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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part One. Stevens’ Uses of French

“Luminous Traversing”: Stevens’ Near French and the Vagaries of Translation

Antoine Cazé

Texte intégral

  • 1 See B. Van Wyke, “Imitating Bodies and Clothes: Refashioning the Western Conception of Translation, (...)

1Translation is a form of crossing—at least, that is one of the most common metaphors used to describe it. It can be construed as a form of authorized (and desirable) transgression, flirting nonetheless with non-standard, or even illegal, activities, such as illustrated by the possible metaphorical extensions of cross-dressing (transvestism) or smuggling, both of which have actually been used by translation theorists.1 The common rationale of these metaphors is that they posit the existence of two distinct sides, often depicted as the two banks of a river, although in the case of Wallace Stevens it would be more accurate to speak of the two shores of an ocean. They are two irreconcilable sides that the act of translating will connect by virtue of a ford or a bridge, often a precarious one susceptible to destruction. In the process, the transport from one side to the other implies a transformation; for, in the attempt at bridging the gap, the two languages involved are “gapped” by the bridge itself, so to speak, altered by their coming into contact. Of the river, or ocean, lying below the bridge, however, not much is said in the various metaphors that theorists have used for translation. It is a blank space to be crossed, or perhaps the excluded middle, the remainder in excess of the transactions between languages. I will come back to this imagery when examining more in detail what I propose to call “luminous traversing”—taking my cue from Stevens’ “The Comedian as the Letter C,” a poem that, on the face of it, does take the crossed space of water into account as an agent of transformation:

He was a man made vivid by the sea,
A man come out of luminous traversing,
Much trumpeted, made desperately clear,
Fresh from discoveries of tidal skies,
To whom oracular rockings gave no rest.
Into a savage color he went on.
CPP, 24

2 Let us immediately note that such traversing also involves, crucially for our purpose, diving into the resources of French through Latin, all the more emphatically so for being called “luminous.” Building upon this metaphor, I will be arguing that the notion and process of traversing may serve to describe the special relationship linking English and French in Stevens’ poetry— “a force that traverses a shade,” as the last line of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” proposes (CPP, 417)—but also that the word includes this relationship in its Latinate form itself. Like the “verse” it harbors, Stevens’ “traverse” not only carries across seas of languages but loops back upon itself and singularly complicates the voyage from English to French. What happens when the voyage out also turns out to be the voyage in?

A Single Language?

  • 2 Adagia is the Latin plural form of adagium, root of the French (then English) word “adage.” Symptom (...)
  • 3 W. Stevens, À l’instant de quitter la pièce. Le Rocher et derniers poèmes; Adagia, p. 169.
  • 4 Although I suspect there was also a purely material, economic reason for not having the aphorisms a (...)

3We should perhaps start by wondering what happens to translation—and to the metaphors used to describe it—when the two languages in which the transaction takes place are preemptively deemed to be “a single language,” as Stevens famously contended in his Adagia.2 “French and English constitute a single language” (CPP, 914); “Le français et l’anglais constituent une seule langue.”3 Interestingly, in Claire Malroux’s French translation—published under the same cover as The Rock, posthumous poems, and some selected letters, all gathered under the title À l’instant de quitter la pièce (from the posthumous poem “As You Leave the Room”)—Adagia is not presented in the bilingual format consistently used for the poems, thereby reinforcing the illusion for a French reader that indeed the two languages are the same, as if Stevens had written his aphorisms directly in French.4 At the same time, one cannot but feel that there is something incongruous in translating this aphorism into French, specifically: if it is a single language, then the necessary distance constitutive of the bridge called “translation” does not even exist, and translating is an aberration. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that Stevens does not say that English and French “are the same” (which they obviously are not), but rather that they “constitute a single language.” The choice of words creates a significant difference. The translation of “single” by “une seule” is perhaps a source of confusion here, because it does not quite account for the singularity of this language that Stevens imagines as becoming single through some sort of dynamic process of “constitution”—a language that I would like to try and characterize by calling it “Near French,” i.e., a language worrying the distance between English and French, making the question of proximity and difference problematic. Could the translation have been “L’anglais et le français constituent une langue singulière”? Yes and no, because the more common meaning of the adjective “singulier” in modern French is “specific, characterized by particular traits,” while the older sense of “pertaining to one person or thing only” has been retained (as is always the case) in English for the primary meaning of “single” and has receded to a limited usage in French today. By using the adjective “single,” Stevens undoes the meaning of his aphorism even as his very choice of word seems to reinforce it: the necessarily bilingual work of translation enhances the singular difference linking French and English, relating English to French. In spite of appearances (or perhaps because of them), the singularity of this compound, Near French, can only be instantiated by its inherent duplicity. The overwhelming presence of the French language works here as a linguistic decoy. Indeed, in this “English” adagium, the three words “constitute,” “single,” and “language” all come from the French—as a matter of fact, all the main semantic words in this sentence derive from Latin roots. A very different sentence with approximately the same meaning (and yet a totally different effet de sens) could have been: “English and French share most of their words.”

