- Stevens’ “The Figure of the Youth” as an Essay
THE GREATNESS of Wallace Stevens’ poetry has overshadowed the prose he wrote and published, the only volume of which, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, is in fact a compilation of various lectures he had been invited to give once his poems had achieved some public recognition. As such it is perhaps fair that critics have treated The Necessary Angel as a secondary work—much like his letters—either as an extension of the poems or as offering a clearer glimpse than the poems do into Stevens’ reading of other writers and his relationship to their ideas. This attitude is all the more forgivable in that it is seemingly founded on Stevens’ own tastes: in the introduction to his compilation of essays, he announces that the pieces to follow are “not the carefully organized notes of systematic study,” a characterization to which I will return later (CPP 639). Thus, when Harold Bloom writes that “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” “is a disaffected essay, even complaining about the income tax, but it warms up as it moves along and says some things that the reader of Notes [Toward a Supreme Fiction] benefits for having heard” (172), he dismisses the essay from an aesthetic standpoint and proceeds to consider it not on its own terms but rather as a means to the end of reading one of Stevens’ poems. In Wallace Stevens and Poetic Theory, B. J. Leggett similarly writes, “While I have used Stevens’s prose extensively in the chapters that follow, I would not claim a high place for the essays and letters in the theoretical literature of modernism,” and that indeed “Stevens never mastered the rhetoric of the essay” (11). Simon Critchley is perhaps more subtle when he writes in Things Merely Are that “in some passages, [‘The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’] bears comparison with his verse,” but he continues to assume that his denigration of the essays conforms to a self-evident and universal judgment (49).
I will not argue here for the aesthetic worth of Stevens’ essays, but I do suspect that such summary and vague aesthetic devaluation of them may be founded less on certain withheld criteria of value than on a need to justify reading them as straightforward texts, absent of artifice and affording a clear view of Stevens’ sources and concerns. The essays would be like the bad poems of “X” against which Stevens writes in “The Creations of Sound”—writings that “do not make the visible a little hard // To see,” but rather make it easier (CPP 275). For these critics, we can get around the [End Page 172] deceptive mastery of Stevens’ poetry only by assuming that mastery is relaxed in certain other of his writings. By reading the essays as instruction manuals, we may hack into, as it were, the poems’ true theoretical bent, one that the poems on their own are insufficient to reveal.
It is satisfying to see, then, that this trend has begun to wane in the last few years. In The Figure Concealed (2011), Lisa Goldfarb discusses Stevens’ essays in terms of their indebtedness to Paul Valéry (114–20), and in Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (2010), Edward Ragg has compellingly interpreted “The Figure of the Youth” as a “self-referential performance” (124). Some five years ago, Gillian White offered a reading of the “rhetorical meandering” in “The Noble Rider” as “a faux breeziness” that does justice to that piece’s ironic depth (256). Even these particular analyses, however, have not examined more generally The Necessary Angel’s own rigorous account of itself. Although they occasionally use the term “essay” (alongside “lecture” or “paper”) in discussing the genre of the pieces included in the volume, they do not reflect on the significance of Stevens’ finally settling, as I will argue, on “essay” as the most appropriate descriptor for those pieces. It is time to recognize that Stevens understood the essay not as a catchall category comprising any sort of occasional prose but as a specific and historically rooted genre with its own peculiar formal...