Wallace Stevens is not a poet one necessarily associates with environmental thought or eco-poetics; his poetry is perceived as flamboyant, abstract and arch, far away from the lyric realism or heartfelt polemic we might think of in relation to ‘nature poetry’. Yet Stevens is, to my mind, an under-considered poet of ‘nature’ (what I will call the nonhuman), a writer whose work opens up new avenues in ecopoetic thinking, new ways to approach the nonhuman within language. Stevens’ poetry is relentlessly interested in the real and how we might find it, questioning how we might connect to that beyond our subjectivity, that which is not of the human. Stevens’ poetry is sceptical about the possibility of such a release from subjectivity, and yet it is also powerfully aware of how nonhuman individuality might provide clues to the concrete reality of a material world outside of ourselves – a deeply environmental, necessarily ecopoetic awareness.
For Stevens, there is enchantment in disenchantment: in breaking apart our comfortable beliefs about easy access to the nonhuman realm, we paradoxically become more vibrantly aware of the existence of that realm – our inability to fully connect to the nonhuman showing us, through failure, the plain fact that there is something out there, something beyond us, leading our minds to stretch against the limits of their comprehension. It is the not-knowing of Stevens’ poetics that, strangely, makes the material world known. To think through Stevens’ ecopoetic potentiality I will close read one of his greatest poems, ‘Sunday Morning’, a poem that is as much a celebration of the enchantment offered by nonhuman difference as it is a rejection of religious myths. To me this poem is profoundly environmental in its respect for nonhuman agency and difference, and in its ability to see this difference as a source of potential freedom for the human – an unlearning of our fixed positions, an opening up into the world.
Stevens’ purported focus in ‘Sunday Morning’ is Christianity, but religion’s strictures are not much different to all unyielding, disenchanting conceptual forms, forms that figure human experience and human subjectivity as the central points of meaning in an inert sea of lesser objects and creatures. Mainstream Christianity reduces the nonhuman because it is not capable of spiritual ascension; capitalism and its associated reified structures reduce the nonhuman because it/they are seen as exchangeable commodities, wholly consumable by humanity’s subjective experience. In both systems the potential of nonhuman agency is ignored, as well as the possibility this agency might offer to challenge and crack human subjectivity, opening up the potential for enchantment and change. ‘Sunday Morning’ does not attempt to convince us of an argument, but rather makes possible a practice of reading in which one might be able to draw enchantment from the nonhuman difference made available through language.
‘Sunday Morning’ (Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2006, pp.58-62) follows a woman considering whether meaning is possible in a world without God. It begins with a scene of lively and yet relaxing pleasure:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, And the green freedom of a cockatoo Upon a rug mingle to dissipate The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
Despite it being ‘Sunday Morning,’ the brightness and physical vibrancy of this scene seems powerful enough to dispel any thought of religion. In these very first lines Stevens is drawing on each of the physical senses – touch in the feel of what would most likely be a silk peignoir (a wrap or dressing gown), smell in the pungent aromas of coffee and oranges, taste in those same objects, sight in the bright fruit and the ‘green … cockatoo’, and sound inevitably issuing from the calls and wingbeats of this creature. The fullness of this experience seems bound to hold the enchanted attention of the poem’s central figure. Then, however:
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark Encroachment of that old catastrophe, As a calm darkens among water-lights. The pungent oranges and bright, green wings Seem things in some procession of the dead, Winding across wide water, without sound. The day is like wide water, without sound, Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet Over the seas, to silent Palestine, Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
In this part of the stanza we see the woman fall asleep, or at least daydream, and this reduction of attention to her material surroundings results in the ‘Encroachment of that old catastrophe’: death, and the religious associations and reactions that come with it. The complacency the woman had in relation to these spiritual matters now disappears, transforming her relationship with the nonhuman objects and beings around her. The ‘pungent’ material reality of the world, its sharp individuality, is dampened by a ‘calm’ that ‘darkens’. This ‘calm’ is peaceful but stultifying, turning the objects into ‘things in some procession of the dead’. This is because vital materiality has been replaced with the strictures of religion, where everything is part of a procession towards the actual meaning that will be revealed to human individuals upon death. Each thing loses its individual agency, and so its force – merged into sameness by a system of thinking that sees it as ‘mere’ matter. Only human beings will reach heaven, the alleged centre of meaning, paradoxically excising the ‘reality’ from real objects. The repetition of ‘wide water, without sound,’ emphasises how this sameness will remove ‘sound,’ which we must assume will muffle the potential of poetic (oral and aural) forms of communication – anything not focused on ‘silent Palestine’, a vision of reality utterly removed from material and mortal existence.
