20) “The Rock”

“The Rock” is the one “long poem” — a phrase Stevens used — in the book that bears its name. In her masterful study On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, Helen Vendler directed attention to these extended compositions arguing that, in each of his books, Stevens’ short poems were rehearsals for the long poems. Unfortunately, Vendler ends her discussions with the penultimate “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and only makes a few passing remarks on “The Rock,” Stevens’ last long poem. In any event, the history of the composition of the poems in The Rock suggests the opposite of Vendler’s thesis: this long poem came first and the shorter poems followed.¹

The centrality of “The Rock” in Stevens’ book mirrors the importance of the corresponding chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith. These concern belief in “substance” which, in Santayana’s system, is the cornerstone to other articles of animal faith (beliefs in memory, experience, the self, animation, etc.). Santayana takes up this subject in three chapters: XIX. Belief in Substance; XX. On Some Objections to Belief in Substance; and XXI. Sublimations of Animal Faith. These provide the subjects for the three sections of Stevens’ poem: “I. Seventy Years Later,” “II. The Poem as Icon,” and “III. Forms of the Rock as Night-Hymn.”²

In passing, we might also add a note about the circumstances of the poem’s first publication. Stevens contributed the poem to Inventario, a celebrated and avant-garde journal published in Rome that introduced its readers to modern writers like Auden, Eliot, Pasternak, Nabokov, and the like. Living in Rome and an international writer himself, Santayana was likely to have been aware of Inventario.

And that raises an interesting question: Did Stevens hope that “Professor Santayana” might come across the poem appearing, as it were, on his doorstep? Nothing in Stevens’ letters suggests that was his intention. Still, we might wonder. In any event, two years later, Stevens would speak quite directly to Santayana in a poem whose dedicatory title also included a mailing address: “To Old Philosopher in Rome.”

“XIX. Belief in Substance” & “I. Seventy Years Later”

Précis of chapter: In Chapter XIX, Santayana offers reasons for a belief in substance. Without such a belief, it would be impossible to have the most elementary faith in the veracity of memory, experience, and knowledge. Belief in substance, he concludes, is a necessary cornerstone for our animal faith in these.

Précis of poem: Responding to Santayana, the first section of Stevens’ “The Rock” (“Seventy Years Later”) divides into two parts roughly at the colon which appears midway in the poem. The first half proceeds by negative rhetoric to show what would happen if belief in substance was withdrawn: memory would be “an illusion we were ever alive,” experience could “not be believed,” and knowledge would be an “invention.” The second half of the poem reverses course and posits belief in substance as fundamental and necessary and congenial; mindful of Jesus’ remark to Peter in the New Testament, we might say that substance is the “rock” upon which we build our animal faith.

Santayana begins by observing that any disbelief in substance is histrionic. He notes that while some sceptics may publicly challenge belief in substance, they act differently “when off the stage”; and he adds, “I suspect that other sceptics, as well as I, always believe in substance, and their denial of it is sheer sophistry and the weaving of verbal arguments in which their most familiar and massive convictions are ignored” (186). Moreover, belief in an existing world is one of an animal’s first convictions and a conclusion of common sense; so, any philosophical system that contravenes this conventional belief in substance is mere pretense (187).

As his poem begins, Stevens takes his cue from Santayana’s assertion that disbelief in substance is pretense and histrionic. With tongue firmly in cheek, Stevens theatrically plays the role of Santayana’s sceptic, engaging in exaggerated nihilism in order to show what would occur without belief in substance:

