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Whitman and Stevens:
Certain Phenomena of Sound

THE PROPOSITION THAT Wallace Stevens’ poetry is deeply influenced by Walt Whitman’s, though by no means universally accepted (see Patrick Redding’s essay in this issue for a forceful counterview), has been in circulation for many decades. Numerous thematic affinities between the two poets, shared tropes and images, even direct verbal echoes have been compellingly adduced by Harold Bloom and his student the late Diane Middlebrook. And yet it is not so easy to point to specific passages in Stevens that bear Whitman’s stylistic or, more specifically, acoustic imprint. Are there moments when we can say that Stevens actually sounds like Whitman? Such passages are much easier to find in openly Whitmanian modernists like D. H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, Robinson Jeffers, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and even less obvious acolytes like Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot. A second major wave of Whitmanian influence on American poets can be traced in Theodore Roethke, Charles Olson, Margaret Walker, Allen Ginsberg, A. R. Ammons, Adrienne Rich, and many others. This is to say nothing of Whitman’s palpable presence in non-Anglophone poetry, especially in Latin America and Africa. Indeed, the cadences and inflections of Whitman’s “orotund, sweeping” voice are everywhere audible in twentieth-century poetry. Is Stevens a limit case, a poet whose debt to Whitman (if it exists) is so thoroughly masked and muffled that it cannot be picked up through the ear, no matter how we strain?

I want to suggest that it is not so difficult to detect a Whitmanian ground tone in Stevens’ verse, provided one tunes to the right frequency. Before I expand on this claim, however, I would like to take a moment to briefly review the odd critical history of Whitman-Stevens comparisons. The history is odd largely because it is so closely associated with a single figure, Harold Bloom, whose work tends to provoke resistance and discourage emulation.1 A fierce proponent of Stevens, Bloom has long promoted his view of the poet as a major twentieth-century inheritor of the romantic tradition. Bloom is, of course, best known for his grandiose theory of poetic influence, which portrays literary history as a series of agons between earlier and later poets. In his first writings on Stevens, Bloom tends to [End Page 61] align him with the British romantics, especially Wordsworth and Shelley. By the time of his 1977 study Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, however, he unequivocally identifies Whitman as the poet’s major precursor—more so even than Emerson, who occupies the central position in Bloom’s mapping of the American canon. Bloom’s many discussions of the Whitman-Stevens relationship circle back obsessively to a few touchstones, including, inevitably, the opening stanza of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” which he quotes in at least eight different books:2

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore. He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him, The worlds that were and will be, death and day. Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end. His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.

While these lines project a powerful vision of Whitman, it must be noted that they are not obviously imitative of him. The relatively short sentences and roughly five-stress lines characteristic of Stevens have little in common with Whitman’s looser, more expansive prosody and syntax. In more extended comparisons, Bloom aligns specific poems by Whitman and Stevens—“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” and “The Auroras of Autumn,” “The Sleepers” and “The Owl in the Sarcophagus”—but here too his tendency to read poems as psychic dramas of individuation and defense (or as he sometimes calls them, “apotropaic litanies”) leads him to focus on broad thematic parallels, with occasional glances at specific moments of verbal and imagistic echo and allusion.

The poem that for Bloom most fully embodies the Stevens-Whitman relationship is “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” whose playful ventriloquizing of a solipsistic promenader of indeterminate origin he repeatedly links to the chanting Whitman figure of “Like Decorations.” Bloom reads Hoon’s central declaration, “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself” (CPP 51), as a thinly disguised revision of a key passage from “Song of Myself”: “Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me” (Whitman 213). Curiously, he does not cite another Whitman passage that seems much closer verbally and imagistically to Stevens’ poem: “I descend my western course, my sinews are flaccid, / Perfume and youth course through me and I am their wake” (545). These lines from “The Sleepers” could easily have provided the seed for the later poem’s languid evocation of a sublime descent enhanced by cosmetics: [End Page 62]

Not less because in purple I descended The western day through what you called The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard? What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears? What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

(CPP 51)

As Bloom observes, the poem opens as a defiant retort to an interlocutor who seems to have questioned the speaker’s authenticity. While Whitman strikes such defensive notes on occasion (“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself” [246]), Hoon, ostentatiously decked out in purple like a Wildean aesthete, is as much a fictive persona as Crispin and the Canon Aspirin. Nevertheless, Bloom repeatedly conflates Hoon and Walt, most recently in The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, which devotes a chapter to Stevens and Eliot as rival heirs of Whitman. In a recent interview with Michael Skafidas, he goes so far as to cite the Stevens poem as though it were straightforwardly in the voice of Whitman:

