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WaIIace Slevens, Banle AIigIievi, and lIe Enpevov

AulIov|s) KavI F. WenlevsdovJ


Souvce TvenlielI Cenluv Lilevaluve, VoI. 13, No. 4 |Jan., 1968), pp. 197-204
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TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE
A SCHOLARLY AND CRITICAL JOURNAL
Volume
13,
Number 4
January,
1968
WALLACE
STEVENS,
DANTE
ALIGHIERI,
AND THE EMPEROR
KARL P. WENTERSDORF
Critics have
frequently
commented
on the interest shown
by
Wallace
Stevens in the
problem posed by
the
existence of
evil,
and
especially
in
the difficulties faced
by
che
poet
who is
attempting
to deal with the
problem
in a world which to a con-
siderable
degree
has lost its contact
with ancient
religious
beliefs. In a
recent discussion of Stevens' "Esthe-
tique
du
Mall," for
example, Henry
W.
Wells
points
out that the theme of
the
poem
is "the hard core of evil
and
pain
which must be confronted
because it cannot in the
long
run
pos-
sibly
be
escaped."
He
goes
on to
argue
that in Stevens'
view,
the secular mod-
em world is
unfortunately compelled
to
dispense
with the once
adequate
formulas that
religion formerly pro-
vided for the
expression
of
humanity's
problems;
Stevens therefore seeks new
images,
and in this
poem
he uses
metaphors
of
good
and evil valuable
for their exotic connotations rather
than for their
philosophical
definitive-
ness
-
the sun and the
golden
fruit
of
Strophe
VI are
images
for well-
being,
and the
sharp-beaked
bird is
a
symbol of "universal
malice, evil,
and destruction."1 But
though
Stevens
may
well have felt that the ancient
religious metaphors
are
unlikely
in
their traditional forms to make
any
notable
impact
on the moder
world,
he draws
upon
Christian
mythology
in several of his treatments of the
theme of
evil;
and
among
the mate-
rials of this
type
are some allusions
to one of the
greatest
of all
reposi-
tories of
religious metaphor
-
the
Commedia of Dante
Alighieri.2
"No
Possum,
No
Sop,
No Taters"3
presents
a
picture
of a frozen field in
January;
and as in
many
another of
Stevens' austere New
England
land-
scapes,
the bitter cold is a
symbol
of
evil
which,
in the absence of warmth
and
goodness
(the sun), traps
human
beings
and holds them immovable:
The field is frozen. The leaves are
dry.
Bad is final in this
light.
In this bleak air the broken stalks
Have arms without hands.
They
have
trunks
Without
legs, or,
for
that,
without
heads.
They
have heads in which a
captive cry
Is
merely
the
moving
of a
tongue.
(3-9)
197
The
personification
of- the b r o k e n
stalks evokes first of all a
grim picture
of
humanity
-
mutilated,
suffering
agonies,
and unable to
gain
even the
relief of
crying
out. But the
following
verses reveal that the scene is more
than a
simple image
from nature:
It is
deep January.
The
sky
is hard.
The stalks are
firmly
rooted in ice.
It is in this solitude, a
syllable,
Out of these
gawky ditterings,
Intones its
single emptiness,
The
savagest
hollow of winter-sound.
It is
here,
in this
bad,
that we reach
The last
purity
of the
knowledge
of
good. (13-20)
Here the
poem
echoes the
description
of a more terrible scene
-
the last
of the nine circles of hell in the
Inferno,
the frozen waste where Dante
finds the souls of the damned sealed
in ice. Some of them have their heads
free and are able to move their
tongues;
others are
completely
frozen
in,
unable to
cry
out,
and Dante
says
of them that
"they
shone below the
ice like straws in
glass."'
One
passage
in another
piece
is
reminiscent in a similar
way
of
Dante's
Purgatorio.
In
Strophe
VII of
Stevens'
"Esthetique
du
Mal,"5
an
elegy
for a soldier in
wartime,
the wounded
soldier
-
who
represents
all the sol-
diers who have ever
fallen,
"red in
blood"
-
finds his last rest on a
mountain:
A mountain in which no ease is ever
found,
Unless indifference to
deeper
death
Is
ease,
stands in the
dark,
a shadows'
hill,
And there the soldier of time has
deathless rest.
