Our next stop in the Winter, 1939 issue of PR is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” one of two that make up the set of Stevens’s contribution to this issue. It is mid-summer here in London, 35 degrees, and its too hot to do much in the way of research or anything else, and the pavements are burning, but its a perfect day to think about thirst, water and the sea…and about Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, and W.B. Yeats, and the poetic consideration of Nature’s barriers.
An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.
Many of you will hear in the first verse paragraph of what Harold Bloom calls Stevens’s “wild poem” murmurings of what had become “The Idea of Order at Key West” in his 1936 volume, Ideas of Order. That force of the ocean’s tides is a machine not an organic form, or rather, it has an organic infrastructure of a machinic repetitive activity. It might also make you think of William Carlos Williams’s repeated cry against Nature in Paterson IV, “Thalassa, Thalassa, the Sea is not our home.” Both Stevens and Williams are in struggle against the claims of Nature’s authority and instead seek the articulations of speech. For Williams, invention wins: making rather than growing, on and off rather than more or less, these days, digital rather than analogue. This argument between the natural organic and the humanly made poetic belongs to William Blake’s tradition as well. “Where Man is Not, Nature is Barren.”
So we begin this poem with its evocation of the romantic waters, ‘the rising and the swell’ of the waves, at first evoking its beauty and in the pun of ‘the first line’ of both the border etched by the retreating water, and the first line of poetic invention, but soon separating out into an antinomy between flow and articulation. ‘The woman who has had more babies than that,’ repeats the machinic and regular movements of the water, and which is grating and wearing away the fullness of the oceanic roar in itself.
But she becomes humanised, a mother, not blind, not machinic, who knows that her ‘children need more than that’. She protects those who question the repetition on the shore. Like the poet-acrobat, she listens ‘to the whole sea for a sound’; and the poet-acrobat perceives/The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.’
You may have read, studied, memorised ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ and if you read it again now you can hear the movement, the motive to utterance of that more polished poem being formed in this one published in 1939.
Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.
Now, to the sound of the ‘Transatlantic lullaby (Berceuse)’ Stevens walks on the land, among the ‘central men,’ Emerson’s ‘man of good will and speech and morality, who performs the work of authorising the human as an articulating transformation of natural repetitions in their barrenness into aesthetic form. And, here, the question which Stevens answers, has been written earlier, by Yeats, in his 1933, “Among School Children”.
“What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?”
Yeats’s youthful mothers are first in the grip of the pains and tidal movements of birth, but Stevens brings the old men, ‘breathed on by a maternal voice, Children and old men and philosophers,/ Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears,’ to the continuity and transformation of the maternal sound into its voice, ‘The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech’.
And the old men speak with the voice the ideas that come to them.
If her head
Stood on a plain of marble, high and cold;
If her eyes were chinks in which the sparrows built;
If she was deaf with falling grass in her ears—
But there is more than a marble, massive head.
They find her in the crackling summer night,
In the Duft of town, beside a window, beside
A lamp, in a day of the week, the time before spring,
A manner of walking, yellow fruit, a house,
A street. She has a supernatural head.
On her lips familiar words become the words
Of an elevation, and elixir of the whole.
We can see here how Stevens attributes the power of speech to the nurturing mother, but reserves its transformative ‘thesis’ for the articulations of the Emersonian “Central Man,” and there are some who have complained about that… , but for today, a hot sunny one, in which I am wearing my complacencies in the boudoir, I say, ‘That was in another era, and besides, the poet’s dead.’
Next Week: Wallace Stevens, ‘Life on a Battleship’