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Wallace Stevens
Chapter: Introduction to Wallace Stevens

 

Stevens' Life And Work

Biographical Introduction

In an age when most artists, even poets, felt compelled to market their products as if they were detergents, Wallace Stevens, one of the comparatively few great American poets, chose to let his poems speak for themselves. The result of this lifelong reticence (or, to use a word no longer in fashion, dignity) is that the facts of Stevens' life are meager. This meagerness of biographical detail is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it keeps the sentimental critic from reading the poems as if they were merely diary entries of the poet's life; on the other, it focuses so much attention on the one unusual (for a poet) fact of Stevens' life, that many forget to look at the poems. That is: Stevens was a very successful businessman. Trained as a lawyer, he chose to go into business and for many years, almost until the end of his long life, was Vice President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Persons in the arts community talk as if he were, in some obscure way, a traitor; the members of the business community, who did not know he was a poet at all, have not made their reactions to his dual existence available.

But for Stevens this duality did not exist: he was a fine businessman who was also one of America's artistic geniuses. He may perhaps have hoped that some day America would approach the maturity of outlook which accepts the fact that poetry is as essential to the Nation's welfare as washing machines and the space program, and take it for granted that man has needs beyond the capacity of the local supermarket to fill. He would have agreed with the biblical injunction that 'Where there is no vision the people perish," but he would also have understood that people don't realize the importance of food until their stomachs are empty.

The Facts Of His Life: Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. His father was a lawyer. On his mother's side, the Zeller's, Stevens claimed Dutch ancestors, religious refugees who, after living for fifteen or twenty years in the Scoharie region of New York, went down the Susquehanna to Tulpehochen in Pennsylvania. In 1897, he matriculated at Harvard, where he stayed until 1900. After some time spent in New York as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in the old ornate building which still stands on Park Row, he went to the New York Law School (which up until a few years ago also stood on Park Row) and graduated in 1903. In 1904 he was admitted to the New York Bar and practiced in New York City until 1916. During these years, in which he worked hard to develop a successful law practice, he maintained his relationships with artists and writers in nearby Greenwich Village, among them William Carlos Williams (who was to become a successful doctor and author of the great American epic, Paterson); Marianne Moore (who shares with Emily Dickinson the first rank among American poetesses); and e. e. cummings, whose experiments in breaking up words and patterning his lines upon the page were to identify him in the minds of most Americans as the very model of the advance guard poet.

As far as is known, no manuscript poems survive before 1913, when Stevens was about thirty-four years old. In 1914 he had four poems published in the magazine Poetry. From then on he was a consistent contributor to the little magazines. He published, for instance, in Alfred Kreymborg's periodical Others such famous pieces as "Peter Quince at the Clavier." In 1915 he published what was to become his most celebrated (if not his greatest) poem in Poetry; the first version of "Sunday Morning." In 1916 he published the first of two verse plays, Three Travellers Watch the Sunrise, and in 1917 the second, Carlos Among the Candles.

In 1916, moving to Hartford, he joined the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, of which he became Vice-President in 1934. Up to this time he had, apparently, written comparatively infrequently. Now he began to write and publish prolifically. In 1916-1917, according to Frank Kermode in his book Wallace Stevens (see bibliography), he published about a poem a month; in 1918 there were fifteen poems, including the very important "Le Monocle de mon Oncle." By 1923 he had published about a hundred poems. During this time he was attempting, as he said, to perfect "an authentic and fluent speech" for himself.

Publishing History: In 1923, when Knopf published Harmonium, Stevens was forty-five years old. In the time-honored fashion for early works of poetry, few copies were sold. For a number of years after this Stevens wrote few poems. A second edition of Harmonium was published in 1931. In 1935, he published Ideas of Order; in 1936, Owl's Clover; in 1937, The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems; in 1942, Parts of a World and Notes toward a Supreme Fiction; in 1944, Esthetique du Mal; in 1947, Transport to Summer; in 1950 The Auroras of Autumn. In 1954, when he was seventy-five, he published his Collected Poems. Besides these there is the collection of his prose essays and lectures, published as The Necessary Angel in 1951. In 1957, Opus Posthumous was published with an introduction by Samuel French Morse, who is writing an official biography. We must wait for this biography for a fuller disclosure of the facts of Stevens' life.