Concentric circles of
shadows,
motion-
less
Of their own
part, yet moving
on the
wind,
Form
mystical
convolutions in the
sleep
Of time's red soldier deathless on his
bed.
The shadows of his fellows
ring
him
round
In the
high night
. . .
(VII, 5-14)
Wells feels that the mountain
image
suggests
"the vasmess of the uni-
verse."" But m o r e
imperatively
it
evokes Dante's vision of the mountain
of
Purgatory
with its series of con-
centric circles
peopled by shadows,
the mountain on which the souls find
no ease from
suffering
until
they
are
able to leave the
topmost
circle and
enter the Garden of Eden. On the
slopes
of the
mountain,
the shades of
the
departed
move around in circles
appropriate
to their
sins,
expiating
their
earthly wrongdoings
until
they
are
ready
to move into the next
higher
circle. And as Dante climbs the moun-
tain with his
guide,
the
shadows,
many
of them his fellow
countrymen,
"ring
him round" to
explain
their sit-
uation and
beg
his
prayers.
Another allusion to the
Purgatofio
may
be found in "Asides on the
Oboe,"7 where Stevens deals with the
role of the
poet
as a
purveyor
of ulti-
mate
philosophical
and
religious
truths.
"It is time to
choose,"
he
says,
between
the old
religious metaphors,
such as
That obsolete fiction of the wide river
in
An
empty land;
the
gods
that Bouchers
killed, (4-5)
and the new
poetic images
and be-
liefs of the
"philosophers'
man,"
who
alone is
capable
of
presenting living
ideas.9 The
poet,
Stevens
continues,
produces
"immaculate
imagery,"
a
phrase
which
simultaneously suggests
metaphors
untarnished
by
the
sterility
198
of old beliefs
and,
since the whole
context is concerned with
faith, alludes
obliquely
to another of the ancient
religious metaphors:
the
image
of the
Virgin Mary
as the Immaculate Con-
ception.
Notable a m o n
g
the immaculate
images
are those of the
philosophers'
man as a "human
globe" (represent-
ing
all
things
and all
iypes),
as a
"mirror with a voice"
(vocally
re-
flecting reality),
and as a "man of
glass."
He is of
glass
not because he
is
fragile
but because
He is the
transparence
of the
plac
in
which
He
is,
and in his
poems
we find
peace.10 (18-19)
As a
transparency,
the
poet
is the
medium
through
which the
complex
forms of truth to which his
insights
have
given
him access are made visible
to all of
humanity.
He discovers these
truths
through spiritual journeys
com-
parable
to Dante's
imaginary
ascent of
th]
stairways
between the concentric
circles on the mountain of
Purgatory:
Clandestine
steps upon imagined
stairs
Climb
through
the
night,
because his
cuckoos call.
(23-24)
Just
as Dante encounters bird-like
spirits atoning
for the sins of
lust,
who
cry
out to him from within the
purifying
fires of the
topmost
circle
and
beg
for his
prayers,"l
so the mod-
em
poet
hears the call of
(possibly
symbolic)
cuckoos. The tortured
spirits
in the medieval
metaphor
know
that
they
will
ultimately
attain
peace
in
Paradise;
and Dante himself can
hope
for
peace, through
revelation of
the full
meaning
of the ancient reli-
gious
truths.
But,
Stevens asks rhe-
torically,
what can
agonized
human
beings hope
for
today?
If
they
listen
to the
glass
man who is
climbing
through
the
night
on their
behalf,
they
can "find
peace'"
in the realistic
philosophy
of his
poems.
"Asides on the Oboe"
may
in fact
constitute Stevens'
reply
to the ortho-
doxy
of T. S.
Eliot,
as
represented
in
the latter's "Ash
Wednesday."
In Part
III of that
poem,
Eliot likewise uses
the ancient
metaphor
of the
stairway
which leads
upward
-
through
suffer-
ing
- to
perfection,'2
and he also
proclaims
(in Part
VI)
that "Our
peace
is His wilL" Stevens is as much
concerned with faith as
Eliot,
but not
in
any
orthodox sense:
The
prologues
are over. It is
question,
now,
Of final belief. So, say
that final belief
Must be in a fiction. It is time to
choose.
