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Feature Article

Wallace Stevens and Metaphysics:

The Plain Sense of Things
Sebastian Gardner

The aim of this paper is to consider a view of the relation of art to reality that is to
be found in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and to bring out the metaphysics with
which this view is coupled. Stevens’ is the extreme, romantic view that art is, or
may aspire to being, a fundamental ground of value in human life, perhaps the
fundamental ground - a view that we come across in various contexts but do not
often pause to consider seriously, even though the relation of art to value and
reality is a properly philosophical subject, and visionary romanticism an
important part of our cultural legacy. Stevens’ poetic realization of this view
commands attention in the first place, of course, because of its extraordinary
quality, but the reason for regarding it as having especial philosophical interest
is that Stevens represents himself as making the case for the romantic view of art
in terms that are self-consciously philosophical. Although the discussion that
follows focuses exclusively on Stevens, its substance can be detached from
Stevens himself and regarded as an exploration of one of the perennial ways in
which we are disposed, or tempted, to think about art.’
Looking to literature for philosophy, or even just looking for the philosophy in
literature, is a practice which violates a number of familiar strictures. The best
critics writing on Stevens quite reasonably underline the dangers of confusing
aesthetic and non-aesthetic concerns - Frank Kermode for instance complaining
that the mountains of philosophically orientated criticism to which Stevens’
’meta-metaphysical mutter’ has given rise, approach the poetry as if it were a set
of fragmentary Gnostic texts that simply need to be taken apart and reassembled
in a more perspicuous order.’
Other critics go to the opposite extreme: on their view Stevens’ achievement is
to carry poetry, as one such anti-philosophical critic puts it, ‘as near a tone-
poem, in the musical sense, as language can come’, in which only the ‘tone of
truth’ is important, and the metaphysical rhetoric is without substance, serving
only to create ’a surface equivalent to e m ~ t i o n ’Such
. ~ aesthetic purism seems
excessive, for it is unnecessary, in order to avoid assimilating Stevens’ poetry to
philosophy, to assimilate it instead to the pure poetry of Mallarm6 (a conception
of poetry which Stevens himself rejects, describing it as ’poetry of the ivory
tower’ that has ‘nothing to do with being a l i ~ e ’ ~ ) .
There are in any case special reasons why it is permissible to look for the
philosophy in Stevens’ poetry - and indeed necessary, for a complete grasp of its
meaning - provided this is undertaken after the main job of criticism has been

European Iournal of Philosophy 2:3 ISSN 0 9 6 M 3 7 3 p p 322-344 0 Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1994. 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4
IJF, UK, and 238 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02142 USA.
Wallace Stevens and Metaphysics 323

done and accords with the considered judgement of the critical community.
These reasons will emerge in due course, but the basic justification for adopting
a philosophical perspective on Stevens is relatively straightforward. Philosoph-
ical concepts and propositions are the chief explicit subject-matter of Stevens’
poetry, the effectiveness of which depends upon mobilizing and grasping whole
philosophical thoughts, which cannot be reduced to rhetorical effects: so that to
regard Stevens’ ’meta-metaphysical mutter’ as merely rhetorical is as arbitrary as
regarding, say, the treatment of Nature in romantic poetry as merely rhetorical
and external to its meaning. And to this it may be added that, on the plausible
assumption that metaphysics and poetry are both concerned with the funda-
mental contours of human experience, it seems reasonable to suppose that
poetry, at least poetry of a certain kind, may embody patterns of thought that
can be re-articulated in explicitly philosophical terms.
My proposed line of interpretation of Stevens is fairly simple and intended to
identify the overall vector of his poetic project, without beginning to do justice to
its subtleties and extraordinary suggestiveness; the quotations that I have used
are by and large the plainer statements found in Stevens‘ prose, rather than his
poetry (which it would take too long to set out and interpret).

Poetry, philosophy, and religion

It is generally accepted, in writing on Stevens, that he may be regarded, like

Yeats and Eliot, as a modernist inheritor of the romantic tradition, one whose
poetry is in part a reflection on the nature and significance of romanticism. But
Stevens differs from Yeats and Eliot - and from Pound and Auden, and perhaps
any other poet in the English language - in reflecting on the nature of poetry in
terms that are self-consciously philosophical. The aspect of art that is of
overriding interest to Stevens is its capacity to play a revelatory, meaning-
sustaining role, and take up a position as a successor to religious belief. This
massively ambitious, arguably extravagant conception of poetry and art -
claimed by, for example, Shelley in his Defence of Poetry, and by Nietzsche in The
Birth of Tragedy - has led to a great deal of writing in aesthetics which attempts to
explain, in metaphysical terms, how art can be thought of as redemptive and a
vehicle of truth. By way of illustration, one might cite Clive Bell’s bold and
forthright ‘metaphysical hypothesis‘, to the effect that the significance of
significant form in art consists in its power to deliver acquaintance with Reality,
‘that which lies behind the appearance of all things’, ’the thing in i t ~ e l f ‘ . ~
Much writing in this vein is doubtless highly unsatisfactory, but it is certainly
not pointless, and it testifies to the way in which art disposes us to attempt to
articulate a metaphysic that would account for and vindicate the strong claims
that art is experienced as making. It is in this spirit that Stevens’ poetry takes
metaphysical notions as his main poetic material and makes the metaphysics of
art the principal subject of his poetry.
By way of background, regarding Stevens’ actual sources of philosophical

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324 Sebastian Gardner

material, there is no doubt that in addition to knowing the great works of

classical and modern philosophy, including Kant, he read and absorbed some or
much of Emerson, William James, Bergson, Santayana, Nietzsche and Vaihinger,
and that he had an interest in and knew something, at least second-hand, of
Heidegger and Wittgenstein - amounting in all to a fair diversity of philosophical
ideas and outlooks.
Regarding the relation of his poetry to philosophy, Stevens has much to say.
On one rare occasion, Stevens sternly disavows any philosophical pretensions,
asserting that his work has ‘no serious contact with philosophy’.6 Yet Stevens
submitted a brief essay reflecting on the poetic nature of philosophical ideas to a
philosophy j ~ u r n a l and
, ~ his representative view is that the materials and aims
of his poetry are one with those of philosophy, their difference lying at the level
of approach. There are statements to the effect that, if he could write the great
‘poem of poems’, it would be a philosophical work; that poetry differs from
philosophy only in so far as ’the probing of the philosopher is deliberate’ and
’the probing of the poet is fortuitous’; that philosophy is ’the official view of
being’ and poetry ’the unofficial view of being’.’ (Stevens seems to have found
the difference between poetry and philosophy harder to formulate than their
underlying identity.) In the end, for Stevens poetry is ‘at least the equal of
philosophy’ and, even, ‘may be its ~uperior’:~ poetry may prove better at
integrating the ethical with the speculative ambitions of philosophy.
Also to be stressed is Stevens’ explicit sense of, and intention to uphold, a
connection between poetry and religious faith.” Stevens describes poetry as ‘a
compensation for what has been lost’ ’in an age in which disbelief is so
profoundly prevalent’:” ‘While it can lie in the temperament of very few of us to
write poetry in order to find God, it is probably the purpose of each of us to write
poetry to find the good which, in the Platonic sense, is synonymous with
God.’” In a letter Stevens confesses that his ’trouble, and the trouble of a great
many people, is the loss of belief in the sort of God in Whom we were all brought
up to belie~e’.’~ We find Stevens asserting that ‘the major poetic idea in the
world is and always has been the idea of God’ and that ’God and the imagination
are one.’l4 Stevens defines the following programme for poetry: ’The poetry that
created the idea of God will either adapt it to our different intelligence, or create
a substitute for it, or make it unnecessary’; poetry must ’take the place / Of
empty heaven and its hymns’: ‘in an age of disbelief [. . .] it is for the poet to
supply the satisfactions of belief‘. l5 He adds that it must do so on the condition -
which underlines the kind of objective validity that Stevens sought for poetry -
that the substitution of poetry for God should not occur just ’in the individual
mind’.16 In this way ‘It is possible to establish aesthetics in the individual mind
as immeasurably a greater thing than r e l i g i ~ n . ” ~
To all of these statements testifying to Stevens’ conception of poetry as a
renovation of religious faith one might add, for what it is worth, the biographical
data concerning Stevens’ (qualified) attachment to the Lutheran church of his
Dutch ancestors in Pennsylvania, and his conversion, on his deathbed, to
Catholicism. ’’
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Wallace Stevens and Metaphysics 325

