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Six Significant Landscapes -- Wallace Stevens

Guest poem sent in by Cristina Gazzieri
(Poem #1587) Six Significant Landscapes
        I
 An old man sits
 In the shadow of a pine tree
 In China.
 He sees larkspur,
 Blue and white,
 At the edge of the shadow,
 Move in the wind.
 His beard moves in the wind.
 The pine tree moves in the wind.
 Thus water flows
 Over weeds.

        II
 The night is of the colour
 Of a woman's arm:
 Night, the female,
 Obscure,
 Fragrant and supple,
 Conceals herself.
 A pool shines,
 Like a bracelet
 Shaken in a dance.

        III
 I measure myself
 Against a tall tree.
 I find that I am much taller,
 For I reach right up to the sun,
 With my eye;
 And I reach to the shore of the sea
 With my ear.
 Nevertheless, I dislike
 The way ants crawl
 In and out of my shadow.

        IV
 When my dream was near the moon,
 The white folds of its gown
 Filled with yellow light.
 The soles of its feet
 Grew red.
 Its hair filled
 With certain blue crystallizations
 From stars,
 Not far off.

        V
 Not all the knives of the lamp-posts,
 Nor the chisels of the long streets,
 Nor the mallets of the domes
 And high towers,
 Can carve
 What one star can carve,
 Shining through the grape-leaves.

        VI
 Rationalists, wearing square hats,
 Think, in square rooms,
 Looking at the floor,
 Looking at the ceiling.
 They confine themselves
 To right-angled triangles.
 If they tried rhomboids,
 Cones, waving lines, ellipses --
 As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon --
 Rationalists would wear sombreros.
-- Wallace Stevens
I have often worked with classes of students on this poem, and I like doing
it because each class, when discussing and interpreting it make it a very
peculiar poem; I have tried to gather the different interpretations my
students and I have been giving to the poem and to unite them . The titles
has, of course, influenced all class discussions. If these are "Six
Significant Landscapes" we have always started from the effort to visualize
them and then to attribute them meaning.  What has emerged is, more or less
this:

 +------------------------------------------------------------------------+
 |Stanzas|Continents| Types         |Themes           |Messages           |
 |-------+----------+---------------+-----------------+-------------------|
 |I      |Asia      |The philosopher|Time vs. Eternity|Man can acquire    |
 |       |          |               |                 |wisdom to          |
 |       |          |               |                 |appreciate what is |
 |       |          |               |                 |valuable (water)   |
 |       |          |               |                 |and what is not    |
 |       |          |               |                 |(weeds)            |
 |-------+----------+---------------+-----------------+-------------------|
 |II     |Africa    |The dancer     |The fascination  |Man can appreciate |
 |       |          |               |and sensuality of|and enjoy the      |
 |       |          |               |natural life.    |fascination of     |
 |       |          |               |                 |life.              |
 |       |          |               |                 |                   |
 |-------+----------+---------------+-----------------+-------------------|
 |III    |-         |The poet       |Awareness of the |Man must judge     |
 |       |          |               |ego, in          |himself and        |
 |       |          |The man        |comparison with  |collocate himself  |
 |       |          |               |nature and other |in the universe and|
 |       |          |               |people.          |in society         |
 |-------+----------+---------------+-----------------+-------------------|
 |IV     |America   |The divinity   |Ideality,        |It is also         |
 |       |          |               |spiritual        |pleasant/important |
 |       |          |               |elevation        |to cultivate       |
 |       |          |               |                 |dreams.            |
 |-------+----------+---------------+-----------------+-------------------|
 |V      |Europe    |-              |Art vs. nature   |Nature is the most |
 |       |          |               |                 |appealing form of  |
 |       |          |               |                 |art. (however      |
 |       |          |               |                 |suggestive art     |
 |       |          |               |                 |could be)          |
 |-------+----------+---------------+-----------------+-------------------|
 |VI     |-         |Rationalists   |The self-imposed |Man should look    |
 |       |          |               |limits of        |beyond the limits  |
 |       |          |               |rationalism.     |of any kind of     |
 |       |          |               |                 |ideology           |
 +------------------------------------------------------------------------+

This is only a limitative synthesis of all that this poem has suggested,
but, in general, when we come to the last stanza of the poem we have often
found, or felt that to interpret the poem simply as "rationalism is a limit"
was disqualifying the poem. Personally, I think that the final message is
that a "complete" man should have all these "landscapes" in himself, and,
especially, he should try to look afar, beyond the boundaries suggested by
his own continent, language, religion, natural background, social status,
cultural background ... trying to perceive or create more and more
landscapes of the soul.

Cristina

54 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Charlie O said...

This poem exemplifies the fact that poets are designated into two classes: divine and merely mortal. Stevens is clearly of the former and represents that here for his audience.

Generally speaking, the poem could be seen as an apology for why poets are what they are. Illustrating the immotal clash between rationalism and imagination, the poet curiously begins with an homage to haiku: deferential to the simplicity and efficiency of the form, but appreciative of the emotional magnitude gathered that approaches the sublime. He moves on to a simple metaphor which in itself signals that ("a pool shines...) the poet is dreaming, he is entering the land of the imagination. The third stanza creates a tension between reality and imagination, the poets naturally sides with living in the imagination. Comparing himself to a tall tree and saying he is taller is absurd, but by synthesizing the combination of sense and imagination, he is taller than the tree. He can traverse the sky and the ocean with the sense of sight and smell, a realm not reserved for humans but gods. He illustrates his preference for imagination over reality in the end("I dislike the way ants..."). The fourth stanza extends the metaphor of dreaming and the night but now the poet has left this world altogether and is floating in space next to the moon. His hubris knows no bounds, if he were merely godlike his presence would be localized merely to the earth. The poet through his extension of imagination can supercede even the divine, he is now space and time. But it all comes crashing down in the fifth stanza, as reality tries to pervade and "crack" this dome of imagination with knives, chisels and mallets. The people wielding those instruments are the rationalists, they are a small people cofined to their reality. The poet has no time for such restrictions.

A poem which starts with a Confucian-like parable and ends attacking rationalism, while extolling the highest virtues of art--sounds like a typical Stevens masterpiece.

Joan Winslow said...

Hello,

Sent by Languagehat.

I changed the feminine words to masculine and masculine to feminine,
and enjoyed this much more. The woman shakes her beard, the man as
supple night, makes me see the twists better. I get tired of being
the emblem of obscurity in men's poems.

Zhoen
Those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could
not hear the music.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

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