23) “The Planet on the Table”

Our notion of nature, Santayana observes, converts the world into a single entity. Indeed, the word is sometimes written with a capital as if Nature was a single person or deity. Moreover, nature is treated as a familiar thing: praised by poets, pointed to by theologians, investigated by scientists. But perhaps its most remarkable feature is its constancy; that nature is a constant is an article of animal faith (234).

The way the concept of nature corrals the world and converts it into a single entity is like, Santayana says, an “astronomer [who has made a map of the universe], and rolled it upon itself, and put it in his pocket” (235). Stevens offers his own simile in the title of his poem, possibly referring to a globe, “The Planet on the Table.”¹

“Belief in Nature” (the subject of Chapter XXII) is the next step after “Belief in Substance” (the subject of the three previous chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith).² By way of example, Santayana says when a dog consumes food, the creature does not wrestle with something as intangible as an essence; instead, experience teaches that it is sensible to believe such an object exists. Belief in substance grows into belief in nature, then, as experience is reflected upon in a transcendental way: for example, when something is “remembered,” certain experiences are recognized as similar at different moments (233); evaluative judgements, we might add, work in the same way by employing a transcendental perspective to talk about our likes and dislikes. Knowing this, the apparent simplicity of the opening of Stevens’ poem takes on depth because it points to that transcendental perspective:

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

In his poem, Stevens discusses these transcendental contributions in a manner that goes slightly beyond what Santayana says in his chapter. Poetry, Stevens says, differs from physical products of nature like plants which come and go:

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

Poetry is different because it is meta-physical: connected to nature but existing on another, spiritual plane. In passing, we might observe that this may possibly explain the poem’s reference to Ariel, the terrestrial spirit who appears in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

We can say that this transcendental perspective suggests how poetry is “supra-natural” (my choice of words), but we should not overlook how much it is also “con-natural” (Santayana’s choice of words, 238). Stevens introduces that idea this way:

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

This follows from Santayana’s observations when he itemizes the benefits that come when mankind works alongside nature in an harmonious way. As mechanical engineering and other endeavors illustrate, the more man recognizes nature’s patterned ways, the better his results. As long as he remains within nature’s rules, the more he can become a master of the world. All this makes the same point: “[It] proves that the world is con-natural with him” (238). Santayana goes on to explain what he means by this:

I do not mean it favours his endeavours, much less that it is composed as his fancy pictures it; I mean only that his endeavours express one of the formations which nature has fallen into, for the time in equilibrium with the surrounding formations. . . . The possibility of such correspondence and such equilibrium proves that nature exists, and that the creature that sustains them is a part of nature. (238–239)

There are two notes sounded in this, the concluding paragraph of Santayana’s chapter. One is a note of tentativeness: Santayana suggests in the quote above that the descriptions humans coin about nature are “good enough” for their particular circumstances in this universe and in their particular time. For all we know, he suggests elsewhere, the situation may be different on another planet or in another epoch; as he says, our own notions of nature are serviceable because, “in this aeon, in this portion or special plane of space, a sufficient constancy is discoverable” (238). The other note sounded in Santayana’s conclusion follows from this. Besides the “good enough” quality of our notions of nature, their serviceability also suggests that a constant nature exists and that we are “a part of nature.”

Stevens sounds these very same notes in the conclusion of his poem when he speaks of the “good enough” accomplishments of his poems and of “the planet of which they were part”:

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

Notes.

  1. In an interesting suggestion, Harold Bloom suggests the planet on the table is a figure for the manuscript of The Collected Poems that Stevens was beginning to assemble (365).
  2. It should be noted that if Stevens is following the order of the chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith, then “The Planet on the Table” is out of order: 21) “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside” (“XXIII. Evidences of Animation in Nature”), 22) “Note on Moonlight” (“XXIV. Literary Psychology”), and 23) “The Planet on the Table” (“XXII. Belief in Nature”). I offer my explanations for this apparent anomaly in my discussion of the sequencing of the poems.

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Jerry Griswold

Jerry Griswold

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