Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby: Wallace Stevens’ “Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight”

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Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby is Gray Jacobik’s regular column dedicated to the practice of close reading.

Sometimes I dip my toe in; sometimes it’s total immersion in one of Wallace Stevens’ poems.  Often characterized as philosophical or intellectual, the poet may have meant his readers to think along with him, but inevitably, my rational mind falls asleep and the poem’s argument escapes me, language (semantically, musically) running roughshod over my attempts to carry off something to recall, something that adds up to the nuggets of thought we call “meaning”.  Not always.  Some of Stevens’ poems evocate images that linger, but that’s occasional.

Whatever this skittering effect in reading Stevens is, I’ve been trying to come to terms with it for about three decades, for I do, in fact, enjoy the pleasures of displacement, of slip-sliding away.  Indeed, I can savor only the sense of the poem, and that, the sense of things, is one of Stevens’ favorite ideas, an idea he expresses in these twenty-one lines of blank verse shaped to tercets.

Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight

Say that it is a crude effect, black reds,
Pink yellows, orange whites, too much as they are
To be anything else in the sunlight of the room,

Too much as they are to be changed by metaphor,
Too actual, things that in being real
Make any imaginings of them lesser things.

And yet this effect is a consequence of the way
We feel and, therefore, is not real, except
In our sense of it, our sense of the fertilest red,

Of yellow as first color and of white,
In which the sense lies still, as a man lies,
Enormous, in a completing of his truth.

Our sense of these things changes and they change,
Not as in metaphor, but in our sense
Of them.  So sense exceeds all metaphor.

It exceeds the heavy changes of the light.
It is like a flow of meanings with no speech
And of as many meanings as of men.

We are two that use these roses as we are,
In seeing them.  This is what makes them seem
So far beyond the rhetorician’s touch.

Wallace Stevens
From The Auroras of Autumn

“Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight” sounds like the title of a still life, and yet there’s nothing painterly about Stevens’ rhetorical approach to his subject.  “Say,” “metaphor,” “meanings” and finally, “rhetorician’s touch” provide strong clues.  The reader is given the object of perception primarily through the title: a direct presentation––vaguely sketched––characterized only by color: “black reds,” “Pink yellows, orange whites”, and then at the end of the third stanza and beginning of the fourth, that red is qualified as “the fertilest red,” “the yellow as first color and of white”.  No shapes, stems, leaves, buds, vase, setting (other than a room); no texture or atmosphere; no dramatic action other than the movement of a mind.  Considering all that is not said about this bouquet, the poem expands in its mystery.   How, I wonder, did Stevens get so much silence in?  Silence and absence.

The first-person plural speaker (“We are two that use these roses as were . . “) begins with a proposition (“Say that it is a crude effect . . .  “), but then immediately he turns to surmising notions from that proposition. The bouquet of roses are “too much as they are/To be anything else”.  Imagination (in the form of “metaphor”) cannot change them.  To imagine some thing about the roses and to give form to that imagined thing, would be to create something of lesser value than the roses themselves.

Making metaphors that attempt, though analogy, to bridge the gap between what is “Too actual” and what is “not real” is not going to give us the thing itself.  What Stevens does (because it is the only thing he can do) is write about the “effect” that is “a consequence of the way/We feel” when we behold the black-red and pinkish-yellow and orange-white roses in sunlight.  Feelings are not real, the sense of a thing is not real, so therefore, while weighing his moral estimation of what constitutes ethical speech, the poet says this poem because it is about “our sense of it” and not about the bouquet of roses.

Some might interpret this poem as a critique of the limits of language and see the central trope as irony––verbal irony.  I don’t think it is: I consider Stevens to be utterly sincere and to be striving assiduously to say in the most precise terms possible, what it is impossible to say.  That’s the joy of it  .  .  . to go along with him as he is present to this struggle.

Where this poem becomes truly interesting is in the sixth stanza, for here the poet does the very thing he knows cannot change our sense of the real, he invents a metaphor (constructed as a simile):

It is like a flow of meanings with no speech
And of as many meanings as of men.

