Subject v. Object: The Condition of the Relationship Between Man and the World
Wallace Stevens wrote, “Poetry is the statement of a relation between a man and his world.” It is clear throughout Stevens’s poetry that he is trying to make this assertion true; that Stevens is writing poetry concerned with the relation of man and other (that “other” being the world, or that which is the outer—the object). But what is more striking is the condition of the relationship between the two—that the relationship exists is not the issue — subject/object become either beacons of light (emotion evocative of lightness or happiness) or temporal — an impetus for emotion, which is waning or is so stark it cannot be there. There is even heaviness in some of the poems that demonstrates the relationship might be ominous or foreboding. Whatever the relationships are in Stevens’s poems, the reader can tell what the condition is because it sets forth the tone in the poem. This being said, if the reader is able to deduct relationships between things, then the writer is doing this with a feel for style. Style of rhythm. Style of breath. The poems “The House Was Quiet and the World was Calm” and “Anecdote of the Jar,” are primary examples of how Stevens creates relationships between subject and object.
In the poem “The House Was Quiet and the World was Calm,” one of the relationships is between the reader and the book. Another relationship can be found between the reader and the reader’s environment. Either way, the condition of the relationship is the same: calm. This may be because Stevens repeats the word “calm” six times throughout the whole of a sixteen-line poem, but in that repetition he is weaving together a calming rhythm. Within the first two stanzas, the reader is lulled by the rhythm of words and stanza breaks.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm. (Stevens 371)
Stevens is using longer lines and open-vowel words (i.e. “house,” “world,” “calm”) to propagate a sense of the drawn out, the languid. These two elements combined produce a lulling effect, which Stevens uses to fulfil the expectation he sets up in the title.
Within these four lines the condition of the relationship between the reader and the book can be seen. There is a sense of unity and contemplation, “The reader became the book,” and, “… summer night was like the conscious being of the book.” A summer night is usually cool and slow. It knows it’s own beginning and end — just as the book has its own beginning and end. With these stanzas, Stevens is able to capture the effect of a scene, allowing subject and object to correlate and be a part of a, “highly articulated instance of the phenomenal self-presentation of meaning — an achievement, an emergence, a hard-won expression” (Singer 235). As the poem moves forward, Stevens takes his reader deeper into the condition of the relationship:
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be. (Stevens 372)
The language here seems to be divisive — the language breaks apart the lyric for the reader. So the tone here changes, there is tension in the relationship. The book is retracted from the relationship for a moment, “The words were spoken…,” but then there is an exaggeration of need, “Except that the reader…,” so the essential condition changes from calm and contemplative into need by both the subject (the reader) and object (the book). There is a sense that the book would not exist if the reader were not leaning above the page; that the book is only a book because the reader has cause for it to be. The book is not the physical form, but the words that are within it.
In turn, the reader is leaning over the page, an action of need — a need for closeness, or a need for discovery, “wanting much most to be the scholar whom his book is true.” By doing this, Stevens allows the moment of the poem to arch. There is a slight change in diction—i.e. “much most”— and a light shortening of the rhythmic metre, where the metre is changed by the mere changing of line length, i.e. “Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be,” and, “The summer night is like a perfection of thought.” This shift marks an evolution in the condition of the relationship and there is now interdependency between subject and object and a third party, which is the environment.
Because the reader exists on two planes (the plane of the book and the plane of his home), there is a need between the reader and the environment. The house is not quiet of its own volition, in fact the poem states otherwise, “The house was quiet because it had to be.” There is a force being exerted on the house itself, as if it would not be quiet any other time without stipulation, therefore the reader is exerting his will on the house to make it quiet. The reader is also forced to be quiet because he is leaning over the book with a need to be “the scholar to whom his book is true.” Within six lines the condition of the relationship has evolved from a calm (lines 1-4) to a need (lines 4-10).
