Analysis of “Nuances of a Theme by Williams”

April 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

The title of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Nuances of a Theme by Williams” implies that he intends to comment on, possibly celebrate, and almost certainly explore the potential distinctions and variations available in the poem by William Carlos Williams titled “El Hombre.” Stevens includes “El Hombre,” in its entirety minus the title, in the opening four lines of his poem with the implication (again based on the, at worst, neutral title of Stevens’ poem as well as the seemingly tributary inclusion of “El Hombre”) that his re-workings and explorations of his colleague’s piece will maintain its essence and, presumably, not bear it much, if any, antipathy. The title, however, proves to be misleading and Stevens’ subsequent lines appear to be less of a nuanced exploration of Williams’ poem than a criticism of what he sees as its faults: namely the sentimentality, anthropomorphizing, and romantic detachedness of the narrator that is present especially in the first two lines. It is particularly the first stanza of Williams’ poem that Stevens takes issue with and he does so, at least in part, by way of its second stanza. Stevens attaches himself to two phrases, “shine alone” (3) and “lend no part” (4), that bookend the second stanza of Williams’ poem and uses them as his access points to the poem. He quotes the two phrases directly, elevating them to the opening words of both of his subsequent stanzas, though in doing so he also very purposefully changes their meaning. The first line of Stevens’ composition, “Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze” (5) seems, appropriately, to satisfy the expectations of the title while also being characteristic of Stevens’ playful perspectivist aesthetic tendencies (reminiscent, perhaps, of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”); beginning with the two-word phrase taken directly from Williams’ piece, Stevens’ proceeds to stretch it into a richer, more textured imperative description of the same “ancient star” (2) addressed in Williams’ poem.Nonetheless, the succeeding two lines that make up the rest of Stevens’ first stanza diverge from mere variation into what seems to be an invective response to the opening lines of Williams’ poem: “It’s a strange courage/you give me, ancient star” (1-2). Stevens appears to be concerned with the fact that Williams sort of anthropomorphizes the star, which seems to be the rising sun, and instills it with the ability to give courage. He says of the sun that it must shine like something that “reflects neither [his] face nor any inner part/of [his] being” (6-7) and, ultimately, “like fire, that mirrors nothing” (7). Stevens’ deliberate dissociation with the sun (as a stand-in for nature) reflects his belief that one should apprehend nature without embellishing it; that the things of nature should not be used as means to access the triumphs or despairs of humanity. Where in Stevens’ “The Snowman” it is only with “a mind of winter” (1) that one can hear “the sound of the land” (10) without being distracted by “any misery in the sound of the wind” (8), so must Williams’ sun, in Stevens’ conception, mirror “nothing that is not there” (The Snowman, 15) if it is to be truly apprehended.With the entirety of Stevens’ first stanza in mind, the variations in his first line (that continues and concludes in the third with “shine like fire”) read less playfully and more like a slow, deliberate distancing from the humanness of the word “alone.” For “alone” is rarely used to describe the state of an inanimate object by itself, which wouldn’t require the recognition of being outside of a society of similar objects since society is limited to animate creatures. So Stevens re-forms the description as “nakedly.” That first step, though, is only a small step away from animation since it evokes the idea of being without clothes. But the adverb “nakedly” is, in fact, more commonly used to describe the nature of concepts or ideas, as in “plainly” or “blatantly,” and less the physical state of one’s dress. With the second transformation, “like bronze,” however, the less subtle split with animation begins. With “like bronze” Stevens has reformulated an idea of the sun as merely resembling something. Though it is a man-made something, which, therefore, maintains an inevitable if convoluted connection to the human realm. So, Stevens’ necessarily searches for one more angle, “like fire,” and the split with humanity is complete; the sun is reduced to something natural, independent of human existence, but, more importantly, it is reduced to precisely what it is.The sun is precisely something that in Stevens’ view should “lend no part to any humanity that suffuses/[the sun] in its own light” (8-9) as Williams does. For like Stevens declares in his later poem “Things of August”: “The rich earth, of its own self made rich,/Fertile of its own leaves” (51-52), so must the shining sun, of its own self shine. It appears that Stevens’ wishes to forget all human history of sun worship and mythology and relish the sun as it is perceived in the moment, in the present, by an individual person. Yet, in communicating his point, Stevens’ says that the sun should “be not chimera of the morning” (10). “Chimera” carries the meaning of “illusion” or “daydream” as if warning against being tricked into seeing the sun as more than it is, or as something that it is not. But “chimera” also carries the connotation of the mythical creature that was made of various animal parts and had an intelligence. So in this moment, while Stevens’ argument is ostensibly sustained, he undermines it slightly by constructing it around such a contradictory notion, even if only as a means to negate it. The final three lines of the poem continue in this vein of ridding the sun of any ancient residual meaning. He ironically says the star should “Be not an intelligence/Like a widow’s bird/Or and old horse” (12-15). These comparisons are ironic simply because Stevens would not grant intelligence to a bird or horse, but he knows that they are often thought of that way. A lonely widow gives more meaning and power to her avian companion and a farmer may attribute wisdom to a horse that has weathered much. Stevens slyly insults the romantic sentimentality of Williams’ poem by putting it on the same level as the foolish and uneducated figures suggested in his closing lines.It seems that Stevens sees Williams’ poem as weak and sentimental. Stevens’ poem is an exercise of his mind on Williams’ theme, enacted to deliberately and systematically gain control over the emotional preoccupations of the poem. I would suppose that, ultimately, Williams would not only have appreciated the criticisms of Stevens, but also would have agreed with them. I feel as though “El Hombre” is, at least on a basic level, an immature poem of Williams’ that would not have fit into his later, more distinctly formulated views.

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