Ground of Being in The Comedian As the Letter C

  1. INTRODUCTION

“The Comedian As the Letter C” was published in 1923 in Wallace Stevens’ first volume of poetry, Harmonium. Since it is an early poem in his canon (although he was over forty when it appeared), it can not be taken to represent the entire work or thought of Stevens. In fact, it is a playful satire of himself as neophyte realist and poet, and it is an affectionate tribute, I suspect, to his wife and daughters.

The protagonist in the poem is an Everypoet (Everyman, therefore, as I claim below), and the poem follows him on a Ulysses stint, from his home to the sea to the Yucatan to Carolina and home again. The tone, indeed the ground of being, as I claim below, is irony; the poem is a mock epic. The period in which it was written was a period in which many poets attempted to write modern epics. For example, Eliot published The Waste Land, Pound The Cantos, Crane The Bridge, and Williams Paterson. The epic form, traditionally a narrative, symbolic account of man’s experience, does not easily adapt to modern man’s experience and concepts, because modern man has no concepts that can satisfactorily account for his experience. Appropriately, therefore, modern epics tend to present a fractured, disjointed, multiplicity of experience and concepts.

But in many respects Stevens’ poem is unlike the others. “The Comedian As the Letter C” gives a basically narrative account (though with abrupt shifts of scene from time to time) of a voyage, from a single point of view—the hero’s (or the ironist’s, as I shall show). This traditional structure circumscribes the complexities that can be presented and the complexity of the presentation. To provide the voyage with one coherent form is to simplify and resolve many contradictions and paradoxes that such a voyage must involve. In contrast, Pound’s conflation of epic experience—Ulysses’, Sordello’s, Malatesta’s, Jefferson’s, etc., presented as one Protean hero’s—achieves unity while preserving diversity. Similarly, all the poets I mentioned above developed new techniques such as the use, for example, of musical form, collage, unexpected juxtapositions, stream of consciousness, conflation of past and present scenes and voices—producing coherence without loss of complexity; these forms express formal containment, but what the forms contain are the questions, intact. There are other devices used in modern epics which are declined or ignored by Stevens. Pound and Williams, for example, use found documents as part of their texts, and these give the effect of multiple other voices, of opposition, of variety, fracture.

All the other poets cited above express dismay at the decline of values and meaning and hopes in America, at the failure of the American dream, and at the threatening possibilities for destruction and dissociation attending science and technology. Stevens has stated that the opening setting for “The Comedian As the Letter C” is the American scene at the turn of the century when the country was romantic and Victorian.1 But as a whole his epic does not imitate history or even a particularly American experience. Social and moral questions are not the issues in Stevens’ poem; it represents instead the experience of the individual and the poet during an age of realism and naturalism.

Modern poets have been disturbed with the corruption of language, with “the thing” lost sight of. Here Stevens is also profoundly concerned—not with the decline of an age, however, but with the development of an esthetic for a twentieth-century poet (man), in the search for the real in language as well as in personal experience.

Modern epics are difficult to read. Fractured structures which mirror the mind and experience of the period require a corresponding energy on the part of a reader to supply associations and missing generalizations. Stevens is difficult to read too, and for similar reasons. Stevens’ poetic form juxtaposes dissociate images within lines and within phrases, and so his poetry is dense and difficult (it is difficult also because his vocabulary includes words an average dictionary does not).2 His form is otherwise traditional. His diction is alliterative and onomatopoeic; his line is blank verse. He has been justly accused of dandyism. Daniel Fuchs explains and substantiates this charge in regard to this poem as follows:

The verse of the poem is indeed that of a dandy. Hypercivilized, ironic, and unique, it assiduously attempts to suffuse into modern life a vividness, a gaudiness, a gaiety which it sadly lacks. Stevens’ striking vocabulary, a kind of Brummell American, a mixture of the latinate and the colloquial, the precious and the wild, is a joyous yet nervous answer to the national sameness. A connoisseur in discontent and expert in the knowledge of boredom, the dandy contrives the most ingenious and affected ways to transform this reality into something splendid. Stevens’ verse, in this poem and in many of the other early poems, is an example.3

If this is criticism it is also praise, of verbal virtuosity and wit—both invaluable assets to an ironist, as this poem demonstrates.

