25) “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself”

Most critics would agree that “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” is an important poem in Stevens’ canon. Among the several reasons for its significance is its pride of place: It is not only the last poem of The Rock, but the last in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Indeed, some critics have argued that it is Stevens’ last word in his perpetual battle of “reality versus the imagination,” that the poem’s title alone signals which way he has decided; after all, the last word in his Collected Poems is “reality.”¹

Some are confident, in other words, that the thrust of the poem and its title is to direct a final attention and emphasis upon the world itself, irrespective of whatever fancies the mind might dream up. Others, sensitive to Stevens’ playful irony, point out that the poem itself is an idea and hence its title is paradoxical; we might say it is the verse analogue of René Magritte’s famous painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” [“This is not a pipe”]. But I am here to offer a different understanding of “Not Ideas” that might be stated this way: “This is a poem more about hearing than about sound.”

At its simplest and narrative level, “Not Ideas” describes someone hearing a bird’s cry on an early March morning and determining that the cry was not something coming from a dream but from outside; it is one of the bird songs of Spring and will soon be followed by many more. When, however, reference is made to the corresponding chapter in Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith, Stevens’ genius becomes apparent and the poem takes on a new depth of meaning.

“Not Ideas” exemplifies ideas found Chapter XXVI of Santayana’s work. I explain that technique in the remarks that follow by intercalating a summary of Santayana’s chapter with observations about how the poem converts the philosopher’s general ideas into particulars. In addition, to draw attention to specific echoes between the two works certain words or concepts appear in bold.

The title of Chapter XXVI is “Discernment of Spirit” and by “spirit” Santayana means thought or consciousness. Spirit is not confined to the moment, nor is it limited by existential circumstances. It can rise above the present and engage in transcendental activities like remembering past moments or comparing different moments.

As Santayana indicates, the existence of spirit is not obvious. That is because it is not a thing but an activity: spirit is not seen, but seeing. In this way, spirit can only be “discerned” in its activity. This is where some of Stevens’ explicators miss the subject of “Not Ideas.” Attention should fall not so much on the bird’s cry but on the way it is heard. In that activity we can discern spirit.

To begin with, Santayana says, spirit is summoned up by nature (274). It is “awakened” by the world: “The present stimulus . . . awakens me out of my material lethargy and keeps my attention more or less taut. . . . That stimulus is the strain and rumble of the universal flux, audible in my little sea-shell” (273). So, Stevens’ poem opens with someone summoned by nature, “awakened”² by the “audible,” an early morning sound, a bird’s cry.

Our spirit is not a disembodied, omniscient spirit, Santayana explains; instead, consciousness reveals a spirit that is living and limited, otherwise it would be invulnerable to surprise (276). When active, spirit brings its emotional response to a single impression (also known as an “essence”) and “thickens” it. Our living spirit brings expectation, belief, and eagerness to the situation; and thinking adds its own notions of time, place, and value. In this way, spirit thickens a simple essence and converts it into an object of belief:

The occasions on which spirit arises in man are the vicissitudes of his animal life: that is why spirit in him runs so thick. In intent, in belief, in emotion a given essence takes on a value which to pure spirit it could not have. The essence then symbolizes an object to which the animal is tentatively addressed, or an event through which he has just laboured, or which he is preparing to meet. (276)

This is why attention to the poem should be directed not so much to the sound but to the busyness of the mind trying to make sense of it: in this case, positing such things as locale (outside), source (a bird), time of year (March), time of day (six o’clock), what it is not (a remnant from a dream), what it is (scrawny), and so forth. This busy contextualizing thickens the simple sound. More importantly, this busy contextualizing gives intimations of spirit at work.

