A Tune Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves: A Note on Realism and Anti-realism in Wallace Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar"

Soraj Hongladarom

The problem of realism and anti-realism is one of the perennial philosophical problems. Basically, the problem concerns the relation between representation and reality. Can our representations—thoughts, language, mental images, and the like—represent reality as it is? Is there a set of vocabulary which describes how reality looks like with no distortion, a set that distinguishes itself from all the rest by virtue of the fact that it alone accurately "represents" what it is really like outside of the mind? Are humans forever barred from knowing what it is like out there by their perceiving and thinking constitution, and consequently have to make do with representations which may approach reality asymptotically but never arrive at it? Is the real truth something elusive and ultimately unapproachable? Or, more strikingly, is there such a thing as the real truth, not an approximate one which may be the best humans can have at a moment but is never the real thing? Philosophers have long debated these sets of problems, and it seems no agreement is possible for any time soon. Realists are those who believe that there is indeed the real truth; that is to say, humans have the capacity ultimately to arrive at the real truth. Truth is there, and humans can know it all. Representations and reality can become one and the same. Anti-realists, however, are skeptical of the idea. Truth there may be, but it is not ultimately approachable by humans. Representations and reality always diverge.

This paper aims at contributing in a modest way to this ongoing debate by looking rather closely at the first two cantos of Wallace Stevens's "The Man With the Blue Guitar." I will try to show that there Stevens shows a substantive view on the realism/anti-realism debate, a view which sheds light on this vexing topic, a view which can be located squarely neither on the realist or the anti-realist side. More specifically, his view is that there is a dynamic interplay between the Real and the Representation such that one does not collapse into the other, and at the same time one is not radically separate from the other either.

Here are the first two cantos of the poem:


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."


I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

What appears most striking in the poem is the interplay between reality and representation. The man is playing the blue guitar. He is a 'shearsman;' that is, he cuts something into shape using his "blue guitar." His act is a creative one; he is an artist who 'shears' perhaps the air with the tune of his 'blue guitar.' The image invokes an eerie feeling, as if Stevens is presenting a surrealistic picture, a picture not quite like reality, but not a totally abstract one that is out of touch of all reality either.

Stevens' use of color ("The day was green." and "'You have a blue guitar,'") also suggests that the poem aims at presenting visual images. This adds another level of complexity to the interplay of reality and representation we are talking about. A picture typically represents something outside itself; a poem also does the same. However, when a poem represents a picture, or tries to become a painting in itself as is probably the case in Stevens' poem here, one is persuaded to think that there must be something going on what is representing what at what level.1

Let's return to the poem itself. The first stanza presents the picture of a man "bent over his guitar,/A shearsman of sorts." And "the day was green." This is the setting of the whole poem, an introduction. Now the second stanza gives us the opening of a dialog between the "they" who said, "You have the blue guitar,/You do not play things as they are." and the man himself. One wonders how it could be to "play things as they are." Is it to play the tunes exactly as one hears in nature, for example, to use the guitar to imitate bird songs? Is this what is meant when "they" asked the "man" to "play things as they are"? Or is it that "they" want the "man" to play things as tunes are normally played, perhaps "they" want to hear familiar tunes, tunes to which they are accustomed to and do not sound too strange or too foreign to their ears? In any case it is probable that what the "man" is playing with his strange looking "blue guitar" must sound very odd. The sound might shock "them." They expect the "man" to play normal tunes, but those tunes are anything but normal.

It is in the third stanza ("The man replied, 'Things are they are/are changed upon the blue guitar.'") that sums up nicely what Stevens seems to be getting at as the point of the poem. Whatever we take "things as they are" to be, it is not something that stays fixed forever. The interlocutors of the guitarist want to see familiar faces of reality. Perhaps they are naïve realists, philosophical speaking, who do not accept that reality can exist in many levels depending on how one looks at it and to what purposes one views it for. Perhaps for them there is only one true version of reality which gives them comfort in the ever changing world. However, the guitarist's reply represents clearly the credo of the anti-realist camp. Familiar reality can come in myriad shapes and faces. As "things are they are/are changed upon the blue guitar," there is no one true version of reality. Instead there are many versions and each one has equal claim to be the one "true" version, depending on other external factors. The guitarist appears to be so confident of his power of tune making that he believes reality itself follows the lead of his tunes. Or perhaps reality itself is the tunes being played by the "blue guitar."