In Stevens’ second stanza this vision is challenged. Here, affectual and intellectual opportunities emerge from interactions with the nonhuman, interactions predicated on the nonhuman being perceived as a real and actual part of the meaningful world:
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else In any balm or beauty of the earth, Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven? Divinity must live within herself: Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued Elations when the forest blooms; gusty Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; All pleasures and all pains, remembering The bough of summer and the winter branch. These are the measures destined for her soul.
In this stanza we see how enchantment is drawn not just from witnessing the nonhuman, but in the interactions that occur between human affectual experience and nonhuman objects. The ‘Divinity’ that ‘must live within herself’ comes through an openness, a porousness to the other. The woman’s experiences and emotions are described in language that folds into and out of the nonhuman without consuming it, or negating its difference: ‘comforts of the sun’, and ‘Passions of rain’, describe feelings that do not take place in those environments, but are of them. This blurring of linguistic boundaries makes us aware that human experience is not simply projected onto a blank nonhuman screen, but is formed partly out of the separate reality of that nonhuman being. This is, however, always a one-sided nowledge of experience: human experience is shaped by the nonhuman, we can’t know if the experience goes both ways. The affectual wonder and clarity of ‘moods in falling snow’ and ‘Elations when the forest blooms’ recognise the agency of the nonhuman, its ability to shape and impact upon intimate experience, without suggesting any full knowledge of the alien nonhuman environment or object.
Stevens’ language is highly sensitive to the potential effect of the nonhuman, but it is not soggily holistic. He describes ‘gusty / Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights’, the ‘Emotion’ of the human figure made ‘gusty’ by their environment, porous to nonhuman direction. But there is however no suggestion that the wet road or ‘gusty’ wind has any reaction to the human. The nonhuman is still figured here as distant, unreachable in its individual entirety, but this hermetic difference does not stop it having a powerful impact on human subjectivity and experience. What is a ‘gusty’ emotion after all? It would be hard to explain such a thing, being as it is an experience flecked with the impact of hermetic nonhuman difference, and yet the poetic language does not render something that is unimaginable. We know how it feels to be ‘gusty’, to have the wind blow through our feelings, heightening them, unmooring them from their internal roots and cutting them with the presence of uncontrollable strangeness, a sudden vulnerable awareness of the genuine reality of the ‘outside’. This description awakens the reader to their own intimacy with nonhuman difference, to the imaginative potential in the crossing point between mental experience and nonhuman interaction. This is not to say that the nonhuman somehow ‘gains meaning’ through the fact that its existence might be able to bring about enchantment for the human –it is rather that, in becoming briefly aware of the agency of the nonhuman, the human is able to find a moment of exhalation in a mental and societal system where everything exists for something else, is exchangeable. The difference and strangeness of nonhuman distance may bring about human enchantment for the very reason that nonhuman difference does not exist for our comprehension or benefit. The ‘Divinity’ made available through a non-teleological interaction with nonhuman difference is drawn from this potential, one that offers ‘All pleasures and all pains’, a full experience of life that might momentarily be able to include various ways of being outside of human subjectivity.
In stanza VII, Stevens provides the reader with an even clearer vision of what might be possible if human subjectivity became truly receptive to the enchantment available in nonhuman difference and mystery:
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn Their boisterous devotion to the sun, Not as a god, but as a god might be, Naked among them, like a savage source. Their chant shall be a chant of paradise, Out of their blood, returning to the sky; And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice, The windy lake wherein their lord delights, The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, That choir among themselves long afterward. They shall know well the heavenly fellowship Of men that perish and of summer morn. And whence they came and whither they shall go The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
In these lines we see the promised meaning of religion subverted by the promised meaning of nonhuman interaction. The men of this scene are devoted to the sun: ‘Not as a god, but as a god might be.’ This action is very similar to worship, but it is not worship. These men share a ‘heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn’. The fellowship offered in this sun’s ‘devotion’ is not only between the men, but also includes the ‘summer morn’. Clearly the men are drawing huge enchantment and energy from their experience of the nonhuman, but it is not a simple interaction where the nonhuman is drained to serve the human. There a ‘fellowship’ assumed between human and nonhuman actants, even if this fellowship is as loose as it is possible to be, forged in the knowledge of human-nonhuman intimacy, rather than any knowledge of the nonhuman’s own truth.