This busy contextualizing may not be visible: It “may be confined to inner readjustments in the psyche, not open to gross external observation” (276). But what happens is a single moment or appearance, a single intuition of essence, is elevated by consciousness and swarmed by “attention, expectation, deliberation, memory, or desire. These sentiments form a moving but habitual background for any particular essence considered; they frame it in” (277). Consider what might happen if this process was reversed: if a given essence was stripped of its settings and felt meanings, uprooted from its contexts and exhibited in isolation, all we would have is a single feature of a landscape, “a note in a melody, a word in a sentence” (277).

Strictly speaking, all the poem’s persona hears is a single sound, a bird’s cry, a “note in melody,” the chorister’s “c” that sets the first key for the choir to follow. What follows, then, is the “melody,” the choir, the context constructed around this single sound: outside, a bird, March, six a.m., and so forth.

This thickening of appearances by a contextualizing spirit has a notable result:

For this reason I imagine that I see things and not essences; the essences I see incidentally are embedded in the voluminous ever-present essences of the past, the world, myself, the future; master-presences which express attitudes of mine appropriate not to an essence — which is given — but to a thing which though not given enlists all my conviction and concern. (277)

The word “essence” has a special meaning in Santayana’s system, but if we substitute Stevens’ synonym (“ideas”), what is explained in the passage above is how we come to believe in (as the title of the poem has it)“Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” In other words, because spirit thickens an appearance in multiple ways, we come to believe that we are encountering not essences/ideas but things.³

But Santayana goes a bit further in this observation. If we didn’t come to believe in the existence of things residing in an external or extramental world, all this busyness of spirit contextualizing this way and that would be hallucinatory, a kind of internal jibber jabber, “like the chirping of birds.” Santayana says, “The suasion of sanity is physical: if you cut your animal traces, you run mad” (283). So, aiming for sanity, Stevens twice says that the bird’s sound comes from “outside”; and though it “seemed like a sound in his mind,” he insists it was “not from the vast ventriloquism / Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché.”⁴

So far, Santayana has referred to the initial intuition (which spirit responds to and thickens) in various ways: as a sound (in a seashell), something that “awakens,” as a “call” from nature, “a note in a melody,” and a possible prelude to an hallucinatory “chirping of birds.” As the philosopher continues, he adds two more metaphors. He describes the initial intuition (which will eventually be thickened into a thing existing in a posited, extramental world) as “a cry or salutation” and as a theatrical or “ghostly messenger of oncoming things [that has] rushed like a forerunner into the audience chamber, announcing their arrival” (286). Stevens echoes the philosopher (referring to the “scrawny cry”) and coins his own example of a forerunner: “A chorister whose c preceded the choir.”⁵

As Santayana suggests, the initial intuition is a report of something larger and remote; it is a messenger of “oncoming things.” That is because spirit “is essentially secondary,” responding to some single and simple appearance issuing from what will soon be recognized as part of a distant world. As Santayana says in a lovely allusion: “It speaks not of itself, but of the Father that sent it” (285). Stevens says the same. Making use of his habitual and secular symbol for a deity (vide “Sunday Morning”), Stevens suggests the scrawny cry heralds “the colossal sun, // Surrounded by choral rings, / Still far away.”

Then, as his chapter comes to an end, Santayana makes clear that what he has been describing is the encounter of spirit with matter. He is quick to say he does not know what matter is and leaves that for physicists to discover and describe. As for spirit, though it needs the physical world and matter “to generate it, and give it wings,” it “is in another realm of being altogether ” (288).

This last remark is a reminder that Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) is meant as an introduction to the four volumes of Realms of Being that followed (The Realm of Essence, 1927; The Realm of Matter, 1930; The Realm of Truth, 1938; and The Realm of Spirit, 1940). Indeed, in the very last words of Scepticism and Animal Faith,⁶ Santayana looks ahead to this prospect and mentions the “various Realms of Being, having very different kinds of reality in themselves and a different status in respect to my knowledge of them. I hope to soon invite the friendly reader to accompany me in a further excursion through those tempting fields” (309).