(1-3)
It is time to choose between the
traditional
concepts, exemplified
in the
Immaculate
Conception (whose
many-
faceted
image
is reflected in various
ways
in "Ash
Wednesday")
and the
immaculate
conceptions
or
images
of
the man of
glass.
Recognition
of Dante's influence on
Stevens in these three
poems may help
throw new
light elsewhere, notably
in what is often
regarded
as one of
Stevens' most obscure
pieces
- the
much-discussed "E m
p
e r o r of Ice-
Cream."'3
Commentators are
generally
agreed
that b e h i n d the "essential
gaudiness" (to
use Stevens' own
phrase)
of the bizarre
picture
of
preparations
for a
wake,
the
poet
is
seeking
to
express
some
important insight
into
life, death,
and
suffering;
but there
is no
agreement
as to the nature of
this
insight.
According
to some
critics,
the
poem
satirizes a
crudely
hedonistic
way
of
199
life,
with the
emperor
of the refrain
line,
The
only emperor
is the
emperor.
of
ic-cream,
appearing
as a
personification
of that
life. D u r i n
g
the
nineteen-twenties,
when the
poem
was
written,
ice-cream
was still
something
of a
luxury
and
therefore
quite
suitable as a
symbol
for the sensual
enjoyment
of
life.'4
Another and
larger group
of critics
believes that the
piece
is concerned
primarily
with death. Stevens is mock-
ing
modern funeral customs and
sug-
gesting
that the
right way
to conduct
a funeral is in a
sordidly proletarian
style;
he reduces life's
magnificence
to
nothing by
his concentration on the
grim
realities of the
corpse
and the
tawdry preparations
for a
wake,
and
the
emperor
he refers to is death
per-
sonified. On the first
view,
ice-cream
is a
symbol
for
epicureanism;
on the
second,
it is an
image
both of the
coldness of death and of the tran-
sience of hedonistic values.
A third
group
seeks to reconcile
these contrasted views. Richard El-
mann
argues,
for
instance,
that ice-
cream
symbolizes
both death and life:
"the
emperor
is more than his ice-
cream
empire;
he is the force that
inspires
and makes it one . .. the
force of
being,
understood as includ-
ing life, death,
and the
imaginationi
which
plays
in this
poem
so
gustily
upon
both. The
emperor
creates ice-
cream,
expresses
himself
through
death
and
life,
conceives of them as a
unity,
and is immanent in both of them."'5
And William York Tindall asserts
that the
special
effects of the
poem
derive from the union of
opposites
(the
grotesque
and the
quotidian,
seeming
and
being, compassion
and
fun),
and that "the
image
of ice-
cream concentrates these
meanings.
At once cold and
agreeable, ordinary
and
festive,
it is a
symbol
of life and
death. .
..
Emperor
and
ice-cream,
though
not
opposites,
have the effect
of
opposites."'1
It seems obvious that the
identity
or
significance
of the
emperor
must
.be clarified before there can be a con-
vincing interpretation
of the
piece.
Certainly,
as
John J.
Enck
recencly
put
it,
the
poem
"transcends a
report
about
poverty
and
death,"
and he sums
up
the
problem by asking:
"How ...
does one i n t e r
p
r e t the
Emperor,
whether he himself or his realm
(or
both)
owe their existence to a con-
fection?"t' Some earlier critics have
interpreted
the
poem
as a satire on
"the ruler of a
people
whose values
are ill-defined."
They
argue
that "it is
an
oblique
but trenchant
expose
of
an
emperor
whose dicta are devoid of
wisdom,
an
emperor
whose
authority
derives from the fact that his
subjects
lack definite
goals
and
consequently
have fallen into
futility.
