It is just over thirty years since Wallace Stevens died. Those of us who wrote on Stevens during his lifetime or within the first ten or fifteen years after his death were occupied in sorting out what his wonderful constructions—tempting, seductive, solacing, impertinent, resistant, teasing—were up to. We learned his language, and instructed others in its odd grammar and lexicon. It was a delightful period, in which his poems were still fresh and (especially the later ones) relatively unknown. It was also a time of preliminary evaluations: Was Stevens good? great? original? or reactionary? conservative? derivative? Was he the dandy and hedonist that Yvor Winters thought him? the elephant to which Randall Jarrell compared him?
Opinion has always been rather sharply divided on Stevens, both as a poet and as a man. As a poet, he tends to write second-order poems. First-order poems (this distinction is a crude one) have a first-person, narrative base (“I went out to the hazel wood”); second-order poems reflect on that first-order plane (“Doing a filthy pleasure is, and short”). Indeed the distinction is so crude as to be false, because all good poetry pretending to be first-order poetry (“I did X, I thought Y”) is in fact implicitly second-order poetry by virtue of its having arranged its first-order narrative in a certain shape; the shape is the implicit second-order reflection made manifest. Nonetheless, for crude purposes we can say that there are many poems of the pure second order, which either do not exhibit a visible first-order human narrative, or exhibit it in a subordinate or oblique way. Such poems are most digestible when they imitate prose and treat familiar subjects (“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action”). But they are baffling to the ordinary reader when they enact the thinking of thoughts, or the sensing of sensations, or the supposing of suppositions (activities for which we do not have the usual narrative plots).
Stevens was particularly interested in such activities, and in the moments when things were coming to be or turning away from what they had been. Those “insolid billowings” of change are of course quite as much a part of “life” as narratively marked events, incidents, or endings in the life of action. Stevens loved
…The first wick of night, the stellar summering
At three-quarters gone, the morning’s prescience.
For readers who want to find in poetry robust “real-life” events, decided opinions, political platforms, or wounded outcries, Stevens is disappointing. John Berryman—certainly a man delighted by poetry—could not find it in his heart to give unreserved praise to Stevens. Berryman’s own Dream Songs made up a long first-order autobiography, a series of explicit disasters accompanied by their own tragicomic outcries. Stevens’s preference for the poem as a projection of experience onto another plane, rather than as a narrative of experience, seemed to Berryman to take the force out of poetry, to rob it of its capacity to wound, to take it from the realm of physics to the realm of metaphysics. And Berryman’s mixed feelings leave a sting in his elegy on Stevens (#219 of the Dream Songs). It is the best short brief against Stevens. (In it Berryman calls Stevens a “crow” because Stevens chose crows, grackles, and blackbirds as symbols of his darkened and angular eccentric music; “Henry” is Berryman’s name for his own rueful id; Stevens is a “money man” among the actuaries because he was a successful surety lawyer for an insurance company.) Berryman acknowledges Stevens to be his superior as a poet, but he nonetheless finds Stevens’s poems temperamentally uncongenial:
He lifted up among the actuaries,
a grandee cow. Ah ha and he crowed good.
That funny money-man.
Mutter we all must as well as we can.
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wit, tho, with a odd
…something…something…not there in his flourishing art.
O veteran of death, you will not mind
What was it missing, then, at the man’s heart
so that he does not wound? It is our kind
to wound, as well as utter
a fact of happy world. That metaphysics
he hefted up until we could not breathe
the physics. On our side,
monotonous (or ever-fresh)—it sticks
in Henry’s throat to judge—brilliant, he seethe;
better than us; less wide.
Berryman’s view—“better than us; less wide”—is widely shared, even among those who write on Stevens. Something in Stevens seems remote, enigmatic, indecipherable, even inhuman to many readers. I believe this comes from the relative absence in his work of first-order poems.
