Gray Room Poem by Wallace Stevens

Gray Room

Rating: 3.3

Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
And pick
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
Beside you...
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.

David Floren 14 June 2007

My guess is that Stevens admired a visual representation (e.g. photo, drawing, painting, etc.) of the scene he depicts, and was sufficiently inspired to give words to his strong, personal impressions. I would go so far as to guess the visual representation originated from Asia, given that forsythia are rarely found elsewhere and the red willow is also to be found in northern China. Stevens addresses his subject in the second person, lending to his poem an air of journalistic accuracy and conscious minimization of bias. The subject person is not identified by gender. None of the items of clothing or actions of the subject person provide conclusive evidence of gender (e.g. the green necklace could be jade and worn by a young prince dressed in royal white) . So I think gender is a non-issue in this poem. Stevens gives the subject's hands three optional tasks to perform. This could be explained several ways. The image might have been a three-panel one with separate scenes. Or it could have been three separate images. Or Stevens' imagination may have assigned different actions to a stationary subject person. What is important here is that no other body parts save the fingers and eyes are brought into play in this poem until the last line (where the heart makes its appearance) , leading to the inference that Stevens is setting up a contrast between the dumb action of instruments of the will (i.e. hands) and the fiery passion of the heart as the well-spring of will power, judgment and decision-making (the mind's counterpart) . Stevens' rarefied portrait gives us very little information about the subject person's looks, gender or social class. The subject looks at the image of a red willow depicted on a green fan. This is a hint that Stevens also used the depiction of this whole scene as his inspiration. The red willow is one of the most resilient and tough plants in the world. That it can withstand drought, fire and other maladies while continuing to live and grow makes me think that the subject person looks at the fan not just as a tool for temperature regulation but also as a source of inspiration for the strength and vitality needed for accomplishing successes and also for surviving difficulties. The color red is introduced only once and at the end at the transition to the last line about the heart, which itself is normally associated with the color red. Perhaps Stevens means to say that his heart once drew strength from his eyes that looked where his fingers held a visual metaphor. Perhaps Stevens means to say that our hearts can do likewise. I'm guessing Stevens essentially wanted to use some plants, colors and simple actions of the hands and eyes to draw a strong contrast between idle activity and the magnificent power of the heart.

3 1 Reply
Gary Witt 23 October 2007

Mr. Floren: An interesting approach, but I respectfully disagree. I don't believe Stevens is talking to a picture here. There doesn't appear to be enough evidence in the poem itself to support that view, and it doesn't comport with Stevens' style. In view of Stevens' interest (indeed passion) for art from all four corners of the world, and his avid correspondence with parties in SE Asia, your interpretation could be correct. But I don't see it in this particular work. I need more convincing. -G

2 1 Reply
Barry Middleton 18 November 2013

What does it matter if Stevens is looking at a picture or sitting in a gray room with an actual woman? And What does it matter who the woman is? Stevens is speaking to a woman or possibly to womankind. This woman is in a gray room (life) yet she is surrounded by color and they are grand colors of silver, green (life) , red (passion) and she is dipping her finger in a bowl of water diddling a leaf - can it be any clearer what the poet is getting at. So much silence, so many tense images. Good grief, Stevens is not the kind of guy who is going to start singing Let's get it On.

4 9 Reply A 19 May 2010

Stevens is challenging the demure behavior of an oriental woman, possible a geisha, staring at her fan and adjusting her outfit, seemingly smothered by the fact that she is confined to a minimally responsive existence, yet all the while fire burns within her chest. She knows to love but not the manner in which to do so. Stop pretending to be alive and set yourself free...

6 2 Reply
Sheridan Blair 11 April 2010

i would just like to say both of you seem to be wrong. in this poem, a girl is frustrated because she is bored. the colors are mocking her in the 'gray' as in boring room she sits in. he says 'i know how furiously your heart is beating' because this is his point of view on what the girl is feeling. he is imagining what is going on in her head

5 2 Reply
James Niles 14 June 2008

Very good, guys, but the point seems to be that the room isn't gray at all.

4 4 Reply
David Floren 27 January 2008

Mr. Witt: Thanks for 'respectfully' disagreeing with my spontaneous interpretation of 'Gray Room.' Allow me to present a more compelling case and hopefully any disagreement will vanish into the ether of interpretive consonance. First, Stevens is certainly not 'talking to a picture' here. On this point you are spot on. In 'Gray Room' Stevens is addressing his readers (and of course himself as all poets must) by inviting them to don the 'pale white gown' of an idealized reanimation of what presumably once was a flesh-and-blood person. It makes no difference whether Stevens draws his inspiration here from a real piece of art or an equally real piece of his own imagination. It is clear he is asking the reader to sympathize with a subject whose identity is apparently separate from that of the reader. What is not so clear is whether Stevens invented the subject from whole-cloth or took some real or fictional person (presumably a woman) as his inspiration. Second, by inviting the reader to become for a moment a fictionalized person, Stevens creates an opening for the reader to breathe life into this fiction during the time spent experiencing the poem. I think the line 'What is all this? ' is Stevens' way of expressing to his readers (and to himself) his awestruck attitude toward the struggle for certainty of meaning that we all must experience in life. I can think of no other reason why the first person indicative makes its first and final appearance in the closing line of the poem. I'm pretty sure Stevens is celebrating the fact that at least a few things can be known for certain (e.g. that our hearts do indeed pound and that we are usually cognizant of such pounding when confronted with the challenge of finding meaning where it does not wish to be found so easily) .

3 4 Reply
Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Pennsylvania / United States
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