Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens; drawing by David Levine

Two years ago the Huntington Library acquired from Holly Stevens most of the papers, correspondence, journals, periodicals, and books that belonged to her father, the poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Some manuscripts are already lodged elsewhere, notably in Yale, Buffalo, and the English Manchester, but most of the material is now in the Huntington. Many of the items are extremely interesting. Stevens’s copy of Charles Mauron’s Aesthetics and Psychology, for instance, is annotated so copiously that students of Stevens must now treat it as seriously as they already treat the sourcebooks by Santayana, Wahl, Valéry, Vaihinger, and other authorities deemed to bear upon Stevens’s theory of literature. In Stevens’s copy of Walter Pater’s Appreciations the chapter on Style is heavily glossed, and the marginalia are as pointed as several of the items published as “Adagia” in Stevens’s Opus Posthumous (1957). Some of the notebooks are charming.

Stevens was a tireless reader of English magazines, especially The New Statesman, the Athenaeum, Life and Letters, and such things. “London continues to be the ultimate point of romance to me,” he confided to his journal in June 1914. The romance prompted him to transcribe into his notebooks any English prose that took his fancy: phrases, sentences, long paragraphs, especially when the themes were aesthetic. In 1934 he came across an essay by Mario Rossi in Life and Letters or perhaps The London Mercury and transcribed a few catching phrases on “the great interests of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking.” The phrases form the epigraph to Stevens’s poem “Evening Without Angels,” but he was not content to let them rest there. He wrote to Elizabeth Yeats, who gave him Rossi’s address: then he wrote to Rossi to inquire further about the winning phrases. Rossi’s reply, duly transcribed into a notebook, includes these sentences:

But don’t forget, there was the imperscrutable Ananke. Call it destiny, call it God, call it predestination—it comes all alike. It gives a sense to the marvelous spectacle of the world.

Stevens then commented:

Imperscrutable is Dr. Rossi’s magnificent word and Ananke is necessity or fate personified, the Necessitas of Horace, Odes, Book I No. 35 to Fortune: “Inexorable Necessity always marches before thee, holding in her brazen hand huge spikes and wedges.”

In 1935 Ananke went into Stevens’s poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” and in 1936 into “The Greenest Continent”: “Fateful Ananke is the final god.” I am sorry he never found use for “imperscrutable.”

The notebooks are rich in such episodes. There is also the correspondence. Stevens thought of letters as providing some of the pleasures of foreign travel: he loved to hear from friends in Ceylon, Cuba, France, Ireland, especially when they spoke of tea, weather, landscape, light, pictures. Some of the liveliest letters in the Huntington collection come from José Rodriguez Feo, telling of farm animals in Cuba, and from Robert McAlmon, discoursing in 1922 of shirts and ties and T.S. Eliot (“Eliot’s Wastelands I saw in rough ms. two years ago, but never in finished form…. Eliot is devitalized; bad health; not much audacity; but he’s a good workman, and almost authentic in his perceptions, perhaps, but a vapour of ‘mood’ clings to him and his work a little. That’s not quite desirable.”) Stevens rarely answered the personal comments, but he always rose to the occasion of the shirts and ties. The letters from Thomas MacGreevy are particularly interesting. MacGreevy was a pious Irish Catholic who invoked God too often to please Stevens. The correspondence proceeded merrily enough because Stevens pretended to think that by God MacGreevy meant Imagination, and he replied accordingly.

MacGreevy was born in Tarbert, County Kerry, and he often went back there for his holidays. Tarbert is as far west as you can go in Ireland without going to America, a fact which incited MacGreevy to brood a little upon westwardness as a state of feeling. The brooding caught Stevens’s attention for several reasons: he lived in Westerly Terrace, Hartford, Connecticut, and, as he told MacGreevy, “the house in which I was born and lived as a boy faced the west and wherever I have lived if the house faced any other way I have always been pulling it round on an axis to get it straight.” So in the poem “Our Stars Come from Ireland” the first part is largely taken from MacGreevy’s letters and from one of his poems; the second is a meditation on “the westwardness of everything.”

