his later work, in part because Stevens is attempting to give us the taste of mystery and beauty that was the “ultimate elegance.” We hear it in his playful use of French (“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”) and nonsense language, such as “Ti-lill-o!” or “A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.” Both these features would never cease, indeed, they grew more frequent in Stevens’ later poetry. The gleeful shape-shifting versification of “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” in contrast, would fade away from Stevens’ poems, replaced by a more expository free verse and a gradually looser, more prosaic blank verse.

In the most ambitious and accomplished poem of the volume, “Sunday Morning,” we hear the disillusioned atheist who, like the Snowman, has at least glimpsed reality, fantasizing of a new, immanent cult of the sun and the sensuous. It will be a new religion to replace the old one of Jesus Christ. If we no longer believe in the God of Christianity who gave us the fine elaborations of the Church, we might still envision a more immanent sort of worship:

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men

Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn,

Their boisterous devotion to the sun,

Not as a god, but as a god might be,

Naked among them, like a savage source.

When he settled into his career as an insurance lawyer, in Hartford, Connecticut, he lived with but remained effectively estranged from his wife. The house below cold and effectively closed off to him, Stevens brought “elegance” to the attic room where he wrote his poems. Paintings such as he could afford by modern masters crowded the walls so that, in bourgeois comfort, he could enjoy at leisure the pleasures of bohemia. He was clearly speaking to himself when he wrote, in “Mozart, 1935,”

Poet, be seated at the piano.

Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,

Its shoo-shoo, shoo, its ric-a-nic,

Its envious cachinnation.

This is elaboration for its own sake, going beyond sense for the sake of its audible sensuousness. But it is not entirely alien to the rigorous logic of metaphor we find in the poetry of earlier centuries, especially in the metaphysical poets. The Catholic metaphysical Richard Crashaw is exemplary in this regard. His baroque poems unfold and extend themselves, trope by trope, beyond all prosaic sense, but for the sake of exploring the ornate highways of rhetoric. In “The Teare,” for instance, a tear of the Blessed Virgin Mary is contemplated. By the sixth stanza he envisions its fall and seeks to cushion it thus:

    Faire drop, why quak’st thou so?

  ‘Cause thou straight must lay they Head

    In the Dust? o no;

  The Dust shall never bee thy Bed:

A pillow for thee will I bring,

Stuft with Downe of Angels wing.

Each of the poem’s eight stanzas offers a similar elaboration of the fancy.

Because Stevens’ pursuit of elegance has a specifically anti-bourgeois inflection, it sometimes finds expression in the unexpected, not merely silly, but bare and deflated phrase. In “The Motive for Metaphor,” he considers the sources of our desire for a figurative elegance. Among the things we shrink from is “The weight of primary noon, / The A B C of being.” He could not have conceived a much barer phrase than that reduction of qualities to letters of the alphabet. And yet, there is a cheeky and uncanny quality to the line such that, from its unanticipated, anti-poetic expression emerges yet another kind of elaboration. It is the elegance of irreverence perhaps. “The Idea of Order at Key West'' achieves an analogous elegance with its suave, rhythmic repetitions. The building blocks are simple—a few words—but the overall texture of the poem is incantatory—in a word, elegant.

The pursuit of elegance indeed transcends Stevens’ apparently opposed pursuits of imagination and reality. While, in “Mrs. Uruguay,” elegance seems the exclusive property of the “capable imagination,” and Mrs. Uruguay herself seems a bourgeois utilitarian who sees no purpose in such falsifying nonsense, the other poems we have mentioned suggest there is also an elegance of reality. In the early poems in particular there is a close identity of elegance with the pure imagination, while the “blankest desolation” of the “Snowman” seems to be but a “vast inelegance.” “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” for instance, closely associates the elaboration of a world with the imagination as self-enclosing, that is to say, with solipsism:

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,

And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.

I was myself the compass of the sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw

Or heard or felt came not but from myself;

And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

The pleasures of the “Palaz” of the self-projecting imagination are not the only sort, however. There is an elegance of reality as well—that keen aesthetic pleasure of attempting to strip away all the ointments and velvet of the imagination in order to hear “The leaves cry” and realize that “at last, the cry concerns no one at all.” Stevens’ last poem, “Of Mere Being” seeks to go to the very limit of the mind, of the imagination, where, presumably, reality might begin. It finds rather “A gold-feathered bird” that “sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song.” The poem ends, in a baroque feast of alliterative elegance, “the bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”

What is this elegance at the limit of our imaginative perceptions? This beauty which is entirely foreign to us? We have to return to Santayana and Stevens’ early self-education in empty churches to understand. Elegance is the quality that the imagination elaborates. It is also that which sometimes seems to penetrate reality, whether in its sensuous summertime immediacy or in its inhuman strangeness. It is that quality that says to us there is something more to, or at least something “stranger” in, the world than our utilitarian concerns. Stevens identifies it first of all with the sacred art of the Catholic Church, with all those built-up symbols that lead the mind beyond its bare rock of reality, upward, toward the heavens, and toward the divine.

