restricted access 3. The Westwardness of Everything: Irishness in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens
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t h r e e The Westwardness of Everything Irishness in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens From McCarthy to MacCullough In his centrally important essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” Wallace Stevens argues that in a world in which religious belief has declined the poet must “give to life the supreme fictions” without which the world itself is unable to be conceived.1 In linking the poet’s imaginative work to what was once the work of religion, Stevens reiterates the same concern posed by Yeats at the turn of the century: “How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the progress of the world . . . without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?”2 Yet Stevens’s reiteration of Yeats’s formative insight does more than merely demonstrate an imaginative continuity between two poets’ definitions of reality. While a similar “rage for order” shapes each poet’s idiosyncratic vision, Stevens’s use of Ireland as a metaphor in certain key poems places Ireland and Irishness at the center of the great American poet’s conception of the imagination as the ordering principle of reality and, as such, of human consciousness. Though few, Stevens’s “Irish poems” introduce “Irishness” as a trope for the elemental origin of reality in material forms and, ultimately, as the prototype for the emigrant nature of the human imagination. In these poems, the figure of the West in Irish myth and literature comes to resonate with the American myth of westwardness, and so these emblems of a 87 88  r e ad i n g s prior culture find a new and unexpected incarnation in Stevens’s work. In so doing, they also exemplify how the idea of Irish American poetry extends beyond the genetic template into the work of a major modern American poet. From the perspective of what might be called Stevens’s Irish poems, it seems a portentous coincidence that in 1900 he published his first poem, exclusive of Harvard student periodicals, in the New York magazine East and West.3 Stevens’s lifelong obsession with directionality, with compassing the human quest for meaning inside the charmed horizons of our earthly lives, appears nascent here. “How content shall I be in the North to which I sail,” Stevens writes in “Farewell to Florida.” Though in that early poem he prefers the prospect of a leafless North as sullen cure to his “sepulchral South,” his imagination forever shuttles between the antipodes. Likewise, in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” Crispin’s neo-Romantic travelogue from the world without imagination westward to the Yucatan, then back east to a Carolina of his own invention, charts a journey in which the hero embarks on a search for a habitable world. Neither origin nor end, neither brute reality nor pure imagination is sufficient to the mind’s desire to live fruitfully “as and where we live.”4 Pound’s Mauberley drifting to oblivion on his hedonist’s Sargasso, Shelley ’s Alastor sailing into the nothing of his own visionary fervor: these are the prototypical fates Crispin would avert. Instead, through his voyage , Stevens’s “affectionate emigrant” comes nearer to Yeats’s Óisin, “a man made vivid by the sea,” who exists not only in the tradition of the nineteenth-century wanderer, but as a figure we can use to navigate much earlier literary legacies.5 “There is a human loneliness, a part of space and solitude,” Stevens ’s Ulysses reminds us, which is “the inner direction on which we depend .”6 In charting that inner direction, Stevens’s work seeks to align itself not only with the horizontal axis by which his voyager orients himself on the scale of earth, but with the vertical axis by which poetry might in Harold Bloom’s words become “a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet’s sense of the world.”7 “Blanche McCarthy,” the poem that Holly Stevens selected to open The Palm at the End of the Mind, despite her father’s judgment that it was unworthy of inclusion in Harmonium,8 elaborates its subject by using the trope of the journey to steer the gaze of the self away from the horizontal plane so it can focus itself anew on a vertical horizon: The Westwardness of Everything  89 Look in the terrible mirror of the sky And not in this dead glass, which can reflect Only the surfaces—the bending...


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Subject Headings

  • National characteristics, Irish, in literature.
  • Irish Americans in literature.
  • American poetry -- Irish American authors -- History and criticism.
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