And yet the necessary distance between a poem and its occasion in life has been constantly addressed by poets. Shakespeare and Dickinson both resorted to comparing a poem to perfume; you cannot see the meadow, you cannot see the flower, you cannot see the petals—yet the scent is redolent of the vanished reality. Elizabeth Bishop resorted to the analogy of a map; the poem resembles life as the curved hook called “Cape Cod” resembles Cape Cod. Stevens himself was attracted to Picasso’s phrase calling a painting “a hoard of destructions”—a phrase emphasizing the artist’s need to dismantle “reality” before rearranging it (in no matter how “lifelike” a way) in art. But because mimetic or illusionistic art conceals its destructions and its rearrangements, its immediate, “wounding” nature seems “real,” whereas an art exposing its own strategies—and its own nature as second-order arrangement—always seems “cold” or “narrow” or “rarefied” to the spectator preferring the direct impact of successful mimesis. In Stevens, a reflexive intelligence that cannot evade a knowledge of its own processes is always present. Profound feeling, sustained intelligence whimsical self-derision, and a discipline of aesthetic outline coexist in Stevens, but not in all his readers.
A few years ago, the Huntington Library acquired from Holly Stevens, the poet’s daughter, what remains of Stevens’s books, manuscripts, and letters (together with family photographs and other memorabilia). A second era of Stevens studies then began, an era in which explication could be aided by scholarship, all of it dependent, of course, on Holly Stevens’s own original editing of her father’s letters, journals, and poems. Using the Huntington materials and information collected orally (chiefly by the late Peter Brazeau) scholars have attempted new accounts of Stevens, of which three are named above—a short critical life by Professor Milton Bates, a set of loosely connected essays by Professor George Lensing, and a psychoanalytically flavored biography by Professor Joan Richardson (a first volume of two).
Milton Bates’s book is by all odds the most enjoyable of the three. It is stylish, readable, interesting, and refreshingly intelligent. It also corrects various misapprehensions about Stevens—for instance the notion that Stevens was indifferent to the social order. Bates shows, in his careful examination of Stevens’s poetry of the Twenties and Thirties and early Forties, the degree of Stevens’s awareness of, and changing response to, social reality. (By the time the Second World War was ending, Stevens was sixty-five, his formative period long behind him; it is not to be expected that he would be so deeply engaged then as in the Thirties, when he had to come to terms with Marxist demands on art.) In the Thirties, Stevens arrived at the position Walter Benjamin articulated in “The Author as Producer”—that ideological content is not the measure of revolution in art. Rather, Benjamin says, it is the new possibilities of technique (arrangement of content in new collocations, montages, juxtapositions, endings) that define a fresh beginning. “An author who teaches writers nothing, teaches no one“:
What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal…. [This train of thought] presents to the writer only one demand, the demand to think, to reflect on his position in the process of production.*
Among the writers to whom Stevens has taught new possibilities, one could name Elizabeth Bishop, Howard Nemerov, Charles Tomlinson, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Louise Glück, Charles Wright, and Jorie Graham (no doubt there are many others). These writers have explored the imaginative, formal, lexical, and rhetorical possibilities opened by Stevens; they have benefited from his sense of the poem as enacted mental process rather than as statement or narrative.
Bates describes Stevens’s life as a search for an adequate “mythology of self.” Stevens, he argues, “had perforce to shape his image and likeness from materials that lay ready to hand,” and so biographical information is brought to bear, deftly and sensibly, as Bates treats Stevens successively as youth, lover, “burgher, fop, and clown,” “pure poet,” political poet, and inventor of both “medium man” and “major man” (the heroic ideal, so named by Stevens). Bates calls “major man” (invented by Stevens largely in response to World War II) “the most daring and ambitious of Stevens’s personae, the cynosure of his mythology of self,” while conceding that major man is not necessarily “the most convincing of Stevens’s mythic figures.”
