Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Disillusionment of Wednesday V

We continue our bad discussion of "The Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" with this entry from hometown favorite Mrs.5000.  If you've been meaning to throw down with your own inept textual analysis, it's time to gloss or get off the pot, as next week's exegesis will be the last of the series.  To prevent that from happening, send your effort to me, Michael5000, at the leading electronic mail service hosted by the Google people.

Ideas and Things

In his poem "The Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," Wallace Stevens juxtaposes two kinds of language, the language of ideas and the language of things. This juxtaposition is made clear in the very title, in which the abstract five-syllable idea word "disillusionment" is balanced as in a fulcrum against the very precise time phrase "Ten O'Clock," which is not only comprised of little words, but some of them are even shortened. With this mighty fulcrum (hanging delicately from the little preposition "of") Wallace Stevens throws down a gauntlet that will not be picked up for decades, until William Carlos Williams writes in his great and much longer poem "Paterson" "No ideas but in things."

Reading this poem, like any poem, is a matter of asking oneself the questions it raises and slowly unwinding the lines like clues for the answers. Some questions, like “What time is it?” are quickly answered: exactly 10:00. But why is ten o’clock in the state of having lost its illusions? For this answer, we have to read the poem carefully, line by line. In fact, there are five sentences unspooling over fifteen lines, for an average sentence length of exactly three lines apiece. Stevens is using these clues, the precise multiples of five, to refer back with numerical precision to the stated time, with the dry, heartless mathematical efficiency one might expect of a successful insurance executive.

And, in fact, we search the poem in vain for any more language of ideas. It is as if ten o’clock is so exhausted by the very utterance of the word “disillusionment” that henceforth it can only dream of things: first haunted houses, then houses painted in bright colors and decorated with rings, those colors unwinding in simple language and precise order like a child’s nursery rhyme. Then obscure, ornate words, to describe strangely fussy Victorian houses, probably in the Queen Anne style, decorated with lace and antiquated belts. And then, because people are strangely absent in this poem of negation, it is up to ten o’clock to do the dreaming, still of things: of baboons and the gastropod mollusk periwinkle, and at last to dream of a sailor who is himself asleep, which is a good way to end the vicious circle of things.

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