ramazani elegy and anti-elegy in stevens' "harmonium": mockery, melancholia, and the...

Elegy and Anti-Elegy in Stevens' "Harmonium": Mockery, Melancholia, and the Pathetic Fallacy Author(s): Jahan Ramazani Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring, 1991), pp. 567-582 Published by: Indiana University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831364 . Accessed: 11/12/2013 21:33 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. . Indiana University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Modern Literature. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Wed, 11 Dec 2013 21:33:52 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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Ramazani, Jahan. Elegy and Anti-Elegy in Stevens' "Harmonium": Mockery, Melancholia, and the Pathetic Fallacy. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring, 1991), pp. 567-582


Page 1: Ramazani Elegy and Anti-Elegy in Stevens' "Harmonium": Mockery, Melancholia, and the PatheticFallacy

Elegy and Anti-Elegy in Stevens' "Harmonium": Mockery, Melancholia, and the PatheticFallacyAuthor(s): Jahan RamazaniSource: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Spring, 1991), pp. 567-582Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831364 .

Accessed: 11/12/2013 21:33

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].


Indiana University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal ofModern Literature.


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Page 2: Ramazani Elegy and Anti-Elegy in Stevens' "Harmonium": Mockery, Melancholia, and the PatheticFallacy



Elegy and Anti-Elegy in

Stevens' Harmonium: Mockery,

Melancholia, and the Pathetic Fallacy

Writing to Harriet Monroe during the last year of the First World War, Stevens

apologizes for one of his depressive displays:

I've had the blooming horrors, following my gossip about death, at you house. ... I write this to let you know that I have been sincerely regretful and

hope that you and your family will forgive me. The subject absorbs me, but that

is no excuse: there are too many people in the world, vitally involved, to whom

it is infinitely more than a thing to think of.1

A thing to think of, obsessively?such is death in Stevens' early work. Beneath the

ironies and evasions, his melancholic preoccupation with death persists, long after this

embarrassing episode of lugubriousness. Poetry, he later asserts, embodies and assuages melancholia: "Poetry is a form of melancholia. Or rather, in melancholy it is one of the

'aultres choses solatieuses1" (OP 186). In his own poetry at least, melancholia

predominates. "I gave up writing plays," he explains in a letter, "because I had much

less interest in dramatic poetry than in elegiac poetry" (1729). Other genres and modes

also play their part; only a thanatological monomaniac would try to read "Earthy Anecdote" as an elegy. But the relative scarcity of formal elegies in his oeuvre (only "The Owl in the Sarcophagus" and "To an Old Philosopher in Rome") should not blind

us to the wealth of poems written in the elegiac mode. Critics from Ellmann to Vendler

and Bloom have commented on the elegiac element in Harmonium, but the volume

deserves a fuller generic reading that would map out its complex appropriations and

repudiations of elegiac codes.2 Although such poems as "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

1 Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Knopf, 1966), 206. References to Stevens's

poetry are given parenthetically in the text; they are to The Collected Poems (Vintage-Random, 1982). References to Stevens' other works are given parenthetically and by abbreviation: L for

Letters', NA for The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (Vintage-Knopf-Random, 1942); and OP for Opus Posthumous, rev. ed., ed. Milton J. Bates

(Knopf, 1989).

2 On the "decorous melancholy" of Stevens' early work, see Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium (Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 11-16, 58. Discussions of Stevens' elegiac mode include Richard Ellmann, "Wallace Stevens' Ice-Cream," Kenyon Review, XIX (1952), pp. 89-105; Joseph Riddel, The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens (Louisiana State University Press, 1965), pp. 76-92; Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings:

Jahan Ramazani, "Elegy and Anti-Elegy in Stevens' Harmonium: Mockery, Malancholia, and the Pathetic Fallacy," Journal of Modern Literature, XVIL4 (1991), pp. 567-582. Copyright 1994

Temple University.

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and "Domination of Black" do not follow the determinate patterns of traditional elegy,

recognizable shards ofthe elegy survive?sometimes twisted, sometimes disguised?in the

rhetoric, imagery, and tone of such works.

In his later discursive prose, Stevens provides contexts for interpreting his elegiac

poems. He indicates that his elegiac sensibility is a response to two realities of the

twentieth century: the modern imagination, he suggests, compensates both for the

disappearance ofthe gods and for the loss of a non-violent reality. With the gods blown

up, each poem is an elegy, an attempt to fill the void left by their collective death?"to

quieten the sky / And then to refill its emptiness again" (p. 482). The basic structure of

elegy consists in just such a consolatory substitution of an aesthetic object for whatever

has been lost. The modern artist's labor, Stevens implies, is fundamentally elegiac: "in

an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent . . . , poetry and painting, and the

arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost" (NA, p.171).

Extrapolating from Stevens' compensatory theory ofthe imagination, one might say that

the elegy manifests overtly the elegiac structure underlying modern poetry in general.

But, as the wartime letter to Harriet Monroe indicates, the death redressed by the modern

poet is not only divine; political history is likewise a story of loss. For the conservative

Stevens, the period after the Belle Epoque brought social, economic, and political

upheavals so great that they threatened to usurp the reflective space of the mind. Ever

since the First World War, reality's "pressure ... has been constant and extreme" (OP,

p. 229). With a vision of history that is deeply elegiac, Stevens longs, like every elegist, for an idyllic past, and he locates it in "the comfortable American state of life of the

eighties, the nineties and the first ten years ofthe present century" (NA, p. 26). That

epoch's "happy oblivion" had disappeared (OP, p. 229). "The period was like a

stage-setting that since then has been taken down and trucked away" (OP, p. 229). He

describes himself as living in a universe of death?the mass death of the world wars, the

industrial death of the individual "in the face of the machines," and the final

death?occasioned by the external pressure of these other dissolutions?"of any power of

contemplation" (NA, pp. 19,20). Delineating historical process, Stevens usually slips into

lament, partly because he thinks that such changes endanger the contemplative power which sustains art. Modern poetry, then, is for him a perpetual elegy not only for lost

gods and pastoral ease but also for poetry itself. In the twentieth century, the poet becomes a kind of undertaker: "poetry is a cemetery of nobilities" (NA, p. 35).

