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FRANCE Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560), poète français, Sa rencontre avec Pierre de Ronsard fut à l'origine de la formation de la Pléiade, groupe de poètes pour lequel du Bellay rédigea un manifeste, la Défense et illustration de la langue française. Son œuvre la plus célèbre, Les Regrets, est un recueil de sonnets d'inspiration élégiaque et satirique, écrit à l'occasion de son voyage à Rome de 1553 à 1557.
Today is the birthday of Edwin Morgan, born in 1920. He was a Scottish poet and translator who was associated with the Scottish Renaissance. He is widely recognised as one of the foremost Scottish poets of the 20th century. In 1999, Morgan was made the first Glasgow Poet Laureate. In 2004, he was named as the first Scottish national poet: The Scots Makar.
Paul Mariani’s excellent new book, “The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens” (Simon & Schuster), is a thrilling story of a mind, which emerges from a dispiriting story of a man. It’s hard to think of a more vivid illustration of T. S. Eliot’s principle of the separation between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” For most of his life, Stevens was an elaborately defended introvert in a three-piece suit, working as a Hartford insurance executive. He came slowly to a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism. Mariani persuasively numbers Stevens among the twentieth-century poets who are both most powerful and most refined in their eloquence, along with Rilke, Yeats, and Neruda. He is certainly the quintessential American poet of the twentieth century, a doubting idealist who invested slight subjects (the weather, often) with oracular gravitas, and grand ones (death, frequently) with capering humor.
Stevens’s first book, the ravishing “Harmonium,” which contains “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” and most of the rest of his poems that people still read—if they read any of them—came out in 1923, when he was forty-four. His next book, “Ideas of Order,” published thirteen years later, features what may be the finest American modern poem: “The Idea of Order at Key West.” (It gets my vote, with perfectly paced beauty that routinely squeezes tears from me.) His subsequent work, which abounded until his death, in 1955, is less familiar, because most of it is gruellingly difficult; the great mind finally spiralled in on itself, like a ruminative Narcissus. It takes heroic stamina to get through “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and other of the late long poems, which American literary culture coped with at the time by loading Stevens with every possible prize, honor, and encomium. Since then, his reputation has stood as a windswept monument, tended by professors.
Mariani, an accomplished New England poet himself, with an unstressed Catholic bent, has written well-received biographies of William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He has a prehensile feel for the roots and branches of literary modernism, exemplary taste in what he chooses to quote, and a real gift for exegesis, unpacking poems in language that is nearly as eloquent as the poet’s, and as clear as faithfulness allows.
Something like a flame comes off the page (page 71, to be exact) of “The Whole Harmonium” when Mariani quotes lines from Stevens’s first published mature poetry, a waltz-timed passage that begins, “An odor from a star.” It appeared in 1914, when Stevens was thirty-four. Up to that point in the story, we have attended the growth of a restless child into a skittish adult. Thereafter, the book switches back and forth between Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life. But they merge as sides of a coin: philosophical, in his continual grappling with implications of the death of God—a loss that he tried to remedy by making poetry stand in for religion—and psychological, in his constant compulsion to cheer himself up.
The key sentence in the biography, for me, tells that Stevens, who was prone to being depressed, “hated depression—hated it.” So do a lot of people, but few fight it as tenaciously as Stevens did. He relied, for stability, on the routine demands of his office job. (Whenever free of them, he commonly drank to excess.) He projected his struggles as abstract patterns of human—and, beyond human, of natural and metaphysical—existence. One late poem hints at a nagging anguish that poetry relieved for him: “It is a child that sings itself to sleep, / The mind.”
Stevens was born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, the second of five children. His father, from humble beginnings, was a successful lawyer, his mother a former schoolteacher. Each night, she read a chapter of the Bible to the children, who attended schools attached to both Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, where the music left an indelible impression on Stevens. Both sides of the family were Pennsylvania Dutch, an identity that meant little to him when he was young but a great deal later on, perhaps to shore up a precarious sense of identity. (He became obsessed with tracing his family genealogies, poring over thousands of documents, and was “deeply disappointed,” Mariani writes, at being denied membership in the Holland Society of New York when, in the poet’s words, “some bastard from Danzig” popped up to spoil the requisite ancestral purity.) His father, a stern man, urged upon him a regimen of “work and study, study and work,” toward a professional career. Stevens was often ill, to the extent that he had to repeat a year of high school, and a bout of malaria—as improbable as that sounds, in Pennsylvania—permanently impaired his hearing. But he played football, consorted with the town’s bad boys, and cultivated a blustery front.
