Drastic Community: Wallace Stevens and Mussolini
(Version 2009e; a new version is on the way)
In a letter to his publisher,
“(I am pro-Mussolini personally+)” (Letters [L] 289)
+The Italians have as much right to take
And three weeks later, again to Ronald Lane Latimer:
“While it is true that I have spoken sympathetically of Mussolini, all of my sympathies are the other way: with the coons and the boa-constrictors. However, ought I, as a matter of reason, to have sympathized with the Indians as against the Colonists in his country? A man would have to be very thick-skinned not to be conscious of the pathos of
Challenged by his publisher on his view of Mussolini, Stevens wrote a poem on "
The poems in Owl's Clover (OC) have found various interpreters, and the detailed debate about how to read the poems politically seems far from over (Patke 1985; Filreis 1994; Cleghorn 2000; Lucas 2001; Woodland 2005 a. o.).
What I propose to do in the following essay is to confront this poem with Stevens' interpretation of this poem, made in 1940, and to expose some of his racist, sexist and even fascist ideas in the Africa poem.
In a second step I will trace some of these ideas to the rest of OC. They form a coherent pattern of images and concepts, a fascist poetics of the imagination as a totalizing force.
And finally, I will focus on guarded references to fascism in the other poems of the sequence to show how “The Greenest Continent” fits into this covert political pattern.
In a follow-up essay I will try to track some of Stevens’ totalitarian ideas to his other poetry collections from 1935 to 1945. There is so much evidence in these texts that they will have to be dealt with separately.
Much of this will be highly controversial, I know, but Stevens' infatuation with Mussolini has too long been glossed over (Lucas 2001, 745-46).
1. "The Greenest Continent"
A first key to an understanding of all the poems in Owl's Clover is the title of the sequence. Stevens explains: "The [botanical] title refers to the strange mixture of images and symbols [the clover part] with abstract, often political affirmations [the owlish part of the poems]" (L, 311-12; my interpolations).
This is a good example of how Stevens uses words to deflect readers from a hidden meaning, from the properties of the plant (which has nothing to do with poem) and the individual symbolic meanings of the two words that only together designate the plant. The title poses an enigma. But if you cut the clover, you reduce the poems to their political statements.
In the following I have reduced the first (unabridged) version of the
I. What god rules over
II. The heaven of
III. There was a heaven once [in
IV. That was never the heaven of Africa, which had no heaven. If the statue rose … the serpent would draw himself across. No god rules over
V. The angels come. These, Seraphim of
VI. But could the statue stand in
VII. The diplomats of the cafés expound: “… it was a mistake to paint the gods. They [the colors] have no place in the sense of colonists, no place in
VIII. Fatal Ananke is the common god. He looks upon the statue where it is. He sees the angel in the nigger’s mind. Fateful Ananke is the final god. He is that obdurate ruler who ordains for races, not for men … a changeless element.
(Opus Posthumous [OP] 52-60; only the words in brackets are my additions.)
The difficulties in the poem arise from the coded images (who or what, for instance, is the "golden paladin"?), to a lesser degree from the changing voices. But the overall argument is very clear. Europe has lost its god,
In 1940, Stevens explained to a puzzled reader, Hi Simons, that in spite of the many images, the reading of “The Greenest Continent” really could be very easy.
“Your difficulty with this poem is the difficulty of subjugating facts. It is assumed that the South has its own consciousness, its own idea of God, its own imagination (I). The consciousness etc. of the West is delineated (II); the difference between the two is disclosed (III), with some rather crude illustrations (IV); the apparent impossibility of overcoming the difference is stated (V). Yet the poem concludes with what is its point, that if ideas of God are in conflict, the idea of pure poetry: imagination, extended beyond local consciousness, may be an idea to be held in common by South, West, North and East. It would be a beginning, since the heaven of
The images simply “illustrate” the owlish part of the poem:
He thus contradicts the diplomats (who expound that Africans will not think): Ananke "sees the angel in the nigger's mind" and hears the echoes of African songs in European music. Both continents are bound to each other by the inexorable necessity of evolution. They are on different steps of the evolutionary ladder. The poet is a Darwinist.
