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Wallace Stevens’s ‘Photo-Poetics’: A Short Introduction to Modernism and Photosynthesis

Jasmine McCrory (Queen’s University Belfast)

In an 1899 journal entry, Wallace Stevens considered the value of ‘art for art’s sake’:

Art for art’s sake is both indiscreet and worthless. It opposes the common run of things by simply existing alone and for its own sake, because the common run of things are all parts of a system […]. Take therefore a few specific examples, such as the sun which is certainly beautiful and mighty enough to withstand the trivial adjective artistic. But its beauty is incidental […] the real use of [a star’s] beauty (which is not their excuse) is that it is a service, a food.[1] 

For Stevens, art without moral value is worthless. Existing in an aesthetic vacuum, ‘art for art’s sake’ does not play its part in the system of the world as it offers nothing of cognitive value for the observer. It teaches no lessons on how we should operate as individuals in the world, it gives us no food for thought.

         Stevens’s use of the word food in connection with the sun is worth consideration. As an allegory for how art should operate in society, Stevens uses the biological process of photosynthesis whereby plants use sunlight to make starch. This choice may seem peculiar – when we consider the modernist’s engagement with science we think of Darwin, Freud or Einstein, and certainly not the London zoologist E. Ray Lankester. Yet, Lankester’s discovery of photosynthetic bacteria in 1873 had profound implications for the fields of botany, biology and chemistry. The modernist generation witnessed a rapid progression in botanical knowledge, with observations of plant-starch production being first recorded in 1884, to the term ‘photosynthesis’ coming into common use and appearing in periodicals such as The Botanical Gazette by 1894.[2] The American modernists had the particular advantage of a horticultural education; the late 1880s saw the establishment of the ‘American School Gardening Movement’, a direct consequence of the efforts of progressive educators to integrate school and society. A 1915 syllabus included lessons on soil science, fertilisation, plant propagation and photosynthesis, all lessons designed to be interdisciplinary and aid students with their spelling, arithmetic, geography and history in the garden setting.[3]

         It is likely, then, that Stevens had knowledge of the science behind photosynthesis. Indeed, the geography textbook used by Reading Boy’s Highschool during Stevens’s enrolled years contains a whole page dedicated to the plant’s ability to ‘make food for human consumption’ (known as ‘assimilation’ during Stevens’s youth). Stevens’s journals and poetry certainly betray a comprehensive understanding of the science, along with an avid interest in how the relationship between plants and the sun can act as a tangible symbol for the relationship between reality and the imagination. Our opening journal entry from Stevens becomes clear: the artist must place a moral message within his artwork that is fit for cognitive consumption, in much the same was that the sun provides food for plants that will in turn feed humans.

         With this in mind, we must now turn our attention to the opening of Stevens’s Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction and section one of ‘It Must Be Abstract’:

                   Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea

Of this invention, this invented world,

The inconceivable idea of the sun […]

Never suppose an inventing mind as source

Of this idea nor for that mind compose

A voluminous master folded in his fire […]

The death of one god is the death of all.

Let purple Phoebus lie in umber harvest,

Let Phoebus slumber and die in autumn umber,

Phoebus is dead, ephebe. But Phoebus was

A name for something that never could be named.

There was a project for the sun and is. [4]

Stevens’s inclusion of the character of ‘Phoebus’ is intriguing. Various interpretations of ‘Phoebus’ have been outlined by critics, most notably by Eleanor Cook who argues for the presence of ‘Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun among the Olympian gods’.[5] Or, Stevens’s sun is used as a symbol of Christ in Christian iconography, argues Cook, with a Son-sun pun in English-language writing. [6]

Yet, these critical interpretations are subject to change when we read this poem through an eco-historical framework. It is likely that ‘phoebus’ may hold another implicit meaning; phoebus, as noted in John Lindley’s 1846 The Vegetable Kingdom, can also refer to lichen.[7] Such a reading is supported by the prefatory word ‘purple’, as purple lichens were famous in Europe in the 15th through 17th centuries for the magnificent purple dye they gave, often used to colour the clothes of royalty. Importantly, the first photosynthetic bacteria found in enrichment cultures, associated with the decay of organic matters like lichens, were observed to be purple by Theodor W. Engelmann in 1883.[8] If phoebus lies in ‘umber harvest’, this could then equally refer to both the sun being present in the harvest through photosynthesis, or, more probably, lichens growing in the ‘umber’, translatable to a dark brown soil or biological soil crust. Indeed, at the bottom of the feeding food chain, lichens are often cited as a primary producer, passing the photosynthetic energy from plants to every consequent member of the food chain. Thus, ‘the death of one god is the death of us all’, and this is the ‘difficulty of what it is to be’. Much like we as readers gain energy from the starch in plants, so too does Stevens’s poetry give us creative energy in urging us to create ‘the supreme fiction’. The ‘project for the sun’ is two-fold; at once the sun’s beauty is a source of creative energy and a source of bodily sustenance. We could not survive, argues Stevens, were it not for both.


[1] Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens (California: University of California Press, 1966), p. 24.

[2] J.T. Beatty et al., Discoveries in Photosynthesis (The Netherlands: Springer, 2005), pp. 39 – 105.

[3] ‘School Gardens’, Nature Study Review 1.1 (January 1905), pp. 28 – 29 (p. 29).

[4] Wallace Stevens, ‘It Must Be Abstract’, The Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), I: 1–21.

[5] Eleanor Cook, The Wallace Stevens Reader (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 184.

[6] Cook, p.184.

[7] John Lindley, The Vegetable Kingdom; or, The Structure, Classification, and Uses of Plants, (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1846), p. 33.

[8] J. T. Beatty et al., p. 52.


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