Wallace’s Anti-master (from Things that happen when reading Rilke, volume two)Wallace Stevens was not unadmiring of Rilke’s heroic shambles, and in a left-handed tribute ‘Landscape with Boat’ (circa 1933) mocks him affectionately. As the poem threads Rilkean intricacy with Kierkegaardian irony, in order to untangle the web, I paraphrase it:
Stevens enters the mind of a blinkered intellectual, the ‘anti-master floribund ascetic’, on a quest for the Great Ineffables. The anti-master floribund ascetic finds the truth of things is never what he wants. The sky is the wrong sort of blue. He denies it to arrive at acceptance of a neutral tint, that of the watery algae, the lowest form of vegetable life. Not much of a truth, he says to himself. Colourless.
He tries again. The truth must be somewhere, must have its place. It is easier to think that it is ‘like a phantom in an uncreated night’… ‘If it was nowhere else, it was there, and because it was nowhere else, its place had to be supposed’ (suppose being the plain man’s term for a ‘figurative figuring’).
And so, he moves from philosophy to writing poetry, making suppositions on where to place the truth. Rejecting what he sees, and denying what he hears, he supposes that he must die and descend into the Underworld to walk in the shadow of death, ‘to be projected from one void into another’.
Supposing comes naturally to the anti-master floribund ascetic but, running out of suppositions, he borrows what others had supposed. Not that he accepts any of them. He merely receives more favourably what he had previously denied, what he didn’t want, and places it in the melting pot of his mind, supposing it might brew ‘a truth beyond all truths’.
But he neglects to suppose that he himself might be truth itself, or part of it. That the things that he rejects as an anti-master might be part of it too. The clouds he dismissed, the sky blue he wasn’t partial to, the ‘eye of the universe that beholds itself’ (Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Apollo’) that blinded him, the ear deafened by the thunder, all are parts of the whole. He never supposed that -
Things might not look divine, nor that if nothing
Were divine then all things were, the world itself,
And that if nothing was the truth, then all
Things were the truth, the world itself was the truth...
If he had been better able to suppose:
He might sit on a sofa on a balcony
Above the Mediterranean, emerald
Becoming emeralds. He might watch the palms
Flap green ears in the heat. He might observe
A yellow wine and follow a steamer’s track
And say, ‘the thing I hum appears to be
The rhythm of this celestial pantomime.’
And so, the truth becomes ‘what is’.
But Wallace Stevens, in dealing with the rolling stone of sophistry, and how poetry can surprise itself to break its Sisyphean cycle, couldn’t void Rilke of a ‘personal identity’. The sad truth about literary theories, even when backed by minds as rich and various as Locke, Coleridge, Keats and TS Eliot, is that it leads you up the garden path, but when it turns out to be a crazy pavement (as with Rilke), Stevens knew, it’s no further help, and you’re on your own.
The anti-master floribund ascetic is Rilke in his solitude, querulously calling to his ‘spiritual presences’ to come to him, and meanwhile out his window seeing the trees from the wood. But, at least, Wallace allows him a holiday in Nice.