Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Of Mere Being" by Wallace Stevens

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. It's feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

I like this poem. It seems to tell the story of a moment with vivid images. It moves in a full circle, starting with the line "The palm at the end of the mind," and, in the last sentence, reasserting, "The palm stands on the edge of space." The similar structure and wording make the poem continuous, as if the story it describes is both ongoing and only a single moment.

The imagery in the poem is incredible. It starts with a single tree, a palm, sitting on "the edge of the mind," which brings the image of a lonely island, hardly bigger than its inhabitant, the tree, alone in a sea and sitting at the very horizon. The "bronze decor" suggests sunset. The "gold-feathered bird" most immediately invokes the idea of a phoenix, that mystical bird, reborn from ashes. That it is gold, brighter than the surrounding bronze, makes it seem like the sun. One can just see the golden bird, or the sun, singing against the black silhouette of a palm tree while the sky blazes bronze. The feather's shine. But then the sunset is over. The palm is now at the edge of space, as stars and blackness take over the sky, and the feathers go from gold to glowing red. The poem ends at the point, just before all the world goes dark, when the edge of the sun is still just visible.

But there's something else going on in the poem that isn't visible. It is set, "at the end of the mind,/ Beyond the last thought." There are a multitude of possible interpretations to this, but I see it as the spiritual part of man. Beyond where words have meaning, beyond, even, where emotions have deep sway. They are, perhaps, the wind that moves the branches, but nothing more. Here, this palm tree, this bird, is where the spirit resides, the part of a person that just is. The bird is singing, communicating, but not with "human meaning" or "human feeling." The song is foreign, or just spoken in a different language: the spiritual language. And then the words, "You know then that it is not the reason/ That makes us happy or unhappy." It is the spirit. As this bird sings its strange song, it is the spirit expressing itself. The bird's feathers shine; light reaches the mind. But then that palm is on the edge of space. To go too far is to risk loosing yourself. Emotion or thoughts touch the tree. And the bird's song dims and sets while we shrink closer to the know mind.

Perhaps this poem describes the strange moment just between waking and dreaming. Or the touch of inspiration that is then gone. Or maybe learning some deep truth, impossible to describe in words. It seems to be some wonderful, somewhat mystical moment of extreme beauty that lasts only a few seconds before it is gone... And yet, it could be as common as a sunset.

(I posted on Blake's and Conrad's blogs.)


  1. This is perfect. Good ideas, great depth. Great comments on the structure of the poem and the poet's writing. Very nice!

  2. I really enjoyed the last paragraph :) Thanks for giving me some new insight into this poem

  3. When I first read this poem I had thoughts of American flag flying in a foreign country. But there is also spiritual significance there.

  4. When I first read this poem I had thoughts of American flag flying in a foreign country. But there is also spiritual significance there.

  5. For more insight into the poem, please read Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium (last verse) and Gerard Manley Hopkins's God's Grandeur. Also note that "bronze decor" = bronze de coeur = bronze (hard) heart, and that a palm is not only a tree, but also a reward (as in Palme d'Or). Similarly, the end of the mind can refer both to the limits of reason and to its end in death.