Friday, March 9, 2012

Stevens Textplication 13: Valley Candle

With its open-ended symbols and enigmatic meaning, “Valley Candle” from 1917 could support many flickering images of Wallace Stevens: the lapsed Christian, the dour aesthete, the atheist preoccupied with death, etc. To me, though, he is always the poet of self and world—an icy documenter of what gets abraded away on either side because of what happens in between. Thus I find a related meaning in the poem:

My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
Then beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.

Most (if not all) commentators believe the candle blows out, or at least that it is ambiguous, as it could be flickering from the wind in a different direction (usually to distinguish the first gust from the second, when it almost assuredly goes out). I don’t agree that a supernatural condition has to be imposed of the candle being blown out by the wind and creating a ghost “image.” In fact I believe Stevens specifically used the word “image” to describe the candle in the second instance to tell the reader that it did not blow out. The discussion is all on why he used that word instead of, say, flame, light or candle. Similarly, “beams of the huge night” has been taken as an elusive and contradictory description that must be understood more in metaphysical than actual terms, when to me it seems strikingly clear, maybe from too many nights alone in the desert, that it is an accurate physical description of stars on a clear night.

The physical action, to me at least, is straightforward. One candle in an immense valley at night (a picture that drips with symbolism, of the illuminating power of the mind or religious spirit, of the immortal soul in the vale of tears, of the singular imagination in the alien world, of the tiny human in the vastness of nature, but we’ll leave that aside)—it neither illuminates nor is swallowed by the “huge night.” Instead the stars (in a lovely verb) “converge” on it. Think of the way a candle sends off its own beams outward and upward when burning, and how those would connect, in the absence of other light, with the dim light rays of the stars. It’s really a precise—albeit poetic—physical description, one that also works metaphorically: the human light and the natural light merge to become one. What changes that communion is the wind. What do the lights need to merge in this way? Complete meditative stillness. The wind disrupts it.

On strictly physical terms, then, we have a scene that could be repeated endlessly, like the proverbial Chinese laundry, the glow of lights united followed by the chaotic scattering of their beams. What gives it distinction as a poem, as alluded to before, is the word “image.” It’s significant that this word is the only one not repeated after the first line of the poem. The wind brings something that diminishes in some way the communion. The Latin definition of “image” is of an artificial, two-dimensional representation of something, not the actual thing. The wind may not have changed in its ebb what is happening between the candle and stars, but it has changed how that relationship is perceived.

I think (thanks John Latta) of Stephen Crane’s poem “Black Riders”: “…truth was to me / A breath, a wind, / A shadow, a phantom, / And never had I touched / The hem of its garment.” The breath of wind, taken as expression creative or otherwise, turns what's real into approximation, taking something away with it. The movement of wind, taken as the forces that uncover and reveal, show that there is something inherently amiss in the one-to-one correspondence between self and world. The truth gives a lesson-ing. It is the soul’s progress that is at issue here, from unconscious celebrant of the divine unities into conscious awareness of the separation between the individual and the whole, seeing the candlelight, as it were, on Plato’s cave wall, as a shadow of the truth and not the truth itself. Once made aware, the inhabitant of Stevens' poems continues to know and cultivate, in the wind, the separation.


Jack said...

The point about what "image" means in Latin was incredibly insightful.

I get a lot from this series.

Tom King said...

I like your reading of this. I thought of Edan St. Vincent Millay's poem about the candle at first, that Stevens may have been referring to it, but if this is 1917 as you say, the it predates her poem (1920 in publication at least):

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

"First Fig"
from A Few Figs from Thistles(1920)

It didn't even occur to me about the stars, such beams of night! I wondered if the poem had something to do with photography, a negative imagery, that night could have beams of blackness. The word "image" suggests a photo. Also the word "until" seems important, because the beams converge only "until." Then what? The wind either blows out the candle or perhaps makes it flicker, creates its own motion.

William A. Sigler said...

Thanks Tom, I like your idea of the photo-negative. I'm sure Stevens was playing with ideas of mechanical reproduction and the whole imagist program. Maybe the "until" ties into that, some kind of wind of change thing. That's the trouble with this particular poem, it lends itself to so many insinuations that it loses the heft of more private things -- like a lot of Yeats with his open-ended "public" meanings. The Millay is interesting in that this is classic romantic imagery, and it probably came from Poe (like everything), perhaps a common source.

I'll probably need your help on "Nuances on a Theme from Williams" which is coming up in a few weeks.