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Hugh Cook

Wallace Stevens

This academic essay was written by Hugh Cook in 1994 for the course 18.222: MODERN POETRY 1900-1945.

Hugh says (May 2003):-

I have no memory of having written this essay. My working hypothesis is that I probably knew what I was talking about (more or less). However, be that as it may, Wallace Stevens is a poet whose work I never really understood, and with whom I felt very little sympathy. I don't currently have a copy of the poem CREDENCES OF SUMMER to hand and cannot presently remember what it was all about. I haven't had occasion to think about Wallace Stevens at all over the last nine years. From what I can remember of my studies of the man and his work, I have the impression (perhaps mistaken) that Stevens was a man who (possibly) seriously believed in the validity of neoplatonic thought. If so, then that's pretty weird, given that Wallace Stevens was a Twentiety Century poet.

I touch on the concept of neoplatonism in the essay but do not explain it, merely mentioning in a footnote where my notions about neoplatonism came from. As I remember (or misremember) my lectures, neoplatonism (roughly) works like this:-

(i) The pre-Christian philosopher Plato came up with the notion that everything we see in the real world is a shoddy copy of an ideal form which exists Elsewhere. (Note that the word "Elsewhere" is Hugh's word, and one not used in academic discourse about this subject.)

(ii) Later, Christian intellectuals tried to fit Plato's ideas into a Christian framework. Neoplatonism is Plato's theory of ideal forms with a Christian twist. The basic neoplatonic (or Neoplatonic) idea is that everything we see in the real world is a shoddy copy of a world which exists ... where? At this stage I have no idea (it is now May 2003, and, in the course of the last nine years, I haven't given much thought, if any, to neoplatonism) ... I think if we say "a world which exists in the mind of God" then that will give the flavor of neoplatonism, though for an academic essay you would need to find a more knowledgeable definition than that.

The main perpetrator of neoplatonic thought, by the way - sometimes it is possible to name the guilty - is a dude by the name of Plotinus. If my dictionary can be trusted, then Plotinus was born round about the year 205 and died in the year 270.

(iii) In the Renaissance, neoplatonic thought became highly influential ... it was believed that poets could perceive the true, ideal world of which this existing world is but a poor shoddy copy. (Again, for a formal academic essay on the subject you would want to find a more precise definition than that, but that statement certainly gives the flavor of neoplatonism.)

(iv) In some essay which Wallace Stevens writes somewhere, he seems to hint (if I remember correctly, and possibly I do not) that he believes in neoplatonic notions, but (to my frustration) I was unable to find any text in which he came right out and said as much (which does not mean that no such text exists, as my research on this subject was less than exhaustive).

In the essay below I comment that "Characteristically, Stevens raises a question rather than providing an answer." I think this is at least part of the reason why I don't really like Stevens. Why are you writing if you only have questions? If you sit down and think for long enough then you should be able to come up with the answers.

.... reading through my own essay, I find myself summing up by saying that "Stevens, then, is a poet of uncertainty, who repeatedly explored his own beliefs without ever firmly defining them." This, definitely, is not my vision of the ideal artist. For me, the ideal artist is someone who can take the world and shake it and shape it. Someone with a Picasso-sized ego who takes a stand and paints something like "Guernica," not some guy who spends his life walking backwards and forwards between the insurance office, daydreaming about those all-too-brief days in which he will be able to slip off to Florida.

(My model of the ideal poet, incidentally, is Ezra Pound.)

(Florida? I think he used to go to Florida. And what exactly did he get up to down there? Although I haven't thought about Wallace Stevens for nine years, I do remember wondering about that ....)

Later comment, also dated May 2003:-

I find that I have written about neoplatonism in a 1995 essay on Byron and Don Juan. Part of what I say is as follows:-
The neoplatonic conception of the poet, which often surfaces in discussions of Renaissance poetry, is that the poet is a maker, a creator who partakes of the nature of the Creator, and who can through poetry access an unflawed reality more true than the imperfect reality (in theological terms, the Fallen reality) which we perceive. Logically, this construction of the poet implies that the poet has powers of perception not granted to the common run of humanity, although the implied belief in the special force of the poet's individual insight may be masked for the modern reader by the easy Renaissance acceptance of conventions of imitation.