  • 5 At this point, it is tempting to follow a Derridean path, obviously, by elaborating on what is prob (...)
  • 6 I am probably going a little too quickly here, leaving some very vital questions aside: Why does St (...)

4To complicate matters a little more, the aphorism just preceding this famous Stevensian pronouncement provides further evidence of the folding together of the two languages (their recursive relationship) by including two actual French words—even as the meaning of these two words refers to a link, a vital knot (noeud vital) that, according to the aphorist, would be lacking between reality and life. Stevens writes, “What reality lacks is a noeud vital with life” (CPP, 914). That’s a knotty difference, indeed, pointing to how tangled the issue of the difference between, and similarity of, these two languages is in Stevens; just as the question of how near to, or far from, reality life may be is one of the philosophical issues Stevens consistently deals with throughout his poetry. Beyond the necessity for the French translation to add a footnote to “noeud vital” (letting the untranslatable show through as it says, according to an apparently neutral convention, “En français dans le texte”), one cannot but underline the “vital link” tying this noeud vital to the willful erasure of all differences between languages. On the one hand, we have an excessive connection between two languages resulting in their fusion into a single entity, or at least suggesting the wish for this fusion on the poet’s part; on the other hand, the lack of just such a fusion is expressed precisely by letting the “foreign” language (French) untie the meaning, and unpack the relationship, that the sentence purports to convey. Displacing the existential question of the link between reality and life into an inextricable language knot, Stevens ironically suggests that difference requires a sufficient degree of similarity, and singularity (not) to be lacking. Same difference, as the phrase goes.5 Indeed, the very word “vital” illustrates this different sameness by being, in English, the adjective commonly used to relate (link) with “life,” a relationship that can only be expressed by this French import into English.6

Tying the Knot

  • 7, accessed 5 October 2017.
  • 8 Perhaps a little fancifully, we might note that, literally speaking, the calamus scriptorius is a “ (...)

5Thus, a “noeud vital with life” is a strangely pleonastic phrase that serves to displace the constructed “singleness” of French and English into the repetition of a word, “vital,” that both is and is not the same. Indeed, how do I pronounce it? Will I say “vital” with a stress on the second syllable, trying to mimic the French way of saying it? Or will I use the normal English pronunciation of the adjective? Or, being French after all, will I pronounce the two words without the slightest trace of an accent? By contrast, if I were American and had little French, would I know how to pronounce “noeud” correctly? Complicating the matter a little more, let us add that the phrase “noeud vital” does actually exist in “English,” at least in medical parlance, meaning “A circumscript region in the lower part of the medulla oblongata, near the apex of the calamus scriptorius, interpreted by M. Flourens (1858) as a nerve center that controls respiration”7—sometimes also called “vital knot” or “vital node.”8 This is indeed “To compound the imagination’s Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima” (CPP, 343).

