Wallace Stevens, of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, was born in 1879 and died in 1955. He read a General Arts course at Harvard, freelanced for a time as a journalist in New York, then qualified in Law and spent most of his life working as an insurance man. He excelled especially in sorting out defaults and bankruptcies, and did well out of the Depression of 1929.
Stevens began his literary career as one of a number of Harvard undergraduates in the 1890s who sought to create an American poetry. Previous attempts towards that end seem to have been beneath their attention. An influential lecturer at Harvard in those days was George Santayana (1863—1952), who wrote a patronizing essay Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) which adversely criticized 'the poetry of barbarism'; that is to say, the poetry of Walt Whitman (1819—92), with whom he associated Robert Browning (1812—89). There may have been a class-differential here, at least as regards Whitman. Instead, Stevens and his contemporaries looked to what was the dernier cri of poetry in those days, a series of English verse-writers most of them published in the USA by the firm of T. B. Mosher. These, in their turn, were derivative from the French symbolist poets boosted by the lectures, delivered in 1900 at Harvard and elsewhere, of Henri de Régnier (1864—1936), a late symbolist whose poetry dwelt on the fading glories of pre-Revolutionary France.
Contemporaries of Stevens at Harvard, with whom he later associated in New York, included Pitts Sanborn (1879-1941), author of Vie de Bordeaux (1916), Walter C. Arensberg (1876-1954) and Donald Evans (1884-1921). Sanborn became noted as an opera aficionado, and Arensberg as an art connoisseur. Evans persisted as a poet, and produced five collections of verse, as well as a pseudonymous pamphlet explaining his artistry to an unheeding world. All these writers published their respective first volumes a decade or so ahead of Stevens. His first book, Harmonium, appeared in 1923, when he was already forty-four.
Stevens took his time to find his feet, publishing effusions under such pseudonyms as Hillary Harness and R. Jerries between 1898 and 1900 in The Harvard Monthly and The Harvard Advocate, the governing committee of which latter he chaired for a while. However, he was to develop far beyond the mannered rhetoric of this period. The Frenchified poets whom his contemporaries saw as modern included Ernest Dowson (1867—1900), W. E. Henley (1849—1903) and Austin Dobson (1840—1921). They specialized in an affected notion of the eighteenth century, even going so far as to adopt some metrical forms of that period, and indeed earlier. Henley has 'Ballade Made in the Hot Weather', beginning 'Fountains that frisk and sprinkle / The moss they overspill; / Pools that the breezes crinkle' (Poems, 1921), while Austin Dobson has 'On a Fan that Belonged to the Marquise of Pompadour': 'Chicken-skin, delicate, white, / Painted by Carlo Vanloo, / Loves in a riot of light' (Complete Poetical Works, 1923).
The 'ballade' that these poets favoured has little in common with English works favoured with that title. Theirs is a French form, requiring a plethora of rhyming. In a language conspicuously short of rhymes, this demanded a degree of ingenuity. Arensberg has 'A Ballade to my Lady Moonlight':
Listen, my Moonlight, to my plea! Because I have not half defined Thy beauties in these stanzas three, Beloved, do not call me blind! (Poems, 1914)
Early Stevens is surprisingly like this. 'Ballade of the Pink Parasol' appeared in The Harvard Advocate of 23 May 1900 and seems to be an ironic lament for a more ordered age:
I pray thee where is the old-time wig, And where is the lofty hat?
Where is the maid on the road with her gig, And where is the fire-side cat? Never was sight more fair than that,
Outshining, outreaching them all,
There in the night where the lovers sat — But where is the pink parasol?
This, for all its mannerism, looks forward to Harmonium, whose properties included umbrellas, hats and wigs. One reason why Stevens, even at the age of twenty-one, could carry off this kind of pastiche was his sense of humour — a quality lacking in some of his contemporaries.
Also, he grew up to read the French symbolists for himself, and not through the spectacles of their English imitators. An obvious source of reference is Jules Laforgue (1860—87), with whom both the young Stevens and his contemporary Donald Evans shared, apparently, an unappeasable ennui. This surfaces in those poems by Laforgue centred upon the commedia del arte figure, Pierrot. As translated by Walter Arensberg, one of these pieces begins:
She that must put me wise about the Feminine! We'll tell her firstly, with my air least impolite: 'The angles of a triangle, O sweetheart mine, Are equal to two right'.