At 85, one is a very bad sleeper. Last night in fact, I could not fall asleep again because of my health’s failures, and I found myself reciting poetry. Since I was a little one, I have a remarkable memory in terms of recalling poetic texts. So last night, I found myself chanting not Whitman directly, but Wallace Stevens’ magnificent complex vision of Whitman. I think I know it by heart so if you don’t mind, I’ll put it in the picture right now [Bloom recites by heart Stevens’ “Tea at the Palace of Hoon,” in which the speaker is Walt Whitman himself].

The error about the poem’s speaker may partly be the interviewer’s (as the misspelled title no doubt is), but clearly in his eighties Bloom no longer feels any need to qualify his assertions of radical continuity between Whitman and Stevens. That continuity is largely a matter of what Bloom calls stance rather than style, a shared celebration of the world-making capacities of the self that expresses itself very differently in their works.

Bloom’s own lack of interest in uncovering stylistic affinities between the two poets is made explicit by his student Diane Wood Middlebrook, in a book that grew from a dissertation written under Bloom’s direction:

My discussion is not based on an idea of influence. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens shows little trace of Whitman where we might look for him, in Stevens’ diction or in his use of the line or in his sense of himself as bardic narrator. Whitman’s [End Page 63] legacy to Stevens . . . was not a legacy of poetic style, but a conception of the unfailing sufficiency of the mind’s creative relation to reality.


One can certainly understand Middlebrook’s reluctance to posit stylistic continuities between two poets as superficially dissimilar as Whitman and Stevens. Whitman’s oratorical rhetoric and commanding tone, biblical cadences, and earthy, concrete imagery are far removed from Stevens’ meditative musings, iambic rhythms, and elegant, abstract diction. One of Bloom’s key tests of a poet’s “strength” in relation to his or her precursor involves the revisionary ratio he calls apophrades and the corresponding rhetorical trope of metalepsis or transumption, which reverses cause and effect. In Bloom’s account, the ultimate triumph of any poet battling a strong predecessor comes when we have the illusion that the earlier poet has been influenced by the later poet. Bloom gives convincing examples of this phenomenon from a range of poets, among them a passage from “Song of Myself” that he suggests sounds very much like Eliot. Strangely, however, Bloom offers no example of a passage from Whitman that sounds like Stevens, though he clearly favors Stevens over Eliot as a true ephebe.3 This omission underscores the enormous challenge of defining Stevens’ stylistic debt to Whitman. Unlike other poets who, in Bloom’s term, successfully “transume” their precursors, Stevens does not take up any strain in Whitman and make it his own; the process of stylistic assimilation is more subtly transformative.

In the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to trace the ghostly demarcations left by Whitman in Stevens’ verse, especially as they disclose themselves to the ear. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus primarily on Stevens’ 1942 collection, Parts of a World, since it seems to me the book in which he most often approaches Whitman’s rhetorical amplitude. That volume opens with a poem called “Parochial Theme” which contains two lines that may well constitute Stevens’ most overt echoing of his precursor:

This health is holy, this descant of a self, This barbarous chanting of what is strong, this blare.

Here the Whitmanian note is undisguised, and even verges on parody. Diction is the immediate point of contact; virtually every word resonates with a key passage in Whitman. With its mundane generality, “health” is not a common term in poetry, yet it appears several times in “Song of Myself”: “I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin” (188), “The feeling of health, the full-noon trill” (189), “I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (247). The health evoked by Stevens is more diffuse, a property of the landscape (a French forest in which a hunt is taking place) rather than [End Page 64] an individual person. In redefining holiness as an attribute of the physical world, Stevens again follows Whitman in “Song of Myself”: “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from” (211). Though Stevens substitutes the esoteric term “descant” for the more primal “song,” “descant of a self” unmistakably calls to mind the title of Whitman’s greatest poem. More telling is the substitution of “a” for “my,” encapsulating the more general movement in Stevens’ work from personal utterance to abstract reflection. Another minor modification is “barbarous” for Whitman’s “barbaric” (“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” [247]), part of a family of recurring modifiers in Stevens that often call up a Whitmanian energy. (Another of these is “turbulent,” which occurs memorably in both poets: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding” [210]; “Supple and turbulent, a ring of men / Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn” [CPP 55].) Perhaps the most consistent mark of the Whitmanian strain in Stevens is the verb “chant” (“This barbarous chanting”), which also appears prominently in the opening stanza of “Like Decorations.” A favorite verb of Whitman’s, the word in its various forms occurs at least twenty-four times in Stevens’ Collected Poems, nearly always in moments that summon what he famously calls in “Evening Without Angels” “the voice that is great within us” (CPP 112). In its derivation, of course, the word simply means “sing,” but for both poets it evokes a kind of active, world-making speech or incantation. The ritual musicality of chanting contrasts with the more dissonant “blare,” a word that appears only once in Leaves of Grass but resembles the kind of strong monosyllabics favored by the poet who invoked “The blab of the pave” (Whitman 195).

