A Native Buddhist Strain in Stevens,
Williams and Frost
My previous essay dealt with the Asian element in the poetry of Yeats, Eliot and Pound, three cosmopolitans who, despite origins in places as far-flung as Sligo, St. Louis and Hayley, Idaho converged upon London in the early years of the century to live the rest of their lives either there or in other centers of civilization. Their contact with Asia, though indirect by comparison with that of some later-day western poets, nonetheless involved scrutiny of the original traditions. This scholarship eventuated in prose commentary and verse that weighed in the balance Asian and western values and contributed to their stature as three of the most important cultural critics of the age.
Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost, by comparison, were provincial and unlettered. All three deliberately chose not only to remain in America but to live at a distance from its literary centers. Stevens, having begun his career as a lawyer in New York, accepted the quiet life of Hartford, Connecticut, scarcely leaving that small city once he had established himself in a large insurance firm. Williams, though at the periphery of certain artistic circles in New York, chose the life of a small town doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey. Frost, after an early episode in England, returned to cultivate the scene north of Boston, one of America’s notably provincial regions. Though the literary essays of Williams come to several hundred pages, they are entirely without oriental reference. The critical writings of Stevens and Frost amount to little more than occasional prose, in the case of Stevens, late essays on a philosophical theme, in the case of Frost, prefaces to his own work and general essays. Unlike the cosmopolitans, none wrote seriously in prose about the Orient.
And yet, by a curious paradox of the imagination, the thought of Stevens and Williams, and on one or two occasions that of Frost as well, is in a sense as orientalized as that of their learned contemporaries. As we might expect, this “oriental” element is more diffuse, more difficult to specify, more subject to debate. None of the three set before himself, like Yeats, a Chinese jade, like Eliot, the text of the Bhagavad Gita, like Pound, the Confucian corpus, to compose a major poem. Furthermore, by contrast with the Confucian, Vedantic and Daoist strains in Pound, Eliot and Yeats, the oriental element in Stevens, Williams and Frost is markedly Buddhistic. Since Buddhism is by far the least textual of all four traditions, we must seek other methods than those used earlier to document its presence in their work. Accordingly, I must ask the reader’s indulgence now to consider parallels, analogies and similarities rather than sources.
Moreover, as what I have said would imply, the oriental element in the provincial poets is largely an unconscious one. Subject, as agnostics raised in Christian families, to the same problems of faith encountered by the cosmopolitans, Stevens, Williams and Frost relinquished Christianity early on, but unlike Yeats, Eliot and Pound (with the one exception of Frost, who returned to school briefly to study the Latin classics), they did not cultivate the classical. Instead, they developed a native independence from European culture, which took in Williams the most aggressive form of Americanism, though it also found fierce expression in Stevens (mingled there with a modern Francophilia) and implicit embodiment in Frost’s preoccupation with rural New England. It was perhaps this very sense of originality that at first obscured from all three the ways in which they had adopted traditional alternatives to western civilization. For though each was aware of his Emersonian, Thoreauvian and Whitmanesque past, none was conscious of the degree to which those figures represented precedents for his own embodiment of oriental thought.
Of the three provincial poets Stevens expressed the greatest interest in exotic things. Having learned that Harriet Monroe, the editor who had published him in Poetry magazine, had a sister in Peking, he importuned Miss Monroe to make arrangements whereby her sister would send him some things of her own choosing from China. “For a poet,” as he says in a letter of September 23, 1922, “to have even a second-hand contact with China is a great matter.” After a box of jasmine tea had arrived, an event that he characterized as a reversion to innocence, another box appeared containing objets d’art. In a letter of the next month, October 28, Stevens speaks at length of “the five, really delightful things” that it contained:
One of these, the chief one, is a carved wooden figure of the most benevolent old god you ever saw. He has a staff in one hand and in the other carries a lotus bud. On the back of his head he has a decoration of some sort with ribbons running down into his gown. The wood is of the color of dark cedar but it is neither hard nor oily. And there you are. But the old man, Hson-hsing, has the most amused, the nicest and kindliest expression: quite a pope after one’s own heart or at least an invulnerable bishop telling one how fortunate one is, after all, and not to mind one’s bad poems. He is on a little teak stand as is, also, each of the other things. The other things are a small jade screen, two black crystal lions and a small jade figure. The jade pieces are white. We have placed the screen behind the prophet, so that if he desires to retire into its cloudy color he can do so conveniently and we have set the lions in his path, one on each side. The heads of these noisy beasts are turned back on their shoulders, quite evidently unable to withstand the mildness of the venerable luminary.
He concludes his description by saying, “The old man is so humane that the study of him is as good as a jovial psalm.”
I have quoted the passage at length, because it gives us a rare glimpse of the western poet’s imagination as it plays over the surface of oriental things. Having only the day before received it, Stevens had had no opportunity to determine the principal figure’s identity, though presumably by copying his name from the box (which he or the editor of the Letters has mistranscribed—it should read “Hsou-hsing”), he enables us to identify Fu Shou Xing Gong 福壽星公, the god of longevity. How keen, then, Stevens’ intuition, for he first refers to the figure as “the most benevolent old god,” and then imagines him to be “telling one how fortunate one is.” The god, in charge of human longevity, often bestows that good fortune as an act of benevolence. That he is also called Lao Ren Xing 老人星, literally, old man star, accords well with Stevens’ description of him twice as “the old man,” but more pointedly as “the venerable luminary” (Fu Shou Xing was originally a star in the constellation of Canopus, whose annual appearance in February signaled good fortune). That the figure is “humane” and possessed of “mildness” might have been observed from his expression. Of greater interest is the series of human identities that the poet metaphorically bestows upon him: “quite a pope,” he calls him, “or at least an invulnerable bishop,” and, finally, “the prophet.” These epithets, along with the comment that “the study of him is as good as a jovial psalm,” tell us several things: first, of Stevens’ desire to please his correspondent, both for her role in securing the present and for her favors as editor. He may have been doing this by Christianizing the scene that he had arranged, for Harriet Monroe was known for doing the same in her editorship of Poetry (“Is literature limited to Christianity?” Pound at one point asks her in exasperation). But Stevens’ own background and predilections (including a deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism) must also figure in this extraordinary series of Catholic, Old Testament, and Protestant metaphors. Perhaps most interesting of all is that Stevens retained his humanized and western conception of the figure, writing to Harriet Monroe thirteen years later (April 5, 1935) as follows: “A little carved wooden figure of what I suppose to be a religious pilgrim, which [Miss Monroe’s sister] sent me years ago, is one of the most delightful things that I have.”
