An Essay By Wallace Stevens

April 8, 2009

posted by Rachel Shine

originally published in a collection of essays by Wallace Stevens entitled “The Necessary Angel.’ It might be a long post, but it’s worth it….trust is essential to all readers.


The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet

Wallace Stevens


It appears that what is central to philosophy is its least valuable part.  Note the three scraps to follow.  First, part of a letter from Henry Bradley to Robert Bridges, as follows:

My own attitude towards all philosophies old and new, is very sceptical.  Not that I despise philosophy or philosophers; but I feel that the universe of being is too vast to be comprehended even by the greatest of the sons of Adam.  We do get, I believe, glimpses of the real problems, perhaps even of the real solutions; but when we have formulated our questions, I fear we have always substituted illusory problems for the real ones.

This was in reply to a letter from Bridges, in which Bridges appears to have commented on Bergson.  Then, second, it is Bergson that Paul Valéry called

peut-être l’un des derniers hommes qui auront exclusivement, profondément et supérieurement pensé, dans une époque du monde où le monde va pensant et méditant de moins en moins. . . . Bergson semble déjà appartenir à un âge révolu, et son nom est le dernier grand nom de l’histoire de l’intelligence européenne.

And yet, third, it is Bergson’s L’Evolution Créatrice that William James said in a letter to Berson himself:

You may be amused at the comparison, but in finishing it, I found the same after-taste remaining as after finishing Madame Bovary, such a flavor of persistent euphony.


If these expressions speak for any considerable number of people and, therefore, if any considerable number of people feel this way about the truth and about what may be called the official view of being (since philosophic truth may be said to be the official view), we cannot expect much inn respect to poetry, assuming that we define poetry as an unofficial view of being.  This is a much larger definition of poetry than it is usual to make.  But just as the nature of the truth changes, perhaps for no more significant reason than that philosophers live and die, so the nature of poetry changes, perhaps for no more significant reason than that poets come and go.  It is so easy to say in a universe of life and death that the reason itself lives and dies and, if so, that the imagination lives and dies no less.

Once on a packet on his way to Germany Coleridge was asked to join a party of Danes and drink with them.  He says:

I went, and found some excellent wines and a dessert of grapes with a pine-apple.  The Danes had christened me Doctor Teology, and dressed as I was all in black, with large shoes and worsted stockings, I might certainly have passed very well for a Methodist missionary.  However I disclaimed my title.  What then may you be . . . Un philosophe, perhaps?  It was at that time in my life in which of all possible names and characters I had the greatest disgust to that of un philosophe. . . . The Dane then informed me that all in the present party were Philosophers likewise. . . . We drank and talked and sung, till we talked and sung altogether; and then we rose and danced on the deck a set of dances.

As poetry goes, as the imagination goes, as the approach to truth, or, say, to being by way of the imagination goes, Coleridge is one of the great figures.  Even so, just as William James found in Bergson a persistent euphony, so we find in Coleridge, dressed in black, with large shoes and black worsted stockings, dancing on the deck of a Hamburg packet, a man  who may be said to have been defining poetry all his life in definitions that are valid enough, but which no longer impress us primarily by their validity.