Comments by Hugh dated May 2003 end. Academic essay from 1994 follows.

Credences of Summer

by Wallace Stevens

18.222 MODERN POETRY: 1900-1954, second and final assignment

"Credences of Summer"

by Wallace Stevens

"Credences of Summer" comes from the 1947 collection Transport to Summer. Since Stevens was born in 1879, he was then in late middle age and approaching old age itself. In "The Auroras of Autumn", the title poem of the collection published three years later, Stevens engages fairly directly with the subjects of old age and personal annihilation, but "Credences of Summer" concerns itself with the nature of the poetic vision.

The later poems of Wallace Stevens frequently take poetry as their subject matter, a tendency amply illustrated by the very titles of some of the poems, such as "The Poems of Our Climate", "Metaphor as Degeneration" and "The Ultimate Poem is Abstract". In such poems, what typifies Stevens's treatment of the imaginative enterprise is that it is not programmatic. That is to say, Stevens does not commit himself to an emphatic artistic credo. Rather, he tends toward a fragmentary allusiveness which borders on the incoherent or the ineffably mystical.

A key to Stevens's poems about poetry lies in the title of one such poem: "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction". Here, the suggestive word is "notes", which is indicative of exploratory activity rather than a firm commitment to a hard-and-fast artistic ideology. Unlike Ezra Pound, who was emphatic in stating exactly what he wanted poetry to be - amongst other things, he wanted it to be "austere, direct, free from emotional slither" (Pound, 1945: 1270) - Stevens tends to be pensively speculative in both his theoretical writings and his poetry about poetry.

Since this is so, any attempt to subject Stevens's meditations upon poetry to a reductive reading which tries to paraphrase his obscurities into a series of clear and definite statements is necessarily a problematical enterprise. However, while Stevens never appears to arrive at a firm and final position, and while his mode of expression tends to be obscure, his habit of repeatedly writing on similar themes makes it possible to state with some confidence the tendencies of his thought, since the obscurities of a poem like "Credences of Summer" can be clarified by following the evolution of his thought through to a later poem such as "The Auroras of Autumn".

"Credences of Summer" is organised into ten numbered cantos each internally divided into three short stanzas, an arrangement similar to that found in such long poems as "The Man with the Blue Guitar" and "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction". In such long poems the cantos typically contrast with each other, as if we were being granted an insight into the mind at various stages of working out a long and complex problem.

It can be argued that Stevens, in refusing to commit definitively to a firm program of belief, and in writing instead poems in which one canto often seems to be at odds with another, is in fact naturalistically representing the processes of the mind. Most of us tend to mentally shift our ground fairly fluently rather than being dogmatically assertive - we cannot all be Ezra Pound - and Stevens may be deliberately choosing to represent the normative flux of the mind (1).

While Stevens's constant shifting of his ground could thus be seen as a matter of deliberate artistic policy, it could also be seen as a natural consequence of the highly personal nature of his poetry.

Discussing a body of highly personal poetry, Tennyson's In Memoriam, a work which similarly lacks a programmatic unity, Martin cites T.S. Eliot as having said that this was a single poem made by joining "lyrics, which have only the unity and continuity of a diary, the concentrated diary of a man confessing himself." Responding to Eliot's opinion, Martin says "True enough, for diaries take the shape of their writers' minds rather than that of an accepted literary form, and as reflections of those minds they make unexpected leaps, unexplained transitions that may be baffling to others." (Martin, 1983: 341).