Stevens’ comments illustrate the distinction that I have drawn between the conscious and unconscious reception of oriental materials. There are two complementary motions here. For just as the poet can consciously solicit oriental influence but, by transforming it into western terms, unconsciously deny it, so he can unconsciously receive it but elaborate its doctrines so as to give them a conscious coherence. Like any cultivated person of his time Stevens was inundated with images of the Orient; we know that he bought translations of Chinese poetry, to mention only one such source. Much of this oriental influence must have been absorbed unconsciously (in fact that is how, Stevens insisted, he was generally influenced). These unconsciously received sources often emerge later as part of a structure of thought. This does not mean that Stevens necessarily recognized the presence, say, of Buddhist doctrine in his poetry, but at the same time it does not mean that he was unaware of what he was doing.
The themes of absence, nothingness and impersonality have often been noted in his work, remarked upon because in general they contradict western expectations of presence, substance and personality. Attempts to explain them have focused on Stevens’ indebtedness to French symbolist poets, to contemporary philosophy, even to the poet’s aloof temperament. I do not wish here to substitute one set of influences for another but rather to suggest that comparative study may shed more light on Stevens’ practice than influence study.
Edward J. Thomas, in his History of Buddhist Thought, summarizes the eight (or nine) stages of release, the vimokkha, at the sixth of which the adept, he says, “perceives that ‘there is nothing’ and attains and abides in the stage of nothingness.” This nothingness, or negation, figures in several classic Buddhist doctrines, as for example, to use their Chinese formulations, zhu fa wu wo 諸法無我, the doctrine of No-self, zhu xing wu chang 諸行無常, the doctrine of No-permanence, the first two of the so-called three criteria, san fa yin 三法印, the third of which, consequence of the first two, is the peace of nirvana, nie pan ji jing 涅槃寂靜. Ceng Zhao 僧肇, a member of the Three Shastra Sect 三論宗, writes an essay called the Bo Ruo Wu Zhi Lun 般若無知論, which formulates another negative principle, that of No-knowledge. Let us, then, look at an early poem of Stevens’, “The Snow Man,” in the light of these doctrines:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
In Early Buddhism Rhys Davids lists among traditional metaphors for nirvana “the cool cave.” Stevens’ snowy landscape may represent its North American equivalent, just as his attention to misery and its elimination may represent a naïve concern with a Buddhist problem. At any rate, the poem’s doctrine, that the listener be “nothing himself,” which is reinforced by its impersonality—”One must have a mind of winter / to regard . . .”—is remarkably Buddhistic, the latter quotation recalling the words of the Buddha, who in the Surangama Sutra says, “this wonderful perception of sight is the true nature of our minds.”
If we attend carefully, however, to early Buddhist doctrine, we shall notice that in Stevens, as in Williams, there is an important departure from its tenets. “The Tathagata’s Nirvana,” the passage quoted continues, “is where it is recognized that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself.” This, we might say, accounts for Stevens’ listener beholding the “nothing that is” there, but not for him beholding “nothing that is not there,” a phrase which reflects the characteristic belief of Stevens and Williams in the existence of a concrete reality. Nirvana, the Buddha continues, “is where, recognizing the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination.” Here the poem’s monistic tendency is true to Buddhist doctrine, but elsewhere Stevens’ dualistic fluctuation between reality and imagination is not. “Nirvana,” the Buddha concludes, “is where the thinking mind with all its discriminations, attachments, aversions and egoism is forever put away,” a goal toward which Stevens sometimes aspires, but one which he more commonly rejects. Elsewhere, Buddhist doctrine, as in the Vajracchedika, says that the senses give only the experience of transient phenomena; no particular thing is real; at every moment it is passing into something else. At points in Stevens and Williams, as we shall see, a similar view is expressed, but not consistently. Thus, when the Vajracchedika says “all things are to be known and looked upon by one who does not rest upon the perception of things but on the perception of non-things,” it expresses a view more extreme than any that Stevens or Williams would consent to.
It must also be said that “The Snow Man” is not typical of Stevens’ early poetry, which by and large is devoted to the physicality of the real world and to the self. Both are robustly manifest in his “Comedian as the Letter C,” a poem that he had been composing the summer before he wrote that first letter to Harriet Monroe. Earlier Stevens had represented China in terms of the Chinoiserie typical of his time (if the first of “Six Significant Landscapes” represents a considerable refinement thereof). In the later, longer poem he now speaks of “the Arctic moonlight,” a false light, as “illusive, faint, more mist than moon, perverse, / Wrong as a divagation to Peking,” suggesting thereby that his romance with Chinoiserie was over. At the same time, there are early flashes that suggest Stevens’ awareness of the power of the Orient. “The Cuban Doctor” for example says, “I went to Egypt to escape / The Indian, but the Indian struck / Out of his cloud and from his sky.” A collection of epigrams from Ideas of Order (1935) watches as “The sun of Asia creeps above the horizon.” It is only, however, with Parts of a World (1941) that a considered oriental element makes its presence felt, as the beginnings of a negative Daoistic poetics, for example in the title “Poetry Is a Destructive Force.” The most intriguing oriental essence, however, occurs in an earlier work, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
In Chapter I of the Dao De Jing 道德經 Lao-zi 老子defines the two fundamental principles of the universe as you 有 and wu 無, something and nothing, and asserts their identity 此兩者同出而異名, in D. C. Lau’s translation, “These two are the same / But diverge in name as they issue forth.” What they proceed from is the “mystery.” “Mystery upon mystery,” Lau continues, “The gateway of the manifold secrets” 玄之又玄, 眾妙之門. The two operative terms here are xuan 玄 and miao 妙. Both have been much discussed. Both in a general sense mean “mystery.” Xuan 玄, however, seems originally to have meant black, or dark, and refers accordingly to the unfathomable nature of the mystery. In philosophical terms xuan 玄may be translated “abstruse”; when personified, it becomes “the Mother” and is correlative with another term in Lao-zi, tian xia mu 天下母, literally, the mother of everything under the heavens; the universe, or existence itself. Xuan tong 玄同 represents, in Suzuki’s phrase, “the mystic experience of Identity,” the lack of distinction between chang wu 常無 and chang you 常有, somethingness and nothingness, terms elsewhere associated with the female (yin 陰) and male (yang 陽) principles. Xuan 玄, then, in Lao-zi’s words, is the gateway to miao 妙, the ultimate mystery, the intersection of time and the timeless. Stevens’ blackbird, in keeping with Lao-zi’s philosophy of constant mutability, is a changing entity, sometimes suggesting the self, sometimes death, sometimes common-place reality. In the poem, however, all are represented as mysterious, and at several points the meaning of xuan 玄 seems apposite. Nowhere, however, does Stevens seem closer to Lao-zi than in section IV, where the philosophy of Yin and Yang 陰陽家 combines with the mystery of xuan 玄:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
That we have no knowledge of Stevens having studied Lao-zi makes the passage all the more striking, for the language of the third line here, though easily reconciled with Daoist terms, is highly unorthodox in western thought.