This does not simply mean taking the long view in bringing
Ananke is not the idea of “pure poetry,” but of necessity. Stevens had found the word in 1934 in a letter from Mario Rosi, “an importation from Italy” (L, 370); here he redirects Simon’s reading of the poem, bringing it in line with his convictions in 1940, after he had written “The Man with a Blue Guitar” (1936) and “Asides on the Oboe” (1940). A lot had happened since Mussolini’s invasion of
Stevens is definitely not on the side of Africans or African Americans who protested against the invasion in the
But Stevens is not clearly on the side of the Fascist invaders, either. Calling the Italian air force "angels", even "seraphim" and the war a comedy of "guns" versus "milkiest bowmen", a spectacle of "concentric bosh", engraved in a da Vinci style demonstrates an imagination "flashed with irony" (OP, 56). One critic has read this section as a possible denouncement of the Fascist invasion (Lucas 2001), another has shown that Stevens is simply cautious. His use of the war as a “permissible subject” may come from his insurance practice. There it is a technical term for lawyers working in that profession (Bates 1985, 128, 155). A third critic has taken refuge to irony himself when characterizing this poem:
The effect created by Stevens reads oddly as a kind of comic extravaganza. Also it does not indicate which side he is on himself ... irony against the Italians or simply indecision … The poet concerned with 'Ideas of Order' can be taken in only too easily by impositions of order outside his natural element of art, and an American poet who had celebrated the ex-European Crispin as pioneer and colonist is only too well aware of the irony of being caught sympathizing over-much with the 'coons and boa-constrictors' being colonized.” (Patke 1985, 63)
If Patke’s reading is legitimate - and I agree with it - a series disturbing questions arise. The final Ananke-section serves to justify the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, however ironically ("Be glory to this lord!"), and if the invasion is just a parable of how to impose one's imagination on others who do not share it, then Stevens's imagery of angels and seraphim for the forces of imagination seems to be rather fitting. After all, they occur throughout his poetry of this phase (1930 to 1947). But this very fitting raises the question, in how far Stevens' poetics of the “rage for order” and the "necessary angel" share traits with the fascist ideology of hero worship and forceful expansion by conquest.
Another more obvious question seems still to be unresolved: How did the
There might be a very simple answer to the question how the African statue got into the sequence of OC. Stevens suggested in his letters: the poem is a kind of reportage, in which he tried to apply his own poetry to what he read in he papers (L, 308, 369).
Now, Mussolini did order a giant statue to be erected near
The marble was imagined in the cold.
Its edges were taken from tumultuous wind
That beat out slimmest edges in the ear,
Made of the eye an insatiable intellect.
Its surfaces came from distant fire; and it
Was meant to stand, not in a tumbling green,
Intensified and grandiose, but among
The common-places of which it formed part …
(OP, 56-57; compare the picture in Bosworth, Plate 14)
Stevens may have referred to the Mussolini’s statue when he wrote to Latimer: “The specific subject is, I suppose, the white man in
Maybe it's time to realize that "the white man in Africa" ironically refers to Mussolini.
2. The Hidden Order in Owl's Cover
Is “The Greenest Continent” a coded celebration of a Mussolini statue? The striking parallel to the rock head in Adowah may be too little to justify a simple answer. One part of an answer lies in the sequence itself, another part is so deeply buried that we need Stevens' elucidations both to Latimer in 1935/36 and to Hi Simons in 1940.
Let us first turn to the evidence in the poems themselves. Stevens constructs a strong unity of the sequence using recurrence of key terms and images. Certain words or their synonyms recur throughout the five poems, as the following table will make clear. (More detailed tables can be found in the APPENDIX)
The symbol system used in Owl's Clover organizes space and time in archetypal or mythic images: center and circle on the one hand, and on the other the cycle of the seasons and the twenty four hours of the day. The dominant symbol for the statue is a ring (of horses). The imagination of the beholder fills the statue with the colors and sounds of its surrounding, the trees, the sky and the birds. Space is structured vertically (earth versus sky), time cyclically, and the colors take us through the cycles of green to brown (season) and white to dark (day and night). The sky as heaven reflects most of these changes through stars and the sun. This symbol system is thoroughly traditional (Durand 1979).
