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The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm -- Wallace Stevens

Guest poem sent in by Cristina Gazzieri
(Poem #1249) The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm
 The house was quiet and the world was calm.
 The reader became the book; and summer night
 Was like the conscious being of the book.
 The house was quiet and the world was calm.
 The words were spoken as if there was no book,
 Except that the reader leaned above the page,
 Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
 The scholar to whom the book is true, to whom
 The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
 The house was quiet because it had to be.
 The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
 The access of perfection to the page.
 And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
 In which there is no other meaning, itself
 Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
 Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
-- Wallace Stevens
In Stevens, poetry becomes a key for reading reality; for organizing and
filtering life's chaos so as to create an inner, perfect  order both
artistic and gnosiological. (cfr. The Idea of Order at Key West).  This
poem expresses a quest for a poetry of totality where man is in accordance
with reality; a quest which characterized much literature of the 50s and
which finds (at least temporarily) a satisfying answer in this poem.

The poem presents the magic moment of multiple identifications when a
reader, with a book in his hands, recognizes himself, his world, the
substance of things in what he is reading, so that the reader, the book, the
summer night, the house, the world are all fused in an existential unity of
real, inner and outer, truth.  Even the reader of Stevens's poem becomes
part of this whole, thus equating himself with the fictional reader in the
poem in a confounding identification of roles which creates a mise en abime.
The reader becomes an instrument of literature; the poem he reads becomes
not simply a mirror of his condition as a reader, but rather that much more
vivid reality where emotion are stronger; concepts are clearer; events even
much more concrete but corresponding and complementary to those we may
experience while we are not reading, in the, so called, real life.

As an Italian reader I may be wrong, but I think in this conception of unity
there are echoes of oriental philosophies (which Stevens admired and
studied) according to which unity is a whole of parts combined in the
universal quiet, in the fusion of antithetic elements.

Stevens blends the variety of elements in a nocturne, oneiric, imaginative
moment through an incremental repetition which constantly enrich the meaning
of words with new attributes to specify and precise it.

Finally, I wonder if  the poem does not allow the reader (both real and
fictional) to become, a creator, a contributor to the artistic composition
as well as of an intense strong osmotic reality, which exchanges art and
life, words and experience.

Cristina Gazzieri

48 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Steve Forsythe said...

I have a rather niggling comment on the presentation of the poem. The formatting of the original divides the poem into separated groups of two lines. When I see it on the page that way and read it aloud, it reinforces the sense of calm by inducing pauses between the groups. When I read this version it seems to hurry the reader along.

I agree on Cristina's comment about oriental philosophy infusing the poem. Echoes are also in "The Snow Man" ("nothing that is not and the nothing that is") and "The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician" ("...the drifting of these curtains is full of long motions...or as clouds inseparable from their afternoons..." are good images for suchness and the interdependent co-arising of The Buddhists). In "The Snow Man", Stevens' "...mind of winter..." and his several references to "nothing" have been read alternately as nihilistic and in the non-pejorative sense of "emptiness" as used by the Buddhists. I prefer the latter.

Steve Forsythe

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