Beginning with Transport to Summer (1947) a new wave of orientalism appears. “Chocorua to Its Neighbor,” in which one New Hampshire mountain addresses another in monologue, represents a mythic sense unfamiliar in the West yet integrally Hindu. With this volume Stevens also begins to express a general Daoistic sense of the world’s impermanence, one that culminates in the final lines of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” the central philosophical meditation of the late period:
It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.
Moreover, in this period a Buddhistic element enters again, nowhere more perfectly embodied than in “The House Was Quite and the World Was Calm.” The house, in Stevens’ symbology, represents the mind; the reader, its contemplative activity; the book, the book of nature. The “summer” of the poem’s second line, as in the title of the volume, is reality; night is the self. The first and fourth lines create a progressively causal connection between the two terms of the poem’s title by treating its words:
The house was quiet and the world was
The reader became the book; and the summer night
Was like the conscious being of the
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
Here we feel a strong pulse of Vedantic thought, as summer, Brahman, is identified with night, the Atman. But the meditative mood of the poem is rather one of Buddhistic quietude. “The house,” says Stevens, “was quiet because it had to be.” As the Mahayana Shraddhotpada Shastra says, we should “quietly meditate upon the world,” or, as a Neo-Confucian source says, “penetratingly observe it,” qi guan wan wu 寂觀萬物. In so doing we identify ourselves with it, as Stevens’ reader becomes the book. “The quiet,” the poem continues, “was part of the meaning, part of the mind: / The access of perfection to the page.” The world, to cite again the Neo-Confucian source, itself achieves perfection in the process of meditation, 萬物靜觀皆自得. “And the world,” says Stevens, “was calm”:
The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
As Hua Yan 華嚴 Buddhism has it, principle and reality harmonize, li shi yuan rong 理事圓融 (li 理, originally the veins in a piece of jade: one cannot know the veins apart from the jade; the truth and the world are indivisible). When nirvana is achieved, the distinction between subject and object disappears (在涅槃的世界，沒有物我之分) and the truth is made manifest.
Stevens on occasion, then, could approximate the unified vision of certain oriental modes of thought. More characteristically, however, he struck an uneasy balance between Daoist, Buddhist or Vedantic monism and a thoroughgoing dualism. “Credences of Summer,” one of several mid-length philosophical meditations, though it uses some Buddhistic language (“Exile desire / For what is not”), does so to celebrate “the rock of summer,” that essential independent reality which, the poet says, “cannot be broken,” because “it is the truth,” a very unbuddhistic attitude. That truth, moreover, “is not a hermit’s truth,” Stevens adds.
Notes toward a Supreme Fiction reflects within itself this uneasy balance of eastern and western thought. Its invocation, addressed to the “supreme fiction” that for Stevens has replaced God, is quite Buddhistic, referring us to the “light of single, certain truth” in which the poet and the fiction “sit at rest, / For a moment in the central of our being” to experience a “vivid transparence” and a “peace.” “It Must Change,” the first of three prescriptive section titles, enunciates a principle in accord with the doctrine of No-permanence, and as a consequence the whole section takes on a Buddhistic coloration. In the same section the principles of Yin and Yang reappear: “Two things of opposite natures seem to depend / On one another, as a man depends / On a woman, day on night, the imagined / On the real.” Though the poem contains an occasional oriental element, for the most part it is occidental, especially in its higher moments of religious vision. Certain passages, however, represent a marriage of the two spirits, as in the following lines, which move from a Buddhistic freedom from desire, through an evocation of the Vedantic Self, to a resolution in a pastiche of Hebraic monotheism (the latter echoing Jehovah’s “I am that I am”): “There is an hour,” Stevens begins, “in which I have
No need, am happy, forget need’s golden
Am satisfied without solacing majesty,
And if there is an hour there is a day,
There is a month, a year, there is a
In which majesty is a mirror of the self:
I have not but I am and as I am, I am.
In some ways more poetically “advanced” than the volume that precedes it, The Auroras of Autumn (1950) reverts at crucial points to classical and Biblical imagery (it shows signs that Stevens was rereading the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation). The owl (Ascalaphus) in the title “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” along with the allegorical figures of sleep and peace, though transformed into what the poet calls a “mythology of modern death,” are nonetheless classical in their origins, like the form of the elegy itself. “The Auroras of Autumn,” the volume’s opening sequence, like “Page from a Tale” and “Puella Parvulla,” are markedly apocalyptic. In the midst of this fluctuation between classical and millenarian imagery, the third tradition enters in Buddhistic guise. In “A Primitive Like an Orb” “the giant of nothingness” makes an appearance alongside “the giant ever changing.” Another poem, however, one with so Buddhistic a title as “What We See Is What We Think,” ends with the line, “Since what we think is never what we see,” thereby expressing Stevens’ ambivalence toward, or rejection of, oriental doctrine.
What I have represented as an uneasy balance, or fluctuation, between East and West may of course be regarded as a measured eclecticism. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Stevens’ first mature speculative poem, adapts an Asiatic term to enlarge or reinforce a western philosophical vocabulary: “That I may reduce the monster to / Myself, and then may be myself / In the face of the monster.” Here “myself” incorporates the Vedantic Self, a borrowing whose purpose is made explicit in the poet’s restatement of an early theme: “A substitute for all the gods: / This self.” Section XXII speaks of “an absence in reality” (roughly equivalent to the Buddhist kong (空), a generative force from which the poem, Stevens says, “acquires its true appearances,” from which “it takes,” to which “it gives,” “in the universal intercourse,” the last phrase suggesting as well the doctrine of Ceng Zhao 僧肇, tian di jao he 天地交合, the intercourse of heaven and earth. Similarly, in the later philosophical works Stevens combines eastern and western figures. “The Auroras of Autumn,” whose first poem begins with a suggestion of the Greek Ophion (“This is where the serpent lives . . . Or is this another wriggling out of the egg, / Another image at the end of the cave . . . ?”) ends with a reference that transforms the serpent into something Hindu:
We saw his head
Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal
The moving grass, the Indian in his glade.