 

Stevens' Poetic; Background And Influences

Stevens kept a notebook in which from time to time he jotted down, (as did such earlier American writers as philosopher-poets Emerson and Thoreau) conclusions he had come to about poetry, language, existence. Among these aphorisms, published under the title "Adagia" in Opus Posthumous, is the following: "French and English constitute a single language" and "The Americans are not British in sensibility." These statements offer as useful a springboard as any for an analysis of Stevens' poetry.

First of all, they will help explain a number of characteristics of the poet which might otherwise baffle the reader: his exotic and particular vocabulary, his seemingly incomprehensible subject matter, the central notions of his work, the "ideas" he offers.

In addition, they will serve to show the place that Stevens holds in the tradition of Western, especially American, poetry.

French Influences On Stevens: Stevens, like Whitman before him, does not limit himself to the conventional vocabulary of the English language. His poetry is full of French words and phrases. We can say, in a general way, that there are two reasons for this: one is the particular circumstances of time and place in which Stevens began as a poet; another is that they were Stevens' deliberate choice. Let us take these separately. In the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, many English poets, believing that the traditional conventions of English poetry were exhausted, sought new forms of expression, new subject matter. The reader may perhaps know of Gerard Manley Hopkins' (1844-1888) attempts to introduce "sprung rhythm" (a return in some measure to Anglo-Saxon and Elizabethan practice) as a poetic device. Since Hopkins' poetry was not published in his own time, it is difficult to say what kind of effect it would have had on the poetry of his contemporaries.

Many English poets, on the other hand, found inspiration in the tradition of French poetry. At first this took the form of imitating French structures only (such as the villanelle, the ballade, the triolet) and we may study the success of these attempts in the poetry of Oscar Wilde and Austin Dobson, to name only two. But the influence began to grow stronger. During the Nineteenth Century the French had undergone a revolution in poetry. Such poets as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Verlaine, Valery and Laforgue had contributed a number of radical ideas about the nature and function of poetry. It would be difficult to do full justice to these ideas in this limited space. Suffice it to say that among others, these are some of the essential aspects: The poet's duty is to enlarge the real by rejecting those images and forms of expression, those ways of seeing and understanding and feeling, which are no longer valid or "true"; he must get rid of the "garbage" which inevitably collects in a culture; he must re-see, re-feel, re-imagine existence, "purify the language of his tribe," which is full of dead words, and give the world back to the people.

Violence, Decadence, Mystery: How does the poet do this? As Rimbaud suggests, by breaking out of the cage (which the traditional ways of seeing things becomes) by a violent assault on convention, by cracking up the language, by violent assaults on one's own senses. Only by doing this can one escape imprisonment and find the real world. Baudelaire suggested new subject matter, giving imaginative form to material conventionally rejected as the subject matter of poetry. For Baudelaire this material was the city, for instance, or disease, or sin, or evil. To get away from the convention, maintained so deadeningly by the industrialized middle class, one had to shock, search out decadent and debased existences. One must in fact, descend into hell before one gets to reality which is heaven. Baudelaire also promulgated the notion of "correspondences," i.e. that a resonance, or reverberation is set up between objects which, dissimilar, when placed together, are seen to have an affinity, to be analagous, to create a third object. This third object is the poem, the real discovery, the new entity. The creative poet sees how one thing is a symbol for another; the poet "finds" symbols.