Nevertheless, one might make the counterargument that Stevens' poetry is instead

anti-elegiac. We remember, for example, his many attempts to see the thing in its pure

presence and his deliberate mockery of such elegiac conventions as the apotheosis of the

Wallace Stevens'Longer Poems (Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 55-59, 165, 207-12, 232, 246, 250, 252, 262, and Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire (1984; Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 32-35, 50-53; Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate

(Cornell University Press, 1976), pp. 233, 261, 281-92, 360-63; Charles Berger, Forms of Farewell: The Late Poetry of Wallace Stevens (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); Joseph Carroll, Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (Louisiana State University Press, 1987), pp. 53, 78-82; Eleanor Cook, Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens

(Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 103-4, 204; James Longenbach, "The 'Fellowship of Men that Perish': Wallace Stevens and the First World War," The Wallace Stevens Journal, XHI (1989), pp. 85-108; and my "Stevens and the War Elegy," The Wallace Stevens Journal XV (1991), pp. 24-36, and "Stevens and the Self-Elegy: Making Alpha of Omega," Essays in Literature, XVIII

(1991), pp. 93-105.

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dead and the procession of mourners. Paradoxically, he embraces a general theory ofthe

imagination that is elegiac even though in practice he resists the devices of the formal

elegy. This interplay between the broadly elegiac and the pointedly anti-elegiac is

clearest in Harmonium, in which these impulses are most violently opposed. Harmonium

is, as Vendler suggests, a book torn between extremes of pathos and irony.3 In my view, the volume's prankish, gaudy, and satiric rhetoric should be seen as a defensive response to the siren-song of gloom, particularly in the mock-elegies, such as "The Emperor of

Ice-Cream," "Two at Norfolk," "Cortege for Rosenbloom," and "The Worms at

Heaven's Gate." Compounding sorrow with satiric anger, the concept of melancholia

offers a useful paradigm for the psychological dynamic of these apparently anti-elegiac

poems. Peter Sacks has shown that the traditional elegy carries out the work of mourning; in contrast, Stevens' nontraditional elegies and mock-elegies embody the work of

melancholia.4 In this regard, Stevens shares much with such modern poets as Hardy,

Yeats, Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Langston Hughes, Auden, Lowell, Berryman, and

Plath?poets whose elegiac verse is more ambivalent, conflicted, and ironic than are

earlier elegies. The elegy survives in the modern period by interlacing its pathos with

more irony and satire than ever before. Thus, Stevens exemplifies an important transition

in the literary history of the elegy?a formal shift with psychological correlates. The

features of melancholia overlap substantially with those of mourning, but Freud claims

that the melancholic mourner is more likely to grieve over an unconscious than a

conscious loss (we think of the elegiac Waste Land), to display a tendency for rage and

self-reviling (Plath's elegies), and to alternate between depressive and manic phases

(Berryman's Dream Songs).5 Harmonium?with its unspecified gloom, its mockery and

self-mockery, and its violent swings between sadness and jubilation?displays all of these

propensities. The mock-elegies direct much of their scorn at the genre of elegy itself, with its codification of grief and its programmatic translation of the dead. Even so, these

poems draw heavily on the elegiac mode which they contest. Some of the elegiac poems in Harmonium seem to reject the traditional consolation at the heart ofthe pastoral elegy: the pathetic fallacy. Yet, for all their ascetic resistance to the pathetic fallacy, such

poems as "The Death ofa Soldier" and "The Snow Man" ultimately reinstate this elegiac convention. In Harmonium, Stevens represents himself as anti-elegist, although the

volume also proves him to be an elegist, almost in spite of himself.

Each of Stevens' mock-elegies focuses on a different stage of post-mortem existence. In "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," the corpse awaits burial, and funeral preparations are

under way. "Cortege for Rosenbloom" depicts a funeral procession. Decomposition and

3 Vendler, Extended Wings, p. 55.

4 See Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 1-37.

5 Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," vol. 14 of The Standard Edition of the Complete

Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (Hogarth, 1953-74), pp. 245,246,253. Melanie Klein develops and revises Freud's analysis of melancholia, arguing that melancholia underlies even "normal" mourning; see "Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States," Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, ed. Masud R. Khan (Hogarth, 1981), pp. 344-69.

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apotheosis are the subject of "The Worms at Heaven's Gate." And in "Two at Norfolk," heirs kiss in a graveyard that keeps the skeletons of their parents. The poems suggest a

fascination with the journey which a corpse makes, from home to pompous procession to worm-food to skeleton. In the earlier story "Four Characters," Stevens had written

about a poor old woman who mourns over her husband's outstretched corpse; he also

wrote a play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, in which another woman sits gazing at

her lover's corpse hanging in a tree. While displacing his melancholic tendencies onto

women, Stevens dramatizes his early concern not only with death but also with the

disposal of the body, and the rites that governed this disposal were changing rapidly

during this phase of his career. The morbid interests of Harmonium owe much to the

deaths of Stevens' father (1911), mother (1912), and sister (1919), interests further

heightened by the international slaughter that he tried unsuccessfully to elegize in

"Phases" and "Lettres d'un Soldat," successfully in "The Death of a Soldier." These

familial and mass deaths sharpened Stevens' preoccupation with the cultural codes

governing grief, codes exemplified by the burial practices and elegiac conventions that

he mocks in Harmonium. Behind this mockery lurks a deep nostalgia for meaningful social and poetic rites of mourning?an affective tension that Stevens shares with such

contemporaries as Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, and Owen.