Their
gods
are lost or
dead,
and
they
have
placed
their faith in a monarch whose throne
is transient and
negligible,
as stable as
ice-cream." This
ruler,
or some official
representative,
is
promulgating
orders
which exhibit
disrespect
if not con-
tempt
for the
people;
the
philosophy
he
prescribes
is
unenlightened,
and
"to maintain his
supremacy
he must
keep
them in the dark so that
they
do not even catch a
glimpse
of an-
other ruler who
might conceivably
displace
him."'8
Such a literal
interpretation
of the
emperor
fails to
carry
conviction: it is
difficult to envision an
emperor
who
"cites the shabbiness of the dresser as
evidence of the woman's unworthi-
ness,"
whose "motives for
selecting
this
particular
sheet are
disrespectful,"
200
and who "orders that the feet remain
exposed
as more
fitting
tokens of the
present ignoble
stare of the
corpse."19
Surely emperors
do not
ordinarily
con-
cer themselves with orders for the
burial of their
subjects, particularly
poor people
like the dead woman of
the
poem. Moreover,
the
speaker
of
the
poem's imperatives
is not the em-
peror
but the
glass
man
-
the
philo-
sophical poet-commentator.
II
An
important
clue to the
signifi-
cance of Stevens'
emperor
is
provided
by
an allusion in the
poem
to Dante's
Inferno,
and to the same
episode
which
provided
Stevens with a meta-
phor
for "No
Possum,
No
Sop,
No
Taters." As Dante enters
Judecca,
the
lowest round of the ninth
circle,
where
the sinners are encased in ice
(Canto
XXXIV),
he looks
ahead;
and
there,
in the middle of the frozen
lake,
he
sees
Satan,
his
wings beating
vainly
and
stirring up
the
bitterly
cold winds
which
sweep
the
pit
of hell. The
gigantic figure
of the
arch-enemy
of
man, whose arms alone are
larger
than
the
Titans,
is held fast in the ice:
The
Emperor
of the dolorous realm
from the mid-breast stood forth out
of the ice.
(XXXIV, 28-29)
Beneath the frozen
lake,
which is at
the
very
center of the
earth,
Satan's
shaggy legs
extend
upward
toward the
mountain of
purgatory.
Dante and his
guide
clamber down Satan's
thigh
and
up
into the other
hemisphere;
for as
Virgil remarks,
there is no other
way
by
which to rise from the evil of hell
(XXXIV, 83-84).
The
vocabulary
of "The
Emperor"
suggests
that in
writing
the
poen,
Stevens was
drawing
on his memories
of Dante's
picture
of the
powerfully
built
emperor
of
hell,
imprisoned
in
ice,
with his
legs protruding
into the
other
hemisphere.
Such
phrases
as "the
muscular one"
(referring
to the dead
woman's
lover?),
the
"horny
feet
pro-
trude,"
"cold . . . and dumb"
(both
with reference to the
corpse),
and
above all "the
emperor
of ice-cream"
are
recognizable
as disunified echoes
of notable details in Dance's vision of
the embodiment of eviL The
poem
makes no
attempt,
of
course,
to con-
jure up
a modern
image
of
Satan;
yet
indirectly, through
the echoes of that
medieval
picture,
Stevens
implies
the
existence of evil
powers
not
grandly
terrifying
but
grotesquely
sinister. The
fragmentation
and
transformation of
the
original image
are a measure of
the
metamorphosis undergone by
the
traditional
concept
of Satan and his
role.
Stevens'
preoccupation
with theo-
logical
ideas in the modern
world,
or
more
particularly
with the idea of
God as created
by man,20
permits
the
deduction that he thinks of
Satan, too,
as a creation of the human mind.
Certainly
the evils of the world are
largely
of man's
making,
the result
of human
cruelty, folly,
or indifference
to
suffering.
And even if the
popular
image
of the cloven-hoofed Devil has
long ago passed
into what Wells
would call the
"phantasmal
limbo" of
forgotten religious metaphor,
the man-
created evils of which he was at the
very
least a
personification
still exist.21
This theme
occupies
an
important
place
in a much later
poem,
the
already-cited "Esthetique
du Mat"
There 6tevens
explicitly regrets
the
loss of the
age-old metaphor:
The death of Satan was a
tragedy
For the
imagination.
A
capital
Negation destroyed
him . .
(VII, 1-3)
201
He feels. that there was
something
anti-climactic about the manner of the
negation:
it was
"eccentric,"
It had
nothing
of the
Julian
thunder-
cloud:
The assassin flash and rumble.