There is a will to idealism in Stevens’s “major man,” a will to nobility remarked on by John Crowe Ransom in a letter quoted by Bates. Stevens refused to let Knopf use Ransom’s words as a blurb, taking the position that any defining statement freezes poetry into immobility. For Stevens, to be alive was, above all, to change. “Living changingness” (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” proem) accounted for the several successive selves sketched and illustrated by Bates, as the provincial boy from Reading became, in turn, the Harvard man, the New York man, the legal man, the American poet, l’homme moyen sensuel, the heroic man, the filial man. Bates’s inevitably simplifying but nonetheless roughly accurate summary reads:
In the early poetry, Stevens had cultivated a variety of outlandish poses, appearing as aesthete, dandy, and clown or projecting such figures onto the stage of his imagination. These dramatis personae constitute what Joseph Riddel has rightly called “a self (or many faces and gestures of a self) in emergence.” Together with the hero of his middle period, they enabled him to surpass or extend his limited experience as the son of a lawyer, later a lawyer himself, living in comfortable middle-class surroundings…. In the late poetry, he turns from the exotic to the homely, from dandified clowns and masterful heroes to figures resembling his own parents and, as in a glass darkly, the God of his boyhood and youth.
Though one could quarrel with one or the other interpretation in Bates’s discussion of particular poems, his sense of Stevens’s aim is a secure one. He feels its risks, he measures its daring, he recognizes its triumphs. Perhaps, in seeing it chiefly as a way of conceiving poetry he slights it as a way of making it. If, as he grants, “major man” is not Stevens’s best moment of making, then perhaps a different history of the Stevensian imagination is possible, where the summit of making poetry, not of conceiving it, would be the high point.
Bates’s admiration for heroic conceptions, for a dimension larger than the human, makes him decide to give some credence, and even some importance, to the unsupported account by the Reverend Arthur P. Hanley (given a quarter-century after the supposed fact) of Stevens’s “conversion” to Roman Catholicism, and his baptism, during the very last days before his death from cancer. (There are no supporting witnesses of this account. Holly Stevens, who was at the hospital daily, knows nothing of its having occurred. The baptism was never recorded, at the time or later, though Catholic baptisms are normally recorded. Stevens was no doubt sedated, as one dying in 1955 of internal cancer was likely to have been. Father Hanley’s recollections may be inexact, or exaggerated by the passage of time.)
Father Hanley’s explanation for the absence of any record of the baptism, given to Professor Bates, was that “the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford requested that Stevens’ baptism not be recorded or made public lest people think that Saint Francis Hospital actively sought to convert non-Catholic patients.” But a private record made in a parish registry would not have drawn public attention; and it is not explained how the archbishop would have become aware of the putative happenings in the hospital. Perhaps future biographers will tend to find Stevens’s daughter the more reliable witness of her father’s last days. In any case, the life work had been brought to a close before Stevens’s last days in the hospital, and any judgment on Stevens’s work must find those irrelevant events occurring after it was complete.
Bates’s book has real distinction. It is free of cant, padding, and special pleading. It has a shape, and a pace, and a sense of nuance appropriate to the poems it takes up. This book is certainly the first one to give a new reader of Stevens. “I particularly address these pages,” says Bates in his preface, “to students in and out of the university whose interest and good will have been balked by the difficulties of Stevens’s poetry and the sometimes more formidable difficulties of Stevens criticism.” I hope that a new generation of readers, brought up on this book, will recognize that the naive canards about Stevens—that he was a heartless hedonist, an ivory-tower poet insensitive to social distress, a cold, over-cerebral aesthete, a poetic conservative, and so on—are all untrue. Bates’s book rightly describes Stevens as a poet constantly enlarging the self, a revolutionary imagining new aesthetic possibilities not only for himself but for future poets, aware of social unrest, passionately concerned with the accurate way of conceiving the artist’s role in the social order, evaluating the claims of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche long before most members of his generation, a man of restless self-scrutiny and deep feeling.
