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On "Metaphors of a Magnifico"

An Analysis of Wallace Stevens’s “Metaphors of a Magnifico” Based on William Empson’s Definition of Ambiguity

Mir Ali Hosseini


By going through Stevens’s poetry, one can see that he has more or less tried to employ obscurity in order to “resist the intelligence,” probably, mainly because of his claim that “a poem need not have a meaning and like most things in the nature often does not have.”[1] Furthermore, in his poems, Stevens has also attempted to defy the Imagists’ belief about the necessity of clarity of presented images in poetry. What is at issue in this essay is one of Stevens’s early poems called “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” which perfectly illustrates the above features. In my opinion, though, in this poem, Stevens tries to intellectually stimulate the reader’s curiosity to discover the ultimate reality, but, by implying that reality is firmly subordinated to the perspective of the observer, the whole poem demonstrates the condemned failure of an objective description and the ambiguous inner essence of every piece of language.

In the beginning of the poem, Stevens depicts a scene: “Twenty men crossing a bridge, / Into a village,”[2] which is used as raw material for creating the next parts of the poem. He continues: “Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges, / Into twenty villages, / Or one man / Crossing a single bridge into a village.”[3] On one hand, every one of these men has a distinct subjective experience, hence the action happens in twenty different minds, and thus there are twenty distinct perceptions of the bridge and the village. On the other hand, the whole event is taking place in the consciousness of the describer; therefore, it could be thought of as only one man crossing the bridge. Indeed, by shifting to different perspectives, the first stanza describes three abstract existing actualities. In the second stanza, Stevens accentuates the elusiveness of meaning: “This is old song / That will not declare itself…”[4] The first two stanzas manifest how intelligence struggles but is unable to attain an absolute reality. In the next two parts of the poem, firstly, concrete actuality is presented: “Twenty men crossing a bridge, / Into a village, / Are / Twenty men crossing a bridge / Into a village.”[5] It should be noted that presenting “Are” in a discrete line shows the word’s considerable significance, which reflects the narrator’s will to exclude the kind of metaphoric elaboration used in the first stanza. Secondly, the instability of a truth achieved through the ignorance of metaphor as a tool for discovering meaning is implicitly stated: “That will not declare itself / Yet is certain as meaning…”[6] The fifth stanza reveals concrete actuality, through a tangible description: “The boots of the men clump / On the boards of the bridge. / The first white wall of the village / Rises through fruit trees.”[7] Moreover, this time the recurrent perspective shifting takes place by considering the subjective experience rather than an objective description: “Of what I was thinking? / So the meaning escapes.”[8] The describer is not an outside observer anymore; he is one of those men crossing the bridge. And, finally, the last stanza displays a contextual transformation: “The first white wall of the village… / The fruit trees…”[9] Meaning has eventually escaped, since the observer’s consciousness is now attached to those described tangible objects. So, the poet represents different interpretations of different perspectives, but they are all derived from a single source: observations of the Magnifico in a verbal form, the underlying cause of the ambiguity.

As has been noted, the description in the beginning of the poem is the source of ambiguity.  William Empson’s explanation of an extended sense of ambiguity will help make sense of the logic of the poem’s use of obscurity:

I propose to use the word [ambiguity] in an extended sense, and shall think relevant to my subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language…. In a sufficiently extended sense any prose statement could be called ambiguous.[10]

According to Empson, any statement is ambiguous and this ambiguity serves to justify the different interpretations of a single statement. Subsequently, since description exists only in the realm of language, any description is ambiguous in its nature. In fact, the descriptions in the beginning of the poem all represent one concrete actuality, yet none of them could be preferred, because an absolute meaning is uncertain and elusive. In other words, the observer’s intelligence fails to realize the meaning. By putting all these elements together, Stevens has questioned an ultimate objective description: “This is old song, / That will not declare itself…”[11] Meanwhile, he has conversely emphasized the subjective experience by admitting it, and, at the same time, reminding us of its instability: “Of what is it I was thinking? / So the meaning escapes.”[12]

Consequently, adopting a historical perspective, it seems that Stevens’s cubist point of view in this poem reveals his challenging attitude toward simplicity in poetry despite his contemporaries, specifically the Imagists, who were staunch proponents of plainness. Additionally, by using obscurity, he has demonstrated the impossibility of the objective description. Thus, one can say that complexity and ambiguity are two deliberately developed significant features of Stevens’s poetry as he himself has acknowledged in one of his poems: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”[13]

1. Roland Sukenick, Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure (New York: New York University Press, 1967), 20.

2. Alfred A. Knopf, ed., The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Random House, 1971), 19.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. William Empson, “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” in Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000, ed. Jon Cook (New York: Blackwell, 2004), 170–171.

11. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 19.

12. Ibid.

13. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 350.

Copyright 2012 by Mir Ali Hosseini

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