- Stevens v. Frost
OVER THEIR LONG and parallel careers, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost published poems in the same issue of a magazine only once—the first issue of The Measure: A Journal of Poetry in March 1921. Stevens’ contribution, “Cortège for Rosenbloom,” appeared in the middle of the issue, and was reprinted in the Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1921 and Year Book of American Poetry and in Harmonium (1923). Frost’s contribution, “The Aim Was Song,” concluded the issue and was reprinted in New Hampshire (1923).1
When read together, yet outside the context of the magazine, the poems seem to stage a philosophical debate. Stevens claims that the human world and natural world are distinct and irreconcilable. Frost claims that the human world and the natural world are complementary. The debate seems readymade for the classroom. Stevens v. Frost. Who wins?
Conventional readings of both poems corroborate this description of the debate. In “Cortège,” Stevens examines two responses to death—a funeral procession and poetry—and finds them lacking. In the poem’s first three stanzas (of eight total), he mocks the procession:
Now, the wry Rosenbloom is dead And his finical carriers tread, On a hundred legs, the tread Of the dead. Rosenbloom is dead.
They carry the wizened one Of the color of horn To the sullen hill, Treading a tread In unison for the dead.
Rosenbloom is dead. The tread of the carriers does not halt [End Page 81] On the hill, but turns Up the sky. They are bearing his body into the sky.(“Cortège” 10)
The procession is grotesque. “[C]arriers” connotes “contagion” and “carrion.” “[H]undred legs” conjures a centipede. The unified, constant tread is a mark of groupthink. The procession cannot comprehend the truth: “Rosenbloom is dead”—and will not ascend to heaven.
Eleanor Cook identifies “Cortège” as one of Stevens’ “antiheaven poems” (100). Jahan Ramazani agrees, claiming that the poem is an attack on “institutional mourning”: “Attacking institutional mourning, Stevens ridicules the denial of death not only in religious custom but also in the elegy’s formal apotheosis—the translations of Dido, Adonais, Arthur Hallam, and many others into the sky’s latest stars” (574). These interpretations accord with Stevens’ own comments about “Cortège.” In a letter to William Stanley Braithwaite about the poem in 1921, Stevens laments the difficulty of representing death: “From time immemorial the philosophers and other scene painters have daubed the sky with dazzle paint. But it all comes down to the proverbial six feet of earth in the end” (L 223).
Yet Stevens does not exempt himself from ridicule. (Yvor Winters describes Stevens’ tone throughout Harmonium as “self-ridicule” .) In the seventh (and penultimate) stanza, Stevens imagines a poem that would accurately represent death:
To a jabber of doom And a jumble of words Of the intense poem Of the strictest prose Of Rosenbloom.(“Cortège” 11)
This “intense poem / Of the strictest prose” is not the poem we are reading—and not a poem Stevens is able to write. For it would be a poem that captures death—not another’s death or even the experience of dying, but death itself. This aspect of the natural world—the noumenal, the real—is inaccessible. The only alternatives to “dazzle paint” are mere fact (“Rosen-bloom is dead”) and clichés (“the proverbial six feet of earth”).
As if anticipating the contents of The Measure, Stevens concludes the fifth stanza with a description of the procession treading “In a region of frost, / Viewing the frost” (10). A mere eleven pages later, Frost appears—with a sixteen-line poem about the compatibility of the human world and natural world. “The Aim Was Song” opens: [End Page 82]
Before man came to blow it right The wind once blew itself untaught And did its loudest day and night In any rough place where it caught.
Man came to tell it what was wrong. It hadn’t found the place to blow; It blew too hard: the aim was song; And listen—how it ought to go.(“Aim” 22)
The narrative is simple. The wind blows harshly and arbitrarily...