It is a way of showing a detached view of the world, distinct from simple romanticism. Donald Evans, addressing a woman who is unappealingly self-controlled, writes, 'Your hat was of an angle, and the veil / Was impudent with seven maddening spots' (Two Deaths in the Bronx, 1916).
In Stevens, such geometrical language is used as a means to indicate the restricted capacities of reason:
Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses -
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon -
Rationalists would wear sombreros.
('Six Significant Landscapes', VI; Collected Poems)
Here the square hat betokens the plain direct man, while the sombrero suggests the beauty of extravagance and unrest.
Even more School of Laforgue is Stevens's 'Disillusionment of Ten O'clock'. Here, he complains of simplicity in a town where folk go to bed early, and invokes by way of contrast an extravagant and seemingly more attractive mode of being:
The houses are haunted By white night-gowns. None are green, Or purple with green rings, Or green with yellow rings.
Alongside the sense of incongruity found in Laforgue is the euphony associated with Paul Verlaine (1844-96). A whole sequence by this poet is named 'Ariettes Oubliées' ('Forgotten Songs'), and deploys imagery evocative of music. Number Five, especially, begins with a piano which, in kissing a frail hand, shines through the pink and grey of evening. Evans seeks to encapsulate Verlaine in a piece called, after that poet's sequence, 'Jadis et Naguere': 'When disillusionment was fiercely new ... I longed for a numbed sense to ease my pain' (Discords, 1911). Arensberg has, in 'Music to Hear', 'A little longer let thy fingers fall / Upon the keys'.
However, Stevens picks up the attitude and makes it his own, chiefly through the mellifluousness of his verse. This, none of his contemporaries could equal:
Just as my fingers on these keys Make music, so the selfsame sounds On my spirit make a music, too. Music is feeling, then, not sound; And thus it is that what I feel, Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, Is music.
('Peter Quince at the Clavier')
There are other echoes, too, mostly from the French. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), as translated by Arensberg, has, in his famous 'L'Après-Midi d'un Faune':
Dreams, in a long extended solo, of amusing
The beauty of the neighbourhood by a confusing
False of that beauty.
(Arensberg, Idols, 1916)
Of course, one can understand and enjoy Stevens putting on the mask of Peter Quince - a bumpkin from A Midsummer Night's Dream - without necessarily recognizing all the allusions. They are cited here as a means of showing how Stevens developed from the frivolities and pastiches of his college days to what Randall Jarrell (1914-65), in his book Poetry and the Age (1955), finely called 'the last purity and refinement of the grand style'. 'Peter Quince at the Clavier' attests the power of art to dissolve disagreeables and immortalize beauty. The poem ends:
The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave interminably flowing . . .
. . . Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
One does not need to know Verlaine and Mallarmé to appreciate this poetry, but it is as well to understand that, without Verlaine and Mallarmé, this poetry would not be what it is.
The distinction between Stevens and his contemporaries can be phrased in linguistic terms. Whatever his antecedents, he absorbed and developed them to produce a style at once characteristic and flexible. This points to a prolonged study of language and literature.
It has been said that Stevens owed one of his characteristic images to Donald Evans. Evans had written a poem, ostensibly about one of their poetic contemporaries, Allen Norton (1888-1945). It is a sonnet, and the octave runs thus:
Born with a monocle he stares at life, And sends his soul on pensive promenades; He pays a high price for discarded gods, And then regilds them to renew their strife. His calm moustache points to the ironies, And a fawn-coloured laugh sucks in the night, Full of the riant mists that turn to white In brief lost battles with banalities. (Sonnets from the Patagonian, 1914)
This is tainted with something of the self-regarding dandyism out of which Stevens managed to develop.