To define poetry as an unofficial view of being places it in contrast with philosophy and at the same time establishes the relationship between the two.  In philosophy we attempt to approach truth through the reason.  Obviously this is a statement of convenience.  If we say that in poetry we attempt to approach truth through   the imagination, this, too, is a statement of convenience.  We must conceive of poetry as at least the equal of philosophy.  If truth is the object of both and if any considerable number of people feel very sceptical of all philosophers, then, to be brief about it, a still more considerable number of people must feel very sceptical of all poets.  Since we expect rational ideas to satisfy the reason and imaginative ideas to satisfy the imagination, it follows that if we are sceptical of rational ideas it is because they do not satisfy the reason and if we are sceptical of imaginative ideas, it is because they do not satisfy the imagination.  If a rational idea does not satisfy the imagination, it may, nevertheless, satisfy the reason.  If an  imaginative idea does not satisfy the reason, we regard the fact as in the nature of things.  if an imaginative idea does not satisfy the imagination, our expectation of it is not fulfilled.  On the other hand, and finally, if an imaginative idea satisfies the imagination, we are indifferent to the fact that it does not satisfy the reason, although we concede that it would be complete, as an idea, if, in addition to satisfying the imagination, it also satisfied the reason.  From this analysis, we deduce that an idea that satisfies both the reason and the imagination, if it happened, for instance, to be an idea of God, would establish a divine beginning and end for us which, at the moment, the reason, singly, at best proposes and on which, at the moment, the imagination, singly, merely meditates.  This is an illustration.  It seems to be elementary, from this point of view, that the poet, in order to fulfill himself, must accomplish a poetry that satisfies both the reason and the imagination.  It does not follow that in the long run the poet will find himself in the position in which the philosopher now finds himself.  On the contrary, if the end of the philosopher is despair, the end of the poet is fulfillment, since the poet finds a sanction for life in poetry that satisfies the imagination.  Thus, poetry, which we have been thinking of as at least the equal of philosophy, may be it superior.  Yet the area of definition is almost an area of apologetics.  The look of it may change a little if we consider not that the definition has not yet been found but that there is none.


Certainly the definition has not yet been found.  You will not find it in such works as those on the art of poetry by Aristotle and Horace.  In his edition of Aristotle’s work Principal Fyfe says that Aristotle did not even appreciate poetry.  In the time of Aristotle, there was no such word as literature in Greek.  Yet today poetry is literature more often than not; for poetry partakes of what may be called the tendency to become literature.  Life itself partakes of this tendency, which is a phase of the growth of sophistication.  Sophistication, in turn, is a phase of development of civilization.  Aristotle understood poetry to be imitation particularly of action in drama.  In Chapter 6, Aristotle states the parts of tragedy, among them thought and character, which are not to be confused.  He says that character in a play is that which reveals the moral purpose of the agents, i.e., the sort of thing they seek or avoid—hence, there is no room for character in a speech on a purely indifferent subject.  The annotation of the editor is this:

A man who chooses, e.g., vengeance rather than safety reveals his character by exercise of Will.  A man who at dinner chooses grouse rather than rabbit reveals nothing, because no sane man would choose otherwise.

This sort of thing has nothing to do with poetry.  With our sense of the imaginative today, we are bound to consider a language that did not contain a word for literature as extraordinary even though the language was the language of Plato.  With us it is not a paradox to say that poetry and literature are close together.  Although there is no definition of poetry, there are impressions, approximations.  Shelley gives us an approximation when he gives us a definition in what he calls “a general sense.” He speaks of poetry as created by “that imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man.” He says that a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.  it is “indeed something divine.  It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge . . . the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds . . . it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life.” In spite of the absence of a definition and in spite of the impressions and approximations we are never at a loss to recognize poetry.  As a consequence it is easy for us to propose a center of poetry, a vis or noeud vital, to which, in the absence of a definition, all the variations of definition are peripheral.  Sometimes we think that a psychology of poetry has found its way to the center.  We say that poetry is metamorphosis and we come to see in a few lines descriptive of an eye, a hand, a stick, the essence of the matter, and we see it so definitely that we say if the philosopher comes to nothing because he fails, the poet may come to nothing because he succeeds.  The philosopher fails to discover.  Suppose the poet discovered and had the power thereafter at will and by intelligence to reconstruct us by his transformations.  He would also have the power to destroy us.  If there was, or if we believed that there was, a center, it would be absurd to fear or to avoid its discovery.

Since we have no difficulty in recognizing poetry and since, at the same time, we say that it is not an attainable acme, not some breath from an altitude, not something that awaits discovery, after which it will not be subject to chance, we may be accounting for it if we say that it is a process of the personality of the poet.  One does not have to be a cardinal to make the point.  To say that it is a process of the personality of the poet does not mean that it involves the poet as subject.  Aristotle said: “The poet should say very little in propria persona.” Without stopping to discuss what might be discussed for so long, not that the principle so stated by Aristotle is cited in relation to the point that poetry is a process of the personality of the poet.  This is the element, the force, that keeps poetry a living thing, the modernizing and ever-modern influence.  The statement that the process does not involve the poet as subject, to the extent to which that is true, precludes direct egotism.  On the other hand, without indirect egotism there can be no poetry.  There can be no poetry without the personality of the poet, and that, quite simply, is why the definition of poetry has not been found and why, in short, there is none.  In one of the really remarkable books of the day, The Life of Forms a in Art, Henri Focillon says:

Human consciousness is in perpetual pursuit of a language and style.  To assume consciousness is at once to assume form.  Even at levels far below the zone of definition and clarity, forms, measures and relationships exist.  The chief characteristic of the mind is to be describing itself.

