Thirty-one years after his death, more people than ever are reading the sublime poetry of Wallace Stevens, and his critical reputation—which has grown steadily since 1950, the year he was awarded the Bollingen Prize—has never been greater. But even today, in the minds of many readers who feel perfectly at home with his contemporaries Eliot, Yeats, and Williams, the name of Stevens is, beyond all else, synonymous with enigmatic symbolism and abstruse epistemology. To a dismayingly large number of people, indeed, the most interesting thing about him is not his poetry but the fact that he wrote most of it while serving as vice president in charge of surety claims for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.
The more consideration one gives to this disaffection for Stevens’s work among certain types of readers, the more firmly one believes that their problem is not with its difficulty but with Stevens’s monolithic impersonality—an impersonality that makes a good deal of Eliot’s poetry look, by comparison, positively diaristic—and his devotion to abstraction. In an age when celebrated poets tend to glory either in simpleminded self-celebration or purposeless physical description, these unreceptive readers doubtless find the sort of poetry that Wallace Stevens wrote far from easy to digest.
Two recent books—one an oral portrait, the other a work of academic criticism—seem specifically designed to make the impersonal, intellectual Stevens more congenial to this sort of contemporary reader. The first book is Peter Brazeau’s Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (1983), which has just been reissued by North Point Press, and which is based on interviews with dozens of Stevens’s surviving friends, relatives, and co-workers. I say “oral portrait” and not “oral biography” because, unlike any number of other recent life studies that are constructed of a series of excerpts from interview transcripts, Parts of a World (whose title is taken from that of Stevens’s fourth collection of verse) does not, strictly speaking, tell a story. Instead, Brazeau offers us a numbingly monotonous and generally unrevealing series of sepia-toned snapshots, as it were, of Stevens the business executive, Stevens the poet, Stevens the family man. In part, this monotony is unavoidable. Stevens, born in 1879 to a upper-middle-class family in Reading, Pennsylvania, went on to live a life that, on the surface, was extraordinarily uneventful. After attending Harvard College and New York Law School, he married a hometown girl, Elsie Kachel, and spent the remainder of his life married to her and working in insurance. He never travelled to Europe, made virtually no intimate friends, probably never had an affair, and lived one day pretty much the same way as the next. But Brazeau’s “oral portrait” format makes this book even more static and colorless than it had to be. Not only do his interviewees tell us precious little of value about Stevens; they almost invariably tell us every banal detail a dozen times.
The first of the book’s three sections, for instance, which is devoted to Stevens the insurance man, consists largely of testimony wherein his former colleagues at the Hartford describe how “gentlemanly” he was (or—take your pick—“urbane,” “charming,” “courtly,” “gracious,” “civilized,” “distinguished,” “polished,” “dignified,” and “impressive,” most of which crop up at least twice); what a “first-class” insurance lawyer he was considered to be (perhaps the best surety-claims man in the country—though one is not quite sure, for a while, precisely what a surety-claims man is); how wonderfully sarcastic (and, to those who misunderstood him, arrogant and insulting) his deadpan humor could be; how lucid, concise and beautifully written were his business letters, how illegible his handwriting, how marvelous his vocabulary; what integrity he displayed in all business matters; and how much he loved imported tea, fresh fruit, good cigars, and cinnamon buns (of which he partook frequently at his desk).
Certainly, some of this material is of real interest. But Brazeau never seems to realize when he’s reached the saturation point. For example, when his interviewees explain, one after the other, that they never really got to know Stevens (who believed in all work and no play at the office), Brazeau insists upon giving us every deathless word:
I didn’t see much of Stevens. He was generally tucked away somewhere in connection with his work. He wasn’t the kind of fellow, “Well, I’m Wallace Stevens!” He wasn’t the blustery type. He just went quietly about his business and did what was necessary.
[Stevens] was a rather aloof person [who liked to] hold people at arm’s length. . . . Most executives, whenever they’re free to do so, love to sit around and relax, unwind, lollygag. Stevens was not that kind of person. He was not receptive . . . . He was always, to most people who didn’t understand him, formidably busy.
He had difficulty relating to people . . . . He was sort of a loner . . . . He was not what I call a hail-fellow-well-met person.
He was hard to get acquainted with.
