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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part One. Stevens’ Uses of French

“The lingua franca et jocundissima”: The Comedian as a French Speaker

Aurore Clavier

Texte intégral

Birds of a Feather?

  • 1 M. Moore, The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, p. 149.
  • 2 J. Utard, “‘Chez moi’: Stevens at Home in the French Language,” p. 279.

1In the first comment she wrote as The Dial’s new acting editor in July 1925, Marianne Moore chose to reflect upon features of “aesthetic consanguinity” and the “genetic sharing of tradition” between poets. Although the text mainly reacted to Amy Lowell’s recent death by paying tribute to the Keatsian accents of her last collection, ADome of Many-Colored Glass, it started as a catalog of the remote—past or foreign—affinities recognizable in several of her contemporaries. If H.D.’s primitivism was definitely Greek and T. S. Eliot’s complexities echoed “the verbal parquetry of Donne,” Wallace Stevens’ “multifarious plumage of thought and word [was] to be found, also, in France.”1 The coincidence would have been hardly denied by the Hartford poet, who would keep asserting the profound kinship, if not sheer identity, linking English and French. As Juliette Utard has underlined in her analysis of Stevens’ “domestic” attraction to French, he would repeatedly describe the two languages as forming a single tongue, if “not etymologically nor at sea level” (Letters, 792) then at least in poetic expression. “[C] ompound [ing] the imagination’s Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima” (CPP, 343), poetry was thus designed as “a mixed habitat”2 large enough to welcome words from a variety of origins and let them circulate freely across porous verbal lines. Indeed, while Stevens’ critical statements and meditations give ample theoretical ground to such linguistic connections—as in the famous line from Adagia, “French and English constitute a single language” (CPP, 914)—, their existence proves most literal in the close lexical and, at times, syntactical and prosodic weaving that makes up his writing.

  • 3 See J. Utard, “Pratiques poétiques du regret: Wallace Stevens, lecteur et traducteur de Du Bellay,” (...)

2Taking a closer look at the plurilingual surface of Stevens’ verse, however, one might wonder if the poet’s intimacy with French entails complete domestication; if, in other words, his shimmering “plumage” is not also a costume hiding a more deceptive mode of resemblance. Stevens was, after all, one of the few American poets of his generation never to have accomplished the great transatlantic passage to Europe, and France for him always remained a geographically distant horizon.3 Though poetically familiar, France was therefore also represented as a place of desire, a fantasized dwelling that, in Stevens’ world of polarities and tropical attractions, became a paradoxically exotic foyer, simultaneously appearing as domestic and foreign, close and remote, congruent and dissimilar.

  • 4 A similar claim could be made about the French epigraphs inscribed in italics at the beginning of “ (...)

3Translated into poetic writing, this paradox frequently shows through the minor intervals created by the visual setting of the page, causing French words to stand slightly apart, even when the text would integrate them to its surface. “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” “Anglais Mort à Florence,” “Gallant Chateau,” “Cuisine Bourgeoise,” “Les Plus Belles Pages,” “Poésie Abrutie,” “Esthétique du Mal,” “Celle Qui Fût Héaulmiette,” “Madame La Fleurie”: one need only glance at an index of Stevens’ works to realize the recurrence of French titles, not to mention those associating several languages ( “Homunculus et la Belle Étoile,” “Fabliau of Florida,” “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu,” to name a few). While seemingly bridging the gap between languages, such a process also widens the visible distance between the title and the text, keeping the French phrase within the liminal space of the paratext, a site that, to borrow from Gérard Genette’s metaphor of the threshold, belongs to the home while at the same time lying outside it :4

  • 5 G. Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, p. 2.