A strongly Daoistic element is also present in this later sequence, not only in the universal “mother,” a principle like Lao-zi’s tian xia mu 天下母, but also in a virtual paraphrase of a line from the Dao De Jing’s 道德經 opening chapter (名可名非常名, “The name that can be named / Is not the constant name” [Lau]). Having described reality as “a theater floating through the clouds,” Stevens says, of this thing that he has named, it “is nothing,” “Nothing until this named thing nameless is / And is destroyed.” In the section that follows we then encounter another native version of Lao-zi in Stevens’s inverted image of “the white creator of black.”
I have mentioned the Daoistic conclusion of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” a poem everywhere permeated with that spirit, but the first three words of its title suggest Buddhist “everyday-mindedness” (ping chang xin 平常心 in its Chan 禪 formulation).” The Christian “New Haven” has its analogue in a metaphor for nirvana, “the harbor of refuge,” cited by Rhys Davids. In section X of the poem Stevens says that our spirit “resides / In a permanence composed of impermanence,” an idea which approximates the zhu xing wu chang 諸行無常or doctrine of No-permanence. The extremity of the doctrine of Emptiness (kong 空), however, is here resisted, both by innocence (“Alpha”) and experience (“Omega”), who respond to “the scene,” or reality, as follows: “For one it is enough; for one it is not; / For neither is it profound absentia . . . .” The poem’s closing sections reinforce its Daoistic burden, as in XXVIII, where Stevens speaks of life as “things seen and unseen, created from nothingness.”
It was only with The Rock, the final section of The Collected Poems, that Stevens produced a whole volume Buddhistic in its cast. Here, as earlier, his emphasis is philosophical rather than moral, so that in speaking of his parallels with Buddhism we most frequently have recourse to the latter’s metaphysics rather than its ethics. So too it must be said that Stevens’ concern with his own approaching death, a naturalistic elegiac theme, is of more importance in this volume than any religious vision. Nonetheless, the title “A Quiet Normal Life,” though primarily autobiographical, also embodies two Buddhist ideas that we have mentioned, quietude and everyday-mindedness. Whereas its last stanza expresses a Buddhistic spirit in its denial of “transcendent forms,” its first stanza rejects an important doctrine, jing you xin zao 境由心造, the act of meditation creates the environment or world, one which “The World as Meditation,” however, explicitly endorses. Generally, though, in the late meditations Stevens is less concerned with transformation than—as another title expresses it—with “The Plain Sense of Things.” Nonetheless, the poems of The Rock, especially in their metaphors, continue to name Buddhist concerns. Thus “Vacancy in the Park,” whose title again flirts with the notion of kong 空, incorporates in its second couplet another traditional metaphor:
March . . . Someone has walked across the
Someone looking for he knows not what.
It is like a boat that has pulled
From a shore at night and disappeared.
The Hinayana School initiated the figure of two shores, the near shore standing for samsara, the further shore, for nirvana. The Mahayana tradition then reconciled the opposites, either by declaring there to be no shores, or by identifying nirvana with samsara (as in Tian Tai 天台 doctrine, 生死即涅槃；煩惱即菩提). Stevens, in an otherwise Christian context (“To an Old Philosopher in Rome”), reaches a similar conclusion: “Impatient for the grandeur that you need / In so much misery; and yet finding it / Only in misery . . .”
In the Majjhima the first of the ten powers of the Buddha is listed as follows: “He knows what is possible as possible, and what is impossible as impossible.” Though the title of the most ambitious poem in The Rock, “Prologues to What is Possible,” may owe more to Kant than to Gautama, its doctrine, figuration and mood are strikingly like those of Buddhism, which Suzuki calls “the philosophy of infinite possibilities.” “There was an ease of mind,” the poem begins, “that was like being alone in a boat at sea.” Zi li 自力, or self-reliance, as Emerson knew, is one of the features that most clearly distinguishes Buddhism from other religions (see 只有透過自身的努力，才能到達涅盤, only through one’s own efforts can one reach nirvana). The waves on which Stevens’ persona travels are compared in a bold metaphor to oarsmen, thereby identifying the natural and human phenomena “in the one-ness of their motion” (cp. the Hua Yan 華嚴 doctrine, 一即一切，一切即一, one is everything, everything is one). The vessel’s “far-foreign departure” suggests not only a venture forth from samsara in quest of the other shore but, in its strangeness (the boat is “of unaccustomed origin”), an exotic belief as well. The traveler is likened to “a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning,” which in the West would be a meaningless syllable but in the East might well be a mantra, “A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,”
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival, an instant moment, much or little,
Removed from any shore, from any man or woman, and needing none.
The persona, quite simply, has achieved nirvana.
Lest, however, his reader anticipate Stevens’ immediate conversion to Buddhism, a second stanza follows to examine, question and qualify the experience of the first stanza, which, the poet tells us, has “stirred his fear.” After discussing the experience as “metaphor” and “hypothesis,” Stevens concludes in a rather defiantly unbuddhistic way. “What self did he contain that had not been loosed?” he asks, flatly rejecting the doctrine of wu wo 無我, No-self. The poet instead returns “to what was real and its vocabulary,” granting to the self the power to create “a fresh universe out of nothingness.” On the very final page of The Collected Poems, in “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself,” the poet again turns away from these ventures into Buddhistic thought, settling instead for those sensations—a bird’s first appearance in spring or his “scrawny cry” at dawn—which validate the existence of “reality,” as Stevens had always fundamentally conceived of it.
All the buddhas that the world knows are from the human world; after all, they do not become buddhas in heaven.
—Ceng Zhao 僧肇
William Carlos Williams has often been regarded as something of an anomaly, for he appears to have had no religion, no theory of civilization, and no philosophy. These very features, along with his celebration of America, at the same time made him attractive to certain rebellious, rebarbative followers who, along with other, more moderate celebrants of the New World, found in him the most congenial alternative to the other figures so far discussed in this and the preceding essay. In the emphasis upon his native strain what have been ignored are William’s religious conviction, cultural synthesis and philosophical insight. In a late poem he remarks, of “Deep Religious Faith,” “it is / All that which makes the pear ripen / or the poet’s line / come true! Throughout his career Williams meditated deeply on the relationship of American to more traditional cultures. Though his elder he served a kind of life-long apprenticeship to Ezra Pound, with whom he remained a friend to the end, despite the seeming incompatibility of their views. He struggled with Joyce and Eliot, making of the latter his bête noir, and through generous effort—unreciprocated—accommodating the former, even writing on behalf of Finnegans Wake. His philosophy is accurately capsulized in the phrase, “no ideas but in things,” one which, though anti-intellectual from a western point of view, is deeply in accord with oriental philosophy. Another gulf between Williams and his fellow Modernists lay in his life-style, for he alone inhabited a common human world. His career as a physician among the indigent and the lower middle class was as different from Stevens’ career in surety claims, or Frost’s rural isolation, as it was from the literary careers of Yeats, Eliot and Pound.
