The Motive for Metaphor

. . . the magnetic attraction of the similar . . .
—Jacques Derrida[1]



Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Motive for Metaphor” reads:

You like it under the trees in autumn,

Because everything is half dead.

The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves

And repeats words without meaning.


In the same way, you were happy in spring,

With the half colors of quarter-things,

The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,

The single bird, the obscure moon—


The obscure moon lighting an obscure world

Of things that would never be quite expressed,

Where you yourself were never quite yourself

And did not want nor have to be,


Desiring the exhilarations of changes:

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being,


The ruddy temper, the hammer

Of red and blue, the hard sound—

Steel against intimation—the sharp flash,

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.[2]

The accredited interpretation—Northrop Frye’s—goes somewhat like this. What Stevens variously calls the weight of primary noon, the A B C of being and the dominant X, is “the objective world, the world set over against us.” His aim is “to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind”:

The motive for metaphor, according to Wallace Stevens, is a desire to associate, and finally to identify, the human mind with what goes on outside it, because the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says (1 Cor. 13:9), we are also a part of what we know.[3]

I have seen another interpretation, sufficiently different to be worth reciting, in which John Crowe Ransom, thinking of Hegel and the “Concrete Universal,” finds Stevens’ poem much to the point. He describes the Universal in this way:

A Universal in Hegel’s favorite sense is any idea in the mind which proposes a little universe, or organized working combination of parts, where there is a whole and single effect to be produced, and the heterogeneous parts must perform their several duties faithfully in order to bring it about. Thus the formula of a chemical reaction; the recipe of a dish; the blue-print of a machine; or even, to the extent in which it is practicable, Newman’s “idea of a university.” It becomes a Concrete Universal when it has been materialized and is actually working.

The Universal is likely to be stubborn because it sets the terms upon which the whole transaction proceeds. Indeed, it may be just as recalcitrant as “the world set over against us,” except that it depends upon the mind that respects it; it is not external to that.

Having quoted Stevens’ poem entire, Ransom paraphrases it for his occasion:

That is to say, I think, something like the following. “You like metaphor in the autumn, because you cannot express yourself, except to say that the wind cannot express itself either. You like it in the spring, because instead of trying to express what you feel then, you can speak of how the obscure moon lights an obscure world. You like it because it is exhilarating, and alternative to the dreary searching of your own mind for the meaning of your state. (There must be many a moral Universal seeking its poetry though it is no better than a moral feeling; so much of the moral life turns on feeling, and on half-successful reflection, and can scarcely ever be satisfied except with a poetic expression or its homely equivalent.) The moral Universal is intolerably harsh and simple, when you phrase it, not equal to what you want it to mean, and in fact it is the ‘vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X’; it is inexpressive, like the sign of an unknown quantity.”[4]

It is not necessary to make peace between these two readers, beyond saying that Frye takes the X to be the objective world set over against us and Ransom takes it to be one of our own moral Universals, resolutely harsh until it finds itself agreeably fulfilled in the concrete detail of a natural or a human world. Metaphor is the prime means of the satisfaction that Frye envisages, and perhaps Ransom would find it so, too, though he does not mention it. Metaphor is a figure of speech, an act of the mind largely independent of “the world set over against us.” But only largely, because in literature the mind acts upon a particular language and lives within its inventive constraints. Writers have to say to themselves: “my nature is subdued / to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”[5] We usually think of metaphors as additions to the world; they add perceptions that were not there before. But if the motive for metaphor, according to Stevens, is to defeat or evade the force of the world, it must resort to the imaginative capacity of the mind and exert its freedom to do just that—or at worst to try. Stevens says, in one of his notes on poetry, that “reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” and lest we miss the point, he adds that “it is only au pays de la métaphore qu’on est poète.” In the same notebook he concedes that if you want to change real objects “without the aid of metaphor,” you could do so “by feeling, style etc.” He also says that “Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be unreal.”[6]

