Friday, April 4, 2014

Wallace Stevens: "From the Misery of Don Joost"

From the Misery of Don Joost

I have finished my combat with the sun;
And my body, the old animal,
Knows nothing more.

The powerful seasons bred and killed,
And were themselves the genii
Of their own ends.

Oh, but the very self of the storm
Of sun and slaves, breeding and death,
The old animal,

The senses and feeling, the very sound
And sight, and all there was of the storm,
Knows nothing more.

-- Wallace Stevens --

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Wallace Stevens intrigues me.   Possibly part of his attraction for me is the problem I have with his poetry.  I find them, to a great extent, mystifying.  I'm not speaking here of any deep, dark underlying symbolism, but of the overt, sometimes literal, meaning of his poems.

This one I find a bit more understandable, thanks to a clue I found in the Wikipedia entry on this poem.  Don Joost, according to a letter Stevens wrote in response to a question about "Don Joost," is a "jovial Don Quixote."   I agree with the author of the entry that this may be Don Quixote, but he certainly isn't jovial.  Don Quixote's struggles with the giants and warlocks and enemy armies were all in his mind.  He creatively transformed mundane reality into something magical and marvelous.  In a sense, this is what the poet does or tries to do--to transform mundane reality so that one sees it anew, sees it differently.  Joseph Conrad expressed a similar desire  when he wrote "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel... before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything."

The overall sense, as I read it, is the end of life or perhaps of his creative life.  All is gone, sight and sense and sound and feeling.  Nothing is left and even the storm, perhaps the struggle between creativity and mediocrity, has ended.

In addition, the seasons, which may stand for the seasons of life, a common and universal symbol for the ages of man in poetry going back long before Shakespeare,  have ended and were the cause of their own ends. They could not last forever. 

I can almost see the title as being truncated: the full title might be "Escape From the Misery of Don Joost."   The only lasting escape from the struggle to be, to do, to create,  is death.

But, then again, I have often been accused of over-reading, and this may be just another example of one of my besetting sins. It is for you to decide.

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