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Biography of Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955)

Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 - August 2, 1955) was an American Modernist poet.


Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens went to college at Harvard, after which he moved to New York City and briefly worked as a journalist. He then attended New York Law School, graduating in 1903. By 1908 he had been hired as a bonding lawyer for an insurance firm, and by 1914 he was the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of Hartford Accident and Indemnity and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named vice-president of the company.

On a trip back to Reading in 1904, Stevens met Elsie Moll, whom he married, after a long courtship, in 1909. The marriage reputedly turned cold and distant, but the Stevenses never divorced.

Stevens got his first book of poetry, Harmonium, published in 1923, and produced only two more major books of poetry during the 1920s and '30s. He came out with three books of poetry in the 1940s, however, and his best poetry was written after he turned 60. It was in this later period that Stevens began to be recognized as a major poet, and he received the National Book Award in 1950 and 1954.


Stevens' subjects are the interplay between imagination and reality, and the relation between consciousness and the world. In Stevens, "imagination" is not equivalent to consciousness or "reality" to the world as it exists outside our minds. Reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the world. Or rather, as the title of one of his late poems puts it, Stevens sees reality "as the activity of the most august imagination."

Reality is an activity, not a static object, because it is constantly changing as we attempt to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive the world. Stevens sees the poet (who, as for Wordsworth, is qualitatively the same as other people) as continually creating and discarding cognitive depictions of the world. These cognitive depictions find their outlet and their best and final form as words; and thus Stevens can say, "It is a world of words to the end of it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self." His most general and impressive statement in this vein comes in a poem called "Men Made out of Words," in which he says: "Life / Consists of propositions about life.".

Stevens also believed that, for life to be worth living or (what was for him a very similar thing) poetry to be worth reading, the words we choose to express the world must constantly change. As he noted in "The Man with the Blue Guitar":

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

Constant change is necessary for two reasons. First, our world can be seen not as a whole, but in parts, and changing parts at that. We live in a world of "pitches and patches"; we are

Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos,
The way, when we climb a mountain,
Vermont throws itself together.

Second, without change life and poetry would be stagnant, as Stevens depicts heaven as being in his best-known poem, "Sunday Morning": "Is there no change of death in paradise? / Does ripe fruit never fall?" "Death," says Stevens in the same poem, "is the mother of beauty," because only that which changes is beautiful, and death is the last form of change and the guarantor of transiency.

Stevens was well aware that the intellect is often used to avoid reality rather than confront it. In "Loneliness in Jersey City" he parodies both religious and scientific analysis with meaningless statements such as "The deer and the dachshund are one" and:

The distance between the dark steeple
And cobble ten thousand and three
Is more than a seven-foot inchworm
Could measure by moonlight in June.

As Stevens notes in the same poem, "The steeples are empty and so are the people" - religion and science have tended to find comfortable substitutes for reality rather than describe it accurately.

The need constantly to re-create reality is what makes Stevens's work so various but at the same time so unified. Along with his flawless ear and constant inventiveness, it is what gives rise to the verbal pyrotechnics of his poetry.

Although there necessarily cannot be a final destination to Stevens's poetry, some of the greatest moments of his poems come when Stevens catches a glimpse, so to speak, of the secular transcendence that ultimately lies beyond a poem - for example, when in "To an Old Philosopher in Rome", he speaks of "Things dark on the horizons of perception", of "the shadow of a shape" that constitutes

A light on the candle tearing against the wick
To join a hovering excellence, to escape
From fire and be part only of that of which
Fire is the symbol: the celestial possible.

Reception and Influence

From the first, critics and fellow poets recognized Stevens's genius. While in college, he exchanged sonnets with George Santayana. In the 1930s, the rationalist Yvor Winters criticized Stevens as a decadent hedonist but acknowledged his great talent. Hart Crane wrote to a friend in 1919, after reading some of the poems that would make up Harmonium, "There is a man whose work makes most the rest of us quail." Beginning in the 1940s, critics such as Randall Jarrell spoke of Stevens as one of the major living American poets, even if they did so (as Jarrell did) with certain reservations about Stevensís work.

After Stevens's death, it was Harold Bloom who did the most among critics to assure Stevens's position in the canon as a great poet, and perhaps the greatest American poet of the 20th century. Other major critics, such as Helen Vendler and Frank Kermode, have added their voices and analysis to this verdict. Many poets, James Merrill and Donald Justice most explicitly, have acknowledged Stevens as a major influence on their work, and his impact may also be felt in John Ashbery, John Hollander, and others.

Biography by: This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Wallace Stevens.

33 Poems written by Wallace Stevens

The poems are by default sorted according to volume, but you can also choose to sort them alphabetically or by page views.

Volume | Alphabetically | Page Views | Comments | [First Lines]

First LineComments
1 Comments and analysis of Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens 35 Comments
First Girl Comments and analysis of The Plot Against The Giant by Wallace Stevens 7 Comments
A sunny day's complete Poussiniana Comments and analysis of Poem Written At Morning by Wallace Stevens 3 Comments
After the final no there comes a yes Comments and analysis of The Well Dressed Man With A Beard by Wallace Stevens 66 Comments
Although you sit in a room that is gray, Comments and analysis of Gray Room by Wallace Stevens 34 Comments
Among the more irritating minor ideas Comments and analysis of Looking Across The Fields And Watching The Birds Fly by Wallace Stevens 42 Comments
Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
As the immense dew of Florida
At night, by the fire, Comments and analysis of Domination Of Black by Wallace Stevens 8 Comments
At the earliest ending of winter, Comments and analysis of Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself by Wallace Stevens 2 Comments
Call the roller of big cigars, Comments and analysis of The Emperor Of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens 38 Comments
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan Comments and analysis of Bantams In Pine-Woods by Wallace Stevens 9 Comments
Children picking up our bones Comments and analysis of A Postcard From The Volcano by Wallace Stevens 15 Comments
I Comments and analysis of Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird by Wallace Stevens 4 Comments
I Comments and analysis of Peter Quince At The Clavier by Wallace Stevens 40 Comments
I Comments and analysis of Six Significant Landscapes by Wallace Stevens 282 Comments
I placed a jar in Tennessee, Comments and analysis of Anecdote Of The Jar by Wallace Stevens 57 Comments
Light the first light of evening, as in a room Comments and analysis of Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour by Wallace Stevens 90 Comments
My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
One must have a mind of winter Comments and analysis of The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens 6 Comments
One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame. Comments and analysis of A High-Toned Old Christian Woman by Wallace Stevens 89 Comments
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
Sister and mother and diviner love,
The difficulty to think at the end of day, Comments and analysis of A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts by Wallace Stevens 34 Comments
The house was quiet and the world was calm. Comments and analysis of The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm by Wallace Stevens 2 Comments
The houses are haunted Comments and analysis of Disillusionment Of Ten O'clock by Wallace Stevens 5 Comments
The light is like a spider. Comments and analysis of Tattoo by Wallace Stevens 17 Comments
The old brown hen and the old blue sky, Comments and analysis of Continual Conversation With A Silent Man by Wallace Stevens 2 Comments
The poem of the mind in the act of finding Comments and analysis of Of Modern Poetry by Wallace Stevens 12 Comments
There is a great river this side of Stygia Comments and analysis of The River Of Rivers In Connecticut by Wallace Stevens 9 Comments
There it was, word for word, Comments and analysis of The Poem That Took The Place Of A Mountain by Wallace Stevens 90 Comments
Twenty men crossing a bridge,

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