The Poets Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)


About the Poet

Wallace Stevens was the literary anomaly — the rather humdrum insurance company executive who, with the publication of a single volume, Harmonium, rose to dominance among American aesthetes, the seekers of beauty in art. Pervasive in his shimmering lines are a naturalism and awe that overstep the pessimism that stymied the post-World War I generation. Long into his career, his officemates were surprised to learn that "Wally" was capable of writing such lush, elegantly textured poems, but the critical world had long ranked his verse within the growing modernist canon. Stevens earned respect from literary colleagues for whimsical ironies, skepticism, and the sensuous, ever-shifting intricacy of his vision.

Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879, the son of teacher Margaretha Catherine Zeller and attorney Garrett Barcalow Stevens. He studied privately at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran parochial school before entering high school, where he excelled at oratory and classics and wrote for the school newspaper. During three years at Harvard, 1897 to 1900, he contributed to the Harvard Advocate and edited the Harvard Monthly. He initiated an unsuccessful career in journalism at the New York Tribune before enrolling at New York Law School in 1901 and entering a partnership with Lyman Ward in 1904. Stevens married Elsie Viola Kachel; they had one daughter, Holly, and lived in midtown New York from 1909 to 1916. Disdaining American dependence on cars, he began a lifelong habit of walks that took him as far as Greenwich, Connecticut.

After settling into the legal department of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916, Stevens rose to the vice presidency. He was an amateur poet for ten years and earned a reputation for roaming the streets in all weather while composing. Beginning in 1913, he pursued publication in many literary magazines and journals. Like other poets of the era, he was discovered by Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, who made room for the four-stage Phases in a 1914 war issue. After earning the magazine's $100 prize a second time for the verse play Three Travellers Watch a Sunrise (1915), he saw his one-act work produced at New York's Provincetown Theatre.

Although Stevens produced a second play, Carlos Among the Candles (1920), first in Milwaukee, then at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, he discounted drama as his life's work. He contributed to anthologies for ten years before seeing his poems collected in a volume. With the assistance of critic Carl Van Vechten and publisher Alfred A. Knopf, he issued a first collection, Harmonium (1923), which brought negligible royalties. He followed with Ideas of Order (1935), Owl's Clover (1936) (winner of a poetry prize from Nation), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), Parts of a World (1942), Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942), which espouses his personal philosophy, and Transport to Summer (1947). Two collections, The Auroras of Autumn (1950) and The Necessary Angel (1951), earned him the Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, and a gold medal from the Poetry Society of America.

By studying early twentieth-century poets, Stevens achieved his place among modern poets shortly before his death with Complete Poems of Wallace Stevens, which took a second National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. After his demise from cancer on August 2, 1955, in Hartford, and interment at Cedar Hill Cemetery, eulogies linked the two halves of his life, informing startled colleagues of his importance to twentieth-century American literature.

Chief Works

An early display of Stevens' expertise, "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (1923) employs a four-part symphonic form to intone modernist dissonance. A hymn to impermanence, the musical stanzas, each in its distinctive rhythm and line length, arise from the playing on a Renaissance keyboard instrument by a rustic laborer, the director of the masque "Pyramus and Thisbe," which concludes William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Through a graphic scenario, his thoughts on the effects of music on the spirit draw an analogy with the beauty of Susanna, whose naked loveliness stirred the elders to pry into her private bliss. With a pun on bass/base, the poet ridicules the throb of passion in the old men that produces "pizzicati of Hosannas," a reference to the plucking of strings to produce a lightly separated flow of melody.

In Stanza 2, Stevens slows the four beats of the previous tetrameter to an emotionally composed two-beat dimeter interspersed with triplets or trimeter. The crescendo of drama replaces fluctuating strings with the clamor of cymbals and horns. Resuming a four-beat line, he elongates the lifting of lamps, by which ineffectual Byzantine attendants, arriving too late to be of help, disclose the elders leering at Susanna's nakedness. Departing from the legend, the poet closes with an ode to beauty, noting that the details of the story are secondary to the importance of beauty itself. Although Susanna's admirable physique could not last, the memory of her loveliness survives "Death's ironic scraping," leaving a memory as clear as the sweep of a bow over a viol. That, insists the poet, is the constant of art.