Stevens was not a trained philosopher, but his desires were philosophic. Mostly, he hoped-against-hope that Idealism would turn out to be true—that consciousness would be found to account for the whole of one’s experience. In most of his moods he was a Hegelian in the spirit of Hegel’s Introduction to his lectures on aesthetics, published posthumously:

The universal need for art . . . is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self. The need for this spiritual freedom he satisfies, on the one hand, within by making what is within him explicit to himself, but correspondingly by giving outward reality to this his explicit self; and thus in this duplication of himself by bringing what is in him into sight and knowledge for himself and others. This is the free rationality of man in which all acting and knowing, as well as art too, have their basis and necessary origin.[7]

So Stevens wrote of Adam:

We knew one parent must have been divine,

Adam of beau regard, from fat Elysia,

Whose mind malformed this morning metaphor,


While all the leaves leaked gold. His mind made morning,

As he slept. He woke in a metaphor: this was

A metamorphosis of paradise . . .[8]

More generally, as in “Description without Place”:

It is possible that to seem—it is to be,

As the sun is something seeming and it is.


The sun is an example. What it seems

It is and in such seeming all things are.[9]

Stevens’ aim was, as in a Paterian irony directed at Matthew Arnold, to see the object as in itself it really seems to be, and to be content with that. But in certain moods he faced the obstacles to that desire. In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” he wrote:

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves

And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.[10]

“Much more” is much worse. That the world should be ourselves is a wild hope unless one is a convinced Idealist, but Stevens had moods so diverse that we find him believing nearly anything. Sometimes he longed for simplicity, the convergence of word and thing, the truth of things as the man in the street takes it to be. In “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” he wrote:

We seek

The poem of pure reality, untouched

By trope or deviation, straight to the word,

Straight to the transfixing object, to the object

At the exactest point at which it is itself,

Transfixing by being purely what it is,

A view of New Haven, say, through the certain eye,


The eye made clear of uncertainty, with the sight

Of simple seeing, without reflection . . .[11]

But he felt misgiving about planning to see anything “at the exactest point at which it is itself.” That way, Naturalism lies— fixity, and specious certitude. For the time being, in “The Motive for Metaphor,” he can only cry out against the dominant X. He was not alone in that protest. Ortega y Gasset maintained that the chief motive of art since Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Debussy has been to reject the conventional privilege ascribed to external things, objects, and faces, and to cultivate entirely formal, aesthetic inventions. I assume he had modern abstract or non-figurative paintings in view and knew that these had their own authority, however occult. That is why Stevens was pleased to find Charles Mauron saying, in his Aesthetics and Psychology (1935), that “the artist transforms us, willy-nilly, into epicures.”[12] He was also pleased to find, in Simone Weil’s La Pesanteur et la grâce, a chapter on “decreation.” Stevens commented:

She says that decreation is making [something] pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making [something] pass from the created to nothingness. Modern reality is a reality of decreation . . .[13]

I think he was pleased, too, to find Picasso saying that a picture is a horde of destructions, if only because it allowed Stevens to say that “a poem is a horde of destructions.”[14] Metaphor, according to Ortega, has been the main device in an artist’s rejection of external things. “Metaphor alone furnishes an escape.” Its efficacy verges on magic. Between real things, it “lets emerge imaginary reefs, a crop of floating islands.” Metaphor “disposes of an object by having it masquerade as something else.”[15] We ascribe to Nietzsche but not only to him the desire to be elsewhere, which is a variant of the desire to be different.[16] In certain moods the horror of a word is the meaning it defends against all comers; so metaphor is the device by which one undermines that defense. In Stevens’ “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” the someone contemplates “A wholly artificial nature, in which / The profusion of metaphor has been increased.” If you put a pineapple together and see metaphors becoming more profuse, you release yourself from psychological determinations, you become a performative gesture and are happy to find yourself in that state. But then a scruple may assert itself:

He must say nothing of the fruit that is

Not true, nor think it, less. He must defy

The metaphor that murders metaphor.[17]

Presumably a bad metaphor murders a good one: bad in the sense of telling lies, ignoring the truths that can’t honorably be ignored.




