Add This to Reason!

George Wolff

“The irrational cannot be ignored.” So said the American poet Wallace Stevens. Humanists have successfully used the charge of “irrationality” in fighting religious beliefs since the eighteenth century, but Stevens, himself a lifelong nonbeliever, preferred to describe believers as “out of touch with reality” rather than as irrational. He did this because he wanted to preserve some element of irrationality, which he thought was at the heart of the “aesthetic imagination” (OP 227). Stevens saw that the militant stance of humanists against irrationality put them at odds with Sigmund Freud and, more importantly, deprived them of the delight in creating and savoring the arts, particularly, modern poetry, modern music, and modern painting. Stevens died in 1955, but were he alive today he would have found “The Affirmations of Humanism,” the statement of secular humanist principles reprinted in many issues of Free Inquiry, incomplete and unrealistic. He would have wanted to add some endorsement of the aesthetic imagination, even its irrationality, to the Affirmations’ twenty-one principles.

Its first principle reads, “We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.” Sometimes imagination rather than reason solves human problems on a large scale, as in Einstein’s Gedanken experiments, and sometimes on a mundane, individual scale. In 1914 Stevens wrote in “Another Weeping Woman” (CP 25) that addressing an unhappily married woman and telling how her pouring out her unhappiness in tears will not “sweeten” her life and neither will trying to reason with her husband. What the speaker says is that:

The magnificent cause of being,
The imagination, the one reality
In this imagined world

Leaves you
With him for whom no phantasy moves,
And you are pierced by a death.

Her lack of access to imagination leaves her living a non-life. The woman does not realize the availability of the imagination’s power, so she does not attempt to exercise it. The weeping woman needs to imagine, in detail, a life without her dull husband and then act on her vision. She does not realize that by not imagining a life without her husband she makes her own life a copy of his. Her husband may be what Stevens called a “logical lunatic” or an “Aristotelian skeleton.” Or he could be a humanist who uses only reason “to the solving of human problems.” If the weeping woman perceived the similarity between her and her husband’s lack of imagination, she would be taking the first step in gaining freedom and making a satisfying life for herself.

When the speaker refers to “this imagined world,” he is acknowledging that meaning exists only in minds, not “out there.” He perhaps also alludes to a passage that Stevens knew well in Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas. Whitehead was discussing Plato’s question, “Can we imagine Being to be devoid of life and mind, and to remain in awful unmeaningness as ever-lasting fixture?” (124). The answer to Plato’s question for Stevens was that we must imagine the abyss separating sentience—including, for humans, preeminently language—from the “eternal silences of the infinite spaces” that had terrified Pascal (Pascal 52).

The two humanist principles that come anywhere close to what that poem advises and what this essay advocates are these: “We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest” and, just as unconvincingly, “We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.” The other eighteen principles continue in the serious vein of the first, saying nothing of the aesthetic imagination or any kind of joy in life—mistakenly suggesting that humanists are a new kind of unlikely Puritans. To ameliorate this seriousness, Daniel C. Dennett, in “Philosophy as the Las Vegas of Rational Inquiry,” suggests that humanists adopt an idea that had its inception at MIT not at the Bellagio. Dennett describes his experience as follows:

When the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under Marvin Minsky’s direction, was located on the top floors of Tech Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the large room on the top floor was known as the “Play Room.” That was where most of the serious blue-sky thinking and speculating went on: a sporadically inspiring…, seldom-boring exploration of ideas that just might be the solution to huge puzzles. I thought then that philosophy as a whole should be seen as a sort of play room for serious thinkers…. Play is serious; play is where one can break ‘the rules’ and discover new vistas. Philosophy at its best is informed play of the highest order and a proper ingredient in any naturalistic vision of inquiry” (FI August/September 2017, emphasis added).

“Discovery,” an important idea in aesthetics during the early decades of the twentieth century, is closely related to Stevens’s concept of the imagination. Dennett, of course, is not thinking of aesthetics as a form of discovery but of rationalist philosophy or the philosophy of science, aiding the exploration of new directions in scientific research. Nevertheless, Dennett’s recommendation is a helpful step, despite its being limited to “serious thinkers.” The play Dennett is advocating can be broadened to include slightly-irrational humanists who are in touch with reality and who write or enjoy poetry, who compose or enjoy listening to music, who paint or enjoy viewing paintings. Wallace Stevens’s life and works were and are an inviting playroom for such humanists (NA 58).