6Of course, controlling respiration is mandatory for a poet, especially one like Stevens for whom, as he puts it in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,”

The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind.
CPP, 404

7In this long and long-winded (in a positive sense) poem, Stevens is precisely trying to establish poetry itself as the “noeud vital” allowing the poet to tie reality and life back together. Just as “We keep coming back and coming back / To the real” (CPP, 402), Stevens re-ties the severed knot of languages by coming back to the Latin root of the real, “the res itself”: “The poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it” (CPP, 404). What reality lacks in order to reconnect with life is this respiration, or “res-piration”—a breathing of the things themselves that only the “noeud vital” of poetry, only thus phrased in French and Latin, can provide: “breathless things broodingly abreath // With the inhalations of original cold / And of original earliness” (CPP, 410). One can see how much of a new breath, or perhaps more accurately a change of breath, the presence of French imparts to poetry for Wallace Stevens, and concomitantly to the thing-ness of reality that poetry always calls forth, as on this “Ordinary Evening” whose occasion is a far cry from the traditionally elegiac tone of such a poetic setting. Inhale in French and breathe out in English: Stevens’ inspirations depend on the “noeud vital” that allows a single language to emerge from the constant neighboring and jostling of English and French in his lines. It might be suggested that such neighboring is reflected, literally so (to the letter), in the minor spelling difference between the French “œ” and Stevens’ near French “oe” at the heart of his knot: a “nœud” is not exactly a “noeud,” even though this difficulty to tie the knot is no doubt due to the fact that English typewriters and New York compositors as a rule do not have this French sign available, and therefore are used to spelling the letters separately.

8Now, the phrase “noeud vital” can also be heard in a more jocular way— more naughtily than knottily—as is suggested by one Christopher Hawtree in a comment in The Independent:

  • 9 C. Hawtree, “Words: noeud vital, n.,” October 9, 1998. (...)

Meanwhile, to get to today’s noeud vital, Wallace Stevens wrote in the Fifties, in one of his notebooks, that “what reality lacks is a noeud vital with life.” The notes to the admirable Library of America edition translate this as “vital nexus.” To French ears, it means nerve centre, and is surely more piquant than the bland English equivalent. As for what else noeud can mean, we draw a veil over that.9

9Neither a knot nor a node, but rather a knob, is here the source of the vitality that could connect the real with life, allowing language and the thing to come together into one single entity. Thus the knotting together of French and English appears to be seminal for Stevens, allowing him to (pro) create the poem as a trans-linguistic place where the real and the unreal meet to fashion “An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought,” as he famously puts it in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (CPP, 333). Again, in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens writes that “Real and unreal are two in one” (CPP, 414). The “two in one” here proposed by the poet as a principle for what is, actually transfers (or translates) the same relational crux as the “noeud vital” onto (or into) a form of thinking and perceiving. And as a matter of fact, it strikes one as very close to his declaration about how the two languages, English and French, form a single entity when they are knotted together. The process of tying this knot is what makes up the very stuff of poetry, “This endlessly elaborating poem” (CPP, 415).

  • 10 As Juliette Utard reminds us in her article on Stevens’French, however, the poet reiterated the sam (...)
  • 11 There remains much to be said about Stevens’ Latin, particularly considering his training in law; a (...)

10It would be reductive, then, to think that what Stevens means about English and French is that they simply are one and the same language.10 Rather, his more daring idea is that when thus wedded together, two in one, they constitute (an important Latin verb, meaning “to set up, form, enact, appoint”—a particularly legal verb sometimes meaning “to give a legal form to,” and Stevens must have been sensitive to this more technical sense) not “the same” language but a singularity, a language that singularly, as much as single-handedly, reconciles life and reality. The task that French performs in Stevens’ poems consists in allowing the much desired joining of thing and poem in and as language to take place. Which is why Stevens uses the Latinate verb “constitute” to create a kind of Near French thanks to which the res of the world will be one with a thinged language.11

  • 12 The role of the negative particle ne in French as a trace of the speaking subject in a sentence lik (...)