  • Without belief in substance, Santayana observes, “experience might be pure illusion” and memory would be invalid (187); indeed, experience and memory would be dreaming or “sheer raving” “unless these operations were domiciled in a natural being, and expressed his history and vulgar situation in the natural world” (193). So, in his role as insincere sceptic, Stevens asserts: “It is an illusion that we were ever alive, / Lived in the houses of mothers.”
  • Santayana says that without a belief in substance our world would disappear and in its place all that would be left is “a shifting light and shade,” “a ridiculous psychology” (188), an “abstracted shadow” in our mind (192). So, Stevens says: “Our shadows, their shadows, no longer remain. / The lives these lived in the mind are at an end. / They never were.”
  • Santayana notes that without a belief in substance, an event might produce “a musical chord” but that would simply be sound without any event “going on behind the sound” (188). The missing source of a sound (the guitar) is what Stevens emphasizes: “The sounds of the guitar / Were not and are not. Absurd.”
  • Santayana explains that without a belief in substance, words would not refer to some corresponding world but simply be the noise of “a parrot, who used human words” (190). Amidst such noise, Stevens points to the absence of words or intelligible referents: “The words spoken // Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.”
  • And without a belief in substance, Santayana says, the world might seem some imaginary creation of the ego, “an alter ego of my private invention” (174). Such a world would be, Stevens explains: “An invention, an embrace between one desperate clod / And another in a fantastic consciousness.”

Up to this point, Stevens has taken the pose of the sceptic who objects to belief in substance. For Santayana, such a sceptic is a perpetual shut-in closeted with essences, a pure spirit untroubled by any existential restlessness that might rise from the flesh if that spirit were incarnate and inhabiting an actual material world. Such a sceptic is blind to matter. He exists “in vacuo,” staring at a dark screen where essences come and go. He has not made that leap of faith to a belief in ulterior existence (190).

Animals, on the other hand, immediately accept belief in substance because of their existential circumstances; to grope, to blink, to dodge a blow or return it, Santayana points out, give evidence of a belief in ulterior existence. To be sure, belief in substance “is the most irrational, animal, and primitive of beliefs: it is the voice of hunger” (190–191). But it is also a pragmatic belief because remedies to that hunger can actually be found out there as if “to confirm my illusions” (191). It is a leap of faith to blindly accept belief in substance, but it is a belief rewarded, in turn, with “a universe, . . . a vast and ancient world of wonderful treasures” (191).

If scepticism’s denial of external reality is a kind of blindness, then a “blind belief” in substance can cure it. This is where the first section of “The Rock” finally lands. In the early section of “Seventy Years Later,” Stevens strikes the pose of the sceptic and shows what follows when belief in substance is withdrawn. But following the colon, Stevens begins to reverse course as he continues speculating about this belief as a “queer assertion of humanity:”

A theorem proposed between the two —
Two figures in a nature of the sun,
In the sun’s design of its own happiness,

As if nothingness contained a métier,
A vital assumption, an impermanence
In its permanent cold . . .

The words “as if” signal, in Stevens’ oeuvre, a fiction: What if, he says in so many words, we take substance not as a belief but as an hypothesis, as an assumption. Or what if we act “as if nothingness contained a métier,” or (as Stevens says)

. . . an illusion so desired

That the green leaves came and covered the high rock,
That the lilacs came and bloomed, like a blindness cleansed,
Exclaiming bright sight, as it was satisfied,

In a birth of sight. The blooming and the musk
Were being alive, an incessant being alive,
A particular being, that gross universe.

The rewards such a belief brings, Santayana said, confirms our “illusions.” Instead, of the sceptic’s realm of a dark screen in vacuo, such a belief posits a world and populates it with gaudy, efflorescent details. Blind faith leads to the end of blindness, to “a blindness cleansed,” to “a birth of sight.” What is encountered is (as Santayana says) “a universe,” “that gross universe” (Stevens adds).

“XX. On Some Objections to Belief in Substance” & “II. The Poem as Icon”

Précis of chapter: In Chapter XX, Santayana entertains the objections of idealists and empiricists to belief in substance. In answer to these, Santayana proposes his notion of “‘independent object’” (SAF 202) which, he explains, is the incarnation of essence in substance. And Santayana notes that “the blossoming of substance” into these incarnations is an amiable mystery (SAF 211).