I always had the feeling that here was a man you just didn’t get to know too well. He was always somewhat of a stranger, in the sense that most of the company men that I met I became very friendly with. We had many things that we exchanged, personal things. But you didn’t do that with Wallace Stevens. He was always aloof and pretty much his own man.
He was not a warm personality as far as those in the office went. He wanted his privacy and respected the privacy of others.
Not, mind you, that Stevens was a perpetual sobersides. If he steadfastly avoided chummy behavior at the office, he was equally adamant in his refusal to discuss business after hours. Indeed, at parties, and at his beloved Canoe Club (which, one gathers, was the sort of place where George Babbitt would have gone for a good time), he was, with a couple of drinks in him, “one of the boys”—a cutup, a teller of smoking-car jokes, the very picture of “Harvard-Yale football-game levity,” who, upon arrival at a nightclub, would tell the orchestra leader to play “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” That such words as “playful,” “jovial,” and “jolly” recur as frequently in the interviews as “austere,” “aloof,” and “somber” simply affirms that Stevens’s life was, as Hudson Review editor Frederick Morgan tells Brazeau, “neatly compartmentalized.”
Stevens kept his insurance work separate from his home life, and his poetry separate from both.
And compartmentalized it was, right down the line. Stevens kept his insurance work separate from his home life, and his poetry separate from both. Rarely did he so much as breathe his wife’s name at the office; never did he take her to business functions; and only two or three times, in his thirty-nine years at the Hartford, did he invite a colleague over to the house for dinner. “It was a standing matter of astonishment at the office,” recalls one colleague, “that no one ever got to see his family.” Nor, unless they took the trouble to hunt down one of his collections at the local bookstore, did more than a few of them get to see his poetry either. True, once he had published a couple of volumes, it was no secret at the Hartford that there was a poet on the premises. Far from it: he regularly sent his underlings to the Oxford English Dictionary to check the meanings of recondite words that he planned to use in his poetry, and on rare occasions even read poems in progress aloud to associates, asking their opinions. But most of the time he nipped in the bud any attempt on the part of a colleague to engage him in a discussion of poetry, or to persuade him to explicate a given poem.
In the second and third sections of the book, “The Man of Letters” and “The Family Man,” Brazeau attempts to open up to us those areas of Stevens’s life that he kept to himself at the office. Unfortunately, most of the people interviewed in Part Two—among them such familiar literary names as Bichard Wilbur, Harry Levin, Cleanth Brooks, and Leonie Adams—knew Stevens no better than did the folks at work. One problem here is that most of the writers and editors with whom Stevens had extended relationships (William Carlos Williams, for example, and Harriet Monroe) are no longer with us; another problem is that Stevens had, it appears, only two really close literary-type friends in his entire life, neither of them a well-known writer, both of them now deceased: Henry Church (a denizen of an artsy New York clique of which Stevens was, for a time, a sort of associate member) and Judge Arthur Gray Powell of Adanta (whose colorful conversation inspired the titles and some of the details of several of his poems, among them “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” and “Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”). We do learn, in Part Two, that Stevens loved Braque, Klee, Stravinsky, Berlioz, and Greta Garbo, that he highly esteemed Delmore Schwartz (whose work represented, to him, a hope for twentieth-century poetry), and that he disliked Hemingway, Cummings, and Frost (who, for his part, thought of Stevens as a “swell from Harvard"). On the admirable side, Stevens consistently refused to accept payment for lectures, readings, or magazine publication of his poems; on the unadmirable side, he was, alas, as full of the prejudices of his time as anyone else, criticizing a restaurant for catering to Jews and referring to Gwendolyn Brooks as a “coon.”
It is not until the last (and briefest) section of the book that Brazeau covers what one feels should have come first—Stevens’s parents, his upbringing, his life as husband and father. Since Elsie is dead and his only child, Holly, isn’t one of Brazeau’s interviewees, the picture of the poet as family man is based solely on the testimony of nieces, neighbors, and the like, who were vouchsafed only occasional glimpses of the Stevenses. Though vague, the picture they paint is a decidedly somber one. There was, unsurprisingly, “not much communication” in the Stevens home—no fighting, just silence at the dinner table and closed bedroom doors. Elsie is variously described as sweet and cruel, pathetic and strict, a naive homebody, a willing serf; all witnesses agree that she was an excellent cook and an obsessive homemaker, and that neither she nor Stevens was a particularly affectionate parent.