Stevens’ comic epic stands equal in poetic power to the epics of his contemporaries, but it is different from them in its essential thrust. Stevens is more comfortable than his peers, more confident toward nature and toward the nature of things and toward the future. Man is not lost; he is only man, involved in mental constructs which are weaker than the natural phenomena they are intended to represent and transcend. Stevens is not overwhelmed; he is amused—with himself and the rest. This poem, at least, finds him involved in a solid reality (with apologies): the quotidian.

  1. EXPLICATION

Irony in Wallace Stevens’ “The Comedian As the Letter C” is more than a single constituent of the tone, more than an attitude the author assumes for the moment of the poem; irony is the stuff of the poem: the poem begins and is and concludes in irony. Irony discloses the ground of being in the poem.

The poem is a comic epic. Crispin, at home among salad-beds and honest quilts, is philosophically secure. At sea, however, he encounters chaotic natural forces, vast, uncivilized, which offer no reassuring corroboration of his own history or personality. “Crispin [is] washed away by magnitude.” His romantic illusions fall away. He senses a reality in reality, and he must lay his hands on it. First to the Yucatan, a sensual feast, and then in a rebound to Carolina and the mundane, always in hot pursuit of the rude truth, the naked essence—and a poetry to tie the monster down. Haunted by romanticism, he casts doggedly ahead. And so finally to America where after a period of prodigious application of his rude esthetic he is overtaken by the quotidian, to which he submits. Back to salad-beds and honest quilts. His journey has taken him full circle, from happy beginning to happy ending. Pure comedy? Not at all. Pure irony.

Irony exposes incongruity. It projects the shadow of falsehood against a wall of truth. In “The Comedian As the Letter C” almost everything is shown to be a bit absurd: character and plot, philosophy and poetry.

There is this about the manner of satire. It does not come down boldly to the footlights and announce loudly: Will Mr. X come forward and receive the following indictment? It stands behind the curtain instead, projecting shadows behind the “hero”—suggesting opposition when the hero thinks he is alone, whispering answers to questions the hero cannot hear. If the reader of satire is to understand the proceedings, he must follow the satirist backstage and have it out with him directly.
What exactly is the charge? What is the law that legitimizes it? This paper purports to follow Stevens in this manner. To explicate the charges the irony makes against Crispin and his history will be to articulate the ground of being in the poem.

At first the shadow of truth behind the absurd foreground seems to be the voice of the narrator: “Socrates of snails, . . . valet in the tempest . . . insatiable egoist . . .auditor of insects.” Apparently the narrator is satirizing the hero. The task of the reader is to examine the narrator’s voice, his inflection, especially his remarks outside his narrative per se, to determine his point of view.

But such a study is frustrated from the beginning. The first line presents the narrator’s voice, before Crispin has been introduced.

Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil,
The sovereign ghost…

But this line presents, not an omniscient narrator’s point of view, but Crispin’s—a romantic notion of his later debunked. It is impossible to isolate the point of view of “the narrator.” This problem persists throughout the text. For example, when Crispin changes his philosophical dictum to this one (this one will be debunked later also): “Nota: his soil is man’s intelligence,” the narrator again identifies with him: “That’s better. That’s worth crossing seas to find.” This entangling of personalities and points of view can be explained as follows: the narrator is mocking Crispin; the narrator is Crispin—the poet is mocking himself.

If the ironic voice cannot be isolated, the ironic ground of being must be sought in the characterization and in the plot of the poem. Crispin is the epic “hero,” but he is an absurd fellow. Absurd by what standard? What are his flaws? How does Stevens prevent this studious idealist from achieving significance? First there is his name. Crispin’s namesake may be a stock character in French comedy, the buffoon, or he may be Ben Jonson’s Crispinus from Poetaster. Other comic antecedents from French and English comedy have been suggested.4 Whatever the derivative, the name itself is a “pipping” sound, inelegant, timid. “Jovial Crispin, in calamitous crape”? Not likely.