More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or—a word Borges used apropos of a preface—a “vestibule” that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back. It is an “undefined zone” between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text) […].5

4Similarly, after crossing the threshold into the space delineated by the poetic stanzas, the reader will sometimes hesitate before an italicized French term, observing how typography might discreetly run counter to linguistic domestication and signal hidden gaps in the tight knitting of the text. Often the slanted word, phrase, or line will reveal a latent dissonance between “things as they are” (CPP, 135) and their imagined version, whether its projections be wished for or rejected, its visual and linguistic difference opening up a miniature breach for the Stevensian mental drama to take place. Wavering between the renewed temptations of courtship and the lucidity of autumnal life, the second stanza of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” thus points out the illusory proximity of the wished-for affair by superimposing typographical obliquity onto the lexical and grammatical ambiguity of the last lines: “Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss / To make believe a starry connaissance” (CPP, 11). On an even more bathetic note, the brittle arrangements of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” seem to be rendered more fragile by foreign irruptions, from the insult “Cochon!” springing from the comparison of earthly “Belgian grapes” with saintly “auburn aureoles” (CPP, 124) to the womanly comment “Encore un instant de bonheur,” deemed too trite for “The taste of even a country connoisseur” (CPP, 127). Such phrases need not always sound so harshly ironical to emphasize poetic virtuality, for instance reaching for the fiction of “a dark-blue king, un roi tonnerre” (CPP, 229), rejecting the evasions of “the sea, la belle / Aux crinolines” (CPP, 232), seeking the “softest / Woman with a vague moustache and not the mauve / Maman” (CPP, 283), or, more conspicuously, punctuating “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” and its five impressionist tableaux with Baudelairean reflections of the perceiving self (CPP, 82-85).

5However noticeable these typographic deflections might be, they seem by no means a necessary condition for Stevens’ omnipresent French words subtly to disrupt the flow of lines, and to open it up to a poetic other, as appears most clearly in the linguistic and metaphorical shift of his posthumous quatrain:

Reality is a cliché
From which we escape by metaphor
It is only au pays de la métaphore
Qu’on est poète.
CPP, 920

  • 6 M. Borroff, “Wallace Stevens’ World of Words, Part I,” p. 45-46.

6Studying the impressive diversity of languages, sources, and registers thus making up Stevens’ “much-mottled” verse, Marie Borroff has underlined the processes of “foregrounding”—a term she borrows from the Prague School’s literary theorists—through which, regardless of their typography, “words differing conspicuously from one another as words, become, in consequence, more visible, [and] interpose themselves between the reader and the discursive sequence of a text much as materials of differing textures in a collage attract the eye and thus compete for attention with the design.”6

From the Threshold to the Proscenium: Stevens’ Comic Stage

  • 7 Ibid., p. 46.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 46-47.
  • 9 F. M. Robinson, The Comedy of Language: Studies in Modern Comic Literature, p. 93.

7In this “literally ‘arresting, ’ and hence opaque, quality of language,”7 Borroff does not only identify a programmatic desire to capture the heterogeneous texture of life, but also a subversive effect reflecting, at the level of diction, the deeper conceptual swerves agitating Stevens’ poetry, and whose most blatant expression she recognizes in the comic fluctuations of speech and its association of jarring elements. Indeed, though not limited to their humorous effects, the types of “verbal motley” and “dampening of eloquence”8 we find in the poems forcefully inscribe Stevens’ work within a long tradition of comic verse, ranging from nonsensical incongruence to parodic inflation, from farcical puns to the bitter laughter of the absurd. Extending Stevens’ “comedy of language” to the overall dynamics of his works, Fred Miller Robinson acknowledges a similar relationship between the “odd music”9 of disparate terms and the poet’s endless yet cheerful oscillation between the world and its imaginary projections:

  • 10 Ibid., p. 91-92.

Stevens’ comedian-poets are not comic because they fail to adhere their imaginations to reality (such failure can be bitter or anguishing, as it sometimes is in his poetry), or because they succeed (success would obviate the comic), but because they both fail and succeed at the same time. The poet wishes to imagine, to shape reality with words […]. But reality has moved from there to here, and so made him fail. But he does not accept failure, he tries again and again, and in the comedy of his attempts to shape the shapeless, his gestures are both ironic and joyful.10

  • 11 In the article quoted above, Borroff does provide a thorough analysis of the proportion of French, (...)