Précis of poem: Playing upon the chapter in the second section of “The Rock” (“The Poem as Icon”), Stevens calls the objections to belief in substance so many “cures” of the rock. And just as Santayana answered these objections with his notion of the “independent object” (essence + substance), Stevens disposes of these cures with his notion of the “icon” as the mixture of the imagination and reality. And just as Santayana had spoken of these incarnations as the “blossoming of substance,” Stevens speaks of these mixtures that “bud and bloom” so that “the rock’s barrenness becomes a thousand things.”

The opening lines of the second section (“The Poem as Icon”) of “The Rock” have puzzled many³:

It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves.
We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground
Or a cure of ourselves, that is equal to a cure

Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness.

But there is a simple explanation that yields clarity with the briskness of Occam’s razor.

In Scepticism and Animal Faith, Santayana presents himself as a “naturalist” situated halfway between idealism and empiricism; he draws from both schools of philosophy, but he also avoids what he sees as their excesses. In the opening pages of Chapter XX, Santayana takes up objections to belief in substance that might be lodged by idealists; not surprisingly, these can be corrected by a dose of empiricism. In the second section of “The Rock.” Stevens refers to these empirical corrections as the “cure of the ground.” Then Santayana takes up objections to belief in substance from empiricists; again, no surprise, the remedy to their excesses is a measure of idealism that restores right thinking. Stevens call this a “cure of ourselves.” But what is the “cure beyond forgetfulness” that Stevens speaks of?

Scepticism and Animal Faith aims to bring some resolution to a primordial philosophical duality: the relationship between idealism and empiricism, between the metaphysical and material world, or (to use Santayana’s vocabulary) between essences and objects. This same duality haunts Wallace Stevens’ work, though it is more often phrased as “reality versus the imagination”; he alternates between (as one poem puts it) the poles of the “the plain sense of things” and the recognition “that the absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined” (CP 530–521), and also every point in between. Sometimes, in poems prior to The Rock, Stevens find a temporary solution to this oscillation in his notion of the “fiction” (an “as if” proposition, a willfully posited belief, a poised combination of scepticism and faith). But what if, instead of the temporary reprieve offered by a “fiction,” there was some more final solution to this dilemma, a “cure beyond forgetfulness” that might end this constant oscillation?

While wrapping his proposal in every kind of qualification, like a reluctant logical positivist, Santayana suggests an answer to this problematic duality can be found in the concept of the “independent object” (202) which might be regarded as the incarnation of essence in substance. To be sure, such a notion is an assumption, an article of animal faith, but it is a congenial belief: “the blossoming of substance into appearance [is] the most amiable of mysteries” (211). Here, too, might be found a stable answer to the perpetual oscillation of Stevens’ “reality versus the imagination.”

What if — we can almost hear Stevens speculating–he substituted the idea of “incarnation” (implied in Santayana’s notion of the the “independent object” and the “blossoming of substance”) for his prior epistemological workhorse of the “fiction”? As we have shown, the first section of “The Rock” ended with a consideration of the value of a fiction (a “theorem,” “a vital assumption”) because such a posited belief in substance yielded a floribund universe like so many leaves and lilacs decorating the grey mass of “the rock.” But the second section of the poem now goes farther and asks what if instead of the cosmetic remedy of leaves and flowers thrown on the rock, those leaves bore fruit and we ate them? Wouldn’t that be an empirical confirmation of an existing world (i.e., “a cure of the ground”) beyond the tentative assumptions of a posited fiction?

And yet the leaves, if they broke into bud,
If they broke into bloom, if they bore fruit,

And if we ate the incipient colorings
Of their fresh culls might be a cure of the ground.

Reflecting this transition — this movement from “fictions” to “incarnation” — the early lines of “The Poem as Icon” are phrased in the tentative “as if” modalities of a fiction while the second part changes to positive assertions and affirmations.

Let me be clear. For the purposes of elucidation, I am using the word “incarnation,” a term often employed in religious circumstances⁴ and sometimes used by Santayana for secular purposes. But Stevens does not use this term. Instead, he uses the term “icon.”