Closely read, the mock-elegies reveal ambivalent responses to literary and

extraliterary codes of mourning. By echoing the exhortations of "Lycidas," Stevens

indicates in "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (1922) that he is resuming and interrogating

elegiac tradition. Milton's swain pleads in the famous flower catalogue: "And call the

vales, and bid them hither east / Their bells andflowerets. . . J Bring the rathe primrose . . . . / and every flower that sad embroidery wears: I. . . Bid .../... daffadillies fill

their cupsn [emphasis added].6 Stevens' speaker has a more bullying voice, but he too

tells the mourners to bring tokens of life:

Call the roller of big cigars, The muscular one, and bid him whip In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month's newspapers. Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (p. 64)

While the pastoral procession of mourners traditionally helps to redeem the dead, neither these mourners nor their crass emblems of fertility promise a rebirth. Ellmann thinks that the speaker is the poet, and Vendler claims that Stevens adopts the impersonal voice of

Necessity.7 At the same time, the verbal echoes of "Lycidas" ironically link the speaker to the mournful shepherd of pastoral elegy. But the pomposity of the voice may also

suggest that this elegiac speaker humorously competes with his new cultural counterpart outside poetry?the "funeral director." As in Williams' "Tract," the hortatory speaker of Stevens' poem instructs his auditors how to conduct themselves after a death.

6 Milton, "Lycidas," lines 134-50.

7 Ellmann, "Stevens," pp. 92-93; Vendler, Stevens, pp. 51-52.

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Displacing the gentle elegiac apostrophe to the mourners, the speaker's tone carries the

bombastic accents ofthe recently professionalized undertaker. In its first code of ethics

(1884), the National Funeral Directors* Association stated: "'There is, perhaps, no

profession, after that of the sacred ministry, in which a high-toned morality is more

imperatively necessary than that of a funeral director's.'"8 As the "sacred ministry"

began to lose its monopoly over the dead, the elegist had to contend with a powerful rival

for the secularized rites of mourning. The "high-toned" speaker of Stevens' poem,

sounding much like the new "funeral director," bids the mourners to indulge the sensual

pleasures of life. But whereas the "funeral director" encourages the denial of death by

separating mourners from the dead and by concealing the dead behind lifelike

appearances, this speaker soon turns our attention to the horny-footed corpse,

irremediably "cold" and "dumb."

While many critics hold that the speaker represents the proper acceptance of the

interrelation between life and death, the psychological structure of the poem is more

complicated than this view allows.9 Behind the speaker's high-toned assertions one may detect an unstated revulsion against the intermingling of sexuality and death. Although the aphoristic line "Let be be finale of seem" poses as final wisdom, it may also remind

us of the famous protest lodged by a melancholic mourner, a character distraught by the

combination of grief with concerns over appearance and sensuality: "Seems, madam?

nay, it is, I know not 'seems.'"10 Among the mental features that Freud assigns to

mourning and melancholia is a chaste withdrawal from eros, and Stevens' poem, despite its allusions to the carpe diem tradition, offers a more conflicted response to death than

simple revelry in the senses.11 Rife with psychological tension, the poem tries to accept but resists the contradiction between generation and decay. Stevens said that his phrase

concupiscent curds (for which he proposed "laits libidineux" as a translation) expressed the "concupiscence of life" (L, pp. 340, 500). But the poem's rhetorical concupiscence, the excesses in its linguistic "gaudiness," suggests that the overwrought language masks

an underlying discomfort with the juxtaposition of sensual life and dumb death (L, p. 263). Unctuous in sound, the poem not only delights in sensuality but uneasily

exaggerates it: witness the lingering r-sounds, heightened in such words as cigars, curds, and newspapers, each dragging out the line's final syllable. In the phonemic progression of "kitchen cups concupiscent curds," the length ofthe successive syllables beginning in k increases, dawdling with most languor in curds. In earlier elegies, the dejected mind is pained by thoughts of sporting with the tangles of Neaera's hair or of the amorous

8 1884 statement cited in Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (Simon and Schuster, 1963), p. 233. For further discussion of the National Funeral Directors' Association and the modernization of the American funeral, see James J. Farrell, Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830-1920 (Temple University Press, 1980), pp. 146-83.

9 See Ellmann, "Stevens," pp. 92-93; Riddel, Clairvoyant,p. 87; A. Walton Litz, Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens (Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 114; Vendler, Stevens, p. 52. But my interpretation of the poem's tone, binarism and elegiac motifs is indebted to Vendler, Stevens, pp. 50-52.

10 Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2.76.

11 Freud, "Mourning," p. 244.

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birds pairing in the spring.12 Without directly articulating this disquiet, Stevens writes

it into the jarring non-relation of the withered corpse to the muscular ice-cream man

rolling phallic cigars, to the wenches dawdling seductively, and to the boys bringing flowers?flowers that may be for the wenches rather than the deceased.

The youthful vigor ofthe first stanza is irreconcilable with the second stanza's corpse:

Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Mirroring the unmediable gap between the two stanzas, the refrain forces together antithetical meanings: sensuality rules; death rules. The pleasure principle is all (the cream in ice-cream); the reality principle is all (the ice in ice-cream). The closing

rhymes at the end of the poem (come/dumb, beam/cream) put an absolute stop to any sonic dawdling, as in the end-words ofthe first stanza. The lamp's harsh "beam" recalls

and negates the sun's consoling "beams" at the end of "Lycidas" and Adonais', Stevens'

mock-elegy bitterly transforms elegy's compensatory light into the cruel light of the

reality principle, or in its alternate meaning, the brazen light of unrestrained desire.13

Instead of reintegrating life and death, as the elegy traditionally has done, the poem reasserts the absolute rupture that divides them. But underlying Stevens' severe allusions

to the elegy and ambivalent echoes of the "funeral director," we may hear an implied lament for the lost conventions and rituals that could once have helped make more sense

of the relation between death and ongoing life.