He also had a hunger for erudition, expressed in precocious poems, essays, and orations. In 1897, he enrolled at Harvard, where he studied closely with the humanist philosopher George Santayana, debating matters of belief (Stevens was afire with skepticism, against Santayana’s more nuanced views) and even exchanging sonnets on the subject. He became the editor of the Harvard Advocate, read widely and deeply, and mastered French on the way to commanding a fabulous vocabulary, choreographing such tangos of words regular and rare as “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind,” in “The Connoisseur of Chaos.” On graduation, in 1900, he moved to New York and wrote for newspapers. For one, he covered the second Presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan, whom he hopped home to Reading to vote for. In his third book, “Owl’s Clover,” issued by a leftist publisher, in 1936, Stevens made haplessly clumsy allusions to social and political tensions of the time, though he was “a Hoover Republican,” Mariani writes, and also an admirer of Mussolini for rather longer than is comfortably excused as a common myopia of the time. He was no better than most white men of his class in point of casual racism and anti-Semitism, though fewer such toxins leak into his poetry than into that of Eliot or Pound. In verse, Stevens transcended anything mean or petty in himself, but for art’s sake; he wasn’t much given to moral scruple.
For the New York Tribune, in 1900, Stevens covered the funeral of Stephen Crane, whom he admired but whose mourners he found “wretched, rag, tag, and bobtail.” He thrilled to a performance, in French, by Sarah Bernhardt, as Hamlet, for what he later recalled as her “intricate metamorphosis of thoughts”—quite the keynote of his own developing sensibility. He was bemused by the “quick, unaccountable” life of the city, and took to sitting for spells of restorative peace in St. Patrick’s Cathedral—unbelieving, but savoring the aura of sanctity. Tiring of journalism and seeing no path to a life in literature, he succumbed to pressure from his father and enrolled in the New York Law School. He passed the bar in 1904 and worked at various law and insurance firms.
Also in that year, Stevens fell wildly in love with Elsie Kachel, a Reading girl from a family who lived on “the wrong side of the tracks,” Mariani writes—a cliché now that was at the time a grinding social fate in railway-divided American towns. When his father vehemently opposed the match, Stevens stormed out of the house and never spoke to him again. (He generally avoided all his relatives except, by way of genealogical research, those who were dead.) Elsie was beautiful. In 1916, her profile, sculpted by an artist who was a chance acquaintance, is said to have become the face of the dime, reigning there until she was replaced by F.D.R., in 1946. (Mariani believes the oft-told story, though the artist’s son denied it.) She was also prim, humorless, and, having left school in the ninth grade, intellectually defensive and incurious—traits overlooked by the smitten Stevens through the years of their courtship, while he accrued enough income, by his conventional lights, to justify marriage. The couple wed in 1909 and moved into an apartment on West Twenty-first Street.
The next few years, spent on a small but seething scene of budding modernists, were golden for Stevens’s formation as a poet. At the salon of Walter Arensberg, a wealthy doyen of the new, Stevens met Marcel Duchamp—one of their conversations, in French, suggested to Stevens “sparrows around a pool of water”—and the New Jersey pediatrician and brilliantly innovative poet William Carlos Williams, his peer and cordial rival, who once called him “a troubled man who sings well, somewhat covertly, somewhat overfussily at times, a little stiffly but well.” Williams’s vernacular free verse and Stevens’s sumptuous blank verse long remained magnetic poles of American poetic form. They more or less merged in the work of Marianne Moore, whom both men esteemed.
Mariani’s chapters on these years sparkle with personalities, anecdotes, and ideas. There’s Carl Van Vechten, calling Stevens “a dainty rogue in porcelain” who was “big, blond, and burly”—he stood six feet two—but possessed of “a tiny reserved spirituality.” Arensberg promptly revised the description to “that rogue elephant in porcelain,” in view of Stevens’s social ineptitude. (The patron’s stated formula for a successful poets’ salon was to convene “five or six men who live in the same town and hate each other.”) One gathering was so much fun that Stevens sent a telegram to Elsie, not daring to phone, to say that he would be home late. He admitted to his companions that he dreaded what awaited him at home.