In the last stanzas of the poem, Stevens decides to take the poem to a resolution of tone. He emphasise the beginning metre and brings the poem to a restful denouement:
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth is a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there. (Stevens 372)
Within these last few stanzas it is understood that the quiet is more than a need, it is a state that has validity, “The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,” it seems that there is no force coming from the reader that can be interpreted as an exertion of power “upon” the environment. This section is an overt attempt to keep the condition of the relationship neutral or balanced. What is discovered here is the fact that the condition of the relationship is not a fixed condition, but also changes and evolves as the poem progresses. Altieri speaks to this eloquently when he says, “Language, in other words, keeps two forces in motion — one that liberates the scene into new relational forms, another that liberates the responding mind to set out its own analogous restlessness, which can fully appreciate what is involved in that final eminently logical reversal that brings peace to all the motion (without suppressing it)” (Altieri 230).
“Anecdote of the Jar” also demonstrates this mutability. The subject in this poem is the jar, the object is the environment. There is also the “I” of the poem, which does the action to the subject and quickly leaves the poems trajectory, but does not leave the atmosphere.
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill. (Stevens 60).
In this stanza, the “I” places the jar in Tennessee, on a hill. This is where the exterior “I” has a force over the subject and object; the condition of the relationship between the environment and the “I” seems to be one of ambivalence, where it is perceived that the environment is a wasteland. The subject quickly takes energy and the object becomes something unwanted, undesirable, “It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill.”
As the second stanza comes about, there is recognition of change, the environment is no longer something unwanted, but rather it is transformed into an environment in revolt. Stevens writes, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” In these lines, the power seems to change, and the environment gathers power. The environment now is in turmoil. This turmoil bring about a need for or an initiative for change, where the wilderness (the environment) heaves against this jar. But the condition changes again in the next stanza,
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee. (Stevens 61)
Here the power shifts to the subject. It literally takes dominion everywhere. The subject now has complete power over the object so that the object will never regain authority. In fact, there is so much change to the object that the object actually changes into something else. Here, the reader no longer thinks that the wilderness is wilderness because of the jar. The wilderness can no longer perform its specific duties of providing shelter for birds or bush. The poem closes and brings everything to macro, “It did not give bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee.” It seems that here is where the “I” comes back in to haunt the jar, or revel in the dominion the jar has over the rest of the environment. In this way, the “I” has the power over everything because it changed the landscape in such a way that it is like nothing else in Tennessee. This sort of usurpation done by the “I” gives considerable power to both the “I” and the jar. The subject, after the “I” reinserts itself, no longer has power because the “I” has taken all of the power. In this way, Charles Altieri speaks to Stevens’s notion of otherness in his article Why Must Stevens Be Abstract:
For him, what matters is not the fact, or even the shape of otherness: What matters is how the individual disposes himself or herself to make the imagination of one’s own otherness significant. (Altieri, l, 327)
It is the same in “Anecdote of the Jar.” The “I” is neither subject nor object, but it still serves a purpose of causing the condition of the relation between subject and object change. The “I,” therefore, is other. It is separateness and it is link. Without the “I” placing a jar in Tennessee, there would be no need for subject or object. There would be no relationship. The environment would be static, and the jar would still be in the “I’s” possession.
Within these two poems, it can be seen that Stevens is trying to produce and validate the relations created by the act of poetry. These relations dominate his poems and extend into the world. Stevens’s eye saw that there is an interrelation between the world and that which resides in the mind; that there is no separation. With no separation there everything is linked together in a relationship that can be either beneficial or malevolent. It seems that Steven’s take on the physical world, and his need to make language new, forced him to see the world in a way that requires his reader to make connections both within themselves and without.
Altieri, Charles. “Modes of Abstraction in Modernist Poetry.” Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (321-358).
---. Altieri, Charles. “Why Stevens Must Be Abstract.” Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (222-247).
Singer, Linda. “Merleau-Ponty on the Concept of Style.” (233-244).
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York, 1997.