George Lensing’s study, which makes good use of the Huntington materials, is subtitled “A Poet’s Growth.” After retelling the relatively familiar story of how Stevens became a poet and a modernist, Lensing moves to his central interests—Stevens’s “peculiar habits of composition;…his use of notebooks, epigraphs derived from reading, and the extensive personal correspondence that brought the world to Hartford, from which Stevens only rarely strayed.” Lensing has other valuable chapters (notably one on the importance to Stevens of Harriet Monroe’s encouragement in his early, lonely years). But I want to emphasize here his brilliant account of the uses to Stevens of writing and receiving letters. Unsympathetic critics have seen Stevens’s requests to his correspondents for Ceylon tea or French art catalogs as the dilettante amusements of a rich man. Lensing sees them for what they were—the authentic food for a starved imagination, longing to know what it would be to stand in a Paris gallery, to see elephants in Ceylon. Stevens’s correspondence with a Cuban poet, with a Korean student of poetry, permitted him to experience in Hartford what Pound (or even Frost) experienced in Europe and England—the delight of the imagination in unfamiliar things, landscapes, fragrances, pictures, words. As he said in a letter quoted by Lensing:
My experience…has taken place in a very limited space. It means a lot to me to know a man in Dublin, to receive letters from a friend in Italy, to look at the map of Spain [where his friend Barbara Church was traveling] and to find that it suddenly becomes as minutely significant as the map of Connecticut.
The appearance in the poems of items, landscapes, names and words from abroad testifies to the nourishment provided by the correspondence. Stevens had longed to go to Europe; prevented first by his father and later by his wife (“a terrible traveler, and constantly carsick or seasick whenever she went anywhere,” according to Holly Stevens), he found “the heaven of Europe” in letters.
Lensing’s most interesting chapter makes public the contents of a notebook belonging to Stevens entitled “From Pieces of Paper.” Lensing makes the reasonable supposition that Stevens jotted down phrases, titles, and pensées on pieces of paper, at work, while walking, or traveling, and later transcribed them into this notebook. Many of the phrases reappear as titles of published poems. Many others are titles for poems that were never written, or never preserved. How one longs to have the poems called “An American Monster,” “The Halo That Would Not Light,” “Aultres Dieux,” “Revolution against the Rose,” “Morgue Near Heaven,” “A Jackass in His Own Clothes,” “We Are All Indians,” “Black Gloves for the Bishop,” “Fame & Fright,” and “Pax, Ajax, and the Crocuses.” There are 361 phrases in all. What the notebook proves is that for Stevens the title was a third-order encapsulation summing up the other two orders—of experience, of poetry—preceding (or following) it. Among the titles he did use, for instance, was “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters.” That is the encapsulation of the following second-order scene which opens the poem:
He is not here, the old sun,
As absent as if we were asleep.
The field is frozen. The leaves are dry.
Bad is final in this light.
In this bleak air the broken stalks
Have arms without hands. They have trunks
Without legs or, for that, without heads.
They have heads in which a captive cry
Is merely the moving of a tongue.
Snow sparkles like eyesight falling to earth,
Like seeing fallen brightly away.
The leaves hop, scraping on the ground.
It is deep January. The sky is hard.
The stalks are firmly rooted in ice.
These stanzas render a first-order human experience through a second-order image of a frozen field. The first-order experience, we deduce, must have been one of immobility, sterility, mutilation, and muteness. Stevens’s characteristic way of writing was to take his worst first-order experiences, find an impersonal second-order vehicle for them (“The field is frozen”), write in the second order as though it (and not his experience) were the governing subject, and then sum up the whole with an ironic, deprecatory, and oblique title (here the rural phrase, “possum, sop and taters” used by Stevens as well in a 1940 letter quoted by Peter Brazeau). The bleak field of broken stalks and captive cries, and the nameless personal bleakness that created it, both lay, for Stevens, summarized in the rough graffito of the title.
