Saturday, August 29, 2009

“Of the Surface of Things”

This was supposed to be the Weekly Poem last Saturday, until I got in a snit over the news & fell into a bit of a funk that I could only resolve by posting "pity this busy monster, manunkind." This week, I’m back on my feet, psychologically speaking (“psychological feet”—now there’s a concept), so I’m posting this poem from Wallace Stevens’ 1923 collection, Harmonium.

It's a truism, no doubt, that “Of the Surface of Things” is deceptively simple, especially in its sort of “anti-poetic” diction & its apparently plain-spoken manner. Stevens seems to be having a bit of a joke at his own expense in the very “poetical” line, “The spring is like a belle undressing”; otherwise, the poem appears pretty matter-of-fact, & taken in by its prosaic syntax, we may encounter quite a shock when we reach the third stanza.

Questions that seem relevant to me:

  • Is the tree gold or blue “on the surface?”
  • Is “the singer” the speaker (the “I” of stanzas one & two) or someone else?
  • What is the relationship of the world that “consists of three or four/Hills and a cloud” to the world where “The gold tree is blue” & “The moon is in the folds of [the singer’s] cloak”? Is the latter stanza a transformation of the first stanza—or is it a deliberate “poeticizing,” such as “The spring is like a belle undressing.”

I don’t have “the answers,” really, but the poem intrigues me. Hope you enjoy it.

Of the Surface of Things

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
Hills and a cloud.

From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
'The spring is like a belle undressing.'

The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.

Wallace Stevens


  1. What a lovely poem to start my day! I have no answers, but some suggestions. I wonder if the third stanza isn't a movement into night. In the light of the moon, things often take a bluish cast; the singer/poet/speaker is finished for the day and pulls the cloak of night, which contains the moon, over his head. Very literal and simple - but not at all, really.

    Of course, what Stevens meant by this poem and what it means to me are very different things. We're both right. That's the beauty of poetry.

  2. Hi Karen:

    I think you're onto something there--of course the "surface of things" literally changes a good deal in the night. Thanks!

  3. He was a handsome devil wasn't he? :)

    This poem seems a bit voyeuristic, to me, as if we are given a little glimpse of his writing process.
    And maybe his frustration with it...

    Leaving his room for greater understanding he comes up short...

    Back to the balcony, maybe a little lonely and a tad bit more frustrated?

    The gold tree? A euphemism for inspiration, perhaps? Not very inspiring this day? The singer (him) calls it a night pulling the cloak over his head hoping to be inspired by dreams and imagination ( the moon)...

    Like the truth
    The poem is out there...

    Of course I could be completely wrong about this :)

    Peace - Rene

  4. "In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
    But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
    Hills and a cloud."

    And so our world becomes known to us when we partake of its movement within ourselves, when we allow exploration, so comes the discovery of ourselves beyond confine, beyond the limitations that we unknowingly impose, so out of the "room" out of the confined perceptions and alas our world expansive becomes known.

  5. I got here to find that Karen has made my point - the third stanza is at night, when everything is a shade of grey - or, well, blue, possibly, in moonlight.

    Re the first stanza, I often get that feeling: indoors I'm oblivious to things, outside I suddenly realise what it is to exist.

  6. "The gold tree is blue"...prior to reading other post, my thoughts thought it was a reference to sadness...."feeling blue". But the night time reference was a good one.

    and as Karen said....the meanings are very diffent and correct for each

  7. Hi Rene, Rose Marie, Dominic & Heather

    Rene: Love your line, "like the truth, the poem is out there." Stevens was a bit of a dandy when he was young; most people recognize him from shots taken from middle age on.

    Rose Marie: Very good point about the move out of the room beginning a widening perception.

    Dominic: There are a few opposites here--interior/exterior, day/night, prosaic/poetic. Glad you enjoyed this.

    Heather: This is definitely a poem that allows for different readings. Glad you liked it!

  8. Watching the news can be hazardous to your health, John. I'm glad you are feeling better.

    I have written three comments on the poem and erased them all. It is what it is. I like that.

  9. Hey Sandra:

    That's a very pithy coda! Amen on that news comment--& I don't watch, but sometimes stuff overtakes me on the internet.


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