The remaining two stanzas represent the focal point of the whole stanza. The interlocutors' insistence that the guitarist must play "A tune beyond us, yet ourselves//A tune upon the blue guitar/Of things exactly as they are." confirm their adherence to their version of the one true reality. However, if they really want the guitarist to represent reality as it really is, then why do they tell the guitarist to play "A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,"? In what sense is the tune "beyond" them if they want something familiar to them, something they can readily relate to? How can something be "beyond" ourselves and yet be ourselves? This is clearly the most important line of the canto. If indeed something can be beyond us as well as be us, then the whole philosophical problem of representation and reality would be very satisfactorily solved. There would then be no separation between the two sides. Humans could then merge themselves without residue to outside reality. Indeed talks of things being "outside" or "inside" would make no sense at all because when the two sides merge into each other there would be no sides to refer to. Philosophers are tempted to think of religious mystics who claim to have unified themselves with external reality, which they refer to as The One, God, or Brahman, or whatever. In such a union the Subject and the Object are both dissolved. Individual mind and consciousness become merged in the sea of universal consciousness, just like a drop of water is dissolved into the ocean. In such a situation, one knows "things exactly as they are."

But maybe the interlocutors may not be aiming that high. Perhaps what they really want from the guitarist is just that he or she play things in such a way that they understand them. For them the tunes are "beyond" them because it is out of their capability to create and to play them; however, in another sense the tunes would then be themselves because they know what to expect listening to them. In this case the familiar reality is preserved. The interlocutors' sense of bearing in the surrounding is not lost. This "tune beyond us, yet ourselves" is "A tune upon the blue guitar,/Of things exactly as they are." This familiar sound of a familiar instrument is for the interlocutors accurate representations of reality. Familiarity becomes a necessary condition of accurate representation. The one set of vocabulary describing the world truly is arises out of words and contexts among which the interlocutors find comfortable.

In the second canto it is probably the guitarist himself who does the talking and refers to himself in the first person. He says "I cannot bring a world quite round,/Although I patch it as I can." His creative artistry cannot bring forth the real reality, reality unalloyed by representations. There is always a gap between the two. Although one does approach the other, there is no chance that both become one and the same. He sings "a hero's head, large eye/And bearded bronze, but not a man,//Although I patch him as I can,/and reach through him almost to man." The hero's head is clearly part of the familiar artistic representation of reality. As Plato said, artistic creations imitate the world, which in turn imitates the eternal Forms. The world is represented by art, and the hero's head, his large eye and bearded bronze are features of the art, the subject of the guitarist's song, which functions, qua a piece of art, as a representation of external reality. However, the guitarist sings the hero's head and his "bearded bronze, but not a man." Reality does not succeed in entering the realm of art. Everyone is accustomed to what a man is like; however, in the realm of art, the familiar image of a man is transformed. He becomes a "hero" with "bearded bronze," and no longer an ordinary man. The tune of the blue guitar does its magic in transforming a man, an ordinary man, into a hero whose "bearded bronze" is part of the other realm which is no less real than the supposedly real world of external, objective reality. Moreover, the artistic creation does not only transform the ordinary man; it reaches "through him almost to man." Art does start from man, and the artistry gives rise to the representation which transform him, but in the end art approaches "man" himself and cannot quite reach him.2

It is quite clear, therefore, that the "man" here is represented in the poem in two opposing senses. On the one hand, there is the familiar man to whom the interlocutors of the guitarist are accustomed. On the other, there is the "man" who stands for the goal to which the guitarist's art tries to approach but cannot reach. It is as if art starts from a familiar object, transform it, and in the end tries to reach for the familiar one again. Only that through art the familiar object in the end is not the same anymore. Art, in its process of transformation, brings forth the represented object and adds to it many layers of meanings and aspects of the object hitherto hidden from view when the object is just a familiar one. The guitarist brings forth the "hero" out of the man, and in the process tries to reach for the "man" as he really is. It is as if the real man here is possible only through the guitarists' strumming the strings of his blue guitar.