8While they convincingly explore the effects deriving from speech diversity, these readings nevertheless tend to eclipse the role played by specific tongues, and more particularly by French, in Stevens’ poetic comedy.11 Yet, as its various occurrences have shown, the French language, wavering between a recognizable reflection of the same and a remote echo of the foreign, often appears to be the chosen language of comic disruption and, more strikingly, of its theatrical expression. Submitted to distance and distortion, the poetic “chez moi” (Letters, 728) does not only turn into a comic ground where incongruence disrupts the smooth mechanics of the familiar, but is also marked by a displacement from the inner recess of the foyer to the open ground of the proscenium, as the tongue of intimate affinities paradoxically leads to verbal foregrounding. Such is the space delineated by poems in which the speaker, turned orator or comedian, addresses an audience of “Mesdames” and “Messieurs,” conjuring up an assembly of spectators where the domestic poet or the stay-at-home reader once stood. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” thus takes the form of a jocular harangue directed to a single but repeatedly apostrophized “madame” for whom the speaker erects a wide “planetary scene” out of hypothetical naves and peristyles. As one cosmic décor replaces another, the provocative oration proves how, more than any heavenly absolute, “Poetry is the supreme fiction,” allowing for the great verbal “masque” to take place, in a “jovial hullabaloo” of obsequious French, droll vernacular, and riotous onomatopoeias, making readers laugh while “widows wince” (CPP, 47). In “Owl’s Clover,” the individual address gives way to a collective “Mesdames,” while provocative mockery transforms into an invitation to embrace the perpetual change of the seasonal scene drawn around them: “Mesdames, it is not enough to be reconciled / Before the strange, having wept and having thought / And having said farewell. […] It is only enough / To live incessantly in change” (CPP, 157). With a similar mise-en-scène, the orator of “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas” establishes the artifice of the paper world that surrounds his audience of “Messieurs” (CPP, 228), leaving the serious personages—now reduced to mere comical “beards”—no other choice than to become the farcical ushers to a spectacle of French-sounding jeers and mocking messes-basses (whispers):

My beards, attend
To the laughter of evil: the fierce ricanery
With the ferocious chu-chot-chu between, the sobs
For breath to laugh the louder, the deeper gasps
Uplifting the completest rhetoric
Of sneers, the fugues commencing at the toes
And ending at the finger-tips....
CPP, 229

“Tom-tom, c’est moi”: French Personae

  • 12 G. Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, p. 17.

9As these lines also suggest, Stevens’ French comedy does not only operate at a spatial level. Just as he turns the familiar world into a fictitious stage and enjoins the reader to attend his verbal play as a spectator and sometimes unwilling character, the French-speaking poet himself keeps donning a variety of verbal costumes. The actor’s garb was already discernable in Marianne Moore’s image of the “multifarious plumage,” which, however mimetic, also makes itself fully visible while alluding to a deceptive form of resemblance based on change and disguise. Because of the ever so slight discordances at play between languages, Stevens’ characters point to the very masks they wear, thus compromising perfect identification. In this conscious distance between the actor and his persona, Giorgio Agamben recognizes the essential limit separating comedy from tragedy, a partition inherited, through the Middle Ages, from late Antiquity. “The Stoic critique of tragedy is developed,” he explains, “through the metaphor of the actor, in which human life appears as a dramatic performance and men are presented as actors to whom a part (a prosopon, a mask) has been assigned. For the Stoics, what is tragic is not the mask in itself but the attitude, whether of attraction or repulsion, of the actor who identifies with it.”12

  • 13 Ibid.

10Secretly perpetuating this distinction, Stevens’ poet-comedians are designated as such through language, allowing little room for the tragic “confusion between actor and character,”13 however desperate their ontological plight might appear. French may well crystallize a regretful desire for regained identity and the longing for a distant “chez moi,” as Stevens’ 1950 letter to Bernard Heringman suggests: “I suppose that if I ever go to Paris the first person I meet there will be myself since I have been there one way or another for so long—unless, like a friend of mine who spent his life there, I avoided the Americans in order to see more of the French” (Letters, 665). Yet, as the latter part of the statement suggests, when the imaginary traveler fancies avoiding his American self to meet a French alter ego, the poet never quite seeks to dissimulate the histrionic duplicity underlying his persona’s bilingualism and double culture. “The Man with the Blue Guitar” appears as a case in point: “Tom-tom, c’est moi,” we hear at the beginning of section XII (CPP, 140). Enter the performer with a theatrical flourish, paradoxically asserting a forceful yet already dubious identity. For is it really me whose French words seem to spring out of the blue, announced by a mere “tom-tom,” a redoubled syllable sounding at once like a jocular “knock-knock,” a theatrical drum beat, and a stammered name? Are the “blue guitar” and “I” really “one” when the predication appears to say otherwise, preceded—in its French version—by the English name of another instrument, then split—in its English form—by the line end ( “The blue guitar / And I are one”), a severance repeated multiple times in the final questions of the section:

Do I begin and end? And where,

As I strum the thing, do I pick up
That which momentously declares

Itself not to be I and yet
Must be.
CPP, 140

11When, in other words, does the performer’s voice stop ringing as his own, and at what point does his face become a comic mask, identical yet distinctly other?

  • 14 M. Moore, Complete Poems, p. 87 (first published in 1917 as “French Peacock” in Others: An Antholog (...)

12Through his use of the foreign tongue, then, Stevens complicates the very generic tradition he maintains. Somewhat blurring the distinction between the poet and the comedian, French simultaneously characterizes a voice and the mask through which it is sounded, a person’s true or longed-for identity and a separate persona, just as the locale of poetry keeps shifting between home and the stage. Thus we can interpret the playful gallery of characters— including innumerable caricatures of the poet himself—who constitute Stevens’ dramatis personae: not only does their or the speaker’s language, studded by French words or phrases, mark off a distinctive and intimate voice, but it also tends to conjure up full-blooded types, along with their recognizable and distanced masks, coming straight out of the world of French comedy (from its medieval to its neoclassical manifestations) or its Italian, Latin, and Greek forebears. In this regard, the barely unconscious parallel is worth noticing between Moore’s portrait of Stevens as a particolored bird and her description of Molière, whom she hailed as “the peacock of France” in a 1917 poem.14 Following Moore’s suggestion, as one listens to Stevens’ troop of pedagogues, academicians, doctors, and philosophers, and to the affected strings of French, Romance, or Latinate polysyllables running through “The Doctor of Geneva,” “Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” or “The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician,” among other poems, one is easily reminded of the French playwright’s stiff physicians and preceptors, who, like Rabelais’s Sorbonnards, seem at pains to ever “get it straight” (CPP, 351). Though slightly less stilted, the type of the aging suitor seems no less exposed to ridicule than the Stevensian scholar when he struggles to articulate a self-conscious ode to the beloved lady long after the youthful vigor of the pen has left him, as the balding bespectacled lover confesses in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”:

But in our amours amorists discern
Such fluctuations that their scrivening
Is breathless to attend each quirky turn.
When amorists grow bald, then amours shrink
Into the compass and curriculum
Of introspective exiles, lecturing. CPP, 12

  • 15 D. Fuchs, The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens, p. 3-30.

13Somewhat neglecting the beloved muse for a more finical cult of refinement, the seventeenth-century fop also keeps holding a taunting mirror up to the poet’s own aesthetic preciosity, unless his decadent descendant should replace him under the dandy’s guise examined at length by Daniel Fuchs.15 And if Mascarille’s coxcombical silhouette or Sganarelle’s stooping shadow regularly haunt Stevens’ most self-deriding verse, their knavish counterparts may equally be observed as they submit to insult, mistreatment, and mockery, or cunningly challenge fate and master under the guise of false respect. From the derisory height of his costumed figure, Crispin’s character thus looms large over “The Comedian as the Letter C” and its bathetic odyssey, resuscitating his neoclassical ancestor who, just like Scapin, epitomized the devoted yet deceitful and self-serving valet, while his black apparel, boots, muff, and rapier evoked his braggart predecessors of the commedia dell’arte, El Capitan and Scaramouche. Just as parodically, the oversized attire and attitude displayed by Stevens’ Crispin mark him off as both “the knave” and “the thane,” the ambitious “valet” turned lordly explorer yet quickly “washed away by magnitude” (CPP, 22) and repeatedly humbled by failure.

  • 16 In light of a more Spanish tradition, Crispin’s metamorphoses also send us back to the comic contra (...)

