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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Three. Stevens’ French Connections Real and Imaginary

The Hartford Bourguignon: French Wines in Stevens’ Writings

Edward Ragg

Texte intégral

1This chapter investigates the persistent attraction to, and even hold on, Wallace Stevens’ imagination that French wines, especially the wines of Burgundy, exerted. It explores Stevens’ engagement with French gastronomy, and French wine specifically, from his early adulthood through to the 1950s when wine—especially Burgundian wines—became the quasi-barometer through which Stevens measured the places, politics, and culture (s) of his time. The special case of “Montrachet-le-Jardin” (1942) is re-examined here with increased attention to Burgundian wine culture, also addressing the Entretiens de Pontigny décades—the ten-day gatherings of notable European artists, writers, and philosophers in Burgundy’s Pontigny—from their original manifestation in France to their rehabilitated form on US soil during World War II. “Montrachet-le-Jardin” is, however, also reassessed alongside Stevens’ equally demanding appropriation of Burgundian wine in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (1942), specifically through a reading of the opening sections of “It Must Give Pleasure,” where the assembled figures pointedly report, “We drank Meursault, [and] ate lobster Bombay with mango / Chutney” (CPP, 347).

2Revealingly, this token of Burgundian culture— “Meursault” as location and the origin of some of Burgundy’s finest white wines—is read in light of earlier wine-related content in “It Must Give Pleasure,” including its reference to indigenous American viticulture, via the place-name “Catawba,” which also nominates a native American grape variety much in use during Stevens’ times. In fact, the extent to which French wine and American viticulture intertwined historically during Stevens’ epoch—effectively saving the French wine industry from prolonged ruin—creates a backdrop to the cultural grafting of names and places that both “Montrachet-le-Jardin” and “It Must Give Pleasure” effect. Indeed, wine and vinous imagery become parts of Stevens’ transatlantic poetic gestures—most acutely in 1942 with reference to France, but also, after 1945, in his Cold War commentary, which also frequently refers to France and, especially, to his beloved Burgundy.

  • 1 For further information on the establishment of the Burgundian Premier Cru vineyards, which began i (...)

3What emerges is that, for Stevens, French wines, and especially Burgundian wines with their prioritizing of place over grape variety, represent poetic nexuses where locations, place-names, people, and their cultures interact actually and imaginatively. Such a fascination is especially significant considering that, by 1942, most of Burgundy was under Nazi Occupation precisely when a freethinking initiative such as Les Entretiens de Pontigny—realized originally on Burgundian soil—had already been transplanted to the US. Stevens himself would contribute to the rehabilitated Pontigny proceedings at Mount Holyoke in 1943. Interestingly, this was the very same year the Burgundians hastily re-designated some of their vineyards as Premier Cru status, in order to protect these culturally significant bastions of French culture from the land requisitioning of their Nazi occupiers (who themselves took an alarming interest in Burgundian wines).1 Clearly, these events slightly postdate Stevens’ 1942 poems. But, as I shall suggest, Stevens’ prior knowledge of Burgundy and awareness of Les Entretiens de Pontigny, through Henry Church, impacted on his attraction to French wine in general and to Burgundy in particular.

  • 2 E. Ragg, “Bourgeois Abstraction.”

4But how was Stevens first exposed to French wine specifically? The poet’s engagement with French vinous culture stems from his early experiences of New York. As I argued in my contribution to Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism, the poet’s estimation of the good life clearly involved immersion in French wine, the young Stevens being painfully conscious of lacking the financial wherewithal to appreciate this element of French culture.2 A 1903 journal entry reports:

I have […] dined at Mouquin’s on French artichokes + new corn etc. with a flood of drinks from crême de cassis melée [sic], through Burgundy, Chablis etc. to sloe gin with Mexican cigars + French cigaroots.
Letters, 64

5Note Stevens’ early interest here in Burgundy, of which Chablis is part, and a cocktail of Burgundian origin: Burgundy’s blackcurrant liqueur (crème de cassis) mixed with Cognac or vermouth to form a mêlé-cassis. In 1903 such appreciation of French gastronomy was a rarity for the struggling journalist turning lawyer (Stevens not passing his New York Bar exams until June 1904). Even guzzling “vin ordinaire,” as Stevens also reports in his 1903 journal, strained the poet’s purse and contrasts in the same entry with “the scrutiny of things as they are”—probably Stevens’ earliest use of that phrase as he tried to address his relative poverty, career options, and literary ambitions (Letters, 68).

  • 3 See E. Ragg, “Love, Wine, Desire,” and E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, (...)

