Sunday 22 January 2017

Wallace Stevens under the Sail of Ulysses

The TLS 100 anthology is, among other things, a reminder of how many distinguished poets were still active in the Fifties. Those represented include W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Walter de la Mare, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Robert Frost - and Wallace Stevens. In 1954 the TLS published this magisterial piece:

Presence of an External Master of Knowledge

Under the shape of his sail, Ulysses,
Symbol of the seeker, crossing by night
The giant sea, read his own mind.
He said, "As I know, I am and have
The right to be." He guided his boat
Beneath the middle stars and said:

"Here I feel the human loneliness
And that, in space and solitude,
Which knowledge is: the world and fate,
The right within me and about me,
Joined in a triumphant vigor,
Like a direction on which I depend . . .

A longer, deeper breath sustains
This eloquence of right, since knowing
And being are one ­- the right to know
Is equal to the right to be.
The great Omnium descends on me,
Like an absolute out of this eloquence."

The sharp sail of Ulysses seemed,
In the breathings of that soliloquy,
Alive with an enigma's flittering,
And bodying, and being there,
As he moved, straightly, on and on
Through clumped stars dangling all the way.

These 24 lines were salvaged from an unhappy commission - to write and recite a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa exercises on the occasion of Columbia's 200th Commencement. Dissatisfied with that work, Stevens took what he deemed worthwhile in it and reworked it into Presence of an External Master of Knowledge. Writing it, Stevens must surely have had in mind Tennyson's Ulysses - always worth rereading - whose ageing hero resolves to 'follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought'. Stevens's own explorations beyond those bounds were soon to culminate in his last, or last but one, poem, Of Mere Being -

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason 
That makes us happy or unhappy. 
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space. 
The wind moves slowly in the branches. 
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Then he revisited an earlier poem, First Warmth, to craft his farewell, As You Leave the Room -

You speak. You say: Today's character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.
That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,
The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.
I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a disbeliever in reality,
A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes
Part of a major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality
And thus an elevation, as if I left
With something I could touch, touch every way.
And yet nothing has been changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.

Wallace Stevens died in 1955, a year after his TLS appearance.