Crispin is comic in his ineffectuality. He is meagre, but aspiring. But if he is a pygmy in a land of giants, he is unabashed, adamantly demanding that the giant give over his name. His naivete is never quite quenched, but it is never equal to the task at hand either. Here is a typical characterization:

The lutanist of fleas, the knave, the thane,
The ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches, cloak
Of China, cap of Spain, imperative haw
Of hum, inquisitorial botanist,
And general lexicographer of mute
And maidenly greenhorns, now behind himself,
A skinny sailor peering in the sea-glass.
ll. 22-28

Here is a central one:

He could not be content with counterfeit,
With masquerade of thought, with hapless words
That must belie the racking masquerade
With fictive flourishes that preordained
His passion’s permit, hang of coat, degree
Of buttons, measure of his salt. Such trash
Might help the blind, not him, serenely sly.
It irked beyond his patience. Hence it was,
Preferring text to gloss, he humbly served
Grotesque apprenticeship to chance event,
A clown, perhaps, but an aspiring clown.
ll. 360-370

Even his sincerity is called into question. In the main he is depicted as a bold if unimposing protagonist, pressing ever onward toward his own reality and essence. But there is a pervading irony directed toward the intensity or purity of his purpose. This irony discloses a trace of pose.

But Crispin was too destitute to find
In any commonplace the sought-for aid.
He was a man made vivid by the sea, . . .
ll. 97-9

Into a savage color he went on.
How greatly had he grown in his demesne,
This auditor of insects! . . .
ll. 102-5

His violence was for aggrandizement
And not for stupor, . . .
ll. 117-8

If Crispin is dissembling—to what effect? If he is inadequate—to what endeavor? What is his identity? What is his task? Crispin is a poet. His task is writing poetry. The narrator and Crispin have been identified as one character, a poet mocking himself. Is Stevens the poet mocking himself? Is the poem autobiographical? The answer is that whatever counterpart Stevens’ personal experience offers the poem is immaterial to this study. It is material and central to this study, however, that the mock hero is a poet and that the mock epic depicts the development of a poet’s esthetic. The poem has special significance and particular satirical implications for poets; but Stevens does not satirize poets only, nor does Crispin’s mock history mock only the history of a few artists. Crispin as poet is the special representative of engineers and piano tuners as well. Man is a poet. Crispin is a poet because man is. Sanity, to say nothing of hope or despair, is a form of the imagination, is the business of the poet. This business is complicated if not precluded in the twentieth century because man like Crispin is stubbornly resolved to have it out with reality, impatient with any sign of emotional weakness (emotion, not subject to microscopic resolution, cannot be scientifically validated—and man on a scientific binge ignores the possibility of any other validation). Crispin is twentieth century man and his business is to confront reality realistically. Stevens’ poem concerns itself with the relationship between poetry and the milieu.

The first lines of the poem present Crispin’s first poetic devise: “Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil, /The sovereign ghost.” The solemnity is immediately dispersed. “Socrates/Of snails . . . musician of pears . . . wig of things, . . . nincompated pedagogue”! Dignity is out of the question. Sovereign ghost? Sovereign ghost in a funny hat. Sovereign ghost with pie in its face. “[G]eneral lexicographer of mute and maidenly greenhorns.”

Crispin goes to sea; he is hardly sovereign ghost of this environment. This is raw, elemental reality—Nietzsche’s Dionysian chaos, with almost no Apollinian relief; some remnant of Triton gestures in the waters, but the “inscrutable” overwhelms poor Crispin. He is “washed away by magnitude.” He confronts “the veritable ding an sich,” something “vocable,” but beyond his speech to name, something “visible,” with almost no trace of himself reflected in it—an impersonal, objective reality.
His imagination is inadequate defense against reality.