He was denied. (VII, 8-9)
The
negation
of Satan
by
a materialis-
tic
philosophy, rejecting
moral
respon-
sibility
and even
questioning
the
very
existence of
evil,
destroyed
the clear-
cut and
terrifying
figure
of tradition
but left an
unsatisfying vacancy:
. . . How cold the
vacancy
When the
phantoms
are
gone and the
shaken realist
First sees
reality.
The mortal no
Has its
emptiness
and
tragic expira-
tions. (VIII, 14-17)
Since Stevens
believes,
with
Dante,
Jonson,
and
Milton,
that the
poet
is
a leader of
society,
whose
duty
is to
seek out and
proclaim
the truth effec-
tively,
he feels that the twentieth-
century poet
must
help
to devise new
metaphors
that will
proceed beyond
"the mortal no" and fill the
vacancy
by re-expressing
the ancient truths.
The creation of the new
mythos
is
already
under
way:
The
tragedy, however, may
have
begun,
Again,
in the
imagination's
new be-
ginning,
In the
yes
of the realist
spoken
because
he must
Say yes, spoken
because under
every
no
Lay
a
passion
for
yes
that had never
been broken. (VIII, 18-22)
And this
passion
leads Stevens to
affirm, among
other
things,
the exis-
tence of evil and to
depict
it in
images
that are not
merely impressive
but also couched in the
language
of
the modern world.
"The
Emperor
of
Ice-Cream,"
with
its
picture
of a
squalid wake,
contains
a series of such
images, reflecting
the
world-scene. The individual
images
are
fragmentary,
and there is no direct
reference to
evil;
but the
implications
not
merely
of a rather crude
sensuality
but also of
poverty, cruelty, suffering,
and indifference
(muscular,
whip,
con-
cupiscent,
wenches
dawdle,
flowers
in
last month's
newspapers,
lacking
glass
knobs, feet protrude, cold, dumb) are,
in their
totality,
unmistakable. And in
the curt
plea
"Let be be the finale of
seem,"
the narrator is
surely urging
that the truth about these
aspects
of
human existence
("be")
should be
admitted and should
replace hypocrisy
("seem").22
The
emperor
whose
image
is evoked
by
the
grim
manifestations of the
realm over which he rules is not "life"
or
"death," as
such,
but the embodi-
ment of all those
unpleasant
charac-
teristics of the materialistic world
which lead to the death of human
values. He is evil
personified,
and
personified vaguely,
not as a fallen
angel
of
awe-inspiring qualities
and
proportions
but as a
caricature of the
older
concepts
of the infernal
god-
head. He is an
emperor
not of ice
(the acme of
evil, at the heart of the
traditional
hell)
but of ice-cream
(latter-day materialism);
and his
image
is created
by implication
rather than
by
concrete
description.
He is the
essence of all that is
sordid,
the sum
total of the
indifference,
hypocrisy,
greed, lust,
and sadism found even in
civilized
society.
The
superficially
dis-,
cordant details fuse into a
metaphor
of evil that is nearer to the truth than
the
frightful
but
grandiose
images
of
Dante and Milton.
It is not Stevens'
purpose
to mini-
mize the
pervasive
existence of evil
or to detract from its horror. The
202
commonplace
d e t a i 1 s underline
its
commonplace
nature and its omni-
presence.
In
short,
'The
Emperor
of
Ice-Cream"
represents
one of Stevens
lIntroduction to Wallace Stevens
(Indi-
ana
University Press, 1964), pp. 28-29.
20f Stevens
familiarity
with Dante there
can be no doubt. In a letter dated
April 9,
1907
-
Letters
of Wallace
Stevens, sel. and
ed.
by Holly
Stevens
(New York, 1966),
p.
101 - Stevens refers to the notebooks
of Matthew Arnold as
being
made
up of
quotations
and continues: "last
night
I
hunted all
through Dante for translations
of several Italian ones."
3Tbh Collected Poems
of
Wallace Stevens
(New York, 1954), p.
293.
