“The Rock” as a “Book”

The Poem of the Poems

Jerry Griswold
10 min readSep 7, 2021

A comparison of The Rock with Scepticism and Animal Faith suggests strong arguments why Stevens’ work should be considered as a “book.” That’s not to say The Rock was a separate, free-standing volume published by itself; instead, The Rock is a group of twenty-five of Stevens’ late poems that appear under that title at the end of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Still, Stevens regarded The Rock as a “book,” and it follows the chronological arrangement and republication of Stevens’ six previously published books of poems.

Stevens considered a “book” as “a damned serious affair,” as he said in a letter to William Carlos Williams. What he meant is suggested as Stevens goes on to criticize Williams’ volume Al Que Quiere: “What strikes me most about the poems themselves is their casual character. . . . Personally, I have a distaste for miscellany. . . . Incessant new beginnings leads to sterility.”¹ Forty years later, in a letter to Barbara Church, Stevens complained about another, unidentified poet: “His book is a miscellany without an axis” (L. 804).

When it came to a “book,” Stevens felt “a rage for order.” The Rock is no “miscellany,” no haphazard gathering of Stevens’ extant poems meant to round off The Collected Poems and clear the poet’s desk. Instead, with considerable deliberation, Stevens chose twenty-five poems written over five years that had appeared in nine different publications on twelve separate occasions. Other poems published during the same period (between 1950 and 1954) were not included in the book but were later gathered up in Opus Posthumous (OP 90–110); many of these, incidentally, seem to be experimental responses to various chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith that Stevens was unhappy with.

Scepticism and Animal Faith provided Stevens with inspiration for his individual poems, but just as importantly Santayana’s book provided Stevens with a structure and overarching argument that made The Rock a “book.” Santayana’s developmental argument — from its gradual exercises in disbelief to its step-by-step acceptance of beliefs in order to build his system — are echoed in the sequence and arrangement of Stevens’ largely poem-for-chapter correspondences. Indeed, as one of his letter suggests, Stevens was a stickler when it came to sequencing his poems — specifying, for example, the order in which his poems were to appear when they were first being published in magazines.²

That earnestness is not surprising. A “book” is not simply the poems gathered into a whole but (through deliberation and careful arrangement) the poem of the whole, “the miraculous multiplex of the lesser poems,”the poem of the poems” (CP 437).

Parallel Structures

As its title suggests, Scepticism and Animal Faith divides into two parts. In the first part, Santayana shows that when scepticism is genuine and pushed to its limits, a number of conventional and fundamental epistemological assumptions (including belief in an external, extramental world) must be abandoned; ultimately, all a sceptic can be confident about is that in a kind of aesthetic twilight he sometimes encounters “essences” or pure images. In the second part and in a Cartesian manner, Santayana proceeds from the sceptic’s ground zero to sequentially accept beliefs which he calls articles of “animal faith” — that is, epistemological assumptions that are instinctively accepted (for example, belief in change).

In the first eleven poems of The Rock, Stevens scrupulously follows the sequence of sceptical exercises in the first part of the philosopher’s book; responding in poem-for-chapter way, Stevens takes up Santayana’s item-by-item examinations of dubious beliefs. Ultimately, these sceptical dismissals lead to the situation of the persona in Stevens’ poem “Madame La Fleurie” and the collapse of epistemological assumptions. At this nadir we encounter Stevens’ “To An Old Philosopher in Rome,” paralleling Santayana’s discovery of essences in Scepticism and Animal Faith. Then, in Stevens’ tenth poem, “Vacancy in the Park,” we learn to use essences. Finally, in the eleventh, “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain,” the ultimate sceptic is pictured on a mountaintop, remote from everyday life but seeing the “home” he seeks.

In the last fourteen poems of The Rock, Stevens creates an impressive and imaginative counterpart to the second half of Scepticism and Animal Faith. Following the sequence of Santayana’s chapters with only a few exceptions, Stevens first shows belief in discourse (poems 12–15) and then beliefs in memory, experience, and knowledge that follow from discourse (16–18). These last beliefs lead, in turn, to belief in substance (19, 20), “the rock” upon which animal faith is built and then to belief in nature (21–23). Finally, in the last two poems (24, 25), Stevens closes, as Santayana did, with beliefs in truth and in spirit. In this way, Stevens masterfully created in The Rock the poem of the poems that he required in a “book.”

In the following list, to indicate their parallel structures, I have paired Stevens’ poems (in the sequence in which they first appeared in The Rock) with their corresponding sections in Scepticism and Animal Faith. As a matter of convenience, here and throughout this study, I have supplied Arabic numerals for Stevens’ poems according to their original sequence in The Rock and to distinguish them from the Roman numerals that Santayana assigns to the chapters in his book.

