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Wallace Stevens, Imperator

In August 1928 the literary editor of a Hartford newspaper wrote to Poetry magazine:

No doubt you know that Robert Hillyer, Wilbert Snow and Odell Shepard live here, and that Muriel Stuart’s last book was published by Mitchell’s book-shop here. The Poetry Club of Hartford meets at Mitchell’s and the poetry center here is really at that shop.

Poetry printed the item as “News Notes,” with an editorial gloss by Harriet Monroe:

Here we must remark parenthetically that in our opinion the poetry center of Hartford is in the residence of Wallace Stevens.

Stevens, as his daughter Holly remarks, was known to Mitchell’s bookshop as a regular customer, but not as a poet.

It seems, in its curious way, appropriate. Stevens tinkered with verse at Harvard, and he began sending poems to the little magazines in 1914. He left New York in 1916 when the Hartford Live Stock Insurance Company was incorporated. He published his first and most dazzling book of poems, Harmonium, in 1923. But he was an amateur loving the art almost in secret. He was not the kind of man who joins a Poetry Club. It is pleasant to think of him in Hartford, silently buying fine books in Mitchell’s while in an upper room the real poets sang. Born in 1879, he died in 1955, a classic poet in the serene air he loved. Even now, however, he is a household name only in the most poetic households.

Three thousand letters were available for the present book. Holly Stevens has chosen about a thousand to represent the years from 1895 to 1955. Many letters have been lost, and some destroyed, including those written between 1900 and 1907 to Elsie Moll, later Steven’s wife. After his death, Mrs. Stevens “copied out sections she thought might be of interest from the letters she did not want preserved in whole.” So there are many gaps. But the book is somewhat ambiguous for other reasons. The editorial procedure is not clear. The letters, in their present order and selection, imply an image of Stevens’s life, but it is difficult to take the image at its face value. Many of the letters are editorially cut. After a while we begin to wonder, perhaps needlessly, about the cuts: There is an impression that warts are being removed. Phrases hurtful to other people, notably John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, are allowed to stand, but Daughter is always looking after Father. A letter to Philip May, for instance, dated January 27, 1936, is more revealing than most of Stevens’s letters, but it is very short, presumably the result of two excisions. The topic is a trip to Florida. The letter as printed ends:

The trouble is, Phil, that every time I go down to Florida with Judge Powell, while I never do anything particularly devilish, nevertheless I invariably do a good many things that I ought not to do. The result is that I always return feeling pretty much like a flagellant. I want to go down to get the sea and the sun and to loaf, and that is really all I want to do. Puritanism has nothing to do with it; I simply want to be myself as much in Florida as I am anywhere else.[…]

Considerations of space, which allowed the editor to include several items of little interest, apparently required her to cut off the letter at this point. Square brackets and three dots may stand for anything or nothing. But it would be useful to know, here and elsewhere, what is suppressed. Someday it will be possible to read the letters along with a biography of Stevens, the gaps filled. Samuel French Morse has written a Life, but its publication has been prevented, one gathers, for reasons which are hard to establish. I hope the book will soon be released. The present situation is unsatisfactory, a little rude.

MEANWHILE THE LETTERS may be read beside the Collected Poems, the essays in The Necessary Angel, and the residual pieces in Opus Posthumous. On the whole, they are consistent with the formal occasions, the kind of correspondence one might have expected from that poet. True, there are a few moments in which the poet who sang of high things in a noble voice is pushed aside and we hear the rasp of spite. A nasty letter to Kenneth Patchen, some time-serving paragraphs on Ronald Latimer, palpable contradictions between public utterance and private opinion on the same topic: These are hard words to receive from a man who wrote of nobility as if he cared for its fate. The easy explanation is that he did not care. But this is facile. There are many passages, in prose and verse, which testify to Stevens’s care, to his concern that the good things should survive. His choice of the things to be deemed good was, of course, highly individual.

Sooner or later one says that he was a snob, a capitalist snob. It may as well be now as later. In The Necessary Angel he spoke with distaste of the middle class, its expansion, its “common preference for realistic satisfactions” like amplified music in public gardens. He despised the possession of a common touch. “The fact is,” he wrote in his Journal, “most people are a great nuisance, and my own disposition is not remarkably lenient in such things.” Recognizing that the political Left was an inescapable fact, he thought it, nevertheless, much ado about nothing:

I might have wept over my seller of catnip. We might all weep daily…But beyond the slums there is an endless round of green fields, where sellers of catnip might do very handsomely as shepherds or gardeners and the like. I wish to Heaven they did and that these fearful books with their fearful thoughts were all at an end.

