On "Disillusionment of 10 O' Clock"
John Gould Fletcher
Over the roof-tops race the shadows of clouds:
Like horses the shadows of clouds charge down the street.
Whirlpools of purple and gold,
Winds from the mountains of cinnabar,
Lacquered mandarin moments, palanquins swaying and balancing
Amid the vermilion pavilions, against the jade balustrades;
Glint of the glittering wings of dragon-flies in the light:
Silver filaments, golden flakes, repulse and surrender,
The sun broidered upon the rain,
The rain rustling with the sun.
-- John Gould Fletcher (from Poetry 3:3 [December 1913], 85).
Stevens' titles often provide us with his attitude toward the action that takes place within a poem, and therefore they have a special function in the structure of the poem. If the title is humorous, ironic or ambiguous, it is necessary to regard the poem from this perspective. "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" contrasts people who "are not going/ To dream of baboons and periwinkles" with the old, drunk and dreaming sailor who "Catches tigers/ In red weather." The inability of these people to live in the colored world of the imagination, to be ghosts dressed in "purple with green rings," is their disillusionment. Stevens' irony is severe in its judgment; clearly he would not have the sailor abandon the illusion that enables him to catch tigers. And we may conjecture further: why are ghosts in "white night-gowns" any more real than ghosts attired in color? The color red suggests the intensity of the sailor's commitment to imagination, and if we believe with Stevens that the imagination is "The magnificent cause of being, the one reality/ In this imagined world," then surely the dreaming sailor's illusion saves us from the disillusionment which reduces modern life to a drab reality.
The "disillusionment" in this poem would deprive us of the fictions that enrich our lives.
From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Rutgers, The State University.
Another poem which is like the work of the Imagists is "Here the grass grows" (1909, "Concert of Fishes"), which later become the third poem of "Carnet de Voyage." Framed by the grass and wind at the beginning and end, the vivid description of the fishes suggests perhaps the beauty and depth of life within the flux of nature:
Here the grass grows,
And the wind blows,
And in the stream,
Small fishes gleam,
Blood-red and hue
Of shadowy blue,
And amber sheen,
And yellow flash,
And diamond ash.
And the grass grows,
And the wind blows.
The Impressionistic use of color is similar to what some of the Imagists were up to, again concurrently, with Stevens, though unlikely to have influenced him directly. F. S. Flints "The Swan" and Allen Upwards poem "The Gold Fish," both included in [the anthology of Imagist poems entitled] Des Imagistes, are examples of this; here is a stanza from " The Swan":
Under the lily shadow
And the gold and the blue and mauve
That the whin and the lilac
Pour down on the water,
The fishes quiver.
Stevens must certainly have been discovering some of the same sources that inspired these poets.
One such source, at least for Stevens, was Japanese color prints; an entry in his journal for May 1909, reads: "Kakuzo Okakura is a cultivated, but not an original thinker. His Idols of the East was interesting." Then shortly thereafter: "Japanese color prints: Pale orange, green and crimson, and white, and gold and brown. / Deep lapiz-lazuli and orange, and opaque green, fawn-color, black and gold." Earlier (March 18, 1909), he had written a letter to Elsie Moll in which he referred to Okakura and then listed the colors above plus these: "lapis blue and vermilion, white, and gold and green." From these lists emerged, following the orders of colors in the journal entry, this manuscript poem:
Pale orange, green and crimson, and
White, and gold and brown.
Lapiz-lazuli and orange, and opaque green,
faun-color, black and gold.
In "Colors," as in "Here the Grass Grows," Stevens aimed at an orchestration of color values, with a vital clarity of description evident in the latter, and a contrast of overtones in the former.
From Robert Buttel, The Making of "Harmonium" (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1967), 68-71.
" The disillusionment of the title refers in part to the poverty described in the first part of the poem. The middle-class American goes to bed at ten oclock and haunts his own house by wearing a white nightgown. The title may also refer to [James MacNeill] Whistler"s "Ten OClock" Lecture. Though Stevens" emphasis on color might recall poems such as [Oscar] Wildes "Impression du Matin,"
The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a harmony in grey:
A bare with ochre-colored hay
Dropped from the wharf,
the use of color in Stevens" poem does not seem intended to render a "mood" or "impression." Rather, the contemplation of colors in various combinations seems to be a pleasurable end in itself, and the poem appears to endorse the pure good of artifice and decoration ("socks of lace / And beaded ceintures") in a landscape that would otherwise be blank.
Stevens, though, is not giving another "Ten OClock" lecture in "Disillusionment of Ten OClock." In imagining the nightgowns these Americans might wear, Stevens is envisioning a meeting of art and life that is unaesthetic in emphasis. In the "Ten OClock" lecture Whistler says that he wants to lift the burden of art from the shoulders of the middle class:
The boundary line is clear. Far from me to propose to bridge it over that the pestered people be pushed across. No! I would save them from further fatigue. I would come to their relief and would lift from their shoulders this incubus of Art.
Why, after centuries of freedom from it, and indifference to it, should it now be thrust upon them by the blind until wearied and puzzled, they know no longer how they shall eat or drink how they shall sit or stand or wherewithal they shall clothe themselves without afflicting Art.
"Disillusionment of Ten OClock" does not seem to follow this separationist policy. It colorfully investigates how the middle class might "clothe" itself with art. The disillusionment of the title, then, refers not only to middle-class lack of illusion, but also to Stevens" disillusionment with "Ten OClock" aestheticism.
Aesthete and middle-class burgher are used in "Disillusionment" to point to each others limitations. Both of these personae, however, are criticized from a third perspective, that of the old drunk sailor, a figure Stevens perhaps borrowed from Baudelaire, who writes in "Le Voyage" of "ce matelot ivrogne" [the "drunken sailor" who, in Baudelaires poem, also "invents Americas"]. The sailor"s dream life sets him apart from the burgher. As Milton Bates writes, "[T]he people who want to keep regular hours are unlikely to dream of baboons and periwinkles." And his tiger hunting is unlikely to appeal to the aesthetes. (Try to imagine [Huysmans notoriously decadent "hero"] Des Esseintes traveling to another continent to go on safari!)
from Anthony Whitting, The Never-Resting Mind: Wallace Stevens" Romantic Irony (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1996), 83-84.
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