The influence, however, may have been as much biographical as literary. In his Letters (Stevens, 1967) - which form an indispensable commentary on the poems - he writes to Elsie Moll, his future wife: 'Sometimes an uncle from Saint Paul visited us. He could talk French and had big dollars in his pockets, some of which went into mine' (21 January 1909). There is a photograph of this uncle, James Van Sant Stevens, reproduced in Joan Richardson's (1986, vol. 1) biography of the poet, looking decidedly cocky. Apparently he was a bachelor, and dealt in art. However that may be, something of this personality went into Stevens's poem about middle-aged love, ingeniously titled, 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle':
'Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds,
0 sceptre of the sun, crown of the moon, There is not nothing, no, no never nothing, Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.' And so I mocked her in magnificent measure. Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
1 wish that I might be a thinking stone. The sea of spuming thought foists up again The radiant bubble that she was. And then A deep up-pouring from some saltier well Within me, bursts its watery syllable.
Barbara Fisher suggested (in the Wallace Stevens Journal, IX: 1, spring 1985) that the 'magnificent measure' of the first four lines is based upon a French poet, earlier than any of those previously mentioned. In his 'Ballade: pour prier Notre Dame', François Villon (1431—?63) begins, as translated by an American poet of a vintage more recent than that of Stevens, Galway Kinnell (b. 1927):
Lady of heaven, regent of earth, Empress over the swamps of hell, Receive me your humble Christian That I may be counted among your elect.
However, Stevens's invocation is likely to owe at least as much to 'Hymne', by Charles Baudelaire (1821—67), which starts by dedicating the poem 'to the very dear, to the very beautiful, to the angel, to the immortal idol'. This tone of extravagant praise may lead us to doubt the straightforwardness of Baudelaire. Certainly, it would seem that Stevens's invocation is ironic.
For the 'uncle' of his poem is a one-eyed visionary in mind as well as eyesight, even though he seems astigmatically aware that his 'mockery' tells us more about himself than about the passive beauty he eulogizes. The poem moves via qualitative progression — the association of thoughts — and not by any logic of narrative. Through 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle' we observe an ageing body harbouring the passions of youth, particularly absurd when these are directed at an equally ageing inamorata:
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof. Two golden gourds distended on our vines, Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost, Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque. We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed, The laughing sky will see the two of us Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.
Though the elements laugh at the dear old fruits, the uncle laughs at himself and his love, too, and, presumably, so does the poet behind him, conscious of thinning hair and thickening waistline. Unlike his contemporaries, who take themselves rather solemnly, Stevens is almost always the comedian, quite capable of self-mockery in an almost finical diction: 'the sea of spuming thought', 'the fruit thereof', 'we hang like warty squashes'. It is this fastidiousness in speech whereby the passions that shake an Ernest Dowson or a Donald Evans — 'I am sick of empty trumpetings' (Discords) — are held up by Stevens to ironic contemplation.
Consider the registers of language deployed by Stevens. It is his vocabulary that renders him so distinctive:
caracole ('The Jack-Rabbit'): 'A half-turn to the right or left executed by a horseman; a succession of such; (loosely) to caper about' (Oxford English Dictionary, hereafter, OED)
coquelicot ('Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges'): 'The red poppy, the colour of which is a brilliant red with an admixture of orange' (OED) cabildo ('The Comedian as the Letter C'): 'cabilliau, codfish that has been salted and hung for a few days but not thoroughly dried' (OED) clickering ('The Comedian as the Letter C'): 'distribution, dividing up (of syllables); derived from the practice of the printer's foreman, or clicker, who distributes type among his juniors' (OED)
- or, 'clickering' may be a neologism, constructed from the association with the word 'click', meaning a short sharp sound. Stevens is quite capable of making up words. In this same poem, 'The Comedian as the Letter C', he has, for example, 'nin-compate', which finds no definition in the OED. Since the run of the vocabulary is on the letter 'C', as the title indicates, it is not accidental that 'nincompate', presumably meaning 'to talk like a ninny (or fool)', contains that letter. Stevens himself wrote, 'I ought to confess that by the letter C I meant the sound of the letter C; what was in my mind was to play on that sound throughout the poem. While the sound of that letter has more or less variety, and includes, for instance, K and S, all its shades may be said to have a comic aspect. Consequently, the letter C is a comedian' (letter to Ronald Lane Latimer, 15 November 1935).
And why did Stevens choose to dilate on the letter 'C'? Crucial is the fact that the hero is a comedian, but also in the comic vein is a letter which Stevens's father sent to him when the boy wrote home, innocently boasting of having been elected to the Signet Club, a sort of academic society: 'Just what the election to the Signet signifies I have no sign. It is significant that your letter is a signal to sign another cheque that you may sigh no more' (21 May 1899; Stevens senior's italics). It is clear that Garret Stevens, a middle-aged lawyer, was a little concerned that his son might become the 'nincompated pedagogue' represented some twenty-two years later in 'The Comedian as the Letter C'.