What Stevens called “the essential gaudiness of poetry” (L 263) has plentiful antecedents in Whitman, and it is easy to suppose that Stevens took special delight in phantasmagorical lines like “Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven” and “I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags” (Whitman 212, 247). Stevens has his own palette of flamboyant diction (“The chits came for his jigging, bluet-eyed” [CPP 35], “The bird’s fire-fan-gled feathers dangle down” [CPP 477]), yet he also understood the power of the most neutral and colorless parts of speech: prepositions, pronouns, even articles (“The the” [CPP 186]). Perhaps the most deeply Whitmanian element in the lines from “Parochial Theme” cited above is their repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun “this,” a ubiquitous marker in Whitman for the here and now of poetic utterance. Compare these lines from “Song of Myself”:

This is the press of a bashful hand, this the float and odor of hair, This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning. . . .

(205) [End Page 65]

The deictic immediacy of “this” often produces such moments of startling intimacy in Whitman. Stevens’ use of “this” tends to be more detached, pointing at objects from a slight distance rather than suspended in the erotic space between text and reader. Nevertheless, the repetition of the word situates Stevens’ phrases in a rhetorical zone of presence and proximity that heightens their affirmative character. The fact that the poem immediately shifts its gaze to “horses eaten by wind,” skeletons, hangings, and guillotines (likely in glancing reference to Nazi-occupied France, since the ponies are identified as Parisian) suggests that the semi-parodic Whitman voice has been summoned as a foil for more somber, less ebullient tones (CPP 177). Yet the poem ends with an audibly Whitmanesque yawp: “Piece the world together, boys, but not with your hands” (CPP 177). The colloquial, jaunty imperative is another Whitman tune that Stevens playfully samples.

Second-person address is of course a major hallmark of Whitman’s poetry; it is hardly an accident that the first word of “Song of Myself” is “I” and the last word “you.” Like “this,” “you” is a deictic that can create powerful effects of presence and immediacy. As Jonathan Culler points out, much second-person discourse in lyric poetry is in fact triangulated, taking the form of apostrophes to non-human entities or addresses to persons other than the reader.4 To a nearly unprecedented degree (excepting the instructional genre of the georgic), Whitman makes the address to the reader a staple of his poetics. Stevens takes up this device in a carefully modified way, usually with a mock-didactic or pseudo-oratorical overlay, as in “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas” (“My beards, attend / To the laughter of evil” [CPP 229]). Yet even the address to the “ephebe” in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” has its close antecedent in Whitman’s playful exhortation to his “Eleves” in “Song of Myself” (231). Occasionally, though, Stevens adopts a second-person mode that carries a more urgent tone. A difficult and largely unstudied poem in Parts of a World called “The Bagatelles the Madrigals” comes surprisingly close to Whitman’s rhetoric and cadence:

And where is it, you, people, Where is it that you think, baffled By the trash of life, Through winter’s meditative light?

In what crevice do you find Forehead’s cold, spite of the eye Seeing that which is refused, Vengeful, shadowed by gestures [End Page 66]

Of the life that you will not live, Of days that will be wasted, Of nights that will not be more than Surly masks and destroyers?

(This is one of the thoughts Of the mind that forms itself Out of all the minds, One of the songs of that dominance.)