The imagination, here, could not evade,
In poems of plums, the strict austerity
Of one vast, subjugating, final tone.
ll. 81-83

There is nothing left of the jaunty romantic but “some starker, barer self/In a starker, barer world.” Crispin’s proud faith in man’s local godship is dashed; Triton is dissolved in the sea; man confronts life without imagination. Here is the comic confrontation:

Against his pipping sounds a trumpet cried
Celestial sneering boisterously.
ll. 66-7

. . . The last distortion of romance
Forsook the insatiable egotist. . . .
ll. 76-7

In the Yucatan poets still write traditional myth, but Crispin, “a man made vivid by the sea, . . . fresh from discoveries of tidal skies,” finds that nothing commonplace will serve for his devise. He is intent on “elemental…barenesses.” He is beset on the one hand with exotic, sensual opulence (“Of moonlight on the thick, cadaverous bloom/That yuccas breed, and of the panther’s tread”) and on the other by the poetic compulsion to “catechize” it with his quill.

. . . He perceived That coolness for his heat came suddenly,
And only, in the fables that he scrawled
With his own quill, in its indigenous dew,
Of an aesthetic tough, diverse, untamed,
Incredible to prudes, the mint of dirt,
Green barbarism turning paradigm.
ll. 119-24

He is experimenting with a new realism.

There is more realization ahead, however, for Crispin . A storm out of Mexico sends him fleeing to the cathedral.

. . . Crispin, here, took flight.
An annotator has his scruples, too.
He knelt in the cathedral with the rest,
This connoisseur of elemental fate,
Aware of exquisite thought. . . .
ll. 163-7

The irony turned upon him in this turning shows the coward Crispin crouching in the cathedral, intent, inspired, fired—the storm receding. This has been an elemental revelation indeed, sufficient to inspire both physical and poetic courage.

. . . This was the span
Of force, the quintessential fact, the note
Of Vulcan, that a valet seeks to own,
The thing that makes him envious in phrase.
ll. 172-5

The mighty thunder and the unlikely, lisping echo (l. 185) are satirized in even the sounds in the following passage:

. . . Beyond him, westward, lay
The mountainous ridges, purple balustrades,
In which the thunder, lapsing in its clap,
Let down gigantic quavers of its voice,
For Crispin to vociferate again.
ll. 181-5

Crispin is wrested by the power of this experience from his preoccupation with the exotic. He is renewed in spirit, elated; and he is off to new adventure. The epic poet turns north in search of a colder realism. He yearns for “relentless contact,” and he declines to write the poems, the forms, the sounds, or the thoughts that tempt him with less than elemental reality. He is besieged from time to time by his old weakness, a susceptibility for romanticism, a desire he shares with all men, after all, for “the blissful liaison,/Between himself and his environment.” But he resists this facile evasion and pushes on.

It was a flourishing tropic he required
For his refreshment, an abundant zone,
Prickly and obdurate, dense, harmonious,
Yet with a harmony not rarefied
Nor fined for the inhibited instruments
Of over-civil stops. . . .
ll. 242-7

In the section of the poem where Crispin approaches Carolina, a few lines effectively parody the opening lines of The Waste Land. (The parody is probably unintentional; the two poems were written at about the same time.) A comparison of the two poems illuminates the theme and the irony in this one.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ll. 1-4

Throughout his poem Eliot uses irony like a sledgehammer to nail an age. His is a violent accusation against a sterile society that chooses death, loves death. And there is little life or hope for life left in the desert of this poem. The Waste Land is a grieving poem, an angry poem, a hell and brimstone diatribe against defeat by default. [ADD FTNT]

[ADD FTNT: Arthur Kay reminds: “But more than that:”these fragments . . ." and “Da.

