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  • Whitman and Stevens: Certain Phenomena of Sound
  • Roger Gilbert

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.

(CPP 121)

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...