Friday, June 24, 2011

Stevens Textplication 4: The Silver Plough-Boy

Ezra Pound has so well trained us to view images as pictures and not as symbols – the lily, say, as sensuous flower and not harbinger of death – that poems written in the “high modernist” style – clipped, that is, of the purple Victorian moralizing (along with the marching orders of meter and rhyme) – can be challenging to read when they utilize traditional forms of allegory. "The Silver Plough-Boy" from 1915 (along with others from Stevens such as "Earthy Anecdote", "Anecdote of a Jar" and "Life is Motion") uses stripped-down images and plain phrasing to dramatize through the dynamism of its poetic action a kind of philosophical musing on the metaphysical relationship between man and reality. One of three poems excluded from the 2nd edition of Harmonium (and thus from the Collected Poems), "The Silver Plough-Boy" was resuscitated for The Palm at the End of the Mind selection by Holly Stevens, the poet’s daughter, and it's a fine poem:

A black figure dances in a black field.
It seizes a sheet, from the ground, from a bush, as if spread there by
some wash-woman for the night.
It wraps the sheet around its body, until the black figure is silver.
It dances down a furrow, in the early light, back of a crazy plough, the
green blades following.
How soon the silver fades in the dust! How soon the black figure slips
from the wrinkled sheet! How softly the sheet falls to the ground!

The literal movement of the poem – a "plough-boy" dancing at night, wrapping himself in an available sheet of laundry, plowing playfully (and perhaps backwards), and then sloughing off the sheet as morning comes, all the while dancing – is rendered so abstractly we are invited to view the presentation as something else entirely. “A black figure dances in a black field” it begins ominously, and never is the “person” in the title identified beyond the geometrical description. There are virtually no adjectives to qualify this strange scene, and the ones that are there (the “crazy plough”, its “green blades”, the suddenly “wrinkled sheet”) seem imaginative to the point of perversity. One is tempted to view the figure not as a person at all but as a metaphoric description of the way moonlight moves across the ground at night, dancing like a sheet, flowing into furrows, reflecting light on the blades that are green with the grass they have mowed, and dissolving all-too-perfectly as the morning sun rises. Why then is the figure black, the plough crazy, the sheet wrinkled?

Then there’s the elegiac quality to this scene despite its playfulness; the associations with death (burial sheets, black figures, the plough that could dig a grave, the dust), the “how soon” repetition at the end and its cadence of mourning. But the mourning is for the sheet, not for the presumably human figure, who dances away very much alive and unrecognized by the reader.

I think the key to “elucidating” this poem lies in first understanding that Stevens, no matter what images he uses, is typically only concerned with one topic, the dichotomy between reality and imagination. Bernard Heringman, in his essay “Wallace Stevens: The Use of Poetry” (English Literary History XVI, Dec. 1949, pp. 325-336), puts it this way:

“The world of Wallace Stevens’ poetry has always been two, ‘things as they are’ and ‘things imagined.’ The dichotomy has been so constant that certain terms are stock symbols of the two realms. The moon, blue, the polar north, winter, music, poetry and all art: these consistently refer to the realm of imagination, order, the ideal. The sun, yellow, the tropic south, summer, physical nature; these refer to, or symbolize, the realm of reality, disorder, the actual.”
Getting back to the symbolic or allegorical nature of this poem, we can easily substitute night for winter, silver for blue, dancing for music, the mysterious sheet for writing/poetry, plowing at night for creating/cultivating art, to see the actions of the black figure as acts of imagination. Accentuating this is the fact that the seven brightest stars in the Ursa Major constellation, called the Big Dipper in the U.S., is called the Plough in England and other parts of the English-speaking world (it’s elsewhere called the Big Bear and the Handle, among other imagined pictures). In other words, the star group that wheels about Polaris the North Star, reliably helping us locate it, is in this poem as well, identified as “crazy” (yet another term for the imaginative mindset).

Thus this short poem is full of touchstones to Stevens’ conception of the imagination, which as usual for Stevens goes beyond merely creating a work of art to creating oneself and what is all around one through the transformative powers of imagination. Let’s now follow with this in mind the dynamic of the poem. First, the black figure who is dancing in a black field feels the need to grab a sheet, to distinguish itself from the blackness it had become absorbed into, to shield itself, to take on the nature of something else. There is a need, in short, to be separate. The sheet that provides the separation, that turns the figure silver, also allows the figure to be visible. It allows everything it touches, in fact – the furrow, the plough and its blades – to be visible, like an aura around its dance. It’s like the black figure, by assuming the mask of the sheet, creates its own light, one that reveals beauty that would otherwise be unseen.

What is created here is a new self behind the gauze of silver, an imaginatively transformed self, like Stevens’ later “major man.” It is this new figure we mourn when the sunlight comes, the silver becomes invisible, the figure, still black, throws off the sheet like the poet would toss a crumpled/wrinkled piece of paper, and it falls to the ground so softly it’s like it was never there in the first place. There is no place in reality – “the light of day” – for the imagination. Its products never existed at all. Yet they did – something magical and inexplicable, like a vision of a mystic truth beyond our understanding. The contradiction is one that Stevens will come back to wrestle with time and time again.