American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was a virtuoso of language, a master of rhyme and verbal music, of gay and thoughtful rhythms, and of precise and exotic diction.
Wallace Stevens was a successful lawyer and businessman, as well as an important poet. But too much has been made of the combination of esthete and businessman in him. Poetry for him was an irresistible urge ("one writes poetry because one must"), whereas business success was largely a means to attain the independence and privacy he needed for his poetry. He was from the start a poet's poet, a brilliant craftsman, but general critical acclaim came slowly. His early verse shows the influence of the French symbolists—the romantic skepticism, irony, dandified wit, and self-deprecation of Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Jules Laforgue. Stevens stood apart from groups, but he shared the imagists' devotion to concrete images and the general commitment of modernists to learning, discriminating diction, wit, and the merging of thought and feeling. Beneath the surface of his cosmopolitan verse, an American heart beats, acknowledging attachments to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, his adopted state, and Florida, a vacation state. In "The Comedian as the Letter C" he wrote that "his soil is man's intelligence." Stevens was an heir of Walt Whitman, who employed free forms, foreign phrases, and references to music. Stevens's approximately 400 published poems and his few essays and published talks are largely devoted to converting the diversity of reality, its "fragrances" and "stinks," to poetry's order and harmony.
Stevens was born on Oct. 2, 1879, in Reading, Pa. He was educated locally and from 1897 to 1900 at Harvard, where he absorbed something of Professor George Santayana's estheticism. After college he worked briefly as a New York Herald Tribune reporter and attended New York University Law School (1900-1903). He was admitted to the bar in 1904 and began practicing law in New York City. He married Elsie V. Kachel in 1909 and they had one daughter. All the while he was writing poetry, and as the poetic renascence in America and England gathered momentum, he began to associate with other poets, such as Alfred Kreymborg, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings, and later Marianne Moore. In 1914, at the age of 35, this large, competent man, who spoke softly and seldom, submitted a group of poems to Poetry magazine, which printed four under the dandyish pseudonym of "Peter Parasol."
In 1915 "Peter Quince at the Clavier" appeared, an important poem employing a variety of economical forms— three-line unrhymed stanzas, stanzas with irregular rhymes and different numbers of lines, and couplet stanzas. In it a man improvising at a clavier speaks or thinks of a beloved, and his imagination associates the sound of the music, his desire, and the ancient myth of Susanna and the elders. Particular beauties, he finds, are "momentary in the mind," but our hunger for beauty itself is passed on immortally in the blood.
The same year "Sunday Morning," one of Stevens's most celebrated poems, appeared. The poem is skeptical, but regretfully so. A complacent lady in a peignoir, having coffee and oranges in a sunny room, finds it possible to put off "the dark/ Encroachment of that old catastrophe," Christ's martyrdom. She suspects that the "comforts of the sun" are "all of paradise that we shall know," though she still feels "The need of some imperishable bliss." In a naturalistic cosmos, on the "wide water" of history, "unsponsored, free," she can unite herself to the passing delights of her tasteful room and the world outside.
In 1916 Stevens joined the legal department of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company in Hartford, Conn., but he returned to New York occasionally to see literary friends. He published two short plays, "Three Travelers Watch the Sunrise" (1916) and "Carlos among the Candles" (1917), both embodying the influence of symbolist theory and Japanese No plays. In 1919 Stevens enjoyed the first of the Florida vacations that occasioned a number of poems. Publishing regularly in little magazines, he had put approximately 100 poems into print when, at the age of 44, he published his first volume of verse, Harmonium (1923).
Most notices of Harmonium were unfavorable. The book demonstrated, nevertheless, that Stevens had perfected his use of Gallicisms, rare words, and "gaudy" language; of unusual titles and color symbols; and of short imagistic lyrics and long meditative poems, usually about poetry. The title and exuberant musical effects of "Bantams in Pine-woods," beginning "Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/ Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" illustrate two of these characteristics. The poem contrasts bantams absorbed in concrete particularities with the inflated crowing of a "universal cock." "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," "To the One of Fictive Music," and "The Emperor of Ice Cream" all became familiar pieces.
The character of Crispin in the long and difficult "The Comedian as the Letter C" is, up to 1923, Stevens's most effective representation of the artist. A performer-transformer in quest of deep realities, he is both the earth's highest creature and a limited clown subject to chance and change. Crispin's far, dreamlike voyages ultimately return him to his home continent and to the world within himself. Some critics look upon this thoughtful poem with its unusual vocabulary as a bridge between Stevens's early inclination toward virtuoso performances and a final concentration on the penetration of reality.
Stevens's poetic activity fell off after Harmonium. This has been attributed to efforts to advance his business career (he became a vice president of his insurance company in 1934) and to the fact that his Crispin-like quest took longer than he had expected. In 1930 his poems began to appear again, and he published a second edition of Harmonium (1931), its status as a classic of modern poetry now secure.