This activity is indirect egotism.  The mind of the poet describes itself in his forms, or as the mind of Cézanne described itself in his “psychological landscapes.” We are talking about something a good deal more comprehensive than the temperament of the artist as that is usually spoken of.  We are concerned with the whole personality and, in effect, we are saying that the poet who writes the heroic poem that will satisfy all there is of us and all of us in time to come, will accomplish it by the power of his reason, the force of his imagination and, in addition, the effortless and inescapable process of his own individuality.

It was of the temperament of the artist that Cézanne spoke so frequently in his letters, and while we mean something more, so, it seems, did Cézanne.  He said:

Primary force alone, id est temperament, can bring a person to the end he must attain.


With a small temperament one can be very much of a painter.  It is sufficient to have a sense of art. . . . Therefore institutions, pensions, honours can only be made for cretins, rogues and rascals.

And again, this time to Emile Bernard:

Your letters are precious to me . . . because their arrival lifts me out of the monotony which is caused by the incessant . . . search for the sole and unique aim. . . . I am able to describe to you again . . . the realization of that part of nature which, coming into our line of vision, gives the picture.  Now the theme to develop is that—whatever our temperament or power in the presence of nature may be—we must render the image f what we see.

And, finally, to his son:

Obviously one must succeed in feeling for oneself and in expressing oneself sufficiently.


An attempt has been made to equate poetry with philosophy, and to do this with an indication of the possibility that an advantage, in the long run, may lie with poetry; and yet it has been said that poetry is personal.  If it is personal in a pejorative sense its value is slight and it is not the equal of philosophy.  What we have  under observation, however, is the creative process, the personality of the poet, his individuality, as an element in the creative process; and by process of the personality of the poet we mean, to select what may seem to be a curious particular, the incidence of the nervous sensitiveness of the poet in the act of creating the poem and, generally speaking, the physical and mental factors that condition him as an individual.  If a man’s nerves shrink from loud sounds, they are quite likely to shrink from strong colors and he will be found preferring a drizzle in Venice to a hard rain in Hartford.  Everything is of a piece.  If he composes music it will be music agreeable to his own nerves.  Yet it is commonly thought that the artist is independent of his work.  In his chapter on “Forms in the Realm of the Mind,” M. Focillon speaks of a vocation of substances, or technical destiny, to which there is a corresponding vocation of minds; that is to say, a certain order of forms corresponds to a certain order of minds.  These things imply an element of change.  Thus a vocation recognizes its material by foresight, before experience.  As an example of this, her refers to the first state of the Prisons of Piranesi as skeletal.  But “twenty years later, Piranesi returned to these etchings, and on taking them up again one might say that he excavated this astonishing darkness not from the brazen plates, but from the living rock of some subterranean world.” The way a poet feels when he is writing, or after he has written, a poem that completely accomplishes his purpose is evidence of the personal nature of his activity.  To describe it by exaggerating it, he shares the transformation, not to say apotheosis, accomplished by the poem.  It must be this experience that makes him think of poetry as possibly a phase of metaphysics; and it must be this experience that teases him with that sense of the possibility of a remote, a mystical vis or noeud vital to which reference has already been made.  In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson speaks of the morality of aspiration.  It implicitly contains, he says,

the feeling of progress.  The emotion . . . is the enthusiasm of a forward movement . . . But antecedent to this metaphysical theory . . .  are the simpler representations . . . of the founders of religion, the mystics and the saints . . . They begin by saying that what they experience is a feeling of liberation. . . .