Williams’ religious belief, never fully articulated but nonetheless apparent on every page of his work, was the immanentalism of the oriental view, expressed in Mahayana Buddhism as 是心則攝一切世間法出世間法, the (buddha) mind includes everything (or, literally, absorbs both secular and non-secular things). Unlike that of Stevens, though, Williams’ native Buddhism was also ethical, his faith and metaphysics colored by his human sympathy. It is precisely the element of compassion (zi bei 慈悲), lacking in Pound, that was typical of Williams. “Complaint” might be taken as exemplary. The poet imagines himself, true to form, as having delivered “a great woman,” “sick / perhaps vomiting,” of her tenth child, whereupon, in the voice of Whitman, he says, “I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery / with compassion.” The poet delivered over three thousand babies in his lifetime, a fact that may have a good deal to do not only with his knowledge of people but also with his view of the world as emergent, of things as in a perpetual state of realization.
Although capable of modernizing the major myths of the Biblical and classical traditions, in such important poems as “Adam” and “Eve” and his lesser study, “The Birth of Venus,” Williams more characteristically came at these subjects obliquely, casting off his judgments as though they were incidental to the matter at hand. His portrait of “The Bull,” for example, depicts that creature as “godlike,” resting for a moment “with half-closed eyes, / Olympian commentary on / the bright passage of days.” The Christian often appears in its true paradoxical guise, as in “Pastoral,” where Williams glimpses an old man “gathering dog lime,” whose tread he describes as “more majestic than / that of the Episcopal minister / approaching the pulpit / of a Sunday.”
Such pure moments of either Biblical or classical sentiment are few and far between. More frequently one tradition ironically inspects the other, as in “Venus over the Desert”; or the two are combined, as in “To Mark Anthony in Heaven.” Adopting a rare historical view, the opening lines of “Choral: the Pink Church” represent the demise of the classical at the hands of the Christian: “Pink as a dawn in Galilee / whose stabbing fingers routed / Aeschylus and murder blinked.” The passage of greatest interest to us, however, comes at the end of “Burning the Christmas Greens,” a ritual described in pagan terms but not without its Christian overtones (“Green is a solace / a promise of peace”). Williams celebrates the violent destruction of the flames; afterwards, when they have died down, he pauses to study the grate, in which, he says, “appeared a world! Black / mountains, black and red—as / yet uncolored—and ash white.” “An infant landscape,” he calls the scene, “as if we stood / ourselves refreshed among / the shining fauna of that fire.” The black, red and white of this regenerative landscape repeat the colors of the three strands which, the Upanishad tells us, make up the cosmic cord. Moreover, the interpenetration of life and death, expressed in terms of paradox and cycle, is also distinctly Hindu.
Likewise the snake that appears in the first line of “A Sort of a Song,” the poem that introduces Williams’ most important philosophical idea:
Let the snake wait under
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stone.
Compose. (no ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
Unlike Stevens’ rock, which in “Credences of Summer” was “unbroken,” or which later, in “The Rock,” “the green leaves came and covered,” Williams’ rocks are split by the tough flowers of his poetry (we may choose among the poem’s metaphors of striking, penetration and reconciliation). “Compose” suggests both verbal composition and meditative composure, though “Invent!” returns us to a western notion of poetry. It is notable that Williams’ snake here has neither Biblical nor classical overtones. The central parenthetical phrase, repeated elsewhere in his work, may be regarded in two ways. The first would emphasize ideas but insist that they be found, or expressed in terms of, reality (cp. the Buddhist notion 佛法在世間，不離世間覺, the doctrine when applied in this world should express itself in the consciousness of this world). The second would emphasize reality and posit a kind of immanentalism. Again Williams is related to the thought of Ceng Zhao: 般若可虛而照，真諦可亡而知, truth is known by being made vacant (by getting rid of it); we can forget it but still know it.
In accordance with Buddhist doctrine much of his work also insists upon the suchness (ru 如) of things, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in the title and opening line of “The Trees”; “the trees—being trees.” A stanza later Williams interjects: “Christ, the bastards / haven’t even sense enough / to stay out of the rain—.” After the trees have spoken in their own voices (“Clacka tacka tacka,” etc.), Williams commands them, “Loose desire!”; but they cannot: “desire / dead in the heart,” he explains, “and memory broken.” The elimination of desire (ching jing wu yu 清靜無欲) is a classic Buddhist goal, as is detachment from the past (see 念念之中，不思前境). Williams’ insistence here upon the thing itself, it might be noted, is distinct from Christian essentialism—from the haecceitas, say, of Duns Scotus, which makes the evocation of Christ in the poet’s blasphemous interjection relevant philosophically. The poem concludes with a classical trope in which the trees are regarded mythically (“These were men / from whose hands sprung / love”), but for the most part the poem denies them any human identity, thereby insisting upon their suchness.
That the trees themselves have no thought we expect. More original, and more Buddhistic, is Williams’ extension of this principle into the human realm, as in “Spring and All,” XXVI, where, at a ballgame, the poet says “The crowd is laughing / in detail, / permanently, seriously / without thought.” Ceng Zhao’s wu zhi er zi zhi 無知而自知, not to know and yet (spontaneously) to know, suggests a similarly serious thought in the absence of thought. A phrase from a later poem indicates that Williams was by no means innocent of Buddhist terminology. It occurs in “The Clouds,” upon whose backs, the poet says, speaking of great geniuses of the past, “the dead ride, high! / undirtied by the putridity we fasten upon them— / . . . into the no-knowledge of their nameless destiny.” The last phrase has no equivalent in classical or Biblical tradition but might be glossed in terms of a concept central to Lao-zi, pu 璞, “the uncarved block,” meaning, among other things, an as yet undetermined fate. Namelessness, of course, is one of the attributes of the Dao (see 道常無名, the Dao is constantly without name). In a concluding figure that retreats from his earlier Buddhistic severity but is nonetheless oriental Williams describes the clouds as “a calligraphy of scaly dragons.”