It is worth noting how Stevens differs from the other great modernist poets on
the question of the relation of poetry to religion and belief. Stevens, unlike
Yeats, seeks to break cleanly with the past, and does not either recycle old
mythologies, or attempt to model a new, personalized mythology on the old.
And Stevens, unlike Eliot, was not able to find a faith and settle the question of
belief independently of poetry; Stevens would not have endorsed Eliot’s
insistence on a division of labour: ’for a poet to be a philosopher he would have
to be virtually two men [. . .] A poet may borrow a philosophy or he may do
without one. It is when he philosophizes upon his own poetic insight that he is
apt to go wrong.’” Stevens, by contrast, regarded poetry as necessary to create
belief, and remained in this respect a full-bloodedly romantic artist, as Eliot was

Stevens‘ mundo

I now want to sketch the poetic world which is set up by Stevens’ poetry.
Stevens conceived of his poetry as forming a whole, in the sense that each
individual poem is conceived as a contribution to his writing of one great poem.
Within Stevens’ total poetic world, what he calls his mundo,20 there are a
plurality of seasonal worlds - of spring, summer, autumn, and winter - through
which the protagonist of his poetry moves in a cyclical fashion. Each seasonal
world is not just the differently coloured world of a different mood, but rather
involves a different identification, and employs a different criterion of reality.
For this reason the successive seasonal worlds in Stevens’ poetry exclude one
another not just psychologically but also conceptually, and their temporal order
symbolizes a conceptual order, of different conceptions of reality. The narrative
in Stevens’ poetry consists in movements between the different seasonal worlds,
this temporal movement symbolizing changes in the subject’s sense of reality.
The seasonal worlds are interrelated in so far as each refers implicitly to the
others, the world of winter representing itself as a negation of the world of
summer and vice versa. And towards the fact that we circulate between seasons,
Stevens is ambivalent, representing it sometimes as a form of imprisonment, at
other times as a p e n , welcome, wholly natural fact. The protagonist of Stevens’
poetry is a meditator, whose transitions between seasonal worlds result from, or
consist in, movements of thought: in a Stevens poem there is no drama or
psychology apart from the meditative, impersonal amplification of ideas, and
interconversion of ideas and images. Stevens’ poetry is richly laced with images,
but he is distinguished from his admired Symbolist and Imagist precursors by
his refusal to identify the consummation of his poems with an autonomous
symbolic image:2’ his poetic symbols do not transcend the claims of the intellect
but rather remain embedded in a discursive, reflective context. (Stevens says
that images should have a ’realistic explanation’ and that ’the poetry of thought
should be the supreme poetry’.22) This is not to say that Stevens’ poetic

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protagonist is a bare thinker without desire: his desires are tied to his
conceptions of reality and manifest themselves in his thought.
The significances of each seasonal world for Stevens are roughly as follows.
The world of winter - as in Stevens’ much-anthologized poem ‘The snow man’ -
is the world that Stevens starts from, his primary season (it takes us back to ’an
immaculate beginning’ and realizes what he calls ’the first idea’23).The winter
world is not the everyday world, but the world stripped of all human,
anthropocentric features, a world characterized by ’the absence of i m a g i n a t i ~ n ’ . ~ ~
This bare, stark reality Stevens regards as at once uninhabitable and beautiful,
on account of its purity, freshness and absence of human disorder. We arrive at
the world of winter via an operation of subtraction on the ordinary world
(Stevens calls it abstraction): the world of winter is a contraction of the ordinary
world, created through disposing of the clutter of ordinary beliefs, habits and
practices, and it exposes the features of the ordinary world that make it humanly
habitable as illusion, mythology and the residue of projection. Stevens describes
it as ’a world that does not move for the weight of its own heaviness’: in ’this
complete poverty’, ’objects, though solid, have no shadows, and though static,
exert a mournful power’.25We have been ‘left feeling dispossessed and alone in
a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in
which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and
emptiness’.26This ‘pressure of reality’ is ’spiritually violent, it may be said, for
everyone alive’.27Accordingly, Stevens’ vision of the world of winter may be
identified with reality as conceived in any metaphysic that aims to exclude, by
reduction or elimination, those features of reality which have a human face.
Because the winter world confronts the poetic subject as a reality that is
complete and self-sufficient, it induces consciousness of ’poverty’, a key term for
Stevens: poverty is awareness of the indifference of reality to human concerns
(‘fact in its total bleakness’28), rendering the human subject powerless to
imagine into reality those features that are necessary to make it habitable. As it
might also be put, the contracted world involves exchanging the world, in the
sense of something that a human subject can properly ‘be in‘, for mere reality:
worldhood is subtracted from reality and we cease to inhabit a world. So in a
sense winter signifies our annihalation: the snow man sees ’nothing’ and is
‘nothing himself‘.29 This is quite different from a sense of the world as tragic,
which would give it a human reference.
For Stevens, the movement from the everyday world to the contracted world
is neither an accident nor the result of an arbitrary error. It is rather a first
attempt to fulfil our desire for reality, to know the world as it is in itself it meets
our ‘need’ for ’contact with reality as it impinges upon us from outside, the
sense that we can touch and feel a solid reality which does not wholly dissolve
itself into the conceptions of our own minds’.30The problem is that fulfilment of
this need brings in its wake frustration of our most fundamental need for a
habitable world. Stevens writes:

