11) “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain”

“XI. The Watershed of Criticism”

Jerry Griswold
8 min readDec 26, 2020

The similarities between Santayana’s Chapter XI (“The Watershed of Criticism”) and Stevens’ “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” (CP 540–541) go far beyond their titles. In fact, the resemblances are so extensive that I am surprised that no one, as far as I have been able to discover, has noticed and remarked on them:

  • Both the poet and the philosopher use the alpine metaphor as their major image to organize their respective works from start to finish. For example, in the first sentence of his chapter, Santayana pictures himself at a height and surveying opposite valleys (99), while in the last sentence he notes that “a mountain-top” affords “a good point of view in clear weather from which to map the land and choose a habitation” (108).
  • Santayana announces and employs a three-part structure in his chapter: 1) discussing scepticism, 2) then knowledge, and then 3) showing their compatibility. Organizing his poem, Stevens follows this same structure — even, at one point, using Santayana’s transitional phrase when moving from one section to the next.
  • In their matching sections and with surprising frequency, a number of the 96 words of Stevens’ short poem (excluding articles and conjunctions) are exact or close matches to Santayana’s word choices. (To indicate this, I have employed bolded emphases below.)

But before going any further, we should acknowledge the nature of analogies and put on the table the very obvious differences in kind, purpose, and tone between the chapter and the poem:

  • One is a work of prose, while the other is poetry (though the former does, in passing, celebrate poetry per se and employs extravagant metaphors in what might be described as a “poetic” style).
  • Most importantly, one is a straight-up work of philosophy that is an important step in Santayana’s presentation of his system; while the other is more like a verse narrative describing the activities of some kind of metaphoric mountaineer. In other words, the student of philosophy will not learn much in Stevens’ poem about, say, Santayana’s notion of “essences”; instead, to such a person, the poem might seem lyrical journalism.
  • Finally, we might say that with Santayana the ideas come first though they are sometimes presented in “poetic” language; while for Stevens, the poetry comes first and we have to tease out the ideas behind them.

There is, however, one phenomenon that presents both similarities and differences. Throughout his chapter, Santayana uses the first person to describe the development of his ideas: “I see now,” “I need not,” “I could,” and so forth. Stevens, however, uses the third person when presenting Santayana’s ideas in his poem: “it reminded him,” “he had needed,” “where he could,” etc.

While the following suggestion is controversial and without proof, I am inclined to think of Santayana as the “he” and subject of Stevens’ poem; in other words, besides conveying the philosopher’s ideas, the poem presents a portrait of Santayana, himself, engaged in the various actions he describes in his chapter and arriving at certain conclusions. Such a suggestion may not be farfetched: some two poems earlier in The Rock in “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” a character appears who is not identified and referred to only by pronouns but is readily recognizable as Santayana. Nonetheless, lacking sufficient proof for such an identification in “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain,” on the advice of counsel, I put forward this possibility only as a suggestion.

Chapter XI marks an important change in the direction of Scepticism and Animal Faith and it would be wise, consequently, to place it in its context. In previous chapters Santayana has exercised his scepticism to its limits and disposed of all questionable epistemological beliefs. Having cleared the ground in this fashion, in this chapter Santayana pauses before beginning to construct his own system. In the chapters that follow, Santayana will add, piece by piece, the different articles of animal faith that comprise his own epistemological system.

Here is how Santayana begins this chapter where he pivots from scepticism to the animal faith:

I have now reached the culminating point of my survey of evidence, and the entanglements I have left behind me and the habitable regions I am looking for lie spread out before me like opposite valleys. (99)

Looking backwards from his mountaintop, Santayana summarizes what his scepticism has brought him to. A sceptic, he says, does not believe in an external world but sees in its place that realm of pure images and disassociated terms that Santayana calls “essences.” The sceptic is a kind of aesthetic spectator who, instead of “hard facts,” sees something like a “literary fiction” (99). And to this intuition of essences an honest sceptic is confined, though Santayana hardly sees this as confinement:

I do not mourn over this fatality, but on the contrary rather prefer speculation in the realm of essence — if it can be indulged without practical inconvenience — to alleged information about hard facts. It does not seem to me ignominious to be a poet, if nature has made one a poet unexpectedly. (100)

Stevens exemplifies this observation in his first stanza:

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

If in becoming a sceptic, “nature has made one a poet unexpectedly,” then in place of a “hard facts” one sees a “literary fiction.”

But Santayana goes on to add that such scepticism must be thorough, “not allowing exceptions” (100). This statement is meant to recall his discussion of solipsism in his third chapter where Santayana dismisses a certain kind of solipsist as “a secondary mind fed on books” because such a person embraces scepticism only on a part-time basis (19).

Understanding Santayana’s caveat, Stevens goes on, then, to compliment the literary mountaineer who now appears in his poem:

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

No part-time sceptic, no “secondary mind fed on books,” Stevens’ figure for Santayana is, without exception, acquainted with the thin, alpine air of the realm of essences.