Because, for all his efforts as a glossator, Stevens uncovered something very deep in exposing the pedagogue Crispin. What is betokened in the narrative of 'The Comedian . . .' is fear on the poet's part. The poem, somewhat after the plan of 'Le Bateau Ivre' by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91), tells of a failed venture in the jungle and a voyage back to domesticity. Stevens seems to have been afraid that the necessity of establishing himself in the world, in order to support a home and family, would mean the sacrifice of his poetry.
Writing seems to have been connected with his very survival. It was a way to make sense of a denuded planet. One may feel it therefore symptomatic that, on completing 'The Comedian . . .', one of the latest to be written of the poems that appeared in Harmonium, he produced very little verse in the next decade, and published hardly anything. 'The Comedian . . .' is therefore prophetic:
How many poems he denied himself In his observant progress, lesser things Than the relentless contact he desired; How many sea-masks he ignored; what sounds He shut out from his tempering ear . . .
His active force in an inactive dirge, Which, let the tall musicians call and call, Should merely call him dead? Pronouce amen Through choirs infolded to the outmost clouds? Because he built a cabin who once planned Loquacious columns by the ructive sea.
'Ructive', a word not defined by the OED, would appear to be associated with insurrection; in this context, an 'insurgent' sea. There is, then, a caricature element in this most ambitious of all Stevens's poems. Its bomphiologia, an embracing of inflated speech, arises out of the worry that he would have to forsake the romantic sombrero of the artist for the square hat of the rationalist. During this period of building a cabin, his income grew, his relationship with his wife deteriorated, and the volume he at length squeezed out thirteen years after Harmonium, Ideas of Order (1936), proved to be the weakest of them all.
It is true that Stevens went on to consolidate his work, and built impressively on that consolidation. Some think that 'Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction' in Transport to Summer (1947) is his single greatest work, though it is a series of philosophical lyrics rather than a concerted philosophical statement. The true Stevens aficionado would probably opt for the late sequence, 'The Rock', incorporated in the Collected Poems of 1955.
However, for many, Harmonium is the most attractive of all the books. It can be read, quite lazily, for the snap, crackle and pop of its words; or it may be studied as representing the first major phase of one of the very few genuinely philosophical poets in English.
There are a number of lyrics which represent moments of perception. 'Invective against Swans' reproaches the great birds for looking like souls but being confined to the parks and not taking advantage of their wings to fly to the skies, as souls are feigned to do. In 'Domination of Black' the cries of peacocks amid the falling leaves replicate themselves in the firelight, striking fear into the imagination of the lone watcher. 'The Snow Man', a finely tuned piece of free verse, enacts the concept of empathy. You have to feel like the snow to appreciate the snow, but then it may be found that you have reduced yourself to nothing. 'The Ordinary Women' shows an incursion of the poor into the sybaritic luxuries of a palace which is quite likely to be a product of their imagination: 'The lacquered loges huddled there / Mumbled zay-zay and a-zay, a-zay'. Similarly, in 'Tea at the Palaz of Hoon', luxuries bestowed upon the guest, such as 'ointment sprinkled on my beard', are all products of his imagination: 'I was the world in which I walked . . . And there I found myself more truly and more strange'. 'Metaphors of a Magnifico' shows the power of the mind to create a reality, in which twenty men crossing a bridge into a village can be twenty men crossing twenty bridges, or, indeed, one man crossing one bridge. In 'Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores' the mind is turned by metaphor into a moth that leaves the lazy sea for the fertile land and the pollen of the flowers. As a contrast, in 'The Doctor of Geneva' the protagonist without imagination has lost out through being only mildly disturbed by the savagery and majesty of the sea.
