in Writing

The brown hen and the Continual Conversation with a Silent Man

Thoughtful analysis by Gary Witt of Continual Conversation with a Silent Man, the Wallace Stevens’ poem from which gets its name:

This is one of many poems by Stevens that I can return to again and again, and pull something new out of the words almost every time. The central theme here is man’s relationship to God. Our lives are, in fact, a continual conversation with a silent man, God. I suspect, without knowing for certain, that Stevens was an agnostic, or at the very least someone who constantly questioned his faith and his beliefs. It appears from his work that he was also a perpetual student of comparative religions. As a result, much of his work brings in viewpoints that are non-Christian. “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” is a good example of this.

BTW, I think this poem (“Continual Conversation”) makes a splendid introduction to “Sunday Morning.” It contains many of the same elements. On a literal level, both share images of birds and the sea. On another level, the two poems both deal with the ambiguity of the natural world—here it is “…the wind, / Of many meanings in the leaves, ” and in “Sunday Morning, ” it is the “ambiguous undulations” of a casual flock of pigeons. We live and die between the old brown hen and the old blue sky—roughly between a small (perhaps decrepit, and for all practical purposes flightless) bird, and the heavens above. We are ‘above’ the beasts, but not quite angelic. The image calls to mind the conflict between the book of Genesis and ‘On the Origin of Species.’ Oddly enough, however, it is a sentence upon which both Darwin and the author of the biblical text would likely agree. (I might add, it is written in a deceptively simple style, almost like a nursery rhyme. It seems harmless, but contains the seeds of genuine conflict.)

When we die, our lives become like a broken cartwheel on the hill: our earthly endeavors come to an immediate halt, irrespective of where “on the hill” our progress may have brought us. (The “hill” motif reminds me of two things: first Sisyphus, and second a quotation from Samuel Johnson: “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.”) It is “as if, in the presence of the sea, we dried our nets and mended sail.” We can “talk” of never-ending things. We can believe we are here on earth to prepare for a journey elsewhere, an afterlife perhaps. Stevens also allows for the possibility of a “before life” in the Hindu tradition, which has caused us to have to mend sail. The reference to drying nets also calls to mind Jesus’ promise, “I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1: 17) And then my favorite stanza here, “Of the never-ending storm of will, /One will and many wills, and the wind, /Of many meanings in the leaves…” There are the never-ending struggles of wills: an individual’s will against other people’s wills, or our will(s) against God’s, or against Nature’s (the wind) .

And Stevens here mentions the “many meanings in the leaves.” God (or Krishna or Nature or Chemistry or Physics) has created a world of great beauty, boundless possibilities, and, ultimately, supreme chaos. There is ambiguity everywhere: on the wind, and in the leaves. But somehow, all these separate meanings are reduced to one, “below the eaves.” When mankind has achieved a certain level of comfort and protection—when he has eaves, whether in the structure of a farmhouse or a church—he is able to reduce all these various meanings to one. Man’s pantheism becomes monotheism and his uncertainty becomes strident dogmatism. He begins to associate his religious beliefs to his own prosperity. His beliefs “link” the storm of wills to his farm, to his livelihood, to his “eaves.” The old brown hen becomes a turquoise (bejeweled?) hen, artificial but perhaps a great deal more valuable to him.

The old blue sky also becomes turquoise—a bit surreal, and perhaps also bejeweled (a reference to the Muslim view of heaven or paradise?) . And all these things (the many meanings of the wind in the leaves, the tempest of wills, the farm, the turquoise hen and the sky) are “linked” to death—the wheel that broke as the cart went by. Are there any wars that are truly “religious” at their core, or are they all about a tempest of wills, turquoise hens, and farms? Control, wealth or jewels, and real estate. Throughout all this, we are incapable of actually hearing the voice of God. It is not a voice that we hear “under the eaves, ” or in our protected world (maybe even in church) . We only hear “the sound of things and their motion.” For all we know, God (the other man in this conversation of ours) might be a turquoise monster (a bejeweled and graven image?) moving round. Still, we do hear something in this conversation. And for that reason, we continue to listen.

And this addition just after from Witt. Henology!

Let me add to the comment below. Henology (prefix hen, from the Greek, for ‘one’ or ‘unity’) refers to a philosophical study or discourse on ‘the One’ which appears notably in the philosophy of Plotinus, and certainly in Plato. Stevens was most emphatically familiar with both, and his use of the term ‘hen’ here must be viewed as referencing ‘the One.’ Note also that ‘the One’ is different from a sentient God. It is the First Principle, or Prime Mover. It is found in the difference between Creationism and Emanationism. Our physical world ’emanates’ from the ‘will’ of the Prime Mover.

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