Stevens’ elegance is, at least in part, therefore, what Hans Urs von Balthasar once called an “aesthetic theology.” That is, a theory that proposes the beauty of this world, or the beauty of sacred art, is an adequate symbol and a kind of confirmation of the beauty of God. Our worldly standards of beauty provide us a criterion for believing what transcends the world. But it also has some quality of what von Balthasar calls “theological aesthetics,” a theory of beauty that does not seek to define itself by worldly standards, but by the form that God unfolds in his self-disclosure, his revelation. Hence, the bird in that final poem which reveals itself as unintelligibly alien and yet saturated in beauty.

There is a paradox to Stevens’ religious fascination with elegance, however. In Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics, the German philosopher devotes an entire chapter to the aesthetic value of elegance. He observes that

Unlike more of the typical aesthetic values . . . elegance is entirely this-worldly. It has no place in eternity. Nor is it to be found per eminentiam in God and in eternity, as are all the typically aesthetic values, such as lovely, graceful, or poetic. It is not a message from God. Often it has a fashionable flair, and is therefore on the margin of the world of values.

Elegance, Hildebrand says, has something to do with beauty, but unlike beauty, we do not find it at every level of being from the mortal and worldly to the eternal and divine. Like all that pertains to fashion, there’s something profane about it. A central insight of Hildebrand’s theory of aesthetics is his notion of “the beauty of the second power,” where sensuous beauty somehow reveals a spiritual beauty that transcends it. He is, therefore, generally open to some kind of continuity or interpenetration of the beauty of this world and the beauty of the divine. But elegance cannot go the distance. It is an exclusively worldly value that may speak to us of the grace of a ballet dancer but not of the grace of God.

Stevens may have been merely confused. Not believing in God, but admiring the sacred art of the Church, he may have been a mere bystander, staring from the outside, imperceptive of the difference between mortal and immortal beauty. Catholicism and modern poetry seemed to be the same because of their excessive, gorgeous show.

He may have simply been unserious. Some scholars of Stevens’ poetry have made an embarrassingly sanctimonious secular gospel out of it that seems deaf to what Robert Frost called the almost pure “bric-a-brac” of sounds, the hedonistic elegance, in Stevens’ poems. Yvor Winters, who admired Stevens’ philosophical depth, was disturbed to see “how rapidly” the poems could “degenerate into very crude comedy.” Was Stevens’ work honest testimony of disillusion or just the noisome excrescences of a hedonist? Winters could not be sure.

I think, however, that Stevens knew what he was doing, that he was provoking in both himself and his reader a reflection on the secular and the divine. The “elegance” of poetry seemed to reach toward the glory of God, and yet it also reminds us of its earthliness, sensuousness, and silliness. The contemplation of the lyric poem may be like a microcosm standing in analogical correspondence with the contemplation of God and all he has created. As Henri Bremond famously argued, there is some kind of plausible analogy between poetry and prayer. In both cases, the mind comes to rest on an object that is an end in itself, a good in itself, an intelligible mystery. In Augustine’s Confessions, his most sublime thoughts, those that come closest to adequate expression of the truths of theology, are given in lyric rhapsodes. The timelessness of the lyric poem, Augustine hints, is our way of anticipating the timeless bliss of seeing into the eternal light of God.

And yet, modern art and poetry often deliberately make themselves a travesty or a parody of genuine contemplation; poetry ceases to stand in relation to the divine and becomes rather an immanent secular substitute for it. James Joyce, for instance, would replace his youthful faith in the Eucharist as the Eternal Word made sacramental, spiritual flesh on the altar with his unserious doctrine of the artist as a priest of the “eternal imagination.”

Stevens clearly wanted poetry to be both these things. Elegance was a pathway to the divine, but it also reminds us that the divine may be just one more product of the imagination. It suggests beauty’s spiritual mystery but also laughs at it. He could not be sure what in total the “ultimate elegance” really signified. Does art’s beauty really touch on the divine? It might. Then again, it might not, but the thoughts of the poet might be an immanent substitute for the thought of God. Stevens merely knew that elegance, whatever it was, was the end for which he lived his life as a poet. It was the quality by which reality and imagination alike begin to disclose their strangest mysteries.

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University.  Wilson is a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in various magazines and journals and he has published nine books, including The Hanging God (Angelico, 2018). Wilson is the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, the series editor of Colosseum Books, of the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press, and is director of the Colosseum Institute for writers