Harmonium (poetry collection)

Harmonium (poetry collection)

Harmonium is a book of poetry by U.S. poet Wallace Stevens. His first book, it was published in 1923 by Knopf in an edition of 1500 copies. He was in middle age at that time, forty-four years old. The collection comprises 85 poems, ranging in length from just a few lines ("Life Is Motion") to several hundred ("The Comedian as the Letter C"). See footnote 1 for the table of contents. [From the table of contents for "Harmonium" in Frank Kermode and Joan Richards, editors, ix-xi:

  • Earthy Anecdote
  • Invective Against Swans
  • In the Carolinas
  • The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage
  • The Plot Against the Giant
  • Infanta Marina
  • Domination of Black
  • The Snow Man
  • The Ordinary Women
  • The Load of Suger-Cane
  • Le Monocle de Mon Oncle
  • Nuances of a Theme by Williams
  • Metaphors of a Magnifico
  • Ploughing on Sunday
  • Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges
  • Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores
  • Fabliau of Florida
  • The Doctor of Geneva
  • Another Weeping Woman
  • Homunculus et La Belle Etoile
  • The Comedian as the Letter C
  • From the Misery of Don Joost
  • O Florida, Venereal Soil
  • Last Look at the Lilacs
  • The Worms at Heaven's Gate
  • The Jack-Rabbit
  • Anecdote of Men by the Thousand
  • The Silver Plough Boy
  • The Apostrophe to Vincentine
  • Foral Decorations for Bananas
  • Anecdote of Canna
  • Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds
  • Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb
  • Of the Surface of Things
  • Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks
  • A High-Toned Old Christian Woman
  • The Place of the Solitaires
  • The Weeping Burgher
  • The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician
  • Banal Sojourn
  • Depression Before Spring
  • The Emperor of Ice-Cream
  • The Cuban Doctor
  • Tea at he Palaz of Hoon
  • Exposition of the Contents of a Cab
  • Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
  • Sunday Morning
  • The Virgin Carrying a Lantern
  • Stars at Tallapoosa
  • Explanation
  • Six Significant Landscapes
  • Bantams in Pine-Woods
  • Anecdote of the Jar
  • Palace of the Babies
  • Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs.
  • Jasmine's Beautiful Thoughts Underneath the Willow
  • Cortège for Rosenbloom
  • Tattoo
  • The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws
  • Life is Motion
  • Architecture
  • The Wind Shifts
  • Colloquy with a Polish Aunt
  • Gubbinal
  • Two Figures in Dense Violet Night
  • Theory
  • To the One of Fictive Music
  • Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion
  • Peter Quince at the Clavier
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
  • Nomad Exquisite
  • Tea
  • To the Roaring Wind
Poems Added to Harmonium (1931)
  • The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad
  • The Death of a Soldier
  • Negation
  • The Surprises of the Superhuman
  • Sea Surface Full of Clouds
  • The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade
  • New England Verses
  • Lunar Paraphrase
  • Anatomy of Monotony
  • The Public Square
  • Sonatina to Hans Christian
  • In the Clear Season of Grapes
  • Two at Norfolk
  • Indian River
] "Harmonium" was reissued in 1931 with three poems omitted and fourteen new poems added. [Heyen, William. p. 147. The poems from the 1923 that were omitted from the 1931 edition are "The Silver Plough-Boy", "Exposition of the Contents of a Cab", and "Architecture". Those introduced in the 1931 edition are "The Man whose Pharynx was bad", "The Death of a Soldier", "Negation", "Sea Surface full of Clouds", "The Revolutionists shop for Orangeade", "New England Verses", "Lunar Paraphrase", "Anatomy of Monotony", "The Public Square", "Sonatina to Hans Christian", "In the clear Season of Grapes", "Two at Norfolk", and "Indian River".]

