Savoring a Little Stevens

It being a Saturday morning and I, having nothing to do, figure the most productive use of my time is to do my ‘weekly’ blog post that has unfortunately turned into a sort of bi-weekly blog post. I just completed my first week as a camp counselor and I’m loving it, but boy does my job give me sympathy for anyone who has to work with children; I didn’t realize just how hard it is. Despite its difficulties, my job has caused me to realize how crucial some sort of challenge is in order to lead a fulfilling life. Oddly enough, my downcast mood faded when I commenced working. On the book front, things are also improving. I completed August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean in about a day and in doing so, I felt at least a little like myself again.

In order to procure a copy of said play, I trekked to the library–a place that always instills happiness in me. While there, I lazily sauntered through the aisles and stumbled upon these two sections, both of which required restraint on my part to stop me from taking an obscene number of books home.

I dodged the pictured criticism for now (the one about “For Esme with Love and Squalor” was especially difficult to leave behind), but I did pick up some on Frost–in the hopes it would help me further my understanding of “Home Burial”–along with item I the Wilson play that was the impetus for my journey. On my way out of the poetry section, having just picked up two books on Frost, I spotted The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens and I immediately knew there was no question that Wallace was coming home with me.

We covered “The Emperor of Ice Cream” in my Engl-ish class which I liked but it wasn’t like I madly in love with it or anything. The only other poem by Stevens that I’d seen prior to picking up this book was “Sunday Morning” which I didn’t love initially. However, poetry is sort of like music in the sense that if you’re exposed to it often enough, it grows on you which is exactly what happened in the case “Sunday Morning.” I’d attempt to analyze that poem but I surmise the results I’d come back with would be similar to that of “Home Burial.” Despite only being about half way through the collection, it’s difficult for me to choose only one poem to analyze. Stevens has it all: funny poems, serious poems, spiritual poems; how can you expect a girl to just choose one?

A brief respite was needed to determine which poem to talk about and I’ve come to the conclusion that “Restatement of Romance” is the one that will be most manageable to tackle–in truth “Sailing after Lunch” is the poem that I find myself most drawn to but alas it’s too long. I figure there’s no place like the title to start my analysis. What’s in a name anyhow? I think as titles go, Stevens is generally a pro. This poem, in particular, is strange in the way the actual body of the poem relates to the title. I was reading this criticism and the author argues that the title is unusual given the actual text of the poem. He even goes as far as saying Steven’s poem “lacks any of the passion, sensuality, sentimentality, or effusiveness characteristic of so much conventional romantic poetry.” I don’t know if I agree.

I read that line. Then I read the poem again. Then I went back to the criticism. For me, there’s always this sort of back and forth (if I’m reading thoroughly and actively). I find the process necessary to determine what I think; after all, critics aren’t right just because they’re critics. In the case of “Restatement of Romance,” I initially sided with the critic. I mean he’s right. In this poem, like a lot of his poetry, Stevens is ‘unconventional’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the poem lacks romanticism. Perhaps, you (or I) might see it by looking at the poem a little closer.

I think this critic is a little off track from the get-go. His definition of romance is plainly, obviously wrong. In a moment like this one,  I feel compelled to find the dictionary definition to help shed some light on the situation, but what I think will more helpful to understanding this poem is not Merriam-Webster’s definition but Stevens’ as he reveals it through the poem–I’m sure Sound and Sense or How Does a Poem Mean? have a hard and fast rule for this sort of thing (aka the role a title plays in a poem), but where’s the fun in that? The first thing I notice when reading a poem usually isn’t how it sounds or the number of syllables to a line–which I bet is the first sort of thing that English teachers and Perrine do. So instead of focusing on that–and despite there definitely some sort of syllable pattern going on–I’m going to focus on what stands out to me. 

In the first stanza, there’s a comparison drawn, in the form of a simile, between the way “night knows nothing of the chants of night” and the way the speaker of the poem “is”. This idea is expounded on as you get further into the stanza; the speaker reinforces the idea that he is like night saying that “in perceiving [the ‘truth’ about night that’s exposed in the first line] I best perceive myself.” Before moving on from stanza one, I feel it necessary to mention the resemblance of the second line (It is what it is as I am what I am”) to Iago’s line in Shakespeare’s Othello, “I am not what I am” (I.i.65).

I think that the comparison between night and self is crucial to the overall meaning of the poem and to Stevens’ definition of romance. The second stanza presents “we two”– a couple consisting of the speaker, “I”, and the other, “you.” There’s a sort of paradox at play as the poem unfolds in the third stanza. Wallace writes, “…but you and I, alone,/So much alone, so deeply by ourselves,”. I think, in the context of the whole poem, what Stevens is trying to convey is that the “we two”–both the speaker (I) and the other (you)–are separate from night and in spite of their togetherness remain still separate, alone. What’s interesting about this is his word choice. The use of the “we” implies that neither can really, truly be alone…yet Stevens makes clear they are. Perplexing, right? 

The whole poem doesn’t really mesh (with the idea of night with the idea of the couple and their relationship) until the final stanza. Stevens lifts the veil of obscurity in writing, “So far beyond the casual solitudes,/That night is only the background of our selves,/Supremely true each to its separate self,/In the pale light that each upon the other throws.” It is here where I think Stevens’ definition of romance is finally revealed. What I get from this poem is that Stevens believes romance requires both parties involved to remain their self even when part of a larger whole, even when part of a relationship. So to the critic who wrote the article that argues that the poem has nothing to do with ‘romance’: you’re wrong. It does have to do with romance but not Oxford dictionary definition sort of romance, or even my definition of romance, but Wallace Stevens’. He’s revealing his truth and I like that. You (the critic), on the other hand, may not. 

Stevens isn’t Frost, but I suppose that’s why I like him. Out of all of his work, “Restatement of Romance” isn’t my favorite; I prefer “Explanation,” “Theory,” “Negation,” or “Poetry is a Destructive Force.” I chose this poem to write about because I thought it would be easy but then I really looked at the poem. It’s on the shorter side but, in being so short, it requires you have to savor every word and in savoring every word, the analysis gets incredibly long. Plus it sure as hell doesn’t help that I don’t know what I’m looking for or what to say about the poem, except for the reasons it strikes me. I also must say that wrestling with literature is much more challenging when you can’t talk it out. If I were writing this post a few weeks ago I would have brought it into my English class so I could have another opinion on the matter. Maybe it’s good to struggle though. Also, apologies for the lateness of this post. I’m still learning to discipline myself (so nobody else has to). Here’s to hoping the next post is on Faulkner. I’m also definitely editing my ‘schedule’; I’m going to shoot for a post every other Sunday, but I hope it will end up being a more frequent thing. 


4 thoughts on “Savoring a Little Stevens

  1. Sailing after Lunch? I’m looking at the version in Stevens’ Collected Poems and it in no way resembles the first stanza quoted here. Nothing about night in the poem.


    • Hi Gene,
      I actually didn’t quote that poem. If you read this line (“I’ve come to the conclusion that “Restatement of Romance” is the one that will be most manageable to tackle–in truth “Sailing after Lunch” is the poem that I find myself most drawn to but alas it’s too long”) it would be more clear. Lovely poem but quite a lot to analyze!

      Happy reading,



  2. Yes, I see now on yet another reading that I misunderstood (at the time I was on an iPad Mini). Although I was puzzled by your saying Sailing after Lunch is a long poem, as it’s six stanzas vs. Restatement’s four.


    • You’re right. Stanza-wise, it isn’t much different but it’s 12 lines vs 30 lines. Not much to read, a whole lot to analyze though. I could write 3000 words on those 30 lines


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