Most days, I don’t read the poem that comes in The Writer’s Almanac email. Simple reason: It feels like a commitment to engage with the poem, to take it seriously, to hear what it has to say. There may be other reasons I’m pushing down, but that’s the main feeling. But I read the poem for yesterday, December 1. It’s “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard,” by Wallace Stevens:
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…
It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.
For all I know, this is a poem with which every American lit major grapples. But that one phrase — “douce campagna” — throws me. Even though I feel like I’ve got the drift of the thing, that phrase cames at an important point. What does it mean? This is where I could use one of those humongous college anthologies on ultrathin paper with the footnotes telling you the meaning of all the words longer than a syllable. But being mostly monolingual, I have to guess. “Campagna” is Italian for country or countryside, I think; douce is close to dolce, which is sweet. So: “Sweet country of that thing”? OK, I’ll make do with that. But if anyone wants to help me out here, or point to some explication of “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard,” your correspondent would be much obliged.