24) “The River of Rivers in Connecticut”

In his lecture “A Collect of Philosophy,” at the end of a passage praising Santayana’s writing style, Wallace Stevens appends a small observation that is all the more curious given the poet’s use of Scepticism and Animal Faith that we have been documenting in this study: By way of an apparent compliment, Stevens says that Santayana’s pages “do not offer themselves for sensational summary” (OP 269–270).

Attached like a gratuitous caboose to a lengthy statement of praise, that comment (about the philosopher’s prose not easily yielding to summary) is nearly invisible. But if considered alone, and if we subtract Stevens’ habitual good manners when mentioning the old professor, that comment might also be taken as an under-the-breath critique: viz., that the philosopher is sometimes quite prolix and that he beats around the bush for some time before finally arriving at his point. If we allow the possibility of that sub rosa critique, then it may be that Stevens had in mind something like Chapter XXV of Scepticism and Animal Faith.

The subject of that chapter is neatly summarized in the three keywords of its nutshell title: “The Implied Being of Truth.” Regrettably, that is the last moment of concision in the chapter. In the next eighteen paragraphs, Santayana proceeds by via negativa, itemizing mistaken views about truth and identifying what truth is not. As Stevens rightly noted about such pages, these “do not offer themselves for sensational summary” and I will not do so here.

If we turn, instead, to Santayana’s positive statements and the point of the chapter, we might distill his ideas in the following ways. Truth is an implicit and comprehensive underlying “field” (268) or context: it is “an essence involved in positing any fact, in remembering, expecting, or asserting anything” (269). Most important is the connection of truth to the eternal:

Truth is dateless and eternal, but not timeless, because, being descriptive of existence, it is a picture of change. It is frozen history. As Plato said that time was the moving image of eternity, we might that eternity was a synthetic image of time. (271)

If Santayana wanted to identify this concept of frozen flux by means of an image, the likeliest choice is one close at hand and as old as Heraclitus. Though Stevens will later soften this sentiment in his poem, he could seem impatient that Santayana does not mention the obvious. At one point in the poem, a possibly exasperated Stevens fills in the blank : “Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing.”

The conceit of a river provides Stevens with a more straightforward way of presenting Santayana’s ideas about “the implicit being of truth” than can be gathered from the philosopher’s laborious prose. If I was to endeavor to do the same, I would refer to Spinoza’s concept “sub specie aeternitatis” and say that by “truth” Santayana is referring to the “aeternitatis” part of that phrase. Combine those two ideas and you have an explanation of the title of Stevens’ poem: “The River of Rivers in Connecticut,” aeternitatis localized.

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gaiety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,

No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

Critics have gone wrong when interpreting this poem by suggesting that it proposes a contrast between the the mythological river Styx and an actual waterway in Connecticut; the Farmington, Housatonic, and Connecticut rivers have been proposed as candidates.¹ None of these suggestions, however, make geographical sense because, as another critic has noted: More than “30 miles separate the towns of Farmington and Haddam — thus an observer could not simultaneously see Farmington glistening or Haddam shining.”²

“The River of Rivers in Connecticut” may be better understood not by paying attention to the last word in its title and hunting for its Yankee correlative but by shifting attention to its first words, to the aeternitas part of this sub species aeternitatis. With his figure of “The River of Rivers,” Stevens is concerned with a supernal and more comprehensive context in order to convey Santayana’s observations about truth and eternity in relation to time. And to explain that relationship, at one point Santayana employs another metaphor contrasting the relationship between our dark and fitful experience here in time and the sunny blue sky always above the clouds as a symbol for the unbroken realm of the eternal:

[Truth] is the immovable standard and silent witness of all our memories and assertions; and the past and the future, which in our anxious life are so differently interesting and differently dark, are one seamless garment for the truth, shining like the sun. (268–269).

Here, then, is an explanation of the contrast offered in the poem’s opening stanzas between the Styx (the river that flows through the afterworld of Greek mythology and is crossed by the ferryman Charon) and the River of Rivers. One is associated with temporal life and death, the other with a timeless vitality and “gaiety.” One with the dark and shadows, the former with a “flashing, flashing in the sun.

Sometimes, Santayana observes, to really understand the timeless, an essence has “to be abstracted” from its temporal circumstances which may be troubled by issues of duration and persistence. Take color, for instance. In its temporal circumstances, “Colour seems to shine, that is, to vibrate.” Extricated from its existential circumstances, color is an essence and eternal (270).

Stevens echoes the philosopher when he talks about the “glistening” of the steeple at Farmington and how Haddam “shines and sways.” But he goes a little bit farther. One might expect Stevens to say that eternity lies behind these temporal vacillations or that the River of Rivers is detectable beneath these local phenomena. Instead, Stevens says: the River of Rivers “is NOT [my emphasis] to be seen beneath the appearances / That tell of it.”

Two scholars have, separately, offered keen explanations of what might otherwise seem an anomaly in the poem’s presentation of relationship of the eternal to the temporal. Parrish Dice Henry: “The river of rivers is life’s own motion, essential, neither beneath nor above but within.”³ Lawrence Kramer: “The river is not seen beneath the appearances that tell of it, but in them, or even as them.”⁴

Grappling with the apparent paradox of why the River of Rivers would NOT be seen beneath the appearances that tell of it, both scholars almost seem to have intuited Santayana’s position and his insistence that “the eternity of truth is inherent” (268). As the poem continues, we will also see that truth is everywhere.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

These concluding stanzas offer a list of explanatory similes and metaphors — synonyms, in effect — for the River of Rivers and the eternality of truth:

  • It is the third commonness with light and air: In short, truth is everywhere, omnipresent: “Besides the description of temporal things in their temporal relations, it contains everything that is not temporal at all; in other words, the whole realm of essence, as well as the whole realm of truth” (SAF 271).
  • A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction: A “curriculum” in the older sense of the word meaning a directed “running,” the course of a river. A “vigor,” a liveliness, a “gaiety” (see above). An “abstraction” because, like color (see above), “the timeless often requires to be abstracted from the total datum [of the local]” (SAF 270).
  • Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing: Because Stevens supplies (see above) the common image for the eternal which, Santayana says, “is a picture of change. It is frozen history, . . . a synthetic image of time” (SAF 271).
  • Space-filled, reflecting the seasons: Truth is all space and all time, just as it contains everything that is temporal and everything that is not temporal (see above).
  • the folk-lore / Of each of the senses: Truth is the elaboration of our lived lives which issues, say, in notions of God, the laws of nature, or myths like that of Stygia and Charon (see above).
  • call it, again and again: Because, as Heraclitus says, you can never step in the same river twice.
  • The river that flows nowhere, like a sea: The flux itself is unchanging. The river maintains a consistent name. In that sense, it goes nowhere, like a sea. In that sense, time (itself) is static and eternal. In that sense, the River of Rivers is (see above, see above) “a picture of change. It is frozen history, . . . a synthetic image of time” (SAF 271).

Notes.

  1. Parrish Dice Henry proposes the Connecticut and Housatonic Rivers: “In the Connecticut Grain: The Final World of Wallace Stevens” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 7, №1 (Winter, 1985), 88–89.
  2. This comment is made online, along with the observation that “In a Voices and Vision article on Wallace Stevens, Helen Vendler suggests the ‘river of rivers’ is actually the Farmington River.” https://wallace-stevens.fandom.com/wiki/Farmington
  3. Henry, 89.
  4. Lawrence Kramer, “‘A Completely New Set of Objects’: Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives,” Wallace Stevens Journal, II, 3 and 4 (Fall 1978), 12.

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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)