So this is an explication I wrote for my class, but I think it does a good job of showing how one can look at a poem, and get something out of it. Plus I haven’t written anything else lately…

The Striding of Night

As I began to wonder what poem to explicate, what poem to dissect, to interpret, and to incorporate into myself, I began recalling the poems of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and Galway Kinnell. There were a number that came to mind – poems that had confused me, poems that had enlightened me, poems that had shown me new plains of imagination and creativity – but one stood out for its immediacy of language and thought, which created a visceral, disorienting confusion as I read. Wallace Stevens’ “Domination of Black” is a free form, somewhat ambiguous sort of short poetic narrative illustrating the speaker’s rushing thoughts. For me, the lines and stanzas flowed together so well that I can’t remember anything about the first time I read the poem, other than finding thoughts of it lingering with me for the days following, regardless of the text’s presence. This lasting contemplation inspired by an immediate, nearly tactile poem intrigued me so much that there was no other choice but to examine it. Since the sensory aspect of the poem is what (initially) leaves the lasting sensation, and serves as the reasoning for my most convincing interpretation, we will begin by looking at each stanza, then investigate Stevens’ methods and techniques in how they create such strong sensation:

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

With the first sentence, enjambed into seven lines with no more than five words and seven syllables each, Stevens has placed us in a fire lit room, as the speaker regards the flickering of flames, which remind him of the colors of the leaves swirling outside. But it’s more than that, by giving such vivid imagery of the fire and its colors, we are allowed to see the motion of the fire, until that image is overwhelmed by its own metaphor, bringing us outside into the wind and leaves. Already there is a sensation of uncertainty; there are no constants at night by this fire. The image of swirling wind and leaves creates the lasting feeling of that sound swirling around the speaker and his audience. Just as we begin to get a bearing on the location, however, the speaker tells us, “Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlock / Came striding.” Stevens uses this line to both break the rhythm of the line, and to develop a new recurring image. The colon implies a strong verbal stop, strengthening the rhetorical tone established by the words yes and but, and disguises slightly the fact that the line contains eleven syllables (disregarding the “yes” one finds the line is iambic pentameter). By ending the longest line of the stanza with “heavy hemlocks”, Stevens places an alliterative weight on the line, further slowing it down, and allowing “Came striding” to stand on its own, which imparts a deliberate motion and gravity to the hemlocks. This striding of the hemlocks leads the speaker to a memory of the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry––the peacocks.

Cutting this stanza off nearly halfway, we see a similar form to the first, with short, enjambed lines forming three sentences and linking several thoughts by twisting them together. Once again, we start with colors, which again turn like leaves in the wind. This frenetic movement amongst the peacock’s tails suggests a state of great agitation, especially since this memory started with the cry of the peacocks. That the wind is a twilight wind reinforces this stanza’s status as a memory – from before the night – but then the speaker returns to the room, although the sweeping of the tails’ colors can represent both the peacocks of the memory flying from the boughs of the hemlocks and how the memory is sweeping over the speaker in the present of the first stanza. Once again, the hemlocks fall at the end of a long line, this time with ten syllables (iambic pentameter), followed by a short line (this time with one more syllable than “Came striding”). And again we shift from the hemlocks to the peacocks crying:

Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Now the speaker conjectures as to what the peacocks cried for, returning us to the past with the twilight, then to the hemlocks and the leaves. From the leaves we begin five lines in a row with either “turning” or “turned”, which compresses all of the objects from the earlier lines into one great mélange, aided by all the /f/ sounds of flames and fire. This churning mélange collectively becomes loud as (not louder than) the hemlocks, who themselves are full of the cry of the peacocks. The cry against the twilight and the cry against the leaves seem equal as they are part of the same question, but separated from the last line asking if the cry may have been against the hemlocks, which seems to carry a different meaning. This half of the stanza takes a decidedly different form from the first half and first stanza, which places a special importance of these two questions. The inversion at the end of the stanza of the peacocks and the hemlocks (before the hemlocks led to the peacocks, but now the peacocks lead to the hemlocks) begins the final stanza, which transitions from the memory toward the “present” of the first stanza:

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks.
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

This stanza returns to the form of the first, and the first half of the second stanza, with a string of short lines followed by a long line (which, minus the use of “Came striding”, again contains iambic pentameter), then a short line, then a memory of the cry of the peacocks. The speaker looks out the window, and watches the planets gather like leaves on some celestial wind, and sees night coming. Night does not merely come, however, it comes “striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks.” The use of “Came striding” places us back into the first stanza, as if the speaker was doomed to continually remember the cry of the peacocks.  The reuse of “heavy hemlocks” at the end of the line further cements this suspicion, and again adds a slowing force to the line, which gives the next line extra gravity: “I felt afraid.” And the reader likely doesn’t even have to read the last line, because he has already remembered the cry of the peacocks.

While effective, this cyclical process of churning colors and peacocks crying is still quite ambiguous, and leads to many possible interpretations of the poem. It’s possible that it may simply be literal, and the speaker is haunted by the cries of peacocks that were perhaps upset by the twilight and the approaching, literal night, or perhaps by the wind blowing and turning leaves, or the sounds of the hemlocks themselves. Certainly the tense of the poem (entirely in the past tense) would make it seem that the speaker is still with us, and communicating the story directly. But I feel that the speaker’s fear is too great for the simple cries of peacocks lamenting the waning day and rustling hemlocks, and the racing, highly enjambed form of the poem implies to me a man’s racing thoughts, desperately trying to control his memories so he can come to peace with the looming night.

In my first reading I noted the heavy (literally!) emphasis on the hemlocks, which made me recall the ancient Greek death penalty of drinking hemlock. Then the story of Socrates’ death came to my mind. Socrates was called the Corruptor of Youth, and he was forced to either drink hemlock or go into exile from Athens. To the great dismay of his many followers, the old man in his twilight decided to drink hemlock. For me the peacocks represent Socrates’ followers, whose indefinite cry can be seen as their disagreement with his accusers, his sentence, and his decision. I remember the famous painting “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David, which shows Socrates unrepentant about his choice, as he argued that no philosopher should fear death, and his many followers, wearing red, orange, green, yellow and blue, overcome with woe as darkness begins to creep from the corners of the image across the room. The gravity of the turning leaves and colors now could make sense as the poison may have been mixed before him, and it took slow effect. Socrates had to drink the poison and then walk around until his legs were numb, when he would lie down and let the numbness, the final dark – his night – slowly sweep over him. One can imagine Socrates suppressing his fear in the twilight, contemplating his defiance of the turning winds only to succumb to the colors of the fallen leaves repeating themselves, as he watches the planets gather in mourning while the night and the color of the heavy hemlocks stride over him, suddenly overcome with the fear and disorientation of death. And he remembers the cry of the peacocks.


About andrewwhiting

A sentimental and sarcastic poet, lover of language, traveling and nature (not a fan of the Oxford comma).
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