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“Merely in living as and where we live”: Part I

In my previous post, I imagined the thrill of a first encounter with Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” which appeared for the first time in Poetry 100 years ago this month, November 1915. Readers would have encountered Stevens’s “Esthétique Du Mal” for the first time a few decades later — 71 years ago, in the Autumn 1944 issue of the Kenyon Review.

John Crowe Ransom had served as founding editor of the Kenyon Review since its first issue in 1937. In the Spring 1944 issue, he wrote an editorial note that included a letter from a soldier criticizing the intellectual and aesthetic remove that he felt characterized the poetry published by Ransom in the Kenyon Review. “Esthétique Du Mal” was “begun as a response” to that letter; Stevens wrote, “Whatever he [the soldier] may mean, it might be interesting to do an esthétique du mal. It is the kind of idea that it is difficult to shake off.”

Ransom’s editorial note, titled “Artists, Soldiers, Positivists,” asks about “the moral difficulties, or the political and public difficulties, which art always encounters when it begins to manifest its curious luxuriance.” He continues, “In war time, the indulgence which the public extends to the artist, if he would have his person deferred in the draft, is that he may enlist his art. But at any time: what is the public service which art renders, that it should hope for reputation and favor?” He then quotes the letter, which came “recently by photostat from a soldier in the foreign service.” In criticizing the poetry published in the Kenyon Review, particularly T. S. Eliot and Stevens, the letter writer characterizes it as “cut off from pain . . . It is intellectual and it is fine, but it never reveals muscle and nerve.” (He presents Karl Shapiro, John Berryman, and Delmore Schwartz as alternatives who “transcend the aesthetic of poetry.”) He finishes with the following challenge: “I’m waiting for an American poem of the forties called ‘The Quip at the Heart of the Debacle.’ Not magnificent in its ‘orchestration of themes,’ Ransom! Dialectics and self-appointed emendators of the poem will have to go by the board. The condition for approach to the poem will be baptism by fire. I believe there are minds and emotions ripe for that poem. Will they be found in the editors and readers of the Review?”

Stevens’s poem responds to the charge of being cut off from the world’s pain with an “aesthetics of evil,” an “aesthetics of ill.” Stevens scholar Jacqueline Vaught Brogan argues that this and other poems of that time mark a shift in Stevens’s sense of poetic and ethical responsibility in response to war and global concerns. Harold Bloom writes:

Though Stevens dodged the word “humanism,” much of his poetry from 1943-1946 is a humanistic polemic, of which the major text is Esthétique Du Mal of 1944. In a letter to John Crowe Ransom, Stevens worried about the sequence’s title as being not quite accurate, and added, “I am thinking of aesthetics as the equivalent of aperçus, which seems to have been the original meaning.” Stevens thus follows Pater as returning “aesthetic” to its root meaning of “perceptiveness,” and I suspect his uneasiness about the title came from the Baudelairean implications of mal, implications mostly irrelevant to a poem in which what is perceived is not so much willed or chosen evil as necessary evil, the pain and suffering inseparable from a consciousness of self in a post-Christian or Nietzschean world.

Bloom also sees the poem as “against” Eliot, a differentiation of the two minds and aesthetics, which the letter writer had lumped together in his critique.

For me, the poem itself is a response to the letter-writer’s charge, but not a conclusive answer. It begins: “He was at Naples writing letters home / And in between his letters, reading paragraphs / On the sublime.” Is the dramatic persona of the poem the soldier from the letter? Or one of the accused aesthetes?

Richard Allen Blessing writes:

In many ways, the problem of the relation between poetry and pain was an idea which Stevens had not ‘shaken off’ since he began publishing poetry, for “Esthétique Du Mal” is very like “Sunday Morning” . . . in both tone and subject matter. I feel certain that the letter in Kenyon Review had little to do with the form that Stevens’ poem took; all that remains of the soldier’s plea for ‘The Quip at the Heart of the Debacle’ is Stevens’ commitment to the acceptance of the totality of existence, an acceptance which forever precludes the possibility of being ‘cut off from pain.” To look long and steadily at the central mal of the human condition does constitute a kind of ‘baptism by fire.'”

Whether Blessing’s take on the poem and Stevens’s ongoing or awakened concerns would have satisfied the solider is another question.