6This early fascination with Burgundy would prove materia poetica once Stevens assured his financial freedom, as evidenced by the Burgundian allusions shared between “Montrachet-le-Jardin” and Canto V of “It Must Give Pleasure.” These were poems produced as such liberty and other freedoms were being starkly re-evaluated when Burgundy itself became part of the dividing line between Nazi Occupied France and Vichy France. As previously argued in The Wallace Stevens Journal and in a revised reading of “Montrachet-le-Jardin” in my book Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, what seems to have attracted Stevens to Burgundy was its multifarious expressions of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes through specific locales, single vineyards (whether of Premier Cru or Grand Cru status), as well as the etymologically revealing names of these vineyards and their adjoining lieux-dits (place-names).3

7Thus, although there is not, as Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson suggest, a “white wine” (CPP, 1001) called “Montrachet-le-Jardin,” Montrachet is a prized Grand Cru vineyard planted to Chardonnay, shared by the Burgundian villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. It is also clear that Stevens vicariously enjoyed Burgundy’s locales by consuming its wines in his Hartford garden; hence, perhaps, the hyphenated tag “le jardin” (though see also below for a discussion of the Entretiens de Pontigny sessions with reference to “le jardin”). Returning from New York, Stevens recounted bringing back “a little Chablis and a little Meursault,” adding, “This last always seems the coldest thing in the world on a hot day in the garden where I like to have lunch occasionally if the neighbors are away as they often are” (Letters, 682). Admittedly, this preference dates from 1950. But my point is that Stevens clung to an idea of Burgundy he equated with imaginative and everyday freedoms, which is partially reflected in “Montrachet-le-Jardin” itself.

  • 4 For further discussion of the significance of the place-name “Montrachet,” see E. Ragg, Wallace Ste (...)
  • 5 The extent to which Burgundy became a political fault line is exemplified by the fate of Anna Drill (...)

8The practice of hyphenating significant names is notably Burgundian. Along with Puligny and Chassagne appropriating “Montrachet,” many Burgundian village names are double- or triple-barreled to incorporate the titles of their most prestigious vineyards, a practice that accrued during Stevens’ lifetime. For example, Gevrey-Chambertin harnesses the Chambertin Grand Cru, Morey-Saint-Denis captures the Clos St. Denis Grand Cru, Chambolle-Musigny trumpets the famed Musigny Grand Cru vineyard, and so on. Stevens’ lower-case “le” attaches a more everyday kind of garden to the prestigious “Montrachet,” consistent with his own backyard imbibing of Burgundy. There is even a certain degree of make-believe involved in the very name “Montrachet,” meaning a “shaven mountain”: the vineyard forms part of a gently undulating slope, but its name, at least in terms of folklore, implies some prior summit of larger proportions.4 Just as Burgundian villages project the prestige of their most famous vineyards by compounding names, Stevens’ hyphenation imaginatively projects his horticultural appreciation of what Burgundy represents culturally, as if the poet takes his own shaving from the Burgundian landscape, grafting this onto the American rootstocks of his homegrown imagination. At least, Stevens’ hyphenation implies solidarity with Burgundy’s vineyards and people as part of the extended “garden of France,” then occupied in 1942. Indeed, by November 1942, the Nazis had fully occupied the country, disbanding Vichy France in all but name and effectively ending any notion of French sovereignty.5

9Burgundy became, in fact, the frequent prism through which Stevens reflected on political concerns. During the Korean War, he wrote archly to José Rodríguez Feo, himself living in Communist Cuba, of

not a particularly pleasant summer either meteorologically or otherwise, except in Korea where it is possible to shoot Communists. Yet I continue to receive occasional messages from Europe which indicate that the mania of Marxism has not yet seized the whole world. Weather or no weather, people still lunch on the terraces of Paris and drink Chablis [.]
Letters, 687

  • 6 See D. and P. Kladstrup, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest (...)

10During World War II and the Cold War, therefore, Stevens associated Burgundy with a lack of extremism, as an enclave of French culture worthy of appreciation in times good and bad, however threatened (as in 1942) or however removed from other conflicts. The freedom to eat lunch on terraces without suffering bombardment and to enjoy Chablis, in France or elsewhere, suggests to Stevens that the very diversity of Burgundy runs counter to fascism or other forms of political extremism—notwithstanding the obvious point that Nazis and Communist big-wigs might appropriate this nominal “freedom” for themselves (witness the Nazi relish for confiscating France’s wines during the Occupation and the ingenious means by which French vignerons disguised their stocks or even bricked up whole cellars).6

11But before delving further into Stevens’ preoccupation with Burgundy, not least in “It Must Give Pleasure,” one must appreciate what happened to the French wine industry surrounding Stevens’ lifetime. In 1863, Jules Émile Planchon discovered phylloxera in Arles, Provence. This aphid (or plant louse), native to North America and inadvertently shipped to France on exported vine or other material, ate its way through France’s vineyards in the late nineteenth century, almost decimating the wine-producing vine species, Vitis vinifera, hence the name: phylloxera vastatrix, phylloxera “the devastator.” The solution to this problem was to graft the non-immune Vitis vinifera onto North American rootstock—from vine species such as Vitis rupestris—because the American rootstocks had evolved to tolerate the aphid’s advances. To this day, many of France’s vineyards are grafted onto American rootstocks, principally to guard against phylloxera. Yet this solution obviously took time to discover and implement. Phylloxera reached Burgundy in 1878 and Champagne in 1900. A disaster for French and European viticulture (Spain would soon be affected), the desperate shortage of wine had a devastating economic impact on France’s wine industry for years to come.