The letters will show, I have no doubt, that many of Stevens’s themes, motifs, and phrases in the poems were provoked by letters he received from places he thought more exotic than Hartford. The other side of the correspondence is necessary, apart from any other reason, to explain many details in the Letters of Wallace Stevens which Holly Stevens edited and published in 1966. But the Huntington collection is disappointing in one respect: there are virtually no manuscripts of poems, only the carbon copies as they were mailed to the various magazines for publication.


A few years ago I did some abortive work on Yeats’s manuscripts, a bewildering mess of false starts, trials, errors, deletions, a treasure in disarray but rich, God knows, in evidence of the poetic imagination on its good and bad days. The Huntington collection has no such opulence of chaos: why, I don’t know. It is possible that Stevens, notoriously fluent, made few false starts; or that, notoriously neat in his literary manners, he got rid of the waste paper; or that his secretaries cleared out his desk every Monday morning. Whatever the reason, his cupboard of poetic manuscripts is nearly empty. The carbon typescripts are not entirely useless: they raise a few textual questions. How did “wrinkle” in the typescript of “Esthétique du Mal,” section IV, become “gesture” in the printed text? When did “brown” come into the second stanza of “Study of Images II,” since it’s not in typescript H-4154? Does H-4226 mean that the penultimate stanza of “Romance for a Demoiselle Lying in the Grass” should read

Why should I savor love
With tragedy as comedy?

Does H-4182 mean that the second line of “Local Objects” should refer to “this knowledge” rather than to “his knowledge”? Or did Stevens have second thoughts on these matters when he corrected his proofs? There is a good deal of work to be done on Stevens’s texts, including work fashionably deemed despicable on sources, borrowing, and the like. Much of Steven’s high talk is his own version of Epicureanism, but he was stimulated by other writers who ran to the high themes, poetry, theory of poetry, imagination and reality, the gaiety of language. Letters were as stimulating to him as brochures, picture postcards, catalogues of exhibitions, bringing colors and fictions into the dailiness of things.

The official evidence for these matters is his poetry; letters, notebooks, and journals are unofficial but never casual. Stevens relished such freedom as he could take, but he was not by nature free or easy, his carnivals were cautious mainly because he was always under his own scrutiny. The journals which Holly Stevens has now published have an air of precaution: it is surprising to find that many pages of the manuscript were excised, since the style of what remains is so continuously decorous that the deleted pages can hardly have contained anything dreadful. Holly Stevens received the journals from her mother, and she suspects that Mrs. Stevens excised any pages in which “she found personal references she did not wish preserved.” But she mentions another possibility, that the poet himself made the excisions, “knowing my mother’s regard for privacy.”

In any case the cuts in the manuscript begin in the summer of 1904 when Stevens’s courtship of Elsie Moll, the girl he was to marry, began in earnest. Mrs. Steven’s regard for privacy was certainly extreme. Holly Stevens reports:

While I was growing up my mother did not read my father’s poems, and seemed to dislike the fact that his books were published. Questioning her about this after my father’s death, she told me that he had published “her poems”; that he had made public what was, in her mind, very private. At the time I did not understand what she meant but, with the discovery that when he first began publishing in 1914 he had used some of the poems in the books he made for her birthdays, her logic becomes clear, her resentment comprehensible. Originally, she must have been charmed by the verses, slight as some of them are.

Slight and innocuous: Mrs. Stevens’s privacy was in no danger from verses which could have appeared in any album or garland of the period. But she interpreted these things severely. Of course Stevens should have asked her permission.

The publication of the journal is strange in other ways. Much of it has been published already in Letters of Wallace Stevens. When Holly Stevens brought her father’s letters together for that book, she found very few letters for the early years, and nothing for the years 1896 to 1900. The only substantial material for the period 1898 to 1907 was the poet’s journal, so she included about 120 passages, some short but many of them long, to fill the gap of those years. In Souvenirs and Prophecies the full texts of these items are given, as well as the remaining journal entries which were unnecessary for the Letters since the later years were abundantly stocked with correspondence.