Even among Stevens’ various practices, the structure of “The Motive for Metaphor” is peculiar. The first stanza coincides with two simple, parallel sentences. A third sentence is stretched out over the remainder of the poem, not because the syntax becomes complex—it doesn’t—but because one phrase is instructed to produce another by association, and that one to bring forward yet another by a similar device. The practice is common in Stevens, where a particular clause tends not to reach conclusion but to keep the discourse going by stirring a further association, an echo or a repetition—“Disguised pronunciamento, summary, / Autumn’s compendium . . .” His sentences tend not to be decisive, he is reluctant to concede that a poem has to end. We sometimes wonder is he a man without will—does he take pleasure in withholding himself, as if keeping a secret? If we go from reading Frost, say, who is always willful, to Stevens, who seems to write poems by letting phrases write themselves, we recall that in “The Creations of Sound” he said that “there are words / Better without an author, without a poet, /Or having a separate author, a different poet, / An accretion from ourselves, intelligent / Beyond intelligence, an artificial man / At a distance, a secondary expositor . . . .”[18] In “The Motive for Metaphor” the repetition of “the obscure moon” is labored, the momentum has to be started up again, until the appositive colon after “changes” is reached and the long sentence continues, specifying the nature of the desire. Even when Stevens designates something, the thing he designates is rarely allowed to speak for itself or to bring the sentence to an end; he must apply his commodious adjectives to every noun. It would be fair to say of Stevens’ poems what Hazlitt said of Wordsworth’s The Excursion, that “an intense intellectual egotism swallows up everything”:

There is, in fact, in Mr. Wordsworth’s mind (if we may hazard the conjecture) a repugnance to admit anything that tells for itself, without the interpretation of the poet,—a fastidious antipathy to immediate effect,—a systematic unwillingness to share the poem with his subject.[19]

Stevens seems reluctant to end a sentence, even when he comes to a noun or a verb that could well end it: he always sees a further possibility, yet another variation on the theme, a new way of putting it. The process is more metonymy than metaphor: one word, then another, then another, each of them laid down one after its fellow in a congenially suggestive place. They are not meant to disturb one another. But the trouble with this device is that it often makes it impossible to decide whether the several phrases have equal value, or whether they merely happen to lie contiguously in Stevens’ mind. The procedure might be called additive, except that Stevens is not much interested in bringing the additions up to a definition, a sum of attributions. It might be called linear if a line were allowed, as it is allowed in many paintings by Klee, to extend itself apparently at will. So it is a shock to find “The Motive for Metaphor” driving to an end when four adjectives hit a wall in “X.”

“You like it”: I take this as a variant of “one likes metaphor,” one being anyone who appreciates metaphor when the weather of things is dull. But other readings are possible: that the “you” is someone, not necessarily Stevens, who wants life to be mobile, changeable without notice, and looks to metaphor to bring these felicities about; or that the “you” is one of Stevens’ earlier selves whom he is now determined to chastise. This last is Helen Vendler’s interpretation, and she gives it with characteristic verve. She thinks “The Motive of Metaphor” a “very brutal poem,” propelled by “self-loathing” and “self-contempt.” The speaking voice “detests those exhilarations of changes which are the motive for metaphor.” She thinks the poem welcomes “the exhilaration of a new sort of self-knowledge, a change into the changelessness of a final, permanent self.” This may entail “the last possible phase, the fatal phase, and therefore the end of poetry.”[20] I would assent to this interpretation, except that I don’t recall any occasion on which Stevens demanded a final, changeless self for himself or spent much energy trying to bring it about.