The feeling is not a feeling peculiar to exquisite or (perhaps, as better) precise realization, and hence confined to poets who exceed us in nature as they do in speech.  There is nothing rare about it although it may extend to degrees of rarity.  On the contrary, just as Bergson refers to the simpler representations of aspiration occurring in the lives of the saint, so we may refer to the simpler representations of an aspiration (not the same, yet not wholly unlike) occurring in the lives of those who have just written their first essential poems.  After all, the young man or young woman who has written a few poems and who wants to read them is merely the voluble convert or the person looking a mirror who sees suddenly the traces of an unexpected genealogy.  We are interested in this transformation primarily on the part of the poet.  Yet it is a thing that communicates itself to the reader.  Anyone who has read a long poem day after day as, for example, The Faerie Queene, knows how the poem comes to possess the reader and how it naturalizes him in its own imagination and liberates him there.

This sense of liberation may be examined specifically in relation to the experience of writing a poem that completely accomplishes the purpose of the poet.  Bergson had  in mind religious aspiration.  The poet who experiences what was once called inspiration experiences both aspiration and inspiration.  But that is not a difference, for it is clear that Bergson intended to include in aspiration not only desire but the fulfillment of desire, not only the petition but the harmonious decree.  What is true of the experience of the poet is no doubt true of the experience of the painter, of the musician and of any artist.  If, then, when we speak of liberation, we mean an exodus; if when we speak of justification, we mean a kind of justice of which we had not known and on which we had not counted; if when we experience a sense of purification, we can think of the establishing of a self, it is certain that the experience of the poet is of no less a degree than the experience of the mystic and we may be certain that in the case of poets, the peers of saints, those experiences are of no less a degree than the experiences of the saints themselves.  It is a question of the nature of the experience.  It is not a question of identifying or relating dissimilar figures; that is to say, it is not a question of making saints out of poets or poets out of saints.

In this state of elevation we feel perfectly adapted to the idea that moves and l’oiseau qui chante.  The identity of the feeling is subject to discussion and, from this, it follows that its value is debatable.  It may be dismissed, on the one hand, as a commonplace aesthetic satisfaction; and, on the other hand, if we say that the idea of God is merely a poetic idea, even if the supreme poetic idea, and that our notions of heaven and hell are merely poetry not so called, even if poetry that involves us vitally, the feeling of deliverance, of a release, of a perfection touched, of a vocation so that all men may know the truth and that the truth may set them free—if we say these things and if we are able to see the poet who achieved God  and placed Him in His seat in heaven in all His glory, the poet himself, still in the ecstasy of the poem that completely accomplished his purpose, would have seemed, whether young or old, whether in rags or ceremonial robe, a man who needed what he had created, uttering  the hymns of joy that followed his creation.  This may be a gross exaggeration of a very simple matter.  But perhaps that remark is true of many of the more  prodigious things of life and death.


The centuries have a way of being male.  Without pretending to say whether they get this character from their good heroes or their bad ones, it is certain that they get it, in part, from their philosophers and poets.  It is curious, looking back at them, to see how much of the impression that they leave has been derived from the progress of thought in their time and from the abundance of the arts, including poetry, left behind and how little of it comes from prouder and much noisier things.  Thus, when we think of the seventeenth century, it is to be remarked how much of the strength of its appearance is associated with the idea that this was a time when the incredible suffered most at the hands of the credible.  We think of it as a period of hard thinking.  We have only their records and memories by which to recall such eras, not the sight and sound of those that lived in them preserved in an eternity of dust and dirt.  When we look back at the face of the seventeenth century, it is at the rigorous face of the rigorous thinker and, say, Miltonic image of a poet, severe and determined.  In effect, what we are remembering is the rather haggard background of the incredible, the imagination without intelligence, from which a younger figure is emerging, stepping forward in the company of a muse of its own, still half-beast and somehow more than human, a kind of sister of the Minotaur.  This younger figure is the intelligence that endures.  It is the imagination of the son still bearing the antique imagination of the father.  It is the clear intelligence of the young man still bearing the burden of the obscurities of the intelligence of the old.  It is the spirit out of its own self, not out of some surrounding myth, delineating with accurate speech the complications of which it is composed.  For this Aeneas, it is the past that is Anchises.