Stevens spent his career writing poems and essays defending nonbelief and questioning religion. The imagination for Stevens was a necessary balance to reason, as long as its irrationality adhered to reality. In “Adagia,” a notebook of aphorisms and apercu, he writes, “In poetry at least the imagination must not detach itself from reality” (OP 157). (Note the humor of “in poetry at least” imagination must be realistic.) Stevens’s poems and essays often explain how the irrational imagination discovers or creates forms in particulars of the “world out there.” In the arts, the forms captured in words, in musical phrases, or in paint must, as Stevens says in another “Adagia,” “… give a sense of the freshness and vividness of life.” This, he avers, “is a valid purpose for poetry” (157). Further, Stevens regarded the modern arts as replacing the forms and messages of Judeo-Christian art. As he said in “Two or Three Ideas,” in “an age of disbelief” the old aesthetic has been replaced by one of “intenser humanity,”

Or, what is the same thing, in a time that is largely humanistic … , it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief, in his measure and in his style. (OP 206)

What follows is a close reading of a Stevens poem that presents an interaction between the poet’s imagination and his immediate reality. It dramatizes a discovery, a frisson. It creates the aesthetic experience. And it invites the reader’s participation in creating and enjoying that irrational experience. The best way to read this poem is to look closely at the words, at their interactions among themselves, and only “read into” them cautiously when forced to do so.

The Poems of Our Climate

I

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations—one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

II

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than world of white and snowy scents.

III

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
(CP 193–94)

The locale is in a snowy climate, like Connecticut, where Stevens spent most of his adult life working as a vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The setting is indoors, at a table with a bowl of pink and white carnations:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like snowy air,
Reflecting snow.

The comparison of the indoor and outdoor scenes, the speaker’s perception of their similarities, suggests a simple metaphor. “The world of white” and “a world of clear water” are metaphors of each other: seemingly simple, pretty metaphors that quickly become complex and not-so-pretty. This imagistic interaction between the indoor and outdoor worlds is about to expand in the minds of the poet and the participating reader. The opening two pretty pictures are filled out with images of a late-afternoon’s newly fallen snow and pink and white carnations in a brilliant bowl. But then, in the last four-and-a-half lines of Section I, the poet expresses dissatisfaction with the metaphoric inter-relation between the “newly-fallen snow” and the “bowl of white.” The speaker draws up short—“one desires / So much more than that.” What’s he talking about? Most of us would enjoy sitting there. What more does this speaker desire?

The second section explodes off the page with ideas roiling in the speaker’s “never-resting mind”:

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,

Still one would want more … .

The speaker tells us why he objects to the simplicity of the two pretty pictures and the simile linking them. Stevens’s poems almost always express the close, active bond between a human individual and his or her “world”: not the big world, but a particular time and place. We have already seen a bit of the locale and the setting. Now we get a personal look at the denizen of this world, the poet. We know that he cannot live with over-simplifications, even pretty ones. Or maybe especially pretty ones. Placing the speaker in a simple idyllic or Edenic world would strip him of his “torments” and would conceal his “evilly compounded, vital” self. Even then he would “Still … need more.” To go cautiously beyond the poem, one might wonder whether Eve of Genesis infamy with her never-resting mind wanted a fuller life than the one allowed in the perfectly boring Garden of Eden. Imagine that Eve ate the forbidden fruit so that she could escape into a bitter, but vital, world. Apparently, the speaker in “The Poems of Our Climate,” like Eve, does not want innocence, peace, and simplicity. What does he want? What does his imagination need?

The reader must construct the answer guided by the poem’s final section:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot within us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

For Stevens, the “never-resting mind” is not only, or—forgive him, humanists—even especially, the reason; rather it is the imagination in its never-ending dance with the particulars of its surrounding world. Stevens’s imagination, like many in a skeptical age, insists on “coming back / To what has been so long composed.” What world is that then? The reader must look beyond the poem for an answer. “Composed,” here, suggests that the poet needs a world that has been given form by the imagination, a world of poetry, or music, or painting, and, of course, mathematics and science.

We already know that the poet insists on a bitter world that includes his “torments” and “evilly compounded, vital self.” The “worlds” composed by Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Bach, and Giotto satisfy the need for beautiful form but do not satisfy the artist’s need when living in a world from which God has disappeared. Stevens wrote in a notebook, “Materia Poetica,” that “The relation of art to life is of the first importance especially in a skeptical age since, in the absence of a belief in God, the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate, for the support they give” (CPP 916). The speaker’s “compound, vital I” does not want a savior any more than it wants a non-vital, unchanging garden.