It is in the description of the poet’s father, Garrett Barcalow Stevens, that Parts of a World comes closest to suggesting an explanation for all this. Garrett Stevens was, as Brazeau explains, a corporate lawyer and amateur versifier who, by every account, was distant, domineering, and emotionally undemonstrative, not to mention highly conscious of his family’s “respectability"—all characteristics for which Wallace Stevens would be noted. When young Wallace announced that he wanted to marry Elsie, an undereducated girl both literally and figuratively from “the other side of the tracks,” Garrett objected and, when Wallace married her anyway, didn’t speak to his son for years. A generation later, the pattern repeated itself almost exactly; Holly decided to marry, and Stevens objected on the grounds that the boy she had in mind, whom Stevens called a “Polack,” was simply “not her equal” Holly married him anyway, and she and Stevens were, as a result, estranged for several years.
What is one to make of this? Why did Stevens, in so many ways, become a tintype of his father? Why was such an enlightened modern poet weighted down, psychologically, with so much philistine freight? It almost seems as if, in some sense, Stevens was paying his father hommage—or, perhaps, penance. If he admired Delmore Schwartz so fervently, surely this admiration had a good deal to do with Schwartz’s endless contemplation, in his poetry, of the theme of parents, children, and fate, and of the strong but subtle ties—of guilt and resentment, love and hatred—that bind sons inescapably to their fathers. In this connection, Stevens writes in “Esthétique du Mai” that
It may be that one life is a punishment
For another, as the son’s life for the father’s.
He speaks to the same theme, but takes an utterly different tone, in “Recitation after Dinner,” a poem he read at a meeting of the Saint Nicholas Society (whose members all trace their lineage back to the early Dutch settlers). The poem—in which he borrows Virgil’s image of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his back (an image Stevens used more than once)—helps to account for the keen interest in genealogy that Stevens developed in middle age; in it, he speaks of tradition as
. . . a clear, a single, a solid form,
That of the son who bears upon his back
The father that he loves, and bears him from
The ruins of the past, out of nothing left,
Made noble by the honor he receives,
As if in a golden cloud. The son restores
The father. . . .
Here, then, Stevens sees the father—and, by extension, all the generations preceding him, and the entire past—not as a dreadful burden but as something marvelous and ennobling. There must be an illuminating story behind all of this. But it is not a story that any of Brazeau’s interviewees is able to tell us.
Indeed, what Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered demonstrates more persuasively than anything else is the weakness of the composite oral portrait as a form of biography—or, at least, literary biography. With a relatively uncomplicated subject like Andy Warhol’s starlet Edie Sedgwick, whose life provided the material for Jean Stein’s book Edie, this weakness was not critical. With a more substantial subject, though, the oral form is less defensible, its fundamental superficiality far more manifest. If a book like Peter Manso’s Mailer nonetheless succeeds to a considerable extent, it is because Mailer is a colorful personality who has led an unsettled and combative life, and because he wears his id on his sleeve. But applied to a man like Wallace Stevens—the turbulence of whose soul rarely, if ever, roiled his smooth surface, and who had nothing but contempt for the Hemingway or Mailer type of writer, who gives the impression that he has to throw himself into life in order to write about it—the oral form fails to provide either insight or entertainment in enough abundance to justify the endeavor.
It would be wrong to mention Ernest Hemingway without taking note, in passing, of Stevens’s most dramatic—and out-of-character—literary encounter. So strong was Stevens’s antipathy for Hemingwayesque prose that, in February of 1936, the insulting remarks that Stevens made at a cocktail party in Key West provoked the novelist to engage him in a fistfight, which Stevens lost and Hemingway magnanimously agreed to keep quiet about. The tussle is symbolic of the utter contrast between the two writers’ approaches to their art. If Hemingway strained, in the best Conradian manner, to present objective phenomena rather than explicitly render his subjective reactions to them, Stevens considered the “mere rendering of an object or scene . . . an imaginative failure.” So observes Milton J. Bates in Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self, our second recent book under consideration.
