The second poem of Stevens in the Spring, 1939 issue of Partisan Review, “Life on a Battleship,” was one of the few that he left out of his Collected Poems of 1954, as he had left it out of Parts of a World, the volume he next published in 1942. There have been recent attempts to admire it, or at least, to prove Stevens’s engagement the topics of politics and art, politics and literature, Stalinism and Trotskyism that the Partisan Review had been addressing from 1937 through WWII. Since the 1960s there has been even more urgent and complex arguments to grant to lyric poets the credentials of political activism and political understanding. You won’t have missed it, I am certain. And its just as true that poets aiming to address political topics have flourished over the last 70 years, keeping up with the human and natural crises that require elegiac as well as sharp-edged lyricism.
Wallace Stevens met and admired Philip Rahv and the two poems in the Spring 1939 issue of PR, must be counted among those of a lyric poet who aims at contemporaneity. But where “I knew a Woman who had more Babies than That,” makes a ironises and makes “wild” as Harold Bloom said of the poem, the political external world, “Life on the Battleship” begins in the now but abstracts from it not ideas of reality but of a false comedy of the arrogant captain.
Here it is: see what you think of it. Let me know.
LIFE ON A BATTLESHIP
I. The rape of the bourgeoisie accomplished, the men
Returned on board the “Masculine”. That night,
The captain said,
“The war between classes is
A preliminary, provincial phase,
Of the war between individuals. In time,
When earth has become a paradise, it will be
A paradise full of assassins. Suppose I seize
The ship, make it my own and, bit by bit,
Seize yards and docks, machinery and men,
As others have, and then, unlike the others,
Instead of building ships, in numbers, build
A single ship, a cloud on the sea, the largest
Possible machine, a divinity of steel,
Of which I am captain. Given what I intend,
The ship would become the centre of the world.
My cabin as the centre of the ship and I
As the centre of the cabin, the centre of
The divinity, the divinity’s mind, the mind
Of the world would have only to ring and ft!
It would be done. If, only to please myself,
I said that men should wear stone masks and, to make
The word respected, fired ten thousand guns
In mid-Atlantic, bellowing, to command,
It would be done. And once the thing was done,
Once the assassins wore stone masks and did
As I wished, once they fell backward when my breath
Blew against them or bowed from the hips, when I turned
My head, the sorrow of the world, except
As man is natural, would be at an end.”
II. So posed, the captain crafted rules of the world,
Regulae mundi, as apprentice of
First. The grand simplifications reduce
Themselves to one.
Of this the captain said,
“It is a lesser law than the one itself,
Unless it is the one itself, or unless
‘the Masculine’, much magnified, that cloud
On the sea, is both law and evidence in one,
As the final simplification is meant to be.
It is clear that it is not a moral law.
It appears to be what there is of life compressed
Into its own illustration, a divinity
Like any other, rex by right of the crown,
The jewels in his beard, the mystic wand,
And imperator because of death to oppose
The illustrious arms, the symbolic horns, the red
For battle, the purple for victory: But if
It is the absolute why must it be
This immemorial grandiose, why not
A cockle-shell, a trivial emblem great
With its final force, a thing invincible
In more than phrase? There’s the true masculine,
The spirit’s ring and seal, the naked heart.
It was a rabbi’s question. Let the rabbis reply.
It implies a flaw in the battleship, a defeat
As of a make-believe.
III. Second. The part
Is the equal of the whole.
The captain said,
“The ephebi say that there is only the whole,
The race, the nation, the state. But society
Is a phase. We approach a society
Without a society, the politicians
Gone, as in Calypso’s isle or in Citare,
Where I or one or the part is the equal of
The whole. The sound of a dozen orchestras
May rush to extinguish the theme, the basses thump
And the fiddles smack, the horns yahoo, the flutes
Strike fire, but the part is the equal of the whole,
Unless society is a mystical mass.
This is a thing to twang a philosopher’s sleep,
A vacuum for the dozen orchestras
To fill, the grindstone of antiquest time,
Breakfast in Paris, music and madness and mud,
The perspective squirming as it tries to take
A shape, the vista twisted and burning, a thing
Kicked through the roof, caressed by the river-side.
On “the Masculine” one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, the pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.”
The first and second rules are reconciled In a Third: The Whole cannot exist without/The parts(part IV continues on this photo)
Next Week: “We Rented to the Lenins”