13) “Prologues to What is Possible”
“XIII. Belief in Demonstration”
One of the most difficult things to identify in Wallace Stevens’ poetry is his tone, that is, his intentions. Some critics, for example, regard “The Snow Man” as a serious poem, while others like Samuel French Morse regard it an “elaborate hoax.”¹ Joseph Riddel believes The Rock shows Stevens at his most genuine, while Marjorie Perloff believes it reveals Stevens’ irony.² And Daniel Fuchs means to correct the gravity of much of Stevens criticism when he writes about The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens.³
An understanding of “Prologues to What Is Possible” depends upon an accurate identification of Stevens’ tone and intentions. For the most part, critics have approached the poem in a reverential manner; and I think I can say, with only a little exaggeration, that they believe it recounts something like the voyage of an Existential Sailor who is bound for the Mystic Isles where, wrapped in the folds of his gown, he will grapple with what Self is snarling in him for discovery.
I certainly read the poem in this fashion for some time until I noticed resemblances between it and a chapter in Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith.⁴ Now, I think I can say with some confidence that “Prologues to What Is Possible” provides a specimen of the worst kind of sublime poetry, that it is riddled with compositional errors, and that if it had been submitted in a writing class the instructor would hoot in the margins: “Logic!” “ Non Sequitur!” “Coherence!” and the like. Stevens would have anticipated this. “Prologues to What is Possible” is full of Stevens’ calculated failures.
The Poem, Part I (Contradiction and Stammering)
“Prologues to What Is Possible” makes use of the thirteenth chapter of Scepticism and Animal Faith. In that chapter Santayana considers what evidence there is to warrant belief in the existence of a thinking mind; or, to say this differently, Santayana goes Descartes one better and, before concluding “I think therefore I am,” wonders philosophically what proof can be found that “I think.”
Santayana finds evidence of a thinking mind in the progressive discourse of rhetoric and mathematics. To reason through a syllogism or to follow an equation to its conclusion involves such things as coherent intent, choice, self-correction, and the like; and all these offer proof of the existence of mental life. But while rhetoric and mathematics provide Santayana with the clearest way to describe what thought is, they do not provide him with the most vivid proof that it exists. The most dramatic evidence Santayana finds of a thinking mind is mental flatfoodedness; the creakings and failures of mental machinery are the loudest witnesses to the existence of thought. In this regard, Santayana mentions contradiction and stammering as two dramatic testaments to the presence of mental life:
The round square is an essence of comic discourse, actualized when, having confused names, definitions and ideas, a fumbling or an impudent mind sets about to identify two incompatibles; and this attempt is no more impossible to a mind — which is subject to animal vapours — than it is impossible for such a mind to look for a lost word. The psyche has the lost word in store, as it has the intuitions of the circle and square; but the loss of memory or the confusion of ideas may arise not withstanding, because the movement in discourse which should culminate in those intuitions may be intercepted mechanically, and arrested at a stage where the name is not yet recovered, or where the words circle and square have fused their associations and are striving to terminate in the intuition of both as one. Such stammerings and contradictions make evident the physical basis of thought. (121–122)
And it is these two forms of mental flatfootedness that provide the basis for the first section of Stevens’ “Prologues to What Is Possible.” The poem begins, innocently enough, with a comparison that slowly takes on a life of its own:
There was an ease of mind that was like being alone in a boat at sea,
A boat carried forward by waves resembling the bright backs of rowers,
Gripping their oars, as if they were sure of the way to their destination,
Bending over and pulling themselves erect on the wooden handles,
Wet with water and sparkling in the one-ness of their motion.
The second stanza of the poem, however, drifts on to the shoals of contradiction:
The boat was built of stones that had lost their weight and being no longer heavy
Had left in them only a brilliance, of unaccustomed origin,
So that he that stood up in the boat leaning and looking before him
Did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar.
Stevens’ own version of the round square (the attempt of “a fumbling or an impudent mind . . . to identify two incompatibles”) are his marvels of shipbuilding and geology: a boat made of stones, and stones that are weightless and brilliant. And as if to round out this collection of contradictions, Stevens ends with a non sequitur: that the person aboard this most exceptional craft “did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar.”
From contradiction, Stevens turns in the next stanza to another form of mental flatfootedness — stammering:
He belonged to a the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was,
Part of the glass-like sides on which it glided over the salt-stained water,
As he traveled alone, like a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning,
A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival, an instant moment, much or little,
Removed from any shore, from any man or woman, and needing none.
The creation of metaphor is a search for the resemblance that “clicks”; as Santayana says, “there is a postulate that in transcendent intent I am hitting a hidden target” (119). Stammering is the interruption of this process before that “click” occurs; as an example, Santayana speaks of the mind looking for a lost word: “the psyche has the lost word in store . . . but [because of] the loss of memory . . . [the movement of thought is] intercepted mechanically, and arrested at a stage where the name is not yet recovered.” This is the situation of the persona in Stevens’ poem. He is searching for the syllable that will “click,” a syllable that he feels, “with an appointed sureness,” contains “the meaning into which he wanted to enter . . . As at a point of central arrival.” But he does not arrive; he is “like a man lured on by a syllable” that is on the tip of his tongue.
