The human imagination, the ability to perceive another kind of reality made purely of thought, has always been the muse of artists and writers alike. Poets especially prize this human ability to imagine and create because it is the essence of their work, both for the poet himself and the reader. However, no contemporary poet can be said to have admired the imagination more than Wallace Stevens. Several of his poems are written specifically on the subject of the imagination, oftentimes deifying it as if it were a god in itself. Through the study of Stevens’ poems, essays, and articles, one can find reasons behind his obsession and the ways in which he uses poetic techniques to express his ideas.
Wallace Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play is a collection of Stevens’ poems, many of which deal with the issues of imagination verses reality, such as “The Men that are Falling,” “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” and “Angel Surrounded by Paysans.” In the chapter of a book by Robert Rehder, entitled “My Reality-imagination Complex,” Rehder explains that Stevens’ works are a “diagnosis of his ‘reality-imagination’ complex” (Rehder 150). The poems express his views on the place of the imagination within reality, its relationship with reality, and his views on the definition of what reality truly is; is it what we sense and can measure, or is it mixed up with the subconscious, dreams, and preconceived notions. He writes that
“for each individual the imagination comes first and the world afterwards…The baby…dwells in a fantasy realm that is transformed only gradually into reality…This mutually enriching interplay between imagination and reality is the process that creates the self-and art” (Rehder 133).
This explains how, for Stevens, the imagination and reality were two parts of a whole; one without the other would not be sufficient enough to move a reader. Poetry, in Stevens’ view, had to be written with a “double subject;” one subject would be based in reality and would be something tangible the reader could relate to or fixate upon, while the other would be a string of the imagination, some abstract portion that carries the reader beyond the mere facts of the thing’s reality to a deeper meaning. Rehder believes that Stevens was not always successful at writing with a double subject, but that it was what Stevens strove for as his goal throughout all of his work (Rehder 137).
Stevens’ poetry, however, went beyond merely writing about the imagination and its relation to reality. His poetry oftentimes deified the imagination, raised it up above the usual psychoanalytic view of it, and transformed it into something more divine. In several poems he does this. In “The Men that are Falling,” Steven’s writes
“Taste the blood upon his martyred lips,
O pensioners, O demagogues and pay-men!
This death was his belief though death is a stone.
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.
The night wind blows upon the dreamer, bent
Over words that are life’s voluble utterance” (Stevens, Holly 130).
Stevens describes a martyr that died for his love of earth and of dreams. He presents a secular view of the martyr, and yet, by dying for dreams, the martyr makes the dreams mean more than mere fancies. The last two lines tell the reader what the man in the poem was doing as he died; he was dreaming or imagining, “bent over words that are life’s voluble utterance,” which could be interpreted to mean poetry or the Bible since Stevens refers to “God and all angels” being the man’s desire . Stevens presents poetry and the imagination as something to die for, and something that one can become a martyr for. By this, Stevens compares God to the imagination, using the term normally applied to someone who dies for God, and applying it to a secular ideal. This idea of the deified imagination goes on in Stevens’ “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” In this poem, Stevens presents images that call up dreams, imaginings, wistful fancies, and then clearly and bluntly states what he has been hinting at all through his poems, that “God and the imagination are one” (Stevens, Holly 368). Through his poems, Stevens has taken the art of poetry, which had become so secular during the time of his writing, and brought God back into it. However, the God Stevens fills his poetry with is not the one of Tennyson or Browning; it is the imagination itself.
In “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” Stevens personifies reality in the form of an angel and hints at its relationship to the imagination. He describes it as more fleeting than dreams, and yet the angel says, “I am the necessary angel of earth,” meaning that, though Stevens seems to focus on the imagination and even deifies it, he recognizes a need for reality in poetry and in life and asserts his goal for a harmonious blending of the two in his poetry (Stevens, Holly 354). Daniel Funchs, in The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens, writes, “The peculiar magic of the imagination is that, through it, life’s dimensions become more specific while becoming more mysterious” (Funchs 112).Funchs’ assertion is one that embodies Stevens’ view on the coexistence that needs to be between reality and the imagination; each influences the other.
As much as Stevens was concerned about the reality-imagination relationship in his poetry, he was also conscious of his use of language to express that relationship. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the sections of the poem are a mix of the concrete image of the blackbird and an almost playful series of words and images. The reader has to almost struggle to make sense of each section, to hunt for the reason behind the blackbird being present in a seemingly unrelated grouping of phrases. This argument forces the imagination to come up with some veritable explanation or way of working the two parts together, and yet it seems that Stevens focused more on the overall aesthetic feeling of the poems rather than whether or not they made logical sense (Stevens, Holly 20). In essence, Stevens combines the imagination with the concrete, creating an overall feeling that he sees as the goal of poetry.
Through his admiration for the human ability to imagine, to live in two realities, and his attempts to deify the imagination, Stevens is remembered through his poetry. His use of words and images that seek to blend the imagined and the concrete makes him the great modern poet he is recognized to be. These qualities of his poetry are recognized as belonging completely and uniquely to Stevens. Even Stevens himself recognizes the uniqueness of what he has tried to accomplish in his poetry. Rehder quoting Stevens from July 21st 1953 writes
“While, of course, I come down from the past, the past is my own and not something marked Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. I know of no one who has been particularly important to me. My reality-imagination complex is entirely my own even though I see it in others (Rehder 133).
Steven’s unique views and works make him a modern poet worthy of study and enjoyment by all readers who pick up his books. Stevens’ poems are a doorway into his imagination and to the imagined worlds within each reader’s mind.
Funchs, Daniel. The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1963.
McCann, Janet. Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers 1995. 39-55.
Rehder, Robert. The Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York, NY: St. Martins 1988. 133-178.
Riddel, Joseph N. The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State Press 1965.
Stevens, Holly. Ed. The Palm at the End of the Mind. By Wallace Stevens. New York, NY: Vintage Book