Below are the first four cantos of a poem that extends by a further 29. Stevens’ rigorous and brilliant poem ponders the nature of reality and the quest of artists to profoundly alter it. “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,” we are told in the first canto, and the refrain “things as they are” echoes like a recurring motif in a piece of music. Stevens was hugely influenced by the work of Modernist artists who flattened and fragmented pictorial space. His blue guitarist is a “shearsman of sorts”.
The Man with the Blue Guitar, Wallace Stevens (1937)
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang if form a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…
So that’s life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.
A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing
And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?
The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in the autumn air,
And that’s life, then: things as they are,
This bussing of the blue guitar.