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Wallace Stevens

(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 / Pennsylvania / United States)

Madame la Fleurie

Weight him down, O side-stars, with the great weightings of
the end.
Seal him there. He looked in a glass of the earth and thought
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  • Barry Middleton (12/23/2013 2:55:00 PM)

    I have little to add here other than the bearded queen in a distant chamber certainly conjures up the image of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who was depicted wearing the false bear associated with Pharaohs. We are obviously at another funeral here and the deceased is grieving that his journey now is to a ghastly city of the dead where a dead light falls on the queen, Mother Earth, who will now devour him. (Report) Reply

  • Gary Witt (6/11/2008 7:08:00 PM)

    My French is a bit rusty, but I would translate the title as “Mrs. Flowery, ” or “Mrs. Blooming.” I’ve always assumed that it was a reference to “Mother Earth” or more generally to “Mother Nature, ” and I haven’t read anything lately that would contradict that conclusion. I suspect Stevens used the French to make it more formal, more exotic, and less “friendly.”

    As long as we’re on the subject of specific words and their meanings, there might be some difficulty over “side-stars, ” “fugatos, ” and “finial gutturals.” I’ve tried unsuccessfully to establish that a side-star is an actual term used in astronomy. I believe Stevens used this made-up expression to indicate that “weighting him down” will not take much effort, so Mother Nature will only use “lesser” stars for the job. A fugato is a musical style that is fugue-like but does not adhere strictly to a formal fugue structure. (Takes the music of the spheres in a completely different direction.) Finial is usually used as a noun, meaning an ornament at the peak of a roof or at the top of a lamp. Here it appears to be an adjective modifying gutturals, which are speech sounds or phonemes produced in the back of the throat (a hard “g” or a “k” are good examples) .

    This poem, I believe, represents Stevens at his most pessimistic. In contrast to Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, which was written a year earlier, its outlook seems incredibly dismal.

    An authoritarian voice (cf., Emperor of Ice Cream) summons “side-stars” to weight “him” down and seal him there. He looked in a glass (read: mirror) of the earth, mistook what he saw for reality, but still came away with a “crisp knowledge” that is now being devoured “by her.” Now his grief is that his mother (i.e., Mother Earth) should feed on him and what he saw. The implication is that upon our death (upon the weightings of the end) we ourselves will be subsumed by the earth, together with all our knowledge, and indeed our very existence. We all stare at the abyss from which there is no escape and no redemption: just a distant chamber and a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.

    The closing line’s image is surreal and jolting, but also has a sort of comic book aspect that harkens back to Chieftain Iffucan.

    There are several lines here that just reach out and grab me:

    •“It was a language he spoke, because he must, yet did not know.” The impulse to speak grows from a desire—a need—to know; but by itself, speech does little or nothing to expand our knowledge. It only allows us to tell each other what we know, which is essentially nothing. We are no better than jays, who say he does not lie there remembering us.

    •“It was only a glass because he looked in it.” The earth doesn’t reveal its secrets, even when we look at it. This phrase takes Plato’s allegory of the cave (Republic, Book VII) one step further. We’re not seeing shadows cast upon the wall; we’re looking in a mirror that is only a mirror because we are looking into it.

    •“It was a page he had found in the handbook of heartbreak.” Could Stevens be talking about the Bible here?

    Those who try to fit Stevens into some kind of orthodoxy will have trouble reconciling that effort with this poem. It compares to Domination of Black and it contrasts to The Planet on the Table. (Report) Reply

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