Wallace Stevens on Faith, Hope, & Lost Causes
Have you not seen Noah Millman’s hilarious riff off the most famous Wallace Stevens poem? Here’s Noah’s “Thirteen Ways of Blogging About a Poem.” Terrific.
Here is a Stevens poem that really struck me a couple of nights ago:
The Well Dressed Man With A Beard
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…
It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.
I didn’t really get it until I read this quote from Alan Jacobs’s Tumblr, then boom, it was all clear. It’s a poem about ideas, and reality, and faith, and hope. If rejected ideas have “slid over the western cataract” — the word “cataract” nicely ambiguous, meaning both “waterfall” and “blind spot” — but some visionary somewhere holds on to it, and rehearses it, and turns the ideas and the words over in his mind, then it may one day renew the world — all from the power of faith, fidelity, and imagination.
The dreamer generates ideas (note the allusion to Platonic forms). I love the idea of the “aureole” (a golden cloud — I looked it up) floating above the head of the dreamer, like a halo. This hope of renewal comes from the eternal restlessness of the mind, which cannot by its nature accept that there are any final nos. Which doesn’t sound like a thing to take comfort in — our inability to hold on to permanent things — but Stevens shows how it can be the source of new life.
This poem makes me think of the liturgy, and the power of words learned, loved, and lived by people who affirm them, even when they seem to most people to be antique and irrelevant. It makes me understand even more deeply Kierkegaard’s observation that “truth is subjectivity.” And it is an artful illumination of T.S. Eliot’s point here:
If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.