At this juncture (the fourth paragraph of Chapter XI), Santayana turns to the next point in his developing argument. That change is marked by the phrase “If I now turn my face in the other direction and consider the prospect open to animal faith . . .” (101). With a change of pronouns, Santayana’s transition is echoed in Stevens’ third stanza:

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction

In the previous chapter, Santayana now reminds his readers, he had described knowledge. Faced with something unfamiliar, the mind proposes certain comparable essences, adjusts and corrects its suggestions, and tries to achieve a satisfactory description of the unfamiliar thing; knowledge uses essences like words in a vocabulary to coin its own version of ulterior things. In this way, knowledge differs from intuition since the mind does not simply receive essences but uses them to create its own version of things. “Above all,” Santayana stresses, these ideas “are obtained by labour” (104).

The labor of the mind in the act of knowledge is what is pictured in Stevens’ next lines:

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

Here, knowledge is at work, not taking things as given but recomposing them to create the mind’s own version.

In a curious way, for the working mind creating its own versions of things, objects become dispensable. Shifting attention from the external world and “the diffuse processes of nature,” the working mind sees, instead, the realm of essences or the “symbolic” versions of the objects. In fact, for the purposes of knowledge, the symbols are sufficient and the objects may largely be forgotten:

The human medium of knowledge can perform its pertinent synthesis and make its pertinent report all the better when it frankly abandons the plane of its object and expresses in symbols what we need to know of it. (102)

To say it again: word by word, a poem takes the place of a mountain.

Seeking knowledge, the mind approaches the unknown by laying “siege to it from all sides” (106), closing in on its quarry until the mind feels satisfied that it knows what the unfamiliar is. Then knowledge “will be as complete and adequate as knowledge can possibly be” (107). And Santayana appends the caveat “as can be” because knowledge is always only a view of what the object seems, not an explanation of what it actually is: “The most perfect knowledge . . . is perfect only pictorially, not evidentially” (107).

Stevens refers to these actions as his poem continue — now describing his metaphoric mountaineer engaged in the endeavors the philosopher has described. He is seeking knowledge:

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged

The successes that knowledge wins, Santayana had said, “are obtained by labour” as the mind transforms “hard facts” into essences, reckons with the unfamiliar, trying this and that. So, in the poem, Stevens thinks of Santayana’s labors on his mountaintop and “how he had recomposed the pines, / Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds.”

The “inexactnesses” of the poem’s seeker are so much beating around the bush, a way of closing in on his quarry until he can discover “the exact rock.” This is the point where Santayana writes knowledge “will be as complete . . . as knowledge can possibly be,” and where Stevens writes that the person celebrated in his poem “would be complete in an unexplained completeness.” And Stevens call this an “unexplained” completion to suggest that the recognition is intuitive, not demonstrable; all his poem’s persona can achieve in the poem’s terms is the right “view” or “outlook” because knowledge, as the philosopher had noted, “is perfect only pictorially, not evidentially.”

In the third and final section of Chapter XI, Santayana announces his intention “to abandon [scepticism] for common sense” (108). His prior discussions of knowledge have suggested a way for him to return to the external world, that same world which his scepticism and the arguments of his prior chapters have driven him to dismiss. Ultimate scepticism, he suggests, can be likened to “vertical station” (107); it allows the sceptic to rise above dubious beliefs, but at that altitude the sceptic sees only drifting images or essences, and all the while he is remote from life and daily living — what Santayana, on four occasions, calls “home” (105, 106). But knowledge, with its trial-and-error attempts to make sense of the unfamiliar, suggests “graphic symbols for home and the way there” (106). From this point onwards, Santayana announces, he will be pursuing a new topic in his book:

I propose now to consider what objects animal faith requires me to posit, and in what order; without for a moment forgetting that my assurance of their existence is only instinctive, and my description of their nature only symbolic. (106)

Santayana is eager to leave the sceptic’s heights and begin the exercises of the subsequent chapters that will bring him “home,” but he cannot refrain from making one last observation about the value of scepticism in the final words of this chapter:

An impossible dwelling-place may afford, like a mountain-top, a good point of view in clear weather from which to map the land and choose a habitation.” (108)

Likewise, as “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain” concludes, Stevens continues describing the previously mentioned “outlook” or “view” towards which his poem’s character has now edged:

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

The pinnacle of scepticism provides the two — the philosopher engaged in the exercises of Santayana’s Chapter XI and the character commended in Stevens’ poem for doing the same — with a vantage point to descry what both call “home.” And “home” is the region of animal faith that Santayana is bound for in succeeding chapters. Stevens, I suggest, follows suit.

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Jerry Griswold

former literature professor (San Diego State, UCSD, UCLA, UConn, NUI Galway) and literary journalist (NYTimes, LATimes, & elsewhere)