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How cold the vacancy

When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality.31

The world of summer, by contrast, is the world apprehended in the full blaze
of what Stevens calls imagination, the mental power that pervades everyday
human experience but realizes itself most fully in poetry and art, where it
represents the world as a fulfilment and incarnation of value, more than
adequate for the purposes of human habitation. Again, the world of summer
does not correspond to the ordinary world, of which it is rather a transfiguration
(a positive transfiguration, since the contracted world may also be described as a
transfiguration, of a negative sort). The object of artistic transfiguration is the
real world of everyday experience, to which the work of art has referen~e.~' And
what art does in recasting the world amounts to more than merely redescribing
it, or appending new features to it: in the versatile language of aspects, the
world comes to be seen under a new aspect, which pervades it and with which it
is fused. (Poetry records 'fluctuation of the whole of a p p e a r a n ~ e ' . So,
~ ~ )whereas
the contracted world of winter represents implicitly the everyday world as
illusory, as containing appearances of things to which nothing in reality
corresponds, the transfigured world of summer represents it as incomplete, as
failing to display the full, abundant, valuable features of reality.34 The
transfigured world restores the character of worldhood to reality and intensifies
its habitability.
Stevens' paradigms of transfiguration are the great poems of visionary, arch-
romanticism - Blake and Shelley are strongly present in Stevens' poetry - but it
is clear that for Stevens art in general, especially music, has the power of
transfiguration. The transfigured world is furthermore identical with the world
as Christianity has in the past been able to conceive it, under conditions of faith,
grace and moral goodness; but for Stevens, because religious representations are
defunct and have long since ceased to fulfil the desire for reality, this role has
been passed on to art. Art and religion are affiliated in that 'both have to mediate
for us a reality not ourselves'; the poet 'seeks / God in the object itself'.35 Stevens
seems to suggest that experience of transfiguration is available only at several
removes, in that it is necessarily mediated by art and can exist only as objectified
in the work of art, rather than being self-ascribed by the artist. Stevens even
seems to suggest that his own poetry can do no more than show the possibility of
a poem, the poem of poems, which would successfully transfigure the world.
Between the worlds of winter and summer hovers the ordinary world. This
Stevens identifies with a sense of reality that is provisional and uncertain,
reflecting his conception of the ordinary world as a place of transition between
the great antitheses of winter and summer. The ordinary world lies outside the
compelling visions of winter and summer, but it falls under their shadows.
Because it does so, and because there is in the ordinary world an absolute
conceptual distinction between what is real and what is unreal or fictional, it is
unclear in the outlook of the ordinary world how the categories of reality and

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fiction apply - how they apply both to the contracted and transfigured worlds,
and to the ordinary world itself.36
Stevens' phrase, 'the plain sense of things',37 is a crucial expression of the
uncertainty about reality that Stevens locates in the ordinary world. Plainness
alternates for Stevens between denoting the ordinary factuality of ordinary
things, and the special, hard sense of reality which characterizes the contracted
world of winter. The plain sense of things is therefore Janus-faced: on the one
hand, it is attached to the sense of things as unproblematically ready-to-hand in
the ordinary world; on the other, it signifies poverty, the sense of the
unconditional independence of things experienced in the contracted world, in
which respect Stevens describes 'plain things' as having a ' ~ a v a g e r y ' .The
continuity and affinity between the ordinary and contracted worlds which the
plain sense of things establishes has several important consequences. First, it
means that the reality of the contracted world is experienced as confirmed by the
ordinary world, to the extent that the contracted sense of things is just a
heightened expression of a sense of reality that is already in play in ordinary
experience. Second, it means that everyday experience suffers from instability,
due to its tendency to fasten onto whatever it finds most solid and draw us into a
picture of the world from which we are excluded.39 ('The mind is the most
terrible force in the w ~ r l d ' , ~Steven
" says, and needs to stand guard against
itself.) Third, the plain sense of things, once it has received full expression in the
contracted world, determines a standard of hardness which things must
henceforth meet in order to qualify as real - a point which will have importance
later for how we are to understand the transfigurative power of art.

The philosophical intention of Stevens' poetry

From what has just been said, it follows that Stevens' poetry is philosophical in
the straightforward sense that it is concerned with what the world is like as a
whole in the most fundamental respects: his poetic world charts metaphysical
possibilities, and symbolizes the moods which he takes to correspond to
different senses of reality. Some interpretations stop at this point, making
Stevens into a kind of (mere) phenomenologist of metaphysical thought, a poet
who expresses the what-it-is-like corresponding to different metaphysical
outlooks. But there is a further aim to be detected in Stevens' poetry, which
makes it philosophical in a stronger sense. Stevens means not just to represent
our perplexity as subjects of the ordinary world exposed to varying and
inconsistent senses of reality, but also to participate in the attempt to identify
reality and so to go some way towards transcending the cycle of seasons and
resolving our met?physical perplexity. If this is so, then Stevens intends his
poetry as an equivalent of philosophical enquiry. This may sound strange, but a
reason for thinking that Stevens' intention must be philosophical in this strong
sense is the absence of a satisfactory alternative: that is, the incoherence of
supposing that Stevens, whilst taking the fundamental concerns of poetry to be

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metaphysical, has only the circumscribed intention of representing those

concerns, without actively responding to them; or the unacceptability of
supposing that his poetry plays the trick of pretending to take questions of truth
seriously, while having all along only the intention of creating beautiful poetic
appearances (making his poetry a kind of aestheticism in bad faith).
If Stevens’ poetry is philosophical in intention, then it must aim at truth, and
since the truth that Stevens aims at is metaphysical, his poetic solutions must be
intended to have philosophical analogues, even though these are not stated in
the poetry and even though Stevens himself may not be able to tell us what they
are. By way of confirmation, we find Stevens saying that he means to ’regard the
imagination as metaphysics’; that ’truth is the object of both’ poetry and
philosophy; that ’the imaginative projection’ of poetry raises ’question of
rightness’ and ’touches the sense of reality’ - ’poetic truth is an agreement with
reality’.41If it is asked how it is possible for poetry to carry out this intention, of
converging on philosophy, the answer must be that poetry can impose on itself
constraints that are simultaneously cognitive and aesthetic, by virtue of which
poetry may answer to something outside itself. Poetry with this intention differs
from other poetry in that it will seek to express and persuade us of its own
agreement with reality. Such philosophically intended poetry can of course only
refer to the world that it constructs, from the inside, as a fiction, but it may
nevertheless leave hints, oblique indications, that invite its readers to think of its
constructions as truths. On my interpretation, this is what Stevens’ poetry does.
If the concept of mimesis were not associated with the assumption that the
object of imitation is known in advance of the art that aims to reproduce it, an
idea that Stevens would reject, Stevens’ poetry might be described as
’metaphysically mimetic’.
There is a widespread interpretation of Stevens according to which his poetry
sets out from the irremediably fictional, false premise that its world, the world of
poetry, is the real world. Thus, Kermode says: ’Stevens commits himself to the
biggest of all as-ifs; he behaves as if poetry and the imagination are everything
that is humanly important (and therefore everything that is at all important).
Consequently he felt himself to be dealing incessantly with the But if my
interpretation is correct, this is the opposite of what is really going on in Stevens:
for if Stevens’ poetry were as Kermode says premised on an equation of poetry
with reality, then it would in fact have assumed exactly what it means to
establish. Stripping Stevens’ poetry of the realist obligation to answer to
something outside itself would leave it without coherent motivation, with
nothing to prove and nothing to do.
Stevens’ poetry talks at length of itself as a fiction, but for Stevens fiction does
not preclude truth; fiction may correspond to reality. Similarly, when Stevens
talks about the imagination he has in mind a power that is shared by poets and
ordinary people and does not exclude acquaintance with reality (just as
Coleridge identifies the faculty of poetic creation with Kant’s transcendental
imagination). For Stevens, the fact that something is imaginary or owes itself to
the work of human or poetic imagination does nothing to rule out a claim to its

