Coincidence or Influence?
Frank X. Roberts, Ph.D.
Included in American modernist poet Wallace Stevens’s The Auroras of Autumn, first published in 1950, is his long, philosophical poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” the first stanza of which reads:
The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
Leaving aside the meaning of the stanza (and indeed of the whole poem—never an easy thing to fathom in such an esoteric and philosophic poet as Wallace Stevens) I wish only to call attention to the odd, repetitious, six-word phrasing (followed by a long dash) at the end of the stanza.
Whatever these six words, so arranged, may mean in relation to the rest of the stanza (or to the poem as a whole), they are undeniably, in the context and framework of the poem, the poet’s doing—Stevens put them there! But the question that remains is: was the stringing together of these “yet”s and “and”s, with their final long dash, entirely the product of the creative mind of Wallace Stevens? It may not have been!
As noted, the word grouping: “and yet, and yet, and yet─” is an odd conjunction of words at best, not one might expect in the English language—though not so surprising, perhaps in poetry, especially in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. But in fact just such a unique juxtaposition of “yet”s and “and”s, followed by a long dash mark had appeared in print some forty-six years earlier than Stevens’ The Auroras of Autumn (1950), in Walter de la Mare’s novel, Henry Brocken, His Travels & Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance, first published in 1904.
On page 215 of de la Mare’s novel (I am quoting from the 1924 reprint published by Alfred A. Knopf) in Chapter XVI, entitled “Criseyde,” the novel’s eponymous hero (who has traveled back through the realms of romance into Geoffrey Chaucer’s long poem “Troilus and Criseyde”) in answer to Criseyde’s question, “You have voyaged far?” replies, “From childhood to this side regret, . . .” To which Criseyde responds, “′ Tis a sad end to a sweet tale, . . . were it truly told. But yet, and yet, and yet─ (italics added) you may return, and life heals every wound.”
It should be noted that an Internet site called The Phrase Finder lists some sources for the use of the phrase in the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century. But it would appear that these sources tend to construct the phrase minus commas and without a long dash mark at the end. While this may not be definitive proof of influence, or of a tie between de la Mare’s early and Stevens’s later unique construction of the phrase, it supports the possibility. True, Stevens’s string includes an extra “and,” but nevertheless, there it is, the same grouping of the same words, separated by commas and ending with a long dash mark. I rather think it is the long dash which gives the game away!
Yet, the questions of coincidence or influence still remain. Did Wallace Stevens himself create his particular construction of this odd word grouping, or did he perhaps consciously or unconsciously “borrow” it from Walter de la Mare’s novel? Finally did Stevens in fact ever read Henry Brocken . . .?
Although Walter de la Mare (born in 1873) was some six years senior to Wallace Stevens (born 1879), they were contemporaries in their creative lives, and died only one year apart, Stevens in 1955 and de la Mare in 1956. Thus, Stevens would have been twenty-four years of age when Henry Brocken, His Travels & Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance was first published. It is very likely that Stevens would have been well aware of the appearance in 1904 of this (then quite popular) novel, while he was in New York City working for a law firm. Being a romantic at heart (as his poetry shows) he would have eagerly purchased and no doubt read with great interest a book sporting such a long and alluring sub-title!
But whether Wallace Stevens read Walter de la Mare’s novel, Henry Brocken . . . in 1904, or a later reprint of the book, perhaps in 1924 when the literary careers of both writers were beginning to flourish, I would like to suggest that de la Mare’s original unique combination of “yet”s and “and”s, with its final long dash mark, remained deep in Stevens’s mind to resurface years later to be used at the end of the first stanza of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”
Will such a conjecture ever be proven definitively? Can it ever be? Probably not! But one cannot resist echoing the few words: yet, and yet, and yet─ .
Coda: Of the two poets whose names appear in the preceding discussion on literary influence, Wallace Stevens is by far the more difficult. His poetry, it must be admitted, is an acquired taste—but well worth sampling. For readers who have not read any of Stevens’s poetry and would like to sample it, I would recommend starting with some of his shorter pieces such as, “The Snowman” or “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” or “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Of Stevens’s longer poems which might be good starters for the uninitiated, I would suggest “Sunday Morning” or “Peter Quince at the Clavier” or perhaps “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”
The Stevens’ poem cited and quoted earlier in the section on literary influence, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” while it has what seems an inviting title is in fact one of Stevens’s more difficult philosophical poems. Reading it and getting meaning from it will require effort, coupled with a bit of background knowledge and perhaps some critical explication. It is a long difficult poem, but a poem that once read haunts the imagination.
Walter de la Mare on the other hand is a much more accessible poet. De la Mare is probably familiar to most readers through one poem, his much-anthologized, “The Listeners”: ‘Is anybody there?’ said the Traveler,/Knocking on the moonlit door; . . ..’
Sadly, however, much of de la Mare’s poetry (despite the praise it has received from such luminaries as W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot) is now largely neglected, except perhaps in the case of his poems for children, still widely found in school libraries and in children’s collections in public libraries.
But to dismiss Walter de la Mare as merely a writer of verse for children is to make a huge mistake. Many of his poems (including even some of those he wrote for children) have a deep philosophical resonance, presented in everyday language and with recognizable imagery. In fact, all of Walter de la Mare’s poetry is enjoyable at many levels, and well worth reading and re-reading.
In addition, de la Mare is a master writer of prose fiction, especially in the genre of the short story. A two-volume edition of his short stories, written mostly before 1950, has recently been published. The volumes contain a collection of tales of mystery and romance which take the reader (like a Henry Brocken) on reading adventures into many, rich, strange and unimaginable regions (that is “unimaginable” except to Mr. de la Mare).
During his long writing career, Walter de la Mare also produced a number of novels such as Henry Brocken, mentioned earlier. Most of de la Mare’s novels are no longer in print and can be found only in used-book stores or on library shelves. But one of his novels, Memoirs of a Midget, has been reissued a number of times since it was first published in 1921. This novel was most recently reissued in 2009 in England by Telegram Books. One reviewer of the reissue said: “Memoirs of a Midget is a triumphant work of fiction: a portrait of a complex heroine who the readers will ultimately find quite as compelling [as any heroine in a Bronte novel].” Another recent critic has summed up Memoirs of a Midget this way: “It may be read with a good deal of simple enjoyment and then it sticks like a splinter in the mind.” These words could also be applied to much of Walter de la Mare’s poetry and prose writings.
Frank’s extensive career in teaching and librarianship began when he taught English in the U.S. From 1961 to 1963, as part of a Columbia University program called “Teachers for East Africa,” he taught English and American Literature in East Africa. There he met his wife, Dorothy. They returned to the U.S. where he simultaneously taught and finished two Masters’ degrees, in Education and in Librarianship. In 1968 they returned to England where Frank taught Library Studies, and adopted Hodge, a cat who later traveled around the world with them. In 1972, Frank was “seconded” for two years to teach at Makerere University in Uganda, East Africa, but left reluctantly after one year when the tyranny of Idi Amin became intolerable. From there it was back to England, then Australia and finally to America in 1979, to Buffalo where Frank earned his doctorate. Later they moved to Colorado, where he was Professor of Library Studies at the University of Northern Colorado until retiring in 1997. Frank published James A. Michener: A Checklist of his Work with a Selected Annotated Bibliography (Greenwood Press) in 1995. He has written on bookmarks, specifically on medieval bookmarks, his special area of interest. A poet by avocation, he writes eclectically but traditionally. Contact Frank.