14Crispin’s mask is worth scrutinizing at greater length, for however flatly archetypal it might appear at first, it also invites us to delve more deeply into the multiple folds of Stevens’ comic personae and their linguistic play, turning the parodic epic into a model stage for the poet’s French voices to resonate. Indeed, as early as the first expository lines, many other guises surface under the valet’s costume, shining the spotlight back on Crispin’s most significant mask of all, that which precisely enables him to perform all comic roles at once. As his initial makes clear, Crispin is the comedian stepping forward as the letter C—a phrase that, once again, designates both his most essential identity and the part he plays. In his very linguistic essence—a sign and a sound—he represents the quintessential comic performer, an elementary figure containing an infinity of potential parts, a mere “stick” the poet keeps unclothing only to dress him up again. The letter he incarnates becomes a line one bends and straightens at will to draw a variety of grotesque shapes, wavering between the austere leanness of an I and the expansive abundance of a fat-bellied C.16 Following such modulations of form, the valet thus changes into a series of characters whose descriptions almost simultaneously evoke the rigid professor, the foppish dandy, the feisty combatant, and the laughable coward, through a dizzy succession of designations, one mask being quickly superimposed onto another before being temporarily reduced to a silence that is also pregnant with new stage names:

The lutanist of fleas, the knave, the thane,
The ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches, cloak
Of China, cap of Spain, imperative haw
Of hum, inquisitorial botanist,
And general lexicographer of mute
And maidenly greenhorns, now beheld himself,
A skinny sailor peering in the sea-glass.
What word split up in clickering syllables
And storming under multitudinous tones
Was name for this short-shanks in all that brunt?
CPP, 22

15Endlessly reproducing this initial rhythm, inflating and contracting between grandiose declamation and verbal leanness, parodic inflation and absurd nakedness, the mock epic thus stages successive comic metamorphoses, new luxuriant costumes covering up Crispin’s nudity, bare selves showing through the shedding of old skins, up to the comedian’s ultimate performance as a chastened Candide cultivating his plot of ground and as a patriarch overwhelmed by no less than four “daughters with curls” (CPP, 35), “four more personae” (CPP, 36) to further complicate his role. With each new apparel, out of each changing form of the comedian’s name, new sounds keep emerging, from the simplest phoneme to the most extravagant words, constantly reminding the spectator of the foreign dimension of Crispin’s theater of sound. As the letter opens up to a multitude of combinations, one hears the click of a “k” clashing with the hiss of an “s” and its associated homophones “see” and “sea” (the seeing eye guiding Crispin’s voyage and the ocean that “severs not only lands but selves”; CPP, 24), unless one should be tempted to hear more hidden evocations in the confrontation of English and French pronunciations—the doubt of an “if” (si) shaking the realist’s certitudes (c’est or si understood as oui). If such undertones remain rather discreet, other French accents resonate more loudly throughout the poem, not only accompanying the comedian’s transformations, but also altering the surrounding décor and signaling infinite perceptive modulations in a baroque theater of illusion, flux, and inversion.

“Bordeaux to Yucatan” and Back? Carnivalesque Revolutions

  • 17 H. Bergson, Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique, p. 35-38.

16For all the apparent impermanence created by the verbal surface of Crispin’s odyssey, and of Stevens’ poetry at large, one is also struck by the persistent association of French and Romance words with Symbolist “habitude” (CPP, 28) and effeminate “douceur” (CPP, 35), long after the comedian’s departure from his native land of “gelatines and jupes” (CPP, 22), “pale parasols” and “chaste bouquets” (CPP, 23). Certainly, such resurgences help maintain the valet’s comic masquerade: as Crispin keeps donning the inflated and overwrought costumes he so resolutely left behind at the onset of his voyage, one is reminded of the obstinate release of the devil in the box evoked by Henri Bergson as a model for the comedy of repetition.17 But poised against the actor’s struggle to “stem verboseness in the sea,” and become “free / From the unavoidable shadow of himself” (CPP, 24), in search of “some starker, barer self” (CPP, 23), the opulence of the French language and of the old poetic world it represents takes on a more equivocal significance as it proves impossible to cast away. To use a French calque, it seems as if the mask would obdurately stick to the actor’s skin, threatening to harden into a tragic face, a final transformation the speaker explicitly contemplates when, in the fifth section of the poem (CPP, 32-34), the “matinal continent” sought by the explorer eventually shrinks to the all too familiar proportions of a “Nice Shady Home,” while the “realist” half surrenders to the “Harlequined” forms of poetry he so willfully rejected:

