Having consoled myself in damp pubs in London, creaked across frozen lakes in the deep freeze of Minnesota, and coughed my way through Philadelphian afternoons that could never decide between rain or sleet, I can tell you: there are many different kinds of cold. It’s something Wallace Stevens knew well. His poem, “The Snow Man,” is probably the most famous winter poem in modern poetry, laying before us a “distant glitter” and, within it, the full presence of winter’s unique nothingness. It’s a philosophically acute poem, five even tercets laid on the “same bare place” of Stevens’s singular thought. Many believe it captures winter in its absolute essence.
But Stevens wrote about winter in many exceptional poems. Today I want to talk about a quite different winter piece (really a seasonal/climate comparison), the opening poem of Ideas of Order, “Farewell to Florida.” It is far more expansive; it eschews austerity for something richer. It’s Stevens in a more playful mode, five sections of ten-line stanzas with a relatively straightforward conceit: leaving Key West and heading back to a wintry north.
Farewell to Florida
Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,
The snake has left its skin upon the floor.
Key West sank downward under massive clouds
And silvers and greens spread over the sea. The moon
Is at the mast-head and the past is dead.
Her mind will never speak to me again.
I am free. High above the mast the moon
Rides clear of her mind and the waves make a refrain
Of this: that the snake has shed its skin upon
The floor. Go on through the darkness. The waves fly back
Her mind had bound me round. The palms were hot
As if I lived in ashen ground, as if
The leaves in which the wind kept up its sound
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South,
Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea,
Her home, not mine, in the ever-freshened Keys,
Her days, her oceanic nights, calling
For music, for whisperings from the reefs.
How content I shall be in the North to which I sail
And to feel sure and to forget the bleaching sand …
I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees likes bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once … Farewell. Go on, high ship.
My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on.
For those of us in the north, I hope we can use the space of this poem as a little vacation. Maybe we could sip some rum in the still shade of a palm tree or glide on a slim boat through the mangroves. Doesn’t it all sound lovely? The thing is, with this poem—what really gets me—is how Stevens turns these halcyon dreams upside down. He actually shuns paradise in favor of the urban north. More important is how he goes about doing it—through a kind of structuralist pranksterism, manipulations of tone and symbol that layer seasonal ambivalences in complex and very human ways.
He gets right to the symbol making: “the snake has left its skin upon the floor.” It’s a classic warning sign of a villain afoot (forgive the pun). But then he just kind of leaves it there (don’t worry, you and I will return to it), backing up and giving us the kind of elementally imagistic pan for which he is the master: “Key West sank downward under massive clouds / And silvers and greens spread over the sea.” This poem is all about symbolic paradox, a balancing of elements that exist in constant tension: Key West is a place at once of sublime, almost neon vibrancy, of a “coraline sea” and “whispering from the reefs,” yet it is also a place of absolute stasis, a sunken, ossified, dead existence. The South is “sepulchral,” the ground is “ashen,” and the sand is “bleaching.”
Perhaps this tension is best captured in this tight little thicket of lines: “I hated the vivid blooms / Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones, / The trees like bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.” Here we get “bones” twice in insistent proximity, and “hate”—well, “hate” is a strong word, isn’t it? And did you see when he said “the past is dead?” You get what I’m driving at? He’s being melodramatic. This is exacerbated if we look really closely at the sonics, the way the “l” and open vowel sounds (“u,” “o,” and “a”) tangle over each other—like choking vines—in trochaic clauses like “curled over the shadowless hut.” Compare that to the self-satisfied sense of freedom in the iambic opening with its energetic, high “i” sounds: “Go on, high ship, since now,” which gets reinforced by that muscular spondee to close that section, in which the waves “fly back”—all mimicking the bouncing and charging motion of a ship at good speed.
Stevens is heavy-handed with this execution, and therefore we have to cry: irony! He can’t be serious. What we start to see is a kind of tonal layering, an inability on the part of the speaker to see what we, as readers, can clearly see—the old “My Last Duchess” trick of tone. Because what relief, exactly, is Stevens is sailing toward? This: “My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime / Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.”
This cold is different than that of the “junipers shagged with ice” in “The Snow Man” (which describes a kind of crystalline perfection of winter). Here the cold is mucilaginous and slithering, Stevens threading it with this sense of threat that one will be absorbed (“bound round”) by the crowd, “the men” moving in sluggish unison, thinking with their one, collective, winter mind. But there is actually movement here, and we can see it especially strongly in Stevens’s simile comparing the crowd to the movement of the water against his ship: “This darkened water cloven by sullen swells / Against your sides, then shoving and slithering, / The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.” There is an insidious quality to the way Stevens describes his journey: the “shoving and slithering” and “turbulent with foam” qualities are pervasive, describing both people and landscape—the two become inseparable, as though landscape and climate transform a person, make of them a mere fixture of its own theme. And we watch as Stevens rides right into that theme.
This technique of echoing description, painting multiple subjects with the same qualities, is really the organizing principle of the poem as a whole. If we go back to the crowd scene we see it at work again, this time scaled out, yoking Key West to the wintry north: “a wintry slime / Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.” We get “slime” repeated in close proximity as well as the nearly homophonic repetition of “clouds”/”crowds.” This maneuver and the rhythm it evokes is strikingly similar to the “rust and bones, / The trees like bones” line we discussed earlier—the construction is almost like a prefabbed syntax that he can just plug in wherever. And the slimy, slithering north—where else have words like that been hinted at? The snake! If in Key West we saw the warning sign of the snake, it is in the north that we find the snake itself.
Which is a surprising conclusion for that symbol to reach because the speaker is trying precisely to flee this snake, to avoid encountering it. This is a poem about escape, but there is one thing the speaker can’t escape: himself. It’s what makes his melodramatic complaint so ironic. We are left thinking that he doesn’t quite see it, as he charges forward: “go on, high ship, go on, plunge on”—emphasis most definitely mine. The freedom at which he directs his lyric supplication is a ruse. He is trapped, buried (“plunged”) in his own ways, his own habits of perception, even as he seems to raise up diametrically opposite subjects in his poetic analysis.
It’s this sophisticated ambivalence that makes “Farewell to Florida” such an accomplished poem, the way it uses winter and seasonality more generally to explore our neurosis and our affective relationships with our environments. It’s not a cheery poem, to be sure, but to me it has immense value as a real showcase of Stevens’s subtle talents and a fine example of a complex winter poem that has more to say than nothing at all.
Image courtesy of Joe Parks.