I mentioned a poem by Wallace Stevens the other day that surprised me with its beauty — surprised me because I thought the title was ridiculous and I was afraid the poem might be as well. The poem I’m talking about is “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Now with a title like that, what would you expect in the poem itself? The title sounded flippant to me, and silly, and like it was the title of a short poem that was full of little but irritating sound effects.
I was surprised to look further and find that the poem went on for several pages. When I read it, I found that it contained serious subject matter, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I’m still not entirely sure how the title relates to the poem itself, and I certainly think it wasn’t a good idea to title the poem that way, but, then again, do I really want to question Wallace Stevens?
The poem has 12 sections of 11 lines each, and it’s loosely about middle-aged love, aging, and disillusionment, but also about the pleasures and consolations of the familiar. It’s got melancholy and exhilaration, vitality and nostalgia — a whole host of emotions, actually, and this is what makes it a little hard to follow. There is no narrative or sense of development; instead it moves back and forth among various thoughts and impressions, creating a mood rather than advancing an idea.
It’s got some lines that I really don’t like — I’ll get the stuff I don’t like out of the way and then talk about what I do like — including these:
And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.
The only way I’ll accept these lines as anything but laughable is if the last line is part of the self-mockery — I mean, if telling us that he wishes he could be a thinking stone is part of his way of making fun of himself. Because otherwise it sounds too much like adolescent self-pity to me, and the alone/stone rhyme sounds absurd. The poem doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, which makes this rhyming couplet stand out.
But many of the poem’s sections are wonderful, like this one, section 8:
Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter winds.
I like the rhythm of line 3, the way the line, in perfect iambic pentameter sums up the whole story of love, and I also like the short, abrupt sentences of lines 4-5, which state directly and unflinchingly what the lovers have experienced. Line 5 captures the contradictory nature of the experience — it moves from the bloom being gone, an image of aging, to the idea that they are fruit, which sounds full of sweetness and potential. The following lines revise this possibility, however; they are “golden gourds distended on our vines,” “splashed with frost,” “turned grotesque,” and, most amusingly, they “hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed.” The sky laughs at them. And the speaker sees why the sky might laugh at them: the section’s very first line indicates why — the metaphor is one a dull scholar might produce.
Section 11 is great too:
If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth
From madness or delight, without regard
To that first, foremost law. Anguishing hour!
Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.
Love, as opposed to sex, is caused by “the unconscionable treachery of fate,” making us not heroic but ridiculous — we weep, laugh, grunt, groan, and shout. The closing image is ridiculous as well: as the lovers are sitting beside a romantic pool watching the stars, a frog is booming “odious chords.”
I’m seeing now how full of the ridiculous this poem is, even though, at the same time, it’s also full of what feels to me like thoughtful sincerity. These two modes go hand-in-hand, in fact. Look at lines like these:
The fops of fancy in their poems leave
Memorabilia of the mystic spouts,
Spontaneously watering their gritty soils.
I am a yeoman, as such fellows go.
I know no magic trees, no balmy boughs,
No silver-ruddy, gold-vermilion fruits.
But, after all, I know a tree that bears
A semblance to the thing I have in mind.
I do not like that phrase “fops of fancy” — it’s too reminiscent of the poem’s odd title — and I think it’s part of the ridiculousness that runs through the whole poem, but I do like the phrase “I am a yeoman, as such fellows go,” the way it quietly contrasts his own modest poetic claims with those of the fops of fancy. He may not know magic trees or balmy boughs, but he does know “a tree that bears a semblance to the thing I have in mind” — he knows, in other words, something that is true.
Here are the closing lines; I’m not entirely sure what they mean, but I think they are beautiful:
A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,
On sidelong wing, around and round and round.
A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,
Grown tired of flight. Like a dark rabbi, I
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,
In lordly study. Every day, I found
Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world.
Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.
Stevens makes me follow advice I give my students, which is that they should read poetry with a dictionary next to them. The word “gobbet” can mean “a piece or portion (as of meat),” a “lump or mass,” or “a small fragment or extract.” So I picture the speaker, in his younger version, arrogantly studying human beings, eating them up, so to speak, as he looks around him from on high. His older self, however, is much more circumspect. He seeks after knowledge of love instead of assuming he already has it. But only now does he know “that fluttering things have so distinct a shade.” I’m not sure exactly what that line means, but it hints at the beauty and mystery of living things. In the last two lines the speaker seems struck with awe at what he has learned, sorrowful that he didn’t know it before, but grateful that he knows it now.
Okay, so when I think about how the ridiculous and the absurd run through much of the poem, the odd title makes a little more sense. But I’m still not sure Stevens should have risked titling the poem that way. I almost skipped it, after all. I’m glad, however, that I didn’t.