William Faulkner's "Vision in Spring" Judith L. Sensibar Poetry

local_library William Faulkner’s "Vision in Spring"

by Judith L. Sensibar

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jill Faulkner Summers for permission to reprint William Faulkner’s “Love Song” and to Judith L. Sensibar for permission to reprint excerpts from her Introduction to Faulkner’s Vision in Spring, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984. Now out of print.

In London in May 1921, T. S. Eliot began writing the poem sequence that most would agree became the “classic, and controversial, poem of the Modernist movement.” 1 In Oxford, Mississippi, that same spring William Faulkner was completing a sequence of poems that, though he never published it, would prove revolutionary to his own development. Vision in Spring, the pivotal work in Faulkner’s self-apprenticeship, is an eighty-eight-page, purple ribbon, carbon typescript, which he first hand bound that summer. Read in the context of his other poetry, his life, and both his early and his best novels, this cycle of fourteen poems reveals fascinating information about how, during this apparently unrewarding period when he wrote poetry almost exclusively (ca. 1916-1924), the young Faulkner taught himself to write. It also suggests the myriad ways in which his poetry in general and this sequence in particular inform the intention, the mode, and the moral preoccupations of his great fiction.

….Between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-seven Faulkner composed and revised hundreds of poems…. Faulkner’s individual poems seem far removed from his fiction, even from his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay. But at least by 1920 and probably even earlier, Faulkner was also working with a much more expansive formal structure: the poem sequence. Faulkner’s growth as a novelist was thus most unusual, for he evolved as a writer of fiction not from short stories to novels as most novelists do, but rather from short poems to poem sequences (novels in poetry a la Conrad Aiken and other early Modernists) to novels….Vision in Spring stands in his apprenticeship as a record of Faulkner’s intellectual journey from the nineteenth-century world of Keats, Swinburne, Tennyson, and the Symbolists through the early twentieth-century world of the Modernists.

….The subjects of Vision in Spring–sex, love, power, impotence, death, and the powers of the imagination–are universal. Faulkner had written of them in earlier sequences but always literarily and obliquely. In Vision, as the poet makes metaphorical parallels between false and true vision and real and “silent” music, he comes closer than he ever has to breaking through that “white, opaque, distant” language: other poets’ music. Dimly through this music–to borrow his metaphor–we hear an original author’s voice. In Vision, particularly in the three poems of its third movement, we begin to hear some life in Faulkner’s voices and a hint of genuine emotion. Our reading experience becomes enriched as we see vague outlines of a “story” forming in the intricate formal and thematic connections Faulkner has worked out in the poems in his sequence. What then is the nature of Faulkner’s poetic touchstone? Of what is it composed that makes it so rich with invention? The kinds of metaphorical connections Faulkner worked out here between music and vision served as a means for expressing imaginatively a series of conflicts and issues that figured prominently in his real life and in his fantasy life.

In 1921, when he wrote Vision in Spring, his temporary solution to these conflicts was a compromise. In the sequence, real music performed by other artists who also happen to be women (Colombine the actress, the dancers, the musicians) suggests and signifies Pierrot’s fear that he will fail as a poet, or artist of words. Meanwhile, the sequence itself — love poetry drawing on music for its metaphorical structure and formal organization and addressed to a woman who, unlike his mother, loves music–is, in itself, Faulkner’s bid for independence from his mother’s exclusive love and her values.

Writing “Love Song,” a poem whose only music is the “cadence” of [Vision’s personna,] Pierrot’s feet, allowed Faulkner to make a further bid for independence. 2 There he simultaneously unmasked both Eliot, a recognized poet, and that fearer of women, eternal adolescent, and mother’s boy, the would-be poet-actor Pierrot. Parody enabled Faulkner to be more explicit in stating the previously hidden import of his fantasy material. In “The Dancer” and “Marriage” Pierrot confronts a real woman with whom he actually converses. She is no longer the safe and silent dream image of earlier poems like “Portrait.” Furthermore, Pierrot begins to express an overt interest in and desire for adult sexual experiences. He no longer dwells exclusively in the isolated world of memory and dreams.

….Love, or rather its absence, is the subject of much of Faulkner’s poetry. Like his earlier sequences, Vision in Spring provides a continuing record of the poet’s thinly disguised attempts to come to terms with his own sexuality, together with his ambivalence about the conflicting roles of artist and man of action. Not surprisingly, the people most closely associated with Faulkner’s life as a poet, a life he preserved for certain occasions, are the women he loved. Besides retaining its position as a touchstone for certain kinds of emblematic scenes and metaphorical structures in his novels, verse played a special role in Faulkner’s private life: he continued throughout his career to write, recite, and read poetry to these women.

. . . . Although Faulkner often referred to himself as a “failed poet,” poetry played an essential role in his love relationships. Since poetry was the mode in which he communicated least effectively, it seems paradoxical that he should use it for the language of intimacy. But perhaps this is precisely the point. For Faulkner, love was always “opaque”: symbolic of failure or anticipated failure. . . . . Poetry continued, for him, to remain the language of his most impossible dreams: “‘Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,’ he thought quietly. “Perhaps it could not live anywhere else'” (Gail Hightower, Light In August). But because this dream language also embodied Faulkner’s earliest and most fundamental fantasies, and it was the language by which he learned their meanings, he returned to it throughout his life for inspiration.


1 – See David Perkins’ discussion of The Wasteland in A History of Modern Poetry from the 1890’s to the High Modernist Mode (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press 1976), p. 498.

2 – For more on Faulkner’s poetic apprenticeship and “Love Song,” see Judith L. Sensibar, The Origins Of Faulkner’s Art. Austin, Univ. of Texas P, 1984.

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Judith L. Sensibar is a professor of English at Arizona State University and a faculty affiliate of the Women's Study Program and Humanities Program. She has published numerous essays on Faulkner and other modernists.