This idea bore fruit in what is called the "Symbolist Movement." It was of tremendous importance to the whole development of modern poetry. Such poets as Mallarme went even further. He said that the poet must merely provide the symbols; it is the reader's task to discover the meaning of the symbols, which consequently leads to the notion of the poem as a structure or object entirely separate from the poet, having its own mysterious being. It is mysterious, however, only because its meaning is itself. One cannot paraphrase it. What, one might ask is the "meaning" of a cloud, or a rock? But as one does not ask this, neither should one ask the "meaning" of a poem. "A poem should not mean, but be" says the American poet, Archibald Macleish. Among this group, the poems often comprised symbols offered only as images, without any connectives. Stevens was deeply influenced by these ideas of the Symbolists. In his own country, such people as Ezra Pound were already promulgating them as early as the 1990's. Already deeply read in the whole literature of the French - whose orderliness, intelligence, wit and linguistic sensitivity he found congenial to his own talents and personality - Stevens, with others, quickly accepted Pound's imagist dictum that the poet must discard everything from his poetry but images. From his earliest publication until the end, Stevens was never to discard the image and the symbol as basic components of his poetry. Here is an example from an early poem: "The houses are haunted/By white nightgowns." and one from a very late poem: "The owl sits humped. It has a hundred eyes." The value of the image is the value of uncluttered and accurate re-creation; the value of the symbol is the value of analogy. Since the world is complex, an accurate realization of it must be complex, one thing must stand for many. So we attain resonance, reverberation, density.

The British Influence On Stevens: In spite of all that has been said, Stevens is also one of the finest products of the British tradition of English poetry. In his great blank verse we hear the descendant of Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. The student cannot fully appreciate such a masterpiece as "Le Monocle de mon Oncle" unless he can hear the echoes and variations of Shakespeare's sonnets that it contains. Without familiarity with the blank-verse tradition of Milton, one cannot begin to savour the majestic cadences of "Sunday Morning." Stevens' sensibility, as he himself suggests, was a compound of the French and English; but in sum total, it was something new - it was American.

The American Influence On Stevens: But no one could mistake Stevens himself for anything but an American. His poems are full of American names - place names, personal names: New Haven, Hartford, Florida, Jersey City - such names abound. His poems are a "marriage of flesh and air," they "occur as they occur": in a local cemetery, on the way to the bus, looking out a hotel window, passing the city dump. And since Stevens never left America, the vast majority of these "occurrences" are specifically localized. It is American speech which is the yeast of his diction; American air which pours through his sky. American places which he has realized.

He saw himself as a continuator of that imaginative realization of America started by Emerson, by Walt Whitman. The poet was the expressor and the expression of his place. "The greatest poverty is not to live/In a physical world," that is, one is poor if one lives in fancy or dream. In Emerson he would find a congenial philosopher; for Emerson too, the world was an analogue of a transcending reality. In the specific and particular thing one found a symbolic correspondent for the overreaching, non-sensate world; but it was through the sensate world that one saw the other. For Stevens the world was not real until it was realized through imagination. The poet is he who is able to imagine from the "green" world available to his eyes, ears, touch, smell, the "blue" world which is the real one. People without the ability to transform the sensate world live in "poverty" because in fact they don't "see" the "green" world either: they live in the dead world of the past which, though it may have flourished once, is gone. Stevens said, calling upon the genius of imagination which dwelled in him, "My dame, sing for this person accurate songs." "This person" was, and is, his "tribe," the American people, who, living in the poverty of ancient and decayed visions, need a real world, an accurate world.

Stevens called poetry "the supreme fiction," by which he meant simply that the imagined recreation of the real is not necessarily the real, it is a map which is useful for the time. Each age, each culture must make new maps: the thing "out there" remains; "the plum survives its poems." This does not mean that the map is fanciful, the product of mere dreaming. The poet must get rid of "seem" and by the accuracy of his vision, substitute "be." But always, the world is changing. One looks at old snapshots which were accurate in their time - but the subjects of those pictures are now old or dead. A major poet's maps last longer than others - sometimes forever, if he is accurate enough. Stevens is an "accurate" mapmaker; he is a major poet.