The change to the past tense in the second stanza—“you were happy in spring”—gives the “you” a certain density, almost historical, in passing from autumn to spring. The choice remains between virtually taking “you” to mean “I” or taking it to mean someone else. So the stance of the poem could be either sympathetic, to the degree of willed identity with the “you,” or diagnostic, standing in judgment upon “you,” as Helen Vendler would have it. But the later stanzas of the poem seem to merge the “you” with an unstated “I,” the “I” being the voice of the anonymous speaker of the poem. Autumn and spring are named, but not summer, which has its felicities elsewhere and often in Stevens’ poems. Stevens told Charles Tomlinson that when he wrote the poem “Credences of Summer,” “my feeling for the necessity of a final accord with reality was at its strongest: reality was the summer of the title of the book in which the poem appeared.”[21] Metaphor is not needed when summer is lavish—

Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky

Without evasion by a single metaphor.[22]

—an impossible task, such that only the desire for it survives. In “Credences of Summer,” Stevens evokes “the first autumnal inhalations”: presumably these breathings take metaphors—or the images of metaphors—into the speaker’s lungs for life. The wind refutes Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” by disclaiming its messages: “words without meaning.” Stevens’ poem anticipates a greater poem, “The Course of a Particular,” in which he silences Shelley’s ode again.

“In the same way, you were happy in spring.” The first phrase is blunt, in the absence of reasons why the two ways should be the same. In “Credences of Summer” Stevens speaks of “spring’s infuriations” as if the season were mad to achieve its summer. Here it is content with the beginnings of change—“The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds.” Patient, spring is willing to wait for changes—which is the best that can be said for the repetition that follows: “the obscure moon— / The obscure moon lighting an obscure world / Of things that would never be quite expressed.” The verbal whispering continues by repeating “yourself” and coming to rest, but not to conclusion, with “desiring the exhilarations of changes.” “It Must Change” is one of the sectional insistences of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” It need not be any particular change, it is change for the sake of change, as if the condition most to be feared were boredom or the fixity of things. Another of the insistences of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is that “It Must Give Pleasure,” and the main pleasure seems to be the exhilarations of changes, the reluctance to see anything remain settled in itself. The particular motive for metaphor is given in a clause—“shrinking from / The weight of primary noon.”

Shrinking is a common gesture in Stevens’ work: he shrinks from anything too well established. Objects in their settled forms are put under scrutiny. Majestic conceptions are driven out of themselves at whatever cost, as in “Esthétique du Mal”:

This is a part of the sublime

From which we shrink. And yet, except for us,

The total past felt nothing when destroyed.[23]

In “Thinking of a Relation between the Images of Metaphors,” the poor fish, the bass, fearful of Indian fishermen, “keep looking ahead, upstream, in one / Direction, shrinking from the spit and splash / Of waterish spears.”[24] In “Effects of Analogy,” Stevens says: “A poet writes of twilight because he shrinks from noon-day.”[25] In “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” he says: “If a man’s nerves shrink from loud sounds, they are quite likely to shrink from strong colors and he will be found preferring a drizzle in Venice to a hard rain in Hartford.”[26] The best that can be said for shrinking is that it may enable you, under pressure, to practice a defensive economy, as in “Description without Place”—

There might be, too, a change immenser than

A poet’s metaphors in which being would


Come true, a point in the fire of music where

Dazzle yields to a clarity and we observe,


And observing is completing and we are content,

In a world that shrinks to an immediate whole,


That we do not need to understand, complete

Without secret arrangements of it in the mind.[27]

But metaphor itself does not shrink, it is what you do after shrinking; you escape by turning to antinomian values, aesthetic values of form and style. If I were reading “The Motive for Metaphor” aloud or to myself, I would give the line “The motive for metaphor, shrinking from” four nearly equal accents, the one on “from” sustaining the eight specifications that lead to “X.” These eight are versions of fixity, each of them presumably repellent, mighty nuisances that can’t be easily dissolved. “Steel against intimation” is the hardest of them.

The adjectives that bring the last line to an end come from different families: “vital,” the principle or force essential to organic life, here irrefutable; “arrogant,” as if the “X” were someone, alert to his invincible character; “fatal,” as if destined, inevitable; “dominant,” commanding, but it may come from music, where it means the fifth note of the scale of any key, of special importance to the harmonies of that key. Finally, “X,” an unknown quantity, produced several times in Stevens’ poems with secretive intent, though on one occasion, in “The Creations of Sound,” he refers to “X” as “an obstruction, a man / Too exactly himself,” and the man seems to be T. S. Eliot. A man too exactly himself is open to the deconstructive attention of metaphor.