The Poem, Part II (Error)
Stevens’ mental bumblings serve a purpose: “such stammerings and contradictions,” Santayana says, “make evident the physical basis of thought.” But there is, according to Santayana, an even louder witness than these to the existence of mental life:
This witness is error. Thought becomes obvious when things betray it; as they cannot have been false, something else must have been so, and this something else, which we call thought, must have existed and must have had a different status from that of the thing it falsified. Error thus awakens even the laziest philosophy. (123)
This is the point at which the second part of Stevens’ poem begins:
The metaphor stirred his fear. The object with which he was compared
Was beyond his recognizing. By this he knew that likeness of him extended
Only a little way, and not beyond, unless between himself
And things beyond resemblance there was this and that intended to be recognized,
The this and that in the enclosures of hypotheses
On which men speculated in summer when they were half asleep.
This passage constitutes a transition. Stevens is awakened by error and acknowledges the failures of his poem thus far. Thought has falsified things; the object with which the persona of the poem has been compared — the unusual boat made of weightless and brilliant stones — is, he concedes, beyond recognition. The trouble is in the way this metaphor exceeds fact. It is as if Stevens has provided an example of his dictum that “the imagination loses its vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real” (NA 6); or, to use a term Stevens uses in another poem, “the celestial possible,” he has created a metaphor that is more celestial than possible.
When Stevens adds, “By this he knew that likeness of him extended / Only a little way, and not beyond,” he means that by this error he has also discovered what is possible; hence, the title of the poem. The possible is not the mind untethered, not whatever is imaginable. Instead, it is that more proximate realm, free of self-contradiction, where the imaginable is still in touch with the actual.⁵ In Stevens vocabulary, it is where reality and the imagination are interdependent. Or, in Santayana’s words, dialectic is “a two-edged sword”: on the one hand, if valid, it involves a world over which thought may range, and on the other hand it involves the existence of thought itself — which is a name for the fact that part of the world has been “chosen for perusal, considered at leisure, . . . and recognized as having this or that articulation” (SAF 120). So, in a remarkably similar fashion, Stevens says, “between himself / And things beyond resemblance there was this and that intended to be recognized, / The this and that in the enclosures of hypotheses / On which men speculated in summer when they were half asleep.”⁵
The Discovery of Self
Contradiction, stammering, error — these are loud witnesses Santayana finds to warrant belief in a thinking mind. They lead Stevens to the same conclusion as “Prologues to What Is Possible” continues:
What self, for example, did he contain that had not yet been loosed,
Snarling in him for discovery as his attentions spread,
As if all this hereditary lights were suddenly increased
By an access of color, a new and unobserved, slight dithering,
The smallest lamp, which added its puissant flick, to which he gave
A name and privilege over the ordinary of his commonplace —
The two metaphors Stevens uses to describe this newly discovered self are drawn from Santayana’s own metaphors. Stevens’ “snarling” creature “that had not yet been loosed” seems to be taken from Santayana’s description for the mind as the impetuous “animal life which underlies discourse” (SAF 121). And the dithering lamp which is given privilege over the commonplace appears to come from Santayana’s description of the mind as “casting the light of intuition now along this path and now that in a field posited as static.” And it is a “dithering” lamp and a “puissant flick” that is discovered “as his attentions spread” because Santayana had observed that this light of intuition “can hardly be prolonged without winking . . . [because of the] coming and going of attention, in flashes and varied assaults” (SAF 120).
With the snarling creature and the dithering lamp Stevens has happened upon metaphors that are recognizable, that are possible, in the way that his metaphor of the unworldly boat made of unworldly stones is not. As “Prologues to What is Possible” concludes, Stevens adds more of these recognizable and possible metaphors when he continues describing what is brought to life by the discovery of this puissant flick, this self:
A flick which added to what was real and its vocabulary,
The way some first thing coming into Northern trees
Adds to them the whole vocabulary of the South,
The way the earliest single light in the evening sky, in spring,
Creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself,
The way a look or a touch reveals its unexpected magnitudes.
These three metaphors are allusions to other poems in The Rock where the discovery of self is also celebrated: “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself” (“The way some first thing coming into Northern trees / Adds to them the whole vocabulary of the south”), “One of the Inhabitants of the West” (“The way the earliest single light in the evening sky, in spring, / Creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself”), and “Note on Moonlight” (“The way a look or touch reveals its unexpected magnitudes”). And it is by this cross-referencing that a solution can be found to the riddle Stevens leaves in the poem when, speaking of his boat, he mentions “the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was.” The answer is to be found in that poem Stevens wrote as a tribute to Santayana, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” where he speaks again of the “puissant flick” as
A light on the candle tearing against the wick
To join a hovering excellence, to escape
From fire and be part only of that of which
Fire is the symbol: the celestial possible.
“Prologues to What Is Possible,” then, is a poem of mental flatfootedness and calculated failures. By means of contradiction, stammering, and error, Stevens discovers, as Santayana said he might, the existence of a self.
1. Samuel French Morse, Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life (New York, 1970), 118.
2. Joseph Riddel, The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens (Baton Rouge, 1965), 224–267. Marjorie Perloff, “Irony in Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Rock,’” American Literature, XXXVI (November 1964), 327–342.
3. The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens (Durham, N.C., 1963).
4. A version of this essay originally appeared as “The Calculated Failures of ‘Prologues to What Is Possible’” in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 6, 3/4 (Fall 1982), 74–78.
5. Sleeping (“An Old Man Asleep,” the first poem of The Rock) and waking (“Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” the last poem of The Rock) are among the repeated motifs that make this work the kind of coherent composition that Stevens required of a “book” of poems. Here, in “Prologues to What is Possible,” the two are combined when mention is made of the kind of thoughts men speculate about in the summer “when they were half asleep.” Interestingly, this is how Stevens describes Santayana in “To an Old Philosopher in Rome.” Stevens pictures the aging thinker “dozing in the depths of wakefulness” and, in direct address, speaks to him in this manner: “O, half-asleep” (509).