It was 1935 before Stevens issued a new volume, Ideas of Order. Here Stevens was still meditating on the poetic process but with a new elegiac note, a new uneasiness about a reality that included the Great Depression and forebodings of international violence. "Academic Discourse at Havana" notes that "a grand decadence settles down like cold." What is "the function of the poet" in such a cultural setting? Is it to speak an "epitaph" or "An infinite incantation of our selves/ In the grand decadence of the perished swans"? In "Ideas of Order at Key West" two men walk on the shore and discuss the sea (reality) and the "Blessed rage to order." The person in "Anglais Mort à Florence" finds that the pleasures of spring, Brahms's music, and the imaginative moon are waning with age and that he has become increasingly dependent on social order and memory.
The long title poem of The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937) represents an advance in Stevens's meditations on poetry. The guitarist is the poet, and the blue guitar his imagination. The guitarist says, "'Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar."' The author adds that in our secular world "Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns." And later he declares that "Poetry is the subject of the poem,/From this the poem issues and/ To this returns…." Men are most alive in their imaginations, and the artist who imagines the materials of the world most truly and austerely into art is the most alive of men. In "Mystic Garden and Middling Beast" Stevens again affirms the responsible hedonism of such men who are "Happy rather than holy" and "whose heaven is in themselves."
At 60 Stevens began his unusually productive last period. Parts of a World (1942) is a collection of raw fragments of reality that were preliminaries to the final synthesizing meditations of later volumes. "Loneliness in Jersey City" presents an urban barrenness amusingly humanized by "Polacks" playing concertinas. Other poems are addressed to poetry and the fiction-making mind of the poet-hero, "the central man," "the glass man," who is as "responsive as a mirror with a voice."
Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) is an extended poem of 30 lesser poems with prologue and epilogue embodying Stevens's mature ideas about poetry. Like much of his late verse, it is sparse, dense, and as a result at times obscure. To the ears of some critics it is also prosaic. Assessing the relationship of poetry and philosophy, imagination and reality, Stevens concludes that the true poet seeks the Supreme Fiction, the absolute but unattainable poem. He strives to enter into the changing fragments of this world and to discover by will or by chance order and unity. Though the results are only partial and unstable, he is compelled to go on seeking.
Esthétique du Mal (1944), another long poem, accepts the inevitable deprivation and suffering of man and the necessity for evil in order to define good. Poetry or language at its best, like faith in God, can help us convert these inevitabilities into joy: "Natives of poverty, children of malheur,/ The gaiety of language is our seigneur."
Stevens's new collection, Transport to Summer (1947), included Notes toward a Supreme Fiction and Esthétique du Mal. "Credences of Summer" is a lyrical celebration of the high point of reality (greenness) and of the year, "green's green apogee." "Dutch Graves" grew out of a visit to his old family home and cemetery in Tulpehocken, Pa. This poem and an essay published in 1948 both dwell on the decay of the religious vision, the fiction or myth that gave direction to his ancestors' lives.
Auroras of Autumn (1950) won the Bollingen Prize. The volume contains one of Steven's most penetrating statements on his poetic theory. In "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" the meditator states, "'We seek/ Nothing beyond reality. Within it/ Everything … The search for reality is as momentous as/ The search for God,"' adding that a philosopher seeks "'an interior made exterior"' and a poet "'the same exterior made/ Interior…. "' The Necessary Angel: Essays in Reality and Imagination (1951) contains pithy and closely reasoned essays and lectures.
Stevens's Collected Poems (1954) received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. At this time he refused a Harvard professorship, though he relished the idea of concentrating on poetry, but he feared that the appointment would force his retirement from business, since he had already worked several years beyond the statutory retirement age of 70. The decision was of little consequence, for he died on Aug. 2, 1955. The dedicated imaginer of the things of this world, like the subject of "A Child Asleep in Its Own Life" from his Opus Posthumous (1957), was asleep in his poems, the "sole emperor" of what he had regarded outwardly and known inwardly.
Further Reading on Wallace Stevens
Stevens's daughter, Holly Stevens, selected and edited his Letters (1966). Stevens's Opus Posthumous was edited by Samuel F. Morse (1957). Morse's Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life (1970) is comprehensive and combines biography with scholarly criticism of the work.
A general study is William Van O'Connor, The Shaping Spirit: A Study of Wallace Stevens (1950). Two introductions to Stevens's work are Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (1960), and Henry W. Wells, Introduction to Wallace Stevens (1964). More specialized studies include Robert Pack, Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought (1958); Daniel Fuchs, The Comic Spirit of Wallace Stevens (1963); John J. Enck, Wallace Stevens: Images and Judgments (1964); Joseph N. Riddel, The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens (1965); Herbert J. Stern, Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty (1966); and Ronald Sukenick, Wallace Stevens, Musing the Obscure: Readings, an Interpretation, and a Guide to the Collected Poetry (1967). Essays on Stevens by various critics are in Ashley Brown and Robert S. Haller, eds., The Achievement of Wallace Stevens (1962), and Marie Boroff, ed., Wallace Stevens: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Bates, Milton J., Wallace Stevens: a mythology of self, Berkeley:University of California Press, 1985.
Brazeau, Peter, Parts of a world: Wallace Stevens remembered: an oral biography, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985, 1983.
Richardson, Joan, Wallace Stevens, New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986-c1988.
Stevens, Holly, Souvenirs and prophecies: the young Wallace Stevens, New York: Knopf, 1977, 1976.
Wallace Stevens: a celebration, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.