Partly because of its occasional nature, but more importantly because of his beliefs, Williams’ work most often grows out of direct observation. The first poem of “Spring and All” includes the line, “One by one objects are defined—,” whose double reference—to nature and to the writer’s observant activity—stresses the naturalness of Williams’ method and philosophy. Analogous to the Buddhist concept of suchness (ru 如) is the Daoist zi ran 自然, literally, self-so, or natural. In keeping with the Dao De Jing’s philosophy of change it might be rendered as “the natural process.” Thus the Dao emulates the natural process (dao fa zi ran 道法自然), the celebration of which is everywhere in Williams. An equally characteristic motif, in illustration of which the poet draws upon the metaphors of contemporary physics, is the simultaneity of all things. I quote from an early poem, “Spring Strains”:
creeping energy, concentrated
counterforce—welds sky, buds, trees
rivets them in one puckering hold!
“The myriad things grow in unison,” says Lao-zi (萬物並作). “At the same time,” he adds elsewhere, “one and many are born and grow” (萬物得一以生). Williams’ phrase, “one puckering hold,” may owe something to Einstein’s model of the universe, to whose theory of relativity the “variable foot” is indebted, and whose natural religion he celebrates in “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils.” Unlike the concept of simultaneity current among the cosmopolitan Modernists, where past, present and future are united in a philosophical or cultural focus, Williams’ moment occurs in what D. H. Lawrence calls “the instant present,” or immediate experience.
Chapter XL of the Dao De Ching says, 反者道之動, return is the movement of the Dao. This ontological concept, central to Lao-zi, suggests that energy is constantly emerging from the Dao and constantly returning to it. In a related statement Lao-zi says that the myriad things of the world are engendered of being, itself engendered of nothingness (天下萬物生於有，有生於無). We might consider several of Williams’ images in this light. The first, a complete poem, titled “January Morning,” VI,
—and a semicircle of dirt-colored men
about a fire bursting from an old
is one of a half dozen consecutive sections in that sequence, all beginning, “—and”; together they constitute a Whitmanesque series of vignettes in celebration of the fecundity of the world, of what Williams, in section VII, calls “the ever new river.” The images in the poem quoted above may have had their genesis in a fleeting glimpse from a train as it crossed the Jersey plains, but they thoughtfully combine the earth and man in a circle half completed by the men, half by the poet or reader, all whom are warmed, if not engendered, by the primordial energy issuing from this receptacle for the remnants of earlier fire. Such an image, standing as here alone, would not have been considered poetic before the orientalization of the western imagination. A complementary passage, from “Spring and All, II,” makes explicit the double, Daoistic movement of the Return:
Pink confused with white
flowers and flowers reversed
take and spill the shaded flame
darting it back
into the lamp’s horn
Again Williams expresses concepts—the reversibility of time and the issue of energy from a universal cornucopia—which, though conceptualized in modern western science, are more common to ancient eastern religion and philosophy.
Exactly how Williams came upon these ideas we may never know. Unlike his fellow Modernists, who assimilated the Orient in their youth, only to give it mature expression later, he was deeply oriental from the start (most of the passages that I have quoted are early ones). “It is impossible to recall,” he says in the Autobiography, “whether it was in late childhood or early adolescence that I determined to be perfect.” Later defining his subject matter, the ordinary people he encountered on his rounds, he speaks of his success in portraying “that secret world of perfection.” “My ‘medicine,’” he continues, “was the thing which gained me entrance to these secret gardens of the self. It lay there, another world, in the self.” In Hindu terms Williams is speaking of the Atman; in connecting perfection with “the stinking ischiorectal abscesses of our coming and goings” he is identifying the Buddhist samsara with nirvana. “It is an identifiable thing,” he says, “and its characteristic, its chief characteristic is that it is sure, all of a piece and, as I have said, instant and perfect.” (For Williams’ insistence upon instantaneity cp. the Buddhist 當下惜福, be grateful for the present moment; see also 當下涅盤, the present moment is nirvana.)
In Williams, however, there was no display of oriental learning, no reference or allusion, simply an intuition, one that leads the poet instinctively from early on to eschew western modes of logic, sequence and transcendence in favor of the concrete, instantaneous embodiment of perfection in the world of imperfection. It is not, therefore, surprising that his art, though verbal, should be so highly visual, musical and kinetic, as in the early “Overture to a Dance of Locomotives,” whose single roman numeral, “I,” suggests the poem’s continuation in reality and whose last line, “The dance is sure” is elaborated in another later poem called “The Dance” (“But only the dance is sure!”).
“Overture” includes many of the motifs that we have discussed. Time moves forward (“two-twofour—two-eight!”) and backward (“Not twoeight. Not twofour. Two!”). All reality is seen as compacted into the present, which embodies the mystery; thus, though the hands of the clock “go round and round,” “were they to / move quickly and at once the whole secret would be out.” Lights hanging from the ceiling of the terminal are “packed with a warm glow,” emitting energy but also attracting it (“inviting entry”). They “pull against the hour,” says Williams, thereby again connecting time with energy. The motion of the train releases us from stasis into time, but as its wheels repeat the same gesture they remain, in an accurate observation, “relatively / stationary.” Meanwhile, the rails, in a figure drawn from perspective, but also catching into itself the backward and forward motion of time and reality, “return on themselves infinitely.” In a possible allusion to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle the poem ends with the line “The dance is sure.”
Only late in life did Williams speak explicitly, or at any length, about the Orient. A reading trip to the West Coast in 1950 brought to conscious expression judgments that before had been implicit. In Seattle he discovered “the finest examples of Chinese carving” that he had ever beheld. “The Greeks,” he said, “seem frozen beside them.” A particular painting, “of a hundred crows in flight, nothing more,” might, he said, “open our minds, were we before it, to many worlds.” Characteristically, he applies his observation to a human one: “I think of Shapley of the Harvard Observatory and his active wish for many crossing cultures in a truly enlightened world to ease our plight.”
His oriental enlightenment had been anticipated in “Choral: the Pink Church,” whose lines on Galilee and Aeschylus, already quoted, give way to reminiscence:
—and tho’ I remember little
as names go,
the thrust of that first light
was to me
as through a heart
as chinese as you please
but not by that—remote
The Westerner is notorious for his inability to remember Chinese names (even a highly educated person cannot recall the name of a single Chinese painter, for example). The source of the “first light” to which Williams refers is not clear, for he is using the language of religious illumination, but the stanza that follows associates it with the light of dawn. When Williams speaks of his heart as jade,
transparent to the light
through which the light
shines, through the stone,
the stone-light glows,
—that is the light and is
and is a church—if the image
hold . . .
it is doubtful that he is thinking of a specific text, but the words of Lao-zi come to mind, “是以聖人被褐懷玉” (thus the sage harbors a piece of jade in his breast). At any rate, Williams represents himself as “chinese,” by which he does not mean “remote,” either in space, time, or, presumably, in degree of difficulty. Curiously, the line quoted from Lao-zi is preceded in the Dao De Jing by the assertion that his words are easy to understand and easy to act upon (吾言甚易知甚易行). The poem—as we have often observed to be the case among the Modernists—returns to Christian and classical terms (“Be ye therefore perfect even as your / Father in Heaven is perfect”; “Joy! Joy! / —out of Elysium!) to complete its thought.
