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Wallace Stevens' "The Death of a Soldier"

Updated on May 3, 2020
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Wallace Stevens


Introduction and Text of "The Death of A Soldier"

Likely influenced by the collected letters, Lettres d'un Soldat, of the French painter Eugène Lemercier, who was killed in 1915, Stevens' poem is not, however, a tribute but a futile, desperate, nihilistic tweet that lacks the ring of truth and the appearance of steady heart.

Wallace Steven's poem, "The Death of A Soldier," is displayed in four versagraphs. Each line of each versagraph becomes shorter than the preceding line, which causes the verse to appear uniform on the page.

The visual impact of the display attempts to add a nuance of meaning which descends into the typical modernistic imagination in its nihilistic garb of complaint and innuendo. For the modernist and postmodernist imagination, death is always the ultimate scapegoat for relativistic escapism.

The Death of a Soldier

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

Line by line text of poem with mood music


Wallace Stevens' use of the imagination in poetry reveals the unchartered territory that readers have come to expect from the modernist, nihilistic mindset.

First Versagraph: A General Statement

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

The first versagraph finds the speaker offering a fairly general statement: "Life contracts and death is expected." But the reader immediately is bombarded with a host of questions: how exactly does life contract? does life contract in the same manner that death is expected? does life contract because of death? or merely because death is expected? why is it expected and by whom? who is most focused on such a claim and where does life go after it contracts?

Stevens was a great worshiper of the imagination and thus all these questions suggest a great minefield of imagination. While the potential may be infinite, the reader's imagination within the confines of the poem is quite finite. Thus the speaker offers the notion that the expectation of death resembles the autumn season after a soldier dies.

This speaker will not broach the issue of a soldier's duty or bravery but instead focus on the nihilistic associations he can make about that death. Cowards, knaves, and low-information non-thinkers will all flock to the implications of such wizardry.

Second Versagraph: The Unknown Soldier

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

The speaker, of course, has chosen to make his imaginary culminations focusing on the unknown, uncelebrated soldier who dies without fanfare. He may be on the battlefield but such placement only heralds the inevitable which includes the suggestion that, of course, war is hell, but so is having traipsed off the war in the first place.

It is likely that no one may have known how or even that the soldier died until many decades after the fact. Such a soldier heralds no pomp and circumstance even though he is the majority. And it is also likely that his death imputes no "separation."

The speaker must know he is skating on thin ice here. Regardless of the battlefield of chaotic war, the family of the fallen soldier, even the military units and country for which he fought, will, in fact, honor him. The tomb of the "Unknown Soldier" puts the lie to the implications of this desperate poem. Every war in recorded history has gathered such for the unknown fallen.

Well past "the three days" will this soldier and all the fallen be acknowledged by tributes. Thus this nihilistic dramatization of the unknown hero rings untrue from the outset. Can the speaker recover his integrity from such a misrepresentation?

Third Versagraph: A Blatantly False Claim

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

The speaker has made such a ridiculously false statement that he can only descend into obfuscation now. He has adversely pulled the readers' attention into an unresolvable conflict: soldiers are not celebrated? really? by cowards, knaves, and low-information non-thinkers, and you care about that?

Nevertheless, the speaker cannot give up his smooth discourse, so he offers the flabby notion, "Death is absolute and without memorial." Just because a statement offered with bluster and boldness may sound profound does not make it so.

Thus the speaker must offer some sort of support for his bald claim: a soldier's death is like in autumn when the wind stops. Of course, it is not; the speaker knows it, yet he persists in his lame assertions.

Fourth Versagraph: A Rhetorical Nowhere

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

How does a speaker continue such a discourse without embarrassment or shame? By not acknowledging the futility of his audacity and by continuing in his folly even as he stutters and clips some natural event.

When the tripping speaker cuts and pastes an event from nature such as "The clouds go, nevertheless, / In their direction," the reader can be sure that speaker has nowhere to go rhetorically that would offer any kind of logical compliment to his earlier inane observations.

The speaker both literally and figuratively throws his claim to the wind. But at least he finally inserted a truth: clouds do, in fact, "go in their direction."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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