Thursday, June 30, 2011

Stevens Textplication 5: Disillusionment at Ten O'Clock

Stevens once wrote, in a letter the details of which escape me, that he was a pure poet, or at least more of one than in his prolific later years, during his youth, before he wrote any verse to speak of, because he was "all feeling." I think of that when I read "Disillusionment at Ten O'Clock" from 1915, the first of his short poems to be heavily anthologized. It's easy to see why, for the poem is crystal clear compared to most of Stevens' work, and adds humor to the usual elegance for an intoxicating effect. Here's the poem:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

The literal meaning of this is fairly easy to dispense with. The speaker is disillusioned at his ten o'clock bedtime by the (for want of a better term) bourgeois lack of imagination in the people going to sleep with him at that customary time. Their final rituals before falling asleep, the donning of plain and uniform white nightgowns, do not give them a place to go to in their dreams, for their lack of imagination, represented by the exotic colors and frills they emphatically do not have, denies them the inspiration from which to construct the dreams that make life interesting (visions of baboons and periwinkles). This sense of "normal" people's ghost-like "quiet desperation" is contrasted with the old sailor, who has no ritual of social propriety at all being "drunk and asleep in his boots," but at least through his willingness to travel the world and derange his senses lives an exciting life in his dreams, one that "catches tigers in red weather."

We all can relate to that feeling of unease when all that's left of the day is to fall asleep. The comfortable and familiar surroundings sometimes remind us that life's excitement has passed us by in another busy day of working, and perhaps we wonder if this is all there is to life, if there's something else we could be doing. It's what Stevens does with this feeling that is so striking here. He doesn't pick up a book to maybe get lost in the fantasy of it, he looks coldly around at what is actually happening. His account of it, though, is, to say the least, ironic. Houses being haunted by white night gowns is anything but an unimaginative image - it's hilarious and creepy at the same time, like the best horror movies. And these colors of the night-gowns that aren't there, purple and green, green and yellow, yellow and blue; those are really not that hard to imagine, even with rings, in fact it's pretty easy to conceive of someone going to the store to buy them if it's so important, isn't it? And why are socks with lace and belts with beads ("beaded ceintures") considered "strange" in a middle-class boudoir circa 1915? Meanwhile, in contrast to all the colors and things presented as being so impossible, unattainable, "red weather," a virtually unintelligible concept, is presented as a tangible fact, plain as night.

Clearly Stevens has some of his usual bags of tricks up his sleeve. The critique of the sleeping-wear is not a complaint about the conventionality of his neighbors or himself so much as a personal cry about the bareness of life when stripped down to its essentials. Even when imaginatively re-created with ghost-story metaphors and conjured alternatives, reality just does not suffice, its dreams seem like death. The speaker longs for a world of pure imagination, where he can be that old sailor with dreams like Jack London stories who is "here and there" (implying that there is more than one sailor, or at least that he is a state of mind, maybe a dream himself). There is a glimmer in this, in something the speaker does not know like he knows his bedtime accouterments - the thing unknown, that must be imagined, is the only thing that matters, the only thing that seems real.

And what of the "red weather"? Now's as good a time as any to discuss Stevens' frequent use of color during this period. The place to start in this is to recall the color revolution in painting from the late 19th century to about the time this poem was written. The Fauves and then the Expressionists took colors out of their realistic context and amplified them on the canvas, as a way to express personal emotional states, move away from representation toward abstract pictorial qualities, or simply show what something really looked liked in a confluence of light and perspective. Poets like Stein and Apollinaire struggled to find a verbal equivalent to this disjointing of reality from expression. To a poet like Stevens, whose muse dictated a strict separation of reality, perception and expression, the use of colors must have seemed an opportunity to move away from meaning itself as painters moved away from their customary role of representation. Colors like white, red and green, freighted with an agreed-upon (or not agreed-upon) symbolism, don't actually "mean" anything, they, like dream images, take on the qualities the reader comes to them with. Colors are the perfect example, in fact, of subjective meaning. They don't express the point of view of the writer, but of the reader.

Symbolist poets prized colors for the way they revealed primordial ideals behind the surface of things for writer and reader to share,* but Stevens found no such comfort in any objective shared reality beyond the power of individual imagination. In this poem, for all of these reasons, colors become the unnameable, the tao between subject and object. The green nightgowns and red weather represent qualities that can't be expressed and can't be understood, but nevertheless are expressed and understood across incommunicable poles. Meaning is created, in other words, not communicated, and the means of the creation is the imaginative faculties. "Music is feeling then, not sound" Stevens wrote in another poem from 1915, "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (which also uses lots of inexplicable color). This use of color, and this expression of the distance between consciousnesses, is something that will continue and grow in Stevens' work.

*"A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles" (A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels) - Rimbaud, Voyelles