Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Wallace Stevens's 'A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts': When Rabbits Freak You Out

Watchful Rabbit, Hackney Road. London. Photo by Ewan Munro. Used under Creative Commons license

Anyone who doubts that rabbits can be scary need only watch Donnie Darko or read parts of Watership Down. Then there's Michael Sowa's painting Happy Easter. And also, this poem:


(The poem lies over two pages, so make sure you page over when reading.)

My faithful blog readers may not be entirely surprised to hear of my ongoing astonishment that there is no epigraph from 'A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts' in Richard Adams's Watership Down. It seems so perfect a fit, in so many ways, that I can't understand how Richard Adams overlooked it. I can only assume that he couldn't fit it in, or that he was not aware of the poem when he wrote his famous novel.

The two Watership Down characters which this poem immediately reminds me of are the sinister Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is a sort of grim reaper in the rabbit cosmos, and also the megalomaniac General Woundwort. (In one passage, Bigwig dreams about Woundwort: "And over all, as big as a horse in a field, aware of all that passed from one end of the world to the other, brooded the gigantic figure of General Woundwort.") This comparison may be a bit simplistic, though. The rabbit in the poem is not necessarily a scary rabbit, or at least not an evil rabbit. It is Rabbit: primal and animal.

The poem has an edge of surreal humour which is not unfamiliar from reading Stevens's other poems. Why does the rabbit see itself growing bigger and bigger, "humped higher and higher, black as stone"? Why the vision of the cat slipping away like an insect - "the little green cat is a bug in the grass"? The imagery of red and green seem to me to suggest a prism, the breaking of light into component colours. This could be a reference to the differences between animal sight and human sight; also, perhaps, the shifting mood of the rabbit picking up on the subtle natural shifts around it.

Mainly the impression I carry away from this poem is that of another dimension which wild animals inhabit. This is a human viewer trying to describe a state of mind which humans do not experience. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to observe wild animals will know that through their trancelike, indifferent gaze they inhabit a world very different from our own. Perhaps, in a rabbit's mind and through its senses, there are moments when it feels itself becoming "a self that fills the four corners of night". Once again, Wallace Stevens is playing with shifts in perception.

On this link, you can find a video of actor Bill Murray reading another Stevens poem, 'The Planet on the Table', and 'A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts':


  1. I find your discussion of the different psychic world inhabited by wild animals, and our relationship to that, to be fascinating. Lines like 'This is a human viewer trying to describe a state of mind which humans do not experience' really give me a lot to consider. Even different members of our own species can live their whole lives in utterly diverse mental worlds, it seems to me, and mutually unintelligible and unsuspected ones at that. For some reason I find myself thinking of something I read once: that the native Americans of what is now Mexico, when gazing at the ships of Cortez when they first appeared off Veracruz, did not see them, because they represented a world of experience so different from their own as to render them at first (and for some longer than that) invisible. Language itself can manifest such divergences of perception, as well as similarities, from idiom to idiom, and from poem to poem, as you have shown so well here.

    1. Consciousness and the nature of it from sentient creature to creature is so hard to get a handle on. That is so interesting about how something foreign to our experience can in fact be invisible at first. I agree, the nature of consciousness and mental worlds varies from human to human and culture to culture too, though far less than betweens humans and animals, I think. It just seems nearly impossible to me to understand what animal consciousness is like. I get the impression this is what Stevens was reaching for, with a bit of humour thrown in too.

      I have read a couple of other interesting interpretations of the poem. One is that the rabbit has been killed by the cat, and its ghost is observing the scene and entering the spirit realm. There is some imagery that could be interpreted as suggesting violence, and this might explain the "king of the ghosts" title, but at the same time it seems too narrow an interpretation. Another suggestion is that the rabbit is Stevens, or poetic inspiration, or Stevens under poetic inspiration, and the cat is sort of conscious thought that intrudes and is put aside for inspiration. All of these interpretations could have something to offer.