A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I first came across A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts in a second-hand edition of Wallace Stevens’ selected poems that I bought at university. I do not know much about Stevens. I never studied him and this collection is all I have read of his work. But this poem made such an impression on me.
Some of this is personal. I had a rabbit as a child and the vivid descriptions in the poem make me see him – the way his ears would follow you around without having to move his head, whilst those ever-watchful eyes, belonging to an animal designed to look out for predators, were stuck on the side of his head so he could see the world all around him in 360 degrees. The incredible alertness, the ability to take off at a sixpence. His relationship to the world and how different that was to mine.
When I was a child I used to play a game – a kind of mental game – where I used to imagine myself into another creature’s experience. I remember once sitting imagining myself as a fly that I was watching. I can still see it to this day against the white of a painted door, picking up its legs and rubbing them up and down in the way flies do. Darting jerkily – nervously – across the paint surface. Those unreadable alien domes of eyes.
And I remember the point where the experience switched from just imagining and observing, until it seemed as though I inhabited the consciousness of that creature, look through its eyes, skit about the painted door with those long black fragile legs. And, of course, child as I was, I managed to completely disturb myself thinking about the poor fly, about how we so easily swat them, kill them. How little we consider them.
Later, this idea extended into thinking about consciousness. One day, I remember I suddenly became totally aware of all the consciousnesses in the world – all the experiences, senses, thoughts and other awarenesses out there, of all the other human beings in the world: all the animals, all the insects, every single conscious being. The scale of this thought overwhelmed me. I had a sudden sense of infinite space filled by these consciousnesses and the amount of space that all this thought and feeling took up – and, with it, the inevitable awareness of all the suffering too. Perhaps this is a stage all children go through where their minds one day suddenly become aware of all the other minds thinking, feeling and experiencing the world out there. I was left awed and overwhelmed by the scale of it – by the enormity of all those consciousnesses jostling about in the world – and it also left me fearful and upset. It is a mental “game” that I had to be careful not to play too often any more.
There are two examples in literature that take me back to this – one is Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Total Perspective Vortex in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the Total Perspective Vortex being a unique form of torture designed to blow your mind by showing you just how tiny and insignificant you are in comparison to the vast enormity of the universe – Zaphod came out, ego intact, eating cake)…and A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.
(After all, there is something a bit self-aggrandising and Zaphod Beeblebrox about this rabbit, a certain comedy as it sits there reducing its foe in its mind’s eye to a mere bug in the grass.)
When I first read Stevens’ poem it took me back into that childhood experience. Me, sitting on the lawn in my garden in the sunset, watching my rabbit and opening my mind to another’s consciousness.
This is, perhaps, just a deeply personal reaction from me based on a childhood memory. But what the poem does capture so well is that sense of the mind yawning open to the world – the moment where the eternal world and the internal world meet and become vividly alive through that process of imagining.
The poem itself, at first glance, is quite simple. The poem is about a rabbit, at dusk, and its awareness of the threat of a cat.
To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
I love this idea of “rabbit-light” – of a world where the rabbit grows in power and consciousness.
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
It is a simple poem, easy to read, and yet it captures that sense of a consciousness reaching out and merging with the eternal world – that profoundest of feelings that can wash across us sometimes but are so rarely described in literature.
Its relation to my childhood memories make this a special poem for me and so I had not considered it in symbolic terms.
However, the poem can also be read more symbolically, and the fact that such an apparently simple, straightforward even, poem can hold a number of interpretations in so few lines is another mark of there just being something about it…
One interpretation I read suggested that the rabbit represents poetry itself – poetry that comes out at night and inhabits that strange half-world that exists between day and night.
It is certainly a plausible explanation.
But, I’m not totally sure about this. Why would you choose the rabbit as a symbol for poetry – not an obvious choice, surely?
It strikes me that the rabbit is a very curious and unusual creature to be at the centre of a poem. Not a particularly glamorous or brave or exotic animal, the rabbit is a humble beast – timid, not venturing far from its burrow, and ever-fearful of predators.
Why the rabbit?
Considered now to be one of the great twentieth century American poets, Stevens – like that other great modernist poet, TS Eliot – did not lead the most exciting life. Just as Eliot famously worked as a bank clerk for many years, so Stevens worked in an insurance office. He published his first collection of poetry in his forties and found fame relatively late in life. Staying with the day job until his death, he used to write poetry in the evenings.
Much of the charm of this poem lies in the idea of such a modest ordinary creature – the rabbit – becoming so elevated – magnificent, a “king of the ghosts”– and diminishing the normally-powerful cat* through an act of imagining in the dusk of the evening.
It is tempting to wonder if, rather than representing poetry, the rabbit might not be Stevens himself. Not the most exciting creature in ordinary life, perhaps – neither glamorous nor a risk-taker as he plods off to the insurance office every morning. Stevens was no Byron or Shelley. But, by night, everything changes and a creature who may be timid and ordinary by day becomes a king of the dusk – through the power of imagination and consciousness and by opening his mind to that other, powerful way of thinking that merges his consciousness with the rest of the natural world, through the act of writing poetry.
Stevens famously said in a book of essays,”The Necessary Angel,”: ” imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.”
I like the idea that this poem – a poem I find deeply charming for the vivid imagery that so perfectly captures the physicality of a creature I used to know as a child; that moves me through its evocation of a childhood “game” I used to play – could also contain a warmth and humanity and playfulness in its view of the ordinariness of adult life and the transformative power of art and imagination on that life.
A humble poem, that may not look like it is about much at first glance, A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts shows that the humblest soul can touch infinity through an act of imagining.
Even if you are just a rabbit.
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