12One obvious corollary of the phylloxera crisis was the cross-regional and even transnational blending of wine to which France succumbed. Because wines were usually shipped in barrel and bottled by merchants at other destinations, combined with the acute shortage of French wine, fraudulent practices flourished. Notably, Baron Philippe de Rothschild insisted on bottling his own wine at Château Mouton-Rothschild for the first time in 1924, to reassure his customers that the wine bottled was produced on his property and not adulterated. Prior to Prohibition, the American consumer of Burgundy, therefore, had no guarantee the wine purchased was produced from grapes grown in Burgundy at all. Indeed, it was not until after Prohibition that France’s recently formed INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) laid down the laws governing region-of-origin and production via its Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which aimed to protect against fraud and enhance authenticity of product. Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet were not given AOC status until 1937, which meant there was no legal framework for production, bottling, labeling, and overall authenticity for wines from these regions until the late 1930s, around the time Stevens was writing poems that respond to these very places.

  • 7 See P. de Cassagnac, French Wines, and B. Ragner, The Wines of France—as found inside Stevens’ copy (...)
  • 8 P. de Cassagnac, op. cit., p. 141 ff.

13Stevens’ knowledge of France’s wine industry and of Burgundy specifically came partly from Henry Church but also possibly from Paul de Cassagnac’s French Wines (1930), along with another almost hidden title from Stevens’ personal library, a slim brochure entitled The Wines of France, tucked inside his copy of a book called Racial Proverbs.7 Cassagnac writes precisely about the problems France’s wine industry faced, not least in Burgundy. He complains of poorly made or adulterated wines trading on famous place-names to sell, mentions “Le Montrachet” frequently, and also explains how the prestige of specific vineyards changed the names of Burgundian villages, most notably with Puligny and Chassagne, as they were still known in the nineteenth century, appending “Montrachet” to their new double-barreled identities.8

  • 9 E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 145 ff.

14Stevens’ “Montrachet-le-Jardin,” as I have shown elsewhere, seems aware of the Burgundian culture of dividing vineyards geographically, qualitatively, and proprietorially.9 Burgundy is the epitome of the much-debated French concept of terroir: essentially, this involves the idea that a wine reflects precisely where it is made, lending a uniqueness to vineyard site. Vineyards with unique terroir are in Burgundy called Climats. Burgundy’s central Côte d’Or is divided between the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, in which various villages overlap by vineyard from north to south. In qualitative terms, these vineyards are divided according to which receive the best combination of sun exposure and drainage on the main slope of the Côte d’Or, at least in the Côte de Nuits.

  • 10 See J. Morris, op. cit., p. 198.

15Thus, all the famous Climats—the top-tier Grand Cru vineyards (over thirty of these) and all the nominally second-tier but still dubbed Premier Cru vineyards—occupy different sections of this distinctive slope, or similarly well-positioned and well-drained sites—as also in Chablis to the north of the Côte d’Or. This picture is simplistic, however, because the quality of finished wines depends on grape growers and winemakers, and is further complicated by the fact that hardly any individual wineries or domaines own entire vineyards, however small (although some monopolies exist). As a result, these famous vineyards are themselves frequently subdivided by growers and/or producers who own a few vines or rows in each plot, ownership traditionally being complicated by Napoleonic inheritance law that stipulated all legitimate offspring have property divided equally among them. The largest Grand Cru, Clos de Vougeot, for example, is divided between some eighty different owners.10

16Such a complex patchwork of vineyards, changing ownership, cross-regional production, and the inevitably baffling interrelationships of people and places are reflected in names and on wine labels. The village of Chassagne-Montrachet, for example, boasts the domaines (i.e., vine-owning operations) of Fontaine-Gagnard, Gagnard-Delagrange, and Jean-Noël Gagnard, as well as Albert Morey, Bernard Morey, Jean-Marc Morey, Marc Morey (et Fils!), and Michel Morey-Coffinet. Such individual producers, often tied by marriage, also own vines in different parts of Burgundy, thus vinifying a baffling range of wines in tiny quantities. In addition to all the names of individual Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, there are Burgundy’s many lieux-dits—names that can appear on labels but that are neither designated Grand Cru nor Premier Cru. The lieux-dits are noted for their historic relevance or some topographical feature rather than, supposedly, having a distinct terroir worth categorizing as a Climat.

17Stevens’ “Montrachet-le-Jardin” seems aware of such viticultural matrices in its defiant declaration: “Bastard chateaux and smoky demoiselles, / No more. I can build towers of my own” (CPP, 236). Although Burgundy has few wine-producing châteaux—Marsannay, Pommard, Meursault, and also the Château de Puligny-Montrachet being exceptions—the term “bastard” is historically relevant, not least concerning legitimacy of ownership. Consider the Grand Cru vineyards adjoining Le Montrachet that apparently convey an anecdote of Burgundian folklore: Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, and Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. As the BIVB (the French body representing Burgundy) recounts on its own website:

  • 11 (...)