The development of the poem’s argument, however, is contradicted by the train of Williams’ thought in the Autobiography, as he continues to contemplate the Orient. After leaving Seattle he proceeds on to Eugene, where again he is impressed by oriental collections: “On the first floor,” he reports, “they have tapestries a lifetime might be spent in studying, such brilliance of color and skill have been lavished upon them.” Like other orientalizing western artists Williams may be seeing his own work reflected in oriental art. His eye at last comes to rest on “a massive marble,” “some personage or ruler (though no name is given), more than full scale, a draped figure in repose. The eyes,” he continues, “are bemused, the face tranquil. The man is standing, as I remember it, a leather belt about his belly, the folds of his gown slightly caught at one point.” Full of wonder in the presence of another world, he exclaims: “They have at least given the figure the whole platform!” He reports that he and his wife “sat on the bench opposite and were lost in admiration. The stained marble,” he concludes, “seemed to make the whole campus outside us an absurdity.”
Earlier in the passage, after having reached California, he offers a general cultural analysis: “The outstanding thing that I was aware of among all the West Coast cities was that they faced the Orient; that Europe had no more than a legendary hold on them; that airplanes or no airplanes they were remote from ancient, occidental cultures . . . .” “The young in the colleges,” where he had been reading, “yearn for France, for New York, Boston, for that ‘culture’”; “they cling to worn-out Europe as though the feudal were their king”; “while Japan, China and Korea lie across the water to their ruin.” The apprenticeship to Ezra Pound had borne fruit.
I have placed Robert Frost last in our discussion of orientalism, partly because in him we find the exception that proves the rule, partly because, even in this eldest and most provincial of the American Modernists there are one or two strikingly oriental elements. His resistance to exotica, along with his expression of an attitude toward Asia prevalent at the time, may be found in the satirical lines of “An Importer”:
Mrs. Someone’s been to Asia.
What she brought back would amaze ye.
Bamboos, ivories, jades, and lacquers,
Recipes for tea with butter,
Sacred rigamaroles to mutter . . .
Though the poem ends with an ironic twist, turning a prejudiced conception of the East back on the general public that held it, the lines nonetheless also reflect Frost’s own low regard for Asia, expressed as late as July 24, 1962 in a letter to John F. Kennedy, on the eve of the poet’s good-will mission to the Soviet Union. Having mentioned the English- and the Russian-speaking worlds, Frost offers the young President some free geo-political advice. “The rest of the world would be Asia and Africa, more or less negligible for the time being though it needn’t be too openly declared.”
Again, however, the poet’s conscious (and here political) sentiments need to be distinguished from his unconscious (religious and philosophical) affinities, for the work of this unofficial laureate of backwoods America, like that of his more worldly compatriots, on occasion bears a relationship to oriental thought. References to Asia in his work, however, are usually negative, if not derogatory; at any rate, few and far between. From London in 1913 he reports having passed up an opportunity to hear Tagore read. In 1918 he mentions a Buddhist friend in Franconia who “derives the present more from the future than from the past.” Earlier, in 1906, he mentions a flap at the Pinkerton Academy, “where my poem about the heretofore turned up in the school library. “The Trial By Existence” represents “the gathering of the souls for birth,” a theme hardly more radically expressed than in Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode. After analyzing his fellow-teachers’ reactions, wondering if the poem “had led them to question my orthodoxy,” Frost adds that he has reconsidered, realizing “that a flock of teachers would be more apt to loathe me for misspelling Derry than for grafting Schopenhauer upon Christianity.” Though the quotation does not speak openly of Asia, it implies Frost’s awareness of the connection between Buddhist thought and advanced nineteenth-century western philosophy.
The poet’s summary of the history of his own religious belief, provided for Amy Lowell at the latter’s request on December 2, 1917, gives us as well a terse summary of western theological drift: “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.” A letter to his intimate Sidney Cox of January 1, 1926 mentions Frost’s dissatisfaction with the contentiousness of Christian theology. “Clash,” he says,
is all very well for coming lawyers, politicians and theologians. But I should think there must be a whole realm or plane above that—all sight and insight, perception, intuition, rapture . . . I have wanted to find ways to transcend the strife-method. I have found some. Mind you I’d fight a healthy amount. This is no pacifism. It is not so much anti-conflict as it is something beyond conflict—such as poetry and religion that is not just theological dialectic. I’ll bet I could tell of spiritual realizations that at least for the moment would overawe the contentious. That’s the sort of thing I mean. Every poem is one. I know I have to guard against insisting on this too much . . . .
Though the phrase “spiritual realizations” may suggest an oriental alternative, the terms of Frost’s discussion are thoroughly Christian. He seeks to “transcend the strife-method,” desires a realm “above” clash. Moreover, when his work, on rare occasions, expresses the sort of “intuition” that he speaks of here, it is likely, as in “All Revelation,” to do so in terms of Christian vision. One would be hard pressed to find an example of “rapture” in Robert Frost. The last sentence quoted gives the game away, for being himself a contentious person, classical by temperament and dialectical by talent, Frost is not equipped to carry through on his yearning. Insofar as oriental thought is non-contentious, one might nonetheless expect to find such an element in Frost’s work. In fact, aside from the one that incited controversy, there are only two other poems in which oriental thought plays a serious role. Both, however, are important works, and their oriental elements occur at crucial points in their arguments. The poems that I have in mind are “Birches,” the best of the volume Mountain Interval, and “West-Running Brook,” Frost’s most sustained philosophical meditation.
The oriental element in the first of these is confined to a few lines near the end of the poem. Having lamented the pain of experience, which he assuages by reminiscing about the childhood joy of climbing birch trees and riding their branches back to the ground, Frost says wistfully, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Having thereby expressed the wish for reincarnation, he is quick to distinguish it from its western alternative: “May no fate willfully misunderstand me / And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return.” He then reverts to the theme of tree-climbing, now extending it metaphorically:
I’d like to go by climbing a birch
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
Though the last line quoted again entertains the idea of reincarnation, it does so in the context of Frost’s playful skepticism, one which effectively dismisses the belief in a Christian heaven along with the idea of transmigration, which it finally entertains here only as poetic property.