Derived from an agnostic era, "Sunday Morning" (1923), a 120-line blank verse statement of the conflict between faith and poetry, voices Stevens' long-running personal debate on the existence of God. The verbal music wraps the speaker in a sustaining melody. Content in her reverie, she avoids Christian ritual and traditions and questions, "What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?" She finds spiritual renewal in "balm or beauty of the earth," which challenges trite, worn-out concepts of heaven.

Foremost in the speaker's doubt about an afterlife is the absence of completion, which she depicts as fruit that never ripens and rivers that never find the sea. Without death, she declares, mystical beauty has no aim, no fulfillment. The speaker exalts "the measures destined for her soul," a primitive concept that the absorption of the body into nature is a more appropriate form of immortality than heaven. Stanza 7 asserts that art, represented by human chanting, encapsulates history, that is, "whence they came and whither they shall go." Rounding out the poem is a return to the vision of wings, which bear "casual flocks of pigeons" to their graceful demise, emphasized by the alliteration of "Downward to darkness." As though enfolding a small portion of life, the span, unlike Christian images of up-stretched flight, embrace earth in their final moments.

In line with the thinking of "Sunday Morning," Stevens' "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" (1923) continues the thread of logic that death is an essential element of life. In two octaves bizarrely joyous in rhythm and tone, he arranges imperatives — call, bid, let bring, let be — to the attendants of the dead as the droll funereal rites take shape. The piling up of death images frames the finality of passage as well as an end to posturing, an end to desire. In a line that demystifies ritual grief, the cigar roller whips up "concupiscent curds" in kitchen cups, a lengthening of hard-edged cacophonies of alliterated K sounds to express the artificiality of mourning. Modern standards of grief take shape in the wenches' "usual" dress and boys bearing floral arrangements in discarded newspaper. However well performed, none of these actions stops the finality of death.

For good reason, Stevens repeats the title image in lines 8 and 16. The notion of decay, embodied in the dresser lacking knobs, expands with the image of failed pride, which the dead woman once depicted in embroidery as a peacock's spread tail. The feet of the deceased, grotesquely callused and oddly removed from the attendants' scurrying, symbolize the cold, unresponsive state of the corpse, now made dumb by the absence of speech. Like the bird's tail in stitchery, the "horny" feet have surrendered any connection with sexual desire or function. When the body is arranged and the lamp lighted, Stevens insists that earthly sway belongs to the emperor of ice cream, a theatrical mockery of permanence.

Celebrating poet and verse, "The Idea of Order at Key West" (1936) expresses Stevens' concept of art by dramatizing an unassuming singer lofting a song to the sea. The poet proposes an outlandish rearrangement of the usual romantic notions of the majestic sea: As though imposing artistic order on nature, the singer reduces the sea to "merely a place by which she walked to sing," uplifting herself by creating melody. In the poet's expanded view, the singer represents "the single artificer of the world," a station that elevates her above nature's "constant cry" with the imaginative ordering of notes into musical phrasing.

In lines 33 to 34, the poet-speaker, certain that the sea is not a mask or source of imitation for the singer, begins a series of hyperboles that place high value on the creative power of artistry. As the poem shifts away from the singer, the poet-speaker challenges philosopher Ramon Fernandez to explain another enigma — how light orders and arranges something so vast and insuperable as darkness. The implication is that mysticism poses no answer that can be expressed in human terms. In its final five-line stanza, an emotional "Oh" introduces a prayerful apostrophe to order amid chaos. The poet, content with the limitations of human art, stops short of reconciling philosophy with art.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Contrast T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens in their depictions of post-Christian doubts about an afterlife in paradise. Cite lines that establish differences of opinion about the place of art as spiritual sustenance.

2. Contrast John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar." Summarize the difference between the romantic view and that of the modernist.

3. Explain how Stevens' obtuse "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1923) ponders varied perceptions of reality. Account for the bird's lasting influence on the observer.

4. Account for Stevens' depiction of a moment of passionate confrontation with nature in "The Idea of Order at Key West."

5. After reading Stevens' "Sunday Morning," discuss the speaker's attitude about God. Does the speaker ultimately believe that God exists?

6. Discuss Stevens' theme that death is an essential element of life. Cite passages in his poetry that support this view.