It expresses change. Change of the interaction between imagination and the statue. "Change" is the keyword that unites all five poems in the sequence. It is also the key word for Stevens' emphatic annotation in his letters: “What this poem is concerned with is adaptation to change.” (L, 366) As reality changes so does the imagination. Stevens uses the term “reconciliation” for adaptation to hide its Darwinian associations (L, 366). And Stevens had offered a cyclical philosophy to Hi Simon on how the imagination adapts to changing reality:
I suppose that the way of all mind is from romanticism to realism, to fatalism and then to indifferentism, unless the cycle re-commences and the thing goes from indifferentism back to romanticism all over again. No doubt one could demonstrate that the history of the thing is the history of a cycle. At the moment , the world in general is pushing from the fatalism stage to an indifferent stage ... but what the world looks forward to is a new romanticism, a new belief.” (L, 350)
This moment, again, is 1940 and not 1935/36, and it remains to show that this philosophy already informed OC when it was written. One more thing needs clarification. Stevens makes a distinction between fatalism and indifferentism: “The indifferent does not relate his experience of anything; he accepts les valeurs de père de famille.” (L, 354). Notice, how Stevens collapses “all mind” and “the world” in the quote: both seem to be identical in a vaguely Hegelian or Spenglerian way. (“Ananke is a Spengler word.) We either have a cycle of four or three phases, according to whether we distinguish fatalism from indifferentism, or not.
Let us look at the evidence in the sequence how change in reality affects the imagination.
In “THE OLD WOMAN AND THE STATUE”, the first poem, written before the sequence was conceived, reality, in form of the Great Depression, has made the old woman of the poem indifferent to the statue (and metonymically to art). In the final section, the poet challenges this indifference with a call for a new romanticism that would transform the statue (OP, 44-45)
In “MR BURNSHAW AND THE STATUE,” the second poem, written in response to Burnshaw’s review, which gave Stevens the idea for a set of six or seven statues, the Communist Burnshaw looks at the statue as just a thing. Burnshaw’s imagination is not dead, but he represents the limited view of a realist, who sees only the material res extensa. Again, the poet challenges this view with a more elaborate hymn to imagination (here cast as muses) in terms of a new romanticism of the future. He takes three elaborate sections to do that. But another voice, neither his, no Burnshaw’s, takes a more fatalistic view of the end of the world. The poem relates three of the four possible reactions of the imagination, and merits another closer look. But let us look at the remaining poems first.
In “THE GREENEST CONTINENT” it is fatalism which seems to dominate he whole poem, not only in the Ananke section. The war seems absurd, and colonization is bound to fail, such is much of the realistic appraisal in sections one to seven. But nothing can be done against that obdurate ruler, Fate (OP, 59) who rules both
In “A DUCK FOR DINNER” the realist, a socialist called the Bulgar, encounters another call for a new romanticism, this time claiming the statue for a hero-poet, almost a divinity, “wearing the diamond crown of crowns.” The poet thinks of the future, and “to think of the future is a genius” (OP, 64). Here is Stevens’ portrait of the poet as a major man, leading his people into the future, ranking more highly than Ananke with his crown, as Stevens is careful to point out to Hi Simons (L, 372). In both, the second and the fourth poem framing “The Greenest Continent,” the romantic imagination challenges communist or socialist realism.
In “SOMBRE FIGURATION” the poet takes us to see the future in form of a portent. Again, a kind of fatalism seems to creep in, the portent seems to mean more wars; again, the poet, the statue, the imagination are mobilized to counter such fatalism, but even imagination has an end; the statue remains in humdrum space; and the poet becomes one more medium man joining the others. He becomes indifferent. The sequence ends as it had started: on indifference (OP, 71).
Thus the sequence challenges realism, fatalism and indifference with romantic sections, heavily hung with images, and often hard to understand. Only “The Greenest Continent,” the center-piece of the concentric structure of OC, lacks such a new romantic hymn, praise or effusion, except for the brief outburst to Ananke:
Indifference (Realism (Fatalism) Realism) Indifference.
