The fire burns as the novel taught it how…

A great but nearly unknown poem by Wallace Stevens, see below. I’m reminded of its beginning because I was reading Eliot’s Little Gidding, with its (to me) unforgettable description of certain very bright days in mid-winter, which ends with “Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?” The Stevens poem is called “The Novel” and it can be found in his collection, Auroras of Autumn (1950).

The Novel

The crows are flying above the foyer of summer.
The winds batter it. The water curls. The leaves
Return to their original illusion.

The sun stands like a Spaniard as he departs,
Stepping from the foyer of summer into that
Of the past, the rodomontadean emptiness.

Mother was afraid I should freeze in the Parisian hotels.
She had heard of the fate of an Argentine writer.         At night,
He would go to bed, cover himself with blankets –

Protruding from the pile of wool, a hand,
In a black glove, holds a novel by Camus. She begged
That I stay away.             These are the words of Jose….

He is sitting by the fidgets of a fire,
The first red winter, winter-red,
The late, least foyer in a qualm of cold.

How tranquil it was at vividest Varadero,
While the water kept running through the mouth of the speaker,
Saying: Olalla blanca en el blanco,

Lol-lolling the endlessness of poetry.
But here tranquility is what one thinks.
The fire burns as the novel taught it how.

The mirror melts and moulds itself and moves
And catches from nowhere brightly-burning breath.
It blows a glassy brightness on the fire

And makes flame flame and makes it bite the wood
And bite the hard-bite, barking as it bites.
The arrangement of the chairs is so and so,

Not as one would have arranged them for oneself,
But in the style of the novel, its tracing
Of an unfamiliar in the familiar room,

A retrato that is strong because it is like,
A second that grows first, a black unreal
In which a real lies hidden and alive.

Day’s arches are crumbling into the autumn night.
The fire falls a little and the book is done.
The stillness is the stillness of the mind.

Slowly the room grows dark.   It is odd about
That Argentine.      Only the real can be
Unreal today, be hidden and alive.

It is odd, too, how that Argentine is oneself,
Feeling the fear that creeps beneath the wool,
Lies on the breast and pierces into the heart,

Straight from the Arcadian imagination,
Its being beating heavily in the veins,
Its knowledge cold within one as one’s own;

And one trembles to be so understood and, at last,
To understand, as if to know became
The fatality of seeing things too well.


[A note on copyright: if justice prevailed the copyright to this poem, this book, would be expired by now; but US copyright law over the last thirty years has been written, re-written, revised and re-revised by The Disney Co., in order that no copyright of Disney’s — eg, Mickey Mouse — can ever expire. So this poem by the quite-long-dead Wallace Stevens is no doubt copyrighted by someone, somewhere. Likely a corporate entity. Therefore, let it be known: The Novel by Wallace Stevens has been used and reprinted here with great admiration and love, but without a shred of permission.]

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