Friday, May 27, 2011

Stevens Textplication 1: Portrait of Ursula

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of explications of Wallace Stevens’ shorter poems, all taken from the collection The Palm at the End of the Mind. "Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges," written in 1915, is the second poem in that book, and the first poem he wrote to be included in his first collection, Harmonium. Here is the text:

Ursula, in a garden, found
A bed of radishes.
She kneeled upon the ground
And gathered them,
With flowers around,
Blue, gold, pink, and green.

She dressed in red and gold brocade
And in the grass an offering made
of radishes and flowers.

She said, "My dear,
Upon your altars,
I have placed
The marguerite and coquelicot,
And roses
Frail as April snow;
But here," she said,
"Where none can see,
I make an offering, in the grass,
Of radishes and flowers."
And then she wept
For fear the Lord would not accept.

The good Lord in His garden sought
New leaf and shadowy tinct,
And they were all His thought.
He heard her low accord,
Half prayer and half ditty,
And He felt a subtle quiver,
That was not heavenly love,
Or pity.

This is not writ
In any book.

The title, roughly translated from archaic French as “A portrait of Madame Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins,” is ostensibly a reference to the martyred Saint Ursula, a probably apocryphal 11-year old Romano-British princess who was murdered in Cologne by the Huns sometime in the second century on her way at the Pope’s behest to Rome. The 11,000 virgins refers to a monk’s suspicious transcription error than turned the 11 virgins traveling with her who were also murdered into a preposterously large number. The legend of her sainthood has been the subject of much portraiture, but her being married is a new development in the legend apparently originating with this poem. More likely the title is, as so often with Stevens, the stopping off point, the occasion that inspired it, in this case a painting or reference to Saint Ursula in one of the fancy gilded French books Stevens liked to read that may have reminded him of the pious woman in his own backyard. It’s impossible to know, but it’s a cool title, and strangely fits, suggesting how impossible fictions are often recorded as fact in art.

The poem itself has been variously interpreted as erotic, whimsical, sacrilegious and perversely obscure. Most of these interpretations center on God’s mysterious “subtle quiver” in reaction to Ursula’s seemingly commonplace offering. Since God is not responding as he usually does, with “heavenly love” or “pity,” he must be lusting after poor Ursula. Which just goes to show how most critics minds are in the sewers. There is literally nothing in the poem to suggest such an interpretation (save the excessive number of virgins in the title), and such a view would nullify the final line, given the sordid and well-documented history of male dieties lusting after maidens.

What’s more interesting is the straightforward treatment of Christian myth, a true rarity in Stevens, a case where a woman piously prays to God and upper-cased God in the skies responds in more or less the expected way. The first four stanzas are a rhymed but irregularly metered account of a woman discovering radishes growing while gardening, and instinctively combining them with flowers identified only by color (characteristically for Stevens during his Fauve period) as a secret offering to God, in marked contrast to her earlier public offering of the ceremoniously named “marguerite and coquelicot” on an altar. It is this private nature – and apparent humbleness of the gift – that prompts Ursula to weep “for fear that God would not accept.” The unrecorded nature of her act of faith, however, is precisely what makes her gesture so powerful. The key to this in my view lies in the contradictory lines “The good Lord in His garden sought / New leaf and shadowy tinct, / And they were all His thought.” Why would God seek something he already had? The solution lies in the essential Hindu notion that life exists because God wants to discover/rediscover Himself by separating into form. The "new leaf and shadowy tinct" would be the discovery of an aspect of Himself, light and dark, within His thought (which created and is the entire universe). God, in this cosmology, celebrates this re-discovery of things coming back home in his perception with "heavenly love" and compassionate understanding ("pity").

Ursula's act of faith throws a proverbial monkey wrench into this, by creating something unexpected, a wholly new thing, an element that was not originally part of God. Her intention, or more precisely the music Ursula made (“half prayer, half ditty”) while exercising it, created a new, human-formed reality that does not prompt the usual love and pity of the all-watching God, it changes Him, adds something different to the mix, a “subtle quiver.”

“This is not writ / in any book” because the power of Ursula's gesture comes from its private nature; it is a secret from everyone but God (and us lucky readers reading it in Stevens' book). I think Stevens here is reflecting, as he would many times subsequently, on the individual's relationship with the divine, the human ability to create something sacred where it did not exist before. It's a simple poem of faith, in the end, with a poignancy that belies Stevens' cold modern reputation.