The Seigneur of Montrachet set off on a crusade, entrusting his virgin daughter to his favorite Chevalier (knight). In his absence, what happened, happened, and a child was born illegitimately. On his return from the Crusades, the Seigneur discovered this Bâtard (bastard), who started to cry when he saw him. The Seigneur then said: “Criots-Bâtard!” (The bastard cries!). But he was a good man, and welcomed the child into the family with these words: “Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet”11
 Welcome, Bastard of Montrachet.

  • 12 See R. Norman, The Great Domaines of Burgundy, p. 211. “Voillot” is the correct surname and not “Vi (...)
  • 13 See J. Morris, op. cit., p. 421-422, 427. Stevens also wrote a playful poem in 1942 entitled “One o (...)

18Stevens’ “demoiselles” also conjure Burgundy, “Les Demoiselles” being part of the Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru. A “demoiselle” is an unmarried bourgeois woman, as Stevens might have found in his own Dictionary of the French and English Languages (1876), which defines the term as “young lady; girl; unmarried or single lady, single woman; maid; miss; spinster; damsel; attendant, waitress; (formerly) gentlewoman.” The subplot “Les Demoiselles” was owned, during the 1880s, by the two Voillot sisters, commonly addressed “Mesdemoiselles.”12 There is also a separate Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru vineyard called “Les Demoiselles” that is, technically, an enclave of the Cailleret Premier Cru just next to Chevalier-Montrachet.13 Names thus locate places but also create a degree of ambiguity in the Burgundian cultural landscape.

  • 14 See also Wallace Stevens Archive, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, WAS 3768.

19My point is not that Stevens necessarily knew of the different vineyard sites called “Les Demoiselles,” but that “Montrachet-le-Jardin” is a poem preoccupied with occupying and “owning” spaces, actual or abstract; or, indeed, vicariously appropriated, as Stevens grafts Montrachet onto the American roots of his own horticultural and homely imagination. The garden context emerges again in Stevens’ correspondence in connection with Burgundy, but with a difference. Writing to Barbara Church in 1952, Stevens recounted, “Yesterday, while my wife was planting new peony roots in the garden, I sat at lunch with a little Corton (1929, tete de cuvée [sic]) and tried to feel as one ought to feel. Corton helps one to appreciate sad weather, accentuates it” (Letters, 761). Whether Stevens was reflecting on the unhappiness of his marriage or news of the death of George Santayana, mentioned in the same letter, it is the Corton—a Grand Cru of Aloxe-Corton—that fixes his domestic speculations while Elsie occupies the garden (although it is unclear whether Stevens is inside or outside). Certainly, Stevens’ knowledge of Burgundy was sufficiently advanced that when Nelly de Vogüé, daughter of the Comte de Vogüé (owner of the eponymous domaine in Chambolle-Musigny), came to America to establish a literary magazine during the 1950s, the poet wrote to Barbara Church about the matter, mentioning also to José Rodríguez Feo that he associated “the name of de Vogüé either with the Revue des Deux Mondes or with a moderately good Burgundy” (Letters, 741).14

  • 15 I am especially grateful to Anne Luyat for our discussions of Les Entretiens de Pontigny and her su (...)

20But in addition to the recorded instances of Stevens responding to Burgundy in letters and poems, one should also remember that the original gatherings of Les Entretiens de Pontigny were held in the same region that so frequently galvanized the poet’s imagination.15 The Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny, founded in the twelfth century, in what is now Burgundy’s Yonne département, was a thriving site of pilgrimage and piety during the Middle Ages until it was largely destroyed by Huguenots in 1569, with the remaining Abbey Church being confiscated during the French Revolution. In 1909, the site was purchased by the philosopher Paul Desjardins (1859-1940), a teacher of Marcel Proust who, from 1910 to 1914 and then from 1922 to 1939, held the “Décades de Pontigny,” literary and philosophical gatherings of ten days’ duration at the Abbey. Here the intellectual élite of Europe made an annual pilgrimage, with a varying roster including the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, T. S. Eliot, and Thomas Mann.

  • 16 S. C. Vagianos, Paul Claudel and La Nouvelle Revue Française (1909-1918), p. 47.
  • 17 See E. Heurgon and C. Paulhan, “From Pontigny to Cerisy,” p. 733.