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truth: what it means for something to be imaginary is just for it to resonate with
the human mind and answer to a human purpose. Thus the concept of
imagination may be compared to light: the imagination stands in the same
relation to reality as light to the visible world. ’Like light, it adds nothing, except
itself.’43The imagination comes from outside the object, and to that extent does
not belong to reality, but in illuminating its object, it reveals what is already
there. ’The imagination does not add to reality’; it is ’an activity like seeing
Stevens’ intention to write visionary poetry that meets the condition of truth
leads him to distance himself from what he considers false romanticism, which
’belittles’ the imagination and engages in ‘minor wish-fulfillments’ and evades
the pressure of reality.45 True romanticism, which ’has to be something more
than a conception of the mind’, purges itself of everything false and ‘increases
the feeling for reality’.46‘The poet is the intermediary between people and the
world in which they live [. . .] not between people and some other
‘The final poem will be the poem of fact in the language of fact.’4s Stevens looks
to poetry for ‘inherent order’; he says that the world to which poetry refers must
be ‘physical’, and that poetry must culminate in ’The poem of pure reality /
Untouched by trope or deviation’; it must proceed ’Without evasion by a single
metaphor’, so that there is nothing in poetry that does not correspond to
reality.49 ‘The poet commits himself to reality, which then becomes his
inescapable and ever-present diffi~ulty.’~’ The target of art is belief ‘how easy it
is suddenly to believe in the poem as one has never believed in it before’; we ’sit
listening to music as in an imagination in which we believe’.51
The intention to truth is expressed clearly towards the close of Stevens’
greatest poem, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction. Here the protagonist has
liberated himself from the deprivations of winter by having recourse to the
resources of his own mind and imagination, but he then confronts the impasse
constituted by the fact that ‘to impose is not / To discover’. And so he reaches
out to the thought that it must be possible

To find the real,

To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute52

This absolute or supreme ‘fiction’ is the proposition, whatever it may be, that
would secure the truth of Stevens’ transfigured world, converting its impositions
into discoveries.
To attribute a philosophical intention to Stevens is not to say that the task of
poetry is for him purely and dispassionately cognitive. Stevens does think of
poetry as striving to identify reality, but this cognitive description of its goal is
for Stevens only one way of picking out a desire that is fundamentally both a
desire simply to get hold of reality - to be presented with it - and to discover that
reality is valuable or value-sustaining. Stevens thinks of metaphysical desire,
‘the lure of the real’, the ’desire to enjoy reality’,53as primordially an undivided

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combination of cognitive and non-cognitive elements: it is, one might say, a

desire for reality-as-value, a world that is both in-itself and for-us. Only after this
primordially unified desire has led us into the contracted world of winter, in
which reality is apprehended as valueless, do its two aspects come apart and
into conflict with one another. This defines the task of imagination and poetry as
that of undertaking a second attempt to know reality, in a form that would
reintegrate it with value and remedy our poverty. So for Stevens, poetry must,
in addition to knowing reality, ’give pleasure’ and ’contribute to man’s
happiness’, but the pleasure that it is to give is not a mere pleasure but a
‘liberation’ and ’justification’, ’a kind of justice’, a ’purification’, ‘a health’.54
So, to summarize, for Stevens the object of poetry is to make the world
humanly habitable, and to do so on the condition of truth, that is, by way of
discovering reality to be humanly habitable. Poetry does this by expressing a
transfigured vision of the world and making good its claim for the reality of this
vision, which entails that it must converge with philosophy, as does Stevens’
thought that what makes the world uninhabitable and is responsible for our
’poverty’ in the first place, is a surrender to a certain, contracted conception of
reality. Hence the need for poetry to fight on two fronts: at the level of how the
world is actually pictured, and at a reflective, philosophical level, at which its
redeeming picture of the world is to be validated. Presupposed in all this is
Stevens’ sense of the insufficiency of ordinary experience of the world,
unassisted by poetry and the great works of imagination, to protect itself against
its tendency to poverty and uninhabitability. In this light, the ambition that
Stevens has for his poetry cannot be charged (as romanticism is often charged)
with reflecting a mere greed for value, or a culpable failure to appreciate the
value that is already available in the ordinary world.

Vindicating transfiguration: metaphysical strategies

If transfiguration is an experience that represents itself as veridical but at the

same time as breaking with ordinary experience of the world, then the question
arises immediately (as soon as one steps outside the experience of transfiguration
back into the ordinary world) of its claim to truth. For Stevens, the vindication of
transfiguration - that is, finding a reason to believe in transfiguration - is the
central poetic problem (‘in any art, the central problem is always the problem of
reality”’), and if what was said earlier is correct, then its poetic solution, if it has
one, must have a philosophical analogue.
We may begin by ruling out one view which has been entertained of Stevens‘
metaphysical strategy. This interpretation says that transfiguration is for Stevens
simply an assertion of the will to believe over the reality of fact. That would be to
interpret Stevens as bluntly asserting of fiction, as fiction, that it is true,
immolating himself on the contradiction that the unreal is real. Now this is an
interpretation that one might in some circumstances want to make of a poet -
regarded perhaps as a last-ditch, tragic gesture - but it makes no sense of

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332 Sebastian Gardner

Stevens, whose poetry aims to make desperate gestures unnecessary, and for
whom a paradoxical assertion of the reality of fiction would mean nothing more
interesting than a surrender to the pleasure principle. Stevens’ must be
interpreted as maintaining the distinction between fiction and reality, a
distinction which his poetry underscores at every point, not least when it
expresses the uncertainty of the ordinary world as to what is and is not real.%
Poetic success cannot for Stevens consist in a brute, unrationalized affirmation of
the reality of fiction.
For similar reasons, the neo-Nietzschean, deconstructionist interpretation of
Stevens must also be incorrect. On this account, Stevens’ poetic solution to the
problem of belief in transfiguration lies in ’problematiz[ing] cognitive certainty
in all its demolishing the gigantic myths of truth and metaphysical
reality, and evading any commitment to determinate meaning: in such a way
that the world becomes an overt fiction, poetry is sustained simply by force of
will, and the poet’s only commitment is to avoid being drawn out of textual
idealism into the illusion that there is such a thing as truth. This sort of
interpretation - which has the virtue of taking Stevens’ philosophical intentions
seriously - turns Stevens into a global i r ~ n i s tNow
. ~ ~ the mode of performance
and technique that constitutes irony proceeds from a point set over and against
ordinary, credulous consciousness, and facilitates moments of pseudo-liberation.
It rests essentially, at some level, on evasion and indifference to truth. Stevens
tells us however that the value of poetry lies in its contribution to ordinary
consciousness, which depends upon its capacity to answer a demand that is
truth-orientated. Embracing global irony cannot have recommended itself to
Stevens, again for the reason that, for him, it would have amounted to poetic
It is natural to suppose that the solution to Stevens’ problem, philosophically
expressed, must lie in a partial retreat from realism - that is, in some sort of
moderate, non-Nietzschean anti-realism. The kind of anti-realism that may seem
to be required here is that which asserts a link between the repudiation of
realism, and the admission or readmission of value into the inventory of reality.60
Anti-realism may seem to be the right strategy to attribute to Stevens because it
was realism - the desire for unconditional, extra-ordinary reality - that led us
into the contracted world in the first place; and so it may seem that rejecting
realism is what is necessary to get out of it. This is in fact the line of
interpretation pursued in nearly every extended commentary on Stevens.61The
view of Stevens as an anti-realist has of course in recent times been made to
seem self-evidently correct, since anti-realism became an orthodoxy in literary
criticism and literary theory. Also, of course, anti-realism has been widely
regarded in philosophy in this century, both analytic and Continental, as
providing the path back from the scientistic to the manifest image. And it is not
difficult to find material in Stevens’ poetry that can be interpreted as anti-realist
(’man’s truth is the final resolution of everything. Poets and painters alike make
that assumption’: ’The notion of absolutes is relative’62).
The train of thought that leads one to suppose that anti-realism is necessary to