If these are the three Stevenses—the ironist of the title, the landscapist of the symbolic weather, and the historic sufferer of inner mutilation and captivity—it follows that a biographer might want to include all three. The known facts of Stevens’s life (by comparison, say, to a life like Byron’s) are relatively few, though not so few as to preclude a conventional biography. Joan Richardson’s two-volume biography attempts to represent the three Stevenses—and it will certainly be the fullest repository, when it is complete, of facts (major and minor) and quotations relevant to Stevens’s life. Richardson is really writing three books at once—a factual biography using the Huntington materials and some cultural history (unfortunately of the potted sort); a study of Stevens’s sources (the biography began in a dissertation on this topic); and a psychoanalytic reading of Stevens’s inner life. The first volume, just published, covers the years 1879–1923, taking Stevens to the publication, at forty-four, of his first book. Since most of the important biographical facts of this period are known (though filled out here with more quotation), Richardson is staking her book on her sensitivity to what Stevens drew from his reading and on her own analytic readings of his letters and poems.
I was glad to have Stevens’s reading reassembled from his brief references to it in letters and journals. It is here summarized, quoted from, and linked (sometimes convincingly, sometimes not) to his writings. Some day there will be an intellectual biography of Stevens (based not on the life but on the poems and letters and essays), and the writer of that biography will find Richardson’s reminders of Stevens’s reading (from Arnold to Buddhism) helpful. Stevens’s own intellectual positions are both remarkably elusive and remarkably precise: elusive because concerned with perception and feeling, precise because they fix and meditate on very subtle points of accord and discord which are not categorized in the coarser taxonomy of psychology.
It is not surprising that Richardson’s psychoanalytic account comes down to one that we have heard before: Oedipal rivalry with the father and elder brother; a struggle to integrate the female and male principles; a search for the ideal parent in the choice of a spouse; an ambivalence toward the rival claims of internalized parental values. Even if all such deductions were wholly true, they can never seem other than reductive as the history of a mind, an imagination, and a set of original poems. Criticism and psychobiography are fairly incompatible arts, since psychobiography goes from a set of symptoms in language (“a frozen field,” “broken stalks”) to the emotional cause, while criticism goes from the cursorily perceived cause (“a landscape poem about feeling mutilated and mute”) to the differentiated components. The critic asks what Stevens is doing here with the presence or absence of definite and indefinite articles, how he is articulating his chosen objects, why and how the poem is made to shift structural gears, and so on. Of course there is an ideal horizon where these two parallels would converge, but in fact one’s interest must tend in one direction or the other, and so a biography of the psyche and a biography of the art can rarely be combined.
Richardson’s biography seems to me, for all its earnestness of endeavor, tonedeaf, awkward, and turgid. It is marked, too, by a frequent vulgarity of tone that makes me distrust the author’s own ear, and by solecisms that put in question her ability to follow Stevens’s use of language, with its seemingly infinite gradations. I will cite a very few samples (the book has almost six hundred pages, and there is scarcely one unmarred by bad writing).
Stevens would not have become the successful lawyer he did, nor would he have been able to set down the subtle arguments folded into his poems like those unheard melodies sweeter still that jazz musicians hear in their mind’s ear as they play the riffs around them, had he not honed the tool of reason to murderous possibilities. [p. 20]
To present an in-depth analysis of Stevens’s dialogue with any one of these figures would itself be a healthy volume. [p. 23]
[Garrett Stevens, the poet’s father, courting his mother Kate] no doubt impressed her as someone to whom she could entrust her spirit as well as her physical well-being. And, as someone having a similar family background as she, Kate could be fairly certain of their fundamental agreement…. [p. 40]
Her youth and the inadequacy of her education mitigated [sic] against her being able to see herself with eyes that did not share the common view. [pp. 232–233]
He filled out…his developing thought by nosing into other works…. [In his journal] there were also illustrations of the use of words from his nosings in the dictionary…. He had already begun nosing toward the East himself…. [pp. 236, 241, 278]
Unlike his response to Dickinson, Stevens was at first put off by More…. He indicated how Christianity’s idealization of the eternal feminine extended Plato’s eschewing of the senses. [pp. 245, 247]
Though his relative inaccessibility and difficulty were frequently blamed on this, often called his cerebral quality, quite ironically, wanting to make himself as universally accessible as possible was Stevens’s implicit intellectual rationale for choosing structures of argument and terms of reference drawn from the vocabulary of pure reason. [p. 472]
These, as Stevens would have said, are merely instances. But they do, with their psycho-speak, their solecisms, their syntactic lumbering, their bathos, and their mixed metaphors, suggest that the mind producing them is not the mind to move along Stevens’s sinuous tracks.
