Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Contrarian Reading Of Wallace Stevens's The Motive For Metaphor


Our difference is clear.  I think Stevens doesn't side with the harder view, the tough-minded.  The speaker does.  Your need to change "you" to "we" is crucial, for that makes the poem champion the tougher, which I don't think it does.  My main argument for the irony is that the speaker says metaphor is an evasion but uses it throughout.  The speaker, in effect, is contra "poesy" and in favor of hard reality, but I think Stevens thinks the opposition is bogus.  He doesn't argue for that but expresses his negative view of the simple opposition view by portraying a proponent of it forcefully via metaphor.  The motive for metaphor is the need (now I think of it) forcefully and subtley express one's attitude toward something.  We must all perforce be poets. 


I like some of what you say but don't agree with the thrust of it, there being a dialogue between two speakers, the "you" of the poem and the voice of the poem. And I don't agree with what you see as irony playfully running through the end of the poem that undermines what's seemingly wanted, on your readíng, intimation against steel.

As a side note, I don't see where what you're saying is any less of a version of the poem's "argument" than mine or others. It just sees the "argument" differently. Btw, I'm not sure you've identified or approached the motive for metaphor.

I rather see the "you" as "we," a more general you, for example you as the reader.

What we "like" is the escape from what's demanding and harsh in reality. In that, we demean and lessen ourselves: 

....Where you were never quite yourself 
Nor did not want nor have to be...

So we take our eases, our comforts, our happinesses, in a weak, unchallenging, passive approach to reality, where we like things barely stirring, half dead, crippled meaningless:

...You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning...

This could be as well, as is The Poems Of Our Cimate, a swipe at a desiccated, esthethe, minimalist art like Imagism, as Stevens saw it.

The second stanza moves back in time to the Spring preceding the first Stanza's Autumn.  Spring's aborning life is made prosaic and near lifeless.There, in the season of rebirth, just as Autumn moves us toward the death of winter--the nothing of the Snowman--we're in flight from vitality in all things, life, art, other things. We draw resigned, languid happiness from what is weak, insensible, recondite to the point of being meaningless:

...The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,...

This mocks the desire for "the exhilarations of changes."

So light then, in that Spring, is the moon's weak reflection, an ersatz light perhaps, keeping the world, and, so, you or we in it, safe, languid and mindless. Nothing to be clearly expressed, nothing challenging us to confront ourselves, keeping us from ourselves, all pallid, free of compulsion and obligation.

To quote the same quatrain again

...The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,...

I read the first line of the fourth quatrain as syntactically connected to the last lines of the third quatrain, with that first line's ending colon signalling a near to complete grammatical and thematic stop. So that, on this reading, you--under no compulsion or obligation--are essentially released from the desire for "...the exhilarations of changes." But, says Stevens elsewhere: 

....Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been long composed...

These lines inform, I'd argue, the point of the colon. There is a kind of suppressed continuity ranging over the stop of the colon. The motive for metaphor, for taking on imperfectly the world, shrinks to suit our happy, liking-it passivity. You, we, are overwhelmed by what's hard and ultimate, the great and terrible truths of essential being, the basics--"A B C of being"--violence, physicality, dominance, brightness and sharpness: ..."The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X"...resistant to meaning, but vital in its beauty and its terror. This is what the motive for metaphor shrinks from, from operating the only way we can, by metaphor, in truly taking on and taking in the world. It's imperfect. But only here is paradise: 

...The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds....

I don't see any sardonicism here or playfulness. 

Added note:

One critic argues that the Spring quatrains, the time of our youth, herald a good time, a time of becoming, with self unformed, not yet expressed, not yet understood, a time of exhilarating changes. I don't read this poem's Spring that way at all. Just the opposite: happiness is in what is so subdued and minimized and obscure, happiness is in the same way we/you like(s) it in Autumn, languid, crippled, fractionated, half dead, meaningless.

I don't see the poem turning (playfully or otherwise) on the paradox of wanting bright, clear, fiery X, fatal and vital, wanting what is as is, without metaphor but yet with that wanting and what is wanted only expressible by metaphor. The reason for that, in my view, is that metaphor for Stevens in this poem is an inescapable epistemic basic: the world can't be approached or taken in without it. So it pervades all quatrains. Escaping metaphor isn't the question. The question is the use we make of it: shrink in its use as done in the first four quatrains or use it to confront imperfectly, as best we can, what is vital and  great, what is fatal and terrible, and what is ineffable too--X. 

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