Was he to bray this in profoundest brass
Arointing his dreams with fugal requiems?
Was he to company vastest things defunct
With a blubber of tom-toms harrowing the sky?
Scrawl a tragedian’s testament? Prolong
His active force in an inactive dirge,
Which, let the tall musicians call and call,
Should merely call him dead? […]
Because he built a cabin who once planned
Loquacious columns by the ructive sea?
Because he turned to salad-beds again?
Jovial Crispin, in calamitous crape?
CPP, 33

17Gazing at Crispin’s tragicomic mask, one is tempted to recognize the poet’s face itself, imperfectly hiding behind the persona’s, as if, to conjure up a more vocal metaphor, the ventriloquist’s own timbre unwittingly sounded through others’ voices. Read in this light, the resurgence of French would not only reflect an obsessive return to the old world and its hackneyed, ornate forms, against the sailor’s move toward the raw virginity of the new continent, but would also suggest the author’s more intimate resistance to his own poetic past and idiosyncrasies, an impossible desire to “clip” the “relation” (CPP, 37) and prune the language by casting away the words and images of French literature. In this case, Crispin’s struggle against “the indulgences / That in the moonlight have their habitude” (CPP, 28) and the painted “azure” of the “rainy men” (CPP, 30) would only anticipate many such attempts to shed old French skins, for example foreshadowing the decadent scene of “The Man on the Dump” discarding metaphorical waste in the stale light of a Symbolist crepuscule:

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho... The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers.
CPP, 184

18But to stop at that point, to hear French as a mere obstinate and potentially tragic persistence of old forms, would be to neglect the deeply unstable dynamics of the epic, and to fix a term to the voyage, when the poet only playfully decides to suspend its relation, therefore reasserting the final artifice of the masked comedy. The comedian’s odyssey does not lead to a dead end any more than to a return, but continuously renews itself in the circulation between opposite tropes, whether they be the polar north and the florid south or the purple old world and the green new continent. Similarly, the persona’s words should not be heard in isolation, but only truly find their meaning in the “blissful liaison,” and maybe even more in the fortunate tensions, hesitations, and reversals between languages, be it at the scale of a line or at the heart of a single word. As the comedian’s theatrical lineage suggests, the voyage enables the crossing between Molière’s and Shakespeare’s tongues, more than it perpetuates the single line of a merely romance tradition. In light of theatrical history, Crispin’s name does not only evoke the feisty valet of Italian and French comedy, but also conjures up Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s day speech, a Shakespearean harangue pronounced on the saint’s feast day, before the battle of Agincourt (another theatrical space dramatizing the pull between French and English).

  • 18 Both L. E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer’s Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914) and C. Wood and G. Godda (...)

19Converting this mixed theatrical heritage into linguistic play, the comedian’s name itself keeps wavering between the evocations of its Romance and Saxon origins, between the crispness of renewal and the crispation of usage. And though the latter would seem to confirm the association of French with a stale habit, other harmonics suggest the opposite bias. When, on “Approaching Carolina,” the navigator is viewed as a bright “fagot in the lunar fire,” the derogatory accents of the English homophone faggot thus tend to bring out the persona’s foppishness, while the French origin of the word becomes fuel for a renewing blaze.18 The epilogue of the poem is built on comparable interferences. The tentative conclusion drawn by Crispin hinges on a set of phonetic and etymological harmonics sending us back to the origins of the speaker’s language:

Crispin concocted doctrine from the rout.
The world, a turnip once so readily plucked,
Sacked up and carried overseas, daubed out
Of its ancient purple, pruned to the fertile main,
And sown again by the stiffest realist,
Came reproduced in purple, family font,
The same insoluble lump.
CPP, 36

  • 19 At its most local and primitive, the type of Stevensian vernacular sounding through such poems as “ (...)
  • 20 On the association of French, Romance, and Latinate diction with a language of cultural and politic (...)