Now see Stevens’ lines:

He came. The poetic hero without palms
Or jugglery, without regalia.
And as he came he saw that it was spring,
A time abhorrent to the nihilist
Or searcher for the fecund minimum.
. . . The spring,
. . .
Irised in dew and early fragrancies,
Was gemmy marionette to him that sought
A sinewy nakedness. . . .
ll. 252-61

Spring is healthy and vital. It is the poet who is not well. The poet’s intellectual, even artistic, attitude, his determination to face down a “prickly” reality, in contrast with the dewy, fragrant fact of spring, appears to be forced, artificial—a pose. The poet is a little ridiculous. The point is that Stevens is not upset. His poet may be. The philosophical ideas in his poem may contend among themselves. But something is not upset. Some sea the comic poet’s sea is storming in is still. Some reality beyond or beneath the idea of realism—the seat of irony—seems to rest secure. More of this below.

Crispin, the comic hero, thirsting after thistles, approaches Carolina. “Tilting up his nose,” he inhales warehouse odors, the “arrant stinks” his “rude aesthetic” requires. “He [savours] rankness like a sensualist.” The prosodist perfects his style, discovers “the essential prose,” more real, more elemental (Vico to the contrary notwithstanding) than poetry. He thinks {as usual) that he has discovered the ground of being. Here is the secret to man’s meaning and his task. Crispin plans to establish a colony, propagate his theoretical species, convert the heathen. “The natives of the rain are rainy men.” Rainy men should be rainy poets. {Crispin might have predicted at this point what his own end should be—what but salad beds and honest quilts?) The Georgia man among pines should write of pines. And the Florida man is a veritable caricature, complete with song and dance:

. . . The responsive man,
Planting his pristine cores in Florida,
Should prick thereof, not on the psaltery,
But on the banjo’s categorical gut,
Tuck, tuck, while the flamingoes flapped his bays.
ll. 332-6

Crispin deduces original sin. His mistake in the beginning was his romantic discontent (idealism) that drove him from his native soil (garden), a wanderer over the earth. Now he has his revelation: text, not gloss; expunge dreams, “[b]ut let the rabbit run, the cock declaim.” (Updike obediently replied.) Onward: “veracious page on page, exact.”

But Crispin falls again. The fault is not exactly his own this time. If he had only remained discontent he might have succeeded in “[colonizing] his polar planterdom.” But man is frail. The sky is blue. Crispin slips by degrees into contentment. Woe to the rude realist. He rationalizes: Can’t a realist “stop short before a plum/And be content and still be realist”? Indeed, who needs poetry, after all? “The words of things entangle and confuse./The plum survives its poems.” Perhaps he should write his history as tragedy. Perhaps he should philosophize upon man’s fate, his disappointing incapacity to sustain rebellion, to sustain idea.

The very man despising honest quilts
Lies quilted to his poll in his despite.

A realist, he does not compromise. Apologetically he accepts his fact: happiness. The poet is undone—content, fulfilled. The poem is funny and affectionate.

An allusion is made to Candide.

. . . Like Candide,
Yeoman and grub, but with a fig in sight,
And cream for the fig and silver for the cream,
A blonde to tip the silver and to taste
The rapey gouts ….
ll. 454-8

There are similarities in the two antiheroes; both Crispin and Candide set out upon epic adventures with everything to learn, and both find themselves at home at last, like Voltaire himself, tending their gardens. But Voltaire has swept his comic hero through horrors of natural catastrophe and unnatural barbarism before he has brought him diminished and sobered to his last domain. Candide has wrestled with problems of good and evil in God and man, and human meaning has been all but obliterated. Joy, fulfillment, content, and satisfaction would be absurd concepts in the mental construct of Candide. In that story the garden itself is no temptress; neither is Cunegonde a “prismy blonde.”

In contrast we see “The Comedian As the Letter C” to be a milder poem, dealing with less violent material. In all the “realism” at large in the poem we find no evil in nature or man (if, that is, it may be granted that a poet’s excesses of imagery present an esoteric case, 1. 139). Crispin is never threatened with anything more substantial than a tropical storm, which indeed is noisy and frightening, but which apparently leaves no one the worse for its passage. There are no people to speak of in the poem until the poet at last surrenders to wife and babies. The poem does not treat of political or moral issues. This epic carries its hero through a clean, harmless series of intellectual poses and delivers him unscathed, a little disappointed with himself, into a fertile garden brimming with plums and babies.