The relationship between reality and the imagination, of course, is at the thematic center of Stevens’s poetry, and is the subject of most of the lectures collected in his sole volume of prose, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1951). Of the seven pieces in this volume, it is the earliest, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” in which Stevens most fully and coherently explains his aesthetic theory. Poetry, he writes, is a phenomenon characterized by “the interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals.” It is not a sedate interdependence but an active, even an agitated, one: for the mind, wherein the imagination resides, “is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” Yet Stevens does not mean to suggest that, during the writing of poetry, these two entities are at war with one another; on the contrary, the creation of poetry is, to his mind, “not a choice of one over the other and not a decision that divides them, but something subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between these poles, the universal interdependence exists . . . they are equal and inseparable.” The measure of a poet is “the measure of his power to abstract himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstraction the reality on which the lovers of truth insist. He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination.” (For instance, a poet may write about creativity, “the maker’s rage to order words,” by writing about a woman singing on the beach at Key West.)
The relationship between reality and the imagination, of course, is at the thematic center of Stevens’s poetry.
If twentieth-century poetry is not all that it could be, Stevens suggests, it is because not only poetry but all of the arts have suffered, in modern times, from the “pressure of reality.” Reality, in other words, has gained the upper hand over imagination. Why? Because the modern world, as Stevens sees it, is a world no longer able to maintain its belief in its chief imaginary construct (i.e., God), and therefore no longer able to wield the imaginative powers it once commanded. The things of the imagination, as a result, have become weakened, watered down, debased; “the idea of nobility”—to Stevens, a crucial element in poetry, and “imaginary” because it would not exist without a human mind to conceive of it—“exists in art today only in degenerate forms or in a much diminished state.”
That Stevens does not consider such an abstract entity as nobility to be “real” does not mean that it is unimportant to him; without such “fictions” as nobility, it is clear, life would be meaningless. And this, in fact, is to him the essential function of poetry in the modern world: to provide us all with a “supreme fiction,” a grand, subsuming illusion to take the place of God, and thereby to restore to life its meaning, or, rather, its semblance of meaning—which amounts, in his philosophy, to precisely the same thing. As he says at the end of “The Noble Rider,” poetry seems “to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.” Or, in the words of “The Man with the Blue Guitar,”
The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place . . . .
I have used the word “philosophy,” but Stevens, though he has been described as a philosophical poet, was no philosopher—at least not in the sense that the term is usually understood. His realm was that not of logic but of intuition; as the title of one of his essays, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” suggests, he saw poetry as a discipline that transcends the boundaries of reason. When, in a late poem called “The Sail of Ulysses,” he writes of knowledge—the sort of knowledge, naturally, that poets deal in—he distinguishes it unambiguously from reason:
. . . knowing
And being are one: the right to know
And the right to be are one. We come
To knowledge when we come to life.
Yet always there is another life,
A life beyond this present knowing,
A life lighter than this present splendor,
Brighter, perfected and distant away,
Not to be reached but to be known,
Not an attainment of the will
But something illogically received, A divination . . . .
In his preoccupation with the imagination, Stevens recalls Coleridge, who (along with the other English Romantic poets) was an important influence upon his conception of poetry. In an essay entitled “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet,” Stevens describes Coleridge as “denning poetry all his life”; and the fact is that Stevens, in both his prose and his verse, was continually doing the same thing. But he did not do so in the manner of a professional philosopher: like Coleridge, he was both brilliant and unsystematic, at times inconsistent in his terminology, never proceeding from theory but always from feeling.
Coleridge is hardly the only poet or critic who helped to shape Stevens’s literary theory and practice. Indeed, Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self is largely concerned with identifying the ways in which various writers influenced him. Among these influences are Walter Pater and the Aesthetes, who were all the rage at Harvard when Stevens was an undergraduate there. Though Stevens patently had more regard for everyday reality than did the Aesthetes, he believed, with them, that the poet does not have a “social obligation” to anyone, that poetry’s purpose is not to “say something” about life but to attain the nonreferential purity of music, and that the creation of a poem is no less important than any other human activity. The Aesthetes, moreover, must be given much of the credit for Stevens’s often récherché diction, bizarre wit, and sumptuous imagery, as well as his Wildean affinity for paradox. The central idea of his oeuvre— that modern man must believe in something he knows to be a fiction—is, needless to say, paradoxical, and a number of his poems, like many of Wilde’s epigrams, derive their effectiveness largely from the device of saying that X is not X, or X is the opposite of X:
A. A violent order is a disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order . . . .
—“Connoisseur of Chaos”
This is form gulping after formlessness . . . .