The book's first edition sold only a hundred copies before being remaindered, [Robert Rehder adds: "During the 1924 Christmas season, two young poets, Richard Blackmur and Conrad Aiken, found that the first edition had been remaindered in the basement of Filene's, the Boston department store, at 11¢ a copy. They recognized the book's merit and bought all the copies to send as Christmas cards to their friends. The poet took a more ironic view of the book's sales. Around July 1924, he wrote to Harriet Monroe: `My royalties for the first half of 1924 amounted to $6.70. I shall have to charter a boat and take my friends around the world.' (L 243)" (See Stevens, H. p. 243 for the letter.)] suggesting that the poet and critic Mark Van Doren had it right when he wrote in "The Nation" in 1923 that Stevens's wit "is tentative, perverse, and superfine; and it will never be popular." [Van Doren, p 400] Yet by 1960 the cottage industry of Stevens studies was becoming a "multinational conglomerate," [Axelrod and Reese, p. 11] more than fulfilling Van Doren's prophecy that some day a monograph would be written that would pay tribute to Stevens's "delicately enunciated melody, his economy, his clipped cleanliness of line, his gentle excellence." [Van Doren, p. 401] A library search in the twenty-first century at a typical university could be expected to bring up about 200 books under the topic "Wallace Stevens". The "Wallace Stevens Journal" has been published by the Wallace Stevens Society since 1979, [http://www.wallacestevens.com/] and its editor, John N. Serio, has collected some of the journal's essays in "The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens". An audiobook of his complete public domain poems was completed by Librivox in 2007. [http://librivox.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4077] "Anecdote of the Jar" has become not only Stevens's signature but also an icon of American poetry.

Most of "Harmonium"'s poems were published between 1914 and 1923 in various magazines, [Bevis, H.: "...sixty-seven of the seventy-four poems of the 1923 "Harmonium" had first been published in small magazines between 1914 and 1923." The first edition of "Harmonium" has this in its front matter: "The poems in this book, with the exception of "The Comedian as the Letter C" and a few others, have been published before in "Others," "Secession," "Rogue," "The Soil", "The Modern School", "Broom", "Contact", "The New Republic", "The Measure", "The Little Review", "The Dial", and particularly in "Poetry: A Magazine of Verse", of Chicago, edited by Harriet Monroe."(Edelstein, p. 3)] so most are now in the public domain in America and similar jurisdictions, as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act affects only works first published after 1922. [See Buttel for details about the publication dates of individual poems. See also the LibriVox site for the complete public domain poems of Wallace Stevens. [http://librivox.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4077] ]

Of what was it the proclamation?

For reasons that perplex critics "Harmonium" begins with "Earthy Anecdote". [First published in 1918. See Buttel, p. 76. See also Librivox. [http://librivox.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4077] ] This poem must be "some sort of manifesto," Helen Vendler speculates, "but of what was it the proclamation?" [http://www.britac.ac.uk/pubs/review/03-00a/13-vendler.html]

Similar puzzles surround the second poem in "Harmonium", "Invective Against Swans". Why would Stevens write an insult poem slamming swans? Why the aspic nipple in the third poem, "In the Carolinas"? What manner of nude "scuds the glitters" on a weed, as in "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage"? Who is the giant in "The Plot Against the Giant" and why can he be undone by heavenly labials? What is a "Gubbinal"? Why does the listener in "The Snow Man" become "nothing himself" and behold "the nothing that is"? Is "The Emperor of Ice Cream" simply a nonsense ditty or does it have some discursive meaning? Is Crispin's voyage in "The Comedian as the Letter C" a success or a failure? What is the mistake that caliper makes in "Last Looks at the Lilacs" when he scratches his buttocks and tells the divine ingenue that the bloom of lilacs is the fragrance of vegetal? Should the reader be amused or appalled by the remarkable funeral procession in "The Worms at Heaven's Gate"? And so on.

A flavorously original poetic personality

Poet and editor Harriet Monroe, who founded "Poetry" magazine in 1912, wrote in 1924,

