Student Series: An essay by English major Davis Mendez

Davis Mendez

Jesse Nathan

English 166


Wallace Stevens’ “The Motive of Metaphor”


Wallace Stevens’ “The Motive of Metaphor” is a collection of signs, which at least for this essay is a better description of the poem. Its reading is a confluence of its reader, the text, and the poet. In this confluence, the imagination navigates the ground and sky, so to speak, of itself in the vehicle of metaphor in a search of that-thing-that-will-stick, which can be apprehended in its nearness to the mythical “Truth”, or Plato’s Forms. Metaphors, imperfect things, are ​attempts1 at ​approaches2 ​toward these forms: attempts because of the many possible metaphors for a particular “truth” and approaches because some metaphors contain potential to near it perhaps even reach it. The capital t Truth is an incomprehensible thing, so incomprehensible that we ​need a metaphor, it being the only available tool in the imagination to approach its ambiguity and ultimate unknowability, which I believe is a doomed mission. This essay itself might be doomed.

The poem opens with the ambiguous​ “You” (Wallace 258). Immediately placing the reader in a realm of​ ​concepts​. It can be the general “You”, not the specified “You” as in I, included also the I; or if read out loud the reader speaks to either the text or the narrator and it becomes the “You”, a nameless and invisible Other, or “You” in reference to Wallace Stevens himself. The question of who “You” (Wallace) is presenting itself in Denis Donoghue’s analyses of Stevens’ “The Motive of Metaphor”:

the choice remains between virtually taking “you” to mean “I” or taking it to mean someone else. So the stance of the poem could be either sympathetic, to the degree of willed identity with the “you,” or diagnostic, standing in judgment upon “you,”[…]But the later stanzas of the poem seem to merge the “you” with an unstated “I,” the “I” being the voice of the anonymous speaker of the poem (Donoghue 194)

Who is this “anonymous speaker” conjured in Stevens’ poem? It may not matter, since it is not necessarily the “speaker” the poem’s metaphor is concerned with but the ground in which that “speaker” manifests and then the motive of that “speaker”. It is mentioned in ​Peter Klepec essay “Another Lacan-Deleuze Encounter”:

We never think or write alone: ‘Even when you think you’re writing on your own, you’re perhaps doing with someone else you can’t always name’. But sometimes you can name them and then they are called ‘conceptual personae’. The role of the latter for Deleuze is not only to show thoughts’ territories but to think in us, to play a part in the very creation of the author’s concepts (Klepec 17)

In this “territory” the “You” is an encounter of reader and writer on the bridge of text. On this apparatus an escape from the labyrinth of reality into the Spirit of Meaning, so to speak, becomes conceivable.

The conceptual territory presents itself in the phrase “under the tree”, which places the “anonymous speaker” or the “conceptual personae” ​somewhere​. Somewhere it “like”’s presumably because of its proximity to the capital t “Truth”. It can be ​felt​ in the strangeness of the ambiguous “You”. The territory’s own existence – in which the reader and writer confluence – signifies the possibility of “Truth” for

the human being [is] a speaking being and if he knows that ‘what dominates society is the practice of language’, he now accentuates that it is the signifier that ‘is the cause of jouissance. Without the signifier, how could we even approach that part of the body?’ ​In other words, if every reality is founded and defined by a discourse as a social link, every reality is approached also with apparatuses of ​jouissance​ (Klepec 19)

Through the “extreme etymological amboceptivity” (Maccannell 157) of Jacque Lacan’s jouissance,​ we sense its nearness in Stevens’ use of “like”. The sexual overtones of Lacan’s jouissance​ is in the encounter of the speaking human poet in intimate conversation with the reader. ​Jouissance i​ncludes in its ambiguity the “orgasm”, which can be integrated into this essay’s “Truth”, or body, that is being ​attempted​ to ​approach​.

The first two sentences, and the beginning of the third, and final, sentence becomes the apparatus of ​jouissance,​ which is not ​jouissance i​ tself but that which makes it possible to approach:

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves (Wallace 258)

The rest of the poem serves as a climb in its “one phrase […] produc[ing] another by association, and that one to bring[ing] forward yet another by a similar device” (Donoghue 192) and apology of why “You” “like”’s fall and spring. The phrase “everything is half dead” implies that everything is half alive. It echoes at the beginning of the third sentence’s “​in the same way​, you were happy in Spring” [Emphasis mine] (Wallace 258). Having established ourselves in the realm of concepts, its landscape is presented. In this landscape the “wind moves like a cripple through the leaves”. The personification of “wind” in its description as “a cripple” connects to Jesus Christ’s – someone with world, nay universal renown, for his metaphors and allegories (which are narrative metaphors) – famous description of the Holy Ghost “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Stevens emphasizes this later in the New Testament on the day of Pentecost in which:

suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:2-4)