What is more serious is Richardson’s frequent misunderstandings of Stevens’s theoretical positions. I can cite only one: she is convinced that the distinction Stevens draws between the “true subject” of a poem and “the poetry of the subject” corresponds to the psychoanalytic distinction she draws between the infantile kernel (as she sees it) of a poem—“the fears and uncertainties of the boy who still crouched inside him”—and what she refers to as the “surface of his words’ appearance.” Richardson then sees a discrepancy and concealment between surface and feeling, and describes the construction of a poem as follows:
It allowed him to hide beneath a “piano-polished” surface…thoughts and feelings that would have been considered indecorous or, at least, inappropriate to one raised as a “good Puritan.” This split also reflected the American dissociation of sensibility that began with the first Puritans giving the rhetorical lie to the truth of their experience. (Italics mine)
This may be what one kind of psychoanalytic thinking makes of writing poetry—but it is not what poets write poetry for. They write poetry to be as explicit as possible, to be absolutely accurate, to make a point-for-point map of a mental form. It would therefore be impossible for Stevens to suggest that the “true subject” was indecorous feelings which he wanted to hide, or that “the poetry of the subject” was the rhetorical lie, the polished surface, enabling the cover-up. In the late essay, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” where Stevens draws the distinction between “the true subject” and “the poetry of the subject,” the true subject he instances (alluding to a paragraph of Edith Sitwell’s) is “the brilliance and color of an impression” that the artist is caught up by. He adds that “the poets who most urgently search the world for the sanctions of life, for that which makes life so prodigiously worth living, may find their solutions in a duck in a pond or in the wind on a winter night.” That duck, that wind, are the “true subject.” The rendering of the duck (alone? with others? still? moving? close up? from a distance? in quatrains? in couplets? elegiacally? comically?) is “the poetry of the subject.” Neither the “true subject” (which one might call the elected symbol) nor “the poetry of the subject” (its manner of rendering) has to do, for Stevens, with psychic kernels or any putative boy crouched eternally inside him. Stevens was quite willing to speak of feelings and poetry—but feelings were antecedent, in the emotional life, to either the subject or the poetry of the subject.
It follows that Richardson’s book will not satisfy as an account of Stevens as a poet. Nor is it a biography of him conceived in his character as a poet. The extreme heroism of his poetic life—as he abandoned the received poetic of his century, vowed himself to an exhausting accuracy of registration and perception, tested his powers by examining and rejecting work he believed to be inferior, and persisted through solitude and overwork toward the creation of new forms of language—would, if it were the governing concept, produce a very different sort of biography. The heroism of writing is an unthinkable venture into the unknown, as unmapped and frightening as any voyage to the source of the Amazon, as powerful and daring in its conception as the far gaze of Pascal or the abyss of Wittgensteinian skepticism—this could be the premise of a different biography. Its tone would be one of wonder, even amazement, that the wager of genius was won against the odds of provincialism, a lifetime of responsible work, and a trying marriage.