[T] here was never a more flavorously original poetic personality than the author of this book. If one seeks sheer beauty of sound, phrase, rhythm, packed with prismatically colored ideas by a mind at once wise and whimsical, one should open one's eyes and ears, sharpen one's wits, widen one's sympathies to include rare and exquisite aspects of life, and then run for this volume of iridescent poems. [Monroe, 28]
The poet Marianne Moore, Stevens's lifelong ally and friend, wrote shortly after the book's publication of Stevens's "achieved remoteness" of imagination, likening the poems to a painting that Tu Muh commented upon:
Powerful is the painting... and high is it hung on the spotless wall in the lofty hall of your mansion." [Moore, p. 84]
"Sea Surface full of Clouds" illustrates this quality. [This poem did not appear until 1924. (It was included in the 1931 edition of "Harmonium".) Because of frequent copyright extensions, notably the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and its like, it will not emerge from copyright restriction into the public domain until 2025. However, it can be found on the Internet. [http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/5316/] ] Although Joan Richardson's reading makes the case that the poem's "true subject" is an extended holiday that Stevens and his wife, Elsie, took in the fall of 1923, and specifically that the true subject is the poet's sexuality, [Richardson 1982, p. 61. Richardson concludes her reading by acknowledging this distinction:
In closing, I offer the following observations taken from "The IrrationalElement in Poetry:" "One is always writing about two things at the same timein poetry and it is this that produces the tension characteristic of poetry. One isthe true subject and the other is the poetry of the subject. The difficulty ofsticking to the true subject, when it is the poetry of the subject that is paramount in one’s mind, need only be mentioned to be understood."
] , rather it is the powerful "poetry of the subject" that displays Stevens's genius and draws readers to the poem, as Tu Muh was drawn to the painting.

Moore casts Stevens as an explorer of the exotic who takes refuge in a "riot of gorgeousness." She adds that although "Mr. Stevens is never inadvertently crude, one is conscious...of a deliberate bearishness — a shadow of acrimonious, unprovoked contumely." [Axelrod and Deese, p. 4] Stevens seems to admit as much in "The Weeping Burgher". The Death of a Soldier may have been one of the poems she had in mind, because of its almost brutal naturalism.

Edmund Wilson, writing in the "New Republic" in 1924, spoke without pretence for most readers of Stevens: "Even when you do not know what he is saying, you know that he is saying it well." [Axelrod and Deese, p. 4] This `Wilson effect' is no doubt linked to Stevens's "Adagia" aphorism, "Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully." [Kermode and Richardson, p. 910.] Colloquy with a Polish Aunt is a good candidate for a Wilson award. [Another good candidate is "New England Verses", which comprises sixteen stanzas, including these:

"Soupe Aux Perles"
Health-o, when ginger and fromage bewitch
the vile antithesis of poor and rich.

"Soupe Sans Perles"
I crosses in '38 in the "Western Head".
It depends which way you crossed, the tea-bell said.


Matthew Josephson ranked Stevens among the best of contemporary poets, writing in 1923 that Stevens exhibits both a poetry of sensuousness and a metaphysical poetry. He favors the latter, as in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Anecdote of the Jar", predicting that they will be "spell-binding for hundreds of years". [Axelrod and Deese, p. 4] By contrast Charles Altieri has recently expressed a preference for the poetry of sensuousness. Stevens matters as a poet, according to Altieri, because of his commitment to the primacy of the senses. [http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~altieri/manuscripts/intentionality.htm] "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock", which peppers the reader with visual images, would serve as a simple example, "Sea Surface full of Clouds" as more complex.

A sublimation which does not permit a sequel

The Imagist poet and critic John Gould Fletcher wrote in 1923 that because of his honesty Stevens stands "head and shoulders" above the internationally famous aesthetes like Eliot, the Sitwells, and Valéry. He defended Stevens' "obscurity" as deriving from "a wealth of meaning and allusion." [Axelrod and Deese, p. 4] He discerned a poet "definitely out of tune with life and with his surroundings, and...seeking an escape into a sphere of finer harmony between instinct and intelligence." "The Wind Shifts" is one poem that supports Fletcher's reading. He warned that Stevens faced "a clear choice of evils: he must either expand his range to take in more of human experience, or give up writing altogether. "Harmonium" is a sublimation which does not permit a sequel." [Axelrod and Deese, p.4] Stevens seems to have grasped both horns of the dilemma, writing little for several years after "Harmonium" and then returning with "Ideas of Order" and subsequent collections that emphasize what Fletcher would classify as metaphysical poetry. Buttel prefers to view the later work as "a kind of exfoliation" of his earlier style, the later poems "adumbrated" in "Harmonium". [Buttel, p. 250] (Stevens's first idea for the title of "The Collected Poems" was" The Whole of Harmonium". [Critchley, p. 32] )

