Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception

  Lesher, James, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield, eds. 2007. Plato's Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception. Hellenic Studies Series 22. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

16. Platonic Selves in Shelley and Stevens

David K. O’Connor

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who certainly knew a thing or two about essays, said in “History” that the best of them describe to their readers our “unattained but attainable self” (1983:239). Our reading shows us how the self we have so far attained is estranged from the self we can be. The self we are is deficient, lacking, less than real or true. This is a provoking discovery. It is no wonder if we hide in shame, and shift the blame. But it is also possible to acknowledge the deficiency of one’s life, and seek a better self as one’s vocation. The instinct to hide and deny, to hunker down into that attained self we hold so dear, is strong. But strong too is the taste for the knowledge and the wandering made possible only when we leave that charmed circle.

As Emerson read him, Plato was the master provocateur: “Before I began to converse with Socrates, and to observe each day all his words and actions, I wandered about wherever it might chance, thinking that I did something, but being, in truth, a most miserable wretch, not less than you are now, who believe that you ought to do anything rather than practice the love of wisdom” (Shelley trans.). Apollodorus’ words near the beginning of Plato’s Symposium (172c–173a) are addressed to Glaucon, Plato’s brother, but the reader hears the same call to conversion. It is what, in “Plato; Or, The Philosopher” (1983:636), Emerson called Plato’s “perpetual modernness.”

That Plato’s call to conversion is “perpetual” means it is never heard once and for all. Apollodorus did not stop wandering after he met Socrates; he wandered all the more, albeit in search of Socrates rather than by chance. The self that is “unattained but attainable” is the only self we will ever have; the attainment will never end. In “Circles,” Emerson finds “the moral fact of the Unattainable, the flying Perfect” (1983:403) to be the living core of a Plato without Platonism. Emerson knows this is an unsettling claim. Are we to be so fond of Plato’s provocations that we can dispense with all his convictions? {360|361} “Plato was born to behold the self-evolving power of spirit, generator of new ends; a power which is the key at once to the centrality and the evanescence of things,” replied Emerson in “Plato: New Readings.” “Plato is so centered, that he can well spare all his dogmas” (1983:658). To be centered means to see all one’s expressions as transitory, as the moving circumference. For all Emerson cared, Plato can be as reticent about expressing his own opinion as his Socrates was. What counts is that he helped Emerson find the way to his own opinion, and then find the way away from it again.

In this appreciation of Plato, Emerson was part of a tradition of reading also carried on by other Romantic poets and their heirs. Such poets love Plato for his vertical energies, and envy his escape from the weary staleness to which the prosy world is prone. They value ascent, and are grateful to Plato for it. But they value freedom more. Such poets can’t confide in a changeless end or a standing heaven. Better to court a demoniacal flux than concede an angelic fixity. Not that they want to be devils. It is just that they value departures as much as arrivals, and are suspicious of any arrival that seems to leave nothing more to be attained. They suffer a Platonic desire that refuses a Platonic satisfaction.

An aspect of the poets’ mixed motives is the importance of obscurity for them. I do not mean that their writing is obscure. It is rather that they see the essential resistance of words to lucidity as both a frustration (of ascent) and as a blessing (for freedom). They would write anything before a catechism. Wallace Stevens, heir to Emerson, put his mixed motives into a longing for ascent to the ideal that yet left room for “the desire of the artist.” Platonism, including that Platonism for the people, Christianity, would make the world inhospitable to this desire.

one confides in what has no
Concealed creator. One walks easily

The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture.

“So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch” (Stevens 1997:263)

Platonism excludes the intimacy that accepting and confiding in the world express. A bare world, a barren world, is more inviting than a decorated one, if you seek a home where you can carve and color.

If it is inevitable that poetic ascent be figured as a bird, the Platonic bird these poets trust most is the phoenix, “neither mortal nor immortal, on the same day at one time flourishing, and then dying away, and then again reviving” {361|362} (Symposium 203e). This phoenix is, of course, Socrates’ image of himself, and it would take no great effort to find more Platonic reflection on the resistance of words to final lucidity. There is always rewriting to be done. What Plato figured as eroticized defect or lack, the poets’ tradition takes up as freedom.