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get out of the contracted world goes something like this. The world contracts
when, and only when, a distinction between appearance and reality is
introduced which makes independence from the mind the criterion for reality,
and presses the idea of mind-indepenedence very hard - by, for instance,
aligning it with physical causal efficacy, or with the property of being such to as
to figure essentially in idealized scientific theory. In view of this diagnosis of
how we arrive at the contracted world, it follows that the world can be de-
contracted so long as reality is construed in a way that allows it to be tied to the
human subject: so it is held that the real contents and features of the world may
be identified with those that are grounded in, and implied by, those of our social
and epistemic practices, habits of representation, accepted forms of discourse
and so on, that meet certain standards of rationality, convergence of judgement
etc. - standards that are sufficiently undemanding as to allow value to count as
part of the fabric of reality.
This line of thought is of course open to a further development, which some
anti-realists pursue. This is to say that reality is not only mind-dependent, but is
at least in part constituted in a positive sense by the mind, which enjoys a degree
of latitude in deciding what to make of reality. Thus reality is to be recognized as
plural, as not having any one correct description. At the limit, where anti-
realism becomes relativistic, it will be said that the concepts of truth and reality
have no genuine application outside some particular version of the world. And
at this point it may seem that one has arrived at a philosophical picture that
maps neatly onto Stevens’ valorization of imagination and fiction: anti-realism
pushed as far as pluralism or relativism seems to grant the poet the required
freedom to create the world as imagination dictates, subject only to whatever
aesthetic conditions constrain poetic success - thereby allowing poetry to be
regarded as making up true versions of reality.
Despite all this - and, as said earlier, it is the line adopted by most
commentators on Stevens at some point or other - anti-realism, although
intriguing to Stevens and a metaphysical possibility which he certainly
entertained, could not have provided him with a satisfactory means oi escape
from the contracted world or vindication of the transfigured world.
There is, in the first place, the following consideration. The contracted world
is characterized, for Stevens, by a ‘savage’ sense of the world‘s independence:
that is what gives it its force and convincingness, and underlies its peculiar kind
of beauty. Now if this is what the experience of the contracted world is founded
on, then introducing the thought that the world is in the required sense
dependent on the human subject cannot make enough of a difference. If the
contracted world has the compelling, cognitively irresistible quality that Stevens
represents it as having, then counterposing to it the thought that reality is mind-
dependent will necessarily be ineffective: since this thought will seem to be
directly falsified by the brute, experientially given fact of the contracted world’s
unconditional independence. So rather than the world‘s contraction being
dispelled as a minimalist illusion, it is instead the thought of reality‘s mind-
dependence that will give way, just as Hume found his philosophical

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334 Sebastian Gardner

convictions evaporating on leaving his study. And we are then back to regarding
value as mere, unreal projection. From the point of view of the contracted world,
anti-realism is equivalent to a mere reassertion of the ordinary world, one which
fails to take into account the ordinary world’s tendency to contract and
experience itself as illusory. The point here is simply that, if there is (as Stevens
assumes) a human desire to discover that value has reality or, otherwise put,
that reality includes value, and a human tendency to experience value as unreal,
then the desire for reality, the desire to discover of reality that it includes value,
is one that anti-realism cannot fulfil. Of course, anti-realism may then attempt
to persuade us that rationality and convergence of judgement (or whatever) are
what really count, that reality per se is ultimately unimportant or somehow not a
genuine category, but this would be another story altogether, requiring a
revision of ordinary consciousness.
The more extreme, pluralist or relativist form of anti-realism also fails to
provide Stevens with a solution. What the subject needs in order to move out of
the contracted world is a reason to reject or at least put in question the
contracted world’s claim to exhaust reality. The thought that reality is what the
mind makes it, or that it exists only in a plurality of versions, cannot do this,
since once again it will seem to be directly contradicted and overturned by the
experience of the contracted world as being the way it is without any
contribution from the mind. A truth-orientated subject will not be able to
persuade itself out of its belief in the reality of the contracted world.
Consequently the thought that reality is open to being created by the mind will,
once again, dissolve ineffectually in the face of experience of the contracted
world. From the point of view of the contracted world, the thought that reality is
’open to creation’ can mean only that, from a point of view outside the contracted
world, it may be possible to experience reality as if it were open to creation and
so to will a different, more habitable version of the world. But what pluralist or
relativist anti-realism cannot do is provide a cognitively sanctioned motive for
moving out of the contracted world towards such a realization of freedom in the
first place. The pluralist or relativist anti-realist interpretation is in this way no
better off than that which regards Stevens‘ vindication of transfiguration as
resting on a brute will to believe in fiction.
If all of this is right, then the anti-realist interpretation of Stevens fails to take
seriously his view that poetry and imagination must come to terms with the
pressure exerted by the hard sense of reality in the contracted world. With
regard to the many places in Stevens’ poetry where he may seem to be an
avowed anti-realist, I think these should be seen in the light of a different view
of his underlying strategy, to which I will turn in a moment. From an exegetical
point of view, what the anti-realist interpretation of Stevens registers is only one
specific moment in his poetry, in which the whole sense of the question of
reality temporarily seems to disappear. (‘Reality is a vacuum.’63) But this anti-
realist moment is recorded in Stevens’ poetry not as a moment of resolution, but
always as a pause or moment of suspension, to be succeeded by yet another
burst of metaphysical activity, a repeated attempt to fulfil the desire for reality.

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Wallace Stevens and Metaphysics 335

