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MLN 121.5 (2007) 1107-1123

"Like a New Knowledge of Reality":
On Stevens and Peirce
Thomas Dechand
The Johns Hopkins University

Wallace Stevens's "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet" appeared in the Autumn 1944 Sewanee Review. The article was read by Paul Weiss, co-editor of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce and then professor of philosophy at Bryn Mawr. Weiss objected to Stevens's founding a view of philosophy on William James and Henri Bergson and suggested Stevens instead "grapple with a philosopher full-sized."1 After proposing Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel as full-sized philosophers ("divinities of the Styx," in Stevens's phrase) Weiss offered Alfred North Whitehead, F. H. Bradley, and Peirce as three modern possibilities. Stevens felt "most modern philosophers are purely academic" and found little in Whitehead and Bradley contrary to his impression. Stevens expressed the most interest in Peirce, but confessed to Theodore Weiss that he had not found the time to read him: "I have always been curious about Pierce [sic], but have been obliged to save my eyesight for THE QUARTERLY REVIEW, etc" (Letters 476).

Did Stevens ever find the time to satisfy his curiosity regarding Peirce? Frank Kermode suggests that Stevens "probably meant that he preferred being curious about Peirce to reading him."2 Even so—and Stevens was notoriously reticent regarding such matters—Peircean ideas could have reached Stevens through a number of collateral influences. One such mediator would be I. A. Richards. Stevens was a careful reader of Richards's Coleridge on Imagination, a book that drew heavily on Richards & Odgen's 1923 The Meaning of Meaning. Selections from Peirce's [End Page 1107] correspondence with Lady Welby are featured in an appendix to the earlier book, and Richards makes frequent references to Peirce from 1923 on. Alternatively, it is conceivable that Stevens discussed Peirce with either Paul Weiss or Jean Wahl in unpublished correspondence. Stevens excerpts paragraphs from Weiss's Nature and Man as well as portions of his own correspondence with Weiss in "A Collect of Philosophy." Stevens sent Weiss a draft of "A Collect of Philosophy" in the summer of 1951, and one can only speculate whether Weiss showed Stevens a copy of "The Logic of the Creative Process," an essay which would have greatly interested Stevens and that appeared months later in the 1952 Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Whether or not Stevens read Peirce, either directly or by way of a mediating influence, a few critics have found Peirce's notion of Firstness useful in their discussions of Stevens's poetry. In his analysis of Stevens's attempt "to see the world in immediate experience without transforming it into conventional human terms," Frank Doggett points the reader to Albert William Levi's Literature, Philosophy, and the Imagination for a discussion of Stevens under the guise of Peirce's notion of Firstness. Starting from John Dewey's idea (in Art as Experience) that aesthetic experience derives from something generic to the ongoing experience of the human creature, Levi looks toward an analysis of perceptual experience as the means to discover those categories presupposed by all the arts. Rather than using the phenomenology of, say, Merleau-Ponty or Husserl, Levi turns to the phenomenology (or phaneroscopy) of Peirce. Levi identifies Peirce's categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness with "the presentation of qualities," "the delineation of movements," and "the expression of meanings."3 According to Levi, "the poetic imagination . . . cannot readily achieve excellence in all three, and that there will therefore be a narrowing of intent toward one in particular which is dictated by that mode of perception which uniquely defines the mentality of the poet" (183). Wallace Stevens is then identified as "the great poet of Firstness in the modern world":

Wallace Stevens is the "Gentleman of Qualities." His perception is sharp, but his mode of statement is gentle. His feelings are courteously disposed toward a world of secondary qualities (secondary in the sense which Berkeley would have understood—not unimportant...


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