In the idealised imaginative version of the enchantment available to the central figure of the poem, enchantment is created by unpeeling solitary human subjectivity, revealing the intense intimacy with difference possible between human and nonhuman. The men’s chant comes ‘Out of their blood’, but is not only shared between them. Their chant returns ‘to the sky’ and enters ‘voice by voice, / The windy lake wherein their lord delights’. Human expression is imagined here as being able to not only react to the nonhuman, but ‘enter’ it, not destroying or controlling it but setting up an equalized relationship. In this image, the men’s expressive ‘chant’ encourages the ‘trees’ and hills into their own kind of singing, they ‘choir among themselves long afterward’. This is of course partly a description of the men’s echoing voices, but it also brings to the fore the possibility of witnessing nonhuman agency. The trees are like ‘serafin’: individuals who choose to sing and praise, an imagined singing that belongs to the trees rather than the human singers. In this version of enchantment, it becomes almost possible to draw the nonhuman out into clear response, agency not glimpsed or hinted at but truly made available. Importantly, the symbolic, almost pagan nature of these images make it clear that this is not Stevens’ depiction of what is, but of what might be if the enchanting and vibrant potential of the nonhuman could be fully experienced.
Yes, Stevens’ poem refigures paradise as the material world all around us, but it is not necessarily suggesting that this paradise is always available to human experience. Rather it can be glimpsed in moments of openness when closed subjectivity falls away, and in this stanza the poem imagines such experiences at full force – the utter difference of the nonhuman ‘naked’ to us, terrifying but also enlivening. Even in this version of material paradise there is however no guarantee of destiny or life. Ambiguity and even mystery remain a central part of how embodied life will operate. We see this in the final two lines of the stanza:
And whence they came and whither they shall go The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
Where the men come from and where they will end up will be made ‘manifest’, exhibited through and made apparent from, the ‘dew upon their feet’. This is almost a tautology: the dew will show where they will go only as they are going there. The revelation of their future only happens at the exact moment that that future becomes present, observable in the droplets of water their feet collect as they move. Simply, nothing can be predicted about what will happen until it is taking place, there is no plan or map of any kind available, only the material reality of movement and change. This captures the profound ambiguity of Stevens’ paradise, a paradise that becomes so not because of the outcome it will produce, but because of its potential to make possible enchanting contact with the genuine reality of the nonhuman world. This enchantment has no guarantees, but is rather focused on a momentary affectual experience that reveals that something might exist beyond reified subjectivity. The promise of freedom buried in this experience is what renders it a kind of ‘paradise’.
It is important for me to draw attention to the fact that the powerful enchantment Stevens locates, and indeed creates, in his poem is drawn paradoxically from an action of disenchantment. For Stevens’ poetry to be able to ripple with the enchanting brightness of nonhuman vibrancy and difference, his poem must dismantle, and thus disenchant, previous sites of enchantment. As I have mentioned earlier on, though this disenchantment takes place in a rejection of Christian doctrine, it also serves as a disenchantment of any system which places human meaning and conceptual structures as the engendering forces of meaning and ‘useful’ action in the world. Stevens’ poem is committed to a search for the real, to a kind of enchantment that issues not solely from the human, but from human experience as an embodied object in a material world. This is made apparent in stanza IV of the poem:
She says, “I am content when wakened birds, Before they fly, test the reality Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings; But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields Return no more, where, then, is paradise?” There is not any haunt of prophecy, Nor any old chimera of the grave, Neither the golden underground, nor isle Melodious, where spirits gat them home, Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured As April’s green endures; or will endure Like her remembrance of awakened birds, Or her desire for June and evening, tipped By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
In this stanza, we see the central figure of the poem’s fear that the joy she finds in the ambiguous actions of the nonhuman may be too short-lived to counter a need for a more fixed, Christian paradise. She is briefly content ‘when wakened birds … test the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings’. In this image we see that ‘reality’ itself is being questioned through nonhuman action. The ‘wakened birds’ test the ‘fields’ through their song, a preparation for embodied movement that suddenly draws the mind into an awareness that there is an entirely separate agency existing right next to its own. The birds are not mechanistic, but self-directed, giving flight to a sense of the world that is full – a world that contains human subjectivity, alongside a nonhuman difference that points beyond that subjectivity. In this ambiguous space of ‘misty fields,’ the woman is able to be ‘content,’ comforted by a world in which, in a very real sense, she is not alone. By this I mean that as a human being she is not alone on Earth but intimate with real and vibrant beings whose experience escapes her, and yet which she can know exists. However, the mortality of this living world, its inevitably short life span, creates concern. The poem responds by listing a series of religious and quasi-religious concepts:
There is not any haunt of prophecy, Nor any old chimera of the grave, Neither the golden underground, nor isle Melodious, where spirits gat them home, Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm Remote on heaven’s hill
and then contrasting these expired concepts with the endurance of ‘April’s green’. Stevens is disenchanting any possible form of religious, spiritual or generally teleological belief by making us aware that it is they that are short-lived, rather than the endlessly renewing life of the nonhuman. What seems fragile and mortal has power in its ability to change and grow, existing far beyond the invented conceptual solutions that humans tack on to existence to try and make it fully comprehensible. The paradoxical endurance of spring’s delicate greenery shifts our idea of what is lasting, and makes the conceptual systems of the ‘visionary south’ and ‘heaven’s hill’ seem as insubstantial and flimsy as a daydream. As a result, the enchanting power of these systems leaches away, placing such enchantment into the space of an embodied experience of difference.