In his interpretation four years after writing the poem, Stevens called Ananke, the embodiment of imagination or pure poetry (L, 370). Stevens also preferred to think of the statue of the poet as progenitor, in section five of poem four, as the center-piece of his composition (L, 372). Be this as it may, the sequence has more order than it seems at first sight, and its images and concepts form a coherent system that support a central theme: the possible reactions of imagination to change.
I seem to have abandoned the theme of fascism during this structural analysis, but as we will see now, I have only prepared a scaffold for my thesis, that Stevens' defense of fascism as a new romanticism forms a coherent line of argument in OC.
3. The Defense of Fascism in Owl’s Clover
In “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue” Stevens offers his muses a coded plea for fascism as an option superior to communism:
Then, fear a drastic community evolved
From the whirling, slowly and by trial, or fear
Men gathering for a mighty flight of men,
An abysmal migration into a possible blue?“ (OP, 51)
In other words, “drastic community” may stand for “Fascist society,” its marble men for blackshirts, and the “possible blue” for a better Italian future under Fascism. The “new romanticism” may simply b a code word for Italian fascism.
Let me list the evidence from the poems in OC and from the Letters by Wallace Stevens. A lot of the guarded hints in the Letters and a lot of difficult images form a coherent plea to see Mussolini’s
In his letters, Stevens confronts communism as just a kind of “new romanticism” (L, 351), based on the “hope for evolution of what ought to be” (L 367), with another vision of “adaptation” to change:
The first step towards adaptation is to recognize the end, to say farewell and to look forward (part ii). “Apparently, it is to be a future of the mass (III), after a good deal of wreckage. One assumes further that the evolution of what ought to be [communism] is not now in its final stage (as all the world supposes), and that the future of the mass is not an end of the future, but that change is incessant. It is a process of passing from hopeless waste to hopeful waste. This is not pessimism. The world is completely waste, but it is a waste always full of portentous lustres. (L, 367)
This is the message of the solemn voice that answers Mr. Burnshaw in section five of the second poem in the sequence. It is more than an apocalyptic mode (Woodland 2005). For Stevens this could also be the voice of Fascism as he sees it:
Fascism is a form of disillusionment with about everything else. I do not believe it to be a stage in the evolution of the state; it is a transitional phase. The misery that underlies fascism would possibly much vaster, much keener, under any other system in the countries involved at the present time. (L, 295)
So the solemn voice in “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue” has become only a transitional phase, and the adaptation to a more hopeful future is dramatized in the change of the muses. In section four they disclose
“an eternal vista, manqué and gold
And brown, an
Of fear before the disorder of the strange,
A time in which the poets’ politics
Will rule in a poets’ world. (OP, 48)
There will be no room in this
Conceive that marble men
Serenely selves, transfigured by the selves
From which they came, make real the attitudes
Appointed for them and that and that the pediment
Bears words that are the speech of marble men. (OP 52)
Stevens opposes the communist vision of the future with another “new romanticism,” one that borrows from the communist script, but clearly points at
In “A Duck for Dinner” Stevens stages another confrontation with socialism. Again, he rejects “Soviet reclame” (OP, 62) and looks for an alternative. He finds it in the poet who imagines the future, a leader of the mob and lesser men, a creator of a new race:
What man of folklore shall rebuild the world,
What lesser man shall measure sun and moon,
What super-animal dictate our fates?