'Last Looks at the Lilacs' tells of a prosaic anti-hero, 'poor buffo', being superseded in the affection of 'the divine ingenue' by a swaggering figure straight out of the Don Juan legends. 'The Worms at Heaven's Gate', a perfectly voiced piece of blank verse, tells of the worms dutifully escorting the body of an Arabian princess bit by bit from her tomb into a fallacious immortality. 'Floral Decorations for Bananas' is one of several exhortations to render the plain world more exotic. 'Anecdote of Canna' shows someone great in earthly terms, such as the president whose ceaseless thoughts never encounter any other thoughts, regaling himself by the sight of the brightly coloured flowers on his terrace. 'On the Manner of Addressing Clouds' suggests that, if clouds could speak, they would sound like the thoughts of philosophers preoccupied with death; but in reality they are silent, and alone. 'Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb' sets, against the conventional notion of ghosts wandering, the more horrific possibility that there is nothing after death at all.
'Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks' has the protagonist meeting with a warrior called 'Berserk', whose environment is created by his own disordered imagination. The character addressed in 'A High-Toned Old Christian Woman' is, quite possibly, based upon Stevens's own pious mother and is told that poetry can create an alternative universe — 'tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk' — far other than her received morality. The chief properties in 'The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician', the curtains themselves, contain in their own being the qualities which are conventionally ascribed to the external universe. 'Banal Sojourn' is a statement of ennui. In Stevens's prose gloss, culled from a letter to Hi Simons dated 18 April 1944: 'a poem of (exhaustion in August!). The mildew of any late season, of any experience that has grown monotonous as, for instance, the experience of life'. The inference may be, that is why one needs poetry.
'The Emperor of Ice Cream' is an answer to marriage poems, such as the 'Epithal-amion' of Edmund Spenser (1552—99). It is a funeral song in mock-honour of one withered and dead. Whereas in a marriage poem, preparations are made for a ceremony, here Stevens requires nothing to be changed. 'His command merely orders what already is to continue being' (Maureen Kravec, 'Let Arcade Be Finale of Arcade', The Wallace Stevens Journal, III: 1 & 2, spring 1979; an article to which the present interpretation owes much). The 'concupiscent curds' are in lieu of a wedding feast and are probably ice cream, not the most nourishing of comestibles. Instead of flowers of rhetoric, here you get 'last month's newspapers'. Spenser says 'Now bring the Bryde into the brydall boures. / Now night is come, now soone her disaray, / And in her bed her lay'. Stevens says 'Take from the dresser of deal . . . that sheet . . . And spread it so as to cover her face'. The poem is an ironic parody; an anti-wedding song, and also a stand against the concept of immortality.
'Bantams in Pine-Woods' exhibits the rhetoric of Stevens at its most extravagant:
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.
Your world is you. I am my world.
The poem is spoken, so to say, by tiny bantam chickens who are angrily confronting a very large poet, dressed, as 'Iffucan' and 'Azcan' may assure us, like a Red Indian. It is the poet who is addressed as 'Damned universal cock' and who is admonished (four times over) for being 'Fat'. In this joke poem, as elsewhere, a characteristic theme is asserted. Even a tiny chicken has to make his world out of the imagination, in order to be master of himself.
For all the variegation of the poems in Harmonium, a discernible theme runs through. It is that there is no life without the imagination; that, without the enlivening vision of poetry, the world is a waste and terrible place. Verlaine, Laforgue and Donald Evans may have succumbed to their ennui, but Stevens is piloted out of it by his recourse to verse. However, he shows by poignant metaphor what happens when one cannot write; it is like being seized with acute laryngitis. The protagonist of 'The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad' has fallen victim to the climate of his time. As Stevens puts it in this atmospheric poem (with its echoing internal rhymes, one of his best), 'I am too dumbly in my being pent'. A crucial stanza has been dropped from the poem as printed. Readers may care to insert it, between the existing lines nine and ten:
Perhaps if summer ever came to rest And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed Through days like oceans in obsidian Horizons, full of night's midsummer blaze . . .
Since it is imagination that creates the world as a living entity, it therefore follows that the world can vary according to the play of the imagination. Anyone but Stevens would have written a poem about a blackbird. He writes one called 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'. So the poem does not concern what is perceived so much as various ways of perceiving it. Further, it is the inferred melodies that may be the sweeter:
I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after.