This same promising note is sounded as Stevens’ poem — the last in The Collected Poems — concludes: “It was like / A new knowledge of reality.” Even so, it is worth noting that in this final moment there is still some separation between poet and philosopher since Stevens’ renders Santayana’s grand assertion in a guarded way by his insertion of the word “like.”¹⁴ At the very last, while we hear the philosopher’s hosanna to “animal faith” and all it implies, the poet tempers it with a final hint of scepticism.


  1. Among the critics who have written on the poem, these discussions are notable: Helen Vendler’s “Wallace Stevens: The False and True Sublime” in Southern Review (vol. 7, 1971); rpt. in Wallace Stevens: A Critical Anthology, ed. Irvin Ehrenpreis (Baltimore: Penguin, 1972), 303–304. Riddel, Clairvoyant Eye, 275–276. Morse, Wallace Stevens, 217–218. William V. Davis’ “‘This Refuge that the End Creates’: Stevens’ ‘Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,’” Wallace Stevens Journal, XI, 2 (Fall 1987), 103–110. B.J. Leggett, “Stevens’ late poetry” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens, ed. John N. Serio (Cambridge U. Press), 71–72. Among various observations, critics have suggested that the poem is a reprise of “To an Old Philosopher in Rome” (Morse, Vendler) and counters William Carlos Williams’ imagistic dictum “No ideas but in things.”
  2. Sleep, dreaming, awakening — these are motifs that appear throughout The Rock and give it the unity Stevens required for a “book” of poems. The Rock begins with the poem “An Old Man Asleep” and ends with the early morning awakening described here in “Not Ideas.” Other examples include “The World as Meditation” (where Penelope tries to puzzle out how much she is dreaming when she thinks of Ulysses) and “To An Old Philosopher in Rome” (where Stevens addresses Santayana in familiar terms as “O, half asleep”).
  3. This concretizing movement is signaled by the shift from indefinite to definite articles (“a scrawny cry” to “that scrawny cry”) and from seeming to being (“seemed like” to “it was”). Cf. Davis, 105.
  4. Ventriloquism is a “trick” so that it seems that a sound is “outside” or distant when it is really “inside” and the result of “throwing one’s voice.” Another way of saying this is that ventriloquism is apt description of the psychological term of projection. In this poem, Stevens says that the scrawny cry is not from the ventriloquism of dreaming. This is a roundabout way of saying, again, that the cry is coming from “outside.” Cf. Davis, 106–107.
  5. Apparently, I was not the first to have detected in these lines a possible allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII (“Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”), nor the only one to have observed a contrast between Stevens’ hopeful spring and dawn imagery and the Bard’s melancholy autumn and sunset atmospherics.
  6. To be clear, “Not Ideas” takes its inspiration from the penultimate chapter of Scepticism and Animal Faith ( “XXVI. Discernment of Spirit”). The very last chapter of the book (“XXVII. Comparison with Other Criticism of Knowledge”) is an omnibus discussion where Santayana contrasts his own system with those of other philosophers (e.g., Descartes, Hume, and Kant) and where he summarizes his endeavors in this book (to engage in scepticism to clear the ground and then begin to sequentially posit beliefs in discourse, experience, substance, truth, and spirit). In a sense, in this last chapter, Santayana reviews his own book and, in general, Stevens passes over this — though he does, as I have suggested, make use of the concluding paragraph to fashion his own echoing conclusion.
  7. I am grateful to Jack Hart, from our Santayana/Stevens Zoom symposium, for this observation; and following upon that, Jack Baker noted that Stevens sometimes takes an “antagonistic” position to Santayana’s ideas. Finally, in addition, Richard Rubin pointed out that while Stevens may echo Santayana here in their shared use of the word “reality,” for the philosopher that term refers to states of being, while the poet uses the word in his poems and essays in the more common way as signifying the “objective correlative.” And this may be the place to acknowledge, once again, my gratitude to our Zoom discussion group for something close to “crowd-sourced” research that lead to this essay.

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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)