—“The Auroras of Autumn”
We do not prove the existence of the poem.
It is something seen and known in lesser poems.
It is the huge, high harmony that sounds
A little and a little, suddenly,
By means of a separate sense.
It is and it Is not and, therefore, is . . . .
—“A Primitive Like an Orb&8221;
It is possible that to seem—it is to be,
As the sun is something seeming and it is.
• • •
It is a world of words to the end of it,
In which nothing solid is its solid self.
—“Description without Place”
It must be visible or invisible,
Invisible or visible or both:
A seeming and unseeming in the eye.
• • •
There was a myth before the myth began . . . .
—“Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”
A sunny day’s complete Poussiniana
Divide it from itself. It is this or that
And it is not.
—“Poem Written at Morning”
Along with the Aesthetic influence, of course, went that of the French Symbolists. From them Stevens, like most modern poets, learned a number of lessons, among them the value of mystery and ambiguity in poetry. Mallarmé’s remarks on this subject, as quoted by Bates, might well have been written by Stevens himself, so well do they describe the way his poetry operates:
The Parnassians take something in its entirety and simply exhibit it; in so doing, they fall short of mystery; they fail to give our minds that exquisite joy which consists of believing that we are creating something. To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object. It is the perfect use of the mystery which constitutes symbol. An object must be gradually evoked in order to show a state of soul; or else, choose an object and from it elicit a state of soul by means of a series of decodings.
By taking the Symbolist path in this regard, Stevens was, as Bates observes, rejecting not only the Genteel Tradition that had governed American poetry in his youth, but the Imagist revolution as well, whose principal criteria for effectiveness in poetry were simplicity and directness.
Stevens was never one to rush into print, and his first collection, Harmonium, did not appear till 1923, when he was forty-four. The book is distinguished by an air of modernist gloom, as exemplified by the final lines of its outstanding poem, “Sunday Morning”:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
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.
This anguish about the godlessness of the universe, however, is supplanted in succeeding volumes by the conviction that poetry can and must take the place of God as a principle of order and virtue. “I desire my poem,” Stevens once wrote in a letter, referring to “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “to mean as much, and as deeply, as a missal.” This determination is evident in one poem after another—in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” for instance, wherein the woman singing creates a world:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
In developing the notions that are implicit in this poem, Stevens was in many respects a student of Nietzsche, who recognized the social and psychological benefit of the illusion of God and who said, as Bates reminds us, that “Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.” Like Nietzsche, Stevens worried that the twentieth century’s loss of faith in God would mean, eventually, the loss of faith in the virtues that God represented; thus, like Nietzsche, he was taken with the notion of an imaginary hero, whom Nietzsche called Übermensch and Stevens called “major man,” who would embody the paramount virtues of the race. The idea of “major man” was introduced in Stevens’s single longest poem, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” but is elaborated upon in other poems, including “Paisant Chronicle,” wherein Stevens writes that the major men
. . . are characters beyond
Reality, composed thereof. They are
The Active man created out of men.
They are men but artificial men. They are
Nothing in which it is not possible
To believe . . . .
To the influence of Nietzsche, we must add that of two philosophers closer to home: William James and George Santayana. Both were professors at Harvard when Stevens was a student there; James published his book The Will to Believe less than a year before Stevens entered Harvard, and Santayana published Interpretations of Poetry and Religion the year Stevens left. In a letter explaining the attitude that informs the book Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, Stevens invokes the title of James’s book:
Underlying it is the idea that, in the various predicaments of belief, it might be possible to yield, or to try to yield, ourselves to a declared fiction.
This is the same thing as saying that it might be possible for us to believe in something that we know to be untrue. Of course, we do that every day, but we don’t make the most of the fact that we do it out of the need to believe, what in your day, and mine, in Cambridge was called the will to believe.
Yet, as Bates observes, Stevens goes beyond James. The philosopher of pragmatism had declared that it is sensible to believe in something that is not known for certain to be true, but which might, indeed, be true; Stevens declared that it is a good idea to believe in something one knows to be false. In taking this position, he was less in line with James than with Santayana, who saw both poetry and religion as fictions of human manufacture—worthwhile, to be sure, but fictions nonetheless.