In stanza VIII, the final stanza of the poem, the enchanting opportunities of ambiguity and difference found in stanza IV find consummation:
She hears, upon that water without sound, A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine Is not the porch of spirits lingering. It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” We live in an old chaos of the sun, Or old dependency of day and night, Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, Of that wide water, inescapable. Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; And, in the isolation of the sky, At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make Ambiguous undulations as they sink, Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
In this stanza the ‘water without sound’, the space of religiously defined death that turns everything towards the afterlife, is pierced by a ‘voice’ that challenges Christ’s rebirth – the central concept of Christian belief. The voice brings the spiritual concept wholly back to earth, describing Christ’s tomb as ‘the grave of Jesus, where he lay’. Rather than god becoming flesh, and then being resurrected and becoming immortal god again, here Jesus becomes flesh for good. His body becomes a corpse with no ‘lingering’ spirits to turn the material world into background objects for the ‘real’ action of heaven. This poetic disenchantment, coming as it does after Stevens’ series of disenchantments throughout the poem, leaves a space in which different aspects of being are able to have their enchantment recognised. Into the grave space left by Christ’s now long-gone corpse, new potentials emanate. Stevens lists differing descriptions of the ambiguous, enchanting and changeable material world as imagined without such teleological, religious concerns:
We live in an old chaos of the sun, Or old dependency of day and night, Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, Of that wide water, inescapable.
Firstly, Stevens does not offer one description that can accurately sum up and contain the potential of experience. Rather he offers three options, punctuated by two uses of ‘Or’ that suggest both the infinite variety of experience, and the impossibility of this experience ever being accurately and perfectly captured in language. Stevens is not trying to overcome the instability of language, but is using it to better illuminate the instability at the heart of experience and being itself. The descriptions themselves repeatedly de-centre humanity from any role in forming the contours of existence –humanity lives ‘in an old chaos of the sun’, our life only a by-product of the energy created by a nonhuman object that knows nothing of us and does not seek to serve us. Or we are simply directed by the ‘old dependency of day and night’, our daily structures and forms engendered by Earth’s movement around the sun, rather than any original plan of our own. Or we are in an ‘island solitude, unsponsored, free,’ separate from any spiritual guidance, but also made potentially free by this lack of guidance. Despite the inevitability of ‘that wide water,’ death, freedom in life might be possible if we transform our attention and direct it towards the embodied living difference of the nonhuman world.
Stevens’ lines are beautiful, but the beauty that they capture is not of friendly sameness, but independent and unknowable difference. The quail’s ‘cries’ are ‘spontaneous’, and ‘Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness’, bringing themselves forth for themselves, presumably far away from any human being who might eat them. Similarly, in the ‘isolation of the sky’, ‘casual flocks of pigeons make/Ambiguous undulations’. The sky is empty of heavenly meaning, and the pigeons are ‘casual’, unperturbed by any human conception or meaning placed on to them. The pigeons are expressive in their undulations, but these movements are ‘Ambiguous’, a human observer cannot decode their meaning for the pigeons themselves. We are not distant from the vibrant material world, but its meaning, its agency and hermetic existence is, in our current state, hidden from us. This intense intimacy with difference does not however alienate as one might expect. The very alienness of the nonhuman enchants and beguiles, a thrilling, endlessly deep environment of the more than human, of what goes beyond human subjectivity.
‘Sunday Morning’ manages to access the hope that can be found in paying attention to that which we cannot enter into – a nonhuman realm whose existence reminds us that we are not at the centre of a totally subjective, suffocatingly one-note cosmos. Rather, agency and independence do exist beyond us, hermetically sealed by our inability, as yet, to overcome conceptual structures. Despite this, an awareness that this independence is really out there is profoundly enchanting, a brightness threading through what we know, illuminating the possibility of freedom. Stevens’ poetry disenchants our expectations and beliefs – not to make us bereft, but to ignite our sensitivity to the enchanting vibrancy of the independent nonhuman world.