Wallace Stevens: Evening without Angels
Reality and imagination are two equal components of man’s existence. In the same way that these two aspects exist, so does the inseparable nature of thoughts and feelings prevails. Enjoying poetry comes with an attribution to exactness and a presentation of subjects, which poet creates. The question of spirituality and the position of man in mortal existence remains dominant in various literary works. Wallace Stevens’ Evening without Angels communicates thoughts on reality and imaginative nature of man. He advances the possibility of existence without spiritual belief, and devoid of superstition or belief in the supernatural. Starting with the title, the poem removes angels from existence in an effort to elevate humans to a higher level of glory. In a close reading of the poem, this paper seeks to understand the devices the poet uses in developing and achieving his central theme. Stevens’ emphasis is made on relatedness and the inseparability of desire from various states of consciousness, rather than concentrating on conclusions regarding man’s satisfaction of desire.
In order to develop a detailed analysis, this paper focuses on the title and epigraph in Steven’s poem. The title suggests the possibility of multiple meanings, as well as expression of different desires. Within the epigraph, the nature of the poet, which expresses the possible nature of man, receives further expression:
the great interests of man: air and light, the joy of
having a body, the voluptuousness of looking. (Stevens 1-2)
As such, the beginning of the poem has a great significance due to its elaborating of the content of the rest of the body. It speaks of interests and satisfaction of desire, reflected in the poem title. Understanding its significance, therefore, would require constant reference to other portions of the piece.
The structure of the first passage elaborates on the nature of man’s interests and the capability to satisfy them. It seems that desires of man only seek to achieve joy and pleasure. The first section in the passage introduces the interests of man, such as air and light. Reference to both features repeatedly appears in the poem, both in their literal and metaphorical forms. They are identified as solid components, which man does not require appealing to sentiment, in order to achieve. Satisfaction of these interests comes with the possession of a body and pleasure an individual achieves from looking (Stevens 2). The passage, therefore, elaborates on the interests, taking a non-verbal form and creates a possibility for deep interpretation of the rest of the poem.
The title and epigraph, both act as controlling metaphors to the rest of the poem. The perspective of the epigraph is written by an outsider, making it alien to the poem. Yet, the epigraph is inside the poem, which blurs the boundaries between what is internal and external. Understanding the possibility of such duality enables developing the split symptom in assessing the rest of the poem’s content, making constant reference to these features (Beckett 97). The use of blank verse, unlike the rest of the poem which maintains free verse, further enhances the significance of this section as a controlling metaphor. The audience can relate the epigraph to the poem due to its content, but its choice of rhyme and meter keep it strongly excluded from recognition as a part of the rest of the poem.
The use of figurative language in Steven’s work further dominates his expression of interests. Metaphorical clauses dominate the poem, coupled with allusions to various forms that facilitate demonstration of his ideologies. The poem states, “Sad men made angels of the sun, and of the moon they made their own attendant ghosts”, (Stevens 16-17). Reference to the sun and the moon take the audience back to epigraph, and its reference to light as being among the great interests of man. The sun is the light within which man is content to look at bare reality, the reality in which they may not completely be satisfied to live in. Their interest in more than this form of light leads them to creating angels where none existed. The moon represents the imagination of man, which he has used to create ghosts and angels. In this regard, the poem refers to the use of mind in creating an illusion of a soul that will survive their biological death. The supernatural, therefore, is a device that man uses to protect himself from the sadness of reality and the fact that mortality has a limit (Beckett 98).
The choice of diction in Stevens’ poem enables the expression of desires that may be simple, yet not completely transparent. Focusing on the title, is it possible that it is an expression of desire of an atheist to live in a world without religion? It is possible that the deepest desire is removing all forms of supernatural from his world, which, in this case, becomes the evening. This evening is not a concept of time, but a notion of mind and the experience of the persona. Thus, there remains an unclear possibility of the title being a lament of a person that already exists in a world devoid of religion (Beckett). This world, to him, is without any symbols that have meaning or hope. Regardless, the choice to use the word ‘without’ in the poem makes the central connotation. The allusion to a certain lack, or absence of a critical feature, forms the basis for the central premise of the entire poem (Beckett 101).
As such, it is clear that the feeling motivates the choice of diction that Stevens elects to use in this poem. The wording in beginning the stanza on air, “Air is Air”, and the stanza that follows “And Light” (Stevens 4-9), demonstrate the desire for the persona to gain the audience’s attention. Every new portion must gain significance, and demonstrate the change in perception. Compared to other lines, the choice of wording enables giving substance to the insubstantial. Air becomes more significant than the seraphim would have, probably due to the weight the persona exerts in speaking of the feature. The desire for recognition is barely veiled in the lines concerning light and air in the second and third stanzas. It is such desire, if impossible to meet, that demonstrates the degree of inscription for which the subject develops towards desire, and the pursuit of alternatives to fill the vacuum.
The characterization in the epigraph and title reflects the characteristics of the entire poem. There is no clear persona in the section, with the focus on description of interest and the satisfaction of these interests. Regardless, we note the direct reference to the work of Mario Rossi, from where the entire paragraph is derived (Stevens). The original work is a musical piece, which makes it ironic that he does not mention music among the interests of man (Beckett 34). An emphasis on this aspect probably connotes the non-verbal and non-biological interests and desires of man that characterize the rest of the poem. “Air and Light”, (Stevens 1-2), are the expressions of man’s greatest interests. These interests are supported through the poem in sections that demonstrate the role they play in shaping life and desire. “Air is air. Its vacancy glitters round us everywhere,” (6-7) and “And light; that fosters seraphim and is to them,” demonstrate the role that the elements take in defining the desires of man. As such, while the passage and the rest of the poem do not have any direct personas, it uses deep metaphor to create feeling and meaning. These features end up overriding the role that the persona may have developed in an alternate situation, where the poem includes their presence.