But Richardson does not see Stevens as a hero. Instead, she wants to “follow the evolution of Stevens’s consciousness” in a rather neutral way, and see him as part of “a biography of America from 1879 to 1953” (the latter very superficially done, in the event). She wants to include “weaknesses of character, offensive habits or behavior, and intimate details.” These boil down to snobbery (including the verbal anti-Semitism common in his era to his class, never reaching to any thought of anti-Semitic action but nonetheless deplorable), more drinking than Richardson thinks was good for him (though she adduces no evidence to suggest it damaged his business life, his marriage, or his art), and his relationship with his wife, in which Richardson tends to sympathize with Mrs. Stevens rather more than seems warranted.
Holly Stevens has written, in Souvenirs and Prophecies, “All her life, at least during the time I knew her, she suffered from a persecution complex which undoubtedly originated during her childhood.” Whatever the strains of living with an artist, and they are many, the strains of living with someone unable to function socially may well be worse. To Stevens’s credit, he did not abandon his unsuitable and gloomy wife. Perhaps that is all that can be said about the marriage. Richardson analyzes minutely the idealization, tenderness, didacticism, fantasies, role playing, and hopes for the future that Stevens expressed in the long letters he wrote to his wife during their courtship. These psychological attitudes seem to me ordinary (if somewhat repellently of their era), and could probably be found, although less elegantly expressed, in the love letters of many of Stevens’s contemporaries. His beloved was his distant princess, his Little Bopeep, his twin “Buddy,” his to-be-docile wife, his beauty on a pedestal, his Arcadian nymph. And Elsie no doubt had equally unrealistic ideas of him during their long-distance courtship, carried on while he was working in New York and she stayed at home in Reading, Pennsylvania. Richardson rightly notes that both partners were unable to compromise and work out a joint life. But surely compromise is stimulated by compatibility; and it is uncertain whether the Stevenses were incompatible in later life because they could not compromise, or whether they were unable to compromise because they were from the beginning incompatible.
One can argue that Stevens, older and better educated, should have perceived the folly of his infatuation with a girl, no matter how beautiful, nothing like himself in character, background, education, or taste; but his apparent virginity and lack of social experience made him as naive as his bride. The subtle air of injury maintained by Richardson (“Elsie must have suffered. She was deprived of both his physical presence and his spirit,” etc.) is extended chiefly to the female side. We do not read, “Wallace must have suffered. He constantly encountered Elsie’s discontented gloom, her poverty of resource, her lack of humor, her suspiciousness, her incomprehension of his language.” The real horror, for a genius, of living with an uneducated, limited, suspicious, and provincial person, one who has no idea of the arduousness of his life project, is not evoked in this book. Stevens spoke of this suffering in indirect terms quite often, and it appears nakedly in “World without Peculiarity”:
The red ripeness of round leaves is thick
With the spices of red summer.
But she that he loved turns cold at his light touch.
Later in the poem he refers to “the hating woman.”
One can see Elsie’s point of view without criticizing Stevens. Biographically speaking, he seems to have married unwisely someone whom he could not, at close quarters, love. The error in youthful judgment does not amount, I think, to a fault in character. His response to his error—to withdraw into reading and writing—seems a fundamentally decent one (preferable certainly to reiterated criticism, abandonment, or infidelity). The persistent suggestion in the biography that he could have acted otherwise—could have continued to engage with, respond to, and love Elsie—seems to me sentimental.
The analysis of Stevens’s character here appears mistaken or overstated in several respects. Again, I can give only one illustration. Because Stevens found Walter Arensberg’s pre-Columbian art “hideous” (a fairly common response, after all, in the early years of this century, from those trained in a European sculptural aesthetic), Richardson concludes:
In terms of the overt bestiality and violence that [Stevens] despised in pre-Columbian art, contrasted with the hidden bestiality and violence in his poetry—and especially evident in Harmonium—his harsh judgment [is] very instructive.
