Meditating on Nature: Stevens, Levis, Cather

“The effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything.”  – Wallace Stevens, “The Green Plant”

It’s been awhile since I thought about the idea of inhuman mentors, and because I’ve left my graduate program in English to pursue a master’s in Library and Information Science, and because I’ve been busy volunteering, I haven’t had the chance to really pursue the idea or explore its contours further.  But I miss that feeling of being on the trail of something.  And because of a few things I’ve been reading recently, I was reminded of the idea and wished to blog further about it.

This was the idea, in a roundabout way: I was growing more interested in representations of nature and landscape in poetry, and the way that these representations radically changed over time.  This, I should add, has been written about extensively, and I didn’t feel that I had much to add to it.  The basic story goes that, for example, Wordsworth saw a different mountain than Stevens.  For Wordsworth, nature was not a blank that we project upon.  For Wordsworth, as James Heffernan writes in Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetry: The Transforming Imagination, “nature provides a model for the creative transformations wrought by man” (95).  In other words, there is some kind of affinity between the power of the human imagination and the power of nature.  I think this sounds simpler than it actually is, and that Wordsworth’s idea was stranger than we think.  Heffernan writes, “because of this dynamic correspondence of forces, Wordsworth held that the creation of poetry imitates the action of creative power in the visible world” (97).  When Wordsworth wrote a poem, there was a similarity between the power that produced the poem, and the power that rolls rivers and produces mountains.  Nowadays I think this belief would seem hyperbolic, if not psychotic, and Stevens strikes me (and alot of others, too) as the great leveler of this belief.  Because for Stevens, as soon as we banished the idea of God, as soon as the world became an empty stage, nature became more matter that we projected upon.  (“The effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything.”)  Nature did not bear affinities with the active imagination; it was passive and inert, it had no language, truth did not reside in it, for, as Stevens wrote in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “it was she [the singer] and not the sea we heard.”

While I agreed with other scholars that Stevens had changed the role of nature in poetry, calling attention to its state of meaninglessness and the ways we as human beings imbue nature with meaning, I also sometimes felt that this argument overstated its claim.  What do I mean?  There were times in Stevens’s poetry where nature served as an inhuman mentor to the speaker.  It didn’t speak, and it certainly did not correspond with the human imagination in terms of power; and yet, in our living with nature, alongside it, a certain residue built up inside the mind, for lack of a better way to say it – and we learned from nature, we learned from its very meaninglessness.  It was like an unspeaking shadow through which we could glean lessons.  But at the risk of sounding hopelessly gnomic and obscure, let me share a excerpt of a poem by Stevens, called “Two Illustrations that the World is What you Make of It,” the section called “The Constant Disquisition of the Wind”:

The sky seemed so small that winter day,

A dirty light on a lifeless world,

Contracted like a withered stick.


It was not the shadow of cloud and cold,

But a sense of the distance of the sun –

The shadow of a sense of his own,


A knowledge that the actual day

Was so much less.  Only the wind

Seemed large and loud and high and strong.


And as he thought within the thought

Of the wind, not knowing that that thought

Was not his thought, nor anyone’s,


The appropriate image of himself,

So formed, became himself and he breathed

The breath of another nature as his own,


But only its momentary breath,

Outside of and beyond the dirty light,

That never could be animal,


A nature still without a shape,

Except his own – perhaps, his own

In a Sunday’s violent idleness.

In this excerpt, we are given a glimpse into a drama of the mind, in which nature plays an enormous role, despite being inert and lifeless.  In this drama, the natural world in itself allows the poet to learn certain things.  Here, the poet is meditating on the distance of the sun from himself, and this distance serves as a “shadow of a sense of his own // A knowledge that the actual day / Was so much less.”  The word “sense” here refers to knowledge, and hence is a broadened usage of sense, referring less to eyesight, say, and more to what we mean when we talk about “making sense.”  But what happens in this meditation is wonderful and very strange.  The very distance of the sun, the speaker reflects, makes him feel like the day itself is small.  Although Stevens leaves out some steps here, it seems as if what happens is:

  1. Stevens looks at the sun.
  2. He reflects on how the sun is so far away.
  3. He think about the distance between himself and the sun.
  4. He starts to think about the day itself.
  5. The distance between himself and the sun is transposed upon the relationship between himself and the day.
  6. The day is distant from him.
  7. The day is small.
  8. The day seems insignificant.
  9. Only the wind seems significant.
  10. Stevens meditates on the wind because it is significant.
  11. This meditation makes Stevens feel more human – “the appropriate image of himself” – despite the inhumanness of the wind.

Here, Stevens’ meditation is contingent upon nature as a kind of imaginative resource.  Nature is not represented as something that parallels the imagination, but it is something that the imagination can take up and think about, and this thinking about nature transforms the speaker into “the appropriate image of himself.”