The fact that the green hill was far away did not disturb him; en route, let the poor eat cake. So when war came, it was only one part of a warlike whole: to complain was indecorous. Of a book which concerned itself with public matters, “progress, money, Hope, fashion and all that kind of thing,” he said that it was impolite because it commented on irremediable things “as if someone were to blame.” Stevens’s work implies that whatever is is good so long as it is not boring; and, even then, no matter, one can always withdraw to the green fields of the imagination.

This is the prescription of a strong man, used to authority. Stevens lived as if he were at the head of a troop of cavalry. He divided his day between the business of legal insurance and the pleasure of poetry. But this is merely a way of putting it. He composed his poems as he walked to the office, and he attended to his business tasks with a sense of order as resolute as the movement of his blank verse. A large man, he liked small things: small publishers, watercolors, uncut pages, little magazines, minor paintings, “something exquisite.” The little virtues, like politeness, seemed more engaging than their big brothers, courage, or self-sacrifice. Among the household gods he preferred those who spoke in a minor key, for they implied more attractively the “classic atmosphere” in which he chose to live. Small or large, the first requirement was to defeat the violence of fact. “If only it were possible to escape from what the dreadful Galsworthy calls Facts,” he wrote in 1909. Many years later he was delighted to find authority in Henry James for living, as he said, a little outside the world of actuality. James wrote:

To live in the world of creation—to get into it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intensely and fruitfully—to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation—this is the only thing.

Stevens came upon this sentence in F. O. Matthiessen’s Henry James: The Major Phase and liked it well enough to copy it out. In The Necessary Angel he reverts to its note. To be a poet, to be the real thing, one must be “capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.” “For my own part,” he writes in an evading moment, April 1950, “I listen only to Groucho Marx, Jack Benny and Leopold Stokowski.”

SO HE ESCAPED. Or rather, he resisted. Thinking of reality as “the violence without,” he gloried in the possession of his imagination, “the violence within,” hopefully equal and opposite. Resisting, he ascribed the highest value to resistance. So we say that his temper was imperial and we go on to say that his imagination was imperial. There are moments in which reality is so vivid, seems so gay, that the complicity of imagination is irrelevant, and the poet lays aside his trouble. These moments are Stevens’s “credences of Summer” when the will is gratified and there is no quarrel. But normally Stevens exults in the meeting of his two violences, fearing only those times in which the violence of reality seems irresistible. These times are too desolate to bear, and Stevens evades them, since he must. In easier weather he proceeds with imperial confidence. We sense this in the poems when we say that the lines are impeccably written, meaning that they are imperiously administered. It is exhilarating to see so much order. We have the same feeling when Stevens says, in an informal letter:

I do very much have a dislike of disorder. One of the first things I do when I get home at night is to make people take things off the radiator tops.

That is, magnificently, the kind of man he was. He was not merely Berlioz and roses, though he loved Berlioz and cultivated roses. He did not wish to choose between reality and imagination, and if he favored one at the cost of the other, the favor was temperamental or whimsical. He writes to Bernard Heringman:

I have no wish to arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes I believe most in the imagination for a long time and then, without reasoning about it, turn to reality and believe in that and that alone. But both of these things project themselves endlessly and I want them to do just that.

In The Necessary Angel he allows for the possibility that “we may derive so much satisfaction from the restoration of reality as to become wholly prejudiced against the imagination.” But this would be a temporary prejudice. Indeed, the opposite case was much closer to him; to derive so much satisfaction from the exercise of his imagination as to become wholly prejudiced against reality. If you identify yourself with your imagination you are unlikely to rest long in its abeyance; especially if you believe, as Stevens did, that “God and the human imagination are one.” First things, you will assume, first. Stevens wrote poems to give his imagination its proper exercise. A short poem was a healthy walk to the office. A long poem was a long walk for the good and the pleasure of the thing; and we find from these letters that Stevens, a prodigious walker, walked from Van Cortlandt Park, “the Broadway end of the Subway,” one August day in 1912, to Greenwich, Connecticut—“say, by my route, and judging from the time it took, roughly, thirty miles.”