20The first line explicitly refers to the patriarch’s four “chromatic” versions of himself and the ensuing disturbance, although the surrounding “rout” is already marked by a hesitation between the rabble its Old French origin designated and the uproar evoked by the Scandinavian derivation of the word. Yet preceded as it is by a cooking term and, even more significantly, followed by a running agricultural metaphor, the word cannot but unearth the image of the “root,” unless the transplantation should bring up Crispin’s “route” across the ocean and continent. Navigating between the static obstinacy of the land and the fluidity of the sea voyage, between the seasonal return of old forms and a radical severance from the past, Stevens’ comedy of language thereby exhibits, with each revolution of the turnip-shaped world it describes, its inherently carnivalesque nature. In this cyclical round of the old and new, French and English, like two faces of the same reversible mask, are not so much opposed as they upset and rejuvenate each other at every spin of the top. If the poet’s Anglo-Saxon roots and vernacular American19 provide wild antidotes to the cultural authority and “flambeaued manner” of French (CPP, 62),20 English, in its turn, is continuously stirred by French, whether it sounds like a secret language of desire or a truculent “gasconade of drums” (CPP, 26) (Cyrano de Bergerac appearing like a further extension of Crispin’s poetic line and geographical course). Less “perfectly revolved” (CPP, 37) than endlessly revolving, the mask, agitated by the tangle of tongues, never freezes once and for all. As the past folds of language turn into new shapes and let “escent—issant pre-personae” surface, the “Long and Sluggish Lines” of a potentially tragic voice thus open up to a poetry of laughter, perpetually reinvented as a babbling and “comic infanta among the tragic drapings” (CPP, 442-443).


1 M. Moore, The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, p. 149.

2 J. Utard, “‘Chez moi’: Stevens at Home in the French Language,” p. 279.

3 See J. Utard, “Pratiques poétiques du regret: Wallace Stevens, lecteur et traducteur de Du Bellay,” p. 61.

4 A similar claim could be made about the French epigraphs inscribed in italics at the beginning of “Colloquy with a Polish Aunt” and “United Dames of America,” for example.

5 G. Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, p. 2.

6 M. Borroff, “Wallace Stevens’ World of Words, Part I,” p. 45-46.

7 Ibid., p. 46.

8 Ibid., p. 46-47.

9 F. M. Robinson, The Comedy of Language: Studies in Modern Comic Literature, p. 93.

10 Ibid., p. 91-92.

11 In the article quoted above, Borroff does provide a thorough analysis of the proportion of French, Romance, and Latinate words in Stevens’ poetry, but equally focuses on other linguistic origins.

12 G. Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, p. 17.

13 Ibid.

14 M. Moore, Complete Poems, p. 87 (first published in 1917 as “French Peacock” in Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, p. 77).

15 D. Fuchs, The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens, p. 3-30.

16 In light of a more Spanish tradition, Crispin’s metamorphoses also send us back to the comic contrast between, on the one hand, Don Quixote’s lean silhouette and stark idealism, and, on the other, Sancho Panza’s appetite and earthy opulence, read by Mikhail Bakhtin as a reminiscence of carnivalesque abundance. See M. Bakhtine, L’Œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance, p. 31-32.

17 H. Bergson, Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique, p. 35-38.

18 Both L. E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer’s Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914) and C. Wood and G. Goddard’s Dictionary of American Slang (1926) attest that the disparaging sense of the term was already in use when the poem was written (Oxford English Dictionary, “faggot,” 6. b.).

19 At its most local and primitive, the type of Stevensian vernacular sounding through such poems as “Bantams in Pine-Woods” (CPP, 60) can be heard as a prolongation of the Whitmanian song, which Pierre-Yves Pétillon compares to a “fairground spectacle,” an operatic and theatrical howl thrown, in overplayed barbarity, against the polished forms of the old continent. P.-Y. Pétillon, La grand-route. Espace et écriture en Amérique, p. 15.

20 On the association of French, Romance, and Latinate diction with a language of cultural and political authority, see M. Borroff, “Robert Frost’s New Testament: Language and the Poem.”


Associate Professor at Université Lille 3. Her research bears on the historical and geographical redefinitions of American modernism, with a specific focus on the works of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. She is the author of several articles on modernist poetry and of a forthcoming book on Marianne Moore and the question of American origins and originality.

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