But the strangeness is not yet finished. Stevens started keeping the journal in the fall of 1898, and he applied himself to it pretty constantly in his Harvard years and later, from 1901, when he was studying and practicing law in New York. In 1904 he met Elsie Moll; they married in 1909. From about 1907 Stevens virtually gave up keeping a journal and consigned the report of daily events to his letters to Elsie. “My letters to Elsie usurp the chronicles that, but for them, I should set down here,” he wrote in the journal on January 4, 1907. Besides, he had little or nothing to report, he thought he was busy but he knew he was bored. Here is the entry for December 5, 1906:

I am afraid to review the last two months. They seem to have changed me—I no longer read, and no longer think. The brain is like a worm that tunnels its way through everything—and leaves everything crumbling behind. Busy with many things—that’s it, I’m busy. A walk now and then, a little music, a few pages, a trip home at Thanksgiving time—there’s no Iliad in that. I feel strenuous, not lyrical.

In effect, the journal has petered out, there are very few entries from that date until 1914. I don’t understand why Holly Stevens did not bring Souvenirs and Prophecies to a graceful end at March 1907 when the correspondence with Elsie Moll usurped the journal. Instead, she has eked out the years between 1907 and 1914 by printing those letters to Elsie which are journal material and written in Stevens’s journal style; despite the fact that most of them are already available in the Letters.

True, she has also given a linking commentary, and pointed from time to time in the direction of the poetry, but she has not commented on the strangest fact of all, that it is impossible, apparently, to distinguish between Stevens’s style when he is writing to his wife and his style when he is writing an entry in his journal. In fact, the style common to both is the style of a little essay. Even when Stevens addressed a letter to his wife, “My dearest Bo-Bo,” he immediately offered a topic for mutual rumination: “What is the mysterious effect of music, the vague effect we feel when we hear music, without ever defining it?” There are mysteries of the heart here, and it is disappointing that they are not illuminated in a book which gives the reader cause to think that light is about to be directed upon “the young Wallace Stevens” in his years from 1898 to 1914.

Still, it is good to have the full text of the journal. The New York years are particularly interesting, often deeply touching in their impression of Stevens as a lonely figure, worried about the perils of tobacco, eating, drinking, vanity, and melancholy. He was a prodigious walker: a walk of twenty-five or thirty miles was play to him. On April 17, 1904 he walked from Undercliff to Fort Montgomery, “just failing of West Point”: a good forty-two miles, he estimated, and I’ll take his word for it. Walking, he brooded not upon the fate of nations but upon the superiority of petunias to honeysuckle in point of odor. Or if he met Christopher Shearer he would argue that “the ideal was superior to fact since it was man creating and adding something to nature”; an old theme, good for a hundred poems still ahead.

Mostly, the journal contains five-finger-exercises in description, rumination, and first steps in the poet’s favorite art: variations on a theme. Stevens loved to declare a theme, and then go walking around it as if it were a cathedral or a blackbird; he loved the process of thinking, not the thought that presses for a conclusion. His temptation lay in hedonism, epicureanism, dilettantism. “I must try not to be a dilettante—half dream, half deed: I must be all dream or all deed.” A long walk, thirty or forty miles, gave him the time he needed to see things, note the shape and look of flowers, compare colors and tones, frame ambitions, explicate desires, question the sources of his melancholy. It is not fanciful to see a relation between the stamina required for a long walk and the stamina required for a long poem, especially for a poem of one theme and a hundred variations.