1. An Old Man Asleep
Preface (to Scepticism and Animal Faith)

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

8. Madame La Fleurie
VII. Nothing Given Exists

9. To an Old Philosopher on 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 It
i. The Constant Disquisition of the Wind
ii. The World is Larger in Summer
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 Fly
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

17. Long and Sluggish Lines³
XV. Belief in Experience

18. A Quiet Normal Life
XVIII. Knowledge is Faith Mediated by Symbols

19. Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour
20. The Rock

i. Seventy Years Later
XIX. Belief in Substance
ii. The Poem as Icon
XX. On some Objection to Belief in Substance
iii. Forms of the Rock in a Night-Hymn
XXI. Sublimations of Animal Faith

21. St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside
XXIII. Evidences of Animation in Nature

22. Note on Moonlight
XXIV. Literary Psychology

23. Planet on the Table⁵
XXII. Belief in Nature

24. The River of Rivers in Connecticut
XXV. The Implied Being of Truth

25. Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself
XXVI. Discernment of the Spirit
XXVII. Comparison with other Criticisms of Knowledge⁶

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.⁷

Tentatively accepting that methodology, I list below the apparent chronology of the poems’ compositions. About that list, we might make one observation. In her monumental study On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, Helen Vendler’s central thesis is that the shorter poems were rehearsals for the final and major accomplishment of the long poems. The following chronology suggests the opposite: that Stevens started with the long poem (“The Rock”) then backfilled, supplying the shorter poems around it.

In this itemized list, I give the place and date of the poems’ first publications, and I also also supply their corresponding chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923). Finally, some other facts are also appear inter alia.

*Edmund Wilson publishes a portrait of Santayana in The New Yorker (April 6, 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 Paramour
“XIX. Belief in Substance”

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

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

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

*Hudson Review, V. no. 3 (Autumn 1952)
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”

*George Santayana dies (September 26, 1952)

*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 Asleep

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)


  1. Letter quoted in Williams’ Prologue to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (Boston: The Four Seas Co., 1920), 17.
  2. When, for example, a number of the poems of The Rock were first published in Hudson Review (Autumn 1952), Stevens wrote Joseph Bennett: “If you use them at all, I should like them printed in the following order: 1. TO AN OLD PHILOSOPHER IN ROME. 2. THE POEM THAT TOOK THE PLACE OF A MOUNTAIN. 3. VACANCY IN THE PARK. 4. TWO ILLUSTRATIONS THE WORLD IS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT. 5. PROLOGUES TO WHAT IS POSSIBLE” (L. 745). What is interesting about this particular example is that Stevens seems to have made one mistake in the sequencing: “The Poem that Took the Place of the Mountain” (#2 above) corresponds with Chapter XI in Scepticism and Animal Faith while “Vacancy in the Park” (#3 above) corresponds with the earlier Chapter X. But Stevens seems to have caught his mistake. When they were published in The Collected Poems, the order of the two poems was reversed, bringing them in line with the sequence of Scepticism and Animal Faith.
  3. Unless Stevens was improving upon Santayana’s sequencing, “Long and Sluggish Lines” is out of order. Since it corresponds with Chapter XV, it should appear after “Looking Across the Fields and Watching the Birds Fly” (Chapter XIV) and before “Song of Fixed Accord” (Chapter XVI). This sequencing error may have occurred in the gathering of extant poems for The Collected Poems and ny taking an eight-poem group (9–16) that appeared in the Autumn 1952 edition of The Hudson Review as a unit and then simply appending “Long and Sluggish Lines” (a single poem that was printed in an issue of Origin) rather than inserting it in its proper place within the eight-poem group.
  4. In my discussion of “Final Soliloquy of an Interior Paramour,” I note that this may have been the first poem that was composed of those collected in The Rock and that Stevens was unhappy with this early attempt at a what was intended to be a long poem. I argue that “Final Soliloquy” was a “false start” and an unsuccessful response to Santayana’s chapter on “XIX. Belief in Substance” and that Stevens corrected his errors when he then composed “The Rock” (the book’s long poem). See also my discussion in the Appendix.
  5. Again, if f Stevens was not pursuing an agenda of his own and was strictly following the sequence of chapters in Scepticism and Animal Faith, then “Planet on the Table” should have appeared two positions earlier or right after “The Rock.” As it is, their arrangement in the Collected Poems was this: 20) “The Rock”(chaps. XIX, XX, and XXI); 21) “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside”(chap. XXIII); 22) “Note on Moonlight” (chap XXIV); and 23) “Planet on the Table” (chap. XXII).
  6. The inclusion here of Santayana’s last chapter may give the wrong impression. As I suggest in my discussion of “Not Ideas,” Stevens primarily made use of Chapter XXVI and only the last paragraph of Chapter XXVII.
  7. 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).
  8. Sleuth Eric Sapp has pointed out that many of these Hudson Review (Autumn 1952) poems must have been completed by May 1, 1952, because Stevens gave a poetry reading at Harvard on that date and, among others, presented these poems from The Rock: 9) “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” 10) “Vacancy in the Park,” 11) “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” 12) “Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It,” 13) “Prologues to What Is Possible,” and 14) “Looking Across the Fields and Watching the Birds Fly.” In addition, Stevens also read 19) “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” which had appeared in the Spring 1951 issue of Hudson Review. See a recording of the event at: https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Stevens-Wallace.php

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Jerry Griswold

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