This section of “The Rock” is called “The Poem as Icon,” and an icon (in religious circumstances) has a special dual nature. On the one hand, it is symbolic and a representation; but at the same time, it is also valuable and sacred in itself as an incarnation. If (as Santayana proposes) an “independent object” is the incarnation of essence in substance, if (as the religious believe) an icon is the the spiritual embodied in the material, then the poem (Stevens seems to suggest) is the commingling of imagination and reality: “The fiction of the leaves is the icon // Of the poem, the figuration of blessedness.”

All of these configurations presume a belief in substance as an objective and enduring medium. And as the poem continues, Stevens provides a litany of synonyms:

  • Santayana says, for example, that the notion of substance is implied in our sensation of our identity, “an ever-present background felt as permanent, myself always myself” (195). So, the prior chain of resemblances (listed above) ends with “And the icon is the man.”
  • Consistent repetition, the “habits of substance,” provide examples of “dynamic permanence” and, Santayana observes, “the order of events when reflected on would suggest and impose belief [in substance]” (195–197). A perfect example of this, Stevens suggests, would be the seasons: “The pearled chaplet of spring, / The magnum wreath of summer, time’s autumn snood, // Its copy of the sun, these cover the rock.”⁵
  • Empiricists might object that we only encounter appearances and that no objective correlative lies behind them. Empiricists might say, Santayana observes, that we only believe in substance because our language and grammar demand that “predicates” have “subjects” (199). But, via Stevens, we have already concluded that if the fruit is more than an appearance, if we ate it and our hunger was answered, then it must be “substantial”: “In the predicate that there is nothing else” (where empiricists believe there are only appearances) this would be “a cure of the ground and of ourselves.”
  • Previously in the poem, the leaves thrown on the rock have been associated with cosmetic fictions. More important has been the fruit which are the incarnations that, when eaten, offer direct confirmations of the belief in substance: “They bud and bloom and bear their fruit without change. / They are more than leaves that cover the barren rock.”
  • Another confirmation of a belief substance is “a thing which stimulates different senses at once or successively [and] is easily recognized as the same subject” (197). Such an object provokes “exuberance,” prompts “movement,” summons “responsive” reactions (198). In Stevens’ terms, the blooms of the rock provoke: “New senses in the engenderings of sense, / The desire to be at the end of distances, // The body quickened and the mind in root. / They bloom as a man loves, as he lives in love.”

If the first half of “The Poem as Icon,” then, Stevens fleshes out (so to speak) the notion of substance; in the second half he celebrates the fruit and the eating of it as the perfect conceit for an instinctive belief in substance, as a metaphor for incarnation, as (Santayana says) “the blossoming of substance into appearance” (211)

As if its understanding was brown skin,
The honey in its pulp, the final found,
The plenty of the year and of the world.

In this plenty, the poem makes meanings of the rock,
Of such mixed motion and such imagery
That its barrenness becomes a thousand things

And so exists no more. This is the cure
Of leaves and of the ground and of ourselves.
His words are both the icon and the man.

This canticle celebrates the blossoming of substance (the gray matter of the rock) into a thousand things. Still, the last line might give us reason to pause: Whose words are both the icon and the man?

Let me offer three suggestions to the identity of that speaker. 1) Wallace Stevens is, clearly, a candidate because he is the maker of a poem that makes much meaning of the rock. 2) Santayana is a candidate, too, since he likewise ends Chapter XX with a paradisiacal vision (including childhood, morning, and spring [212]) that follows from acceptance of belief in substance, so that a “barrenness [that] becomes a thousand things.” But 3) there is one other speaker who meets that line’s special criterion (“his words are both the icon and the man”). The answer is to be found in Scepticism and Animal Faith: “Substance is the speaker and substance is the theme” (204).

“XXI. Sublimations of Animal Faith” & “III. Forms of the Rock in a Night-Hymn”

Précis of chapter: In Chapter XXI, Santayana considers what others have mistakenly regarded as substantial things: souls, master types or Platonic ideals, phenomena, et al.