The brooding tenor of these lines is very different from the sportive genres evoked by the title. Here the Whitman sound is less a matter of diction than of grammar, tone, and syntax. The startlingly direct, almost hectoring second-person interrogatives recall the insistent questions of “Song of Myself” section 42 and similar passages. The poem’s broad parallel structure and incremental syntax also follow patterns laid down by Whitman (more on syntax in a moment). The closing parenthesis, with its reflexive deictic “This,” calls to mind similar gestures in Whitman, who made more prominent use of parentheses than any poet before and few since. While the poem’s sardonic emphasis on mass resentment and despair strongly distinguishes it from Whitman’s primary mode, I would suggest that Stevens may be consciously transposing the earlier poet’s music into a minor key, perhaps to underscore the limits of his benign vision of collectivity.

The ultimate accord between Whitman and Stevens occurs at the level of what Robert Frost famously called “sentence sounds.” Stevens inherits from Whitman a virtuosic command of syntax as extended vocalization. Where he departs from Whitman’s typical sentence sounds is in his use of apposition rather than enumeration as his chief organizational principle. The distinction between the two is not always clear-cut, however, and one often finds traces of Whitman’s catalogue style in Stevens’ more metaphorically inflected clausal sequences. The lines from “Parochial Theme” quoted above (“This health is holy,” etc.) can serve as an initial example. Unlike the “this” clauses in the lines cited from “Song of Myself” (“This is the press of a bashful hand,” etc.), Stevens’ clauses ask to be read as substitutions or elaborations on a single referent, yet their marked variations in rhythm and diction (“descant,” “barbarous chanting,” “blare”) generate something of the sense of jostling profusion we associate with Whitman’s catalogues. Many other Stevens passages work in this way, stationing themselves somewhere between the substitutive logic of “is” and the additive logic of “and.” A notable instance occurs in the final lines of “The Motive for Metaphor”: [End Page 67]

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from The weight of primary noon, The A B C of being,

The ruddy temper, the hammer Of red and blue, the hard sound— Steel against intimation—the sharp flash, The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

Stevens’ willingness to assemble noun phrases without linking verbs surely owes much to Whitman’s example, though he generally does so in the service of conceptual nuance rather than empirical inclusiveness. The final piling on of modifiers also resembles adjectival strings in Whitman (“Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate” [227]); here one might say that the characteristic Stevensian substitution is the algebraic “X” for the pronominal “I.”

At times, Stevens’ syntax moves closer to Whitmanian parataxis, to sheer enumeration rather than apposition, as in this stanza from “Chocorua to Its Neighbor”:

The captain squalid on his pillow, the great Cardinal, saying the prayers of earliest day; The stone, the categorical effigy; And the mother, the music, the name; the scholar, Whose green mind bulges with complicated hues. . . .

Here Stevens seems consciously to be evoking Whitman’s catalogues. Note how the use of semicolons confers greater autonomy on the individual phrases, so that they must be read as distinct entities rather than variations on a single thought (an exception occurs in the fourth line, where “the mother, the music, the name” are run together as though equivalent). An even more audible syntactic source for Stevens are Whitman’s long participial sentences, like the one that opens “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” or several that occur in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

Passing the visions, passing the night, Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands, Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul, Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song, [End Page 68] As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night, Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy, Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven, As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses, Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves, I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.


Stevens frequently adopts this basic Whitmanian sentence sound while imposing on it a more complex hypotactic structure, most notably perhaps in “The Snow Man.” Rather than cite that most parsed of poems, I will instead give another example from Parts of a World, “Dry Loaf”:

That was what I painted behind the loaf, The rocks not even touched by snow, The pines along the river and the dry men blown Brown as the bread, thinking of birds Flying from burning countries and brown sand shores,

Birds that came like dirty water in waves Flowing above the rocks, flowing over the sky, As if the sky was a current that bore them along, Spreading them as waves spread flat on the shore, One after another washing the mountains bare.

Where Whitman’s clauses are primarily serial and paratactic, Stevens’ are more intricately nested: the “dry men” who are among the things “painted behind the loaf” become the subject of “thinking of birds,” which then become the subject of “Flying from burning countries” and are likened to “dirty water,” which in turn becomes the subject of “Flowing above the rocks,” and so on. Yet Stevens’ reliance on present participles (“thinking,” “Flying,” “Flowing,” “Spreading,” “washing”) to stitch and punctuate the sentence’s grammatical units must surely derive from Whitman’s rolling periods; I can think of no other verse precedent for such extreme elasticity of syntax. (Milton’s long sentences are quite different in their use of relative pronouns to produce strong subordination.) In this case, the poem’s stylistic heritage may have something to do with its thematic content; like “The Bagatelles the Madrigals,” “Dry Loaf” is a poem rooted in the mass suffering and privation of the Great Depression, a subject that often called forth openly Whitmanian rhetoric during the 1930s. [End Page 69]

