Friday, August 10, 2018

Stevens Texplication #45: Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks

“Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks” was one of the last poems written for Stevens’ first book of poems, Harmonium. In fact, this 1923 poem was one of only seven (out of 74) that made their first appearance in that volume. As such it has been commented on, with its obscure first-person narrative and obviously poetic symbolism, as an expression of Stevens’ poetic vocation. However, none of the commentary (that I’ve read, at least) captures what makes the ideas and symbols contained in it worthy of expression in a poem. Below, after the poem itself, is an attempt to delineate what makes it uniquely a poem.

               In the moonlight
  I met Berserk,
               In the moonlight
               On the bushy plain.
               Oh, sharp he was
               As the sleepless!

               And, "Why are you red
               In this milky blue?"
               I said.

               "Why sun-colored,
               As if awake
               In the midst of sleep?"

               "You that wander,"
               So he said,
               "On the bushy plain,
               Forget so soon.
               But I set my traps
               In the midst of dreams."

   I knew from this
               That the blue ground
               Was full of blocks
               And blocking steel.
               I knew the dread
               Of the bushy plain,

               And the beauty
               Of the moonlight
               Falling there,
               Falling
               As sleep falls
               In the innocent air.

Readers familiar with Stevens’ tricks will recognize the blue moonlit nighttime as indicative of the imagination (particularly poetic imagination), and the red sun as representative for the too-harsh intrusion of ordinary reality. Thus, at the most basic level, there is a conflict enacted in the poem between imagination and reality, in that the fear evoked by reality almost but not quite ruins the vague but beautiful nighttime world of the imagination.

The real in this fable is a figure named Berserk. Some commentators have noted the Old Norse derivation of this word (which came into English from poet Sir Walter Scott in 1822), beserkir, as the crazed state of frenzy Vikings drove themselves into in order to be ready for battle. Few if any have noted the etymological significance of naming the figure Berserk:

It was anciently believed that the persons who were liable to this frenzy were mysteriously endowed, during its accesses, with another strange body of unearthly strength. If, however, the Berserk was called on by his own name, he lost his mysterious form, and his ordinary strength alone remained. [Thorkelin, "Notes and Queries on the Kristni Saga," Dec. 28, 1850

The narrator does precisely that, identifying him by name on his initial meeting. Thus, the supposed power Berserk has is immediately reduced, giving the narrator the ability to see him more clearly, despite the dimness of night. The speaker notices he is sharp, red, sun-colored, polar contrasts to what otherwise populates the night: the sleepy, the blue, the moonlit. More than notice, he bravely confronts the threatening figure by asking him why he stands out so much in the dark.

Berserk’s answer is unexpected: “You that wander … / On the bushy plain / Forget so soon.” The accurate observation of the wanderer/seeker is, in fact, an illusion, created out of forgetting what he once knew. Oblivion created the netherworld of imagination. We may perceive it as real, but it is (as similarly detailed in “Hymn for a Watermelon Pavilion”) nothing more than a dream state, where our only perception of the real is as a dim force opposing us, like the distant sounds of alarms in sleep.

Not to worry. Berserk has a felicitous solution: “I set my traps / In the midst of dreams.” This warrior won’t confront the enemy while sleeping, he won’t even enter the battlefield, but will instead lure the hunted to their doom in their own dream. In other words, reality will track down and kill any attempts to escape by way of imagination.

The remainder of the poem is a reflection on that disclosure. “I knew from this / That the blue ground / Was full of blocks / And blocking steel.”  Certainly the knowledge that undetectable traps were lying in wait no matter where the speaker goes changes his perspective. Reality could at any time destroy the imaginative world. Thus the speaker “knew the dread / Of the bushy plain.”

But he also knew how, as Stevens put it in “Sunday Morning”, “death is the mother of beauty.” The threat made imagination, because more fragile and illusory, more valuable. “The beauty / Of the moonlight / Falling there, / Falling / As sleep falls / In the innocent air.” It poignantly continues to exist, despite living under constant existential threat.

This narrative arc puts the pieces into place in a more-or-less satisfying way, but many troubling questions remain. Why is the real portrayed as a figure of such violence? Why did it enter the supposedly mutually exclusive world of dreams in the first place? Why does it try to sabotage the world of imagination, seemingly for its own good? How is the speaker the only one who seems to know imagination is doomed? And what should we as readers feel about imagination’s defeat?

Answers to these questions emerge when we color in some detail to these shadowy tropes. Berserk is not simply a representation of the real, but of what can be termed the poetic real. Obvious similarities, in the word berserk, to the frenzied state of those in the throes of poetic inspiration have led more than a few commentators to see Berserk as a symbol of poetic abandon. As opposed to the muse of To the One of Fictive Music, he is the wild man poet who imposes his will on the imaginative dreamscape to produce tangible works of art. Without this protean figure, the real world of poetry would forget every epiphany as soon as it woke from its dream. The comparison to the bloodthirsty Vikings, and his calm admission he hunts the sleeping are indications that this poetic presence is complicit in all manner of violence. Imagine that force animating, for example, the poet trying to put together his first volume for the world’s approval: How the words said would subsume those unsaid, the poems written would trample on the ones that came before, the poets who are read would deprive the others of air. The very act of asserting one’s authority is an act of war. That Stevens’ refers directly to the act of publication can be found in the strange term “blocks.” This word has many distinct meanings, of course, but what if it meant a specific one: “a piece of wood or metal engraved for printing on paper or fabric”? Taken literally, that would mean printing one’s poems would be the “trap” that threatens the truly poetic.

This reading localizes the subsequent passage (about knowing the dread on the bushy plain, and the beauty of how the moonlight falls there innocently like sleep) to show – rather than merely say – the value of the poetic state of mind (as opposed to poetry as a form of expression): How vulnerable it is to the outside world, how innocent of human ambition, how it always falls from our understanding as if its truth must escape any encounter with our rapacious minds. The world is full of poetry, as Stevens so often noted. Actual poems and the books that contain them, on the other hand, don’t get the same honor or attention from him (he claimed at one point, in fact, not to read any other poets). This poem beautifully captures Stevens’ wistfulness towards a time when he was not a “working” poet, when the world was free to express itself truthfully, without his trapping filter.

For the reader, it is the sense that true poetry must be invisible that allows us to feel at last how it animates everything. It is of the essence of poetry – preserved poetry that is – to note how the most profound beauty is that which is lost, denied, or behind a veil. The Prince of Peacocks may grab attention by strutting poetic colors, but it is only in the private dark that the beauty can transmute to the divine.

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