Blake will do for Stevens, so as his Journal provides, he took long walks, "a good 42 miles" in one day. "I walked without stopping longer than a minute or two at a time." This is the heart's core: "I thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts...it is a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes + barrens + wilds. It still dwarfs + terrifies + crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter" (Letters, 73, April 18, 1904).Whatever his broodish naturalism did to the drawing rooms after his Harmonium of 1923, the book that sold a hundred copies! in his Journal it is an "extraordinarily brilliant day" (70, April 4, 1904). So Holly says that "eventually Stevens discarded his Journal in favor of his letters to Elsie" (Letters, 78), but they show the same life. Both contradict his repute as a dandy, call out Marianne Moore's "riot of gorgeousness" or a "deliberate bearishness," a heavenly "brutal naturalism?"Resort to the life, it is clearer than words. The course of
It is the conflict of the human and the natural he minds, as he already said, man "has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows" (73). This discord makes him satiric. "Men who'd been taking a drop of the Astor House Monongahela now and then through the winter, or else had been calling in at Proctor's for an olive or a fishball before starting up town, looked like blotchy, bloodless, yes, and bloated--toads" (70). His response to this man is "I walked a score of miles sloughing off a pound at every mile (it seemed)." The journal is filled with wood frogs, blue birds, pussy willow, skunk cabbage, cedar, gulls and goats. This is the center of his soul, not that urbanity of words he floods over the streets of Chicago, infinitely more dense that Dorothy Wordsworth's diary of the Lake District, an unfair comparison, for if anything Stevens is a botanist and a naturalist. That he sold insurance shows the depth of depravity of the civil, "many a good, honest woman had a snout like a swine" (70), and no one seems to have noticed he's quoting the Bible again, as if it had entered his blood and so alchemically transmuted as to come out his mouth (a jewel in a swine snout!).
This discord of civil and natural drives that cleansing "bearishness." It is the folly of the 25 year old that he "lay on my belly on the top of one of the cliffs" (70). Sure these are snapshots, we don't get to read his thoughts. You can't read your own, but that doesn't mean you should disbelieve him. Words are the last thing that is true and life is next to that. What is true are the thoughts, the meditation, and when you hear them utter truely say yes monsieur. He struggles with his cigar and drink, his corpulence and dullness so you would think he were a species of Hopkins consumed with the flame. Against the background of the civil he hears and sees, "no doubt, if it had been a bit nearer sunset, the particular hills I gazed at so long would have been very much like the steps to the Throne. And Blake's angels would have been there with their "Holy, Holy, Holy" (71), except he knows it well they are not Blake's angels, the angels around the throne.
Is it fair to leave huge chunks of Stevens out of his continent to capture the body or save the soul? It depends upon your interest. But for his baptism there go we. What about the adult urbanity? He models his dislike, distaste, revulsion at the civil so well. What an irony he should be so good at Guggenheims, galleries, fandoms when beneath he is raving in satire except when he has a bit too much and takes a poke at Hemingways's numbskull of it all. No he won't teach at Harvard! "Here am I, a descendant of the Dutch, at the age of twenty-five, without a cent to my name...God bless us, what a lark! "(69) I tell you he sensed the rejection of Grandfather John Zeller in his own land and hasted to repay.
"On Sunday I stretched my cramped legs--doing my twenty-five miles (Letters, 68, October 20, 1903), but..."guzzled vin ordinaire...open my dusty tobacco-jar--and my nerves, as a consequence, are a bit uneasy." Even before this he said "I have resolved...to abstain from wet-goods--not that I booze...and in the second place, to smoke wisely" (Letters, 62, December 29-31, 1902). His distrust of the civil and its civilities of friendship, cigars and vin? Well it comes from "tramping through the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the Invisible" (Letters, 62, August 10, 1902). So either you think he's sentimental, provoking Wordsworth to celibacy, or he knows the truth, you cannot smoke your pipe as "a materialist"(60) and see "the fairies, the Cloud-Gatherer, the Prince of Peace, the Mirror of Virtue--and a pleasant road to think of them on, and a starry night to be with them" (60, September 4, 1902). That there is a higher and a lower reality he knows well. The civil lives in one, the "betokening" in the other. This can go on, but he gets baptized, a civil gesture directed against the pipe and the vin, poetry and the horde of men. The only way he could make up his mind between the two would be to live again. And that would conclude it, "the thousands of people I passed; now I look at them with extraordinary interest as companions in the same fight that I am about to join" (63), or, "I discovered egg-shells! How deep + voluble the shadows! How perfect the quiet!...roads are strewn with purple oak leaves, brown chestnut leaves, and the golden and scarlet leaves of maples. I doubt if there is any keener delight in the world...." (62).
Stevens on Nature and the Imagination (Edward Ragg) here