Added to the later Harmonium, "Two at Norfolk" similarly invokes and repudiates familiar elegiac motifs. Although the poem is not well known, it deserves our attention

for its querulous inversions of elegiac tradition and its melancholic responses to the

sexuality outliving death. Resuming the mock-elegiac exhortations of "The Emperor of

Iee-Cream," this speaker neither apostrophizes the dead ("Farewell, thou child of my right hand") nor summons the mourners ("O, weep for Adonais") but browbeats the

professional caretakers of the dead, his racist language declaring his superiority: "Mow the grass in the cemetery, darkies, / Study the symbols and the requiescats, / But leave a bed . . ." (p. 111).14 The poem continues this subversion of elegiac norms by attacking the traditional chronology of the genre. Instead of turning into a corpse only after death, the "skeleton" was already skeletal in life (a "skull"). And instead of losing speech, this man, when alive, already "had little to speak of." In keeping with its reversals of elegiac narrative, the poem also contradicts the genre's domestic myth: that death sunders those whom life joined. Here, death merely repeats the earlier divisions. For one father, "his daughter was a foreign thing." Even before he dies, the daughter is

12 Milton, "Lycidas," line 69; Shelley, Adonais, 18.159.

13 Milton, "Lycidas," line 170; Shelley, Adonais, 54.485.

14 Ben Jonson, "On My First Son," line 1; Shelley, Adonais, 1.2, 3.19.

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alien to this slumber-sealed parent. For the other father, the "making of his son was one

more duty," unlike the feelings of the poet who lamented his son as "his best piece of

poetry."15 But in its final countermovement, the poem supplants the pre- and

post-mortem divisions with an imagery of sexual union. In the "dark shadows" ofthe

graveyard, son and daughter come,

He for her burning breast and she for his arms.

And these two never meet in the air so full of summer

And touch each other, even touching closely, Without an escape in the lapses of their kisses.

Make a bed and leave the iris in it. (pp. 111-12)

Recalling the melancholic tensions of "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," Stevens again

telescopes concupiscence and the corpse, desire and the dead. The juxtaposition is

startling because we expect the survivors to show only the chaste love that is mourning, not the "burning" physical passion of "touching" and "kisses." The poem verbally enacts

the erotic conjunction in a chiastic intertwining of pronominal references?He, her, she, his. In its movement from an imagery of absence and division to plenitude ("full of

summer") and communion ("the iris"), the poem recapitulates the figural momentum of

the traditional elegy.16 But it foregrounds, not veils, erotic impulse, turning against the

sexual deflections in elegy's modest images of rebirth, such as the risen sun or star.

Even though "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" and "Two at Norfolk" recoil from many

elegiac conventions, "Cortege for Rosenbloom" (1921) is more obviously a mock-elegy,

extending the countergenre once practiced by such poets as Matthew Prior and Jonathan

Swift. In the twentieth century, the mock-elegy undergoes a significant revival, from

Eliot's "Aunt Helen" to Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" to Richard Wilbur's "To an

American Poet Just Dead," and Stevens plays his own part in this development. As

Ellmann remarks of Stevens' poem, "[t]his cortege . . . is the wrong way to conduct a

funeral"; it is also the wrong way to conduct an elegy.17 By means of pleonasm, the

poem's dominant trope, Stevens satirizes elegiac repetition, familiar from such plaints as

"Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, / Young Lycidas. . . ,"18 The line "Rosenbloom

is dead" appears four times in the poem (pp. 79-81). But, detached from the psychic work of reality-testing, the iterations become nonsensical: the mourners are said to

"tread ... the tread / Of the dead," "Treading a tread," "the endless tread / That they tread. ..." In each instance, the grammatical object merely duplicates the information

in the verb, and the pleonastic phrase rings still more hollow with successive repetitions.

Similarly, the mourners tread the "ascents / Ofthe ascending" as they mount the sky?"a

region of frost, / Viewing the frost." The empty mirror of pleonasm is a verbal

correlative for the ridiculous uniformity and interchangeability of Rosenbloom's "finical

carriers," with their "hundred legs" treading in "unison." Compared with the variety of

15 Ben Jonson, "On My First Son," line 10.

16 Litz comments on the symbolic significance of the iris (Introspective Voyager, pp. 113-14). Sacks interprets the elegy as deflecting sexual impulse (English Elegy, pp. 6-17).

17 Ellmann, "Stevens," p. 92.

18 Milton, "Lycidas," lines 8-9.

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Stevens' own responses to death in Harmonium, from the irony of the mock-elegies to

the indulgent pathos of "Sunday Morning" and the apocalyptic terror of "Domination of

Black," these mourners seem to be automatons. Of course, the object ofthe satire is not

only poetic but social mourning, with its mechanical repetitions. Many Americans in

recent years had begun to reject the religious customs that had governed mourning, and

Stevens shares their impatience. Impersonal and monotonous, religious rites of mourning seemed increasingly absurd as their transcendental ground receded and as massive war

deaths vitiated their effectiveness. And the burial rites ofthe new "funeral director" were

even less spontaneous and responsive than the traditional rites that they were

supplanting.19 Like "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" and Williams's "Tract," "Cortege for

Rosenbloom" implicitly defines poetry as the antithesis of mortuary custom, its

idiosyncratic impulses uncontainable by the "Iamentable tread" of institutionalized

mourning. Yet this renunciation is hardly complete, for in his own elegiac poems, such

as "Death of a Soldier" and "Esthetique du Mal," Stevens tries to improvise his own

secular and solitary rites of mourning.

