‘Of Mere Being’ by Wallace Stevens is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, or tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme nor do the lines conform to a specific length. They range from four words to nine. It is thought that this piece was written shortly before Stevens’ death making its meditation on the meaning of life and the origins of the soul all the more poignant.
The two most important images are the “palm” tree and the phoenix. They are the pictures that Stevens places at the end of life and at the end of “the mind.” He crafted, through visions of flaming birds and bronze-backed palm trees a radiant image of the “mere being” of life. The phoenix, most well-known for its ability to burst into flames and be reborn from the ashes, is a poignant representative of the end of life.
It is possible that Stevens presented the reader with this particular bird in order to send one’s mind towards thoughts of the afterlife. It has also be stipulated that the two images are meaningless aside from their pure beauty and “being.” They exist as simple signposts at the end of the mind, bidding hello and goodbye to one’s last thoughts.
Another noteworthy feature of the text is the mood with which the speaker addresses these topics. Seen through another lens the end of life, and even more so, the end of the mind, could be terrifying. In Stevens’ vision it is glorious. The supposed physical causes of happiness and unhappiness fade away to be replaced by the knowledge that they always existed, regardless of circumstance.
Summary of Of Mere Being
The poem begins with the speaker painting a scene beyond one’s living knowledge. It is at the “end of the mind” and holds a palm tree behind which a sun is rising. This glorious scene represents both the end and beginning of life. It is the force from which everything emerges. There is also bird present, a “fire-fangled” phoenix representing rebirth and one’s inherent composition as a combination of every element from conceptualized birth to death.
He goes on to state that happiness and unhappiness are not caused by an “it.” These two parts of life, which seem at points to be so far apart, always exist within the world. They are universal and transcend life and death. The poem concludes with the speaker noting again the images of the palm, bird and the wind. They stand, as sentinels at the end of everything.
Analysis of Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
In the first tercet of ‘Of Mere Being’ the speaker begins by coupling a clear image of a “palm” tree with an unimaginable state, the “end of the mind.” This is something that is impossible to actually comprehend. Through the next lines Stevens paints an emotionally and spiritually charged picture of what base existence might look like.
When one reaches the very end of their days and looks out on their final moments they will see “the last thought” in the distance. It is backed by a palm tree and then further on, “the bronze decor. “ This is likely a reference to a sunset. As mentioned in the introduction, the sun rising on the last thought is not something to mourn but to take joy from. It is contrasted beautifully with the idea that the “last thought” will set alongside the rising sun. A generally uplifting image. These projections are added onto in the second stanza.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
In the next three lines the speaker adds a “gold-feathered bird” into the scene. It is perching in the “palm” where it is “Sings.” The bird does not take notice of the presumed human watcher. It is singing “Without human feeling.” There is no definition to its melody, nothing a human presence could understand using knowledge gained through physical existence. The song comes from elsewhere and is composed of the most basic elements of existence. It is the feeling from which one’s soul is crafted.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The speaker continues on to say that when one looks upon this scene they will be greeted with a number of revelations about life itself. One will come to understand that there is no reason or reasons for happiness or unhappiness. These emotions are not caused by an “it.” Instead, they simple exist. They were always present in life but were interpreted through physical experience rather than inherently lived.
The basic existence of these most crucial aspects of human existence is contrasted with the bird which “sings” and the feathers which “shine.” These elements simply are— without preconception or necessity, as defined by humanity.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
In the last four lines of ‘Of Mere Being’ the speaker concludes his image of the world beyond the “last thought” with three statements. This is the only stanza made up of three lines of such finality. Stevens composed them in this manner to further emphasize the fact that the fundamentals of life do not emerge for or from something. They are what they are.
First, there is the palm tree which stands almost at the end of one’s vision. It is at the “edge of space” or the area one is able to comprehend. It is barely visible. Around the tree there is the wind which “slowly” moves the branches. Then finally, the phoenix whose “fire-fangled” feathers hang down. The phrase “fire-fangled” refers to its ability to exist as fire. It is made up of its own creation and destruction, existing somewhere in between the two.