Stevens associated metaphor with several other words which he was happy to keep in its vicinity: metamorphosis, likeness, resemblance, analogy. He often used these interchangeably, but he was careful to distinguish them from identity and imitation. His cardinal word was resemblance: he invoked it as if it were beyond question. In “Three Academic Pieces,” he referred to “one of the significant components of the structure of reality—that is to say, the resemblance between things.” But his sense of resemblance was latitudinarian: “in some sense, all things resemble each other.” As if to prove this grand principle, he wrote:

Take, for example, a beach extending as far as the eye can reach, bordered, on the one hand, by trees and, on the other, by the sea. The sky is cloudless and the sun is red. In what sense do the objects in this scene resemble each other? There is enough green in the sea to relate it to the palms. There is enough of the sky reflected in the water to create a resemblance, in some sense, between them. The sand is yellow between the green and the blue. In short, the light alone creates a unity not only in the recedings of distance, where differences become invisible, but also in the contacts of closer sight. . . . So, too, sufficiently generalized, each man resembles all other men, each woman resembles all other women, this year resembles last year.[28]

And so on. In no time, Stevens is ready to say that “in metaphor, the resemblance may be, first, between two or more parts of reality; second, between something real and something imagined or, what is the same thing, between something imagined and something real as, for example, between music and whatever may be evoked by it; and, third, between two imagined things as when we say that God is good, since the statement involves a resemblance between two concepts, a concept of God and a concept of goodness.” Resemblance “in metaphor is an activity of the imagination; and in metaphor the imagination is life.” Musing further, Stevens suggests that “perhaps resemblance which seems to be related so closely to the imagination is related even more closely to the intelligence, of which perceptions of resemblance are effortless accelerations.”[29]

It may be said that Stevens had Aristotle’s authority in deeming resemblance to amount to a critical principle; but there are differences. Aristotle does not hold that anything resembles, in some respect, anything else. In the Metaphysics, he carefully indicates when two things may be called “like”:

Things are called “like” which have the same attributes in all respects; or more of those attributes the same than different; or whose quality is one. Also that which has a majority or the more important of those attributes of something else in respect of which change is possible (i.e. the contraries) is like that thing.[30]

In the Poetics (1459 a 3–8) and the Rhetoric (1412 a 10), he says that making a good metaphor requires an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars: that is the mark of a genius. Stevens is never as careful; he sets the bar of similarity so low, walking along the beach with his greens and blues and yellows, that he makes resemblance an empty principle. Indeed, his confidence in resemblance and similarity is misplaced; it would not survive interrogation, specifically Nelson Goodman’s seven strictures in Problems and Projects (1972). Goodman shows that similarity is not a quality of things in themselves: “it is relative, variable and culture-dependent.” Statements of similarity “are still serviceable in the streets,” but not in more exacting places: “Similarity does not explain metaphor or metaphorical truth.” Indeed, he agrees with Max Black that “it would be more illuminating in some of these cases to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.”[31] “Similarity cannot be equated with, or measured in terms of, possession of common characteristics.” Finally for my purpose, “as it occurs in philosophy, similarity tends under analysis either to vanish entirely or to require for its explanation just what it purports to explain.”[32] Stevens does not question the explanatory power of resemblance; he seems to take it as a natural law, one of nature’s choice gifts to poets.

But at least once he admits dissimilarity, in Aristotle’s terms. In “Three Academic Pieces,” he says that “poetry is a satisfying of the desire for resemblance”:

As the mere satisfying of a desire, it is pleasurable. But poetry if it did nothing but satisfy a desire would not rise above the level of many lesser things. Its singularity is that in the act of satisfying the desire for resemblance it touches the sense of reality, it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, intensifies it. If resemblance is described as a partial similarity between two dissimilar things, it complements and reinforces that which the two dissimilar things have in common.[33]

As an example, Stevens quotes Ecclesiastes (12:6):

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern—

and says:

. . . these images are not the language of reality, they are the symbolic language of metamorphosis, or resemblance, of poetry, but they relate to reality and they intensify our sense of it and they give us the pleasure of “lentor and solemnity” in respect to the most commonplace objects.[34]

Lentor and solemnity are, I think, musical terms, lentor meaning slowness. But Stevens does not mention the most acute quality of a metaphor, that to bring it forward you must force the issue, driving the vehicle to the extreme limit of identity. You must compel attention to the whole vehicle, not just to the qualities on which a strict comparison would thrive. If you take the metaphor seriously, you provoke the resistance of common sense and commit the audacity of a conceit. No such frisson arises with a simile. A simile compares one thing to another without changing either of the entities compared: it is a tangent that doesn’t dislodge the circle it touches. A metaphor incurs resistance from our sense of absurdity and is indifferent to shame.




Stevens’ metaphors are often bizarre. The poem I have referred to, “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together,” is an elaborate and rather strained meditation on subject and object, the several stages in the process of perceiving something, an object on a table, which—the object—turns out to be or to become a pineapple. In the third section of the poem, Stevens has a Brobdingnagian fancy in which the someone in question climbs up the side of a pineapple—

The momentary footings of a climb

Up the pineapple, a table Alp and yet

An Alp, a purple Southern mountain bisqued


With the molten mixings of related things,

Cat’s taste possibly or possibly Danish lore,

The small luxuriations that portend


Universal delusions of universal grandeurs,

The slight incipiencies, of which the form,

At last, is the pineapple on the table or else


An object the sum of its complications, seen

And unseen.[35]

“Bisqued”: the OED doesn’t recognize the word or know any verb the past participle of which is “bisqued.” Bisque has a frail existence in the vocabularies of tennis, croquet, and pottery, but the common bisque as a variant of “bisk” or “bisque” means a thick soup made by boiling down birds, especially pigeons, or fish, especially crayfish or lobsters. “The molten mixings of related things” suggests that Stevens has soup in mind. “A purple Southern mountain” is the tenor of the metaphor, “bisqued” and its mixings are the vehicle. The propriety of the metaphor is not in question. Common sense would have advised Stevens to drop the bisque, but Stevens would have answered: “I’ve fetched it so far, I’ll stick with it.” It becomes a conceit, though not a becoming one. Not that mountains are unchangeable in Stevens: he has a poem called “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” where a mountain has to shift itself, allow its cones to be moved, to improve the view. But “bisqued” suggests that Stevens has been looking with some envy at Dalí’s liquefied watch. Goodman says of a metaphor that it is “an affair between a predicate with a past and an object that yields while protesting.”[36] “Bisqued” must have produced a loud, sustained protest, unless the mountain was already accustomed to the mannerist Stevens.

But Stevens’ metaphors are rarely as weird as that one. Turning the pages of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” I note first this one which is comfortably urbane:

Why, then, inquire

Who has divided the world, what entrepeneur?

No man. The self, the chrysalis of all men


Became divided in the leisure of blue day

And more, in branchings after day. One part

Held fast tenaciously in common earth

And one from central earth to central sky

And in moonlit extensions of them in the mind

Searched out such majesty as it could find.[37]

“Chrysalis”: “the state into which the larva of most insects passes before becoming an imago or perfect insect. In this state the insect is inactive and takes no food, and is wrapped in a hard sheath or case” (OED). I’m not sure how much of this account gets into Stevens’ metaphor or what “the self” in this case is supposed to mean. Not sure either what the later, decisive stage of “the self” could be that finds itself in “all men” before being divided into two parts, one of them that holds to “common earth,” the other one that engages in lunar searchings.

