Wordsmith Wednesday: Wallace Stevens’ “Gubbinal”

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We are proud to have our words this week come from friend and Issue 4 contributor, Raul Clement.

“Gubbinal” by Wallace Stevens, is exactly the sort of poem I love – one whose surface simplicity gives way, on closer examination, to a great complexity of content and possible interpretations. Here is the poem in full:

“That strange flower, the sun,
 Is just what you say.
 Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
 And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers,
 That animal eye,
 Is just what you say.
That savage of fire,
 That seed,
 Have it your way.

The world is ugly, 
And the people are sad.”

I read this as a poem about how a certain pessimistic and unimaginative outlook fails to see the wonder of the world—and in doing so, actually diminishes that wonder.

The speaker of the poem sees the sun poetically, as a “strange flower.” But at the same time, with a bitter and sarcastic resignation, he tells the unnamed “you” to “have it your way.” In other words, according to the “you,” the sun is just the sun and nothing more.

The famous second stanza, repeated at the end of the poem, should not be interpreted literally—or at least not with a singular meaning. It does not represent the attitude of the speaker, but the attitude of the “you” he addresses. Stevens might have punctuated the poem like this:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way:

“The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.”

To do so, however, would have reduced the secondary meaning. The world is indeed ugly, and the people are sad—but only because of people claiming this is the case. By leaving out quotation marks, Stevens allows for this double meaning.

There is so much more to analyze—the title, the rhyme and meter, etc.—but that could turn into a ten-page essay. That Stevens manages to pack so much into so few words, and with such simplicity, is a reminder of the great power of poetic compression.

– RC

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

This is a portrait of the American poet Wallace Stevens, (1879-1955). He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his in 1954. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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