The full reason why the anti-realist interpretation of Stevens fails to give him
all that he needs is its failure to take account of, and respond to, the fact that the
sense of reality itself undergoes a transformation as a result of the contraction of
the ordinary world: the criterion of reality, as much as the contents of the world,
undergoes contraction, so that it comes to seem that application of the concept of
reality can be fixed in only one way, by the criterion of ’hardness’. As it might be
put, the concept of reality becomes wedded to a particular way in which objects
are given. The anti-realist urges us to regard the contents of the contracted
world, and those of the ordinary and transfigured worlds, as on a par and
equally real, by scaling down our sense of reality and weakening our concept of
what it is for something to be real. This however is to ask us to return to the
(edenic) situation of the ordinary world before it had undergone contraction,
when all things ready-to-hand, it may be supposed, were experienced without
differentiation as equally real. But after the experience of contraction, things are
experienced as having unequal degrees of reality, and this differential in the
sense of reality is taken to validate the contracted criterion of reality, on the basis
of which the contents of the ordinary and transfigured worlds come out as
unreal. The anti-realist’s proposal clashes with this fact.@ It makes the anti-
realist demand, logically, like that of an empirical idealist who asks us to regard
our experiences of perceiving external objects and our experiences of mental
images as differing only with respect to their vivacity or some other phenomenal
property, and not with respect to their veridicality.
Now, if what is required to get out of the contracted world is an experience of
the world as having all of the hardness of the contracted world and yet as
valuable, then this condition is impossible to meet: since any experience of the
world as valuable necessarily makes it answer to a human purpose and so seem
to lack the mind-indifference of the contracted world, and hence - by the
contracted criterion of reality - come out as unreal. On this condition, then, the
contracted world is inescapable.
But it is not true that an exit from the contracted world requires an experience
of the world as simultaneously hard in the way of the contracted world and
valuable. There is another possibility. There is no contradiction in thinking that
the world has value by virtue of how it is in itself, independently of us. If we
retrace the steps that lead to the contracted world, we find that its implicit claim
to have captured all of the content of the ordinary sense of reality, the plain
sense of things, is illegitimate. Nothing obliges us to identify reality with its
most contracted form. There is nothing in the ordinary world that determines us
to think that a world with less in it, a poorer world, is any more likely to be the
real world than a world with more in it, a richer world: the ordinary world gives
no instructions one way or the other on that point. The assumption that reality
may be identified with whatever picture of the world tends to crystallize out of
ordinary experience in any one particular direction, such as that of poverty, is
either arbitrary or circular. Reality as it is experienced in the ordinary world is
richer than the contracted world: this must be so, or the contracted world would
not be able to display the ordinary world as an illusion. So, just because the

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contracted world gives intense expression to one component of our ordinary

sense of reality does not mean that it captures everything that is contained in
that sense of reality. To suppose so is to run the concept of reality together with
the contracted criterion of reality. What is true of the experience of the
contracted world - and this does make an irreversible difference to our sense of
reality - is that it presents us with a luminously clear apprehension of what it is
for something to be real, and thus with one paradigm of a real thing. But granting
this does nothing to rule it out, or make it harder to think, that there are other
things in reality than those that show up in the contracted world, which are just
as real as, and real in the very same sense as, the contents of the contracted
world, even though they cannot be experienced in the same way. That these
uncontracted contents of reality cannot be experienced with the same quality of
hardness means that they cannot be known to be real in the same way that the
contents of the contracted world are known to be real; but this, once again, does
not prevent them from being real. So long as we respect and draw on the realist’s
sharp distinction between how things are and how we experience them, the fact
that the transfigured world is one whose reality we cannot experience in the
same way that we experience the contracted world may be simply a fact about
our relation to reality - the asymmetry need not be read back into reality itself. In
this way it becomes possible to ground the transfigured world on strands in the
ordinary worlds sense of reality, its plain sense of things, other than those
which precipitate us into the contracted world and become fixed in the
contracted criterion of reality.
All of this Stevens himself spells out. He says that ‘poetic truth is a factual
truth‘, but not ’clear, bare fact‘, rather it is ’fact possibly beyond [normal]
perception in the first instance and outside the normal range of ~ensibility’.~~
The ’extension of the mind beyond the range of the mind, the projection of
reality beyond reality’ gives rise to ‘a degree of perception at which what is real
and what is imagined are one’: ’much of the world of fact is the equivalent of the
world of imagination’.66 ‘The great poem is the disengaging of (a) reality.’67
’Poetry seeks out the relation of men to facts’ and may ‘touch with the
imagination in respect to reality’: ’absolute fact includes everything that the
imagination includes. This is our intimidating thesis.’68
This realist strategy is distinct from that of the anti-realist, because it does not
say at any point that reality consists in anything less than unconditional mind-
independence. What it says is, first, that the particular experience of the rnind-
independence of things which is characteristic of the contracted world is not
that in which being real consists; and, second, that experience of the contracted
world exemplifies only one, of perhaps indefinitely many possible ways of
coming into contact with the contents of unconditionally mind-independent
reality. So the concept of reality, the conception of what it is to be real, is held
constant: what happens is that -by exploiting the realist’s idea that how things
are, and how we experience them may come far apart - our conception of our
possible modes of access to reality is enlarged, to a point where it is thinkable
that the transfigured world is the real world. The crucial respect in which the

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realist strategy differs from the anti-realist is that it accommodates and does not
deny the differential in our sense of reality that results from exposure to the
contracted world.

The security of the ordinary world

This realist strategy has, arguably, the air of being a metaphysical long-shot, but
there is I think no satisfactory alternative as regards finding a philosophical
analogue of Stevens' poetic project, or vindicating visionary romanticism in
general. Supposing it hangs together, the question is, How much does it
Well, what it clearly does not establish is that the transfigured world, as
opposed to the contracted world, is the real world. It does not show this, since
all that has been shown is that there are strands in the ordinary sense of reality,
the plain sense of things, that lead to the contracted world, and others that, via
the medium of art, lead to the transfigured world; and that nothing in the
ordinary world provides a non-arbitrary reason for identifying reality with the
one world rather than the other.
But this is still to have established something, for what is thereby secured is
the equilibrium of the ordinary world. The transfigured world, as an antithesis to
the thesis of the contracted world, provides the necessary, cognitively
sanctioned counterweight to the pull of the contracted world, an antidote to
contraction. Transfiguration takes the value and habitability of the ordinary
world and concentrates these features, yielding a world the experience of which
is sufficient to match in intensity the antithetical experience of the contracted
world. It is true that transfigurative experience does not have the hardness of the
contracted world, but it nevertheless supplies, by virtue of the distinguishing
features of aesthetic experience, a kind of matching equivalent: it presents its
objects in an aesthetically heightened light for which the same kind of cognitive,
self-validating role may be claimed as for the hardness of the contracted world.
(This presumably is what underlies Bell's metaphysical hypothesis, that in
significant form we are acquainted with 'the thing in itself'.) The fact, shown by
art, that the transfigured world can evolve out of and is accessible to the
ordinary world, shows that the ordinary world, its plain sense of things,
contains within itself immanently the possibility of transfiguration as much as
that of contraction. ('The significance of the poetic act then is that it is
e ~ i d e n c e . ' ~Because
~) the scales are now evenly weighted, the ordinary world,
positioned between the antitheses of winter and summer, is made secure, and
this is enough for the purpose of making the world habitable. In this way, and in
full accordance with Stevens' aspirations, art does what philosophy on its own
cannot do: art presents the solution to the contracted world that philosophy is
able only to think. (The mind, 'the most terrible force in the world', is also 'the
only force that defends us against terror', 'that can defend us against itself'. 'The