4Cantos XXXII, 34-39,
and
XXXIV,
10-15. The
similarity
of this
description
to Stevens' line "The stalks are
firmly
rooted in ice" has also been noted
by Frank
Doggett,
"Wallace Stevens' S e c r e c
y of
Words: A Note on
Import
in
Poetry,"
New
England Quarterly,
XXXI
(1958), 378.
5Collected
Poems, p.
313.
6Introduction to Wallace
Stevens, p.
29.
Wells' belief
(pp. 29-30)
that Stevens here
intends to evoke an
image
of "fixed
figures
on in .eternally moving
wheel" fails to take
into account the
implications
of "concentric
circles" in the context of the mountain
image.
7This
piece appeared
in the Harvard Ad-
vocate,
CXXVII
(Dec. 1940), 34,
and is
reprinted
in Modern American
Poetry,
ed.
Louis
Untermeyer,
new and
enlarged
ed.
(New York, 1962), p.
251.
sjaques
Boucher de Crevecoeur de Perhes
(1788-1886), the French evolutionist whose
discovery
and identification of human arti-
facts
antedating
the
post-diluvial age,
though
at first
rejected, ultimately
helped
to discredit the fundamentalists.
"The
images
of the
poet walking
"in
dew . .
by
the sea-side" and
muttering
"milky
lines" are
evidently metaphors
of
fertility
and
life-giving
nourishment.
l?Daniel
Fuchs,
The Comic
Spirit of
Wallace Stevens
(Duke University Press,
1963),
p. 79, suggests
that this line is
possibly
an echo of Dante's "In His will is
our
peace" (Paradiso, III, 85).
Fuchs
goes
on to comment: "In
any case,
Stevens does
early attempts
to envision what Hanna
Arendt has called "the
banality
of
evil."
Xavier
University
not see this sort of
peace existing
in or-
ganized religion."
1Purgatorio, XXVI, Introduction: "each
group
alike
proclaims
a
warning example of
lust;
after which
they sweep past
each
other like flocks of
birds,
and continue to
utter the wail and
song
suited to their
state."
12The
image
of the
stairway
is at the
heart of Part III of Eliot's Ash
Wednesday;
the title
given
to this
part
when it was
originally published
as a
separate poem-
"Som de l'Escalina" -
is taken
directly
from the
Purgatorio,
XXVI.
'3Collected
Poems,
p.
64.
14According
to one
theory,
the
metaphor
was
suggested
to Stevens
by
his
daughter's
fondness for ice-cream. In
any case,
as would
appear
from some
popular songs
of the
nineteen-twenties, ice-cream was
widely
un-
derstood
symbol
for the
pleasures
of a
per-
fect or at least
very
desirable
worldly
exis-
tence.
Commenting briefly
on the
poem
in
1939
(Letters,
p. 341), Stevens said that
"ice-cream is an absolute
good."
He added:
"The
poem
is
obviously
not about ice-cream
but about
being
as
distinguished
from seem-
ing
to be."
15'Wallace Stevens'
Ice-Cream," Kenyon
Review, IX
(1957), 94-95.
16Wallace Stevens
(University
of Minne-
sota
Press, 1961), p.
19.
17Wallace Stevens:
Images
and
Judg-
ments
(Southern Illinois
University Press,
1964), p.
202.
"8Taylor
Culbert and
John
N.
Violette,
"Wallace Stevens'
Emperor," Criticism,
II
(1960), 39-40.
1IJbid., pp.
4546.
20Cf.
Wells,
p.
80:
"God,
we are told
(by Stevens), exists because man wishes
him to be. He is man-created but man's
ultimate creation and in a real sense
greater
than
man,
for he is man's
conception
of a
brooding life within the universe, the
very
idea of the sublime. Stevens
explicitly
acknowledges
the
modernity
of his think-
ing."
21In Stevens'
opinion, as Wells observes
203
(p. 30), "modern man no
longer
believes
either in Satan or in sin. Yet the world is
no less evil than when sin was acknowl-
edged'and
Satan held a
reality; and, obvious-
ly,
death is with us still."
22In the letter of 1939 cited in note
14,
Stevens says that "the true sense of Let be
be the finale of seems is let
being
become
the conclusion or denouement of
seeming
to be."
204