What a vision this is!  A vision of meaningful, infinitely various babble or mumblings, or . . . what? . . . . sub-auditory vibrations beyond speech.  It is as if the poet is standing at the nexus of all human signals across time and space.  We cannot conceive of “meanings with no speech” because instantaneously we form thoughts and begin speaking to ourselves, if not to others.  Of course, the metaphor breaks down: it is incomprehensible except that it presents us with “a sense of” what “exceeds” any attempt to form “imaginings”:

Our sense of these things changes and they change,
Not as in metaphor, but in our sense
Of them. So sense exceeds all metaphor.

The poem concludes with a metonym, “the rhetorician’s touch” which I think refers to the process of writing, or of forming a cogent argument, for a purpose.  The sense of the roses is beyond the rhetorician’s capacity to make use of them as the “two that use these roses”.  Their use exists “In seeing them.”  The rhetorician makes a lesser thing of the roses because his purposes are reductive: any act beyond simply “seeing them” has to be reductive from Stevens’ perspective.  Behind this is the idea, I suspect, that the truth used becomes a lie. One cannot make hay (of any sort) of the truth: one can only be present to it––can only take away a “sense of it”; just as I, in these slip-sliding poems of Stevens’ can only take away a sense of them.

I bring up the “truth” because Stevens does in stanzas three and four. Here’s the sentence:

And yet this effect is a consequence of the way
We feel and, therefore, is not real, except

In our sense of it, our sense of the fertilest red,

Of yellow a first color and of white,
In which the sense lies still, as a man lies,
Enormous, in a completing of this truth.

This image of an enormous man lying down and thinking––or of a man lying down who is considering the enormity of existence (or both!)––is a recurring one in Stevens’ oeuvre.  Yet here, “the sense lies still” in the same manner “as a man lies [still]”: both the man’ sense of the bouquet and the bouquet itself permit (or give access to) the possibility of “a completing of his truth.”

This is such a traditional Romantic notion of the relationship between the object of perception and the perceiver: the dialectical relationship between the self and non-self.  It was Goethe’s idea that we can only know ourselves in so far as we know the world, and vice versa, and that each object contemplated in the right way develops a new organ of perception in us. (Today we might explain this by saying that a new neural pathway fires in the cerebral cortex).   The fundamental idea is the same here as the one Coleridge got from Goethe, Emerson from Coleridge, and Stevens from Emerson (among other sources ––- Fichte and Schnelling to mention two).  The idea?  The reciprocal formation of truth that arrives because of the interpenetrating forces that radiate out of both the perceiver (the subject) and the perceived (the object).  Being an aged hippie, I feel these forces as “vibes” but you might think of them as radiating auras or pulsations if you like.  The mind (or self) perceiving nature accounts for half of the vibes, the object (in this case the bouquet of roses in sunlight) sends out the other half of the vibes.  There’s a catalyzing agent which Coleridge calls “the primary imagination,” that [WARNING: gross simplification!)  takes these two colliding forces and synthesizes them into a third transcendent energy (a higher vibe).

I’ve never been quite able to figure out how the primary imagination differs from simple imagination, but I suspect that today we might describe the required state of mind as simply being present with a minimum of mental chatter beclouding the perception of the roses “as they are”.  Imagine large, rotund Wally lying on his living-room couch, gazing at a vase of roses caught in sunlight. Elsie is reading the paper in an armchair:  “We are two who uses these roses as we are”. Especially important:  one is not trying to make them mean anything, or stand for anything else; they are not symbols, they are not to be anthropomorphized in anyway, they “seem/So far beyond the rhetorician’s touch.”

I go into all this about the dialectical/reciprocal formation of truth and the role of the primary imagination because I suspect these ideas come to light in the stanzas three and four: The “red” is now “the ferilest red,” and the white and yellow of the roses are perceived “as first color”–– ideal, primary, original.  This is the perfect rhetorical move for Stevens to have made: it shifts the ground of the poem into a transcendental realm the second time these colors appear.

Stevens seems to have enjoyed facing the difficult dilemma of writing a poem knowing that, when it comes to the actual, “sense exceeds all metaphor” and it “exceeds the heavy changes of the light.” He loves struggling to come to terms with the limitations of language. He succeeds, though, at least in “Bowl of Roses in Sunlight” and quite often: his speaker becomes the Zen Master whose finger points to the Moon, directing our gaze, gesturing toward, as Wittgenstein put it so succinctly, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Tractatus Logical-Philosophicus).

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