“Beauty is momentary in the mind…but in the flesh it is immortal”

PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER
~ by Wallace Stevens

I.
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

II.
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

III.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

IV.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.

Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

##

Here rendered in metaphysical poetry is the story of Susanna from the Book Of Daniel, Chapter 13, in Apocrypha.

Beauteous Susanna is plotted against by corrupt Hebrew elders. They have spied on her bathing in her gated, walled garden. They each try to seduce and molest her. As they are influential at court, they coerce and threaten her: they might make invidious accusations against her wifely virtue if she does not succumb. She cries out against them, bringing servants rushing to her aid — the elders then falsely accuse her of lewd and adulterous conduct.

Eventually, Daniel saves her reputation, demonstrating in court that the elders are lying. The elders are put to death by the court, at which they had been councilors. (Stevens relies on our having awareness of the Biblical literature. I, for one, certainly had to look it up.)

Susanna’s beauty is an immortal memory for her husband, who knew her in the flesh. For the spying elders, it was a fleeting conception, followed by death.

“One might have thought of sight, but who could think of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?” 

from ESTHETIQUE DU MAL
~ by Wallace Stevens

The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming, and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer
In humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and the metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.
This is the thesis scrivened in delight,
The reverberating psalm, the right chorale.

One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.

##

In a coda at the end of his great poem, Wallace Stevens objects to the influence of philosophies that are platonist, spiritualist, not of this world, and oriented to an after-life.