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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955. Biography Reception Texts. Wallace and Elsie. Stevens and Holly. Stevens at Work. Edmund Wilson, 1924.

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slide2
Biography

Reception

Texts

edmund wilson 1924
Edmund Wilson, 1924

“Mr. Wallace Stevens is the master of a style: that is the most remarkable thing about him. His gift for combining words is fantastic but sure: even when you do not know what he is saying, you know that he is saying it well.”

“When you read a few poems of Mr. Stevens, you get the impression from the richness of his verbal imagination that he is a poet of rich personality, but when you come to read the whole volume through you are struck by a sort of aridity. Mr. Stevens, who is so observant and has so distinguished a fancy, seems to have emotion neither in abundance nor in intensity.”

gorham munson 1925
Gorham Munson, 1925

“The impeccability of the dandy resolves itself into two elements: correctness and elegance. . . . Until the advent of Wallace Stevens, American literature has lacked a dandy. Of swaggering macaronis there have been aplenty, but the grace and ceremony, the appropriate nimbleness of the dandy, have been lacking.”

“Elegance he attains in his fastidious vocabulary—in the surprising aplomb and blandness of his images. He will say ‘harmonium’ instead of ‘small organ,’‘lacustrine’ instead of ‘lakeside,’‘sequin’ instead of ‘spangle’ . . . . The whole tendency of his vocabulary is, in fact, toward the lightness and coolness of French.”

louis untermeyer 1924
Louis Untermeyer, 1924

“The really reticent poet of this quintet is Wallace Stevens. His is a reticence which results in determined obscurity, an obscurity of intention as well as an uncertainty of communication. There are, in fact, many pages in ‘Harmonium’ which lead one to doubt whether its author even cares to communicate in a tongue familiar to the reader; he is preoccupied with language as color or contrasting sound-values, scarcely as a medium for registering degrees of emotion. Moreover, what Stevens spreads before us is less like a canvas and more like a color-palette.”

“But for the most part, this conscious aesthete ‘at war with reality’ achieves little beyond an amusing preciosity; he luxuriates in an ingeniously distorted world. Even his titles—which deliberately add to the reader’s confusion by having little or no connection with most of the poems—are typical. . . . For all its word-painting, there is little of the human voice in these glittering lines.”

marguerite wilkinson 1919
Marguerite Wilkinson, 1919

“Sometimes poems by very clever moderns fall short of being good poems simply because the symbols used in them could never have been realized and profoundly felt and are, therefore, rather more clever than true.”

slide11
I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.

I placed

a jar

in

Tennessee

And round it was

upon

a hill

It made the

slovenly

wilderness

Surround

that hill.

of modern poetry
The poem of the mind in the act of finding

What will suffice. It has not always had

To find: the scene was set; it repeated what

Was in the script.

1. The poem of the mind

2. in the act of finding

3. What will suffice.

4. It has not always had to find:

5. the scene was set;

6. it repeated what Was in the script.

Of Modern Poetry
letter to l w payne march 31 1928
Letter to L.W. Payne, March 31, 1928

“This is not essentially a woman’s meditation on religion and the meaning of life. It is anybody’s meditation. . . . The poem is simply an expression of paganism, although, of course, I do not think I was expressing paganism when I wrote it.

Of the last two lines, it is probably the last that is obscure to you. Life is as fugitive as dew upon the feet of men dancing in dew. Men do not either come from any direction or disappear in any direction. Life is as meaningless as dew. [The supple and turbulent men used to be the last stanza]

Now these ideas are not bad in a poem. But they are a frightful bore when converted as above.”

j hillis miller from poets of reality six twentieth century writers
J. Hillis MillerFrom Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers

“Sunday Morning" is Stevens' most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture, the culture of those who are "wholly human" and know themselves. This humanism is based on man's knowledge that "the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly." There is "nothing else"--the alternatives are to be nothing or to accept a fiction. To discover that there never has been any celestial world is a joyful liberation, and man says of himself: "This happy creature--It is he that invented the Gods. It is he that put into their mouths the only words they have ever spoken!

the snow man
The Snow Man
  • One must have a mind of winter
  • To regard the frost and the boughs
  • Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
  • And have been cold a long time
  • To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
  • The spruces rough in the distant glitter
  • Of the January sun; and not to think
  • Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
  • In the sound of a few leaves,
  • Which is the sound of the land
  • Full of the same wind
  • That is blowing in the same bare place
  • For the listener, who listens in the snow,
  • And, nothing himself, beholds
  • Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
the snow man16
One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

—1923

The Snow Man