The incredible is not a part of poetic truth.  On the contrary, what concerns us in poetry, as in everything else, is the belief of credible people in credible things.  It follows that poetic truth is the truth of credible things, not so much as that it is actually so, as that it must be so.  It is toward that alone that it is possible for the intelligence to move.  In one of his letters, Xavier Doudan says: “Il y a longtemps que celui qui n’arait que des idées claires serait assurément un sot.” The reply to this is that it is impossible to conceive of a man who has nothing but clear ideas; for our nature is an illimitable space through which the intelligence moves without cfoming to an end.  The incredible is inexhaustible but, fortunately, it is not always the same.  We come, in this way, to understand that the moment of exaltation that the poet experiences when he writes a poem that completely accomplishes his purpose, is a moment of victory over the incredible, a moment of purity that does not become any the less pure because, as what was incredible is eliminated, something newly credible takes its place.  As we come to the point at which it is necessary to be explicit in respect to poetic truth, note that, if we say that the philosopher pursues the truth in one way and the poet in another, it is implied that they are pursuing the same thing, and we overlook the fact that they are pursuing two different parts of a whole.  It is as if we said that the end of logic, mathematics, physics, reason and imagination is all one.  In short, it is as if we said that there is no difference between philosophic truth and poetic truth.  There is a difference between them and it is the difference between logical and empirical knowledge.  Since philosophers do not agree in respect to what constitutes philosophic truth, as Bertrand Russell (if any illustration whatever is necessary) demonstrates in his Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, even in the casual comment that truth as a static concept is to be discarded, it may not be of much use to improvise a definition of poetic truth.  Nevertheless, it may be said that poetic truth is an agreement with reality, brought about by the imagination of a man disposed to be strongly influenced by his imagination, which he believes, for a time, to be true, expressed in terms of his emotions or, since it is less of a restriction to say so, in terms of his own personality.  And so stated, the difference between philosophic truth and poetic truth seems to become final.  As to the definition itself, it is an expedient for getting on.  We shall come back to the nature of poetic truth very shortly.

In the most propitious climate and in the midst of life’s virtues, the simple figure of the youth as virile poet is always surrounded by a cloud of double characters, against whose thought and speech it is imperative that he should remain on constant guard.  These are the poetic philosophers and the philosophical poets.  Mme. De Staël said: “Nos meilleurs poétes lyriques, en France, ce sont peut-être nos grands prosateurs, Bossuet, Pascal, Fénelon, Buffon, Jean-Jacques. . . .” M. Claudel added Rabelais, Chateaubriand, even Balzac, and when he did so, M. René Fernandat said: “On remarquera que M. Claudel a supprimé les ‘peut-être’ de Mme. De Staël.” In English the poetic aspect of Bunyan is quite commonly recognized.  This is an occasion to call attention to William Penn as an English poet, although he may never have written a line of verse.  But the illustration of Descartes is irresistible.  To speak of figures like Descartes as double characters is an inconceivable difficulty.  In his exegesis of The Discourse on Method, Leon Roth says:

His vision showed him first the “dictionary,” then the “poets,” and only afterwards the est et non; and his “rationalism,” like the “anti-rationalism” of Pascal, was the product of a struggle not always completely successful.  What less “rationalistic” could there be than the early thought preserved by Baillet from the Olympica (one may note in passing the poetical names of all these early works):  “There are sentences in the writings of the poets more serious than ion those of the philosophers. . . . There are in us, as in a flint, seeds of knowledge.  Philosophers adduce them through the reason; poets strike them out from the imagination, and these are the brighter.” It was the “rationalist” Voltaire who first called attention to the “poetic” in Descartes. . . .  To the casual reader there is nothing more remarkable than the careless richness of his style.  It is full of smilies drawn not only from the arts, like architecture, painting and the stage, but also from the familiar scenes of ordinary and country life. . . . And this is not only in his early writing.  It is apparent even in his latest published work, the scientific analysis of the “passions of the soul,” and it was Voltaire again who commented first on the fact that the last thing from his pen was a ballet written for the Queen of Sweden.

