“The Eye’s Plain Version”: Visual Anatomy and Theories of Perception in Stevens
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“The Eye’s Plain Version”:
Visual Anatomy and Theories of Perception in Stevens

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN regarding Wallace Stevens’ auditory imagination, the expressive techniques of sound and rhythm characteristic of his poetry. Comparatively little has been written about the role of visual perception in Stevens’ poetry, unless this perception is phrased through the abstract dialectic of reality and the imagination. Although critics such as Christopher Collins have noted “the dependency of imaging on the routines of perception” (90), the visual system has been almost ignored by Stevens’ critics, with the exception of a few isolated close readings and three short chapters in James Baird’s The Dome and the Rock: Structure in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. This neglect is made more troublesome by the critical consensus that images, colors, and light play a central role in Stevens’ poetry. The words “eye” and “eyes” appear one hundred and seventy-eight times in Stevens’ Collected Poems, often preceded by tantalizing and confounding adjectives such as “buxom,” “angelic,” and “clairvoyant.”1 Despite this fact, many critics discuss vision only in an abstract sense, finding Emerson’s disembodied “transparent eyeball” (from the opening pages of Nature) more relevant than Stevens’ own grossly physical “eyeball in the mud” (CPP 526).

Such accounts describe vision through the framework of transcendence rather than as a physiological process. Indeed, few critics have noted the substantial evidence in Stevens’ poems that suggests his understanding of the physical process of vision, and none, to my knowledge, has connected this evidence to exigent hints from his biography indicating his probable research into visual perception and anatomy of the eye. And yet, as I will argue, Stevens’ verse thoughtfully explores theories of human visual perception and displays familiarity with the specialized language of optical anatomy. Far from using vision as a massive romantic trope, Stevens employs the particulars of the eye’s anatomy in ways that suggest a complex knowledge of perception that meaningfully alters conversations regarding his understanding of the mental and physical processes involved in the imagination. Stevens’ poetry reflects the neuroanatomical understanding that the eye is the only sense organ that is actually “mind,” an extension of the cortex and consequently part of the brain itself. It is the [End Page 207] only place where the brain directly touches the real world, indicating that the act of vision, far from transcending the body, is always limited and shaped by the physiology of the eye.

Despite the large body of criticism addressing the relationship between reality and the mind in Stevens, this embodied understanding of the imagination is surprisingly absent in the critical literature. To take two prominent examples, both Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler view the physical process of vision as a burden to be lifted on the pathway to romantic transcendence. Bloom regards the visual aspect of Stevens’ poetry as a figuration hiding his ideological indebtedness, his “anxiety of influence,” to romantic precursors such as Emerson and Whitman: “Reality or the eye’s plain version thus turns out to be only a crossing between turnings, a continual troping in, through, and with the eye” (307). Bloom’s theoretical concern with aporias, disjunctions, and “crossings” ultimately transforms the “eye’s plain version” into an illegible abstraction, ignoring Stevens’ attempts to ground the imagination in the concrete, physiological process of vision. A more attentive and sympathetic critic of Stevens, Vendler nevertheless privileges the temporal over the visuospatial in his work. In her attempt to craft Stevens as a poet of physical desire, she argues that feeling is the organizing principle of his poetry, and that the visual—the conditions in which the world presents itself—is only the starting point: “This transformation of a spatial object into a temporal event is for Stevens the axis on which poetry turns. The world presented itself to him in visual terms; and yet poetry turned the visual object into the temporal integration, into that musical score for experience that we call a poem” (7). Both Bloom and Vendler ultimately assert that Stevens’ strategies for overcoming the physical limitations of the body—and vision in particular—involve a dissolution of the body as vision is “pursued to invisibility” (Vendler 49...