Since Harmonium does not seem to me to have an especial freight of “bestiality and violence” (more than what? than Yeats’s plays? than Les Fleurs du mal? than Shakespeare’s sonnets?), I can only await Richardson’s second volume for proof that “the impulse to hurt, punish, chastise, humiliate was with him.” Richardson sees this sadistic component as “inverted under the guise of self-sacrifice during his periods of asceticism,” and “externalized as the macabre celebration of death and destruction in many of his poems.” She also sees Stevens “transform[ing] this impulse into the verbal wit for which he was noted.”
There is a slippage here from the Freudian assertion that we all possess sadistic impulses (in which case, Stevens may have had no more wish to hurt and punish than the rest of us) to a psychological reading in which Stevens has more sadism in his than the rest of us. (“The personality trait that Stevens had the greatest trouble managing was his violence, his desire to destroy.”) These slippages make this biography hard to engage with. No doubt, humor or asceticism may mask or deflect sadistic impulses; but then some people (and Stevens was one) seem to be born ironists; and we think of many other earnest youths who strive for asceticism in order to be artists—Hawthorne, James, Yeats, all fellow ascetics and fellow ironists in their youth. Some breadth of reference might keep Richardson from reading too much into small details (the psychoanalytic stock in trade, in life as in art). Or perhaps Richardson would say that Hawthorne and James and Yeats are all sadists too, given their asceticism, their celebration of death, their wit and irony. The category thus becomes an empty one—since we could equally well include in it Baudelaire, Kafka, Mann, Woolf, Beckett, and who knows who else. A real biography should be engaged in distinguishing Stevens from others, not in drawing large pictures that could fit any artist from Shakespeare on.
The investigation of Stevens through his life and reading was inevitable, given the opening of the Huntington Library collection. In another hundred years, the ferment will have settled, and the life and writing, the man and the era, will come into a clearer relation. For the moment, it testifies to the power of Stevens’s fortitude and originality that more and more of his readers are stirred to write about him. He may never be a popular poet, popular taste usually preferring first-order poetry, full of first-person event and emotion. And he may never be popular with another set of readers, those who mistakenly read him as a prosy poet. Stevens does not juxtapose phrasal images, after the manner of Pound and Williams. He seems to be telling rather than showing, and to a certain modern taste this seems a “conservative” form of writing.
I believe—though this is not the place to make the argument—that Stevens is always “showing,” though not by images. Rather, he does his showing through his curious words and syntax. His articulation of thought is not (though it may at first look as if it were) Wordsworthian meditation. It is, in fact, utterly unlike Wordsworth. Wordsworth almost always uses words in their common denotative meaning, and he uses syntax for the normal purposes of syntax—momentum and organization. Stevens’s words are almost always deflected from their common denotation, and his syntax serves to delay and to disarticulate (Ashbery has learned both of these practices from Stevens). The appearance of “telling” is superficially maintained (there is an iambic sentence, as in Wordsworth, spilling down the page), but one gets nowhere reading Stevens in a Wordsworthian spirit. The assertions, the language, and the syntax are all too preposterous for that:
We make, although inside an egg,
Variations on the words spread sail.
The morning glories grow in the egg.
It is full of the myrrh and camphor of summer
And Adirondack glittering. The cat hawks it
And the hawk cats it and we say spread sail.
Whatever this is in the Forties, it is not conservative discursive writing. Here, as elsewhere, Stevens’s art is always about to refresh itself at the well of nonsense. Sound for him is the locus of the primitive, as sight was for Pound. What an image was to Pound, a syllable was to Stevens. There is no need to judge one form of the primitive to be superior to another. What is certain is that every great poet touches both a primitive and a hierophantic note. And it is that reach in poetry toward a double horizon of language—toward “infant A standing on infant legs” and toward “twisted, stooping, polymathic Z” that readers of all tastes ultimately look for. For some readers—and their number seems to be increasing—Stevens’s poetry is one of the places to find it.
November 20, 1986
Reflections (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 233, 236 ↩