The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists.  The poet merely enjoys existence.  The philosopher thinks of the world as an enormous pastiche or, as he puts it, the world is as the percipient.  Thus Kant says that the objects of perception are conditioned by the nature of the mind as to their form.  But the poet says that, whatever it may be, la vie est plus belle que les idées. One needs hardly to be told that men more or less irrational are only more or less rational; so that it was not surprising to find Raymond Mortimer saying in the New Statesman that the “thoughts” of Shakespeare or Raleigh or Spencer were in fact only contemporary commonplaces and that it was a Victorian habit to praise poets as thinkers, since their “thoughts are usually borrowed or confused.” But do we come away from Shakespeare with the sense that we have been reading contemporary commonplaces?  Long ago, Sarah Bernhardt was playing Hamlet.  When she came to the soliloquy “To be or not to be,” she half turned her back on the audience and slowly weaving one hand in a small circle above her head and regarding it, she said, with deliberation and as from the depths of a hallucination:

D’être ou ne pas d’être, c’est là la question . . .

and one followed her, lost  in the intricate metamorphosis of thoughts that passed through the mind with a gallantry, an accuracy of abundance, a crowding and pressing of direction, which, for thoughts that were both borrowed and confused, canceled the borrowing and obliterated the confusion.

There is a life apart from politics.  It is this life that the youth as virile poet lives, in a kind of radiant and productive atmosphere.  It is the life of that atmosphere.  There the philosopher is an alien.  The pleasure that the poet has there is a pleasure of agreement with the radiant and productive world in which he lives.  It is an agreement that Mallarmé found in the sound of

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui

and that Hopkins found in the color of

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder.

The indirect purpose or, perhaps, it would be better to say, inverted effect of soliloquies in hell and of most celestial poems and, in a general sense, of all music played on the terraces of the audiences of the moon, seems to be to produce an agreement with reality.  It is the mundo of the imagination in which the imaginative man delights and not the gaunt world of the reason.  The pleasure is the pleasure of powers that create a truth that cannot be arrived at by the reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation.  The morality of the right sensation.


I have compared poetry and philosophy; I have made a point of the degree to which poetry is personal, both in it origin and in its end, and have spoken of the typical exhilaration that appears to be inseparable from genuine poetic activity; I have said that the general progress from the incredible to the credible was a progress in which poetry has participated; I have improvised a definition of poetic truth and have spoken of the integrity and peculiarity of the poetic character.  Summed up, out position at the moment is that the poet must get rid of the hieratic in everything that concerns him and must move constantly in the direction of the credible.  He must create his unreal out of what is real.

If we consider the nature of our experience when we are in agreement with reality, we find, for one thing, that we cease to be metaphysicians.  William James said:

Most of them [i.e., metaphysicians] have been invalids.  I am one, can’t sleep, can’t make a decision, can’t buy a horse, can’t do anything that befits a man; and yet you say from my photograph that I must be a second General Sherman, only greater and better!  All right! I love you for the fond delusion.

For all the reasons stated by William James, and for many more, and in spite of M. Jacques Maritain, we do not want to be metaphysicians.  In the crowd around the simple figure of the youth as virile poet, there are metaphysicians, among the others.  And having ceased to be metaphysicians, even though we have acquired something from them as from all  men, and standing in the radiant and productive atmosphere, and examining first one detail of that world, one particular, and then another, as we find them by chance, and observing many things that seem to be poetry without intervention on our part, as, for example, the blue sky, and noting, in any case, that the imagination never brings anything into the world but that, on the contrary, like the personality of the poet, in the act of creating, it is no more than a process, and desiring with all the power of our desire not to write falsely, do we not begin to think of the possibility that poetry is only reality, after all, and that poetic truth is a factual truth, seen, it may be, by those whose range in the perception of fact—that is, whose sensibility—is greater than our own?  From that point of view, the truth that we experience when we are in agreement with reality is the truth of fact.  In consequence, when men, baffled by philosophic truth, turn to poetic truth,. They return to their starting-point, they return to fact, not, it ought to be clear, to bare fact (or call it absolute fact), but to fact possibly beyond their perception in the first instance and outside the normal range of their sensibility.  What we have called elevation and elation on the part of the poet, which he communicates to the reader, may be not so much elevation as an incandescence of the intelligence and so more than ever a triumph over the incredible.  Here as part of the purification that all of us undergo as we approach any central purity, and that we feel in its presence, we can say:

No longer do I believe that there is a mystic muse, sister of the Minotaur.  This is another of the monsters I had for nurse, whom I have wasted.  I am myself a part of what is real, and it is my own speech and the strength of it, this only, that I hear or ever shall.