Attacking institutional mourning, Stevens ridicules the denial of death not only in

religious custom but also in the elegy's formal apotheosis?the translations of Dido,

Adonais, Arthur Hallam, and many others into the sky's latest stars. Here his rhetorical

strategy is literalization. Instead of the usual break between the lament and the magical transformation (Shelley's "He lives"!), Stevens supplies the missing link, making Rosenbloom's mourners actually carry him into the sky:

The tread of the carriers does not halt

On the hill, but turns

Up the sky.

They are bearing his body into the sky. (p. 80)

Having literalized the psychic turn of elegy, Stevens sustains this joke about stellification

by cladding his mourners in turbans and fur boots, thus protecting them from the cold of

interstellar space. More than a state of mind, the wished-for heaven is a physical terrain, "a place in the sky," and the carriers "bury" Rosenbloom in his celestial cemetery plot. But in spite of all the announcements and ceremonies concerning Rosenbloom's death, the mourners are hypocrites, more interested in suppressing death than in acknowledging it. They are childish in their denial of the mortality that makes us human ("the infants

of misanthropes") and made hollow by their fanciful rejection of human finitude ("the infants of nothingness"). Suppressing death, both the elegy and mourning ritual celebrate

post-mortem triumph. Stevens laughs not only at these transcendental fictions but also

at Yeats's grandiose claims for the immortal rose; the rose blooms, but like us it fades, and its grave is in the earth, not in heaven.20

In another comic poem of Harmonium, "The Worms at Heaven's Gate," a funeral

procession turns up in the sky, but the procession carries the body in pieces. The chorus

of worms merrily announces its cargo:

19 See Farrell, Inventing, pp. 145-83, and Philippe Aries, The Hour ofOur Death, trans. Helen Weaver (Vintage-Random, 1981), pp. 559-601.

20 Stevens' ridicule of the name, punning on "rose-in-bloom," may also reflect anti-Semitic views.

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Out of the tomb, we bring Badroulbadour, Within our bellies, we her chariot.

Here is an eye. And here are, one by one, The lashes of that eye and its white lid.

Here is the cheek on which that lid declined,

And, finger after finger, here, the hand, The genius of that cheek. Here are the lips, The bundle of the body and the feet.

Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour. (pp. 49-50)

The poem subtly invokes and interrogates a variety of literary modes. The worms, as

Litz observes, come not only from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 but also from the graveyard scene in Hamlet?1 Even so, Stevens again adopts jocularity as a way of defeating Hamlet's dangerously attractive melancholia. Although he juxtaposes bodily death and

beauty, Stevens also rids the worms of the Gothic horror that they evoke in mortuary verse. The poem play fully mocks Stevens' penchant for the macabre by drawing on

another tradition?the blazon, or the enumeration of the beloved's beautiful parts. A

related technique exists in the elegy as well, as we recall from Surrey's eulogistic review

of Wyatt's head, visage, hand, tongue, eye, and heart ("Epitaph on Sir Thomas Wyatt"). But after Stevens' poem names "one by one" the blazon's characteristic metonymies, from eye to cheek, finger, hand, and lips, it leaves the rest an obscure "bundle." And "all

her parts be not in th'usual place," as Donne wrote in a misogynist parody ofthe blazon, "The Anagram." Stevens suggests that to enumerate the "parts" of the beloved is to

immortalize her, transporting her from earth to heaven, but the latent logic of the poem indicates that it is also to decompose her into fragments, turning a woman into a dissected


According to Stevens' adage, poetry and melancholia are one. This is especially true of his mock-elegies, in which he attacks funeral practices and elegiac consolations,

choking off any pos- sibility for the resolution of grief?a resolution generally associated

with normative mourning. He addresses a melancholic mourner in "Another Weeping Woman": "grieving will not sweeten" her bitter, black, poisonous unhappiness (p. 25). This dark mood hangs over his own mock-elegies, but Stevens rejects the literary conventions that had permitted earlier poets to purge sorrow. In accordance with the

psychology of melancholia, he angrily resists the mediation by code and convention of

his relationship with the dead. He tells the melancholic woman that the imagination, unrestrained by such mediation, is the sole faculty that can join the living and the dead:

"The imagination ... / Leaves you / With him for whom no phantasy moves. .." (p. 25). In a poem with a similar title, "The Weeping Burgher," the imagination has so joined the

living and the dead that the speaker talks of "the people burning in me still" (p. 61). For

Freud and Karl Abraham, a narcissistic identification is characteristic of melancholia, so

that the ego wants to "incorporate" into itself the lost object "by devouring" it.22 But

this poem, in contrast to "Another Weeping Woman," holds out some hope for

21 Litz, Introspective Voyager, p. 32.

22 Freud, "Mourning," pp. 249-50; Karl Abraham, "A Short Study ofthe Development ofthe

Libido, Viewed in the Light of Mental Disorders" (1924), Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, trans.

Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey (Hogarth, 1968), pp. 418-501.

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overcoming the depressive position: "in excess, continual, / There is cure of sorrow"

(61). According to this familiar, homeopathic model of mourning, one purges grief by

sustaining and exaggerating it. This model helps to explain the attraction of a principal

elegiac convention, the pathetic fallacy. The mourner enlarges grief so that the natural

world seems to participate in it, a grief objectified and heightened until it is purged. However battered, the pathetic fallacy and other conventions of the elegy survive in

Stevens' early work, as we shall see in his elegiac lyrics.