As the man the state, not as the state the man,
Perennial doctrine and most florid truth; (OP, 63)
Stevens, in his letter to Hi Simons, sardonically explains the underlying view of humanity:
The man of folklore, the lesser man and the super-animal are like the comparisons of an adjective, as, for example, large, larger, largest. The man of folklore is the extraordinary man about whom all sorts of tales are told. The lesser man is a creature extraordinary to such an extent that, being questionable as a man, it is easiest to regard to regard him an animal. The super-animal is not only the animal that the lesser man once was, but is very much more of an animal, which, even though no longer a man, retains something of a man's intelligence. This, I suppose, is a bit of medievalism. (L, 371)
Less a bit of medievalism, than a bit of social Darwinism, connected to a totalitarian idea of political leadership: Who shall dictate the state? And lead the mob? Somebody like Mussolini? Again, Stevens decodes the poetic answer for Simon:
If the future (the hopeful waste about which I was writing the other day) also comes to nothing [1940!], sha'n't we be looking round for some one superhuman to put us together again, some prodigy capable of measuring sun and moon, some one who, if he is to dictate our fates, had better be inhuman, so that we shall know that he is without any of our weaknesses and cannot fail?” (L, 371-72)
As in the
The statue is the sculptor not the stone. (…),
Exceeding sex, he touched another race,
Above our race, yet of ourselves transformed,
Don Juan turned furious divinity,
Ethereal compounder, pater patriae (…) (OP, 64)
As the centric statue forms the behavior of the circulating visitors in the park, so does the poet sculpt his concentric readers, develops them spiritually into a higher race. In spite of the jocular tone, Stevens is serious about this role of the poet. The same conception underlies “The Greenest Continent” and its godless world:
“The extreme poet will produce a poem equivalent to the idea of God. The extreme poet will be as concerned with a knowledge of man as people are now concerned with a knowledge of God. The knowledge of man is the knowledge of good and evil: the extreme poet has knowledge of good and evil.” (L, 369-70)
Stevens admits this is an extreme position for a poet to take. It clearly shows Fascist traits of leadership, dictatorship, hero worship, contempt of the lesser men, racism and Social Darwinism. If this is the “centre-piece” of the whole composition (L, 372), then it subjugates the other poems in the sequence to this longing for an inhuman dictator. From the contempt for the old woman in the first poem, to the drastic community in the second, to the statue of Mussolini in Ethiopia and the progenitor of the race in the fourth runs this idea of the poet as a superman, imposing his imagination even on those who do not want it. “Sombre Figuration”, the last poem in the sequence, returns to this idea of the extreme poet as a lord (OP, 70) who sees the future, before he abruptly relapses into indifferentism, by joining the medium o lesser men.
The point I have been trying to make is that the “drastic community” and “the men of marble” symbolize the Fascist society of
The underlying philosophy is evolutionist. Stevens takes the long view of Ananke. Reality and imagination both change, but imagination changes cyclically. It reacts to changes with romanticism, then realism, followed by cynicism and indifferentism. And indifferentism may lead to a new romanticism. Stevens saw the 1930s as a phase of indifferentism with possibilities for a new romanticism. The poet and his imagination will have an important role to play in this change. Stevens cast his vote for Fascism as the best form of new romanticism.
My guess is: OC took Stevens so long to write – about six months – because the Ethiopian war, together with the challenge from Burnshaw, threw him into an acute ideological crisis about Mussolini and his Fascist ideas. In October, he bluntly asserted the right of Mussolini to invade
Indeed, his note on “Asides on an Oboe” in 1940, where Steven claimed to have replaced the Italian idea of Ananke, with the idea of “fiction” (L, 370) suggests that he continued with his pro-fascist ideas even beyond 1940. He wrote the line “This is the moment to take sides” after Mussolini joined Hitler as an axis power in June 1940.
But this is extending the argument far beyond OC and the years 1935 to 1936. Another article, which I might write, will deal with the evidence that Stevens was an ardent admirer of Mussolini, at least from 1927 on, and continued to be so at least until 1943 or 1944. Here are some of my hypotheses:
Stevens and his major-man poetics share basic ideological and mythological ideas with Italian Fascism. “The Noble Rider” (1940), for instance, celebrates the statue of Colleoni, commonly closely associated with Mussolini; “Youth as a Virile Poet” (1943) may owe to Mussolini’s essay series on “Youth” in the Saturday Evening Post; the virile sun god plays an important role in Fascist, Nazi and Falangist social myths, and “time’s golden paladin” may obliquely refer to the Italian sun god himself. I also suspect some (indirect) connections of the solar hero myth to Evola. As evidence for this and other hunches, I have compiled a “Hero list” and a “Fascist list” (with allusions to contemporary
The new romanticism may turn out to be the search for a “social myth” (
A Preliminary Bibliography
Bates, Milton A. Wallace Stevens. A Mythology of Self.
