Exploring the Nature of Existence: An Analysis of Wallace Stevens' The Plain Sense of Things

By Claire E. Tuchel
2013, Vol. 5 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

In his poem “The Plain Sense of Things,” Wallace Stevens strikes out in a direction that differs greatly from the established norms and expectations of before the Modernist era. Stevens, at times, moves against traditions such as iambic pentameter, structured stanzas and rhyme schemes, while at the same time relying on some of these structures to guide the reader through this poem. He further distances himself from other poets by obliquely investigating philosophical concepts in this poem and while he does rely on some imagery to communicate large, abstract concepts in relatable ways, much of this poem is devoted to probing the reader’s thoughts, attempting to spur some deep questions from the audience by puzzling over a few mysterious ideas, after expanding them into grand images.

The first stanza of “The Plain Sense of Things” has a balanced rhythm, with each line containing rhythm that hints at iambic pentameter; the first line contains five stressed and five unstressed syllables, immediately triggering a sense of familiar, regular, iambic pentameter. This largely formulaic start establishes the structure expected of poems written for centuries preceding Modernism, in order to deviate from those expectations throughout the remaining four stanzas of the poem. The first line, which reads “After the leaves have fallen, we return” (1), immediately draws in the reader, as the trochee on “After” brings immediate emphasis to the line; it also orients the reader, subtly acknowledging the events that precipitated the falling of the leaves, implying that this particular moment of clarity for the speaker is perhaps the result of a lengthy search, spanning multiple seasons.

The word “plain” carries many definitions: simple, clear, and not beautiful among them. The “plain sense of things” here could mean the easy, understandable sense of things; it can also mean the harsh and unembellished side, now that the decorative leaves are gone. This opening line also hints at possible poetic themes: “After the leaves have fallen” places the poem in late autumn or winter, times symbolic of dormancy and death. The enjambment at the end of the first line pulls the reader onto the second, where the reader and speaker “return/To a plain sense of things” (1-2), and two unstressed syllables lead into the spondee of “plain sense.” This emphasis forces the reader to slow down and focus. The simple diction of the first two lines keeps them approachable, which is especially effective when paired with what the lines themselves have to say. The reader is able to rest here, before being introduced the more complicated ideas to come.

The second half of the second line goes into enjambment once again, with “It is as if” ending abruptly, leaving the reader to ask “as if what?” before moving briskly into the third line. Here the all-important “as if” allows the speaker to dive into his/her own thoughts on what this “plain sense of things” is, while at the same time being careful not to alienate the reader, who is free to agree with or disregard the speaker’s point. The third line, “We had come to an end of the imagination” (3) contrasts rhythmically with the previous line—which slows down—and the dramatic spondee in the first two syllables of “Inanimate” sharply reclaims the reader’s attention. The musical quality of the fourth line, “Inanimate in an inert savoir,” (4) is striking; line three’s “an end” and “imagination.” The assonance of “in” and “an” moves quickly, and the danger of using the wrong sound—reminiscent of a tongue twister—fills the line. The fact that the first two stressed syllables here are followed by five unstressed brings the reader even closer to faltering, as the unstressed syllables rush toward the end’s two iambs of “inert savoir.” Here, the speaker brings up one of the main themes of the poem, which is that knowledge, when left unused, will be stagnant, or “inert,” and that imagination is a dynamic, changing concept that is constantly in motion.

The diction throughout this first stanza is simple and straightforward, containing words that are very easily understood up until the fourth line, where there is a slight shift into more complex . The words “inanimate” and “inert” slow the reader, first because of their slightly more complicated nature, and second because of what they mean; unmoving and lifeless. “Savoir” is arguably the least expected word in the first stanza, as it moves dramatically away from the plain diction that precedes it. This word stands apart from the rest of the stanza especially because it belongs in another language—French. When used in English, savoir is most often seen as “savoir-faire,” which translates to “know-how.” This subconscious connection is very relevant to the poem, which is contrasting knowledge with imagination. It is one thing to simply know how to do something; it is another thing entirely to have the imagination to put a creative spin on old ideas.

These last two and a half lines introduce an intensely epistemic idea: a hypothetical state of existence and knowledge when imagination no longer exists, new ideas are not formed, and consciousness is static. This is life “After the leaves have fallen,” when “we return/To a plain sense of things” (1-2). What are the consequences of a world in which imagination has reached its end? As a poet, this concept is nearly inconceivable, and yet Stevens does not shy away from asking this question. Imagination and creativity are absolutely essential not just to the arts, but to all of humanity. Reaching a point at which new ideas are no longer created would mean the end of existence as we know it; without any forward momentum, human knowledge would indeed become inert.