Even when he is not overtly satirizing the genre, the Stevens of Harmonium often

resists the elegy's central conventions. The pathetic fallacy, key to the genre from its

Alexandrian inception, tempts the stoic poet of "The Death of a Soldier," "From the

Misery of Don Joost," and "The Snow Man," and he makes a show of suppressing it,

only to have it return in disguise. Stevens was hardly the first elegist to question the

trope. Milton doubts the "false surmise" that flowers might join in his lament. Still more

skeptically, Tennyson's Sorrow says, "The stars . . . blindly run." "Nature" may be no

more than a "hollow echo," its blankness permitting the illusory projection of sympathetic

responsiveness. Unlike pre-evolutionary nature, the new "Nature, red in tooth and claw

/ With ravine," seemed less available for the mourning mind's therapeutic needs.23

Stevens takes for granted the radical otherness of the nonhuman world, an otherness

exacerbated by the disappearance of the gods. Divinity, he later explains, had been a

collective exercise in the pathetic fallacy:

If "I am a stranger in the land," it follows that the whole race is a

stranger. We live in a place that is not our own and, much more, not

ourselves. The first idea, then, was not our own. It is not the

individual alone that indulges himself in the pathetic fallacy. It is the

race. God is the centre of the pathetic fallacy. (L, p. 444)

Stevens could not return to pre-scientific animism any more than Frost could in "The

Need of Being Versed in Country Things," and yet the pathetic fallacy remains a

dominant trope in their work. In the modern period, the "fallacy" may be most "pathetic" when most muted. The elegiac strain lives on in Stevens' work only by virtue of the

vigorously anti-elegiac strain that contains it.

"The Death of a Soldier" (1918) must be a central exhibit in any discussion of

elegy and the pathetic fallacy in Stevens. Despite their disagreement about the poem, both

Poirier and Bloom think that it refuses elegiac pathos, although Bloom adds that we

"demand" more than its frigid ethos and ascesis, and Poirier thinks the poem content to

contemplate human disappearance.24 Genre analysis can help us to see how the pathetic

fallacy outlasts the poem's vigorous attempts to efface it:

Life contracts and death is expected, As in a season of autumn.

23 Tennyson, In Memoriam 3.5, 9, 11, and 56.15-16.

24 Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (Random House, 1987), pp. 216-20; Bloom, Stevens, pp. 49-50.

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The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,

Imposing his separation,

Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial, As in a season of autumn, When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens, The clouds go, nevertheless, In their direction. (p. 97)

True to the negative impulses of Modernist poetry, Stevens brandishes his rejection of the two primary consolations ofthe pastoral elegy: the association ofthe dead person with a vegetation god that dies and revives ("a three-days personage" such as Milton's

Christ or Shelley's Adonis) and the alignment of the human with a sympathetic and

cyclical nature. Traditionally, nature reflects the changes in the dead person (autumn or

winter, then spring) and in the mourner's grief (Milton's mournful vines, then fresh

woods). Both the theological and the seasonal tropes are anthropomorphic, projecting the

human onto the natural. Stevens' poem forcefully negates the theological archetype,

refusing to deify the soldier. It derides as "pomp" such religious ceremony. Even so, the last stanza widens out the scene to include "the heavens," recalling the final glimpse of heaven in such elegies as the "November Eclogue" and "Lycidas." Although Stevens

seems to empty the phrase "the heavens" of theological content, he chooses not to write

"the sky." Much as he signals his apparent rejection of religious consolation, so too he

unmistakably marks his repudiation of the pathetic fallacy. Using the word as in the

repeated line "As in a season of autumn," he intimates that his analogy is artificial and

incomplete?a comparison between human death occasioned by war and nonhuman death

occasioned by seasonal change. Further, the final image of the unhindered clouds

confirms nature's lack of sympathy for human death and sorrow. And yet the pathetic

fallacy survives these blatantly antipathetic flourishes.

Although qualified, the pathetic alignment of the soldier's death with nature's

underlies much of the imagery of the poem. The autumnal setting, modestly offered as

a thought-experiment, nevertheless returns the elegy to one of its traditional seasons. By

positioning "autumn" and "falls" at the end of successive lines, the poet links nature's

death with the soldier's in a pun. And the word "falls" also consoles by eliminating human responsibility for the death, as though the soldier's death in war were as inevitable

and painless as the fall of a leaf. The image of the wind stopping also builds on a trope with a long history?the association of the wind with human breath or spiritus. That the

elegy holds these pathetic fallacies at a distance only serves to heighten their pathos. We can see more clearly this heightening through restraint by comparing the poem with a less successful precursor-text, "The Silver Plough-Boy" (1915). Like the war elegy, the earlier lyric presents one person's death as a synecdoche; however, instead of objectifying pathos by turning outward to a chilly landscape, the poet focuses on the victim and openly declaims sorrow: "How soon the silver fades in the dust! How soon the black figure slips from the wrinkled sheet! How softly the sheet falls to the ground!" (OP, p. 17). If one rewrote "The Death ofa Soldier" according to Bloom's desire for a stated pathos,

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one would have a lyric resembling the earlier, much less moving poem. By indulging but

screening the pathetic fallacy, the poem raises the kind of muted elegiac lament that

works best in the modern period. Even if we were to take at face value the poem's repudiation of the pathetic fallacy,

we still could not accurately term non-elegiac its supposed representation of nature as

unconcerned with human finitude, for this is also one of the oldest tropes of the elegy.

