As you read the poems of Wallace Stevens, it feels as if there are two poets, twins with the same vision, the same purpose, and with almost identical sensibilities, but one dwells in crisp, often icy climes and the other luxuriates in balmy settings of riotous green. One Wallace Stevens prefers late fall and deep winter, the other, to borrow the poet’s fanciful adjective, intensest summer.
Even a perusal of his titles (and no one minted better titles for their poems than Stevens) illustrates a kind of seasonal tennis match in the poet’s mind, a back-and-forth between epitomized locales: “The Auroras of Autumn,” “Transport to Summer,” “The Snow Man,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Snow and Stars,” “Academic Discourse at Havana,” “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” “Depression before Spring,” “Things of August,” “Autumn Refrain,” “Credences of Summer.”
Stevens begins that last poem with an evocation of the pure pastoral, a hymn of human peace-in-nature verging on the holy:
Now in midsummer come and all fools slaughtered
And spring’s infuriations over and a long way
To the first autumnal inhalations, young broods
Are in the grass, the roses are heavy with a weight
Of fragrance and the mind lays by its trouble.
For their diction as well as their gist, those lines would have seemed perfectly familiar and pleasingly just to Shakespeare, Jonson, or Wordsworth.
But summer for Stevens exists most in places where it never really ends. Born in 1879, Stevens grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, attended Harvard (though did not finish), and lived in New York City for a time before settling in Hartford, Connecticut in 1916, where he lived until his death in 1955. Along with a love of fresh fruit, especially tropical varieties such as mango and, notably, pineapple, a lifetime of Northeast winters certainly helped to predispose Stevens to the pleasures of Cuba and Key West, Florida, the latter of which he first visited on business in 1922 and willingly returned to many times up until 1940.
The trappings of these snowbird destinations of a bygone era appear throughout his poetry. In one of his best known poems, “Sunday Morning,” Stevens sets a typical scene, perhaps on a veranda:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
The narrator of “Certain Phenomena of Sound” casually commands “Slice the mango, Naaman, and dress it/With white wine, sugar and lime juice.” In the background perches “The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws.” And “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” furnishes a probable dinner menu: “We drank Meursault, ate lobster Bombay with mango/Chutney.”
Stevens can depict the heat of the tropics with lush, rococo flourish then turn around and frame the monochromatic austerity of a winter scene with enough clipped precision to have made Basho bow in respect, as in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and its haiku-esque opening stanza:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
As almost a kind of corrective to the decadent idleness, the daydream-inducing languor of the tropics, Stevens offers “The Plain Sense of Things” and its quiet insistence that “After the leaves have fallen, we return/To a plain sense of things.”
And then there is “The Snow Man,” a strong candidate for greatest poem of the 20th century. Here it is in full, because it is succinct, beautiful, and always salutary in the re-read:
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.
Here is winter Stevens, equally at home in the gelid stillness of New England or even an imagined Hokkaido. Here is the winter Stevens who tells us with so much beautiful sincerity in “Evening Without Angels” that “bare earth is best.”
No conflict obtained between the twins; Wallace Stevens was a planet with two poles, two necessary seasons. The last poem he ever wrote achieved many things, but one small triumph might be its resolution of the seasonal extremes in the old poet’s weather-foxed mind. Here again is a palm, but not “The big-finned palm/And green vine angering for life” Stevens described so much earlier in “Nomad Exquisite.” Once again we see a rare bird, but it is no cockatoo or “parakeet of parakeets.” This tree sways “on the edge of space” and its avian inhabitant sings “without human meaning.” Stevens is no longer a sojourner between Hartford and Havana, winter and summer. Here, let him explain:
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze décor
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.