It was in the Thirties that the convictions Stevens had forged out of these influences—and the poetry that he, in turn, had forged out of these convictions—had the roughest time of it. During the Depression years, Marxist critics habitually condemned Stevens as an elitist, even a fascist, for his refusal to join the vanguard of Socialist Realism by writing poems about enchained workers and bloated capitalist bosses. In Owl’s Clover (1936), he succumbed to this pressure, in a sense, by attempting, as he put it, “to make poetry out of commonplaces: the day’s news”—or, as he explained in a letter to a reviewer of the book, “to dip aspects of the contemporaneous in the poetic.” Aesthetically speaking, the results of this experiment were not conspicuously successful; most of the poems in Owl’s Clover fell far beneath Stevens’s usual standard, and did not merit reprinting in The Palm at the End of the Mind, the definitive selection from his poetic oeuvre.
Rather than regard these poems, however, with the majority of Stevens’s critics, as an unfortunate temporary descent into the maelstrom, Bates, while recognizing their literary weaknesses, nonetheless appears to perceive them as a major step in Stevens’s development. His extensive discussion of Owl’s Clover, furthermore, is accompanied by a scholarly disquisition upon the subject of Stevens’s attitude toward Marxists—whom Stevens despised not because they were idealists but because they were not his type of idealists. Stevens saw himself as a visionary idealist, proceeding “by fits of visionary insight rather than calculation.” Marxists, on the contrary, were bound by theory, by their own brand of logic, and claimed to know what they were headed toward: a perfect Communist state, as laid out in the Manifesto. Stevens found this sort of programmatic certainty to be at odds with reality as he knew it, not to mention at odds with his convictions regarding the proper function of the imagination. Yet at times, paradoxically, he seems to have seen his Marxist contemporaries as being far more in touch with reality and logic than he. Bates, in discussing these matters, sometimes appears disturbingly willing to accept this characterization of Thirties Marxism, seeing Stevens as the unrealistic, pure poet and the Marxists as the keen-eyed viewers of reality. One manifestation of this tendency is that Stanley Burnshaw—whose fatuous critique of Stevens “inspired” Owl’s Clover in the first place, and provoked the contemplation of Marxism entitled “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”—is described by Bates as practicing “intelligent criticism.” (In fairness it should be noted that Burnshaw, in later years, repudiated the views he held in the Thirties.)
These are not the only problems in Bates’s book. He seems to look upon Stevens’s poetic theory as being more rigidly and elaborately thought out than it really was, and to regard his poetic practice as having undergone a progressive development from one volume to the next in a fashion that—in one reader’s opinion—is a bit too tidy to be thoroughly convincing. There are other flaws: Bates includes a substantial amount of biographical information but does very little with it; he goes on far too long about such matters as the history of leftist poetry in the early part of the century and the journalistic career of Richard Harding Davis (who he feels must have influenced Stevens’s brief youthful foray into reporting); and he writes a plodding academic prose that makes reading this potentially absorbing study a wearisome chore. But these misgivings having been registered, it must be said that Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self does succeed, in many respects, in explaining how Stevens came to be the sort of poet that he was.
And what sort of poet, in the final analysis, was he? Decades ago, Yvor Winters labeled Stevens a “hedonist”—the idea being that Stevens’s verse was solipsistic, that he was interested merely in his own sensations. Randall Jarrell, for his part, complained that Stevens had his head too far up in the heavens and not even one foot on the ground. But it is difficult for this critic, at least, to discover any justification for such complaints. Far from being preoccupied, in his poetry, either with himself or with dehumanized abstractions, Stevens is, rather, concerned throughout his work with celebrating the miracle of the human mind—its ability to create its own order, to conceive of beauty, to make moral discriminations, to take dominion over the things of earth—the genius of the sea, the slovenly wilderness. His is not the undisciplined joy-seeking of the hedonist or of the wielder of disconnected abstractions, but, on the contrary, the joy of the artist in his own ability to discipline the physical world around him in a comprehensible whole, to find—as Stevens writes in “The Sail of Ulysses”—“meaning in design/ Wrenched out of chaos.”
- Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, by Peter Brazeau. North Point Press; 330 pages, $12.50. Go back to the text.
- Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self, by Milton J. Bates. University of California Press; 319 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 6, on page 26
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