Like a diary, poems such as "Credences of Summer" and "The Auroras of Autumn" tend to proceed by disjunctive leaps, and to be dominated by the uncertainties of self-exploration rather than the certainties of a didactic lecture. This shows in the very title of "Credences of Summer", which (like the title of "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction") reflects a lack of finalised philosophical certainty, since the word "credences" is etymologically related to both credendum ("an act of faith") and credulous ("apt to believe without sufficient evidence". (Kirkpatrick, 1983: 294).

In this instance, the "Summer" would appear to denote middle age. With "Now", twice repeated, the first canto locates the poet temporally in the present. It is the present of middle age, with the follies of youth far behind ("all fools slaughtered") and likewise youthful lust ("spring's infatuations"); it is as yet some time until the onset of old age ("autumnal inhalations").

The poet's present affords leisure for contemplation, this leisure being signalled by the leisured repetition of "the mind lays by its troubles", which accords with the image of physical ease and unmoving rootedness given by "the roses are heavy with a weight / Of fragrance".

The poet "considers"; contemplates memory, which is found to consist of "fidgets"; touches on the background reality of death ("nothing left of time") and sums up what he has as "this" (his present middle-aged existence) and "the imagination's life".

Stevens now exchanges the long, lawyerly sentences of canto I for the shorter, simpler sentences of canto II, which gains force and urgency through a series of imperatives: "Postpone", "Let's see", "Let's see", "Burn", "Trace", "Look", "And say", "Fix it", "And fill" and "Exile desire". Anaphora is used to amplify the insistence; the canto includes repetitions of "Let's see", "barrenness" and "thing", and a particularly insistent "this, this".

However, perhaps the most notable word in this canto is "I". Unlike Frost and Yeats, who are often rhetorically present in their own poems, Stevens has an aversion to the first person singular. In "The Man with the Blue Guitar", for example, he alternates between the third person and the first person, commencing with "The man" and only later modulating to "I".

In "Credences of Summer", the poem's single use of "I" in the second canto emphasises the urgency and personal importance of the task Stevens is setting himself, which is a task of confrontation. He writes:

Postpone the anatomy of summer, as
The physical pine, the metaphysical pine.
Let's see the very thing and nothing else.
Let's see it with the hottest fire of sight.
Burn everything not part of it to ash.
What is being confronted is neither physical nor metaphysical, suggesting it is the "imagination's life" referred to in canto I. Through this confrontation, Stevens wishes to reconcile himself with what is and "Exile desire / For what is not."

Canto III, its lesiurely sentences smoothed by assonance (in particular, that of "green's green apogee"), presents a vision of a personal fulfillment which could be attained by an "understanding" which is linked to "a feeling capable of nothing more." Contrasting with this is the opening of canto IV, in whihc "One of the limits of reality / Presents itself in Oley when the hay, / Baked through long days, is piled in mows."

The contrast established between by this juxtaposition is one between an idealised vision and the lineaments of mundane reality. The contrast is similar to that established between the leisured middle-age existence of canto I and the "hottest fire of sight" of canto II. Another sharp contrast exists between canto V and VI. Canto V is a gnomic and problematical meditation on time and the land, whereas canto VI is determinedly visionary.

Stevens opens canto VI by specifying a "rock" which "is the truth". This truth is founded in material reality ("rises from land and sea") but is greater than that reality ("covers them"). Though based in reality, it rises, its upper half "immeasurable", "such rock / As placid air becomes."

Though this appears on the face of it to be the stuff of the kind of visions which demented hermits indulge in, Stevens insists on the reality of this rock. It is "visible", it is "audible", it is "certain", and it exists right here and now, "On this present ground".

It is the rock of summer, the extreme,
A mountain luminous half-way in bloom
And then half-way in the extremest light
Of sapphires flashing from the central sky,
As if twelve princes sat before a king.

Here, a simile intrudes into the usually metaphorical flow of Stevens's imagery. The combination of nobility seated before royalty, centrality, sky and "extremest light" suggests that this is an image of godhead.