But this freedom provokes an anxiety of its own. Given their Platonic sympathies and envies, the poets in this tradition also want to ascend from eccentricity (individuality, egoism) to an impersonal or universal perspective, call it an ecstasy from self. But what would a poet who lost himself have left to say? The impersonal aspiration seems to require, as the title of a Stevens poem has it, a “description without place.” But the scribe’s scribblings must come from somewhere. The poets’ open freedom—the stubbornness of words and the incompleteness of ascent—is inconsistent with this impersonal ecstasy. If the poet escapes private whim to make his perception impersonal, must the escape become fatal to poetic freedom, as Emerson almost says in “Self-Reliance” (Emerson 1983:269)?

Percy Shelley, whom Emerson says in his journals he found “wholly unaffecting,” was nonetheless his predecessor into this territory of the soul. Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark” (2002b:306) is riven by the competing aspirations of freedom and impersonality. The title bird sings beyond human sight of superhuman pleasures.

I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

The bird’s song is untainted by the pain or defect that the attained self of human poetry always bears. Which praise of love and praise of wine does the bird transcend? Perhaps Plato’s Symposium itself, that drinking party where love is said to be the offspring of Plenty and Poverty (203c), neither human nor divine, demoniacal, between.

Shelley goes on to identify himself with Hamlet. Hamlet is the opposite of impersonal, focused as he is on the terrible question of how to be Hamlet. The prince’s frustration that a “god-like reason,” “looking before and after,” should “fust in us unused” (Hamlet 4.4) is Shelley’s emblem for human poetry:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not—
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught—
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. {362|363}

Hamlet’s frailties keep him all too human, despite his divine capacity. But finally Shelley accepts this human eccentricity:

Yet if we could scorn
Hate and pride and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

The untainted bird must remain an unattained self. Our nearest approach to the skylark’s impersonal and therefore painless joy requires pain, is called for by deficiency. Stevens (1997:55) subscribes to the same sentiment in “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty”; and again with “The imperfect is our paradise” in “The Poems of Our Climate” (1997:179).

Shelley’s invocation of Hamlet is not accidental. Shakespeare’s most imaginative hero is tortured by the suspicion that all the gaudiness of love and the world is no more than a narcissistic projection, a wish fulfillment. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” An exhilarating prospect, but his consciousness of this imaginative power also enervates the prince, when he suspects that all ambition, including his to revenge his father, is merely “a fantasy and a trick of fame” (Hamlet 2.2 and 4.4).

Like Emerson, Percy Shelley and Wallace Stevens both worked out their sense of these aspirations and anxieties by thinking about Plato. Shelley’s engagement was much more extensive, but Stevens’ late prose reflections on poetry and the imagination show he too found in Plato a voice to be heard.

In July of 1818, Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium. The translation was not the employment of idle hours, either. In the fours years he had left to live, Shelley continued to use the translation, to work from it, rewriting passages from it into some of his most mature and moving poetry. Finding words for Plato’s, finding that Plato’s words could be his words, was the most important prose writing Shelley ever did. In the Symposium, Shelley found himself more truly and more strange.

Mary Shelley considered her husband’s congeniality with Plato as the defining feature of his personality. “He loved to idealize reality; and this is a taste shared by few. … Few of us understand or sympathize with the endeavour to ally the love of abstract beauty … with our sympathies for our own kind. … Shelley resembled Plato; both taking more delight in the abstract and the ideal than in the special and the tangible.” Mary wanted to avoid giving {363|364} the impression, however, that Shelley was a mere student or enthusiast of Plato. She insisted that Shelley’s love of idealizing “did not result from imitation.” It existed long before “he made Plato his study” in July of 1818 by translating the Symposium (Shelley 1839:viii–ix). The Symposium recalled Shelley to the erotic themes of his earlier work, rather than inspiring him with a wholly new interest. In particular, Mary thought, the translation had returned Shelley to a view of the ideal self and its problems “a good deal modelled on Alastor” (1839:176n).

