“Life on a Battleship” first appeared in print in Spring of 1939, several months before Hitler invaded Poland. Stevens, however, decided to drop the poem from his Collected Poems (1954)--the only poem from Parts of a World to incur this particular dishonor (Letters 830).
Summary and ExplicationEdit
Poets have often enjoyed using the image of the captain and his ship as a metaphor for a king and his kingdom or God and his creation; Stevens thrusts that image into modernity by changing the “ship” into a “battleship.” The first line—“the rape of the bourgeoisie accomplished” (stanza I)—invokes Marxist thought, one of the “grand simplifications” (stanza II). Gradually, though, Stevens makes it clear that his battleship is not meant to be a real battleship, but a world complete unto itself where all the “grand simplifications” have reduced themselves to one grand simplification. The battleship might be the captain’s own selfhood, since he—as an “apprentice of Descartes”—radically doubts everything outside the battleship. Because the captain has reduced away the world, he is free to draft the rules to his self-contained world.
The battleship itself is called The Masculine.
The captain makes a total of three laws (“Regulae mundi”) for his new battleship world, each meant to play the imagination off against the real world. The first law is that the “grand simplifications reduce / Themselves to one.” The second law is that the “part / Is the equal of the whole.” The final law intends to reconcile the first and second laws: “The whole cannot exist without / The parts.”
Horace Gregory suggests that the poem is “loosely overwritten” (203); ever since The Man with the Blue Guitar, Stevens’s long poems suffered the danger of “the reduction ad whimsy of his totally serious and critical consideration of the relationship between two aspects of reality, the poet’s imagination and the external world” (204).
Gregory, Horace. “An Examination of Wallace Stevens in a Time of War.” Wallace Stevens. Ed. Charles Doyle. New York: Routledge, 1997. Web. 26 Feb 2014.