Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Of Mere Being 是我很喜欢的一首诗。这篇是我英语课的小论文,仅供参考。

Of Mere Being is one of Stevens’s most memorable poems and one of his last, written before entering hospital for surgery in April 1955 (Eleanor Cook).This essay is mainly a personal reading of the poem.

There are mainly two images in the poem: the palm and the phoenix.

In regard of the ubiquity of palm in Stevens’s poems, Harold Bloom mentions that palm is also an image of Sufism: God used a lump of red clay left over after the making of Adam to make a palm tree. Therefore the palm is primal: it’s present even before the advent of human words and meaning. This resonates with the inhuman song of the bird in the second stanza. In addition, the scientific name of date palm is Phoenix dactylifera, and there is an literal connection between palm and the phoenix.

The first stanza opens with: “The palm at the end of the mind”. “End” here may refers to the spatial end of mind, the limit of our thoughts. Or it can be the temporal end of mind at the end of life, as this is the last poem of Stevens. “Bronze decor” in the third line indicates the scene is at sunset, it also reminds one of the grandeurs of bronze sculptures. A palm tree rises in bronze decor, beyond the last thought. We feel the palm’s towering existence, and at the same time wonder what is this place at the mind of mind, what is there beyond the last thought? The transcendental, the imaginal? And by what means can we get there?

“A gold-feathered bird, sings in the palm, without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song”. These three lines strike me with their singular tone. This gold-feathered bird, the phoenix, is a fierce bird that burns itself at death and then rise anew from the ashes. At the end of the mind, it sings an foreign song, which makes it more mystical and solemn, reminding me of William Blake’s “The Tyger”. We also notice a further semblance between the tyger and the bird is that they are both bathed in fire.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Fearful as they are, their symmetry and inhuman songs propels us to question “who made thee, who formed thy symmetry”? That is to say, who is the creator the phoenix? Is it of human nature, as God? Then why is its song inhuman? Or can it be something beyond our comprehension, the mere being that eludes description, that constantly inspires awe and desire? A symbol of beauty, a symbol of the sublime?

After all, whether we understand the inhuman song of the phoenix and their mystical nature or not may actually be of little matter, for the third stanza reads: “You know then that it is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy.” This sentence is rather confusing, and can be interpreted in numerous ways. We could say that the song is not the reason that makes us happen or unhappy. It has no direct influence upon our emotions, but may have influenced us in more profound ways.

I tend to read these two lines in a slightly different way, that what makes us happy or unhappy is not our making meaning of the songs, but the mere being of the song itself, as “The bird sings, its feathers shine”. That is to say, our perception of the bird moves us, yet through a subtle and inexpressible way. We cannot articulate its meaning, yet we can most certainly feel the power of its being, its sublimity.

This reminds me of reading Merleau-Ponty. I remember him saying that the perception of the world is difficult, and that we are often too eager to arrive at the meaning, the essence of things that we run past the appearances, which are thought to be superficial, but are actually very rich and illuminating. His examples are the paintings of Cézanne, and I think great paintings and poems share the same property that they cannot be “tamed”, nor to be reduced to a single meaning. We can feel the full power of their being only when we stay on the surface to explore its intricate topology, to behold the manifold possibilities of interpretation, together with its inherent ambiguities and paradoxes at the same time, instead of securing ourselves with some convenient “meanings”.

The last stanza goes back to the first, in a circular motion. We usually say “The branches move in the wind”, but here “The mind moves slowly in the branches” reverses the order of words and renders the palm’s being more self-sufficient. The last line reads: “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”. It seems a moment and an eternity, as the fire-fangled feathers dangle down in space. “Fire-fangled” comes from combining “fire-fang”(caught by fire) and “new-fangled”(new, but derisory). It creates a double meaning of “burned” and “inclined to take fire”, implying that the phoenix could be dying or rising from birth. One can simultaneously feel a sense of repose and motion here. These are the last words of a master, and a masterpiece by itself.

Now we look back at the title, and we can see that the word “mere”, apart from its common connotation of “simply, just”, can also mean “very, essential”. I think “Of Mere Being” is such a poem that can bring us one step closer to the “Mere Being”, and it’s one of my favourite poems of Stevens.