Stevens’s life did not have the makings of an Iliad, but he was extraordinarily resourceful in making much out of little, turning ordinary events into nuanced experiences by exercise of imagination. The joy of having a body provided the satisfaction of bodily analogies for poetry; as in motion, exercise, speed, tempo, harmony. Stevens did not possess a dramatic imagination: think of Yeats, Frost, E.A. Robinson to make a contrast in that way. Stevens’s imagination sensed life only when it was about to become verbal or, having already become verbal, was ready to be flicked into a new idiom. He was inordinately gifted in ensuring the migration of one idiom into another. Glossing a phrase in the poem “Sombre Figuration,” “the fluid, the cat-eyed atmosphere,” he told Hi Simons that “cat-eyed is a migration of the French word chatoyant, changeable, as in the irised glimmering of night.” When Stevens married Elsie Moll, the couple went to live on West 21st Street, near the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Theological Seminary, Chelsea Square. On a postcard of the scene, Stevens wrote to his in-laws:

Our house is under the mark. Our floor is the next to the top. Therefore, we face the chapel, which is only across the street. Chimes every evening. We are not a part of the chapel—but apart from it. Hence, the word apartment. Hope this is clear.

Clear or not, Stevens thought well enough of “apartment” in his new sense to bring it into “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” where the ennui of apartments does not mean the tedium of living in a flat but the notion of things divided, separateness as distinct from unity:

It is the celestial ennui of apartments
That sends us back to the first idea, the quick
Of this invention.

The journal gave him space to try out such migrations. Some of them are farfetched, but mostly worth the expense of transportation. Stevens used the journal for verbal exercise; nothing too strenuous, nothing demanding, but just enough to keep himself up to scratch. Apart from an occasional reference to a heavy night’s drinking, he took care not to give himself away.

Holly Stevens’s editorial work on the journal is helpful; factual rather than speculative. When she comes upon an idea or a phrase that Stevens retained for a poem, she mentions it. I noticed a few further connections between journal and poetry. In an entry late in 1899, a Harvard year, Stevens refers to a Spanish student named Bistolfi who kept him out late with his fine talk: “He said that a man met Life like a roaring lion in a desert—a figure of tremendous force.” Stevens held the figure in mind until he needed it for a section in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”:

The lion roars at the enraging desert,
Reddens the sand with his red- colored noise,
Defies red emptiness to evolve his match.

Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” is anticipated in a journal entry for Sunday, August 10, 1902, where he speaks of having gone for an hour, the previous night, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “where I go now and then in my more lonely moods.” “An old argument with me,” he continues, “is that the true religious force in the world is not the church but the world itself: the mysterious callings of Nature and our responses.” Of the poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Holly Stevens mentions that Stevens owned a guitar and that one of the Misses Parsons in Cambridge also owned one on which she played hymns, “thousands of verses, all alike.” These guitars, she thinks, had more to do with Stevens’s poem than the inspiration possibly derived from Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist. True enough; but I recall an occasion on which Ellman Crasnow showed me a passage in Maritain’s Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (1928) which struck both of us as a telling source. Maritain is engaged in dear, gorgeous nonsense and high talk about angels and their immediate knowledge of essence:

…knowing the power and actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, all other bodies, as distinctly as we know the different occupations of our workmen, they are finally, without hands or machines, as masters and possessors of nature, and can play upon nature as on a guitar by modifying the movements of the atoms at their will.

Sometimes the journal is confusing, especially when Stevens jots down a few phrases or sentences without indicating whether they have come from his own mind or someone else’s. Joseph Riddel pointed out some years ago that “On Poetic Truth,” an essay ascribed to Stevens and therefore included in Opus Posthumous, is merely Stevens’s conflation of certain passages from an essay of the same title by the philosopher H.D. Lewis. In the journal for May 14, 1909, Stevens transcribes a batch of notes from books he read at the Astor Library: he ascribes some of them to Paul Elmer More, but others are given without any source. Holly Stevens probably thought it would be a waste of good time to track these things down. I agree; but it’s probably worth mentioning that one sentence about landscape gardening comes from Laurence Binyon’s Paintings in the Far East (1908), and I’m pretty sure that several phrases come from The Ideals of the East, with Special Reference to the Art of Japan, by a man Stevens mentions, Kakuzo Okakura: the book was published in 1903.