This wind, or Spirit, travels through a realm in which things are quite literally half-alive and half-dead. Similar to Jesus’s eternal damnation or salvation is the ​jouissance,​ which has either pleasure or suffering​. P​ er Juliet Flower Maccannell:

Jouissance appears as the horizon beyond every logical distinction, as the mythic sublime unitary substance which everyone is invested in keeping undivided but that nevertheless each demands a fair share in. Jouissance is the secret, but true objective of every intersubjective struggle[…] even though everyone consciously knows that no human subject could ever really h​ ave ‘it’ (Maccannell 158)

It is beyond that horizon art attempts to either penetrate into or through the craftsmanship of the metaphor be somehow re-formed into it. In using the word “metaphors” I distinguish the higher forms of metaphor from the lesser, merely analogous, forms of it, which Wallace described in The Necessary Angel:​

in metaphor, the resemblance may be, first, between two or more parts of reality; second, between something real and something imagined or, what is the same thing, between something imagined and something real as, for example, between music and whatever may be evoked by it; and, third, between two imagined things as when we say that God is good, since the statement involves a resemblance between two concepts, a concept of God and a concept of goodness (Stevens 75)

Metaphors signifying external or radically internal forms. Think “wind” as the Holy Ghost. Think of the Bible’s “spirit” Think Stevens’crippled wind as Spirit involved in a corrupting realm, or in other words, similar to Jesus Christ’s half man and half Spirit, which is a crippled spirit. With a great metaphor something emerges within me that seems somehow without, i.e. that either the metaphor taps into something unnameable that I’ve always had or some strange but definitely palpable intimation of knowledge was granted me. However, metaphors are either more effective or less effective than others in conjuring this almost spiritual sensation.

The “obscure moon lighting” (Wallace 258) becomes the “cold sunlight that’s reflected off the moon” (Modest Mouse 2000), i.e. that the original source is only available to the half-dead and half-alive world in a severely diluted form; a form one can call the ​jouissance since it only hints at the excess of life beyond it. In this basic realm, in which the metaphor is ruminated but undigested, “things [are] never quite expressed, […oneself is] never quite [oneself] and did not want nor have to be” because it is amongst “half colors of quarters things” (Wallace 258), in which things are imperfect and perishable, in which the imperfect metaphor is content merely watching the horizon.

In those two stanzas Stevens presents a distinct image: “the single bird” (258). Something capable of approaching that original light through flight, through the penetrative or receptive power of an exceptional metaphor, which “​amount[s] to the vision that our everyday language penetrates the world, or […] that the world penetrates our everyday language, to an extent that other philosophers find, if not mystical, simply incredible” (Cavell 314). See the use of the word “world” as the source that the higher forms of metaphor are either in aspiration toward or granted. Both “aspiration”, in the flight of this “single bird”, and “granted” – such as in the case of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost – are present in the line “slightly brighter sky” for the former and “the melting clouds” (Wallace 258), it’s reaching down, in the latter. To understand it in secular, but nevertheless mystical terms see Stanley Cavell’s essay on Plato:

that every way every thing might be is something determined from the beginning of the world, and that what determines this cannot be ​in the world […] but must exist in an eternal, unchanging world, a world of perfection therefore to which our world and everything in it aspire or you might say imitate [therefore a lesser form of it] (Cavell 313)

Stevens’ refers to “desiring the exhilaration of changes” (Wallace 258) in the fourth stanza. This is the climbing of the stairs, flying that sky, ever closer and closer. In other words the intellectual or spiritual deciphering of the metaphor’s code through something akin to ​work ​in order to reach the metaphor’s destination. Alas, the “single bird”:

does not envisage, even deplores, the prospect of arriving at a final state of perfection, [he] is more interested in paying attention to the ways in which the initiating impulse to the further self may present itself in different temperaments of thought – the beginnings of philosophical stirring which no perfectionist can ignore – rather than in arguing with the various ways in which such a must may or may not be seen as coming to rest. In Wittgenstein’s ​Investigations​, the impulse to question ourselves comes to rest on, as it were, each stair, it remains open whether the impulse to a further questioning will present itself (Cavell 315)

Yet these “exhilarations” in “the motive of metaphor, […] shrink from the weight of primary noon”. The “primary noon” of which ​jouissance,​ itself already deemed unreachable, is only the horizon. The “A B C of being” (Wallace 258) implies language as the tool, the “single bird”, our being uses for the purpose of metaphor interpretation.

However as Beth Spacey stated in “The Way of Knowing”:

According to Otto of Freising, the ability to accurately interpret signs was a God-given gift that came with enormous responsibility. […he] identifies Joseph as the first to be granted the ability to interpret dreams and prodigies. Those skills were divinely bestowed upon Joseph. Further, he describes how Elijah and Elisha received their ability to interpret miracles, prodigies and signs directly from God because of their virtuous lives. Consequently, Otto imposes an exclusivity on interpretive agency that is indicative of the perceived significance of prophecy and signs; the ability to accurately decipher the prophetic was not universal (Spacey 119).