21Desjardins had from the start been keen to enlist the support of the newly founded La Nouvelle Revue Française. Supposedly the NRF’s Jean Schlumberger was the organizer of the first contemporary poetry décade held at Pontigny in September 1910. But, as Sylvia Caides Vagianos reports, “[André] Gide directed every move from behind the scenes.”16 Gide, Jacques Copeau, Schlumberger, as well as the critic Ramon Fernandez—to whom Stevens claimed later not to have been referring in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1935) (see Letters, 798)—were all involved. On Desjardins’ death in 1940 and with the advent of war, the décades were transplanted to the United States and kept alive by the likes of Henri Focillon—whom Stevens read and discusses in “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” (CPP, 671)—Jacques Maritain, Gustave Cohen, and, of course, Jean Wahl, who invited Stevens to their 1943 sessions at Mount Holyoke, where Stevens read the aforementioned lecture (the group’s first meetings having been under the banner of “l’École libre des hautes études” founded in New York at the beginning of the war by French scholars in exile). Perhaps Stevens was even aware, maybe through Barbara Church, that the gatherings were subsequently resurrected in France after the war, in 1952, at Cerisy-la-Salle, in the château owned by Desjardins’ daughter, Anne Heurgon-Desjardins.17

  • 18 G. S. Smith, D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890-1939, p. 100.

22Notably, Desjardins felt strongly that the artists and intellectuals gathered at Pontigny should live communally but with enough privacy to engage in their own work of a morning and then contribute to the discussions of the décades in the afternoons, with mealtimes being a vital part of engagement for all concerned. Interestingly, Desjardins ensured that the Pontigny gatherings were known for the quality of their Burgundian gastronomy. Each day, as Gerald Stanton Smith reports, “the participants sat down to a sumptuous dinner according to a placement fixed by Desjardins,” at which no doubt one or more Burgundian wines were served.18

23One wonders, therefore, if in devising the title “Montrachet-le-Jardin” Stevens was not only alluding to a particular place—the famous vineyard of Montrachet and its attached villages—but also appropriating the spirit of the original Pontigny proceedings, enjoying, vicariously, in his garden space back in Connecticut a “French” sense of the good life as refracted through Burgundy and his conception of that place and its wines. Indeed, given that the Entretiens de Pontigny’s host’s surname also incorporates the French word jardin, was Stevens indirectly echoing or even perhaps punning on the Paul Desjardins who had come to own the Abbey of Pontigny as Paul “of the gardens”? “Montrachet-le-Jardin” is certainly uncannily familiar with the contours of Burgundian culture, its wine, vineyards, and folklore; so that the nearby Pontigny and Paul Desjardins perhaps become exemplars of the imaginative and cultural freedoms Stevens was implicitly defending in this very poem.

24To return to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” as well, even before the reference to Meursault, “It Must Give Pleasure” is preoccupied with landscapes in which vines grow, if not viticulture. Canto II declares “It was enough” for Stevens’ “blue woman” “that she remembered”; and what she recalls first is how “the argentines / Of spring come to their places in the grape leaves / To cool their ruddy pulses.” These are the same “argentines” that the blue woman does “not desire” to be “cold silver,” just as she did not desire that “the sexual blossoms should repose / Without their fierce addictions” (CPP, 345). That is, the “ruddy pulses” of that same sexual desire are not muted, but are forms of pleasure and yearning temporarily cooled, not denied, beneath “the grape leaves.” Such leaves perhaps shade individual clusters of fruit, the grapes in turn becoming, like the “argentines,” suggestive of Dionysian sexual reverie.

25Canto III, likewise, assumes similar natural imagery as it conjures a mythological “ancient forehead hung with heavy hair,” the brow of “A face of stone in an unending red.” Stevens pictures the “vines around the throat, the shapeless lips” of this unspeaking former force that represents “spent feeling leaving nothing of itself,” what the poem calls an “effulgence faded” (CPP, 346). Such an abstract figure represents a pleasure expended or a hope vested in classical figures superseded, turned antiquated, like Stevens’ noble rider of the same year.

26Canto IV also captures both a strong sense of place and the prospect of viticulture. It reiterates Canto I’s reflections on the “difficultest rigor” that is “to catch from that / Irrational moment its unreasoning,” when our perceptions of the world are “not things transformed.” Yet, Canto I concludes, “we are shaken by them as if they were. / We reason about them with a later reason” (CPP, 344-345). Canto IV echoes:

We reason of these things with later reason
And we make of what we see, what we see clearly
And have seen, a place dependent on ourselves.
CPP, 346

  • 19 This was especially true in New England, where this late ripening variety performed better in the l (...)

27Illustrating places dependent on self and perception, Canto IV narrates the anecdote of the “mystic marriage in Catawba” between the “great captain and the maiden Bawda.” The Catawba people form a Native American tribe, whose presence in what is now the Carolinas is reflected in the Catawba River (as it is known in North Carolina). Revealingly, Catawba is also the name of the native American grape variety found in North Carolina, first used for wine production in 1822 (a native grape that was then hybridized with Vitis vinifera to make it commercially more reliable, while still retaining its original name). Like some other similarly cultivated native American grapes—Concord, Delaware, Niagara—Catawba thus combines viticulture with a sense of place and, as with “Delaware,” also conveys the ethnic group after which the grape is named. “Catawba,” therefore, indicates at once a marriage of people and location, bound together by the roots of the originally native grape that, during much of Stevens’ lifetime, would become the most significant for American wine production.19

