- "We reason of these things with later reason":Plain Sense and the Poetics of Relief in Eliot and Stevens
THE IMAGINATION, wrote Wallace Stevens, "is no more than a process." "These things imply an element of change" (CPP 680, 672). T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens are both poets whose mature work differs in style and scope from their earlier and perhaps more celebrated poetry. What follows is a meditation on the temporal dynamics of imagination in Eliot's and Stevens's later poetry and critical prose. Focusing on the Eliot of Four Quartets and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism and the Stevens of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," "The Auroras of Autumn," "The Plain Sense of Things," and The Necessary Angel, this essay explores each poet's mature interest in—and suspicion of—epiphanic modes of literary experience. Like Walter Benjamin's figure of history as an angel blown backwards through time, there is a strikingly retrospective quality to both Eliot's and Stevens's late meditations on imaginative revelation. The Quartets and The Auroras of Autumn have on occasion been read as instancing a narrowing, retreat, or diminution from the lucid brightness of each poet's unique vision. I wish to suggest that the moments of retractio that characterize the appearance of Stevens's "necessary angel" and the seasonal quiescence of Eliot's Quartets share a commitment to an anti-creative plainness as a vital and liberating element of the continuous turning of the imagination.
Eliot once described the Shakespeare of The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Cymbeline as "like a comet" that, having passed by the earth in brief illumination, blazes its course onward into the darkness of space, gradually disappearing into its own "private mystery" (P 5: 549).1 A similarly fateful and enticing arc has been traced in relation to Stevens. Reviewing Paul Mariani's biography of Stevens in The New Yorker in 2016, Peter Schjeldahl sets out an evocative narrative of Stevens's poetic development. Schjeldahl describes how in his early poetry Stevens developed "a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism," but sees the poet's "gruellingly difficult" writing from the 1940s on as evidence that "the great mind finally spiralled in on itself, like a ruminative Narcissus" (73). Charles [End Page 99] Berger goes further, finding in Stevens's last poems not only involution and estrangement from the "real," but a sense of revulsion and a strategic disparagement of the earlier work. "Writing against the weight of his own past accomplishments," Berger writes, Stevens tested the resiliency of both his poetry and his creative spirit (166). Yet for Harold Bloom, "The Auroras of Autumn," written in 1947, when Stevens was sixty-eight, is the poet's "masterwork," his great contribution to the "American Sublime" (Introduction 10). Bloom—famously alive to poetry's agonistic energies—seems to find no sense of repudiation in the twilight of Stevens's writing, although he identifies the presence of Stevens's "deepest creative anxieties" in the elegiac "Dutch Graves in Bucks County," "set so desperately against time's 'it was'" (Wallace Stevens 220). B. J. Leggett recognizes the shift in tone and preoccupation between early and late Stevens, but discovers in The Rock (pace Schjeldahl) a newly spare, stripped-back style after the peak obscurity and abstraction of The Auroras of Autumn (see Leggett 62).
The ongoing critical project to derive a narrative of creative evolution, ascendency, and diminution arises from a deep anxiety, shared by poets and critics alike, as to the role of time in the life of creativity. In his 1932 Norton Lectures, Eliot (who was both) ruminates on the creative contours in the lives of his antecedent writers, marveling at Yeats's continuing lyric bravery and vigor as "a great triumph of development" (P 4: 679). In contrast, Eliot describes Coleridge as "a ruined man," haunted by the loss of his creative power and "condemned to know that the little poetry he had written was worth more than all he could do with the rest of his life" (P 4: 626).