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poet represents the mind in the act of defending us against itself.’ ‘Poetry is a
response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.’70)
So if this interpretation is correct, what is disclosed in the end as motivating
Stevens’ romanticism, his concern to vindicate the transfigured world of art, is
not by any means a rejection or devaluation of the ordinary world or an
aspiration to supplant it with an aestheticized reality, but rather a concern for
the integrity of the ordinary world itself. It turns out that in Stevens’ hands the
romantic’s concern for transfiguration, which can easily appear extravagant and
gratuitous, has a justification of a kind that is necessarily acceptable to an
inhabitant of the ordinary world - in terms of the legitimate interest of the
ordinary world in not allowing its plain sense of things to cause the world to
contract. (‘The purpose of poetry is to make life complete in itself.’71)
Poetry can do this even though it does not arrive at a categorical identification
of reality. The vindication of the transfigured world does not bring the cycle of
seasonal experience to a halt, since we remain prey to fluctuations in our sense
of reality. But it affords a new perspective on the cycle as a whole, which
incorporates a new security in the ordinary world, and makes the existence of
the metaphysical seasonal cycle as intelligible and acceptable as that of the
cycle of natural seasons. Every imaginative transfiguration of reality will
eventually fade - because it loses its freshness, and because we ourselves change
- and the plain sense of things will return. The ensuing redescent into winter
can however be regarded as what is necessary in order for there to be a further,
later transfiguration: one has to go back to winter, back to the ’first idea’, in
order to be propelled into creating another summer. And what each summer
proves, says Stevens, is that everything possesses the ’power to transform itself
or else [. . .] the power to be tran~formed’;~’ and this knowledge can be taken
into winter. So the repetition of ’merely going round’ becomes, Stevens says, ‘a
final good’, and constitutes an ‘amassing harmony’.73
Stevens’ resolution is not therefore equivalent to a Pyrrhonist state of skeptical
abstention from belief, since we do not escape the cognitive hold of the
metaphysical seasons. No more is it an ironic resolution, since it does not require
us to rise above our interest in truth and reality. Instead, Stevens’ poetry
functions as a sort of map.74 In our circumstance of radical metaphysical
instability, what we need is a representation of the vicissitudes of metaphysical
belief that can be carried across from one metaphysical season to another, such
that from any one metaphysical perspective we may grasp concretely the order
and vector of the whole. This giving of meaning to the fact of our metaphysical
vacillation is what Stevens’ poetry aims to provide.
This interpretation shows how Stevens’ references to fictionality are mis-
understood when taken as a cue for a Nietzschean or anti-realist interpretation
of his poetry. Stevens’ use of the term ‘fiction’ is qualified and elliptical. What
Stevens means is that, as said earlier, the transfigurative poem, as a work of art,
does not have the right to refer to itself from the inside as a truth rather than a
fiction; and that it cannot be known not to be a fiction. But this is compatible with
there being another perspective, which we can conceive and occasionally

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occupy, although never inhabit permanently, from which the transfigurative

poem is not, or not just, a fiction. There is also of course a sense in which the
transfigurative poem’s reference to itself as a fiction is a way of recognizing the
perspective of the contracted world, from which transfiguration is nothing but a
fiction - this act of recognition being at the same time an oblique way of
subsuming the perspective of the contracted world in that of the transfigured
There is one strand in Stevens’ poetry that does I think amount to an attempt
to introduce a genuine, pure fiction. This is Stevens’ attempt to build the fact
that the ordinary world is open to transfiguration into the fabric of ordinary
experience, through a process of poetic acclimatization. Poetry, he says,
‘naturalizes’ the reader ‘in its own imagination’, eliminates the incredible and
makes of itself a ‘credible thing’, ‘like a natural object’: it ‘must move constantly
in the direction of the credible’ and seeks to ‘press away from m y ~ t i c i s m ’ . ~ ~
Stevens’ intention, I think, is to turn the fact that the ordinary world has access
to, and may double as the transfigured world, into an ordinary fact about it, as if
art and great acts of imagination were not necessary for transfiguration: a trick
that he means to achieve by making us so at home in the artifice of poetry and
imagination that we lose sight of the dependence of transfigurative experience
on the work of art; the point of this, genuine, fiction being to allow value to flow
more freely from the transfigured world into the ordinary world.

I would like to conclude with some brief reflections on the metaphysical strategy
employed by Stevens (as I have interpreted him), which may help to give it
interest and authority.
Suppose that Stevens is correct in thinking that the concept of reality is
primordial, and at a stretch capable of being projected from the plain sense of
things to the visionary productions of art; and that it is inescapable, in that
nothing issuing from the imagination has value if it cannot be regarded as falling
under the category of reality. This is already an interesting result. It encourages
us to ask what structure the concept of reality has, that allows it to behave in that
way. In answering this question we encounter difficulty, for there seems to be
no obvious way of saying what it is about the notion of reality that gives it its
plasticity, or why reality should be a condition on value. But one thing at least
that seems to be shown is that there are two dimensions to the concept of reality:
one which is connected with the independence of things from us, and another
which is connected with the significance of things for us. These appear to be
independent and, indeed, to pull in opposite directions. What it would mean for
the two dimensions to come apart is unclear. Presumably we would then be
forced to deny that the concept of reality has the integrity which we ordinarily
suppose. But in any case we seem to find it impossible to abandon either
dimension of the concept of reality and, rather than allow the concept to
disintegrate, somehow remain able to think that both dimensions may be
satisfied, even though we do not understand truly how this can be.
Note then that the route taken by Stevens, although realist in the sense that it

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340 Sebastian Gardner

refuses to dilute the concept of reality and enforces an absolute distinction

between how things are and how they are represented (by means of which it can
achieve what anti-realism, which lacks any similar means of stretching the
bounds of the ordinary world, cannot) ends in an outlook quite remote from
realism as usually understood. Stevens is far from the idea that the plain sense of
things, our ordinary consciousness of an outer world, is transparent to itself and
grasps its own place in the order of things.
Now for this line of thought - to the effect that the concept of reality has a
structure which, once made explicit, results in a philosophical picture that is
remote from the plain realism of commonsense - there is one outstanding
philosophical model, namely transcendental idealism. For Kant, there is a
legitimate, albeit highly complex sense in which reality is both how things are
independently from our experience, and necessarily congruent with our sense of
significance or value. Kant would concur with Stevens that we are prone to
identify reality with a world that is metaphysically incapable of containing value,
and that in order to locate value it is necessary to go over the head of the
empirical world. There is furthermore some sort of formal similarity between the
intelligible world that Kant posits on the basis of practical reason and Stevens’
supreme fiction of a transfigured world. Kant however attempts to say how value
may be thought to have reality, and how the two dimensions of the concept of
reality may be reconciled. Anything of this sort is missing from Stevens, in
whom there is no trace of Kant’s key notion of the necessary interests of reason,
or any equivalent transcendental ground of value. Stevens does not concern
himself with explaining, as opposed to presenting, the possibility of transfigur-
ation. Does this mean that Stevens is not an implicit Kantian but a metaphysical
realist, i.e. that he leaves the reality of value to explain itself? Certainly that is
one possible interpretation. But the right thing to say, surely, is that it is simply
beyond the scope of art as such, even when raised to Stevens’ level of poetic self-
consciousness, to express an explanation of its own possibility. Consequently
the absence of a transcendental explanation of transfiguration in Stevens cannot
be taken as evidence for interpreting him as a metaphysical realist. The Kantian
will observe that transcendental idealism provides what is required to tip the
scales and give Stevens what he most wants, a categorical affirmation that the
transfigured world is the real world; and will claim that, in view of the
experiential preponderance of the world’s contraction over its transfiguration,
the metaphysical realist’s policy of allowing the reality of value to sustain itself
leaves it hanging by a thread. The question of which of transcendental idealism
and metaphysical realism provides the best underpinning for Stevens’ meta-
physical strategy therefore becomes the purely philosophical question of which
metaphysic is more successful in accounting for the reality of value. It was no
doubt essential to Stevens’ identity as an artist that he would not have regarded
the existence of a level of metaphysical reflection lying outside the bounds of art
as qualifying the supreme importance of p 0 e t 1 - y . ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sebastian Gardner
Birkbeck College, London

