Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
This was, for a long time, my favourite poem. In fact, I chose the final three lines as my Leavers’ Yearbook quotation, because I felt they poignantly reflected my time at school and what I learnt.
The poem is, to an extent, an exercise in the philosophy of subjective idealism, the idea that the world around us is created by our own minds. Thus, Stevens says that he was “the compass of that sea” – he was at the centre of the wide world around him. His mind created the “golden ointment” on his beard and his “ears made the blowing hymns they heard.”
These ideas of a subjective world are synonymous with the philosophies expressed in Stevens’s essays and poetry. In his collection of essays The Necessary Angel Stevens wrote: “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.” Likewise, in his poem “The Dove in the Belly” Stevens explains that “All of appearance is a toy” and questions how our emotions can influence how we view the world around us.
I recently noticed that a number of my favourite lines in poetry reflected these solipsistic ideas. In her poem “Apprehensions”, Plath desperately questions “Is there no way out of the mind?” and in Book 1 of Paradise Lost Satan exclaims: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” And really, I think these poets are right: it’s not necessarily always the case that what we see and experience affects our feelings; rather, our feelings often affect what we see and experience.
I think it’s also the exotic language that draws me to this poem. His use of inversion (“Not less was I myself…” and “Out of my mind…”) brings not only a cadence to the verse, but also a sense of outlandish mystery, reflecting this idea of individualism expressed in the final line: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” The images of purple robes (a symbol of royalty), golden ointment, and blowing hymns again suggest a distant and perhaps ancient world, encouraging our interest.
And finally, we must reflect upon Stevens’s use of the word “you”. Who is this person who has been talking about “the loneliest air”? Well, many have suggested that it is some philosopher, Freud or Nietzsche, but perhaps the most likely candidate for the addressee of the poem is “Hoon”, whoever he might be –this ambiguity again adds to our intrigue.
Overall, I think Stevens is reflecting on two things. Firstly, he is reflecting upon the philosophies aforementioned and the way our inner world affects the world around us. And secondly, he is suggesting that, despite the splendour and luxury of his attire at the palace, he is still himself. Indeed, his experiences of this grandeur revealed to him a new aspect of his personality, an aspect that is both true and strange.