The world “so long composed,” in contrast to that of Aquinas and his spiritual heirs, is one that informs works such as those of Lucretius and Epicurus, da Vinci and Vermeer, Marlowe and Shakespeare, Galileo and Darwin, and Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Santayana. The “long-composed” works of these strong imaginations describe and celebrate worlds in their secular physicality and in their imperfect human inhabitants. In the poem “Les plus belles pages” (1941), Stevens explicitly bids St. Thomas Aquinas farewell, saying Aquinas’s god became an “automaton” by virtue of his creator’s transcendental logic. For Stevens, Aquinas was another “logical lunatic” who eschewed the irrationality of the imagination:

  [Aquinas] spoke,
Kept speaking, of God. I changed the word to man.
The automaton, in logic self-contained,
Existed by itself.
(CP 244-45)

“I changed the word ‘god’ to ‘man’” is a succinct definition of humanism, whether Stevens meant it as such or not. But what the poet in “The Poems of Our Climate” needs is something more than an “imperfect paradise” that includes his “torments” and “evilly compounded, vital I.” What he needs comes with a jolt, delivered through the interacting words bitterness and delight, by which the poet calls attention to the culmination of his poem, answering the question of what will suffice for a secular imagination:

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
. . . . . . . . .
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

The imperfect world in which our “evilly compounded, vital” selves exist provides ample “bitterness” in which strong imaginations can “delight” in composing poems out of “flawed words and stubborn sounds.” The line deleted from the preceding quotation tells us that the aesthetic imagination’s “delight” lies in making poems because “… the imperfect is so hot within us.” “This bitterness” includes the way our realities fob us off with newly fallen snow and carnations in a brilliant bowl. One’s imperfections that find delight in creating poems are “hot,” like “hot” anger and “hot” lust, each of whose natures is to act, to find expression. The irrational-aesthetic need—like those two unfortunately more common drives—is to metamorphose pretty and bitter realities into aesthetic delight.

“The Poems of Our Climate” ends primarily with a statement about creating aesthetic delight, but it ends secondarily with an enactment of that delight for readers who participate in discovering it. The British novelist Martin Amis’s comment on the Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov works equally well for Stevens: “To read him in full flight is to experience stimulation that is at once intellectual, imaginative and aesthetic, the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that [poetry] can offer.” (I surreptitiously changed Amis’s word “prose” to “poetry.”) Allowing Reason to hear the irrational imagination’s plea for delight will not weaken humanists’ commitment to Reason; rather it will allow us to proclaim our pleasure in poetry, music, and painting.


Further Reading

  • Amis, Martin. Vladimir Nabokov. The Luzhin Defense. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. Quoted in the Introductory Note.
  • Dennett, Daniel. “Philosophy as the Las Vegas of Rational Inquiry.” Free Inquiry, (August/September 2017).
  • Stevens, Wallace. “Adagia.” Opus Posthumous. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
  • ———. “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet.” The Necessary Angel. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1951. Cited as NA.
  • ———. “The Irrational Element of Poetry.” Opus Posthumous. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. Cited as OP.
  • ———. “Les plus belles pages.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage Books, 1941 (1954). Cited as CP.
  • ———. “Materia Poetica,” Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joanne Richardson. New York: The Library of America, 1940 (1997). Cited as CPP.
  • ———. “The Poems of Our Climate,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage Books, 1938 (1954). This poem is in the public domain.
  • ———. “Two or three Ideas,” Opus Posthumous. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1957. Cited as OP.
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: A Mentor Book, 1933.

“The Poems of Our Climate” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens, copyright © 1954 by Wallace Stevens and copyright renewed 1982 by Holly Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Free Inquiry thanks George Wolff for so generously underwriting the permissions fee for this selection.

George Wolff

George Wolff was a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati for thirty-eight years. He published a book and several articles on the American poet Theodore Roethke. He has published a book of poems, Loves and Dystopias. In 2009, he founded the Free Inquiry Group of Southwest Florida.


“The irrational cannot be ignored.” So said the American poet Wallace Stevens. Humanists have successfully used the charge of “irrationality” in fighting religious beliefs since the eighteenth century, but Stevens, himself a lifelong nonbeliever, preferred to describe believers as “out of touch with reality” rather than as irrational. He did this because he wanted to …

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