Anticipating Spenser, Shelley, and other elegists, Moschus complains that, indifferent to

the finality of human death, mallows, celery, and dill come back to life each spring.25 In spite of their tonal restraint, the final lines of "The Death ofa Soldier" ("The clouds

go, nevertheless, / In their direction") harbor a protest: a man dies; nevertheless, the

world goes on. Subtly stated here, this grievance against death's injustice is fundamental

to elegiac lament. And, from another perspective, one can even detect a latent

consolation in the final picture: despite death, nature endures.

The elegiac topos contrasting nature's relentless cyclicality with human finitude is at

the center of another poem written in diminishing tercets: the dramatic monologue "From the Misery of Don Joost."26 In this poem too, Stevens manipulates the pathetic

fallacy. The speaker, whom he links to Don Quixote (L, p. 464), begins the poem with

a fearless appraisal of his decline and an unflinching assessment of seasonal indifference.

This assessment recalls the end of "The Death of a Soldier":

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. (pp. 46-47)

Don Joost personifies the seasons as agents of destruction and renewal, continually

pursuing inscrutable goals, while his own quest vanishes forever. In his bodily and

mental fate, he resembles such an earlier elegiac personage as the dead Adonais: Adonais'

body decays at the same time that the "amorous birds now pair," and his mind, "that

alone which knows," is extinguished, never to be renewed.27 But having acknowledged that he is shut out from the sexuality and intentions of the natural world, the speaker

suddenly reverses himself, as if the thought of a world without him, going on

indifferently, were unbearable:

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

25 "Lament for Bion," lines 99-103; Spenser, "November Eclogue," lines 82-88; Shelley, Adonais, stanzas 18-20.

26 Litz discusses the poem's form; see Introspective Voyager, p. 98.

27 Shelley, Adonais, 18.159, 20.177.

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And sight, and all there was of the storm, Knows nothing more.

Held off earlier, the pathetic fallacy now floods the poem, the speaker replacing the

seasonal "genii" as the animating principle of the world. No longer a superfluity, he

insists that without him nature will be different (a nature that includes "slaves"). The

subject ofthe line "Knows nothing more" had been "my body"; but, repeated at the end

of the poem, the line now takes the entire natural world as its subject. All objects of his

knowledge, not just his knowledge itself, will cease upon his death. More directly than

"The Death of a Soldier," this poem marks the extremes of Stevens' mortal responses to

nature: the post-Copernican, post-Darwinian Stevens who feels himself to be an

irrelevance to the natural order, and the self-deifying, Hoonian Stevens who wants to be

the very world in which he walks.

"The Snow Man" is usually read as the antithesis of the psychically tumescent

Stevens. In this vein, Poirier argues that in this poem and others "there is . . . a

slackening out of the self, an expiration into passivity."28 Indeed, "The Snow Man"

seems to resist the allure of the pathetic fallacy more successfully than "Death of a

Soldier" or "From the Misery of Don Joost," since it explicitly aims at arresting any affective projection: "not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the

sound of a few leaves. . ." (9-10). On the surface, "The Snow Man" could be seen as

Stevens' most anti-elegiac poem. Despite the attempts at damming up the pathetic fallacy,

however, the trope leaks back into the poem through a series of cracks. Through the

barrier of this particular "not," for instance, we still perceive an attribution of feeling to

the inanimate leaves. This is especially so because the reductionist's mental exercise of

"not" responding emotionally to the sound is portrayed as a difficult and extremist

experiment. Bloom discusses the insistence of the pathetic fallacy in the strong

figurations ofthe scene, as in the words "shagged" and "beholds."29 Even without such

figures, the trope inheres in the very choice of the setting and season. Why, after all, use

a winter scene for this experiment in emptying the mind, in turning consciousness into

a dead reflector, in reaching emotion and rhetoric degree zero, if not because of the

"pathetic fallacy" associating winter with absence and death? We can go further. For

the poem's fundamental desire, to achieve a mental state in harmonious accord with

nature, structurally resembles the goal of the pathetic fallacy: to represent nature in

harmonious accord with the mind. The strained preposition in the phrase "mind of

winter" reveals how profoundly the poem takes for granted the pathetic fallacy's equation of the human with the natural. This phrase recalls similar collocations in a more overtly

elegiac poem, "Sunday Morning":

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

Elations when the forest blooms; gusty Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights. . . . (p. 67)

An interreading of this passage with "The Snow Man" can help us to specify the

figurative work latent even in Stevens' prepositions. In their overt and secondary

28 Poirier, Renewal, p. 219.

29 Bloom, Stevens, pp. 53-67.

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meanings, the initial "of" and "in" of this passage suggest how closely Stevens'

affect/world relation resembles the traditional pathetic fallacy: passions evoked by the rain

but latently the rain's passions, and moods evoked by the snow but potentially the snow's

moods. The difference in the two meanings is the difference between self-consciously and unself-consciously projecting affects onto a scene. But in these examples and in

"The Snow Man," the structure of the trope is still that of the pathetic fallacy, even

though Stevens alters it by reversing the trope's direction: instead of nature seeming to

imitate the mind, the mind imitates nature. In "The Snow Man," the mind appears to

want to flatten itself into the scene. But "mind of winter" is no less a figure that yokes

together different realms; similarly, "the listener, who listens in the snow" also leaps the

gap, even though the word "in" poses innocently as a geographical marker. In the passage from "Sunday Morning" as well, Stevens attempts to mute the violently figurative work

ofthe prepositions by setting in parallel a series of nonparallel phrases: the first "of" and

"in" conflate the human and the natural, but "Grievings in loneliness" coordinates the

human with the human, as if to disguise the figurative reach of the earlier phrases. Just

so, in the last line, the highly figurative on ("Emotions on wet roads") is quickly naturalized by the second, now temporal on ("roads on autumn nights").