28 However, the captain and maiden do not marry easily, a fact that is also reflected in wine: “Anon / We loved but would no marriage make. Anon / The one refused the other one to take, // Foreswore the sipping of the marriage wine” (CPP, 346-347). Still, this nuptial wine is implicitly imbibed, eventually or symbolically, as we learn: “They married well because the marriage-place / Was what they loved.” Canto IV, therefore, envisages an ideal union of place and perception in which wine also plays a role in creating what the poem earlier calls “heaven-haven” (CPP, 345), a haven precisely aided by being “neither heaven nor hell.” It is one where the great captain and Bawda are effaced and become, abstractly, “love’s characters come face to face” (CPP, 347); though it is notable that such abstraction relies on removal from a particular location, one that gives its name to a native American grape variety.

  • 20 A. Fleming, Gourmet’s Book of Food and Drink, p. 103, 106.

29My point is that Canto V’s opening with “We drank Meursault, ate lobster Bombay with mango / Chutney” is not so startling a gastronomic gesture given the earlier vinous imagery and obsession with perception and place in “It Must Give Pleasure.” However, the specificity of Meursault and Bombay does suddenly fix acts of consumption based on nominated places, not mythological signs (Catawba, though a native American place-name, is ultimately far more abstracted by Stevens than Meursault or even Bombay). Lobster Bombay appears to have been Stevens’ own exotic creation. The poet could have read recipes for mango chutney and curried lobster in his copy of Atherton Fleming’s Gourmet’s Book of Food and Drink (1933), but Bombay/Mumbai is not known for any particular lobster dish.20 In fact, Stevens’ formulation sounds both American and French, the inverted word order reminding gastronomes of Lobster Thermidore, Lobster Newburg, or Homard à l’américaine (combining tomatoes and wine). Meursault, by contrast, a prominent Burgundian village known chiefly for its white wines and proximity to Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, is much more easily identified.

30Canto V continues:

Then the Canon Aspirin declaimed
Of his sister, in what a sensible ecstasy

She lived in her house. She had two daughters, one
Of four, and one of seven, whom she dressed
The way a painter of pauvred color paints.

But still she painted them, appropriate to
Their poverty […]

The Canon Aspirin, having said these things,
Reflected, humming an outline of a fugue
Of praise, a conjugation done by choirs. (CPP, 347)

31 There is an ironic tension created by the Canon Aspirin’s approval of his sister, the way she “hid” her children “under simple names,” given the culturally resonant names of “Meursault” and “lobster Bombay” that evoke more privileged consumption than that to which the Canon’s sister and children are accustomed. Poverty is represented as the necessity of “rejecting dreams” and hanging onto one’s children in a desperate form of love as salvation: “what she felt fought off the barest phrase,” “barest” suggesting the obvious difficulties of her poverty (CPP, 347).

32But if Stevens’ Burgundian allusions force us to ask, “What’s in a name?,” how might one interpret the seemingly jocular “Aspirin”? Patented in 1900 and available in tablet form in 1915, Aspirin came into existence thanks to the Sorbonne chemist Raffaele Piria (who created salicylic acid in 1838) and the French chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt (who formulated acetylsalicylic acid in 1853), making salicylic acid easier on stomachs; all of this prior to Bayer’s commercial development of the drug (Bayer losing the trademarked name, along with a drug called “Heroin,” in 1918). The Canon is thus a therapeutic figure of sorts, through whom art or the imagination plays a role in modifying pain. Hence, the Canon assuages his own sorrow at his sister’s poverty by humming the fugue, however redundant this seems when the sister, at the close of Canto V, can only pathetically “demand” of sleep that it convey “unmuddled sleep” to her children (CPP, 348).

33Does “Meursault,” therefore, represent an indulgence to which the Canon Aspirin guiltily applies himself, Stevens perhaps also punning on dubious “aspiring” or “aspiration” on the Canon’s part? Is the Canon worryingly divorced from reality, aestheticizing his sister’s nominal choices in dressing her children “The way a painter of pauvred color paints”? Or are these simply supporting economies in which everything, predictably, has its cost and price? Compare, for example, Canto V with “Certain Phenomena of Sound” (also 1942) and its instruction: “Slice the mango, Naaman, and dress it // With white wine, sugar and lime juice. Then bring it, / After we’ve drunk the Moselle, to the thickest shade / Of the garden” (CPP, 256). Is Naaman the embittered domestic, at a remove from the consumption of Moselle—a French-sounding rendition of wines from Germany’s Mosel Valley, common in Stevens’ time—or master of the dish? Stevens’ poem does not broach social commentary, engaged as it is with other narratives, including “the Roamer’s Story.” But, surely, what matters about these points of leisured consumption, as the young Stevens of 1903 knew, is their value both in themselves and as pleasures earned—often literally for the surety bond lawyer of the 1940s and after?

