- Earthy Anecdotes (Frost and Stevens)
“The brilliance of the earth is the brilliance of every paradise,” Wallace Stevens wrote; and one can only write the poems of the earth, as Darwin and Freud did, if one is happily convinced that there is nowhere else to go. When transience is not merely an occasion for mourning, we will have inherited the earth. And it was at inheriting the earth—making sense of our lives as bound by mortality not seduced by transcendence, by after-lives—that they both worked so prodigiously.—Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms
PHILLIPS COULD NOT deliver his beatitude on Freud and Darwin—who wrote some of our greatest “poems of the earth” (12)—without calling Stevens in. This isn’t surprising. Stevens had it out with himself as a poet of the earth in “Sunday Morning.” Part three of that poem is his un-catechism, in which the gods get grounded, just as Jesus is re-interred (and holy-ghost-busted) in part eight.
But I suspect Stevens gets into Darwin’s Worms chiefly for the glamour his phrasing lends to a paragraph like this. Phillips attaches considerable prestige to our “inherit[ance]” of the earth (as if we’ve had to work hard to inherit it, as if it were work we must remind ourselves we need no consolation for having done). Hitching the naturalist project up to Christ’s beatitude about “the meek” is one way to show this; quoting Stevens is another. Phillips’ prose has a suave, “downward to darkness” allure (say the sentences above aloud). Like Stevens, he extends his wings. His style shows us—this is the way Robert Frost would put it—how he “carrie[d] himself toward” the idea that we are of an entirely natural kind (CPPP 702). He carries himself so as to suggest that he (again, like Stevens) takes what we now have, this earthly inheritance, as subsequent and alternative to some unearthly City of God (which in certain respects it is). Frost never did that. He never needed to. No aura of the City of God, or of the Christian dispensation, is ever felt as absent in his poems, nor is it ever made the subject of them (“The White-Tailed Hornet” excepted—perhaps [CPPP 253–54]); none is felt as having gone missing such that we might [End Page 93] require something else—a supreme fiction, whatever—in its stead. Frost never found it necessary to point out that we’re “unsponsored” (Stevens, CPP 56) (other than in a gloss on “Stars” in the first edition of A Boy’s Will [CPPP 969]). He went this far with poetry and stopped: the figure a poem makes “runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” From a “clarification of life” to a “stay against” in-clarity. The progression goes by subtraction. What he settles for is more modest still: “the happy-sad blend of the drinking song” (CPPP 777). He expected less of poetry than Stevens did (impossible to imagine him writing anything like the coda to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” with its sacramental benediction). Frost speaks not of the peace that passeth understanding but of the peace that passeth. And while the same may be said of Stevens, his emphases differ. It isn’t clear to me that the author of “Notes” ever worked or played “unseduced by transcendence.” He talked himself into saying, “We live in an old chaos of the sun”; and when he said it, he took pains to ensure he didn’t sound like someone making a concession (he sounds like someone offering consolation). In part eight of “Sunday Morning,” the phrasing is almost liturgical. The untethered abstraction (common in Stevens) ensures that no particular time or place is in view. “Deer walk upon our mountains,” as if peak to peak, not in our forests (their chief habitat). And who knows what “berries” those are, ripening “in the wilderness” (why are the mountains “ours” but not the wilderness?). Quail usually whistle-cry for...