We saw in “Gubbinal” the first appearance in Stevens of the reader of the poems, a consciousness alien to that of the poet with a different imaginative agenda. In “The Snow Man” we saw how the reality of that observer was locked within an imaginative recasting impenetrable as ice. In “Tea in the Palaz of Hoon,” the last of a 1921 trilogy of poems that pre-figure Stevens’ later work, this insight is extended to the poet himself, as he looks upon all his sees as something he has, in fact, created. The profoundly social ceremonial sharing of tea done in many cultures becomes, for him, a solitary and unshareable affair, except of course in the otherworldly iambics of the poem, which reads as follows:
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
The stunning first stanza takes personification of the sunset to a new extreme in the Anglo-American poetic tradition. Here the speaker IS the sunset, descending in a king’s robes through the western side of the sky, so intimately does he feel it. Despite the interiority, there is a social dimension, an implied judgment of the purple color (rich, noble, but also excessive), and an unnamed “you” who judges the twilight to be lonely. Nonetheless, nevertheless, “not less”, he feels singularly himself. The note is not of an ego subsuming everything else, but of a being feeling at long last justified in claiming “I exist” and being able to push away the pressure from other people to think or act a certain way about something.
At this insight, he is immediately bedecked with ancient spiritual symbols of purity and grace: ointment on his beard, hymns he can hear. Yet he is confused where this physical epiphany came from, what “tide swept through me” just now, and “what sea” he now finds himself beholding.
The third stanza seems like an answer: I brought this all on myself. But it is really him continuing to ponder the questions posed in the second stanza. And the provisional solutions don’t make any logical sense: a mind (an abstract function) cannot rain, inside or out, and ears do not create music in any conventional sense. The truth as he’s analyzing it does not match the truth as he experienced it. Yet “the compass”, the measurement, understanding, or sense of direction, clearly did come from inside himself.
There’s a colon at the end of the third stanza, like a classic philosophical theorem, implying that the final stanza will be the logical conclusion. The first two lines of the stanza do carry the thought to a general proposition that restates quite plainly what he has just experienced: maybe not the thing itself, but all his thoughts and feelings and sensings of it came from within his own consciousness, to the point where it couldn’t be said to really exist apart from his perception of it. This is a concept as ancient as pre-Socratic philosophy, and as contemporary as New Age self-help books like The Secret. Despite this lineage, the ancient spiritual principle conflicts with our programming that we are small, dependent and clueless before an indifferent and (what many insist) meaningless world. Thus, the speaker guardedly (and I might say beautifully) asserts how he “walked” in this world, and how everything “came not but from himself.” Still, there was no other explanation (really, officer).
As if to remind us of the limits of philosophy (and that poetry is not so limited), he inserts a semi-colon to this conclusion, and in the final line leaps to an extra-logical revelation: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” What we have here is the actual moment of enlightenment, not the fake kind provided by the mind and its attendants who think the sky is lonely, but a mystical apprehension of a deeper reality that can only come in a moment of extrasensory inspiration. It’s a state of oneness with all, where everything is him and he is everything, and he realizes in a flash not only that all he needs is inside his little noggin, but that he never understood before how very wide he was. He contains, like Walt Whitman, multitudes. As such, his journey is just beginning.
Near as I can tell, neither “palaz” nor “hoon” are actual words.* They are, however, quite clear in the context they are being used, a fantasized palace where the speaker sits in the luxury of an imagined tea ceremony, only to realize he’s made the whole thing up, and my, what a vision of reality it ended up being. Stevens revisits this mysterious hoon (clearly a synecdoche for himself, at least as persona) 14 years later, in one of his greatest poems, “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz,” where he reflects:
“Too many waltzes have ended. And then
There’s that mountain-minded Hoon,
For whom desire was never that of the waltz,
Who found all form and order in solitude,
For whom the shapes were never the figures of men.
Now, for him, his forms have vanished.”
And there’s this, from “Bantams in Pine-Woods” in 1922:
“An inchling … fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos”
“Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” richly conveys the moment of enlightenment—like a disciple being hit on the head in a Buddhist teaching—and it does so in a conscious, human way, along the way suggesting so many tropes, memes, associations and feelings it is impossible to do them justice. The individual reader can quite readily and quite personally savor its wideness. Yet it is the narrowing of vision that Stevens accomplishes here that makes this poem significant. We see in this “aha moment” the seed for the man questioning the world mindset that is the hallmark of the great poet Stevens would become.
* The etymology of hoon as an actual word is quite interesting, albeit Stevens himself was almost certainly unaware of it, given that he didn’t live in Australia. A portmanteau of “hooligan” and “goon”, it is an official word in Australia and New Zealand connoting “anyone who engages in loutish, anti-social behaviours. In particular, it is used to refer to one who drives a car or boat in a manner which is anti-social by the standards of contemporary society, i.e. too fast, too noisily or too dangerously.” The wiki entry provides other interesting details.