Poem XV of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” has a passage so winning that I am inclined to take it on the run without stopping on any detail, but the metaphorical detail is among its choice blessings:

The hibernal dark that hung

In primavera, the shadow of bare rock,


Becomes the rock of autumn, glittering,

Ponderable source of each imponderable,

The weight we lift with the finger of a dream,


The heaviness we lighten by light will,

By the hand of desire, faint, sensitive, the soft

Touch and trouble of the touch of the actual hand.[38]

Here the metaphorical intention is distributed along the sentence, starting with the fancy contrast of “hibernal” and “primavera.” It gathers force in “The weight we lift with the finger of a dream,” but the metaphor does not complete itself until desire is accomplished in “the hand of desire” and its adjectival consummation, “faint, sensitive, the soft / Touch and trouble of the touch of the actual hand.” It is unfortunate that we have to fend off the vulgar association of “a soft touch”—“a person easily manipulated.” “Trouble” comes a little too late to save the day. But the entire sentence, rich in metaphor, is admirably shaped.

The impulse in metaphor to escape from the world, and especially from the importunity of objects, things, and faces, is best fulfilled by putting another form of discourse in place of reference. The strongest such form is prophecy. Shelley said in A Defence of Poetry that metaphorical language “marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension until words, which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thought, instead of pictures of integral thoughts.”[39] The passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which Northrop Frye referred to many pages back is much in point. Paul is speaking of charity as “the greatest of these,” greater even than “the gift of prophecy.” But even as a second-best, prophecy survives: it is one of life’s expressive forms. The passage reads:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

1 Cor. 13:8-10

To prophesy: to speak as by divine inspiration and therefore to claim access to the future, as Antony says, prophesying over the wounds of Julius Caesar: “A curse shall light upon the limbs of men.” More generally, it is to speak without any producible authority: scorning mere designation, to speak by fiat. Likewise, metaphor acknowledges no authority. Nothing in the given world authorizes “bisqued”; it has not even been in English till now. For all we know, it may enter the language as a metaphorical nuance; or it may be rejected as a bizarrerie.

But Stevens’ normal sense of metaphor is not bizarre. In the note on reality and metaphor from which I’ve quoted, he says that, some objects being less susceptible to metaphor than others, “the absolute object slightly turned is a metaphor of the object,” and that “the whole world is less susceptible to metaphor than a tea-cup is.”[40] True, it is harder to keep “the whole world” in mind than to hold a tea-cup there, and perhaps that is reason enough, but the image of turning the globe around is just as feasible as that of twisting a cup in its saucer and holding it up to a various light. The turning seems to be the metaphorical point, it was enough even for Hegel, who was charmed by the freedom of it, as if the object, turned freely in the hand, were enough. Even in Stevens’ most somber moods, as in “Metaphor as Degeneration,” when he has assured himself that “being / Includes death and the imagination,” he assembles enough spirit to proclaim a rhetorical question. It is as if he were replying to Max Nordau, in whose Degeneration (1892) we find nearly every modern institution trounced as degenerate, science the sole honorable exemption. But Stevens is prepared to ask—

How, then, is metaphor degeneration,

When Swatara becomes this undulant river

And the river becomes the landless, waterless ocean?

—even though he ends with grim recognitions—

Here the black violets grow down to its banks

And the memorial mosses hang their green

Upon it, as it flows ahead.[41]

That “ahead” is hard to bear: if we can put up with it, we can put up with anything.

But it is time to say that “The Motive for Metaphor” presents its experience as a blank failure. Nothing in the poem defeats the final “X.” If we bring Hegel’s criteria to bear on it, we have to report that the poem fails “to lift the inner and outer world into [man’s] spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self.” This accounts for the rage and despair in the poem’s final lines; the steely list is a selection of the typical things Stevens can’t lift into his spiritual consciousness. He can act with an appearance of freedom—Hegel’s favorite word in that part of the lectures—but the things of the palpably external world are too dogged, too heavy, too sullen to be lifted into that place of spirituality. For the moment, metaphor names a desire, a motive, but only a partial achievement at best. Idealists lose in the end; they shouldn’t have made such a demand, but it is a noble defeat, if only because they speak up so eloquently for the mind—the mind, “among the creatures that it makes, / The people, those by which it lives and dies.”[42] I have long wished that Stevens had written “those by whom it lives and dies,” but he didn’t write “by whom” and there it is.

