Wallace Stevens was 44 when he published his first book of poems, Harmonium, in 1923, and following its appearance he wrote little poetry for the next few years. His next book, Ideas of Order, was published in 1935 -although an expanded edition of Harmonium appeared in 1931 adding fourteen poems to the 1923 edition (including some poems written since 1927) and removing three. After 1935 Stevens would publish five additional volumes with Knopf, the publisher of Harmonium, before the appearance of his Collected Poems in 1954 a year before his death. These later books contain many of the important meditative and philosophical poems that firmly established Stevens's reputation, but no later volume contains the wit and variety of his first book, or illustrates more clearly the development of the poet from his 1890s sensibility to the emerging major figure of twentieth-century poetry.
At Harvard as an undergraduate Stevens came under the influence of the "aesthetic movement," which saw language as decoration and a dandified persona as a way of engaging the world with imagination and humor. Such an attitude permitted effects of irony and incongruity, and for such writers signaled a separation from the confident seriousness of the Romantic poets. Important influences upon the Harvard group were the late nineteenth-century French poets Baudelaire and Laforgue. Although Stevens went on to develop this attitude in ways that are distinctly modernist, it appears in Harmonium in a number of comic figures, and in the precious, playfully self-conscious language of many of the poems. Three of the titles are in French, "Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges," "Homunculus et La Belle Étoile," and "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle." In the last named the narrator is himself a dandified figure, his playful language exploring a range of emotions about facing the onset of middle age. The short early poem "Tea" finishes with an image of "umbrellas in Java," while "The Silver Plough-Boy," also early (silver a favorite color of the aesthetes) provides ironic distance in a poem about death. Another example of playful extravagance in the volume is the lush landscape of Florida - where Stevens sometimes traveled on insurance business, and sometimes took vacations -an extravagance set against the comparative austerity of the seasons and landscape of Connecticut, Stevens's home state.
Although Stevens's foreign travel included Cuba and Mexico, he never visited Europe. But his career-long interest in European - particularly French - culture led to his purchasing many paintings and artifacts from France through his New York dealer. And despite his early association with the Others group, which included William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Alfred Kreymborg, with its determination to free - as its writers saw it - American poetry from the rules of English tradition, Stevens retained far more of the formal elements of that tradition in his verse than other writers in the group. He exploits such devices as alliteration in verse that celebrates the frankly lyrical, and he showed himself in this volume, as he would in later books, to be a master of the use of blank verse. In this way, as Helen Vendler has suggested, Stevens is "in one sense, a very European poet" while at the same time "in both theme and style," a poet "conspicuously and even outrageously American."
In Harmonium Stevens explores, from multiple perspectives, the role that language and imagination play in our perception and understanding of the world beyond ourselves. The poetry is the poetry of meditation, dramatizing the play of a mind working. In this way he interrogates in poem after poem the Romantic assumptions of harmony, although his questions remain within the Romantic frame of reference, dealing, for example, with such topics as nature, song, and religion. Sometimes the multiple perspectives are contained within a single poem, as in the well-known "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Sometimes two poems in Harmonium taken together suggest two opposite approaches to the question of what the human imagination supplies to our understanding and articulation of the physical world. "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" declares the ordinariness of death, that mortality is integral to the pleasures of life. Death rituals should not dwell on the coldness of the body, but the celebrants should instead enjoy the coldness of ice-cream in a world where "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." In the funeral described in "Cortège for Rosenbloom," however, the exotic clothes, special rituals, and mourning remove the dead figure and its mourners from the world of the earth into "a place in the sky," and thus remove him from the lyric poetry that celebrates the everyday:
To a jangle of doom And a jumble of words Of the intense poem Of the strictest prose Of Rosenbloom.
And they bury him there, Body and soul, In a place in the sky. The lamentable tread! Rosenbloom is dead.
"The Snow Man" explores the consequences of removing what is humanly imposed upon the outside world, in order to see "nothing that is not there." But the result reveals "the nothing that is," for we humanize the blankness of snow in order to understand it, as in making a snowman, and the mind without this active imagination is not human but only a figure made from snow. On the other hand, the world of Hoon in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" is entirely of his own making: "I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself."
For Stevens, systems of religious belief were similarly human frameworks constructed in various cultures at various times as a way of trying to comprehend the basic mysteries of human existence. In his later books Stevens sought to explore what such a "supreme fiction" for our own times might be, and for some readers these are Stevens's major volumes. But in Harmonium he explores more the context out of which his later search arises. "Ploughing on Sunday" extols the pleasures of working on the Christian sabbath. But the central poem on religious belief in the book is "Sunday Morning." A woman hears the sounds of a church service coming through her window, and thoughts of Christ's sacrifice take her back "to silent Palestine." But the poem then enacts a dialogue, either that the women has with herself or that the poet has with her, in which she yearns for both a divinity of present sensation - rather than one that has to "give her bounty to the dead" - and also the assurance of permanence. In its final lines the poem asserts that the earthly "grave of Jesus" is free of "spirits lingering," and celebrates, in lines that echo Keats's ode "To Autumn," the permanence of cycles of change. Similarly in "Peter Quince at the Clavier," where the mechanical from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream produces delicate music from his earthy lusts, the beauty of the long-dead Susanna lives on in the cycles of renewal that characterize the physical world, its desires, its beauty, and its art.
Two of the later poems from the volume help explain, for some critics, Stevens's decade of near-silence following Harmonium's publication. "The Comedian as the Letter C" can certainly be read as Stevens's account of his own progress as a poet. The poem's protagonist, Crispin, leaves France for North America, as Stevens began with his late nineteenth-century French interests. Sojourns in Yucatan and the Carolinas fail to satisfy Crispin's desire to be a poet of the contemporary. He moves from one formula to another, from "man is the intelligence of his soil" to "his soil is man's intelligence," and finds satisfaction in neither. He cannot be a poet merely of the local, but he cannot be a poet merely of the fanciful either. He needs to find a way to transcend his comic role and combine the two, using the language that at present traps him, via his name, in the poem's recurring range of "C" sounds. The poem's final section, titled "And Daughters With Curls," leaves Crispin with duties of a familial and a "social nature" and "no room upon his cloudy knee, / Prophetic joint, for its diviner young." Stevens intimated to a number of correspondents that his producing few poems over the next ten years was because of his need to concentrate upon his family - daughter Holly had just been born - and his career at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he would eventually become a vice-president. One indirect result of such comments on the study of Stevens's work until recently has been to see his two careers of poet and business executive as quite separate.
But the limited, if astonishingly inventive, aesthetic concerns of the Harmonium poems are - for more than one critic - an inevitable dead end, and reason enough for Stevens to need time before moving on with his poetry. The way that fellow poet John Gould Fletcher put it in a 1923 review was that Stevens needed to "either expand his range to take in more of human experience, or give up writing altogether." For Fletcher, Harmonium "does not permit of a sequel." For some critics the poems of Harmonium reach a kind of sterile dead end in the inventiveness of the volume's "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." The poem is a tour de force of variety within constraints, but one in which the physical earth is represented only by the constantly shifting and reflecting surfaces of the sea and clouds, and the imagination by the series of self-conscious, impressionistic, and finally circular stanzas that describe those surfaces. Other commentators have suggested that Harmonium's dandified personae - figures like the "fops of fancy" described in "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" - prove to be inadequate vehicles for Stevens's interests, and also betray a discomfort with taking the role of poet seriously that Stevens needed time to overcome. When the major philosophical poems of the 1940s volumes emerge, for all the comedy that is still sometimes present, there is no question of the importance that the poet attaches to the issues or to the poems that address them.
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