These words may very well be an inscription above the portal to what lies ahead.  But if poetic truth means fact and if fact includes the whole of it as it is between the extreme poles of sensibility, we are talking about a thing as extensible as it is ambiguous.  We have excluded absolute fact as an element of poetic truth.  But this has been done arbitrarily and with a sense of absolute fact as fact destitute of any imaginative aspect whatever.  Unhappily the more destitute it becomes the more it begins to be precious.  We must limit ourselves to saying that there are so many things which, as they are, and without any intervention of the imagination, seem to be imaginative objects that it is no doubt true that absolute fact includes everything that the imagination includes.  This is our intimidating thesis.

One sees demonstrations of this everywhere.  For example, if we close our eyes and think of a place where it would be plesant to spend a holiday, and if there slide across the black eyes, like a setting on a stage, a rock that sparkles, a blue sea that lashes, and hemlocks in which the sun can merely fumble, this inevitably demonstrates, since the rock and sea, the wood and sun are those that have been familiar to us in Maine, that much of the world of fact is the equivalent of the world of the imagination, because it looks like it.  Here we are on the border of the question of the relationship of the imagination and memory, which we avoid.  It is important to believe that the visible is the equivalent of the invisible; and once we believe it, we have destroyed the false imagination, the false conception of the imagination as some incalculable vates within us, unhappy Rodomontade.  One is often tempted to say that the best definition of poetry is that poetry is the sum of its attributes.  So, here, we may say that the best definition of of true imagination is that it is the sum of our faculties.  Poetry is the scholar’s art.  The acute intelligence of the imagination, the illimitable resources of its memory, its power to possess the moment it perceives—if we were speaking of light itself, and thinking of the relationship between objects and light, no further demonstration would be necessary.  Like light, it adds nothing, except itself.  What light requires a day to do, and by day I mean a kind of Biblical revolution of time, the imagination does in the twinkling of an eye.  It colors, increases, brings to a beginning and end, invents languages, crushes men and, for that matter, gods in its hands, it says to women more than it is possible to say, it rescues all of us from what we have called absolute fact and while it does these things, and more, it makes sure that

. . . la mandoline jase,

Parmi les frissons de brise.

Having identified poetic truth as the truth of fact, since fact includes poetic fact, that is to say: the indefinite number of actual things that  are indistinguishable from objects of the imagination; and having, as we hope, washed the imagination clean, we may now return, once again, to the figure of the youth as virile poet and join him, or try to do so, in coming to the decision, on which, for him and for us, too, so much depends.  At what level of the truth shall he compose his poems?  That is the question on which he is reflecting, as he sits in the radiant and productive atmosphere, which is his life, surrounded not only by double characters and metaphysicians, but by many men and many kinds of men, by many women and many children and many kinds of women and of children.  The question concerns the function of the poet today and tomorrow, but makes no pretense beyond.  He is able to read the inscription on the portal and he repeats:

I am myself a part of what is real and it is my own speech and the strength of it, this only, that I hear or ever shall.

He says, so that we can all hear him:

I am the truth, since I am part of what is real, but neither more nor less than those around me.  And I am imagination, in a leaden time and in a world that does not move for the weight of its own heaviness.

Can there be the slightest doubt what the decision will be?  Can we suppose for a moment that he will be content merely to make notes, merely to copy Katahdin, when, with his sense of the heaviness of the world, he feels his own power to lift, or help lift, that heaviness away?  Can we think that he will elect anything except to exercise his power to the full and at its height, meaning by this as part of what is real, to rely on his imagination, to make his own imagination that of those who have none, or little?

And how will he do this?  It is not possible to say how an imaginative person will do a thing.  Having made an election, he will be faithful to the election that he has made.  Having elected to exercise his power to the full and at its height, and having identified his power as the power of imagination, he may begin its exercise by studying it in exercise and proceed little by little, as he becomes his own master, to those violences which are the maturity of his desires.  The character of the crisis through which we are passing today, the reason why we live in a leaden time, was summed up in a note on Klaus Mann’s recent book on Gide, as follows:

The main problem which Gide tries to solve—the crisis of our time—is the reconciliation of the inalienable rights of the individual to personal development and the necessity for the diminution of the misery of the masses.