The poem in Parts of a World that seems to me most evocative of Whitman in its acoustic substrata is “Montrachet-le-Jardin,” itself a rich meditation on the power of sound. Here the attenuations of syntax that Stevens learned (I contend) from Whitman achieve a gorgeous richness and sonority. Its title might make the poem seem an unlikely site for Whitmanian reverberations, yet Stevens’ vaunted Francophilia often masks a deep Americanness. In this case, as Edward Ragg notes, the French toponym belongs to a famous wine-making region, later conjured as a “Terra Paradise” full of “Bastard chateaux and smoky demoiselles” (CPP 236).5 While the poem alludes to a range of European texts and traditions, I would suggest that the most immediate implication of its title is quite simply that the speaker is drunk. Indeed one might surmise that Stevens needs to get slightly inebriated in order to let his inner Whitman be heard. (Just what kind of tea was being served at the Palaz of Hoon?) The poem opens with an uncharacteristic first-person question:

What more is there to love than I have loved? And if there be nothing more, O bright, O bright, The chick, the chidder-barn and grassy chives

And great moon, cricket-impresario, And, hoy, the impopulous purple-plated past, Hoy, hoy, the blue bulls kneeling down to rest.

Chome! clicks the clock, if there be nothing more.

The opening question echoes Whitman at his most expansive, as in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?” (312). Yet its open-ended invocation of what there is to be loved betrays an anxiety that something vital may have eluded the speaker. At first he reassures himself, “And if there be nothing more, . . .” The loose paratactic catalogue that follows modulates from homely pastoralia to more exotic images, all presumably objects of love yet markedly different in connotation and provenance. The childlike tone of the repeated vocative “O bright” carries over to the first substantive noun, “The chick,” an instance of natural life at its most vulnerable. No scholar has been able to gloss “chidder-barn,” perhaps a remembered idiom from Stevens’ Pennsylvania childhood, but “the grassy chives” wittily transmute Whitman’s favorite botanical trope into a source of gustatory pleasure, in keeping with the poem’s epicurean title.6 In the next lines, a comic grandiosity begins to take over, as the diction becomes more elevated (the “great moon”), more audibly foreign (“cricket-impresario”), and more plosively alliterative (“impopulous purple-plated past,” “blue bulls”). Even the exclamations (“Hoy, hoy”) and onomatopoeia [End Page 70] (“Chome!”) have an Old World flavor, underscoring the fluidity with which the speaker’s affections shift from nature to artifice. In their careening motion and sudden leaps of reference, these lines bear out the title’s hint that the poem can be understood as a study of the effects produced by an excellent Burgundy.

What follows is a spectacular fourteen-line sentence entertaining the alternative possibility:

But if, but if there be something more to love, Something in now a senseless syllable,

A shadow in the mind, a flourisher Of sounds resembling sounds, efflorisant, Approaching the feelings or come down from them,

These other shadows, not in the mind, players Of aphonies, tuned in from zero and Beyond, futura’s fuddle-fiddling lumps,

But if there be something more to love, amen, Amen to the feelings about familiar things, The blessed regal dropped in daggers’ dew,

Amen to thought, our singular skeleton, Salt-flicker, amen to our accustomed cell, The moonlight in the cell, words on the wall.

This extraordinary passage moves beyond the external phenomena catalogued in the opening tercets, seeking instead to limn the less palpable objects of love that Stevens’ poems so often pursue. As in Whitman, repetitions provide the main connective tissue (“But if there be something more,” “Amen”), but these are more subtly arranged than in Whitman’s typical anaphoric mode. Especially noteworthy is the emphasis on sound, which contrasts with the bold visuals of the opening passage and evokes a more fluid and internal realm in which “sounds resembling sounds” take on a shadowy importunity. Nearly opaque phrases like “futura’s fuddle-fiddling lumps” and “The blessed regal dropped in daggers’ dew” straddle the wavering line between semantic meaning and “senseless syllable[s].” What emerges as the vehicle of emancipatory love is voice itself:

To-night, night’s undeciphered murmuring Comes close to the prisoner’s ear, becomes a throat The hand can touch, neither green bronze nor marble, [End Page 71]

The hero’s throat in which the words are spoken, From which the chant comes close upon the ear, Out of the hero’s being, the deliverer

Delivering the prisoner by his words, So that the skeleton in the moonlight sings, Sings of an heroic world beyond the cell,

No, not believing, but to make the cell A hero’s world in which he is the hero.