“Alastor: Or, The Spirit of Solitude” (1815) was Shelley’s first fully accomplished poem, and in a way he kept rewriting it. The subject of the poem is the spiritual quest of a Poet whose mind “thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself.” In the poem’s epigraph from St. Augustine (Confessions 3.1), the self-involvement of love is enacted in self-involving language: “Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, quaerebam quid amarem, amans amare.” (“Not yet did I love, though I loved to love; I sought something to love, loving to love.”) Within the poem, Shelley’s rough magic conjures forth a vision of the ideal lover in an atmosphere of apparent narcissism, even of autoeroticism. Phrase and image play together to intensify the atmosphere of Augustinian narcissism. St. Augustine, of course, presented erotic self-involvement as sinful, and suggested that our love of loving could find rest only when reoriented away from self toward its ultimate satisfaction in God. But for Shelley, erotic satisfaction must be sought elsewhere, in what the preface of “Alastor” calls the “prototype” (2002b:73). Accepting Augustine’s problem while rejecting his solution, Shelley asks whether an ideal self can provide the focal point.

The prototype is the Poet’s idealized beloved. “The vision in which [the Poet] embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful, or wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture” (ibid.). In a vision, the Poet “images to himself the Being whom he loves” (ibid.):

He dreamed a veilèd maid
Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones.
Her voice was like the voice of his own soul

“Alastor” lines 151–153

This “veilèd maid” is an idealization of the Poet’s own aspirations. The music of her voice speaks to his own “inmost sense” (line 156) of “thoughts the most dear to him” (line 160). These lines describe the culmination of what the preface to the poem calls the intense and passionate search of “the pure {364|365} and tender-hearted” for “human sympathy” (2002b:70). Shelley uses “sympathy” where we might say “intimacy” or “mutual understanding.” But the intimacy sought is not, or at least not primarily, with another person. It is the longing for the unattained but attainable self, for an overcoming of the estrangement Emerson diagnosed.

Three years after writing this, immediately after translating the Symposium, Shelley returned to this idea in language that shows the clear influence of the translation. “The ideal prototype,” he wrote in “On Love,” is “a miniature … of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise,” uniting “everything excellent or lovely we are capable of conceiving, … a soul within our soul” (2002b:504). In other words, the prototype is a standard by which we measure how far we ourselves have escaped from “all that we condemn or despise.” The conception of the prototype as a “miniature” within us derives from Symposium 215a–b, where Alcibiades says Socrates is like a statue of a satyr filled inside with figurines of the gods. Shelley was so taken with the idea that he made it the title of a later Symposium-influenced poem, “Epipsychidion,” again about an idealized lover. This title is clearly intended, I believe, to mean “miniature soul within,” though Shelley’s Norton editors take it to mean “On the Subject of the Soul.”

It is true that the love of the prototype is a species of self-love. But it is not mere self-indulgent narcissism, since it requires an idealization of the self as well as of the beloved. This sort of self-love is a vehicle for shame at one’s own faults, as well as for disappointment in the faults of others whom we love.

The communication between Poet and vision climaxes in the self-kindled “warm light of their own life” (line 175). With her “beamy bending eyes” and “parted lips … quivering eagerly” (lines 179–180), the maid yields “to the irresistible joy” of their embrace (line 185), echoed in “On Love” (2002b:503). The Poet rises to the elevation of consummation. But then the vision dissipates, and he sinks into dispirited languor:

His wan eyes
Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean’s moon looks on the moon in heaven.

“Alastor” lines 200–202

This beautiful passage inverts the myth of Narcissus, who lost himself in rapt contemplation of his own reflection. The Poet of “Alastor” loses himself when he no longer can see himself as a reflection of an ideal beauty. He becomes the empty earthbound shadow (“ocean’s moon”) of an absent ethe{365|366}real reality (“the moon in heaven”). The Poet’s sympathetic identification with his ideal love, this projection of his own ideal self, is eclipsed in “sudden darkness” when “the vacancy” of his spirit “suddenly makes itself felt” (2002b:73). The Poet loses his grasp on the vision, and “the insatiate hope” awakened by the maid stings his brain “even like despair” (lines 221–222).