The most effective “A B C”’s for the task of interpretation is uncommon. Many folks’ ability, their bird, to decipher the metaphor into something of almost permanent value, that-something-that-will-stick, is struck down by the “hammer of red and blue, the hard sound” much quicker. Prophets are few and far between so how does one approach that unapproachable thing. Gilles Deleuze recognized the importance of Jesus, or prophets, or the “conceptual personae” serving as mediator between the flesh, the half-alive and half-dead, to that original light, as referenced by Klepec:

Deleuze knows very well that a kind of mediation is necessary: ‘Mediators are fundamental. Creation’s all about mediators.’​ ​For that reason philosophy needs conceptual personae, it can occur ‘between friends’, it always begins in-between’, and that is also why it was ‘so compromised with God’ (Klepec 16)

In an apt summarical metaphor of this essay is the story of Icarus, and his mediator Daedalus, in which they attempt to escape the Minos’ – who “​rules everything but he does not rule the heavens” (Ovid VIII:184) – l​abyrinth , and fly toward that perfection, for “as Stevens says, in one of his notes on poetry, that ‘reality is a cliche from which we escape through metaphor’” (Donoghue 188). Later in Denis Donoghue’s “The Motive of Metaphor” it is noted that:

Picasso […] allowed Stevens to say that “a poem is a horde of destructions.” Metaphor, according to Ortega, has been the main device in an artist’s rejection of external things. “Metaphor alone furnishes an escape.” Its efficacy verges on magic […] We ascribe to Nietzsche but not only to him the desire to be elsewhere (Donoghue 191)

The motive of the metaphor instructs us to “​to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes” (Ovid VIII: 191). In its “desire to be elsewhere” the poem – and the manner in which the reader interprets the poet’s text – is threatened by the “horde of destructions” outside of that “middle way”, on either side of the ​jouissance​, either suffering through failure in approach or failure through the false enjoyment of a less painful but more pleasurable misunderstanding of the metaphor. As mediator Jesus said “​Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber” (Jn 10:1). E.g. if I understood Jesus Christ’s statement “ I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6)​ ​in esoteric mysticism, thereby complicating it, like the Gnostics or the Kabbal, or to understand it in a lesser form like the Westboro Baptist Church grotesque simplification of Scripture .

This motive “vitali[zes]” the metaphor, its tension to approach that-something-that-will-stick, that boon; and its “fatality”, the destiny of most metaphors to fail in its attempt at arriving at the “Father” unless mediated; “dominant” because that Truth, or that other realm of Forms past the horizon, where the Father resides is the dominant X, the dominant unknown, which rules not only everything but the heavens too (Wallace 258).

For instance, this essay could have missed the mark of its intention, to interpret and accomplish the motive of Stevens’ poem. It could have made things more complicated than the poem called for. Or perhaps not. What sticks with me, through the poem, through the climb my imagination and/or spirit embarked on because of its reading, is the awareness of the “motive of the metaphor”, a definite motive, and that awareness signifies some ​other​ reality, and the potential within or without me to approach, possibly arrive, at something meaningful that I can carry with me throughout my life, like faith in a deity, is reason enough for me to be content with the flight and not its destination whatever that may be.


Works Cited

Cavell, Stanley. “PLATO.” ​Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Lif​e, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 2004, pp.

313–339. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Aug. 2020. Donoghue, Denis. “Not Quite against Metaphor.” ​Metaphor,​ Harvard University Press,

Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 2014, pp. 143–181. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Aug. 2020. – “The Motive for Metaphor.” ​ibid ,​ pp. 182–208. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.
Klepec, Peter.“For Another Lacan–Deleuze Encounter.” ​Lacan and Deleuze: A Disjunctive

Synthesis,​ edited by Bostjan Nedoh and Andreja Zevnik, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2017, pp. 13–31. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

Maccannell, Juliet Flower. “Jouissance.”​ Glossalalia – An Alphabet of Critical Keywords​, edited by Julian Wolfreys and Harun Karim Thomas, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2003, pp. 157–167. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

Modest Mouse. “3rd Planet” ​The Moon & Antarctica​, produced by Brian Deck, 13 June 2000. Ovid. ​The Metamorphoses. ​translated by Charles Martin, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004. Spacey, Beth C. “Ways of Knowing.” ​The Miraculous and the Writing of Crusade Narrative​,

New Ed., Boydell & Brewer, 2020, pp. 111–132. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

Stevens, Wallace.

  • –  “The Motive of Metaphor.” ​The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary PoetryVolume 1: Modern Poetry 3rd edition,​ edited by Richard Ellman, Jahan Ramazani,Robert O’Clair, ​W W Norton & Co., 2003. pp. 258
  • –  The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination.Vintage; Unabridged Edition, 12 Feb 1965.The Bible. T​ he New Oxford Annotated Version​,​ 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2001. – “Acts”

– “The Book of John”