William Empson on the foundation of humanism: “the world is good enough for me; let me be good enough for it.”
Good enough for the world, in Stevens, means good at enjoying what the world offers. It would be a dull aspiration, were it not accompanied by Stevens’ apprehension of the emptiness, deep down, of the world. His great argument of the poetry—and it is ethical—is that the emptiness of the world can and should be filled, and that though such plenitude is provisional, occasional, and occasionally arbitrary, having no foundation to stand upon except our own incomplete existence, stretching out in time, it is nonetheless capable of affording pleasure.
His is a skeptical Epicureanism, and an epicurean skepticism. This involves him in a striving, and sets before him a notion of existential heroism, not a-political but not ending in politics; it is an isolating heroism—a version of the Romantic poet reconciling with nature at the price of solitude—and it is also, as Romantic heroism is not, accountable to its own standards of propriety, which renders it both comical (such propriety is misplaced in solitude) and also refuses a premise that poetry could be detached from social exchange; the mannered decorum is an insistence on a social background against which the temperance, fortitude, and courage it follows are honored. However lonely the poet, or his subjects, the loneliness comes from, and curves back towards, the possibility of encountering, even in passing, others. It’s quite other than the ironic poise of Eliot’s Laforgue-inspired Pierrot, and owes more probably to Baudelaire.
The poems are always striving: they are striving against a void, an emptying out. But they are also accepting it, trying to redeem it. Their baroque, lavish layers of language, the presence of foreign languages, the whimsical sounds, and the ornamental effects, are not excesses, since Stevens’ initial sense of things is so barren: he is compensating, countering negation.
It is easy to say he is a philosophical poet, but I’ve been misguided to take that to mean he is working out Idealist arguments; he is instead trying to live their implications. For him philosophy is a way of life, poetry the effort of contemplation.
There are many centers to Stevens’ poetry. “The Snow Man,” “Sunday Morning,” “Estethique du Mal,” “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction.” Surprising to me, Thom Gunn, in a letter, proposes “Lions in Sweden.” Lately, though, “Auroras of Autumn” has snuck up on me—I’d stupidly thought it a tired late work, but now find it something distinct in Stevens’ work: a poem about looking back, about aging, about being nearly done, and from there, trying to make sense of happiness.
In the same letter in which he points a friend towards “Lions in Winter,” Thom Gunn makes a startling claim about Stevens, even as celebrating him as one of the 20th c masters:
“And one has to keep in mind that he has three characteristics that I, and probably you, find intensely unsympathetic: (1) he started as an Imagist, and, though he was from the start much more than somebody like H.D., he never completely lost sight of Imagism (2) he is an agnostic–this means he is unable to accept the Christian discipline or the atheist discipline, but is a complete relativist; (3) he believes in a sort of mystical Coleridgean Imagination–a concept both in him and Coleridge I find pretty wishful thinking–and vague wishful thinking at that.” (To Tony White, November 1958)
On first reading this, I asked: how much is left that isn’t overwhelmed by these characteristics?
But now see it’s something essential to what Gunn elsewhere, in another letter (to Tony Tanner; March 1966), calls Stevens’ “humaneness.”(Gunn sets the words in quotation marks) It’s that striving to enjoy, to find pleasure without denying pain (the “mal” in “Esthetique du Mal” is a sort of pain as well as evil), in a world that is always passing, emptying, returning to a lifeless winter. It can be mistaken for complacency, but it’s at the other extreme: relentlessly returning to its own failing to feel fully satisfied. It is dramatized and expressed beautifully in the final section of “Auroras of Autumn”:
An unhappy people in a happy world—
Read, rabbi, the phases of this difference.
An unhappy people in an unhappy world—
Here are too many mirrors for misery.
A happy people in an unhappy world—
It cannot be. There’s nothing there to roll
On the expressive tongue, the finding fang.
A happy people in a happy world—
Buffo! A ball, an opera, a bar.
Turn back to where we were when we began:
An unhappy people in a happy world.
Now, solemnize the secretive syllables.
Read to the congregation, for today
And for tomorrow, this extremity,
This contrivance of the spectre of the spheres,
Contriving balance to contrive a whole,
The vital, the never-failing genius,
Fulfilling his meditations, great and small.
In these unhappy he meditates a whole,
The full of fortune and the full of fate,
As if he lived all lives, that he might know,
In hall harridan, not hushful paradise,
To a haggling of wind and weather, by these lights
Like a blaze of summer straw, in winter’s nick.