 

Stevens' Terms

Reality And Imagination: I have used the terms "reality" and "imagination" a number of times in the previous section. Let us now analyze these terms as they are ordinarily used and then as Stevens understood them. Ordinarily, when we use the word "reality" we mean the world that is given to us by our senses - we mean what we see, what we smell, what we touch, what we hear, what we taste. Our assumption is always that everyone else sees, smells, touches, hears and tastes the same things we do. If they don't, there is something wrong with them. What we never stop to realize is that we all share this common reality because it has been organized for us, and from childhood on we are unconsciously trained to adopt a common understanding of what is "out there." If you stop to think for a moment about, say, the way in which an Australian aborigine and an American secretary might see a typewriter or an animal track in the dust you will perceive the importance of training. What makes for this difference of perception, aside from individual mentality, but difference in culture, difference in training? The fact of the matter is that each culture actually perceives a different world.

What brings this difference about? Many things: usefulness (the aborigine does not need a typewriter to survive; the secretary does not need to understand animal tracks to survive - she can go to the local supermarket), or if you want, vision, which is another word for imagination. Most people understand imagination to mean inventiveness or, in a more limited sense, fancifulness. "Boy," you say about some one with a flair for rich embellishments, "what an imagination he has." More precisely, this is what Coleridge called fancy; that is, fancy is combining elements which one hadn't thought of combining before - it is the talent which good chefs or interior decorators have. Imagination is creation: it is the ability to bring something new into existence by the seeing beyond the obvious, by plunging through the patterns which training and culture have fixed. Shakespeare had imagination, Einstein had imagination, Da Vinci had imagination. The test, it would seem, of imagination is this: if this person had never lived, can we say that we would have what he gave us? It is possible to predict for instance, a Dior gown, but not a Hamlet; it is possible to predict the computer, but not Einstein's theory of relativity.

Stevens' Use Of Terms: For Stevens, "reality" is what the senses give us, the basic, fundamental data. However, it is meaningless until it is organized, "realized" by the imagination. Who "realizes" this? The man of imagination; called variously, the "hero," the "primitive," the "good man." By a peculiar talent, he is able to see things "as they are" not as they "seem." The union between the physical thing (a rock, a river, a landscape, a house) and the man of imagination produces a "fiction," that is, something which was not there, something new. The union is a "marriage," and like a marriage, is more than the total of its parts. The poet, by doing this, brings order out of chaos. He invents, or finds a "mundus" (Latin for "world").

 

A Glossary Of Stevens' Terms

Anecdote: Stevens titles a number of his short poems "anecdotes." Ordinarily an anecdote is a brief account of an event, usually biographical. Originally it meant facts of history not published as yet - as for instance short accounts of famous men not officially part of the historical record. In Stevens, an anecdote is usually a poem which puts together elements of an opposite nature. These opposites are then shown to be resolvable or even identical.

Blank Verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter. Pentameter is a line measure of five (penta) feet. A foot is a measure of stressed and unstressed syllables. Here is an example of an iambic pentameter line which you yourself might have spoken: "Today/I walked/across/the park/to school."

Imagists: A group of poets, American for the most part - notably Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Hilda Doolittle - who flourished from 1912-1914. They sought to use ordinary language, to use the whole world as subject matter, to present the reader with a sharply perceived detail. They were influenced by the Japanese haiku form (where the final image is a "realization" of the previous, common images) and ordinarily wrote in free verse (non-patterned by meter, or syllable stress). Here is Pound's famous example called "In a Station of the Metro (French subway"): "The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/Petals on a wet, black bough."

Symbolism: Many men have believed that the physical concrete world of the senses "stands for" another, non-physical world, a "higher" reality. In other words the visible world is a symbol of the invisible world. The Romantics generally believed this to be true and modern poetry derives from Romanticism. Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus says that in "the symbol the infinite is made to blend itself with the finite, to stand visible." A private symbol is one not usually accepted (Dali's melting watch.) Stevens has many private symbols. A conventional symbol is one which most people have come to accept for what it is worth (the nightingale as a symbol of loss or nostalgia or melancholy; the rose as a symbol of beauty, perfection, loveliness). But the symbol rightly discovered has great force because it means more than one can ever say it means. Why this is so, no one has ever been able to discover. But it is so.