A true Bloomian would not hesitate to declare the source of the chant that “comes close upon the ear” to be Whitman, or his surrogate Hoon. Such a claim can be qualified in various ways, but I find it hard to dispute that this mode of world-making vocalization is for Stevens deeply Whitmanian, and for that reason both seductive and dangerous. Like a strong intoxicant, the Whitman sound produces illusions of omnipotence that can lead to both glory and disaster, or at least a thudding hangover.

My emphasis is on style, however, and so with my readers’ indulgence I will end with a playful demonstration of the consonance between Stevens’ and Whitman’s rhythmic and syntactic patterns. Below I have interleaved lines from the long sentence in “Montrachet-le-Jardin” I quoted earlier with a similar sentence from “Song of Myself” consisting entirely of noun phrases:

But if, but if there be something more to love, The smoke of my own breath, Something in now a senseless syllable, Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine, A shadow in the mind, a flourisher of sounds resembling sounds, efflorisant, My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs, Approaching the feelings or come down from them, The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn, These other shadows, not in the mind, players of aphonies, The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind, Tuned in from zero and beyond, futura’s fuddle-fiddling lumps, But if there be something more to love, amen, Amen to the feelings about familiar things, [End Page 72] A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms, The blessed regal dropped in daggers’ dew, The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag, Amen to thought, our singular skeleton, The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides, Salt-flicker, amen to our accustomed cell, The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun, The moonlight in the cell, words on the wall.

I offer this mash-up of the two poets not as conclusive proof of Whitman’s influence on Stevens, but as an indication of their shared stylistic propensities, above all their fascination with the syntactical possibilities of on-goingness and proliferation.7 The sounds are not the same, of course, but there are moments when one hears a deep kinship, as of sounds resembling sounds.

Roger Gilbert
Cornell University


1. Roy Harvey Pearce seems to have been the first major critic to draw a sustained comparison between Whitman and Stevens. See Pearce 379–80.

2. Bloom quotes the Whitman stanza in the following books: The Anxiety of Influence, Poetry and Repression, Wallace Stevens, Agon, The Western Canon, Genius, The Anatomy of Influence, and The Daemon Knows.

3. In an email to the author, Bloom writes, “Whitman is just too strong for Stevens to have accomplished a transumption upon him. Nothing in Walt sounds like Stevens and as you indicate the reverse is frequently true.” The closest I have been able to come to a bit of ur-Stevens in Whitman is the title of a very minor poem, “Italian Music in Dakota,” which might conceivably find a place in the table of contents for Harmonium. In The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction, James E. Miller Jr. offers a speculative reversal of the lines of influence: “If we were to reverse the order of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we would want to rewrite our literary histories to show that Whitman was fundamentally shaped by Wallace Stevens” (51).

4. See the chapter “Lyric Address” in Culler 186–243, which concludes with the claim “I take the structure of indirect address to be central to the lyric.”

5. for an exceptionally full and astute commentary on “Montrachet-le-Jardin,” see Ragg 143–65.

6. for another gastronomical variation on Whitman’s herbaceous theme, see William Carlos Williams’ “To Be Hungry Is to Be Great” (400).

7. One might look for further development of those possibilities to a later poet who at times seems uncannily to fuse aspects of Whitman and Stevens, A. R. Ammons. In long poems like Sphere and Garbage, Ammons weds Whitmanian particularity and Stevensian abstraction in a verbal medium whose primary linkage is the colon, a connection that blurs the distinction between copula and conjunction, parataxis and hypotaxis. Ammons’ assimilation of Whitman and Stevens suggests both the real distance between them and their underlying commonality. [End Page 73]

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. Print.
———. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.
———. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.
———. The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. New York: Spiegel, 2015. Print.
———. Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Creative Minds. New York: Warner, 2002. Print.
———. Message to the author. 10 Oct. 2015. E-mail.
———. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976. Print.
———. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. Print.
———. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt, 1994. Print.
Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2015. Print.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974. Print.
Miller, James E., Jr. The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman’s Legacy in the Personal Epic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979. Print.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961. Print.
Ragg, Edward. Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.
Skafidas, Michael. “Harold Bloom: Preposterous ‘Isms’ Are Destroying Literature.” Huffington Post 10 June 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.
Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966. Print.
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