Other readings are possible, and in fact Bloom identifies the twelve as the constellations of the zodiac, and argues of the lines quoted (from "the extremest light") that "This is to bring the zodiac within the poetic self, but whether such an incongruous Sublime representation is appropriate here is disputable." (Bloom 1987: 250).

Arguably, what Stevens is actually bringing "within the poetic self" is godhead itself. Certainly in his later poem, "The Auroras of Autumn", where the poet speculates on the possibility of the existence of an "imagination" which appears to be a figure for godhead, a similar combination of terms is used:

Is there an imagination that sits enthroned
As grim as it is benevolent, the just
And the unjust, which in the midst of summer stops

To imagine winter? When the leaves are dead,
Does it take its place in the north and enfold itself,
Goat-leaper, crystalled and luminous, sitting

In highest night? And do these heavens adorn
And proclaim it, the white creator of black, jetted
By extinguishings, even of planets as may be,

Even of earth, even of sight, in snow,
Except as needed by way of majesty,
In the sky, as crown and diamond cabala?

The godhead thus speculated upon in "The Auroras of Autumn", were it to exist, would be "crystalled", "luminous" and "enthroned" "In the sky". There is sufficient overlap between this an the description of the "rock" in canto VI of "Credences of Summer" to suggest that the poet is speculating in both poems upon aspects of the same thing.

In "Credences of Summer", immediately after the apparent invocation of godhead in canto VI, there follows canto VII, in which Stevens treats directly with the writing of poetry. He sees the poet as being isolated from humanity ("Far in the woods") and treating with the "unreal", with matters other than mundane reality, the reality which was seen in canto IV as possessing "limits". The roots of the poetic impulse lie in the desire to make something which does not exist (which cannot be found), and Stevens sees the making of poetry as a threefold process which leaves the poem "Fully made, fully apparent, fully found."

In outlining this threefold process, Stevens seems to be echoing the Renaissance conception of the three phases of composition: inventio (invention), dispositio (structure) and elocutio (style). Furthermore, the word "made" invokes another Renaissance idea, the neoplatonic notion that the poet is a maker, a creator who partakes of the nature of the Creator, and can through poetry access an unflawed reality more true than the imperfect reality (in theological terms, the Fallen reality) which we perceive. (2)

Canto VII having discussed the composition of poetry, canto VIII deals with the completed poem, figured as a trumpet. Stevens announces that "It is the visible announced, / It is the more than visible, the more / Than sharp, illustrious scene." This passage accords with the neoplatonic hypothesis outlined above: the poem presents not just the visible but something more than that which can be seen.

While the notion of a Twentieth Century poet seriously engaging with the neoplatonic notions of the Renaissance might at first seem eccentrically anachronistic, Stevens's prose writings show him to have had a lively awareness of the intellectual speculations of the Renaissance, and he undoubtedly touches upon the neoplatonic hypothesis when he writes as follows:

"If the philosopher's world is this present world plus thought, then the poet's world is this present world plus imagination. If we think of the philosopher and the poet as raised to their highest exponents and made competent to realize everything that the figures of the philosopher and the poet, as projected in the mind of their creator, were capable of or, in other words, if we magnify them, what would they compose, by way of fulfilling not only themselves but also by way of fulfilling the aims of their creator?" (Stevens, 1990: 278).

Characteristically, Stevens raises a question rather than providing an answer. His question mark here echoes the question marks of canto VII of "The Auroras of Autumn". Rather than deciding what he truly believes, he seems doomed to remain eternally tentative. However, it appears that the neoplatonic hypothesis is one that he undoubtedly found attractive, and one on which he most certainly speculated.

Cantos VI and VII of "Credences of Summer" may therefore reasonably be read as an engagement by Stevens with the neoplatonic hypothesis. In ascending to the visionary heights of the imagination, the poet partakes of the very nature of God.