11To carry this idea further, we could say that French is a language of desire for Stevens—and that is why I consider Hawtree’s suggestion about the slang meaning of nœud (penis) to be more seriously interesting than what I let on earlier, although I am not in any way claiming that Stevens was fully aware of this slang meaning. French is a language of desire, or more precisely, French insofar as it is used in English is this interstitial space of desire that Stevens lets flicker in his verse, a language that may only be approximated (or approximate)—Near French. Being the linguistic embodiment of such a strong creative drive, it therefore becomes an equally destructive impulse, the mangling force of life itself ( “blooded” conveys this ambivalence): for the “noeud vital” cannot be heard without its negative homonym, a “ne vital” (the ne we find in the standard negative formations ne… pas and ne… plus), allowing a negative “tying of the not.” Such a reading (a hearing) lets us perceive how singularly the “lack” gaping between reality and life is not stopped but rather displaced, transposed—not to say transferred or translated—to the linguistic material itself, which even in Stevens’ most assertive lines is lacerated by negativity. Thus, the “vital (k) not” that Stevens sees to be lacking between reality and life is made simultaneously ghostlier and more substantial by being caught in the fleeting transactions between English and French constantly taking place in his poetry. What is vital in the nœud/ne is the discordance its tying introduces: it has to remain forever lacking for life to persist, and the constitution of an impossibly single language is a requisite for the speaking subject (sujet de l’énonciation) to cleave to (and be cleaved by) its desire.12


  • 13 Venuti speaks of processes of “foreignization” when a translation makes it its project to create a (...)

12But let us return to the issue of translation, and specifically into French, in light of the negative charge of Near French. One may see it as resonating with, and amplifying the nature of, Stevens’ poetic probing of the relation between what he calls “life” and “reality,” by confronting his Near French with real French. To put it differently, the desire to consider French and English as a “single” language producing in effect a unique blend that makes Stevens’ diction very recognizable may superficially seem to be at cross-purposes with translation, but in fact it makes translation a necessary condition, throwing its very processes into relief. The twin questions of the distance it takes to translate, and of how far the text can be carried away from the original, become particularly acute here. Indeed, the French translation exacerbates the presence of French in the original, and alerts the reader to how radically Stevens’ English is altered by that other language. At the same time, any French translation of Stevens’ poetry is paradoxically forced to erase this alteration, this becoming-other, because it “flattens out,” as it were, the inner distance or vista created by the presence of French within the English. Here is a “foreignness”—to take up a word about which Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti have theorized when discussing translation and its effects—that cannot easily be accommodated.13 For indeed, what happens when the “foreign” element in the original—what gives it its specific value as an “original,” in the sense of a singular work—is the already overwhelming presence of the language into which the translation is being made? How can this singularity not be lost and at the same time reasserted and emphasized?

  • 14 I know from experience that these notes are a contested ground, and that the translator does not al (...)

13The difficulty to ascertain the limits of French and English within Stevens’ verse is evidenced by the system of footnotes and asterisks used in the French translation to point out the French words of the original—en français dans le texte.14 This is all the more so as the poems are presented in a bilingual format, making such footnotes apparently useless since readers can see across the page that some words are already in French in the original. In other words, the footnotes merely signal the presence of French words in the French translation. They serve to italicize the fact that what looks the same is in fact different, always already displaced (dislocated), and that translation cannot replace (relocate) it, except perhaps in the marginal space of a footnote, marking nothing else but the presence of the translator in her translation, just at the moment when her task is seemingly reduced to reproducing the French of the original. Just as Stevens’ “noeud vital” cannot be fully effective without the negative presence of a ne vital that haunts it—a coincidence that also exists in the English homophones knot and not—the work of translation is most effective when it is seemingly annulled in the footnotes that point to its asymptotic limit. Reinforcing this effect, the bilingual layout emphasizes the difficulty there is to stabilize the singularity created by Stevens’French when it has to be expressed in “real” French: the book’s gutter, far from drawing a clear line of demarcation between the two languages that jostle for attention in the reader’s mind, calls precisely for the reader’s trespassing back into foreign territory. The apparent neatness of this format is challenged by such connective work; the separation between the two pages/languages becomes porous, and crossing back and forth becomes the “traversing” Stevens invites us to embark upon, perhaps perilously in its very luminousness.