So long as the prototype was present to his imagination, the Poet was filled with “visitations of the divinity in man,” and could see the possibility of divinity in himself. But our condition is not so handsome as these “best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” make it appear. The experience of these moments and visitations, he says in A Defence of Poetry, proves to be “evanescent” (2002b:532), a favorite word of Shelley’s as it was of Emerson’s.

Evanescence brings a despairing grief as surely as presence brought a divine delight. When the loss of this higher sympathy plunges the vision into “sudden darkness,” the lover mourns the compromised reality of his own perfection. The lover’s grief, then, comes only in part from his failure to achieve a sympathetic communion with the imagined beloved. The loss is equally of the lover’s access to his own higher self. On this view, the vacancy provoked by the inconstancy of the prototype redoubles the pain of failed communion with the shame of humiliated aspiration.

Shelley found the experience of the Poet of “Alastor” again in a novel form when he translated Alcibiades’ ambivalence toward Socrates. The intoxicated Alcibiades irrupts into the decorous speech making, bearing about him the emblems of Dionysus (212e). He is torn between a desire to praise Socrates and a desire to censure him (214e, 222a). In the extremity of his ambivalence, he contemplates Socrates’ death, and oscillates between considering it as his most fervent wish and his most painful fear: “Often and often have I wished that he were no longer to be seen among men. But if that were to happen, I well know that I should suffer far greater pain; so that where I can turn, or what I can do with this man, I know not” (216c). What delight and grief entangle Alcibiades in this violent ambivalence?

He begins with delight. Alcibiades praises Socrates for having within himself “images of the Gods,” or more precisely little statues or figurines of them (215a–b). The full significance of this conception of Socrates becomes apparent only when Alcibiades returns to it in his peroration: “If any one should … get within the sense of [Socrates’] words, he would then find … that they were most divine; and that they presented to the mind innumerable images of every excellence, and that they tended … towards all, that he who {366|367} seeks the possession of what is supremely beautiful and good, need regard as essential to the accomplishment of his ambition” (222a).

In the poem’s terms, these passages treat Socrates as the prototype of Alcibiades’ own idealized self. Socrates’ virtues are a perpetual provocation to Alcibiades’ own ambition to seek “the possession of what is supremely beautiful and good.”

But Socrates’ inward divinity is also obscure, to be glimpsed rarely and with difficulty, and often not at all. The divine images are not visible to everyone or at every time. They show forth only in moments of sudden epiphany: “I know not if any one of you have ever seen the divine images which are within, when he has been opened and is serious. I have seen them, and they are so supremely beautiful, so golden, so divine, and wonderful, that every thing which Socrates commands surely ought to be obeyed” (216e–217a). This evanescence is the source of Alcibiades’ ambivalence: his admiration seeks an intimacy that Socrates appears both to offer and to deny.

Alcibiades’ delight in Socrates is analogous to the delight of the Poet in the “veilèd maid” of his vision. Alcibiades is also exposed to the evanescence and obscuring “sudden darkness” that provokes the Poet’s redoubled grief. He suffers the pain of failed intimacy or sympathy when he tries to convince Socrates to become his lover. He suffers the shame of humiliated aspiration when the divine images of virtue he sees in Socrates no longer seem accessible to him as images of his own idealized self.

In thrall to his vision of idealized intimacy, Alcibiades casts himself wholly into its pursuit: “I lay the whole night with my arms around this truly divine and wonderful being” (219c). But for Alcibiades as for Shelley’s Poet, the humiliating truth only becomes clear in “the cold white light of morning” (line 193): “He despised and contemptuously neglected that beauty which I had thus exposed to his rejection … I swear that I awoke and arose from as unimpassioned an embrace as if I had slept with my father or my elder brother” (219c–d).

The consummating embrace with the “truly divine and wonderful being” proves itself a most fleeting visitation of the divine, if not an outright illusion.

