an intense intellectual egotism swallows up everything


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”…

more from Denis Donoghue at the Hudson Review here.