- A Note on Stevens' "Re-statement of Romance" and the American Law Institute's Restatement of the Law
In March of 1935, The New Republic published Wallace Stevens' "Restatement [sic] of Romance," a poem that, despite its title, lacks any of the passion, sensuality, sentimentality, or effusiveness characteristic of so much conventional romantic poetry. If this is an expression of "romantic love," it is one that appears, at first blush, to be muted and modest, and thus in every sense unromantic. Because of this, the poem's title—as so often with Stevens—perplexes or appears to misdirect the reader. If anything, the poem represents a life devoid of love as we commonly understand it.
It is easy to contrast Stevens' mid-1930s "statement" to his earlier work, which, in spite of its frequent cerebralism, is often passionate, mischievous, witty, even playful. The man whose poetic hallmark was the recondite abstraction and equanimous sentiment of poems such as "The Snow Man" or "The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws" was also the effusive and expansive poet of "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" and "Peter Quince at the Clavier," someone moreover who rejoiced in the earthy pleasures and lusty romance represented by his poems about Key West and the South, such as "O, Florida, Venereal Soil," "Floral Decorations for Bananas," and "Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion"—all of which were published in his first volume, Harmonium (1923). The publication of Stevens' second volume, Ideas of Order (1935), which included "Re-statement of Romance" (with its title hyphenated this time), marked a significant emotional departure from Harmonium. In Ideas of Order, beginning notably with "Farewell to Florida," Stevens signaled an abandonment of the "ever-freshened Keys" for the "slime of men in crowds" and a "return to the violent mind / That is their mind" (CPP 97-98). This change in taste and temperament, as many have noted before me, was not only the likely result of a middle-aged man sensing his mortality, but also marked an aesthetic shift away from a mode of expression that had failed to respond to the "pressure of [End Page 98] reality" (CPP 654-56) represented by World War I, the Great Depression, emergent Communism, and the looming specter of World War II. Thus, upon an initial reading of "Re-statement of Romance," we are inclined to wonder whether this was the only kind of romance the 55-year-old corporate insurance lawyer could muster after his twelve-year hiatus from poetry. If such were to be the case, we could only join those critics who have read the poem as an indirect autobiographical comment on Stevens' reputedly loveless marriage.
But, in fact, "romance" as the word is commonly or popularly used and understood is not the subject of the poem at all. We know that Stevens in the early 1930s was purposefully engaged in staking out a doctrinal position for the twentieth-century poet as a "new romantic," a response to the staid culture of nineteenth-century verse inherited by his generation. In "Sailing After Lunch," he objects that the romantic mode has become the "heavy historical sail" and the "vapidest fake," the clichéd home of the trite and banal: "It is only the way one feels, to say / Where my spirit is I am, / To say the light wind worries the sail, / To say the water is swift today" (CPP 99). As he was to explain several years later, the romantic mode was a "failure of the imagination" and "incapable of abstraction" (CPP 728). Upon closer inspection, however, the problem was its philosophical and manneristic freight, not so much its essence, which meant to Stevens "always the living and at the same time the imaginative, the youthful, the delicate"—in short, "the vital element in poetry" (CPP 778). He elaborated on "Sailing After Lunch" in a 1935 letter to Ronald Lane Latimer as follows:
When people speak of the romantic, they do so in what the French commonly call a pejorative sense. But poetry is essentially romantic, only the romantic of poetry must be something constantly new and, therefore, just the opposite of what is spoken of as...