A friend of mine, the recent election in heart and mind, sent me Wallace Stevens’ poem, “United Dames of America.” The poem’s epigraph is from Jules Renard: “Je tâche, en restant exact, d’être poète,” which translates as “I strive, in keeping exact, to be a poet.”
There are not leaves enough to cover the face
It wears. This is the way the orator spoke:
“The mass is nothing. The number of men in a mass
Of men is nothing. The mass is no greater than
The singular man of the mass. Masses produce
Each one its paradigm.” There are not leaves
Enough to hide away the face of the man
Of this dead mass and that. The wind might fill
With faces as with leaves, be gusty with mouths,
And with mouths crying and crying day by day.
Could all these be ourselves, sounding ourselves,
Our faces circling round a central face
And then nowhere again, away and away?
Yet one face keeps returning (never the one),
The face of the man of the mass, never the face
That hermit on reef sable would have seen,
Never the naked politician taught
But the wise. There are not leaves enough to crown,
To cover, to crown, to cover–let it go–
The actor that will at last declaim our end.
In a letter to his friend Henry Church in which he expresses his appreciation for Jules Renard, Stevens writes that “the writer is never recognized as one of the masters of our lives, although he gives them their daily color and form. This position is reversed for politicians. Just as someone said that woman is nature, so a politician is life. The writer is a fribble.”
The poem is about the face that a mass of men wears; its outward representation; the political actors who are the faces around which the other faces swirl. At first I thought was that the face of the man ought to be covered by the leaves, and that the poet was despairing that it had not happened; then I thought he was cheering the impossibility; now I recognize that it always of two minds.
The conflict of feelings can be accommodated in the opening line: “There are not leaves enough” as both an expression of joy and of sadness. It carries over after the Orator’s quotation (the figure of the Orator was inspired by Stevens’ friend Gilbert Montague, who gave an address to the Colonial Dames of America), to where the leaves cannot “hide away” the face on the dead mass–that of the past, but also of the lifeless present, and so an opportunity for both heroism of memorial and sadness at the current situation. It may be helpful to imagine leaves threatening to cover the effigy of a great leader from the past, and failing to do so; it may also be helpful to imagine the leaves unable to cover a corpse.
And the leaves, the mass of them, might be us; hence the third stanza. Imagine if the leaves, now an object of poetic contemplation, an entity unto themselves, were the faces of the people, crying out, stirred up in a whirlwind around a face and then subsiding; or perhaps stirred up so as, in the gust of wind, to resemble, quite abstractly, a face; or circling so rapidly that it might seem possible to find among them a central leaf, with a central face; or else seemingly drawn into order around the impression of a center, briefly, then no longer.
But whichever of these it is, the pattern is recurring; some sense of a face, an individual, returns; here is a note of hope, because the mass of leaves cannot suppress a face and”(never the one)” since although single face keeps returning, it is not the same single face. The expression or pattern or paradigm of the mass itself is not immutable; and the expression of the face emerging from it is not always the same. But here also is note of menace since, it turns out, it is nonetheless the face of the politician that is always the one that returns. That said, it would be going too far to think that the politician is destined to be the one that is always seen: it may be that, by virtue of being seen, that face becomes the politician. The politician is whomever is seen, again and again; politics is always with us.
The poem is open as to whether the face is of the leaves, or itself a leaf, or else distinct from them; in the last stanza, it would seem to be the latter, but the point I think is that the face is, as a figure of speech, distinct from the leaves once it can be distinguished as one among them, or as a shape they take; at which point, the poet can imagine the other leaves covering it.
In the last stanza, the leaves and face are clearly apart, and the poem reaches its clearest ambiguity, or aporia, since it does insists on being undecidable: the question is not just whether the leaves ought to cover or crown, but whether it is right to think of them as covering or crowning; overlaying that second question is another: whether we ought to celebrate or condemn either of those actions. Now the leaves have become not only the leaves of autumn blowing over the world, but the laurel leaves, and possibly also the leaves of a poet’s book. The possibilities are fourfold: cover–celebrate; cover–despair; crown–celebrate; crown–despair. Working backwards, crowning the face might be honoring a tyrant; celebrating the face by crowning it with laurels might be properly honoring an individual and affirming singularity despite the mass, or even of the mass, a face that represents its distinctiveness, like a representative; covering the face might be a cause for despair if doing so were to eradicate individuality and singularity; covering the face might be cause for celebration if the politician is to be dreaded or feared.
The actor at the end wears the mask of a face like the mass wears a mask of a face; it might also be a political actor; in a more sinister but also tendentious possibility, it could recall Lincoln’s run-in with the theater; Stevens would not have intended to celebrate the last, but he may have known that some would.
The four figures of the poem–orator, poet, politician, actor–are perhaps four sorts of faces of public life (opposed to the solitary hermit); to explore the possibility, though, on the grounds of this poem alone would be an exploration into my own imagination.
It is a confused poem, and pained by its confusion because it cannot be avoided when considering the relationship of the individual and a mass of which he or she is a part; the poet is of that mass also, and it cannot be mapped with perfect satisfaction from the inside any more than the analogous problem of metaphysics (the one and the many) can be entirely encompassed from within language; but then it is a fantasy that we could have it any other way.