Perhaps this is the image of his double life. In the world he was a capitalist, concerned in that way with fees, contracts, money making money. A little out of the world, he was a poet. But the two roles dovetailed neatly. For his beloved Supreme Fiction is a kind of private property, his metaphors a kind of money, his poetic theory a profitable engagement of fact and intelligence, reality and imagination. Appropriately, he used the money he made to buy poetic objects: paintings, scrolls, rare books. He went to Florida (“venereal soil”) on business, which he then combined with pleasure; and from the pleasure of landscape and feeling he made poems, one inciting another. In the letters the dazzle of the poetry is answered by a corresponding dazzle of exotic possession. In September 1922 he was thrilled to receive two packages of jasminerie from Peking, “one of which I have pried open to smell one of the good smells, out of China.” He asked Benjamin Kwok, a student at Lingnan University, to send him “some erudite teas.” In September 1937 he made an elaborate arrangement with Leonard van Geyzel to send a Christmas box from Ceylon:

As for myself, I should like to have some tea, say, five pounds of the very best tea procurable…. Perhaps you could mark on the packages the price and the name of the dealer. I should like a tea that would be something not procurable, say, anywhere else, at least not procurable in the general market.

This was a great success. Stevens reported to Van Geyzel on New Year’s Eve:

I am having woodapple jelly and your tea every morning for breakfast. The jelly, which smells almost as good as it tastes, is not unlike a home-made guava jelly, although it is very unlike the sort of guava-jelly that is not home-made.

So the objets d’art arrive in Hartford: cocoanut-syrup, Kieffer pears from Oregon, French paintings chosen by Vidal et cie, paper made by the hand of Henri Pourrat. And the objets set the poet dancing. A simple postcard from Thomas MacGreevy is translated into a poem, “Our Stars Come from Ireland.”

THE VERBAL EQUIVALENT of these exotic things is Stevens’s celebrated style, its panache. The letters show how much he enjoyed polish, the shine of words, a way of writing consistent with having one’s hair cut at the Pierre. Relishing this in himself, he admired it in others, finding it in improbable places. “What I like about Erasmus is a certain chic,” he writes to Henry Church: “That he ever mattered in any other way doesn’t interest me.” Liking Richard Eberhart, he could not admire his poems, thinking Undercliff careless and rough. Stevens’s choice effects were Swiss, well-tailored, offering a glow. Indeed, he was fascinated by Switzerland, and even more fascinated by the idea of Switzerland, which was free from the tiniest Swiss taint:

But, suddenly, I began to think about Switzerland. There is a great deal coming from Switzerland. Then too, Switzerland is something that one ought to think about in the summertime. It is so much more agreeable to think about Lake Geneva at this time of the year than it is to think about the rue de Babylone, nicht wahr?

It was agreeable to think of Switzerland for the same reason that it was agreeable to think of Matisse at Vence, metaphor, jonquils, Neruda in Ceylon, black Hermosas, and Phoebus, for the chic of the thought. All the better, if the shine made things seem crazy to the general, exact and spacious to the initiate. “Personally, I like words to sound wrong,” he tells Henry Church.

This is Stevens’s patrician note, a mode of his imperialism. Yeats called Douglas Hyde “most popular of men,” intending praise. Stevens would think the phrase an insult, dragging him down. He was a poet of the high horse. “I love the sense of reading an exquisite man whom very few people know anything about and with whom there are no vulgarizations whatever associated.” He preferred his friends to be foreign, their company a rare and therefore Epicurean pleasure. At Harvard he was listed as a Special Student. He was interested in the available things for exceptional reasons: interested in philosophy not for its truth but its beauty, the charm of a philosophic construct, true or false. The imperial note is sounded in his business letters, his wit, his syntax. Declining a picture, he writes to Paule Vidal:

The one that you like most: the interior of the stable: must be much like a painting of this artist that I saw some years ago in New York. That, too, was the painting of the interior of a stable.

And we hear the note when the poet explicates his poems. Some of the most illuminating comments are addressed to Renato Poggioli, Hi Simons, Ronald Latimer, Harriet Monroe, and W.S. Braithwaite. To Simons and Poggioli he was remarkably forthcoming, given his dislike of explanations. But the tone is always superior. Commenting on a passage in “The Man with the Blue Gultar” where the poet speaks of a scholar-pilgrim searching for a “missal,” a sacred book, a page, or at least a phrase:

Or, at the least, a phrase, that phrase,
A hawk of life, that latined phrase:

Stevens said to Hi Simons:

To know a thing is to be able to seize it as a hawk seizes a thing. The sort of scholar to whom one addresses oneself for all his latined learning finds in “brooding-sight” a knowledge that seizes life, with joy in his eye.

