2) “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”

“I. There is no First Principle of Criticism”

Jerry Griswold
4 min readOct 25, 2020


After his Preface, Santayana turns in the next three chapters of Scepticism and Animal Faith to methodological issues. In the first chapter, he investigates whether philosophical criticism might begin at the beginning, with the origin of things (with atoms or monads, for instance) and proceed from there. Instead, Santayana believes we must begin wherever we are in media res and that “there is no source of things at all, no simpler form from which they are evolved, but only an endless succession of different complexities” (1). Nonetheless, the existence of “episodes of evolution” warrants an investigation of whether criticism might possibly begin with the discovery of first principles. Santayana offers three examples of “episodes of evolution”: “parents with children, storms with shipwrecks, passions with tragedies” (1–2).

In “The Irish Cliffs of Moher,” the second poem in The Rock, Stevens employs the philosopher’s first example and pictures the search for the origin of things in terms of child seeking his parent, his ultimate father:

Who is my father in this world, in this house,
At the spirit’s base?

My father’s father, his father’s father, his —
Shadows like winds

Go back to a parent before thought, before speech,
At the head of the past.

The next part of the poem is a bit of a shock and non sequitur. This backwards search, this hunt for the fons et origo, surprisingly ends with a famous Irish geographical landmark:

They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,
Above the real,

Rising out of present time and place, above
The wet, green grass.

This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations
Of poetry

And the sea. This is my father [. . .]

The surprising and completely arbitrary choice of the Cliffs of Moher as the origin of things recalls Santayana’s observation that an argument from first principle resembles the arbitrary choice of postulates to construct a system in pure mathematics: “[any] set of axioms and postulates . . . may be posited in the air . . . but such a pure logic is otiose . . . [because it has] no necessary application to anything” (2).

If anything might be arbitrarily chosen as a first principle, one can imagine how, looking for an example, Stevens’ eyes landed on a postcard sent by his friend Jack Sweeney picturing those Irish cliffs, or so the poet seems to suggest in a letter (L. 769–770). Indeed, like any first principle arbitrarily chosen, the cliffs are (to use Santayana’s words) “posited in the air.” They are “Above the real, // Rising out of present time and place.” In fact, Stevens twice refers to them as “out of” and “above.”

And Stevens also reiterates Santayana’s idea that arbitrarily chosen first principles have “no necessary application to anything.” Stevens adds, “This is not landscape, full of somnambulations / Of poetry // And the sea.” In other words, the cliffs in the poem do not even possess a half relationship with existence like an amalgamation of imagination and reality, of poetry and the sea — for an example, the myth of Neptune.

But here the poem changes, signaled by “maybe,” as the transitive verb gives way to intransitive verbs:

[. . . ] This is my father or, maybe,
It is as he was,

A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth
And sea and air.

The search for the origin of things, Santayana had concluded, is “merely a parabolic excursion into the realm of essence” (3). He says that first principles cannot be discovered “until they have long been taken for granted in the very investigation that reveals them” (2). So, by way of example, we might say that tracing causality backwards, one arrives at the First Cause; tracing motion backwards, the First Mover; and so forth.

The same backtracking in Stevens’ poem (“My father’s father, his father’s father, his–”) ends here with a recognition of genus: “the race of fathers.” The search for the origin of things has not advanced, reaches no conclusions, but returns to the idea of fatherhood per se in what Santayana describes as a “parabolic excursion into the realm of essence.” These mystical cliffs participate in the essence of fatherhood like other chosen first principles–for example, the basic elements of the pre-Socratic philosophers — as Stevens says, “earth / And sea and air.”

A parabolic excursion into the realm of essence is an exercise in self-evidency, and the search for the ultimate father is arrested in the recognition of the essence of fatherhood. In this way, “The Irish Cliffs of Moher” resembles another poem by Stevens where he chides a drowsy old man (not unlike the one in the previous poem, “An Old Man Asleep”) for asking circular and self-evident questions: “Mother, my mother, who are you?” Stevens aptly titled that poem “Questions Are Remarks” — a title equally applicable to the parabolic exercise in self-evidency in “The Irish Cliffs of Moher.”

The second poem of The Rock, then, articulates the conclusion of Santayana’s first chapter that we cannot hope to discover the origin of things and begin philosophical criticism from there. Instead, we must begin wherever we are and start in media res.

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Jerry Griswold

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