When the Poet of “Alastor” awakes from his vision, he pursues “beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade” (line 206) his veilèd maid, and “wildly he wandered” (line 244) in the pursuit. This “wandering” (another favorite word of Shelley’s) is the fated condition of the erotic idealist. Shelley builds up this theme throughout the Symposium. Apollodorus at the dialogue’s beginning tells us he had “wandered about,” a “miserable wretch,” before devoting himself to Socrates (173a). Socrates later reports that Diotima said the young {367|368} man pregnant in soul must be “wandering about” in his urgent search for “the beautiful in which he may propagate what he has conceived” (209b). Finally, Alcibiades “wandered about disconsolately” in Socrates’ company after their failed embrace, in restless pursuit of that evanescent glimpse of those divine images. His sudden vacancy left him “the prey of doubt and trouble,” and he became “enslaved to [Socrates] far more than any other was ever enslaved” (219e). Shelley could see in the wanderings of these Socratics the image of his own struggles against evanescence and vacancy.

Simply to be alienated from the intimacy of Socrates was disorienting enough for Alcibiades. But the pain of loss was redoubled by his shame at falling short of his own aspirations to excellence:

This man has reduced me to feel the sentiment of shame, which I imagine no one would readily believe was in me; he alone inspires me with remorse and awe. For I feel in his presence my incapacity of refuting what he says, or of refusing to do that which he directs. … I hide myself from him, and when I see him I am overwhelmed with humiliation, because I have neglected to do what I have confessed to him ought to be done. (216b)

Alcibiades finds his failed intimacy with Socrates to be at the same time an alienation from his own idealized self. Socrates is Alcibiades’ prototype of “what is supremely beautiful and good” and of everything to which Alcibiades’ “ambitions” drive him (218a, 222d). When he loses Socrates, Alcibiades loses more than what he loves. He also loses his sense of himself as the lover of what he loves. He suffers the redoubled grief of every divorce, for it is one thing to give up a spouse, and quite another to give up being a spouse. This Augustinian labyrinth holds Alcibiades in its wandering mazes. Such is the shame of humiliated aspiration.

Does the poet’s pursuit of an ideal self move him toward a satisfying substitute for a Platonic or Augustinian reality, or is all the beauty he finds no more than a trick of strong imagination? Shelley’s culminating statement in A Defence of Poetry hovers around this issue in perfect ambivalence: “Whether [poetry] spreads its own figured curtain or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being” (2002b:533). The disputed question is left undetermined, and with it the fate of the erotic quest. The “being within our being” whose status is left undecided is precisely the prototype sought by Shelley’s lovers, a self-idealization. Shelley is here returning to the language we have already seen in the fragment “On Love,” language derived from the Symposium: the prototype is “a miniature {368|369} … of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, … a soul within our soul” (2002b:504).

What the Symposium presents as an incomplete but nonetheless real human openness to the divine, Shelley fears may be an enclosure within the self’s imaginative power. For Shelley, there always lurked within love’s wandering mazes the awful vacancy of self-involvement. What accounts for this difference between Plato’s confidence in the openness of erotic love and Shelley’s fear of enclosure?

Shelley was the sort of poet who felt he needed a philosophy, and he played at grounding his fear in an empiricist skepticism derived from Locke and Hume. But Shelley’s true emblems of erotic self-enclosure are literary rather than philosophical, and he interpreted self-enclosure by alluding to Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is where he learned the views of creative will and melancholy reflection that served to counterbalance Platonic confidence in erotic ascent.

Both heroes exemplify Shelley’s ambivalence to imagination’s tendency to invention rather than insight. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet 2.2); “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n” (Paradise Lost 1.254–255): these brave claims to imaginative self-sufficiency reveal their aspect as curses, too. Hamlet cannot spur his “dull revenge” because his inwardness makes his cause feel to him but “a fantasy and trick of fame” (Hamlet 4.4). And Satan’s self-glorifying vaunt is echoed back in an abyss of self-despair:

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heav’n.

Paradise Lost 4.73–78

Hamlet and Satan are for Shelley illustrations of the self-consuming isolation suffered by the Poet of “Alastor” at the hands of his own erotic idealism.

When Shelley thought most directly about the erotic prototype and our evanescent vision of it, his skeptical impulse drew him particularly to King Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theseus famously derides the idealizations of love and poetry:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends. {369|370}
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1

Shelley used Shakespeare’s italicized words himself in the Preface to “Alastor” to describe the erotic ideal: “The vision in which he embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful, or wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture” (2002b:73). When Shelley wrote “On Love,” revisiting the “prototype” of the “Alastor” preface fresh from translating the Symposium, he once again turned to Theseus’ famous speech: “If we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another’s” (2002b:504).