The characterization that originates from the epigraph continues in subsequent sections of the poem. Air gets sounds and specific characteristics, further advancing this characterization. The persona emphasizes that the sounds of air are not angelic in origin, but, instead, come from the primitive spirits of man (Stevens). As such, air and its sounds are used as characters in man’s reality and representations of distinction from his imagination. In a similar manner, he invokes the difference between reality and imagination through further characterization of senile things. The light of the sun and the moon also gains ownership, identifying the fact that men belong to the sun and angels are of the moon (Stevens). This distinction, albeit metaphorical, enables understanding the preference for man to imagine in the dark against accepting the bare reality of day and the sun.
The title and the epigraph both set serious, but sentimental tones to the poem. An evening without angels suggests a possibility of such existence, as well as the possibility that evenings with angels do exist. The epigraph offers an account of things that man desires, further advancing the sentiment in this poem. The voluptuousness of looking, as the second stanza elaborates, communicates the sentimental nature of man (Stevens 2). Regardless, the stanza has little humor in it and presents a remarkable degree of seriousness. Man’s interests may be based solely on sentiment, but only upon their achievement of his desire. The same tone is reflected in the rest of the poem, with little change to mark either transition or conclusion to the items within it. Notes of enforced seriousness emerge in the fifth stanza, with a call for clarity regarding being men of the sun. Dominant sentiment is also visible all over the poem, such as in the expression, “Where the voice that is great within us rises up, as we stand gazing at the rounded moon,” (Stevens 39-40). Further, the portion that may be considered the first stanza of the poem, after the epigraph, demonstrates such a sentiment. In stating, “Why seraphim like lutanists; arranged above the trees?” (Stevens 3), the poem already poses the sentimental tone. Consequently, the passage forms the basis of developing a largely sentimental piece, with each line expressing a new form of romanticism. The perspective enables developing relations between man’s pursuit for their interests, and the things within nature that fulfill their desires most successfully.
As such, the central theme in the epigraph and title, as in the entire poem, remains the pursuit of man for their interests and the possibilities of their satisfaction. The role of imagination and reality emerges in multiplicity, allowing for the sentimental nature of man to be explored. The light, represented by the sun and the moon in consequent passages, is a representation of various states in which a man exists. With the sun, man can face his mortal nature and conduct his normal life, but he desires the onset of darkness where he can find rest (Stevens 34-36). This desire is coupled with the appearance of the moon, under the glow of which a man can construct an alternative reality. The implication remains that man does not only seek the evening to rest, but for a chance to use his imagination and create angels. An allusion to this occurrence emerges in the title, where an evening without angels implies man existing without his belief in the supernatural or without using imagination to construct an alternate reality.
The passage, and the entire poem, exposes the desires of the poet to fill the gaps in his existence and the contradiction towards romantic belief. While the poem is filled with sentiment, the choice of language exposes the gaps between imagination and reality. Stevens’ poetry is characterized by the desire to adopt an existence without religion, and, as such, dismissing the supernatural as an escape from reality (Beckett 113). This feature emerges continuously in the poem, with his title acting as the greatest indication for this desire. He also begins the poem by contesting the romantic nature of seraphim and emphasizing on the solidness of air and light (Stevens). If one fails to believe in God as the absolute truth, then it is necessary for them to believe in something else (Beckett 113). The poem, therefore, expounds this need for an alternative belief and the shift from believing in angels and anything spiritual. However, it also emerges that a consistent feature of a man is running from the things that would satisfy their desires (Beckett). Regardless, as the poem only focuses on relatedness, it fails to offer a solution for this quest for satisfied desires. Instead, it succeeds only in demonstrating the inherent relationship between the feelings and thoughts of a man, and the inseparability of imagination and reality.
Nevertheless, the poem attempts to respond to some of the interests and desires of man, as voiced in the epigraph. The first stanza identifies the poet as the chef d’orchestre, thereby granting the poem the ability to fulfill the desires on occasion (Stevens). As such, the poem advances the romanticist view that the answers to all of man’s desires are to be found in nature and he does not need any other being to explain the world. The poet, therefore, partially communicates his atheist beliefs through the poem, as well as indicating his desire for an existence without angels and all they represent for a man. Man creating escapes in his imagination is unfulfilling, and it is a venture that can only be accomplished at night (Stevens). The escape is temporary, as the light of the sun disables creating such angels and, thus, destroying the escape for man.
Components of the poem, therefore, advance the central theme of the poem and possibly its thesis. Man has some desires that require fulfilling, and the pursuit for this satisfaction creates an inseparable relation between the real and imagined. Through the title of the poem and the epigraph, Stevens successfully demonstrates the things that are of greatest interest to man and how far he would go to satisfy this interest. Stevens’ choice of diction is integral to his quest, where the language enables creating a sentimental and yet serious tone. Through characterizing senile items like air and light, he distinguishes between the solid needs and the abstract desires that come from imagination. Effectively, Stevens dismisses the futility of imagination, as it needs the night to achieve fruition. This poem only demonstrates Stevens’ personal beliefs, and his attempts to fill the gaps left by his not believing in spirituality. Regardless, even with his desire to live without angels, the poem successfully demonstrates the never-ending connection between thoughts and feelings, as well as imagination and reality.