Mariani gives a fascinating account of a poet, previously unknown to me, who strongly influenced Stevens in those days: Donald Evans, a free spirit with a bejewelled, determinedly decadent poetic style, who most probably committed suicide, in 1921. “With their silk-swathed ankles softly kissing,” a typical line reads. Something of Evans—French elegance crossed with American vigor—informs Stevens’s early “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which weaves theories of music and beauty into a comic version of the story, in the Apocrypha, of Susanna’s harassment by lusting elders: “She turned— / A cymbal crashed, / And roaring horns.” And: “Beauty is momentary in the mind— / The fitful tracing of a portal; / But in the flesh it is immortal.”
Some of Stevens’s breakthrough works amount to literary equivalents of the formally audacious still-lifes and interiors of advanced French painting. The masterpiece “Sunday Morning,” from 1915, is an argument for spirituality without God, interlaced with a woman’s parlor daydream. It begins with “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair”; ranges “Over the seas, to silent Palestine”; decides that “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires”; and concludes with a breathtaking image of “casual flocks of pigeons” that, at evening, “make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” It was the first poem to appear under Stevens’s name in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which had recently started publication in Chicago. (He had shyly used a pseudonym, Peter Parasol, when submitting earlier poems, two of which were accepted.)
The editor, Harriet Monroe, cut some stanzas and rearranged others, and Stevens agreed to it, though he restored the original in “Harmonium.” A certain reciprocal high-handedness among poets and editors—as if the modern in aesthetics required a team effort—marked the time. (Think of Pound’s retooling of “The Waste Land.”) Williams advised Stevens to delete, from a poem, two lines that struck him as sentimental. “For Christ’s sake yield to me and become great and famous,” he hectored. Stevens obeyed.
Then, in 1916, perhaps, in part, to secure a suitable life with Elsie, who disliked New York, Stevens took a position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he worked for the rest of his life. After the move to Connecticut, he retreated from collegial enterprise—“a frightened man drawing back,” in Williams’s view—and conducted his art as a sideline to his humdrum life. It took him seven years to complete and perfect “Harmonium,” leaving out as many poems as he included. Except for Marianne Moore, who called the poems “sharp, solemn, rhapsodic,” reviewers of the book were bewildered. One condemned Stevens for having created a “fictitious reality,” which might seem a positive achievement. Another praised him as America’s first true dandy, thereby missing the sincerity of his ambition.
For several years after the birth of his only child, Holly, in 1924, Stevens wrote little. (In a letter to Monroe, he called parenthood a “terrible blow to poor literature.”) When he resumed, it was in less sprightly veins, as his idealist’s temperament groped, through thickets of qualification, toward a never quite attained ideal. But flares of comedy recurred. The painting-like “So and So Reclining on Her Couch” begins, “On her side, reclining on her elbow, / This mechanism, this apparition, / Suppose we call it Projection A.” It ends, “Good-bye, / Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.”
Stevens took to composing poems on slips of paper in the morning while walking to his office, where his secretary typed them up. The results made him a regular and imposing presence in literary journals, starting in the nineteen-thirties, and his poems from “Harmonium,” especially, which were frequently anthologized, fascinated a growing popular audience. After work, at home, he closed himself off, with a sense, he told a friend in a letter, of “shutting out something crude and lacking in all feeling and delicacy.” His marriage had foundered—Elsie had banished him from her bed after Holly’s birth—although he seems never to have considered ending it. When they moved to a new house, in 1932, Stevens occupied the master bedroom and Elsie a former servant’s quarters. A full-time housekeeper tended to Holly. There’s no hint in the book of any other romantic attachment, except for a chaste crush on a young teacher whom he met in the summer after his first year in law school—memories of which haunted him with visions of a flawless woman, forever lost.
