Mapping the Themes of Wallace Stevens' The Palm at the end of the Mind

Mapping the themes of Wallace Stevens’ poetry is an incredibly difficult undertaking. The inaccessibility of his work makes identifying the themes a challenge. One theme that seems to be prevalent in the selections of The Palm at the End of the Mind is the chaos of nature and, in turn, the chaos of the human mind.

“Domination of Black” fairly drips with the chaos of nature. Only one-third of the lines use end punctuation. Stevens loaded the verse with commas and enjambed lines, which leads to a rather chaotic reading of the poem. Lines 19-27 in particular are read in one, staggered breath. The repetition of the word turning creates a visceral reaction similar to the dizziness felt when one turns too quickly. This repetition also lends a chaotic rhythm to the verse, forcing the reader to speed up in order to get through this section of the verse before taking a breath.

The repeated words cry, wind, and fire, are all symbolic of forms of chaos in man and nature. Humans who cry are connecting to the darkest parts of themselves, allowing all formality and propriety to fall away, turning their ordered world into chaos. Wind and fire by nature are chaotic creations. The wind is wild and untamable in the same way as fire; neither can be controlled by the needs or desires of man, but must be contended with in their own chaotic courses.

“Of Mere Being” speaks more directly to the chaos found within the human mind. The first five lines of the twelve line poem have no end punctuation, again forcing the reader to use but one breath for a long stream of consciousness. The first two lines, “The palm at the end of the mind,/ Beyond the last thought,” create a powerful image of the space beyond rational thought and what may lie there. The rest of the verse offers that a tiny part of that universe ahead of rational thought, represented by the gold-feathered bird, is “without human meaning” and “without human feeling,” as if any thoughts past the rational are guided by an outside force and not within the control of the human mind.

While Wallace Stevens’ works are heavy on chaos, they also offer profound insights into the connection between the chaos in nature and the chaos of man.

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