Beginning the second stanza, the speaker is clearly still feeling the effects of previous lines’ deeper meanings, and has yet to fully process them. The first line is oddly clinical for a poem: “It is difficult even to choose the adjective” (5) is arguably one of the last things a reader expects to find in a poem, a place where one is supposed to read gorgeous nature scenes and wanton emotion. People read poetry to hear others capture and express indescribable things with just the right words, not to hear someone struggling to elucidate complicated thoughts in just the right way.

Instead, the tone here is cool and neat and precise. There are no flowery descriptions or unnecessary words in this line; only those that are absolutely required. Rather than saying “it is difficult to describe” or “to depict,” the speaker uses the word “adjective,” a hard word that is usually found in the dry realm of analytics, rather than the expressive world of the poem. Adjectives are of course essential to poetry, but the word “adjective” by itself does not usually show up in a poem as anything other than a part of speech. The speaker’s use of “adjective” connects to a larger dichotomy of concrete v. abstract that runs throughout this poem.

Much like the first, the second line “For this blank cold, this sadness without cause” (6) is nearly devoid of descriptive language: the only adjective here is “blank.” At a glance, “sadness without cause” is a feeling that most people have experienced at some point—some days feel as though nothing is going as expected—which draws an emotional connection to the reader, despite the line’s stark language. However, the fact that the speaker describes this state of existence as “sadness without cause” hints at another idea on the nature of being: if nothing caused “event X” (which in this case is sadness), why and how does it exist? How can one have an effect without cause? If everything comes from something, then there must have always been something from whence to come. But right here, the speaker is telling the reader that this sadness has come from nothing, and the implications of this concept are huge in scale and ontological in nature; it is no longer a wonder as to why the speaker struggles to find the adjectives to describe such a feeling.

In the next line, where “The great structure has become a minor house,” (7) the speaker begins the metaphor that will cross the line break and stretch throughout the next three lines. This line, along with the last line of the stanza which reads “No turban walks across the lessened floors” (8) builds the idea of halted thought into an abandoned house where new and exotic ideas, or “turbans,” no longer move across the well-worn floors of the mind. After the initial spondee the stressed syllables fall into four iambic feet, infusing the calm and quiet of the empty house into the rhythmic feel of the words themselves.

The “minor house” from the second stanza is described in further detail in lines nine and ten of the piece. The first, “The greenhouse never so badly needed paint,” (9) gives an immediate sense of the former grandeur of the house; a greenhouse isn’t a fixture of every home, and usually denotes affluence and enough spare time to tend plants (or spare income to employ someone). The two consecutive stressed syllables, on “so badly” subtly emphasize the degree to which this building has fallen into disrepair. In addition to the greenhouse’s peeling paint, “The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side” (10); this is a sign of serious structural neglect in any building, and is a strong indicator that walls and floors above the ground level are unsafe.

The third and fourth lines reframe the metaphor of the “plain sense of things,” saying “A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition/In a repetitiousness of men and flies” (11-12). The end of imagination is now described as a tremendous disappointment; however, the last line and a half indicate that this is perhaps a foreseeable fate. If the end of the imagination is nigh, as the speaker forsees it, the fantastic failed effort described here can be understood to mean the collective artistic works of humanity; they comprise a failed effort because, if imagination is no longer active, there is no forward momentum to creative thought. This failure is fantastic and terrifying in scope because of its immensity, as well as its implications. A that no longer changes or grows cannot adapt, and thus cannot survive. If the entire human race is placed under these circumstances, no uncertain doom awaits us.

The fact that the words “repetition” and “repetitiousness” are used in such immediate proximity to one another here signals the speaker’s insistence that the reader examine this concept. “[R]epetition” packs in two pairs of stressed and unstressed feet and, after two pyrrhic emphases, “repetitiousness” comprises a trochee and a dactyl, not only reinforcing the speaker’s adamant resolution to impress this repetition upon the reader, but the added syllable adds the slightest moment over which to linger; the fact that this syllable is unstressed allows the speaker to slide it in almost undetected, causing the mind to delay for the briefest of moments before moving on to the end of the stanza. The connection drawn by the speaker between “men” and “flies” is less than flattering. Flies are a nuisance, transmitters of disease, and generally seen as symbols of decomposition and rot, feeding upon, as well as reproducing in, the discarded leftovers of other creatures; in placing men and flies side by side, the speaker is forcing the reader to recognize humankind’s propensity for destruction.

The rhythm of this entire stanza is erratic, and the chaotic and jumbled cadence contributes to the two main images in this stanza—the disordered, crumbling house, and the failure of the “fantastic effort” (11)—by giving the reader uneven ground upon which to stand through this rhythmic disarray. The lines contain 6, 7, 5, and 4 stressed syllables, respectively—ascending through the descriptions of the decomposing house in the first two lines, and descending through the last two. This ascension heightens the perilous imagery of the collapsing house, and the descent eases the reader’s return to abstract, cerebral concepts.

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