Imagining Away the Imagination: Wallace Stevens’ “The Plain Sense of Things”

Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Plain Sense of Things” is an exploration of the relationship between imagination and reality. The poem depicts reality’s victory over imagination, after a gradual smothering of all creativity and originality. However, after witnessing the speaker’s gradual descent into dull reality, we share in his sudden recognition that the struggle between imagination and reality is itself imagined, thus demonstrating the coexistence of the two entities. The dreaded process resulting in the “end of the imagination,” which the speaker so fervently resists in the poem’s first and second stanzas, proves nothing more than a figment of the imagination!

The speaker’s troubles begin with a rather dreary picture of winter and a sense of reaching “an end of the imagination.” The sense described in the poem is cyclical, coming once “the leaves have fallen,” and it is apparently something the speaker has dealt with before, because he talks about the “return” of such a feeling. The stanza’s final line includes repetition of the “in” sound, which serves to emphasize the lack of newness and originality: “Inanimate in an inert savoir.” It is as if the imagination is frozen in the winter weather, unable to move from the restrictive “in” prefix. The stanza’s last word, “savoir,” meaning “to know” in French, not only highlights the speaker’s own awareness—“knowledge”– of his deterioration, but represents a last ditch effort to sustain originality.

Unfortunately though, the effort is futile, since the second stanza begins with the speaker at a loss for words, unable to “choose the adjective” he needs to describe his feeling. It seems the dreaded “plain sense of things” has nearly triumphed; its reductive powers have left the once eloquent speaker with an utter “blank.” His imaginative abilities rapidly deteriorating, the speaker thus proceeds to make simple observations to demonstrate his point: “The great structure has become a minor house” expresses the extreme decline of his imaginative faculties and the inferior perspective he now has of his surroundings. Once again grasping for something original, the speaker notes, “No turban walks across the lessened floors,” an interesting image that demonstrates the lack of anything unconventional or exotic. At this point, despite the speaker’s resistance, the process of reality is complete.

With imagination supposedly gone, the third stanza begins with more concrete descriptions of a greenhouse in need of paint, and a crooked chimney. The speaker no longer endeavors to verbalize his feelings, but resorts to more basic observations of his surroundings. Nevertheless, the speaker cannot completely neglect his feelings; he recognizes his loss of imagination, saying, “A fantastic effort has failed…” His struggle having come to an end, he now considers himself nothing more than “a repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies.” Like the predictability of men’s actions– or even those of simple insects — the speaker now feels completely hopeless and ineffectual. Imagination is what separates individuals and makes them unique; on the outside, our actions are often quite similar. Thus, having failed to cling to imagination, the speaker must cope with the monotony of uninspiring reality.

The fourth stanza begins with an epiphany- the speaker realizes “…the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined.” A rush of visual descriptions follows, with the speaker now viewing his wintry surroundings from a fresh perspective. The “great pond, / The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves…” is now “expressing silence,” as opposed to being smothered and overtaken by it. The fourth stanza cannot even contain the wealth of descriptions produced by the speaker’s newly reclaimed imagination; as a result, the imagery overflows into the fifth stanza, with seemingly negative observations such as the “silence of a rat” and the pond’s “waste of the lilies.” However, unlike the gaping “blank” of the second stanza, these images are connected with the insuppressible, “inevitable knowledge” of the imagination; their supposed negativity is only further attestation to the presence of creativity. There is no need to embellish “knowledge” as in “savoir” of the first stanza; it is now accepted as is, appreciated as an integral part of the imaginative process. The knowledge, the reality the speaker once viewed as an enemy to imagination, is now understood as being “Required, as a necessity requires.” The mind is always at work, even when it is producing seemingly pointless feelings of the “end of the imagination.” At last, the speaker has recognized the harmonious relationship between imagination and reality– their dependency on one another rather than their opposition.

Despite the reader’s initial impression of experiencing the struggle between imagination and reality alongside the speaker, the action of this poem seems to have taken place in the past. The poem’s third line is in the past tense, beginning “We had come to an end…” as though the speaker is remembering not only his experience, but also something he has shared with others. Fortunately, just as winter comes and goes, the unpleasant feeling presumably fades away. Likewise, a careful reading of the title proves quite revealing: “The Plain Sense of Things”; the “sadness without cause” is itself a sense, a feeling, and proof of the constant presence of imagination. Thus, the title provides the answer to the problem before the action of the poem even begins, making it clear the speaker was not having such thoughts at the time the poem was created, but was instead reflecting on his past experience.

“The Plain Sense of Things” has proven to be far more than a plain poem. Not only does it explore a unique topic, but the very movement of its stanzas is instrumental in mimicking the process it describes, from the speaker’s resistance to the undeniable effects of the “plain sense of things,” to the obvious deterioration of his speech, to his gloomy descriptions of the surrounding “reality,” and to his eventual realization that imagination has persisted all along. Wallace Stevens succeeded in producing an original, intelligent examination of the mind, with corresponding content and form, as well as a hopeful conclusion.

The Plain Sense of Things

By Wallace Stevens, from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.