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  • Architecture in Frost and Stevens
  • David Spurr (bio)

In a passage made famous by Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Hölderlin proclaims:

Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet Der Mensch auf dieser Erde.1 Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth.

The lines are from a poem which makes a Romantic statement of the traditional analogy between poetry and architecture. As the occasion for one of Heidegger's essays on the nature of dwelling, they allow him to treat poetic creation as a kind of building, but also to reflect on the nature of dwelling made possible by this construction. Dwelling, or das Wohnen, is Heidegger's word for "man's stay on earth," a sojourn marked out in time by the limits of birth and death, and in space by the expanse between earth and heaven. As the human experience of these dimensions is formed in language, poetry is the art that is capable of taking their measure, and thereby the measure of human being in the world. For the poet, language is far from being a prison-house. On the contrary, the poet constructs an authentic relation to language, and thereby to being itself, by remaining open to its inherent possibilities, its unforeseen disclosures.

I wish to use his citation of Hölderlin as a point of departure for a study of architectural figures in Heidegger's American contemporaries Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. My reading of the poems takes place on two levels: one is the analysis of the architectural construction as a poetic image. A precedent for such an analysis is to be found in the work of Freud and Bachelard, both of whom explore the symbolic content of the image of the house as it occurs in dreams or in poems. The architectural images which draw my attention, [End Page 72] though, are not limited to houses: they include other constructions, such as the wood-pile or the stone wall, because these too are part of the built environment with which the poet is concerned. The second level of my reading goes beyond the poetic image in order to show that the relation between poetry and architecture is more fundamental than that of mere representation. Both are primordial forms of making; poetry does with the material of language what architecture does with the materials of the earth. Is the relation between poetry and architecture an especially privileged one when compared to that which exists between other art forms, such as painting and music? Heidegger would have it so, based on the notion of dwelling which he sees as belonging especially to these arts. Frost and Stevens offer their own, modern versions of the analogy between poetry and architecture; for both poets, the poem is a construction that also serves in some sense as a place of dwelling. As I shall attempt to show, however, the difference between the two poets lies in the respective meanings they assign to this dwelling in relation to the more universal conditions of being. For Frost, the poetic, like the human habitation, serves only as a temporary refuge from the surrounding chaos. For Stevens, the construction of a dwelling-place for the imagination is likewise necessary to being; but the risk is that the imposed order of such a construction will stand in the way of the poet's pursuit of discovery.

The notion of dwelling is already familiar to a certain "Heideggerian" tradition of reading American poetry. I shall cite just two examples, both from influential critics. In his book on Frost, Frank Lentricchia reads the poet according to what he refers to as the Heideggerian notion that "the world is our home, our habitat, the materialization of our subjectivity"(4).2 Similarly, in an essay on Stevens and Heidegger, Frank Kermode writes, "The place where the poet dwells, especially if it is his place of origin, will be his mundo, a clarified analogy of the earth he has lived in." (262).3 In both cases, the notion of dwelling is given a reassuring plenitude, as if a perfect synthesis were possible between the poet and his world. To my way of thinking, however, such approaches fail to take...


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