Much as he appreciated Plato’s vertical energies, Shelley also felt the strong pull of Theseus’ sober skepticism. He felt himself a kind of Alcibiades, suspended in the demoniacal intermediate of a vulgar humanity and an evanescent divinity. Every apprehension of ideal love served to increase Shelley’s anguished comprehension of the lower deeps of his vacancy.

In 1936, Wallace Stevens, at the age of 56, wrote the first extended prose reflection of his life on poetry and thought. In “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” he identified himself as a kind of Platonist (1997:786, 788):

While it can lie in the temperament of very few of us to write poetry in order to find God, it is probably the purpose of each of us to write poetry to find the good which, in the Platonic sense, is synonymous with God … The poet who wishes to contemplate the good in the midst of confusion is like the mystic who wants to contemplate God in the midst of evil. There can be no thought of escape.

God does not draw Stevens, but Plato’s good does. Stevens’ word “temperament” here is the marker for the narcissism or egoism of the imagination. The depersonalizing ascent to the good does not free itself from the individual. It remains, as Stevens’ called it (in “A Primitive Like an Orb”), a “fated eccentricity,” responsive to the individual. Stevens found Plato’s version of the ascent described his own longing too. {370|371}

Yet Stevens could not believe in Plato. In 1941, he wrote a second reflection on the imagination’s power that began, surprisingly enough, by quoting a long section from the charioteer myth in Plato’s Phaedrus. He quoted it both in homage and in elegy. The charioteer was exemplary for Stevens of a nobility still observable in Plato’s image, but no longer accessible:

We have scarcely read the passage before we have identified ourselves with the charioteer, have, in fact, taken his place and, driving his winged horses, are traversing the whole heaven. Then suddenly we remember, it may be, that the soul no longer exists and we droop in our flight and at last settle on the solid ground … We recognize, even if we cannot realize, the feelings of the robust poet clearly and fluently noting the images of his mind and by means of his robustness, clearness, and fluency communicating much more than the images themselves. Yet we do not quite yield. We cannot. We do not feel free.

“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” (1997:643, 644)

Why cannot Stevens yield? Something in his own motives made him reject the ascent of the charioteer. It was too loud, too indiscreet, too assured that its lucidities were final. Stevens wrote poetry of pleasures more obscure.

Stevens could have been made more comfortable with other sides of Plato. Aristotle, serpent-like, told philosophers to go beyond merely human thoughts and be like gods (Nicomachean Ethics 10.7.1177b31–34). Plato had learned enough from Socrates to have his doubts. “None of the gods philosophizes”; philosophy is the entirely human response to lack of wisdom (Symposium 204a), not the enjoyment of achieved wisdom. Here Plato lets his wings droop, too, like the wings of the phoenix must in its oscillations between heaven and earth.

But then what sort of enjoyment does writing so conceived provide, if it must bear the mark of our human exclusion from Aristotle’s paradise? Stevens was deeply exercised by what could motivate poetry in the face of what he saw as its cognitive limitations. If the twentieth century could produce a Socratic poet, it was Stevens. How is one to go on, whether as poet or philosopher, when all one knows is that one knows nothing? “The lapses and failures of idealization,” in Helen Vendler’s (1984:28) apt formulation, are the stuff of Stevens’ poetry.

Two early poems, “The Snow Man” and “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” first published in Harmonium (1923), express two competing aspects of Stevens’ motives for poetry. {371|372}

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To 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,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Snow Man enjoys a kind of inhuman purity of vision, one that exposes to himself his own nothingness as just another entity in the nothingness of the natural world. The motive for this vision, this beholding, is hard to articulate, but there is clearly an exhilaration about this kind of self-evacuation, about getting out of the way of one’s perception of the real world. The impersonal purification of the vision is Stevens’ way of living at the top of Diotima’s ladder, which “you will esteem far beyond gold and rich garments, and even beyond those lovely persons whom you and many others now gaze on with astonishment, … the supreme beauty itself, simple, pure, uncontaminated with the intermixture of human flesh and colors” (Symposium 211d–e).

