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  • Atlantic Triangle:Stevens, Yeats, Eliot in Time of War Ireland
  • Lee M. Jenkins

IN HIS REVIEW of the Faber and Faber Selected Poems, Donald Davie described Wallace Stevens as "a poet to be mentioned in the same breath as Eliot and Yeats and Pound. That is his place, and that is the company he must keep" (373).1 Since Davie, however, Stevens has seldom kept company with Eliot and Yeats, or with Pound. Frank Lentricchia has placed Stevens in a modernist quartet with Eliot, Pound, and Frost, yet comparative analyses of Stevens and Eliot, as of Stevens and Yeats, remain rare.2 It is rarer still to compose the three poets into a modernist trio: Stevens and Eliot, like Stevens and Yeats, may make an odd couple, but if two's company, then three's a crowd. And yet, this essay suggests, a three-way comparison of Stevens, Yeats, and Eliot collapses binaries that too often obtain between these major figures of poetic modernism, enabling us to identify common concerns, brought into sharp relief by "the violent reality of war," with the relationship between poetry and public events, politics, and belief (CPP 251).

One triangulation point between Stevens, Yeats, and Eliot is triggered in the letters and literary criticism of the Irish poet Thomas McGreevy.3 A close acquaintance of Yeats's family and author of the first monograph on Eliot, T. S. Eliot: A Study (1931), McGreevy would also become, between 1948 and 1955, "the best of all [Stevens's] correspondents" (Stevens, Letter, 17 Apr. 1953). His letter of September 28, 1948, on the subject of Yeats's funeral, prompted Stevens, in his reply, to consider the "contributions" of poetry to "the national spirit," and to reflect, late in his life and not without anxiety as to his own posthumous reputation, on mortality and posterity, and on the poet as public figure (L 617).4 Stevens's attenuated reception across the Atlantic at this date—Eliot's Faber and Faber would belatedly bring out the Selected Poems, reviewed by Davie, in 1953—could hardly have convinced Stevens that he would attain Yeats's "world-wide fame" or that on his death, he would receive "homage of a public character" of the kind accorded to Yeats (L 617). As Bart Eeckhout has remarked, the "difference in fame" between Stevens and Nobel Laureates Yeats and Eliot "is substantial" (176). Stevens himself acknowledged as much in relation to Eliot in his "Homage to T. S. Eliot" (1938): "I don't know what [End Page 17] there is (any longer) to say about Eliot. His prodigious reputation is a great difficulty" (CPP 801).

In his comparative study of late Stevens and late Yeats, Edward Clarke contends that "neither poet seemed especially important to the other" (8). "Contrary Theses (I)" may be the exception that proves Clarke's rule, in Stevens's case at least. Antedating the letter to McGreevy but addressing, again by way of Yeats, comparable concerns about the relationship between poetry and the public sphere, "Contrary Theses (I)" appears in Parts of a World, the 1942 volume to which Stevens appended an untitled statement on poetry and war. If Stevens's title invokes Yeatsian antinomies, the scenario of the poem itself—the intrusion of the soldier upon the poet's domain—restages, in abbreviated form, that of "The Road at My Door" and "The Stare's Nest by My Window," parts V and VI of Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War."5

"Contrary Theses (I)" is "An abstraction blooded," a fleshing out of Stevens's statement, in the note on poetry and war, that "The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things" (CPP 333, 251). In the poem, these different poetries or contrary theses are embodied in the juxtaposed figures of the first-person speaker and the soldier, whose presence blights the poet's bower: "grapes are plush upon the vines" and "The hives are heavy with the combs" but "Blood smears the oaks." The redness of the Connecticut oak leaves in the fall is, in the "Now" of 1942—the first calendar year of the United States' engagement...