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Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

~ Wallace Stevens

Comments

  1. Rufus McCain says

    Are you trying to palm that off on us as a Catholic poem?

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Yes.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Incidentally: palm – pale – pane – fane – fine – find – mind.

  4. It's a very nice poem but I don't entirely understand it. Can somebody please explain it.

  5. Quin Finnegan says

    Here are a the comments of a couple of professor types. They're somewhat helpful, although in my experience any explanation (even by so great a critic as Helen Vendler) is bound to leave something out – and I think Vendler would agree with this. Stevens, as much as and perhaps more than any other poet, needs to be worked through on one's own. "Yielded to rather than explained", was a phrase I once read in reference to his poems.

    And yet, here I go. I've found the best way to begin is with the physical descriptions – "bronze distance" (so perhaps sunrise or sunset); "gold-feathered bird" (difficult to distinguish from the bronze, I would think); "wind moves slowly" (somewhat peaceful, perhaps); "fire-fangled feathers dangle down" (ornate, or even gaudy, an expansion of the prior description as "gold").

    There are a number of fairly obvious poetic devices in the poem, particularly the alliteration of Fs and Ds in the final line. The anaphorastic use of "without human" in the second stanza signals the importance of the words. The singing of a bird may not human feeling or meaning, but that absence seems to indicate a sense of deprivation in the poet.

    These things are "foreign" which means, I suppose, "not human", but perhaps also inaccessible.

    Is it the singing that doesn't "make us happy or unhappy", or it perhaps that the singing is without human meaning or feeling? What's the difference? In the former, I think the sense of deprivation is more permanent – we are condemned to hear the singing of birds, and perhaps experience all of nature without being able to attach any significance to being human. In the latter, the lack of any cause for happiness or unhappiness in nature might perhaps free us from projecting onto nature too much of our sense of ourselves, our happiness or unhappiness. The truth might be that we cannot really derive our happiness from experiencing even the most beautiful reality. "Mere being" is just there, not necessarily happy or unhappy. The bird may be singing because it is happy or unhappy, but this is "a foreign song" which we are unable to understand, and has nothing to do with whether we are happy or unhappy.

    Stevens reemphasizes several visual aspects at the end of the poem, as if turning down the sound of the bird and bringing the camera in for a close-up. The wind is moving slowly, bringing a sense of calm, and perhaps we are freed from the distraction of singing. The feathers aren't merely gold, but "fire-fangled" – "fangled" meaning "invented" or "contrived". The question might be "invented or contrived by whom?" By nature, earlier described as unknowable? Perhaps, but I think the most important fangling is done by the poet himself, and that through this fangling he is able to participate in the reality of pure being in a way he wasn't able to in the earlier stanzas – or rather he finds at the end of the poem that it isn't so much the bird's song that he must come to understand; rather he understands that he must sing his own song, or write his own poem, from which he may be able derive a sense of happiness or unhappiness with regard to his relation to "mere being".

    The palm is at the end of the mind because it is "beyond the last thought" – and even further beyond such poor thoughts and explanations as I have given here.

  6. Rufus McCain says

    bird – bind – bond – bong – song

  7. Thanks very much. I haven't understood the analyses either, though am reading quickly. Hopefully I'll come back and read the poem and the analyses, as I've always liked the sound of his poetry. When I read it I thought it meant that one can only find meaning in human contact rather than sensation, but I seem to have been wrong.

  8. And as well as sensation, the unobtainable and the exotic.

  9. Rufus McCain says

    I think it's about God's gratuitous creation (mere being) and our feeble attempts to grasp it (thought, reason) when apprehension through imagination and faith is what it ultimately comes down to. The poem is also ironically about itself (and all art and poesy) and the wrong road of interpretation that the reader is engaged in. It's also about a whole bunch of other stuff.

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