34Certainly, after Canto V, “Notes” seemingly occupies the Canon Aspirin himself, “the very material of his mind,” as he communes with his sister’s children, “Descending to the children’s bed” as he aims to discover a “reality” unfettered by “a choice / Between excluding things” (CPP, 348). As Canto VII continues, the Canon comes to represent the poem’s own quest, however unattainable: “To find the real, / To be stripped of every fiction except one, // The fiction of an absolute” (CPP, 349).

  • 21 I am particularly grateful to Tony Sharpe for his suggestion of pursuing Stevens’ commentary on thi (...)

35Revealingly, Stevens himself tried to provide some insight into the Canon Aspirin for Hi Simons in a somewhat labored epistolary gloss.21 In a letter of March 22, 1943, the poet observed of Notes, “This book has been rather carefully read by one or two extremely keen people”—Stevens was perhaps thinking of Simons—and that “they have looked for a literal text,” adding, “That is something that I may get round to later” (Letters, 443). However, when it came to literalizing Canto V of “It Must Give Pleasure,” one can sense Stevens defensively losing patience with the project. As he observed of the Canon in his letter to Simons,

The sophisticated man: the Canon Aspirin, (the man who has explored all the projections of the mind, his own particularly) comes back, without having acquired a sufficing fiction, to, say, his sister and her children. His sister has never explored anything at all and shrinks from doing so. He is conscious of the sensible ecstasy and hums laboriously in praise of the rejection of dreams etc.
Letters, 445

36Clearly, Stevens’ interpretation takes a slightly different tack from the more sympathetic picture of the sister painted above. But it is in the next section of the letter that we sense Stevens’ frustration with explanation itself, not least in his rather defensive, even lawyerly conclusion beginning with “In short, […].” Returning to the Canon Aspirin’s communing with the children, Stevens writes,

He identifies himself with them. He returns to the side of the children’s bed, with every sense of human dependence. But there is a supreme effort which it is inevitable that he should make. If he is to elude human pathos, and fact, he must go straight to the utmost crown of night: find his way through the imagination or perhaps to the imagination. He might escape from fact but he would only arrive at another nothingness, another nakedness, the limitation of thought. It is not, then, a matter of eluding human pathos, human dependence […] In short, a man with a taste for Meursault and lobster Bombay, who has a sensible sister and who, for himself, thinks to the very material of his mind, doesn’t have much choice about yielding to “the complicate, the amassing harmony.” (How he ever became a Canon is the real problem. Mr. Church tells me that there is a character called Aspirin in Gide or somewhere else. No relation)
Letters, 445

37It is worth quoting this passage because Stevens portrays the Canon Aspirin as being involved in an imaginative project that is doomed to failure while maintaining, perhaps because of that failure, a genuine sense of empathy. There is not much he can do except yield to “the complicate”; just as, as readers (and Stevens perhaps has Hi Simons in mind specifically), one should yield to the spirit of the poem rather than attempting to find a source for its every figure. Thus, Stevens pointedly tells Simons there is “No relation” between any Aspirin in Gide and his figure (just as the more ardent critic would be hard pressed to link Stevens with Camus, who, also in 1942, published The Outsider, whose protagonist is, of course, called Meursault).

38Equally significant, however, is the presence of “Mr. Church” and the recapitulation of the Canon as one who has “a taste for Meursault and lobster Bombay.” My point is that Stevens has no specific schema for pinpointing this Burgundian wine, imagined Indian seafood dish, or even some outlandish and flatly denied allusion to Gide (though, as noted, Gide was actively involved in the Burgundian sessions at Pontigny of which Stevens knew through Church). Stevens’ tongue-in-cheek “How he ever became a Canon is the real problem,” which pokes fun at the poet’s own practice while again trying not to delimit the figure, nevertheless cannot allow Stevens to have his cake and eat it. After all, if he is an official of the Roman Catholic Church, this identity, on one reading, fixes the Canon Aspirin in a spirited zone of indulgence, maybe even a dubious removal from reality, edging the poem toward a degree of satire Stevens likely did not intend. What I am suggesting is that names and places in “It Must Give Pleasure” give pleasure in a variety of ways specific to their original contexts and meanings but that pointedly depart from these places as we enter the imaginative world of the poem. As such, the Canon Aspirin sounds less like a canon or a drug and more like a Stevensian figure par excellence, just one more faintly glamorous figure in the panoply of characters that dot the “fluent mundo” of “Notes.” That “mundo” is not a world removed from reality, but one that appears to run eerily parallel to it. Though it is one that clearly pivots on the fulcrum of real places and wines such as those of Meursault.