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Wallace Stevens and Metaphysics 341


My understanding of Stevens is indebted to, and in this paper draws on, in

particular, Kermode (1989 and 1971) and Beckett (1977).
In quoting from Stevens the following abbreviations will be used:
CP = The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
N A = The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination.
S L = Selected Letters of Wallace Stevens.
OP = Opus Posthumous.
See Kermode (1971), pp. 33-1, and Kermode (1989), pp. xv-xviii. Kermode
regards such criticism as bordering on the ridiculous and likely to lower Stevens' standing
as a poet.
Blackmur (1986), pp. 80, 82 and 93.
N A , pp. 121-2, 168.
Bell (1914), pp. 69-70.
Quoted in Kermode (1971), p. 332.
'A collect of philosophy', OP, pp, 267-80. It was not accepted for publication.
' OP, p. 277; N A , p. 40.
N A , pp. 40-1.
lo See Jarraway (1993), Introduction, 'In-words'.
N A , pp. 170-1.
l 2 OP, p. 228.
l 3 S L , p. 96.
SL, p. 378; CP, p. 524.
l5 OP, p. 228; CP, p. 167; OP, p. 259.
l 6 OP, p. 192.
l7 OP, p. 192.
I' See Jarraway (1993), p. 301 11.58.
l9 Eliot (1970), pp. 98-9.
2o N A , pp. 57-8.
21 In the sense defined by Kermode (1976), which is similar to a Kantian intellectual
intuition; Stevens never denies that our intellects are, in Kant's sense, discursive.
22 N A , p. 127; OP, p. 270.
23 CP, pp. 380-2.
24 CP, p. 503.
25 N A , pp. 63, 31.
26 OP, p. 260.
27 N A , pp. 26-7.
28 N A , p. 95.
29 CP, p. 10.
N A , p. 96.
31 CP, p. 320.
32 In addition to whatever references it may have to fictional worlds; see the discussion
of Stevens in McCormick (1993), ch. 7. That the world as a whole can fall within the scope
of a work of art is a puzzling fact; it has perhaps something to do with that power of ours
to take the world as an object, which, as Heidegger says, our capacity for mood reveals us
to possess.

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342 Sebastian Gardner

33 OP, 265.
34 It has been said that in Stevens’ last volume of poetry, The Rock, his metaphysics
change, but I do not think this is so. Stevens’ basic metaphor changes, the rock taking the
place of the winter world, so that what was an order expressed on one level - the seasons
- is now recast as an order incorporating two different levels, symbolized by the
underlying rock and the organic world growing on top of it. But minimal reality,
symbolized by bare rock, remains something that we can confront but not inhabit, of
which a ‘cure’ is needed (we need to ’make meanings of the rock‘); and transfiguration,
now symbolized by sunlit fruit and vegetation, remains a discovery of full reality, which
comprehends the living world as much as the rock that supports it (its ’barreness
becomes a thousand things / And so exists no more’, CP, p. 527).
N A , p. 99; CP, p. 475.
A state of perplexity that Stevens evokes in frequent semi-paradoxical formulations,
suggestive of uncertainty regarding the point of separation of reality and fiction.
37 CP, p. 502.
38 CP, p. 467.
39 This is what Stevens means by ’the absence of imagination had /Itself to be
imagined‘, CP, p. 503.
40 OP, p. 199.
41 N A , pp. 140, 42, 114, 77, 54.
42 Kermode (1971), p. 332.
43 N A , p. 61.
44 OP, p. 203; N A , p. 145.
45 N A , p. 138. It also leads him to distance himself from surrealism, whose fabulous
world of pure invention is set over and against reality: unlike the surrealist, Stevens does
not mean to challenge reality by a bold gesture of invention. ‘The essential fault of
surrealism is that it invents without discovering’, OP, p. 203.
46 OP, pp. 191, 188.
47 OP, p. 189.
48 OP, p. 190.
49 CP, pp. 442, 325, 471, 372.
5o OP, p. 256.
51 OP, p. 262; N A , p. 150.
52 CP, pp. 403-4.
53 N A , pp. 99, 78.
54 CP, p. 398; OP, p. 194; N A , p. 50; OP, p. 200.
55 N A , p. 116.
56 This view differs from the Neo-Nietzschean, deconstructionist view discussed
below, according to which Stevens’ poetry replaces will to belief with will to power.
57 See Jarraway (1993), p. 258.
58 Bloom (1980) describes Stevens at one point as ‘the supreme lyrist‘ of ’the pragmatic
test’: ‘Stevens never stays philosophic for very long: he is himself only when most
evasive.‘ (pp. 216-17).
59 Stevens requires the sophisticated consciousness of poetry to agree with the naive
consciousness of ordinary life. The global ironist of deconstruction regards the latter as
sunk irremediably in illusion. Nor therefore can Stevens be interpreted as a Romantic
Ironist in the tradition of Friedrich Schlegel and Solger.
6o This excludes, it should be noted, transcendental idealism, which for the moment
may be bracketed out of the discussion.

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Wallace Stevens and Metaphysics 343

Even Kermode (1989) says at one point that Stevens’ vindication of transfiguration
works ’because reality exists in the mind’ (p. 101), although this is actually inconsistent
with other things that Kermode says about Stevens - which alerts one to the fact that
most critics, other than deconstructionists, see little reason to care whether Stevens’
poetic successes are achieved on the basis of realism or anti-realism.
‘* N A , p. 175; OP, p. 185.
OP, p. 194.
6.1 Lack of this sense of reality is in fact the nub of Stevens’ complaint against Imagism:
’Not all images are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this‘, OP, p.
65 NA, pp. 5940.
66 NA, p. 171; OP, p. 192; NA, p. 61.
67 OP, p. 195.
OP, pp. 204, 195; NA, pp. 60-61.
69 OP, p. 256.
70 OP, pp. 199, 201.
71 OP, p. 188.
72 CP, p. 514.
73 CP, pp. 405, 403.
74 I owe this suggestion to Stephen Mulhall.
75 N A , pp. 50, 53; OP, p. 205; NA, pp. 58, 116.
76 A comparison with Coleridge is illuminating. Steeping himself in German idealism,
whose unique value for aesthetic consciousness he grasped, Coleridge could not set aside
the question of the philosophical explanation of art’s visionary potential. Eliot (1970)
regards Coleridge’s double-consciousness-as did Coleridge himself on occasion-as having
worked to his artistic detriment (p. 99). Be this as it may, my exploration of Stevens hopes
to have shown that the line between poetry and philosophy does not fall where Eliot
locates it: Eliot is right that poetry cannot match the full extent of philosophical reflection,
but wrong to think that it cannot incorporate any intrinsically philosophical intentions
without prejudicing its artistic identity.
77 I am grateful to those who responded to this paper at the conference ’Philosophical
Transfigurations of Everyday Life’ at the University of Essex, 26 February 1994, for
comments and suggestions.


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344 Sebastian Gardner

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@ Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1994