  • 15 W. Stevens, Harmonium, ed. and trans. by Claire Malroux, p. 29.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 280. “The word ‘traverse, ’ here translated by ‘route, ’ means the zigzagging trajectory (...)

14These topological imbrications of English and French bring us back, finally, to the idea of traversing. “Traverse” appears as a noun (which is much less common than the verb) in one of the early, programmatic poems of Harmonium, “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage”: “She touches the clouds, where she goes / In the circle of her traverse of the sea” (CPP, 5). The French version reads: “Elle touche les nuages, là où elle va / Traçant le cercle de sa route sur la mer.”15 As Claire Malroux points out in the endnotes she wrote for her translation of Harmonium, “Le mot traverse, traduit ici par ‘route, ’ désigne dans le domaine maritime une trajectoire en zigzag, due à des vents contraires.”16 These contrary winds are quite obviously those of the poem itself, whose first stanza opens with a double “But” contradicting the superficial equation the reader might be tempted to establish between the eponymous “Paltry Nude” and Venus, even as it suggests this very identification. Like the “traverse of the sea” (of the poem), the verses are no linear “way” but unfold at cross-purposes with their subject matter. Thus the “voyage” will not be an “irretrievable way” (last line) such as the “goldener nude / Of a later day // Will go” (CPP, 5); rather, its apparently simple French (for “voyage” in English only partly means voyage in French) will be complicated, folded upon itself and rerouted in its middle part, into a traverse, which indeed the tempting French word traversée ( “crossing”) would fail to account for, or translate. In other words, “traverse” is Stevens’ way of fraying French and English on the linguistic sea of his poem: caught halfway between “voyage” and “way”—and opposed to the very Scandinavian terms “scuds” and “scurry” (somewhat illicitly linked in sound to the “Scullion of fate”) to be found in the poem—the traverse of his poem pays attention to “the high interiors of the sea” that the usual metaphor for translation tries to ignore, if not negate as merely a hindrance (CPP, 4-5).

15It seems telling that, so early in his first collection, Stevens should describe his muse of sorts, his symbol for poetry and imagination, as not quite a Venus, using subtle deviations (or traverses) to displace the archetype of love and desire into the very linguistic fabric of his poem, in which English and French affect each other. These deviations call for translation and at the same time make it impossible—i.e., desirable. Translators always speak of the untranslatable; it is their topic of choice and pride. For indeed, to what extent can we say that “traverse” is a French word? Attempting to explain the etymology of the word in English, the OED suggests that “it is not possible to distinguish the senses which belong etymologically to French travers from those which belong to French traverse.” This sounds like a fitting description of the work of translation as a whole, in which traversing always entails the risk of getting something de travers (in the sense of getting it wrong). In a way, there is something very satisfying about having “traverse” translated by “route” in Malroux’ version, since the latter word is also one that has made the voyage back into English: in French, Stevens can still be read in English.


1 See B. Van Wyke, “Imitating Bodies and Clothes: Refashioning the Western Conception of Translation,” and particularly S. Tyulenev, “Translation as Smuggling” in Thinking through Translation with Metaphors, which offers a thorough analysis of what metaphors have been used to discuss translation—including how translation shares structural characteristics with metaphor.

2 Adagia is the Latin plural form of adagium, root of the French (then English) word “adage.” Symptomatically, Stevens used Latin as a mediating language between French and English.

3 W. Stevens, À l’instant de quitter la pièce. Le Rocher et derniers poèmes; Adagia, p. 169.

4 Although I suspect there was also a purely material, economic reason for not having the aphorisms and letters laid out in a bilingual presentation, which would have taken up twice as many pages, this choice says something about the status of poetry in translation—poetry being one of the rare genres for which such a presentation is fairly commonly adopted. In addition, let us note that in the three volumes of Stevens translated by Malroux and published under the imprint of José Corti in their American Poetry series, the bilingual format is adopted throughout.