Does the journal make much difference to our understanding of Stevens? Well, every little bit helps. There is no full-scale biography of Stevens: whatever we know of him comes from the poems, letters, bits of lore from other poets, the official essays, and now the partly excised journal. If we are to judge by Souvenirs and Prophecies, it looks as though the materials are going to be doled out piecemeal, lest the grossness of our curiosity be appeased. Stevens’s privacy is not to be invaded. The journal is interesting because it enlivens our sense of Stevens as a vulnerable man, moody, with just as many ups and downs as anyone else. He was reluctant to disclose himself; unlike, say, William Carlos Williams, who didn’t care what anyone knew or thought or said.

In the journal Stevens is subject to the normal proportions of joy, weariness, fret, ennui, morbidity, the moods he tended to transpose into general terms in the verse. The journal also shows him playing with ideas, possibilities, conceits, setting the gypsy phrases astir, mostly under the instigation of books, pictures, and music. It is nice to find him engaged with minor things; not the great books but odd, vulnerably minor verses, current poets now forgotten or writers now congealed in the libraries, like Lafcadio Hearn, Binyon, More. Or valuing in Meredith’s sonnet on the spirit of Shakespeare one phrase, “that little twist of brain.” It is clear that he was not a great reader: reading was a pleasure rather than a passion. He allowed himself to be touched by a few things he read, but not struck by them, not overwhelmed: he always kept his distance even from elected sources and occasions.

As for his writing: I think he valued his journal because it helped him to be patient, or to arrive at patience by reciting the causes of aggravation. Sometimes, in retrospect, he thought his entries rubbish: “what silly, affected school-girl drivel this seems to me now,” he added in June 1904 when he read something he had written six years earlier. But generally he did not think the journal a waste of time or spirit, it calmed his nerves by showing him the power of a phrase, a sentence, an idea. Sometimes, though, it encouraged him to become superior to his experience by playing the dandy in its presence. When he saw Ethel Barrymore in Captain Jinks he thought her a beautiful angel, “charming in the last act in that white and green dress with the roses on it,” and deduced that “it pays a fellow to see an ardor through.” And there is a touch of the same superiority in his account of seeing Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet, a big event in December 1900. It is odd, by the way, that when Stevens referred to that performance forty-three years later he recalled, or imagined, a nuance of gesture which he had not mentioned on the day after the performance:

When she came to the soliloquy “To be or not to be,” she half turned her back on the audience and slowly weaving one hand in a small circle above her head and regarding it, she said, with deliberation and as from the depths of a hallucination: “D’être ou ne pas d’être, c’est là la question…” and one followed her, lost in the intricate metamorphosis of thoughts that passed through the mind with a gallantry, an accuracy of abundance, a crowding and pressing of direction, which, for thoughts that were both borrowed and confused, cancelled the borrowing and obliterated the confusion.

The gallantry is in the mind, or in the need of such an image when nobility is the theme. “Hallucination” had become a technical term in Stevens’s poetry by 1943, meaning not a mirage or a fancy but a light, “the presence of the intelligible in that which is created as its symbol”; in Stevens’s shorthand, “Matisse at Vence.” So the first note of Bernhardt’s performance, the following day, is a dandy’s note; but by 1943 what remained of the performance in Stevens’s mind was the metamorphosis he needed, an image not merely memorable but sufficiently intelligible to be a symbol of intelligence in action. The journal entry gives the event as soon as it happens, with only as much comment as the decency of the occasion requires: a few sentences, a little note for an essay. What rarely gets into the journal is the process recorded in “The Snow Man,” where the listener

listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

In a later version, from “The Bouquet,” the real is “made more acute by an unreal.” Later still, in “Prologues to What Is Possible” the earliest light in the evening sky “creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself.” The events consigned to the journal are true, they constitute “the real”: what the poems enact is the process by which the real is made more acute by—what else?—the poetic imagination. By comparison with the poetry the journal is rudimentary; that is, it gives the rudiments which provoked Stevens’s imagination into poetry. Or at least a few of them.

This Issue

March 3, 1977