WALLACE STEVENS AND “THE LESS LEGIBLE
MEANINGS OF SOUNDS”
The comedy of hollow sounds derives
From truth and not from satire on our lives.
… a new aspect, say the spirit's sex,
Its attitudes, its answers to attitudes
And the sex of its voices, as the voice of one
Meets nakedly another's naked voice.
Wallace Stevens is not equivocal about the “social, that is to say sociological or political obligation of the poet”: “He has none” (1951, 27). He writes Hi Simons: “It is simply a question of whether poetry is a thing in itself, or whether it is not. I think it is.”1 If poetry is a “thing in itself,” it has no social obligation, any more than a social or political practice or discourse has a poetic obligation.2 And if poetry is itself a social practice, which it clearly is, it must have a function in itself. Stevens proposes that its function is “to help people to live their lives” (29). In “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” he places “our lives” in the broadest context of Western philosophy and history of ideas, changing representations of human nobility, the ongoing European war, the “war-like” social, economic, and political conditions “at home,” the life of the individual psyche that such pervasive violence threatens, and the survival instinct of the human species. Against this backdrop, he famously defines “nobility” as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without”: “It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives” (36).
“Nobility” has to do with how we represent ourselves to ourselves. Thus, to imagine human nobility at any time is to articulate a specific historical reality. Stevens's extended discussion of Plato's chariot proves the point: we do not feel “free to yield ourselves” to its fiction (1951, 4). Our very different historical