5 At this point, it is tempting to follow a Derridean path, obviously, by elaborating on what is probably the most famous example in recent times of a Near French word, i.e., différance. I will refrain from going down that path and merely note here—anticipating on the difficulty to pronounce Stevens’ “noeud vital”—that while différance, when pronounced in French, is impossible to distinguish from différence, such is not the case in English.

6 I am probably going a little too quickly here, leaving some very vital questions aside: Why does Stevens feel the need to express the relationship between reality and life in French? What does it tell us about the putative singleness of these two languages? And about the singularity of their “special relation,” as Stevens calls it in a letter of 1950 (see below)?

7, accessed 5 October 2017.

8 Perhaps a little fancifully, we might note that, literally speaking, the calamus scriptorius is a “palm at the end of the mind” (CPP, 476).

9 C. Hawtree, “Words: noeud vital, n.,” October 9, 1998. l, accessed 5 October 2017.

10 As Juliette Utard reminds us in her article on Stevens’French, however, the poet reiterated the same statement in letters on two occasions, each time using the verb “to be”: “it can be said that English and French are a single language” (1950); “I still think that English and French are the same language” (1953). See J. Utard, “‘Chez moi’: Stevens at Home in the French Language,” p. 276-277.

11 There remains much to be said about Stevens’ Latin, particularly considering his training in law; and much also to be discussed about the constitution of a common language ground as it refers to the historical elaboration, if not of a democratic vista, then at least of the French and the American Republics (res publicae) incarnating a doubly singular point of origin for historical modernity.

12 The role of the negative particle ne in French as a trace of the speaking subject in a sentence like “Je crains qu’il ne vienne” (what grammarians call the ne explétif) is discussed on several occasions by Jacques Lacan. In one of the Écrits, Lacan shows that such negativity is precisely what constitutes the speaking subject as letting his desire pierce through: “Le sujet de l’énonciation en tant que perce son désir, n’est pas ailleurs que dans ce ne […]” (J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 664).

13 Venuti speaks of processes of “foreignization” when a translation makes it its project to create a space within the target language to allow the translated text to retain some of its foreignness; he opposes the strategy to “domestication,” which seeks fluency and transparency. Venuti borrows from Antoine Berman’s notion of “ethnocentric” translation. Both inherit these ideas from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s seminal 1813 lecture, On the Different Methods of Translating (Ueber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersetzens). See L. Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, in particular p. 84-85; and A. Berman, L’Épreuve de l’étranger.

14 I know from experience that these notes are a contested ground, and that the translator does not always have the final say in the matter. This is because the notes raise the issue of the legitimacy of the translation, as they often serve to point out certain limits (linguistic, cultural) of the translator’s work. In the case of en français dans le texte, the limit is a curiously asymptotic one by which the translator is forced to draw a distinction between his/her French and the French of the original, which appears as a kind of “hyper-French,” an italicized, singular French.

15 W. Stevens, Harmonium, ed. and trans. by Claire Malroux, p. 29.

16 Ibid., p. 280. “The word ‘traverse, ’ here translated by ‘route, ’ means the zigzagging trajectory of a sailboat due to contrary winds” (my translation).


Professor of American Literature and Literary Translation at Université Paris Diderot. A specialist of American poetry, he devoted his PhD to Emily Dickinson and is an elected member of the Emily Dickinson International Society Board. He wrote a monograph on John Ashbery (John Ashbery, à contrevoix de l’Amérique, 2000) and a book-length study of H.D.’s Trilogy (Écrire entre les murs: Trilogy de H.D., 2013), as well as over 60 research articles on American poetry, literary theory, and translation. As a translator, he was awarded the Prix de traduction Maurice-Edgar Coindreau in 2005 for his translation of Nicholson Baker’s ABox of Matches and The Size of Thoughts; most recently, he translated Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson into French (Ypsilon, 2017).

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