Précis of poem: In the third section of “The Rock,” Stevens bounces off Santayana’s ideas and offers, instead, his own musings on correct ways of looking at substance (i.e., “the rock”).

In his response to Santayana’s Chapter XXI, Stevens sometimes dramatically abbreviates the philosopher’s ideas. For example, when Santayana speaks in a lengthy passage about notions of substance implicit in the relationship between Platonic Ideas and phenomena, the philosopher refers to the former as “the celestial type[s]” and the latter as existences “confined to particular places and times” that “mirror them [the Platonic Ideas]” (SAF 224). Stevens abbreviates this by saying, “The rock is the stern particular, . . . The mirror of the planets.”

More commonly, however, Stevens launches off in his own direction. While Santayana offers a list of what others have mistakenly regarded as substances, Stevens, converting negatives to positives, supplies in his poem a more accurate list. But instead of simple synonyms (e.g., “the world,” “external reality,” “the realm of objects,” etc.), Stevens provides poetic descriptions of substance or what he calls “forms of the rock.” So, substance (“the rock”) is:

  • the locale of man’s life (“The stone from which he rises, up — and — ho, / The step to the bleaker depths of his descents”)
  • the domain of everything (“the habitation of the whole”)
  • that which is in the inch and in the mile (“that which is near, point A / In a perspective that begins again // At B”)
  • that from which things come (“the origin of the mango’s rind”)
  • the realm within which the mind is discovered (“where tranquil must adduce / Its tranquil self, the main of things, the mind”)
  • where will be found both the alpha and omega of one’s life (“the starting point of the human and the end”)
  • the container of the container (“that in which space itself is contained”)
  • where events occur and change as well (“day, the things illumined // By day, night and that which night illumines”) and, finally,
  • that which evokes poetry (this poem you are reading is the “hymn of the rock”).

Here are nine ways of looking at substance, just four short of the “Thirteeen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”


  1. See: https://j-griswold.medium.com/a-chronology-of-the-composition-of-the-poems-f96d865de977
  2. As I have suggested, “The Rock” is one of the first compositions in this book of poems, and it differs a bit from the poems that followed because, it seems, Stevens was settling on a subject and structural technique. While the twenty-three poems that follow are pretty much structured on a discrete poem-for-chapter basis, “The Rock” differs in two ways. First, it is a “long poem” and draws on three of Santayana’s chapters rather than one. And next, while the three sections of the poem roughly correspond, in sequence, to the three chapters, each section do not hesitate to occasionally draw ideas and images from any of the three chapters.
  3. J. Hillis Miller and Harold Bloom, for example, gallop over hill and dale–providing a tour d’ horizon of the state of literary criticism and a pocket history of American literature and culture–until their readers must feel like the defeated Norse god Thor who was challenged to gulp down the ocean. On the other hand, Milton Bates, a leading Stevens critic, provides an extensive explication but finally concludes the lines are “nearly impenetrable.” Miller, “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 30, №1 (Spring 1976), pp. 5–31 and Vol. 30, №2 (Summer 1976), pp. 330–348. Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, 339–351. Bates, Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self, 292–295.
  4. I have been lead to these views by Janet McCann’s keen essay “Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Rock’” in Concerning Poetry 16. №1 (Spring 1983), 45–56. McCann sees the eating referenced in Stevens’ poem as akin to the sacramental eating of Communion. Like the image of the icon used by Stevens, the eucharist, she points out, has a twin nature: on the one hand, it is symbolic and a representation of the godhead; on the other hand, it is sacred and valuable in itself as an incarnation of divinity. Let me add that McCann’s explication of Stevens’ poem by means of religious parallels would have been approved of by Santayana, the author of Interpretations of Poetry and Religion and the thinker who famously said, “Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry.”
  5. Eric Sapp has pointed out to me that the “halo” imagery here (chaplet, wreath, snood) is entirely appropriate in a religious icon.

To continue, click here. An overview of this blog & a Table of Contents can be found by clicking here.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store