However, what happens in "Credences of Summer" is that this ascent is followed by a fall. In canto VIII, the trumpet which announces "the success of the visible" is less than entirely triumphant, for this "resounding cry / Is like ten thousand tumblers tumbling down / To share the day". This (Huston 1970: 270) is a deliberately bathetic reduction of a resonant Miltonic original:

                                                  Full soon
Among them he arriv'd; in his right hand
Grasping ten thousand thunders ....
       [Paradise Lost 6.834-36]

The poem, which began at the level of the "grass" in canto I, has soared exceedingly high, its visionary images images of height and ascent: the "gold sun" and "whitened sky" of canto II, the tower of canto III identified with "green's green apogee", and the mountain of canto VI. However, the "ten thousand tumblers tumbling down" of canto VIII mark a descent from the visonary heights, and canto IX opens with the words "Fly low".

What is to fly low? A "cock bright". This formulation uses the traditional noun-adjective word order of much consciously poetic poetry, raising expectations of more of the same to come. However, the detail then offered is a prosaic "bean pole". This deflation of expectations, following on after the deflation of Miltonic majesty, signals a return to mundane reality.

The mundane reality to which Stevens returned is that of a presently settled middle age. It is a world

In which the characters speak because they want
To speak, the fat, the roseate characters,
Free, for a moment, from malice and sudden cry,
Completed in a completed scene, speaking
Their parts as in a youthful happiness.

In summary, "Credences of Summer" treats with the poet's ascent to visionary heights and his subsequent return to normative reality, to which he falls in the manner of a sub-Miltonic fallen angel.

The fall of angels was still on Stevens's mind when he came to write "The Auroras of Autumn," in which he writes of "the father", saying that:

He measures the velocities of change.
He leaps from heaven to heaven more rapidly
Than bad angels leap from heaven to hell in flames.

However, the ascent to the visionary heights, which had proved a transitory affair in "Credences of Summer", does not appear to happen in "The Auroras of Autumn". Rather, what dominates the heights is the remote aurora borealis. Its theme, and the theme of the collection to which it provides the title, has justly been summed up as "an abandonment of dreams of paradise and an acceptance of the windings of this world's appearance - not by choice ... but of necessity because of the imminence of death." (Burney, 1968: 155).

In brief overview, "Credences of Summer" is an exploration of the ascent to the heights of poetic vision, an ascent which proves transitory and unsustainable. It is a poem touched by intimations of mortality, which figures in the "nothing left of time" of canto I and the "for a moment" of canto X. In this poem, the poet explores but does not precisely pin down the nature of poetic vision. In the later work, "The Auroras of Autumn", the vision appears to have become more problematical, and mortality moves to the foreground.

Stevens, then, is a poet of uncertainty, who repeatedly explored his own beliefs without ever firmly defining them. In "The Planet on the Table", which appears to be his own summation of his work, he acknowledges the "poverty" and the "half- perceived" nature of his poetry. Of his poems he writes that:

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

He believes he has captured a part of the truth, but certainly does not believe he has captured the whole truth. He was, then, a philosophical explorer rather than a prophet confidently delivering words of wisdom.



(1) My mother so argued, in converstion.

(2) This discussion of neoplatonism is grounded in the presentation of the subject given by Dr K.J. Larsen in 1994 lectures for 18.210 The Age of Shakespeare: Poetry.



Bloom, Harold. (1987) Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Burney, William. (1968) Wallace Stevens. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Huston, J. Dennis. (1970) "Credences of Summer: An Analysis". Modern Philology Vol. 67 No. 3 263-272.

Kirkpatrick, E.M. (ed) (1983) Chambers 20th Century Dictionary. Edinburgh: W & R Chambers.

Martin, Robert Bernard. (1983) Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pound, Ezra. (1945) "A Retrospect". In W. R. Benet and N. H. Pearson, eds., The Oxford Anthology of American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, Pp 1266-1270.

Stevens, Wallace. (1984) The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. London: Faber and Faber.

Stevens, Wallace. (1990) Opus Posthumous. New York: Vintage Books.

This essay copyright © 1994, 2003
Hugh Cook