The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad

The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know:
I am too dumbly in my being pent.

The wind attendant on the solstices
Blows on the shutters of the metropoles,
Stirring no poet in his sleep, and tolls
The grand ideas of the villages.

The malady of the quotidian . . .
Perhaps if summer ever came to rest
And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed
Through days like oceans in obsidian

Horizons, full of night's midsummer blaze;
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate
Through all its purples to the final slate,
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze;

One might in turn become less diffident,
Out of such mildew plucking neater mould
And spouting new orations of the cold.
One might. One might. But time will not relent.

by Wallace Stevens

Comments (1)

A pharynx is the muscular and membranous cavity of the alimentary canal leading from the mouth and nasal passages to the larynx and esophagus. It is considered part of the digestive system, but is also important in vocalization. Swallowing and speaking. Absorption of food and expression of thought. This is an early version of the poem, first published in The New Republic,1921. When Stevens included it in Harmonium in 1931 he deleted lines 10 through 13. The omission was intentional. “Dumbly” refers to an inability to speak (hence the bad pharynx) , but could also mean a lack of intellect. Being pent is being closely confined. A metropole is a large city. A quotidian is anything that occurs daily; a routine; it can also refer to a fever whose paroxysms (or sudden attacks) recur daily. Obsidian is a dark, hard, glassy volcanic rock. Diffident, of course, is modest, shy, or reserved. Note first the rhyme scheme, abba. Mostly iambic pentameter. “The time of year has grown indifferent, ” but so has the poet-narrator. He feels confined, pent-up, trapped. And, as is true with all confinements, this one works both ways: keeping the outside world out, keeping in what is inside. He is trapped in a routine that has made him mute. (Entirely understandable for an insurance executive.) I like the line, “The wind attendant on the solstices.” The solstice—the demarcation between the seasons—brings wind, and more importantly, change. However, the poet-narrator is behind shutters, and cannot feel those winds. He continues to suffer from the disease of routine. Curiously, though, in this early version of the poem, Stevens calls for an elongation of summer—an extension of a comfortable routine—as the possible cure for his malady. In this context I find it interesting that this entire section was later deleted. Can more routine cure the disease of routine? Stevens once thought so, but changed his mind. Instead, Stevens keeps the idea of an extension of winter—a continuation of cold and perhaps suffering—as the other possible cure. “Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate /Through all its purples to the final slate, /Persisting bleakly in an icy haze; //One might in turn become less diffident…” Winter’s chill might, perhaps, kill the comfortable mildew and confining boredom of summer, to allow the poet-narrator at last to perceive a differentiation in the seasons. (Cf., The Snow Man, “One must have a mind of winter…”) But (with Stevens there is always a “but”) time will not relent. Winter is not long enough; it is cut short by summer, by that comfortable mildew that encroaches upon the cold. Nice reversal. Summer is to be avoided; winter is to be embraced.