Whatever criticism may be directed against the compromising denouement of this epic, it is fairly certain that such criticism will find its clearest expression in the closing passage of the poem itself. The comic philosopher/poet has nestled peacefully into his quotidian environment. He reviews his own case. The matter of philosophy is inevitably, at home or abroad, “the same insoluble lump.” This story, the narrator announces, has been “[d]isguised pronunciamento, summary/Autumn’s compendium” whose significance and conclusion lie in the meaning and promise of four daughters. If Crispin is “a profitless/Philosopher,” if his taste or fancy has led him into despised solipsism, what can it matter, since the exercise came “benignly to its end.” The last line is something of a parting shot, a defense:

“So may the relation of each man be clipped.”

If Crispin is weak, if his conclusions are inconclusive, there are two major questions to ask the poem. One, what is the standard of strength against which Crispin stumbles? Two, if the philosophical matter of the poem is unsatisfactorily concluded, in what does the reader’s certain satisfaction derive?

First, what shadow dwarfs the epic hero? To what is he contrasted in the poem that he appears weak, inadequate? His adversary in the poem is the ding an sich. The sea, which does not reflect his face, is real. The riot of fecundity in the tropics is real. The storm is real. Spring is real. The plum is real. (The sky is blue.) The daughters are real. Upon these simple realities Crispin casts his network of idea. But the realities always tower above his understanding of them. One implication of the irony, then, is that the real resists discovery, is invulnerable to intellectualization. The world exists without imagination. The first point goes to Kant.

But Crispin attempts to bring his mind into accord with the universe. He aspires to objectivity. With persistent purpose, dogged determination, he tracks the real, like Hamlet following the ghost onto the moor, wherever he must so that it speaks to him. But by the standard of objectivity Crispin is found flawed. A second implication of the irony is that the mind cannot attain objectivity. The sea is separate from the mind; and it is larger.

What then is left for man to do? The mind, after all, is his strong suit. Crispin, at least, solves the issue in surrender. The quotidian overtakes him like a vine, and he is at last real in the sense that the sea, the snakes, the plums are. Daughters with curls. The enemy has turned to windmills. The beggar has waked up a king. But Crispin and his narrator are somehow dissatisfied; Stevens is apologetic. The entire thread of the epic is lost. The search for reality or meaning is not won, not lost, but abandoned. Something better turns up. What has Crispin proved? It’s more fun to be an insurance executive than a poet? Is the quotidian the ground of being in the poem? And why does the reader accept this defeat of the mind and the imagination with amusement and delight?

Here is the poet’s answer—his defense and his redemption: The reader is moved with exquisite delight because from the very jaws of defeat the poem itself catches up the matter of the epic and carries it off in triumph. Art is greater than philosophy, Stevens than Crispin. The proof is in the consummate artistry of the poem. The form is impeccable. The dense, “gemmy” assemblage of image and sound and wit is alone more than sufficient cause for celebration of the mind and the imagination. The poem is the poet’s unassailable defense against his own doubt. It incontrovertibly demonstrates that form is the function and the delight of the mind, and that idea is merely its medium.

                                BIBLIOGRAPHY

Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens, The Making of Harmonium.
Princeton, 1967.

Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Norton Anthology Of English Literature. Revised ed. 2 vols. New York, 1968.

Fuchs, Daniel. The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens. Durham, N. C., 1963.

Stevens, Wallace. “The Comedian As the Letter C.” Poems By Wallace Stevens. New York, 1959.


  1. Daniel Fuchs, Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens (Durham, N.C., 1963), p. 35.

  2. For possible sources for some of these words, see Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens, the Making of Harmonium (Princeton, 1967), pp. 197-6.

  3. p. 53.

  4. Buttel, pp. 196-8.