Fifteen years later he wrote to Poggioli:

A hawk of life means one of those phrases that grips in its talons some aspect of life that it took a hawk’s eye to see. To call a phrase a hawk of life is itself an example.

The difference is in the tone, the increasingly curial note. Stevens is like the man, a possible man, who, loving music, loved most of all the music of the spheres and, shining beyond that, a fictive music, his own imperial cadence. And yet there were moments in which he craved the ordinary sounds, the noise of the milkman, or Sibelius on an Autumn evening.

SO WE READ STEVENS. For some, the experience is a monstrous labor of sympathy. There are many people who have no cause to be grateful to Stevens, and some cause to reject him: politicians, labor leaders, Negroes, the poor, Harry Truman, John Dos Passos, the Editor of The New Republic, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost. But it is not too difficult, after all, to trade with him. He asks no questions. He does not haggle. He offers the poems, almost casually, to those interested in receiving them. He does not propose to change the verses to suit the time. With this imperial poetry we know, if nothing else, where we stand. The labor of sympathy remains. Stevens speaks, in an early letter to Harriet Monroe, of the recalcitrance of feelings: When you want to feel like an Italian, you find yourself feeling like a Guatemalan. To read Stevens you have to be, to some degree, in his mood.

It helps if one thinks of him in an attractive image. In October 1949 Mrs. Church sent him a book, Le Voyage de ma chambre, by François de Maistre. Writing to thank her, he said:

Although the soil marks of time were honorable and the dust on the top was the dust of Paris, I took off the glass paper and did a little housecleaning otherwise and then settled down to reading it. Actually, in order to get the most out of it, I pulled up a chair to the fire and put on a nightcap that I have not worn for a hundred years. The truth is that one has to go back to an older fashion of life to get the true savor of de Maistre, the Savoyard…And, curiously, the introduction by Jules Claretie meant a great deal. All these men were a good deal bigger when I was an infant than they are now. I thought that I had something of Claretie’s, but what I had in mind was Au Marge de Vieux Livres by Jules Lemaitre. Poor things. I mean: to think that Jules Claretie and Jules Lemaitre have merged into one and are so soon certain to pass from the indistinguishable to the imperceptible.

There is a poem, to go with this, called “Large Red Man Reading.” A man is reading “the outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law.” and the ghosts who have come back to listen find that the words of “things as they are” speak the feeling for those things, “which was what they had lacked.” This is Stevens’s true savor in his greatest poems. Reading the letters is like putting on a nightcap and drawing up a chair to the fire.

But if the Letters give the impression that Stevens was only a large red fop, it is time to go back to the poems. These are, indeed, “heavenly labials in a world of gutturals,” but their music is far more various, more companionable, than a reader of the Letters would expect. What we find again in the poems, and only occasionally in the Letters, is Stevens’s “mind of winter,” his sense of the guttural, “my North of cold.” We feel this when he writes of death, of monotony, of evil, “the final mercy and the final loss”; when he invokes “the morning deluged still by night,” “the sad smell of the lilacs,” the violence of “the squirming facts.” Stevens’s high jinks are so catchy that we forget his low jinks, and we need to go back over the later poems, from “A Primitive Like an Orb” to the last word, “reality, on the last page, to feel the doubt beneath his empire. He could not help preferring exquisite things, given a choice, but in an early poem he imagines “the florist asking aid from cabbages,” and in the same poem he speaks of his persona Crispin, “magister of a single room.” Imperial, he knew the limits of his imperium, the places where his writ did not run. This gives the tone of his later poems:

The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

It is an effort to hold on. Everything now seems “a repetition in a repetitiousness of men and flies.” But Stevens’s return to “the plain sense of things” is not a surrender, unless we think of that surrender as a positive act: It is a remarkable effort of imagination, pressing not only against the old violence without out against much in his own temper. The Rock is Stevens’s “handbook of heartbreak,” late but not too late. It would be difficult to attend to modern American poetry without hearing, like Sibelius when only Sibelius will do, those “Vergilian cadences.”

Letters

Not Human February 9, 1967

Letters January 12, 1967

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