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Wallace Stevens

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

Metaphors of a Magnifico


Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

This is old song
That will not declare itself . . .

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are
Twenty men crossing a bridge
Into a village.

That will not declare itself
Yet is certain as meaning . . .

The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.
Of what was it I was thinking?
So the meaning escapes.

The first white wall of the village...
The fruit-trees...

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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  • Gary Witt (8/23/2009 1:48:00 PM)

    A magnifico was a noble in ancient Venice. The word is now used to describe someone who affects grandeur or lordliness. Pomposity comes to mind.

    So the first question is, who is the magnifico? Is it Stevens? Or is Stevens putting words in someone else’s mouth? (Cf., Nomad Exquisite.)

    It strikes me this is a satire on pseudo intellectuals. The narrator appears to be the magnifico. He has created a series of metaphors that may be on the right track, but he doesn’t have the intellectual power to push forward with them. Meaning ultimately eludes him.

    So, yes, twenty men crossing a bridge can be viewed as twenty men crossing twenty bridges. Each man, after all, experiences the crossing differently. Alternatively, the men may be of a single mind, or have a single purpose; in which case they will appear to be a single man crossing that bridge.

    None of this seems very useful, however. Indeed, it seems pompous, empty. It is a metaphor of a magnifico. The twenty men crossing a bridge “will not declare itself.” Even though its “meaning” is certain, it is not particularly useful.

    Likewise, what other people think or perceive is not useful. Twenty men, one man—it is all the same. Instead, meaning is found in one’s own perception: the sound of the boots clumping on the boards of the bridge, the first white wall, the fruit trees. But even then, when the magnifico begins to pay attention to the details, and to pursue them—when he seems on the verge of deciphering meaning—meaning slips away. And he must begin again, with the first white wall, and the fruit trees. Meaning is elusive.

    Now, multiply that elusiveness by twenty. Or more.

    Does this relate in any way to the notion of “fictive music, ” or to the use of metaphor to discover meaning? Cf., Of Modern Poetry. I suspect all of our metaphors are those of “magnificos, ” and all of our conclusions are “fictive music.”

    I also suspect that this is one of those rare occasions when Stevens is lampooning himself.

    -G (Report) Reply

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