Bosworth, R. J. Mussolini.
Benamou, Michel. Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination.
Bloom, Harold. “The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens.”
Cleghorn, August John. "The Rhetorician's Touch" An Uncollected Wallace Stevens.
Diggins, John P. Mussolini and Fascism: the View from
Durand, Gilbert. 1979.
Filreis, Alan. Wallace Stevens and the Actual World.
Filreis, Alan. Modernism from Right to Left. Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, & Literary Radicalism.
Halliday, Mark. Stevens and the Interpersonal.
Jameson, Frederic. "Wallace Stevens."
LaGuardia, David M. Advance on Chaos. The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace Stevens.
Legett, B. J. Early Stevens. The Nietzschean Intertext.
Lentrichia, Frank. Ariel and the Police. Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens.
Lensing, George S. Wallace Stevens. A Poets Growth.
Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens. The Plain Sense of Things.
Lucas, James. “Fiction, Politics, and Chocolate Whipped Cream: Wallace Stevens’s ‘Forces, the Will, & the Weather’.” ELH 68 (2001), 745-61.
Monroe, Robert Emmett. "Figuration and Society in Owl's Clover." Wallace Stevens Journal 13,2 (Fall 1989), 127-49.
Nickels, Joel. “Wallace Stevens’ Owl’s Clover and the Dialectic of Deceit.”
Nielsen, Alden Lynn. Reading Race. White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century.
Patke, Rajeev S. The Long Poems of Wallace Stevens. An Interpretative Study.
Perloff, Marjorie. "Revolving in
Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens. 2 vols.
Riddel, Joseph N. The Clairvoyant Eye. The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens.
Stevens, Wallace. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and Imagination.
Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. Ed. Samuel French Morse.
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End of the Mind. Selected Poems and a Play. Ed. Holly Stevens.
Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary Measures. Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry.
Van O'Connor, William. The Shaping Spirit.
Vaught Brogan, Jacqueline. Stevens and Simile. A Theory of Language.
Vaught Brogan, Jacqueline.”'Sister of the Minotaur' Sexism and Stevens.” In: Wallace Stevens and the Feminine. Ed. Melita Schaum.
Vendler, Helen. On Extended Wings. Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems.
Woodland, Malcolm. Wallace Stevens and the Apocalyptic Mode.
Moon-lit, crepuscular, day, night, autumn
Thing, all things, animals, horses, sculptor, mud, horses, statue, thing, horses, sculptor, snouts
Ring of (marble horses), round
Celestial, clouds, autumn, New day, sun,
(ring of) marble horses, plaster,
Musical, chant, music, sounds, sounds, Leaves, rainbow, red
Radiant, gold, brown, adagio
Sun, sky wind, sun and moon, dawn, summer, winter, autumn
Urn, trash can, marble heads, sculptor, horses, urn
colorless light, rose, rose, chant,
Time, Day, summer, wind, summer, all day, CHANGE (4x)
Turquoised, leaves, leafless sound, wind, leaves, chant, sang, sang, Crimson, green, blue
Grass, circle, ring, ring, soil, breathing earth
Sky, day, night, mirror- dark
Statue, statue, heads, marble men, marble men pediment
red, green, BLUE, golden, crimson, light, glassy sound, alto recitation, sharply-colored (glass), sound, storm, wind
The Greenest Continent:
Duck for Dinner:
The versions of the poems:
W. Stevens: Owl's Clover (1936-1937)
"Owl's Clover" (Magazine Versions: “The Old Woman and the Statue.” The Southern Review 1935; “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue” published in American Caravan (1936), three days before the Alcestis edition OP, 297)
Owl's Clover (1936; Alcestis Edition; repr. In OP and in CPP)
Owl's Clover (1937; in Knopf Edition of The Man with the Blue Guitar; abridges “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue” to “The Statue at the World’s End”; repr. In CPP, 152-70).