39 This point does not constitute a pejorative criticism of Stevens, but rather represents an observation of gestures typical of Stevens’ imagination in the early 1940s. In “Montrachet-le-Jardin,” Stevens transplants Montrachet, both the vineyard and its wines, for his own imaginative purposes, appropriating the vitality of Burgundian culture and perhaps the freedom of thought represented by the Entretiens de Pontigny sessions, reconfiguring these in his own similarly place-conscious and imaginatively well-traveled poem. Similarly, in “It Must Give Pleasure,” wine, and specifically Meursault as both wine and place, simultaneously become at home with their origins but also palpably part of the imaginative narrative and space of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Note that “We drank Meursault” means not only simply to consume the wine from that locale but to devour the supposed essence of a place as reflected in the terroir the wine represents: a very Burgundian concept. There is also an obviously transatlantic dimension to Stevens’ appropriations that, as we have seen, were elements of the wine industry of Stevens’ era, both in terms of the phylloxera crisis and in Stevens’ hat-tipping to American viticulture as implicitly represented in “Catawba.” More significantly, it is clearly the 1942-43 transatlantic context of World War II that preoccupies Stevens in this appeal to Burgundian culture at a time of shared French and American crisis.

40What Stevens’ engagement with French wines suggests, therefore, is that this Francophile poet made of France’s vineyards portals of discovery, however vicarious, marking an appreciation of the kind of cultural diversity that is, in a sense, reflected in Burgundy itself—access to which the poet knew to be a privilege, especially when such spaces were themselves occupied by foreign powers in difficult times. These prized vineyards are, finally, what “Notes” calls places “dependent on ourselves” (CPP, 346). This evocative phrase follows, in fact, the spirit of the Entretiens de Pontigny gatherings, both in their original Burgundian manifestation and later American guise, a world in which Stevens participated at Mount Holyoke, having already, in his 1942 poems, reached out to the physical France itself and the France of the imagination for which the war was fought. That gesture, as we return time and again to these Stevens poems of the early 1940s, was refracted through the prisms of French wine, Burgundian culture, folklore, and the heady allure of names combining with the power of nomination.


1 For further information on the establishment of the Burgundian Premier Cru vineyards, which began in 1942 and was recognized by the INAO (l’Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) in 1943, see J. Morris, Inside Burgundy, p. 93.

2 E. Ragg, “Bourgeois Abstraction.”

3 See E. Ragg, “Love, Wine, Desire,” and E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 136-165.

4 For further discussion of the significance of the place-name “Montrachet,” see E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 145.

5 The extent to which Burgundy became a political fault line is exemplified by the fate of Anna Drillien-Dutreuil who was reportedly arrested for entering her garden (in Vichy France) from her house (in the Nazi occupied zone). See J. Morris, op. cit., p. 553.

6 See D. and P. Kladstrup, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure.

7 See P. de Cassagnac, French Wines, and B. Ragner, The Wines of France—as found inside Stevens’ copy of S. G. Champion, Racial Proverbs. For further discussion, see E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 146-147. For Church’s attention to wine, see Stevens’ portrait of him (Letters, 570).

8 P. de Cassagnac, op. cit., p. 141 ff.

9 E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 145 ff.

10 See J. Morris, op. cit., p. 198.

11, 2471,9314.html. There are numerous anecdotes relating to the supposed origins of the names of these Grand Cru vineyards: for another version, see J. Rigaux, Burgundy Grands Crus, p. 104.

12 See R. Norman, The Great Domaines of Burgundy, p. 211. “Voillot” is the correct surname and not “Viollot” as mistakenly cited in E. Ragg, Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction, p. 146.

13 See J. Morris, op. cit., p. 421-422, 427. Stevens also wrote a playful poem in 1942 entitled “One of Those Hibiscuses of Damozels” (CPP, 592), “damozel” and “demoiselle” perhaps being aligned in his poetic vocabulary, although this contemporaneous poem is unconcerned with wine.

14 See also Wallace Stevens Archive, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, WAS 3768.

15 I am especially grateful to Anne Luyat for our discussions of Les Entretiens de Pontigny and her suggestion of pursuing this connection further.

16 S. C. Vagianos, Paul Claudel and La Nouvelle Revue Française (1909-1918), p. 47.

17 See E. Heurgon and C. Paulhan, “From Pontigny to Cerisy,” p. 733.

18 G. S. Smith, D. S. Mirsky: A Russian-English Life, 1890-1939, p. 100.

19 This was especially true in New England, where this late ripening variety performed better in the longer growing season of New York State than in its native North Carolina (see J. Robinson et al., Wine Grapes, p. 205).

20 A. Fleming, Gourmet’s Book of Food and Drink, p. 103, 106.

21 I am particularly grateful to Tony Sharpe for his suggestion of pursuing Stevens’ commentary on this part of “Notes.”


Poet and wine professional based in Beijing, China. His first book of poetry, AForce That Takes (Cinnamon Press, 2013), won the Cinnamon Press Poetry Award. His second volume is Holding Unfailing (Cinnamon Press, 2017) and he is currently working on a third collection. Ragg is the author of Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and co-editor, with Bart Eeckhout, of Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He contributed to Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism (2012), Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens (2017), and Wallace Stevens in Context (2017). Ragg is an Editorial Board Member of The Wallace Stevens Journal and previously taught at Tsinghua University (2007-2017). He co-founded Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting in 2007, writes for numerous international wine publications, and is currently studying for the Master of Wine (MW).

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