"The Snow Man" represents a mental effort to imitate a winter landscape, and

imitation is the psychological basis ofthe pathetic fallacy; Milton's flowers, for example, shed their petals in imitation of the dead man and the mourner, even amaranthus losing its immortality. By trying to shed affect and thought in imitation of the dead landscape, Stevens would approximate the nothing that is by becoming "nothing himself." Thus, "The Snow Man" can be thought of as an attempt to rehearse death?an attempt also

apparent in "Domination of Black" and "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," two of Stevens'

early poems in the self-elegiac mode. "Domination of Black" immediately precedes "The

Snow Man" in Harmonium. If the rhetoric of "The Snow Man" is minimalist, objectivist, and anti-emotional, "Domination of Black" indulges a baroque multiplicity of figures and

a melodramatically affective language. And if "The Snow Man" rehearses death by

trying to flatten the mind into a universe of death, "Domination of Black" represents the

mind trying to protect itself from the violent pressure of the outer world. But in both

poems, imitation is the principle that links inner and outer reality. Just as the preposition

of links "mind" to "winter" in "The Snow Man" or ,f[p]assions" to "rain" in "Sunday

Morning," so too, in "Domination of Black," the prepositions on and like compare the

inner space of the room with the outer world (pp. 8-9).30 More thoroughly than any other lyric in Harmonium, this apocalyptic piece interweaves inner and outer space by means of a dizzying spiral of repetitions: the fire's colors (inner) repeat the fallen leaves

(imagined outside), which repeat the leaves themselves (outer), which repeat the flames

in the fire (inner), which repeat the tails of the peacocks (imaginary outside) in the fire

(inner), which repeat the loud hemlocks (outer). Tenor collapses into vehicle, vehicle into

tenor: fire colors are like imagined leaves are like real leaves are like peacock colors are

like real leaves, and so on. By the end of the second stanza, the poetic whirlwind turns

even the hemlocks, which had seemed clearly external, into a sound. This is the pathetic

fallacy gone wild, the poet frantically crossing back and forth between the psychic and the real, the human and the natural, until they become indistinguishable. Freud associates

such defensive replication with the uncanny?a replication that shields one from death (or,

30 Jacqueline Vaught Brogan discusses Stevens' ambiguous use ofthe words like and as in this

poem; see Stevens and Simile: A Theory of Language (Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 20.

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for him, castration) but that can therefore also turn into an ominous reminder ofthe death

against which it protects.31 Nevertheless, by the end of the poem it is impossible to

distinguish between external threats and an internal defense against them; thus we cannot

tell, for example, if the hemlocks are an outer threat or an imaginary sound evoked by the fire. The word themselves in the phrase "leaves themselves" becomes nonsensical, because the leaves, like everything else in the poem, repeats repetitions, spinning farther

and farther from self-identity. Nature and self join in a mad dance in "Domination of Black," but in "Le

Monocle de Mon Oncle" their union helps calm the poet's anxieties, even though they blend in a portrait of the dying self. Stevens figures himself and his wife as the gourds of Keats's "To Autumn" and tries to appropriate for his more personal scene some of his

predecessor's detachment:

Two golden gourds distended on our vines, Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost, Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque. We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed, The laughing sky will see the two of us

Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains. (p. 16)

As in "The Snow Man," Stevens transforms the pathetic fallacy by representing himself

as imitating nature instead of nature imitating him. Finding again a double in nature for

the human, this replication of himself and his wife allows the poet to look down vertically

upon the span of life, miniaturizing its duration. The representation ofthe human as fruit

has often helped elegists to intimate the inevitable return ofthe dead; not so here. Milton

had animated his sky in "Lycidas" with the benevolent watchfulness of all-seeing God;

again, not so here. The fruit has bloomed and it will rot, once only. The unsympathetic

sky cruelly laughs at the dead?an image of mockery that helps check the passage's

mounting self-pity. In the last line, the alliterations of r heighten the sense of the

relentlessness with which the squashes will decay, and rather than spilling seed onto the

ground, they leave only rinds behind. By representing himself and his wife as expanding

gourds that burst, Stevens makes concrete his sense of death as a loss of boundaries

between self and world, as an uncontrollable expansion into nature.

"Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" (p. 67). With this question in

"Sunday Morning," Stevens seems to disavow the entire elegiac project. But however

much he abandons the religious ceremonies for the dead, however much he mocks

American funeral practices, however much he ridicules elegiac apotheosis and repetition, and however much he pummels the pathetic fallacy, the poetry of Harmonium gives much

of its imaginative bounty to the dead. Corpses, cemeteries, funeral processions, fallen

soldiers, and death rehearsals?these are the refractions of death that spread through the

volume a darkness visible. Hardly has he set the scene in "Sunday Morning" before

breakfast and carpet are caught up in an internalized funeral: "The pungent oranges and

bright, green wings / Seem things in some procession of the dead" (p. 67). Stevens

insists on desanctifying the funeral, but funereal figures troop through poem after poem.

By bending and hiding elegiac traditions, Stevens reinvigorates a mode that he apparently repudiates. And by interweaving many of his laments with wry laughter, he, along with

Freud, "The Uncanny," Standard Edition, 17:219-52.

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such poets as Hardy, Yeats, Owen, and Auden, helps to save a genre of pathos for an era of irony. Although his subsequent elegies vacillate less wildly between the extremes of

sorrow and satire, Stevens initiates in Harmonium his life-long dialogue with the

genre?a genre in which he later writes many of his best poems, from war elegies such

as "Dutch Graves in Bucks County" to such formal elegies as "To an Old Philosopher in Rome" and self-elegies as "The Planet on the Table."

Dan Flavin, the nominal three. Copyright Dan Flavin. Reproduced by permission of Mr. Flavin.

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