His public manner became aloof and stony, but the bravado of his boyhood resurfaced when he drank too much, as he did with zestful abandon on annual, usually solo vacations to the Florida Keys. Mariani tells us that at a party in Key West, in 1935—the year after Stevens became his firm’s vice-president in charge of surety and fidelity claims—he drunkenly insulted Robert Frost, disparaging his poetry. He wrote Frost a not quite penitent but mollifying letter, to which Frost replied gracefully, “If I’m somewhat academic (I’m more agricultural) and you are somewhat executive, so much the better: it is so we are saved from being literary and deployers of words derived from words.” But a few years later Stevens had at Frost again, telling him, “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about subjects.” Frost answered, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”
At another party in Key West, in 1936, a swaggering Stevens loudly impugned the manhood of Ernest Hemingway. When Hemingway showed up, Stevens took a swing at him, and Hemingway knocked him down. Stevens got up and landed a solid punch to Hemingway’s jaw, which broke his hand in two places. Hemingway then battered him, but later cheerfully accepted his meek apology. They agreed to a cover story: Stevens had been injured falling down stairs.
But the Florida sojourns provided Stevens with more than occasions for feckless behavior. The natural elements and the weather set him to wide-awake dreaming on his biggest theme: the capacity of fiction to encompass, and to master, experiences of reality. The enchantment of the voluptuous setting peaks in the fifty-six lines of “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which begins, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea.” The speaker and a shadowy companion observe a girl or a woman singing by an ocean that is “Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves.” The singer’s song, “uttered word by word,” overlays and opposes “the dark voice of the sea,” in a duet that becomes a contest crowned with triumph:
And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
At last, the poet names his companion, Ramon Fernandez, by addressing him. (Though Stevens denied it, he surely had in mind a French critic of that name, the son of a Mexican diplomat, whose rationalist bias made him a perfect foil for the poem’s endorsement of intuition.) He says:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Those “sounds”—sea depths answered by human ones—resonate like organ chords in a cathedral of the imagination.
Appreciation of Stevens’s poetry grew—the critic F. O. Matthiessen wrote that it expressed “truths with the mellowness and tang of a late-summer wine”—but his home life languished. Holly disappointed him by proving unremarkable and by becoming engaged to an office-equipment repairman whom Stevens (echoing his father’s rejection of Elsie) called a “Polack” and a Communist. He boycotted the wedding and was relieved when, a year later, she divorced the man, on grounds of cruelty.
Between trips to accept book awards and honorary doctorates, Stevens continued to go to work each day into his seventies, even after surgery for a stomach obstruction revealed a metastasizing cancer. He was too august at the firm to be let go, but he was never popular there. His boss remarked, “Unless they told me he had a heart attack, I never would have known he had a heart.” Before he died, in 1955, he accepted Catholic baptism from a hospital chaplain, who said that Stevens hadn’t needed “an awful lot of urging on my part except to be nice to him.” The conversion was more poetic than devotional in spirit, Mariani speculates, but, perhaps, “being a surety lawyer—he opted to sign on the dotted line at the end.”
Like other critics I’ve read, Mariani ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention, but they speak to me. Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity. The aim, he once explained, was a “vital self-assertion in a world in which nothing but the self remains, if that remains.” That self devolved, over time, from grandeur into grandiosity, as Stevens labored over a myth of the poet as a secular spiritual hero. His ingenious arguments for the superiority of poetry over philosophy in his one book of essays, “The Necessary Angel” (1951), would be more persuasive if they seemed to designate any poet other than himself.
But dip into nearly any of Stevens’s poems, to the last, and be braced by a voice like none other, in its knitted playfulness and in its majesty. And if a primary function of poetry is to expand and enrich the scope of a native language, Stevens has no equal in American English except Walt Whitman. The critic R. P. Blackmur listed nineteen words that Stevens had fished from obscurity, including “fubbed,” “gobbet,” “diaphanes,” “pannicles,” “carked,” “rapey,” “cantilena,” “fiscs,” “phylactery,” “princox,” and “funest.” Blackmur noted that such usage had given Stevens “a bad reputation among those who dislike the finicky, and a high one, unfortunately, among those who value the ornamental sounds of words.” But, he continued, “not a word listed above is used preciously.” Each served a feeling of the poet’s that, Blackmur guessed, “did not exist, even in his own mind, until he had put it down in words.”
Certainly, Stevens’s poems precipitate rainstorms of sudden feelings, some of them hitting and others eluding a given reader’s comprehension. To savor the drenching effect, read him aloud, with attention to what Williams called his “thrumming in four-beat time.” The mind that can distinguish, in “The Snow Man,” between the “nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is” becomes your own. Stop when exhausted. Then you may want to consult Mariani’s superb biography, to plumb the aesthetic mysteries and register the human complications of so prodigious a gift. ♦