“West-Running Brook,” on the other hand, represents a much more serious expression of oriental ideas. Like several other mid-length studies of marriages, “Home Burial” and “A Servant to Servants” among them, this dramatic poem concerns the relationship of man and wife; unlike those earlier works, however, Frost’s mature treatment of the theme represents man and woman in harmony with one another. To the masculine and feminine principles he adds a third, symbolized in the brook: “As you and I are married to each other,” says the wife, “We’ll be married to the brook,” Frost’s parenthetical description of which discovers in it two elements, one black, one white, one a forward, one a backward motion, the two seen as interdependent:
(The black stream, catching on a sunken
Flung backward on itself in one white wave,
And the white water rode the black forever . . .)
The stark contrast of his complementary figures suggests the imagery of yin 陰 and yang 陽. After an interlude of Christian metaphor Frost allows the husband to voice at length the most important statement of the poem’s cosmology. “‘Speaking of contraries,’” he begins, “‘see how the brook / In that white wave runs counter to itself.’” The husband’s thought then turns to origins. In the image that he has described for us, he asserts, “‘we get back to the beginning of beginnings,’” to “‘the stream of everything that runs away.’” “‘Existence,’” he says, thereby naming the stream, some conceive of as traditional male and female clowns dancing “‘forever in one place. But,’” he adds, offering his own (and Frost’s) view, “‘it runs way, / It seriously, sadly, runs away / To fill the abyss’ void with emptiness.’” The last word that Frost has used often translates the Buddhist kong 空, a generative principle out of which—as in the vision of the Dao—things are seen as emerging. The husband goes on to elaborate his description of this river of existence, his figures becoming more and more grandly metaphorical. “‘It flows,’” he says,
“beside us in this water brook
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment,
It flows between us, over us, and with us.
And it is time, strength, tone, light, life, and love—
And even substance lapsing unsubstantial.”
These final two lines, with their elaboration of metaphor, suggest the richness of the Buddhist conception of Emptiness. At this point, however, the husband’s thought appears to veer from that doctrine, redefining the river as a “‘universal cataract of death’” spending to “‘nothingness,’” a turn in argument that emphasizes only half of the oriental view of universal process. Once again, however, the argument shifts, returning to the earlier topic of the river’s “‘strange resistance in itself.’” This “‘throwing backward on itself’” the speaker calls “‘sacred,’” seeing in it the principle “‘sending up our life,’” “‘sending up the brook,’” “‘sending up the sun.’” With these figures Frost confirms the other half of the oriental doctrine; at which point his protagonist concludes:
“It is this backward motion toward the
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.”
At the last moment then, in a rather Romantic, western way, the poem humanizes the universal force. But in the course of his character’s monologue Frost has given us a complex of images that suggest oriental doctrines which we have discussed, among them the Daoist return (fan 反) in its motion toward nothingness (wu chang 無常). As was the case with Williams’ thought, Frost’s cosmology is also reconcilable with modern physics, in particular with the contemporary Big Bang Theory of an expanding and contracting universe, but also with the more recent conception of a universe constantly creating itself out of nothing at the subatomic level. What Frost has done is to synthesize western and eastern ideas, combining scientific thought from the former with philosophical and religious notions from the latter, enfolding into this mix other, partly contradictory, western ideas. The whole, which is governed by a fundamentally Heraclitean metaphor, is arrived at intuitively, which is to say poetically.
So much, then, for the presence of oriental ideas in Frost. There remains one poem of interest not so much for its thought as for its geography: “The Bearer of Evil Tidings,” collected in A Further Range (1936) and listed with two others in The Complete Poems under the heading “Outlands.” Composed in ballad stanzas, it tells a story of Frost’s own invention. Set in the Himalayas, in a country named Pamir, it concerns a Chinese princess, who in ancient times had left her homeland in a royal progress toward the West, where she was to marry a Persian prince. Midway there it is discovered that she is with child (through no fault of her own, or anyone else’s: “a god was its father”). When the fact is discovered, her retinue, Frost reports, came “to a troubled halt”: “it had seemed,” he says, “discreet to remain there / And neither go on nor back.” “So they stayed and declared a village,” adds the poet bumptiously, “There in the land of the Yak.”
The main action of the poem, however, picks up centuries later, as a messenger makes his way to the court of Belshazzar, King of Babylon. With evil tidings to bear (news of the king’s overthrow), this Westerner welcomes a fork in the road and takes the way leading off “into the wild unknown.” Traveling through the mountains and “the Vale of Cashmere,” he eventually arrives at “a precipice valley,” where he meets “a girl of his age” and is taken home.
Now the child that had come of the princess had “established a royal line,” and “his mandates were given heed to / Because he was born divine.” That, says the poet, “was why there were people / On one Himalayan shelf.” And so, “The bearer of evil tidings / Decided to stay there himself.
At least he had this in common
With the race he chose to adopt.
They had both of them had their reasons
For stopping where they had stopped.
“As for his evil tidings,” Frost concludes, “Why hurry to tell Belshazzar / What soon enough he would know?” It is a curious little fable, one which remains unexplained by anything else that we know of Frost, except perhaps for his desire to come to terms with the Orient. His other attempts to do so, both earlier and later, seem somewhat inconclusive. By contrast, this one has the finality of myth. Accordingly, its elements bear a moment’s inspection.
Like myths the world over it tells of the intervention of gods in the affairs of men, echoing other stories of the founding of a royal line. It tells of a frustrated marriage of East and West, one transformed by circumstance into a cultural transplantation of China into Central Asia, perhaps a reversal of the more famous transplantation of Buddhism into China. Nonetheless, its original motive, an intercultural marriage, is finally realized, this time as the result of the West traveling to meet the East halfway. In the second part of the story, we might note, the time, though historical, is still remote, dating from the fall of Babylon. There is something desperate in the situation of both parties. The original princess had no choice but to stop; likewise, the western refugee, had he not been hospitably received, Frost tells us, “might be running yet.” The original girl’s descendant tells him the story of how she got there but also teaches him “her tribe’s religion,” one passed down through the original princess’s divine son, a figure who again suggests historical parallels. The Westerner in one sense has been irresponsible, failing to report his news; however, knowing what we do about evil tidings, he also must be judged sensible. At any rate, what he had had to say was soon to become self-evident, as by now the meaning of the parable in the present context should be.