When the poet has converted this into his own terms: the figure of the youth as virile poet and the community growing day by day more and more colossal, the consciousness of his function, if he is a serious artist, is a measure of his obligation.  And so is the consciousness of his history.  In the Reflections on History of Jakob Burckhardt, there are some pages of notes on the historical consideration of poetry.  Burckhardt thought (citing Schopenhauer and Aristotle) that poetry achieves more for the knowledge of human nature than history.  Burckhardt considers the status of poetry at various epochs, among various peoples and classes, asking each time who is singing or writing, and for whom.  Poetry is the voice of religion, prophecy, mythology, history, national life and inexplicably, for him, of literature.  He says:

It is a matter for great surprise that Virgil, in those circumstances, could occupy his high rank, could dominate all the ages which followed and become a mythical figure.  How infinitely great are the gradations of existence from the epic rhapsodist to the novelist of today!

This was written seventy-five years ago.  The present generation of poets is not accustomed to measure itself by obligations of such weight nor to think of itself as Burckhardt seems to have thought of epic bards or, to choose another example at random, of the writers of hymns, for he speaks of “the Protestant hymn as the supreme religious expression, especially of the seventeenth century.”

The poet reflecting on his course, which is the same thing as a reflection by him and by us, on the course of poetry, will decide to do as the imagination bids, because he has no choice, if he is to remain a poet.  Poetry is the imagination of life.  A poem is a particular of life thought of for so long that one’s thought has become an inseparable part of it or a particular of life so intensely felt that the feeling has entered into it.  When, therefore, we say that the world is a compact of real things so like the unreal things of the imagination that they are indistinguishable from one another and when, by way of illustration, we cite, say, the blue sky, we can be sure that the thing cited is always something that, whether by thinking or feeling, has become a part of our vital experience of life, even though we are not aware of it.  It is easy to suppose that few people realize on that occasion, which comes to all of us, when we look at the blue sky for the first time, that is to say: not merely see it, but look at it and experience it and for the first time have a sense that we live in the center of a physical poetry, a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that exists there—few people realize that they are looking as the world of their own thoughts and the world of their own feelings.  On that occasion, the blue sky is a particular of life that we have thought of often, even though unconsciously, and that we have felt intensely in those crystallizations of freshness that we no more remember than we remember this or that gust of wind in spring or autumn.  The experiences of thinking and feeling accumulate particularly in the abnormal ranges of sensibility; so that, to use a bit of M. Focillon’s personal language, while the “normative type” of poet is likely to be concerned with pretty much the same facts as those with the genius, or, rather, the youth as virile poet, is concerned, the genius, because of the abnormal ranges of his sensibility, not only accumulates experiences with greater rapidity, but accumulates experiences with qualities of experience accessible only in the extreme ranges of sensibility.

But genius is not our concern.  We are trying to define what we mean by the imagination of life, and, in addition, by that special illumination, special abundance and severity of abundance, virtue in the midst of indulgence and order in disorder that is involved in the idea of virility.  We have been referring constantly to the simple figure of the youth, in his character of poet, as virile poet.  The reason for this is that if, for the poet, the imagination is paramount, and if he dwells apart in his imagination, as the philosopher dwells in his reason, and as the priest dwells in his belief, the masculine nature that we propose for one that must be the master of our lives will be lost as, for example, in the folds of the garments of the ghost of ghosts of Aristotle.  As we say these things, there begins to develop, in addition to the figure that has been seated in our midst, composed, in the radiant and productive atmosphere with which we have surrounded him, an intimation of what he is thinking as he reflects on the imagination of life, determined to be its master and ours.  He is thinking of those facts of experience of which all of us have thought and which all of us have felt with such intensity and says:

Inexplicable sister of the Minotaur, enigma and mask, although I am part of what is real, hear me and recognize me as part of the unreal.  I am the truth but the truth of that imagination of life in which with unfamiliar motion and manner you guide me in those exchanges of speech in which your words are mine, mine yours.


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