The Worms at Heaven's Gate
The title is probably an allusion to William Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 ("When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes...") wherein the words "Hymns at Heaven's Gate" appear. Badroulbadour was a princess married to Aladdin in a fairytale from One Thousand and One Nights. The mention of Heaven's Gate identifies the poem as a commentary on the resurrection of the flesh.
Robert Buttel sees the poem as a specimen of Stevens' "grotesque strain" and wryly observes that "it would be difficult to find a more unique funeral procession in literature". He credits William Carlos Williams for improving the line "Within our bellies, we her chariot." from the original "Within our bellies, as a chariot."
The overall impression is at once macabre and archly humorous. Thoughts of death and decay are secondary to the sound of 'Badroulbadour', the verb 'decline', and the poem's syntactic architecture. But in essence the poem conveys a sense of the transient nature of beauty. For another perspective on this transience see "Peter Quince at the Clavier".
The poem may be compared to "Anecdote of Canna", which describes a unique terrace stroll, and to "Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb", which speculates on the other side of death. Attending to the blank-verse syntax, Buttel compares the poem to Infanta Marina for the delicacy of its rhythm, to which it adds the insistent rhythms of a funeral procession. (See also Cortege for Rosenbloom.)
Out of the tomb, we bring Badroulbadour;
Then in lines three and four,
Here is an eye. And here are, one by one,
The lashes of that eye and its white lid.
[T]he reversed initial foot and the following caesura help draw specific attention to the eye; the following three iambic feet maintain the pace of the procession; and the spondees on `that eye' and `white lid' substantiate the reflective consideration of Badroulbadour's exquisite beauty. In the next-to-last line of the poem, Stevens did not hesitate to give full stress to the three main words and let very light accents fall on the preposition and conjunction:
The bundle of the body and the feet.
It was important to hasten over the merely physical attributes of the princess, and the metrical telescoping of the line fits that intention without disturbing the processional rhythm.
The poem surely adds a wry layer of meaning to Stevens' epigram in Adagia, "The poet makes silk dresses out of worms."
- Buttel, p. 188.
- An excerpt from Williams's letter to Stevens dated June 8, 1916: "I think the second version is much better for the reason that THE WORMS ARE HER CHARIOT and not only seem her chariot. Then again: "bellies" "as a chariot" (plural and singular) sounds badly while "we her chariot" has more of a collective sense and feels more solid. What do you say?
For Christ's sake yield to me
become great and famous.
- Buttel, pp. 209-10
- Kermode, p. 900.
- Buttel, R. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. 1968: Princeton University Press.
- Kermode, Frank and Joan Richardson, eds. Stevens: Collected Poetry & Prose. 1997: The Library of America.
- "Worms at Heaven's Gate" • MP3 audio recording in the public domain (MP3)—read by other than Wallace Stevens