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On “The Motive for Metaphor”

“The Motive for Metaphor” was the third poem in Stevens’s 1947 book.


The Motive for Metaphor

You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.

In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter-things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon—

The obscure moon lighting and obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being,

The ruddy temper, the hammer
Of red and blue, the hard sound—
Steel against intimation—the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.


I’m attracted to this poem because it begins so peacefully with a first line of wonder–but that first line is immediately shot down with the thumping seven-syllable second ending in “dead.” And what seemed to be pastoral, bucolic and peaceful ends in the violence of the “dominant X.” The ride is a lot like life. The motive for such movements? A perfect metaphor for life.

There is an intimation with the third stanza that the seasons cue human behavior, that we (or the speaker of the poem) don’t go as far as we can–motives are questioned. But if nature demonstrates obscurity in spring, the speaker of the poem seems to endorse this with metaphors to match: “the melting clouds,” “the obscure moon.”

Within the great shifts of this poem there is an even greater one–after the first line of the fourth stanza where Stevens places a colon before seemingly starting to define the motive for metaphor. He shrinks from all these things: the sun, the hammer, the fatal X which seems to imply his “dominant” self that he can’t escape and so finally the poet can’t make the poetry. Can the motive for metaphor survive him? As Vendler says, “…the poem implies that the new self-knowledge that it implicitly recommends will be the last possible phase, the fatal phase, and therefore the end of poetry.” (p.25 Words Chosen Out of Desire)

Let’s look at that last line: “The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.” Twelve syllables long: 1 2 3 2 3 1, in terms of the words and between the one syllable words at the beginning and end are a repeating sequence of two words that have the same end rhymes. There is an anger in these beats of sound–the rage at being stuck in the systematic. We often are “desiring the exhilarations of changes,” but within that desire is a wish to hearken back to the simple. But change is not simple. Is this why we can get stuck in metaphors? In the shadows on the wall and sometimes the shadows of the shadows?

In Stevens all the opposites and endings are rushing to the middle at once. His poetry is like a sonic boom, it’s like riding the eye of hurricane watching everything around get subsumed and destroyed. It’s like a dare to be all we can, before the end.

5 thoughts on “On “The Motive for Metaphor”

  1. What a wonderful close reading, alive to the sonics, & to the way great work always goes in your face. Kudos, Greg.

  2. Hmm. If I were to quibble, I’d point out that this is one of the pieces in which Stevens risks mere cleverness. Doesn’t it stumble close to sophistry, posing a sophisticated Q.E.D. that, in considering how we seek meaning in change, proves that meaning forever eludes us?

    To borrow a Sunday metaphor — doesn’t this one need more orange rinds?

    1. I suppose it might John, but the childlike “A B C of being” line rescues it from the sulfurous pits of sophistry for me. The ‘hammer of red and blue’ too. It’s like an encounter with an arch-druid or a meander with a Zen master – I’ve been around Tich Nhat Hanh, and it is like being around a child. Little bothers, little is left to tell – I guess poets and writers cloak the bother in words, whereas the masters just wear cloaks.

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