A Chronology of the Composition of the Poems

Regarding the order in which the poems of The Rock were written, we might take note of Samuel French Morse’s guarded observation: “For the most part, the date of publication may be assumed to follow closely, the date of composition, though we must make allowances for an adequate lapse of time between the actual date of composition and the appearance of a given poem in print” (OP 297). This has been the method of dating that Stevens’ editors and bibliographers have used, except in those cases where circumstantial information or mention in the Letters would lead to other conclusions.¹

In the list which follows, I have supplied numbers for the poems following their order in The Rock (1954), and I have given the place and date of their first publication in chronological order. I have also supplied their corresponding chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923).

{Edmund Wilson publishes portrait of Santayana in The New Yorker (6 April 1946}

Inventario (Rome), III, no. 2 (Summer 1950)
20. The Rock
“XIX. Belief in Substance”
XX. On some Objections to Belief in Substance”
XXI. Sublimations of Animal Faith”

Hudson Review, IV, no. 1 (Spring 1951)
19. Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour²
“XIX. Belief in Substance”

Accent, XI, no. 4 (Autumn 1951)
8. Madame La Fleurie
“VII. Nothing Given exists”

Origin, 5, vol. 2, no. 1 (Spring 1952)
17. Long and Sluggish Lines
“XV. Belief in Experience”

Voices, no. 147 (January-April 1952)
18. A Quiet Normal Life
“XVIII. Knowledge is Faith mediated by Symbols”

George Santayana dies (September 26, 1952)

Hudson Review, V. no. 3 (Autumn 1952)³
9. To an Old Philosopher in Rome
“VIII. Some Authorities for this Conclusion”
“IX. The Discovery of Essence”

10. Vacancy in the Park
“X. Some Uses of this Discovery”

11. The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain
“XI. The Watershed of Criticism”

12. Two Illustrations that the World is What You Make of It
“XII. Identity and Duration attributed to Essences”

13. Prologues to What is Possible
“XIII. Belief in Demonstration”

14. Looking Across the Fields and Watching the Birds
“XIV. Essence and Intuition”

15. Song of Fixed Accord
“XVI. Belief in the Self”

16. The World as Meditation
“XVII. The Cognitive Claims of Memory”

Poetry, LXXXI, no. 1 (October 1952)
21. St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside
“XXIII. Evidences of Animation in Nature”

Shenandoah, III, no. 3 (Autumn 1952)
22. Note on Moonlight
“XXIV. Literary Psychology”

The Nation, 175, no. 23 (6 December 1952)
1. An Old Man Asleep⁴
“Preface”

2. The Irish Cliffs of Moher
“I. There is no First Principle of Criticism”

3. The Plain Sense of Things
“II. Dogma and Doubt”

4. One of the Inhabitants of the West
“III. Wayward Scepticism”

5. Lebensweisheitspielerei
“IV. Doubts about Self-Consciousness”

6. The Hermitage at the Centre
“V. Doubts about Change”

7. The Green Plant
“VI. Ultimate Scepticism”

Accent, XII, no. 3 (Summer 1953)
23. Planet on the Table
“XXII. Belief in Nature”

Inventario, V, nos. 1–4 (Summer 1953)
24. The River of Rivers in Connecticut
“XXV. The Implied Being of Truth”

Trinity Review, VIII, no. 3 (May 1954)
25. Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself
“XXVI. Discernment of Spirit”
“XXVII. Comparison with Other Criticisms of Knowledge”

“The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens” (containing “The Rock”) published by Knopf on October 1, 1954

Wallace Stevens dies (August 2, 1955)

Notes.

1. This is the method used in Holly Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind and by Morse in Opus Posthumous. Particularly helpful in matters of this sort is: J. M. Edelstein, Wallace Stevens: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh, 1973).

2. “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” may have been the first poem composed. In Stevens’ letters to Joseph Bennett, we can discover Stevens’ impressions of it (“I have not particularly felt like going on with it since I started it”) and gather that it was written some time before December 5, 1950 (L. 701–702). Stevens, it will be recalled, styled it a false start on a long poem and internal evidence suggests it was an earlier attempt at a theme in the poem which follows it: (20) “The Rock.” All this suggests that “Final Soliloquy” was composed about the time of “The Rock” (Spring-Summer 1950).

3. Eric Sapp notes that no later than May 1st, 1952, Stevens had composed “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” both sections of “Two Illustrations that the World is What You make of It,” “Vacancy in the Park,” “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” the second section of “Prologues to What is Possible” (though Stevens indicated the first section already existed), “Looking Across the Fields and Watching the Birds Fly,” and “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” He gave a reading on that date at Harvard(see https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Stevens-Wallace.php). There is good reason to doubt that the order in which the Penn Sound page currently lists the poems is the order they were read: specifically, that list does not place “World is Larger in Summer” (the second part of “Two Illustrations”) directly after the first part of “Two Illustrations” but we can determine that it was read sequentially because the end of the track for the first section breaks off after Stevens had said “two,” clearly intending to continue the rest of the second part poem. One would have to check the source tapes to confirm the reading order. Of this group, he appears to have read “To an Old Philosopher” first, in the middle of his broader reading, since he introduces that poem and what follows as “new” poems. As to the question of dates of composition, and Morse’s observations on that topic, I don’t think we can draw any conclusions as to when the poems were begun, and in which order, other than that the aforementioned were essentially in their more or less final form by that date.

4. Regarding the chronology of composition of the poems The Rock, George Ohlson observes: The first seven poems that open the book were not submitted to The Nation for publication until November, 1952 — two months after Santayana’s death. Is it possible that Stevens could have composed any of them after hearing that sad news? “An Old Man Asleep” reads to me like a kind of benediction to a man whose “self” (of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and disbeliefs) has now followed him to the grave, unlike the earth which, though it loses its leaves in a kind of autumnal death, still flows on like the river. It would give the words “solemnity” and “peculiar plot” a more funereal tilt. Where Santayana starts his book with an invitation in its Preface, Stevens begins his with a benediction.

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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)