The last two stanzas sums up the idea presented in the previous paragraph rather nicely. "If to serenade almost to man/Is to miss, by that, things as they are//Say that it is the serenade/Of a man that plays a blue guitar." One asks why "to serenade almost to man" that the guitarist is doing when he is singing "the hero's head" and his "bearded bronze" should be "to miss, by that, things as they are." Perhaps the interlocutors have one sense of reality, perhaps a down-to-earth and empirical one. In this sense, "to serenade almost to man," which presupposes an intense artistic effort in transforming ordinary objects into an object of art, is to get away from reality, to "miss, by that, things as they are." According to the guitarist, on the contrary, reality resides in the transforming power of art. His tunes of the blue guitar become the reality. To reach for the man through the tunes of the guitar is not to get away from reality, but to approach it. The guitarist patches his artwork, trying to bring forth the hidden aspects of reality which are not available through normal perception which is part of everyday living.

Thus, one sees here that for Stevens reality and representation are not just two opposing sides of things. One does get into the turf of the other, creating a dynamic interplay which art and poetry alone can fully account for. So is Stevens a reality, or an anti-realist? Reading the first two cantos of "The Man with the Blue Guitar," one gets a sense that he is neither, or perhaps he is both. The interlocutors in one sense are realists, because they look for "things as they are." But they also want "a tune beyond us, yet ourselves," which no realism can offer them. On the other hand, the guitarist appears first to be an anti-realist, for he believes that "Things as they are,/are changed upon the blue guitar." However, he tries to patch things "almost to man;" that is, he has a clear sense of reality to which he tries to take his artistic creation. In this way he could be a realist. Moreover, for him reality does not reside in the familiar sense insisted by the interlocutors; it exists within the realm of art, among the tunes of the blue guitar whose "reality" is even more real than the objective, external reality.

So what philosophical lesson one gets out of this? One thing is that reading poetry can be very illuminating in trying to solve knotty philosophical perplexities. Moreover, the dynamic interplay between representation and reality, clearly illustrated in the poem, provides a rough sketch of a possible philosophical theory designed to break the impasse caused by the dichotomy between the two. One solution to the problem of realism and anti-realism arising out of the reading of Stevens' poem here is that, since what appears real could be representations, and what appears as representations could be real (or even more real than the supposed objects of representations themselves), any simple solution of the problem in terms of taking one side or the other is not possible. Representations can become reality, but reality can become representations either. It is not that there is something objectively "out there" waiting to be comprehended; instead the represented and the representation are both chasing each other, creating a movement which awaits spelling out in details by philosophers. This alone could be a substantial philosophical contribution that Stevens makes through his powerful verses.


1In "The Relations Between Poetry and Painting," Stevens affirms that relationship between poetry and painting is very close, as both are manifestations of one act of creation and composition. Moreover, for Stevens the "supreme truth" is also "supreme fiction", and both poetry and painting serve as the centers of the philosophic act of accounting for reality. See Wallace Stevens, "The Relations Between Poetry and Painting," in The Necessary Angel (New York: Random, 1951), pp. 159–76.

2Discussing another poem of Stevens', "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, Sperry writes that for Stevens the transforming power of art is at work when the ordinary town of New Haven is transformed into Juda. The act of making poetry is happening amidst the familiar and ordinary settings, but these are transformed into mythical and imaginative entities through imagination:

The walker "subtly walking there" in company with "the profoundest forms" is, in the first instance, Stevens himself, striding down the concrete pavements of Hartford, New Haven, or wherever, transforming them to metaphysical avenues and perspectives through a power of meditation. The walker is more like a sleepwalker, deeply abstracted, "destroying with wafts of wakening" the forms that engage him, as if with every step he were abandoning their influence. The passage looks back poignantly to Keats's "little town" whose "streets for evermore/ Will silent be," where "not a soul to tell/... can e'er return." The somnambulist must free himself from the forms of majesty that envelop him at the same time that he longs for their continuance. How can he reconcile such contradictory impulses? For the glow of inspiration that surrounds him cannot simply dissolve in urban sprawl. Stevens's contention is that Hartford, New Haven, and all "plain towns" can now and forever be transformed in a moment to Juda, the promised kingdom, by a power of imagination.

See Stuart Sperry, "Wallace Stevens and Poetic Transformation," Raritan 17.3 (Winter 1998): 25-47.