Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955)

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

Life

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.

Poetry

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 Stevens’s 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.

Poems By Wallace Stevens

Miscellaneous

A High-Toned Old Christian Woman (4 Comments »)
A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts (6 Comments »)
Anecdote Of The Jar (3 Comments »)
Bantams In Pine-Woods (1 Comment »)
Continual Conversation With A Silent Man (1 Comment »)
Disillusionment Of Ten O’clock (4 Comments »)
Domination Of Black (6 Comments »)
Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour (2 Comments »)
Gray Room (1 Comment »)
Looking Across The Fields And Watching The Birds Fly (No Comments »)
Metaphors Of A Magnifico (No Comments »)
Nomad Exquisite (No Comments »)
Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself (1 Comment »)
Of Modern Poetry (4 Comments »)
Poem Written At Morning (3 Comments »)
Six Significant Landscapes (1 Comment »)
Tattoo (1 Comment »)
The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm (No Comments »)
The Idea Of Order At Key West (No Comments »)
The Planet On The Table (No Comments »)
The Plot Against The Giant (3 Comments »)
The Poem That Took The Place Of A Mountain (4 Comments »)
The River Of Rivers In Connecticut (No Comments »)
The Sense Of The Sleight-Of-Hand Man (No Comments »)
The Snow Man (4 Comments »)
The Well Dressed Man With A Beard (1 Comment »)
Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird (4 Comments »)
To The One Of Fictive Music (No Comments »)
Valley Candle (No Comments »)

Harmonium

Peter Quince At The Clavier (No Comments »)
Sunday Morning (No Comments »)
The Emperor Of Ice-Cream (7 Comments »)

Wallace Stevens: The Palm at the End of the Mind Selected Poems and a Play

A Postcard From The Volcano (2 Comments »)
Analysis, meaning and summary of Wallace Stevens's poem A Postcard From The Volcano

2 Comments

  1. mark says:

    A lamentation of the fleeting nature of life and human memory. A simple poem, but one possessing a beautiful sadness that I find myself returning to often.

  2. Jocelyne Do Carmo De Lima Viegas says:

    “A Postcard from the Volcano” offers its readers a few simple words delivered after the apocalypse; but the language survives from a past that is only apparently destroyed, and the historical continuities of the language that forms the poem itself undermine the poem’s evocative sense of an ending. Stevens begins by recognizing a new generation’s inevitable sense of its distance from its heritage. Yet he speaks with the voice of the dead.
    The dominant feeling of the poem, then, that of the living present of the poet’s immediate thinking, may be summed up in the phrase, “The gaiety of language.” The poet shares the despair, the aching desolation, of his bodily self but, as experienced by this man as poet, the despair become “a literate despair” that cries out in all three presents, but mainly in the supratemporal present, as above and “Beyond our gate and the windy sky.” From that other ether, the poet experiences the jubilance of knowing the intricate relationships between past and present and future within the time series. As a result of such knowing, the whole of the world of the poem, the dirty mansion, the children, the bones left behind, the way things are seen and felt, and speech itself are all “Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun,” with that supratemporal source of light and awareness that is the very moving of the poet’s thought in the present of his poem as living, imaginative experience. The despair of what will become mere bones to be picked up by children, the guilty innocence of the children, these remain the anguish and the ignorance of this desolate world. While the words continue to tremble and echo from the volcano, however, while this supratemporal linguistic awareness continues to smear the dirt and poverty of the scene with the gold of its opulence, the despair felt cries out as “a literate despair” and “The gaiety of language is our seignior.” The gold is merely smeared on the dirt; the dirt remains what it is, covered with the gold, but as real as if exposed. Despair, guilt, ignorant wonder, jubilance and gaiety, all survive and contribute vitally to this richly historical and desolately unhistorical affirmation of an imaginative truth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Do you have any comments, criticism, paraphrasis or analysis of this poem that you feel would assist other visitors in understanding the meaning or the theme of this poem by Wallace Stevens better? If accepted, your analysis will be added to this page of American Poems. Together we can build a wealth of information, but it will take some discipline and determination.