On a grander scale, 'Sea Surface Full of Clouds' describes the same scene over and over, not so much at different times but as experienced with different degrees of sensibility. Thus, in the first section, 'paradisal green / Gave suavity to the perplexed machine / Of ocean'; in the second, 'a sham-like green / Capped summer-seeming on the tense machine / Of ocean'; in the third, 'an uncertain green, / piano-polished, held the tranced machine / Of ocean' - and right through all five sections in a symphonic effect of reiteration, patterning and development. This wonderful piece ends with a celebration of life in a resolution of all the imagistic charades that have been played before us, as the rhythm opens out:
Then the sea And heaven rolled as one and from the two Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.
This, a truly happy poem, derived from one of the very few trips Stevens took abroad. He and Elsie, his wife, cruised past Mexico, through the Panama Canal and on to California. During that voyage, according to Joan Richardson's biography (Richardson, 1988, vol. 2), their only child, their daughter Holly, was conceived. One does not need to know that fact in order to appreciate the poem, but it helps to explain the celebratory tone of the finale.
The crown jewel of Harmonium, however, is 'Sunday Morning'. Not only does it sum up many of the separate perceptions of that volume, to do with the way in which thought remakes reality, but it looks forward to the great philosophy propounded in the later works of Stevens. This has many analogies with the distinction propounded by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). He makes the distinction between 'earth', which is matter not infiltrated by perception, and 'world', which is matter perceived by humanity - indeed, created in art ('The Origin of the Work of Art', 1915, in Poetry, Language, Thought).
Without this quality of human perception the world would be meaningless. Stevens had been brought up as a Presbyterian, and he was not prepared to sacrifice the certainties of that religion for an atheism which would draw meaning out of the world. Follower of Matthew Arnold as he was, Stevens seems to have seen imagination, and more precisely poetry, as a substitute for religion.
The protagonist of 'Sunday Morning' is a woman who has decided not to go to church. Instead, her meditation creates its own sabbath. A clue to the poem is a voice crying, near the end:
'The tomb in Palestine Is not the porch of spirits lingering. It is the grave of Jesus where he lay.'
The woman, meditating, has rejected organized religion. She has rejected the concept of 'life after death': 'why should she give her bounty to the dead?' Rejected, also, is pagan mythology: 'Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth'. This does not, as a Christian might suppose, leave her with mere sensuality: 'But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?'
The woman recognizes the potential arbitrariness to which her thoughts give rise: 'We live in an old chaos of the sun'. However, that chaos is rendered meaningful by her perceptions of natural beauty. It is not that she is proposing some never-changing paradise. On the contrary - and this is the key sentence of the poem - 'Death is the mother of beauty'. Because her perception has a term, it is all the more keenly felt, and this gives it meaning. Her understanding irradiates that upon which she gazes. This is implied in the nature imagery which has been developing throughout the poem. It is fulfilled in the resolution at the end, which is one of the loveliest passages in modern poetry:
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; And, in the isolation of the sky, At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make Ambiguous undulations as they sink, Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
It is not the wonder of this natural world that is the meaning. It is the woman's perception of that wonder, which has given rise to the poem which communicates her perception. Hence, the meaning of life is in poetry.
If the poet's hand had faltered, his creed would have failed. But here is an original rehandling of blank verse; a remarkable achievement, aesthetic as well as technical, for this late stage in the history of literature. The working out of this great poem guarantees its philosophy. It is at the centre of Harmonium, and, hence, at the centre of Stevens's art. That art is, as Arnold might have said, a creation of the brain, woven of poetry and philosophy.
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Brazeau, Peter (1983). Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, New York: Random House.
Buttel, Robert (1967). The Making of Harmonium, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Doyle, Charles (ed.) (1985). Wallace Stevens: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge.
Jarrell, Randall (1973). Poetry and the Age, London: Faber and Faber.
Lensing, George S. (1986). Wallace Stevens: A Poet's Growth, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Richardson, Joan (1986). Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923, New York: Beech Tree Books.
Richardson, Joan (1988). Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955, New York: Beech Tree Books.
Stevens, Holly (1977). Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Stevens, Wallace (1955). Collected Poems, London:
Faber and Faber. Stevens, Wallace (1960). The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, London: Faber and Faber.
Stevens, Wallace (1967). Letters, ed. Holly Stevens,
London: Faber and Faber. Stevens, Wallace (1989). Opus Posthumous, revd edn, ed. Milton J. Bates, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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