I think, though, that there are gradations and variations to this transformation.  In some poetry, nature is taken up only to emphasize its meaninglessness.  Some poems leave the speaker feeling not more human but less.  In other poems, this meditation on nature leads to an attempt to behave similarly, in the vein of nature.  For example, here is an excerpt from “Adah,” by Larry Levis, from his book The Dollmaker’s Ghost:

I can remember the almost private outburst

Of rain on the tin sheds:

A sound as precise as a small fire taking hold

Of its kindling;

Or, when the rain stopped, the drone of flies

And their shining –

And how the horses outside

Would lift and drop a hoof in the pasture

As they grazed, heads down,

Or flicked their ears back…

And the skin inside their ears resembling a human’s,

But softer, really, than anyone’s

I have ever met, or will meet now.

Not even

The balding widow mesmerized by fans

And by Sundays,

Who waits all night now for sleep

Can do without counting horses and flies

Until she is alone,

Before sleep, and lying in the stiffened,

Almost righteous position that pain allows her.

And as if prayer could collapse

The tool shed and split the shining anvil

Inside it,

She will not do anything as precise and blasphemous

As pray anymore.

She will only listen, and think,

Maybe, of horses,

And do as little as horses do,

Which is her privilege, as it is the river’s,

Or the heavy woods, which do nothing.

In Levis’s poem, his meditation on the rain, the flies, and the horses shifts into his thinking about a widow who is trying to go to sleep, and counting horses and sheep to do so.  Both Levis and the widow, like Stevens, use nature as an occasion for meditating upon something, though nature still retains its state of “do[ing] nothing.”  Like the sun and the wind for Stevens, the widow of Levis’s poem meditates upon horses, and this leads to a change in her self, for she decides to do “as little as horses do,” which is to “do nothing.”  In both cases, nature itself, though inert, is used as material for meditation.  It’s a far cry from Wordworth’s version, but it is still somehow more active as a contemplative resource.

I want to end this blog post with one last example from literature, this one taken from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which is a kunstlerroman (a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity) about a young girl who grows into becoming a great singer.  I’m using this example as just one more facet of this strange dynamic between human beings and nature, as represented in the verbal arts, in which nature plays a rather idiosyncratic role as something necessary to cogitate on.  In this example, Thea Kronborg, the main protagonist, has just left a very intense music lesson with her teacher, Professor Wunsch, on her thirteenth birthday, during which Wunsch launches into a kind of disquisition about a form of knowledge, a kind of “sense” as Stevens puts it in “Two Illustrations that the World is What you Make of It,” a sense that a singer needs in order to be successful in the best way.  This sense of things that a singer needs in order to be authentically successful is, as Wunsch puts it in his German dialect, “the secret – what make the rose to red, the sky to blue, the man to love” (363, Willa Cather, the Early Novels and Stories, Library of America).  Wunsch is, like Wordsworth, finding an analogy between nature and human beings – the nature of the rose in its redness and the sky in its blueness is analogous to what makes a person love someone else.  But it is interesting what Thea learns from this Wordsworthian analogy.  Here is Cather, ending the chapter:

“Thea got her music-book and stole quietly out of the garden.  She did not go home, but wandered off into the sand dunes, where the prickly pear was in blossom and the green lizards were racing each other in the glittering light.  She was shaken by a passionate excitement.  She did not altogether understand what Wunsch was talking about; and yet, in a way she knew.  She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different.  But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself.  She brought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself.  The something came and went, she never knew how.  Sometimes she hunted for it and could not find it; again, she lifted her eyes from a book, or stepped out of doors, or wakened in the morning, and it was there, – under her cheek, it usually seemed to be, or over her breast, – a kind of warm sureness.  And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people.  When this companion was with her, she could get the most wonderful things out of Spanish Johnny, or Wunsch, or Dr. Archie.

On her thirteenth birthday she wandered for a long while about the sand ridges, picking up crystals and looking into the yellow prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens.  She looked at the sand hills until she wished she were a sand hill.  And yet she knew that she was going to leave them all behind some day.  They would be changing all day long, yellow and purple and lavender, and she would not be there.  From that day on, she felt there was a secret between her and Wunsch.  Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something.  They hid it away and never spoke of what they had seen; but neither of them forgot it.”

What has Thea learned from Wunsch?  Whatever she has taken away from her lesson – and Cather purposely keeps it vague, though it seems to have something to do with Thea’s abilities as a singer – it seems as though Thea requires the natural world around her to make sense of this something.  After leaving Wunsch, on her birthday, she doesn’t return home, but wanders along the sand ridges, “picking up crystals and looking into the yellow prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens.”  It’s as if nature, as something mysterious, allows Thea to meditate and even brood further on the mystery of Wunsch’s lesson, as well as on the “friendly spirit” part of herself that she feels makes her unique as a human being.  Wunsch’s lesson seems to inspire Thea to seeks out its implications in nature, through a language-less encounter with it.  Like Stevens and Levis’s poems, nature serves as an occasion for meditation because of its strangeness.  It is an inhuman mentor par excellence.







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