On 'Of Mere Being"
"What are we to make of this late Stevens? Is he a man satisfied with his edgings and inchings, with the swarming activities of "statement, directly and indirectly getting at"? Coming upon one of Stevens last edgings and inchings, a poem cryptically entitled "Of Mere Being," the critic is hard put to place his man. Does the "mere" of the title mean "simple" or "pure"? and does Stevens at last transcend (or inscend?) the physical to discover a central, the thing itself? [Here is quoted the poem in its entirety.] Beyond thought, beyond reason here in the intuitive moment one perceives "mere being" but still perceives that one is perceiving. What he knows of mere being is a "palm" (a form, a faith?) beyond the physicality of tree and a birds song without meaning. Unreal, yes! but that is Stevens" word for the reality of poetry, the "one of fictive music." What one knows of mere being is an image on the edge of space. at that point where being becomes nothingness. Is this not to prove the ultimate creativity of self, of the mind which must always conceive a reality beyond form or metaphor, beyond thought, but nevertheless at the end of, not outside, the mind?"
Of Mere Being allows what Stevens has not allowed before, anagogic metaphor, which we may hear in his explicit and implicit word-play:
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
This slowly moving play of excitation begins with the title and its obvious double sense of "mere." This is mere (bare, only) being and also mere (utter, very) being. On the edge of things, including life, this is how being may be. The implicit pun is on the word "phoenix," which is what this fiery bird is. The Greek word for this fabulous sacred bird is also used for a date-palm. The bird "sings in the palm" and through a pun is the palm. So also the poem is contained in its words or its leaves, and vice versa; it also is its words or leaves. So also space is contained in the mind, and vice versa; it also is the mind.
This use of "is" sounds like the merest play of the verb "to be" or of "being." Yet such a visionary sense "at the end of the mind" is also of utter and very being. These are no longer the "intricate evasions of as"; here "as and is are one." This is being as in the A is B of anagogic metaphor. And we recall Stevens' old play with "B," "be," "to be"--of mere being, so to speak. Anagogic metaphor is paradisal: this is as close to paradisal language as Stevens will allow himself. He echoes the bird of the earthly paradise from the lemon-tree land of An Ordinary Evening in "dangle down," also rhymed on. He evokes the sun once more, for the phoenix lives in the City of the Sun. He uses no language of upwardness and no language of home. The poem is of mortality yet with a sense of immortality, though not personal immortality. It is a kind of will and testament of song. Thus, I think, the touching on Yeats; this is a Byzantium poem of sorts, a land of gold and kinds of transmutation. The "last thought" is the last thought possible before we move beyond reason, whether toward imagination or toward death.
From Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Copyright © by Princeton University Press.
"Of Mere Being" says nothing about the sun or choirs; it displays a fabricated world, though its "firefangled" bird may indeed come from the sun, the fire fashioner. The question toward which the poem leads is the Blakean one: who made thee, who formed thy symmetry? The "gold-feathered bird" stands gorgeously alone, as if the scrawny crier of "Not Ideas" were now transformed into something rich and strange, something singular--or self-begotten, if we read the bird as phoenix. . . .
[Berger quotes the entire poem]
The palm at the end of the mind, a destination and a reward, symbolizes both resurrection and poetic glory: as the palm rises, so do we. Like the soldier, in "Metaphors of a Magnifico," Stevens sees a tree in the distance, though there is no assurance that the "edge of space" beckons on to a village, much less the walled city of Jerusalem. Much rides on whether or not "the end of the mind" and "Beyond the last thought" are synonymous, or whether Stevens implies that there is a space between the last thought and mind's end, a region that lies within the mind but beyond the range of thought. "It is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy" might point to this region. If one chooses to equate the two phrases, then the palm would rise, the bird's feathers "dangle down," just beyond the mind's edge: "It would have been outside," to quote from "Not Ideas." Wherever we stand in space, "bronze decor," with its echoes of Horace's claim for poetry-exegi monumentum aere perennior--and the string of words in the final line, convince us that bird and palm alike blaze with artifice. Yet the maker or fashioner remains unidentified. "Of Mere Being" is poised on the edge of unanswerable questions. Does the wind move slowly because it is dying down, as the spirit departs in death? Or does it move slowly because a new life is starting up? Whose spirit is this?
From Forms of Farewell: The Late Poetry of Wallace Stevens. University of Wisconsin Press.
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