We can’t expect from Stevens a definitive statement about metaphor, or indeed about anything else. There is always another mood in which he turns the tea-cup still further around and sees it differently. Mostly, he says of metaphor that it entails “the real made more acute by an unreal,” as in “The Bouquet,”[43] but he has another mood in which, seeing a bouquet of roses in sunlight, he says of them that they are—

Too much as they are to be changed by metaphor,

Too actual, things that in being real

Make any imaginings of them lesser things.

Even if this, too, is a consequence of the way we feel, no matter:

Our sense of these things changes and they change,

Not as in metaphor, but in our sense

Of them. So sense exceeds all metaphor.

If this little display of logic is a scandal to rhetoricians—too bad. The roses seem “so far beyond the rhetorician’s touch.”[44]

[1] Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” Poétique 5, 1971. Reprinted in Margins of Philosophy, by Jacques Derrida, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago, 1982), p. 215.

[2] Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (New York, 1954), p. 288.

[3] Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1933–1963: Volume 21, ed. by Germaine Warkentin (Toronto, 2006), pp. 445–446.

[4] John Crowe Ransom, Poems and Essays (New York, 1955), pp. 178–179.

[5] Shakespeare, Sonnet 111: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. by Stephen Booth (New Haven, 2000), p. 96.

[6] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, ed. by Milton J. Bates (New York, 1989), p. 195.

[7] G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. by T. M. Knox (Oxford, 1975), Vol.1, pp. 31–32.

[8] Stevens, “The Pure Good of Theory,” Collected Poems, p. 331.

[9] Stevens, “Description without Place,” ibid., p. 353.

[10] Stevens, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” ibid., p. 353.

[11] Stevens, ibid., p. 471.

[12] Quoted in Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York, 1951), p. 30.

[13] Stevens, The Necessary Angel, pp. 174–175.

[14] Ibid., p. 161.

[15] José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture (Garden City, 1956), pp. 30–31.

[16] Cf. Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca, 1977), p. 322.

[17] Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. by Holly Stevens (New York, 1990), pp. 295–296.

[18] Stevens, “The Creations of Sound,” Collected Poems, pp. 310–311.

[19] William Hazlitt, “Character of Mr. Wordsworth’s New Poem, The Excursion” (1814): The Complete Work, ed. by P. P. Howe (London, 1933), pp. 11–13.

[20] Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (Knoxville, 1984), pp. 23–26.

[21] Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. by Holly Stevens (Berkeley, 1996 reprint), p. 719: Letter of June 19, 1951.

[22] Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Collected Poems, p. 373.

[23] Stevens, “Esthétique du Mal,” ibid., p. 314.

[24] Stevens, “Thinking of a Relation between the Images of Metaphors,” ibid., p. 356.

[25] Stevens, The Necessary Angel, p. 122.

[26] Ibid., p. 48.

[27] Stevens, “Description without Place,” Collected Poems, p. 341.

[28] Stevens, “Three Academic Pieces,” The Necessary Angel, pp. 71–72.

[29] Stevens, ibid., p. 75.

[30] Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. by Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge, Mass., 1968 reprint), p. 243 (Book V Ch. IX, 1018 a 15–20).

[31] Max Black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, 1962), p. 37. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (New York, 1968), p. 78.

[32] Nelson Goodman, Problems and Projects (Indianapolis and New York, 1972), pp. 437–446.

[33] Stevens, The Necessary Angel, p. 77.

[34] Stevens, ibid., pp. 77–78.

[35] Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind, p. 299.

[36] Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, p. 69.

[37] Stevens, Collected Poems, pp. 468–469.

[38] Ibid., p. 476.

[39] Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, in Shelley’s Critical Prose, ed. by Bruce R. McElderry, Jr. (Lincoln, 1967), p. 6.

[40] Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p. 204.

[41] Stevens, Collected Poems, pp. 444–445.

[42] Stevens, “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” ibid., p. 436.

[43] Stevens, “The Bouquet,” ibid., p. 451.

[44] Stevens, “Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight,” ibid., pp. 430–431.