But I think there is also a macho motive here, as if seeing the world as cold and inhospitable is a way to show how tough one is. What Vendler (1984:chap. 1) describes as Stevens’ brutality toward himself, a function of self-loathing, seems to me more ambiguous. It is enjoyable to “rough it” sometimes. It makes you feel like a real man. A camp without running water will not stand empty even if nearby there is an inexpensive hotel. I think Stevens enjoys roughing it, thinking of the world as really a cold place that he needs great courage to see in its purity. Nietzsche says somewhere that the man who holds himself in contempt is still proud of himself as a contemner. That is how I see Stevens when he gets into the Snow Man persona. {372|373}

Hoon is Snow Man’s alter ego. Hoon is responding to a challenge, as if from Snow Man, that runs something like this: Who do you think you’re fooling with the extravagance of your colors; you’re nothing but a setting sun. The ointment someone sprinkled in your beard, the hymns someone was singing for you, the sea itself which bore you up, all are nothings, illusions and delusions of grandeur. You are nothing but an inhabitant of the loneliest air, afraid to confront that loneliness.

Tea at the Palaz of Hoon

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that 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.

Hoon’s answer to his challenger in the last two stanzas is assertive and expansive. I even hear it as rather indignant, and as said in the kind of voice intended to convince oneself as much as the questioner. He takes possession of the beauty that surrounds him and declares himself its source. Where Snow Man enjoyed the macho toughness of pure vision and self-reduction, Hoon insists on the gaudy beauties of purple, of ointments, of songs, and the magnitude of ocean. What’s more, he does not merely celebrate these natural beauties, as if merely resisting Snow Man’s austere preference for winter landscapes. Instead he shows that once he acknowledges that he is himself the source of these beauties—he is himself even as he descends in purple—the beauties take on an intensity far beyond what the challenger can see: ointment no longer is sprinkled, but rains; hymns no longer buzz, but blow like trumpets; and Hoon does not passively ride the tide, he encompasses the whole sea as its agent force. And as Snow Man’s triumph is to achieve selflessness, Hoon’s is to find himself, more truly and more strange. {373|374}

One thread to follow through the labyrinth of Stevens’ poetry is his attempts to combine the nobility of Snow Man with the pleasures of Hoon. It is his closest approach to the difficulty in the Symposium of holding together the phoenix image of Socratic incompleteness and restlessness with the image of completed ascent. For Stevens, unchanging completion is something to be actively avoided, even though it is so beautiful. Better an earthy Socrates than a heavenly Form.

In “The Poems of Our Climate,” a poem written at about the same time as “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Stevens achieved an especially memorable statement of this theme. The first stanza is a more tranquil accomplishment of the Snow Man mood. Clarity, a whiteness that takes away other outlines, simplification: the tranquility is real.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations—one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnation there.

But this tranquil simplicity comes at the price of a desire. Give “complete simplicity” all the credit it deserves, as Stevens does in the second stanza. Simplicity removes our “torments” and refreshes us by getting us away from the narcissism pain induces. We feel the snowy pull toward impersonality. Yet the self, that temperamental necessity, is only “concealed,” not transcended:

Say even this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

In a stanza that is pure Stevens, no less for being so Emersonian, the poem ends with a celebration of the freedom (“never-resting mind”) that final lucidity would exclude: {374|375}

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

“The imperfect is our paradise”: the resistance of words, stubborn and flawed, is what makes them the fit stuff of the never-resting mind. There is a beautiful play here on “carnations” of the first stanza. They turn out in the end not to be the indistinct white blurs of the first stanza, but flowers of flesh and blood, incarnations. They were made emblems of purity and simplicity in a way that is challenged by their stubborn name. The bitterness that motivates escape—from torment and imperfection—is the condition of delight, in our hot erotic enjoyment of the imperfect obscurities we count as a poem. Shelley’s sky-lark provokes the same reflection. I am tempted to say that both are versions of Socrates’ claim to ignorance. [1] {375|376}


[ back ] 1. I am grateful to the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Letters of the University of Notre Dame for supporting a special leave that allowed me to work on this essay.