Wallace Stevens and the Poet’s Relationship to the Natural World
The idea of the natural world is one that preoccupies the work of modern poets. It is an age-old question: What place do we hold within the natural order? Does the space we inhabit attribute to itself some meaning which may be inherited by our function in nature? These questions are explored through the poetic mind, which aims to grapple with the human burden of both separation and connectivity, the oscillating sensibilities intrinsic to our experience of the natural world. The relationship then becomes a matter of belief, and from that the poem emerges; when there are no clear answers, poetry often finds itself a means for creation. Wallace Stevens, the twentieth-century American poet, is one of those minds whose work gives way to profound meditations on our role within the universe. His poetry moves between the critical connection of man and nature and the ultimately prevailing mystery that distinguishes us from that world. In his poem “Six Significant Landscapes,” published in 1916, Stevens presents six short portraits of different “landscapes.” The concise presentation is a fascinating choice, especially when considering the title: “Six Significant Landscapes.” One might expect vast and sweeping portraits of natural settings, but that is not what Stevens gives us. Instead, he offers quick and markedly vague descriptions of what aren’t quite landscapes, but feel more like the poetic records of subtle encounters with nature as they have been experienced in dreams. The poem’s significance then becomes a reckoning; how to appreciate the mystery of the natural world, even as that mystery prevents us from our insatiable desire to be one with it. Through his language and careful attention to poetic form, Stevens delivers a poem that is a testament to both the surrealistic human experience of the natural world and the power which that experience has over the intellect.
With “Six Significant Landscapes,” as it is with any poem, form is crucial. The poem is told in six one-stanza sections, each containing between seven and eleven lines. Each section therefore illustrates the aforementioned “landscapes” in just a few short, clipped phrases. The structure then leaves little room for an excess of explicit sentiment. The abandon with which Stevens charges his language of emotion is reminiscent of the haiku (especially given the observance of nature as a theme in this poem). There is a certain objectivity that somehow still breathes a deep emotional response into the reader. The focus becomes the beauty of observance; there is a passion in quietly regarding the contents of the earth. The stanza that reflects the influence of the haiku most directly is the first:
An old man sits
In the shadow of a pine tree
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
There is no abstraction here (with the exception, perhaps, of the last sentence). Stevens packs the stanza with five phrases, each of which remarks upon the objective details of a scene, aspects which can be observed with the senses. The repetition here is crucial to the sentiment with which Stevens charges this section. To move in the wind is to be taken in by the cyclical happenings of the earth; the wind makes no distinction between man and the larkspur, between man and the pine tree. This enhances the resonance of the last line: “Thus water flows/ Over weeds.” The word choice here is subtle but consequential, the use of “water” and “weeds” being of particular importance. Stevens is equating the flowing over water over weeds to that which moves in the wind; there exists a pattern of sameness, a sense that things are acting under the same laws. The sudden shift from “wind” to “water” and “larkspur,” “beard,” and “pine tree” to “weeds” is telling of the consistency of the natural world. There is a constant exchange of energy moving, flowing and ultimately transforming distinctions into one organic stream; thus water flows over weeds.
Stevens sustains this earthly embrace into his second stanza, but begins to play with a subtle sense of conflict. The sameness is present, but further complicated, as expressed through Stevens’ language which becomes more abstract than the previous stanza, though still maintaining the sensory quality of observance. The second stanza reads:
The night is of the color
Of a woman’s arm:
Night, the female,
Fragrant and supple,
A pool shines,
Like a bracelet
Shaken in a dance.
Here, the night becomes the natural presence and the presence of the feminine becomes an ambiguous representation of that which is human. But, the borders between the two are perhaps even further distorted; the night is both “of” the woman (in color) and is woman itself (“the female”). The relationship then between nature and human is “obscure” as Steven writes, as it is both blends and isolates; night “conceals herself,” a statement that elicits a vague unsettling for night then defies our senses. The stanza ends with a pool shining like a shaken bracelet; there is a return here to the presence of water in the first stanza, though it is evident that this landscape differentiates itself with its necessarily feminine characteristics. This gives way to a sensuous undercurrent of mystery fueled by seduction; the use of the words “fragrant” and “supple” and the final allusion of a woman dancing work together to elicit a sense of enticement. That closing image is especially evocative as it contains the only simile of the poem. The use of simile here is key as nature and human become comparable entities, but they are not one. It is at this moment that we may recognize what Stevens is doing. The landscapes act to abstract the relationship between man and nature, to both subdue and conjure the boundary that distinguishes the two.
This objective is further explored in the third stanza, whose placement within the narrative arc (if one could identify the presence of one) serves as a pinnacle. It is the point in which Stevens begins to fully display his knack for the surreal, and in so doing, manages to heighten the emotional stakes of the poem. That increase in intensity is fueled by the language of the stanza. Stevens writes:
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 the ants crawl
In and out of my shadow.
It is important to pay particular attention to Stevens development of measurement and “reaching.” The heights illustrated through his language coincide with a heightening in emotional response. There is an exhilarating effect, perhaps amplified by the use of the first person, which is always a point of distinction in any Stevens poem. There lies an expansion of self here, made surrealistic through metaphorical description. The relationship between man and the natural world becomes manipulated so that the boundaries are nebulous. But, it is important to note that the speaker only reaches the sun and sea with his eye and ear. It is our senses that connect us to nature, but there is a conflict, a reason for a “nevertheless;” the speaker is experiencing a sort of rapturous enlargement by the observance of the natural world, but there is an incongruity, a fundamental divergence; a distaste for the crawling ants.
The one solace Stevens finds in his relationship to the natural universe is through dreams. It is in the dream that he at once finds affinity with nature. He writes:
When my dream was near the moon,
The white folds of its gown
Filled with yellow light.
The soles of its feet
Its hair filled
With certain blue crystallizations
Not far off.
Again, the surrealistic language along with his vivid use of color creates a rapturous moment in which the dream itself becomes the embodiment of man illuminated by his closeness to the moon and stars, a closeness that can only exist in the imagination. It is clear that the beauty of the universe is of a godly stature; the human world, though bearing a likeness, will never quite touch that which is natural, earthly and of the cosmos. In his penultimate stanza, Stevens emphasizes this point:
Not all the knives of the lamp-posts,
Nor the chisels of the long streets,
Nor the mallets of the domes
And high towers,
What one star can carve,
Shining through the grape-leaves.
No manmade thing, even our most esteemed creations, will ever surpass the subtlest moment of naturally created beauty. Though perhaps a tragic truth for some, it is made clear that Stevens does not view it as so; throughout the poem he has grappled with boundaries between man and the natural world and, in his final stanza, insists that our place within the universe, no matter how set apart, is critical to modern thought. He ends the poem:
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.
Here, Stevens makes a good-humored critique of rational minds, whose lives, he believes, would be made all the better if they allowed themselves to be affected by the unending possibility the universe provides. The square hat is one that is uninspired, made with the same careful measurements of square rooms and perfect triangles. The hat of the rationalist does not interest Stevens; he would much prefer the excitement of the sombrero, whose existence speaks to the beauty of natural inspiration.
“Six Significant Landscapes” is less a poem about the significance of six distinct landscapes and more a meditation and exploration of the mysterious beauty of nature, which man can only observe and long for a closeness with it. Stevens was in awe of the natural world, and though perhaps perplexed by our relationship to it, he was nonetheless deeply inspired by the unattainable beauty of the universe, his place within it and the possibilities that natural inspiration had upon the mind.