The Cool Master

Louis Untermeyer, suspicious of international influences on American poetry, criticized Stevens in 1924 as a "conscious aesthete" at war with reality, achieving little beyond "an amusing precosity". He can only "smile indulgently" at the "childish" love of alliteration and assonance in "Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan" or "Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns", and he is irritated by the confusing titles: "The Emperor of Ice Cream", "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage", "Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs." [Untermeyer, p 30] On the evidence of the exquisite miniature "Tea", Alfred Kreymberg had been led to expect a "slender, ethereal being, shy and sensitive," according to Milton Bates, who continues, "the poet he actually met at a social gathering for "Rogue" contributors stood over six feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds." [Bates, M., p. 88]

To the caricature of "aesthete" Gorham Munson added "dandy" in "The Dandyism of Wallace Stevens", objecting to what he took to be Stevens's indifference to political and social issues of the era. Munson was impressed by the influence of French: "The whole tendency of his vocabulary is, in fact, toward the lightness and coolness and transparency of French." [Munson, p. 414] In view of suspicions about international influences at that time, this may have been unfortunate praise. However, Stevens would have accepted it, having written in "Adagia", "French and English constitute a single language." [Kermode and Richardson, p. 914]

The epithet "dandy" became "hedonist" in Yvor Winters's 1943 essay "Wallace Stevens, or the Hedonist's Progress", which objected that Stevens did not give primacy to the intellect or to orthodox Christian beliefs. Winters characterized Stevens as "a cool master", in an essay with that title, in which he describes Stevens as "this greatest of living and of American poets". [Winters, p. 287]

Possibly the most disgruntled reader of Stevens's early poems was the Irish-American poet Shaemas O'Scheel, the author of an Irish war poem, "They Went Forth to Battle, But They Always Fell". Reviewing Stevens's poems that appeared in the "War Number" (November 1914) of the journal "Poetry". O"Sheel, writing in a competing journal, condemned the entire "War Number" but cited Stevens's "Phases" in particular as "an excellent example" of poetry that is "untruthful, and nauseating to read." [Axelrod and Deese, p. 1]

The Poetry of Sensuousness

Favoring "Harmonium"'s "sensualism", as exampled in "Metaphors of a Magnifico", marks a divide among critics, for there are many who, like Vendler, champion the later poetry. "I think, with others, that Stevens' powers increased with age," she writes. [Vendler, p. 5]

Josephson chooses these lines from "Banal Sojourn" to illustrate Stevens's poetry of sensuousness:

The sky is a blue gum streaked with rose. The trees are black.
The grackles crack their throats of bone in the smooth air.
Moisture and heat have swollen the garden into a slum of bloom.
Pardie! Summer is like a fat beast, sleepy in mildew...
Josephson's objection to this side of Stevens is that he in his next book "would have to be more and more intimate and scandalous, "ad absurdum", and that already this side "has influenced many of his younger contemporaries, and in them, at least, leads to pretense, and murkiness." [Josephson, 32]


There are those who maintain that both the aesthete and sensualist readings overlook the American burgher in Stevens, the successful insurance executive possessed of "something of the mountainous gruffness that we recognize in ourselves as American — the stamina, the powerful grain showing in a kind of indifference." [Richard Eberhart, quoted in Bates, p. 89.] This character trait may be reflected in the aspect of anti-poetry in Stevens's work, as in his choice of the word `stupid' in "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores", or the "tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk" of A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.

"There are in Stevens many moments rich in beauty," Robert Rehder writes, "but he does not want them to be too sweet and resists `the bawds of euphony'." [Rehder, p. 27] Another such aspect may be Stevens's fondness for American locale. A poem like "The Jack-Rabbit" illustrates his affection for rural and frontier America and the native folk tradition, leaving no doubt that his poetry is rooted in America. [Less charitably, the poem might be construed as Stevens's unwitting patrician racism. Another poem that is ambiguous in this respect is "The Virgin Carrying a Lantern".] Poems like "Ploughing on Sunday". "The Doctor of Geneva", and "Bantam in Pine-Woods" are an implicit tribute to Walt Whitman and other American poets, including himself, making evident his pride in the poetic revolution taking place on the North American continent. Indian names are another aspect of Stevens's Americana, as in the title of "Stars at Tallapoosa". Movement away from European influences and toward the responsibility of writing distinctly American poetry may be traced to "Anecdote of the Jar" (1919).

Bates suggests that Stevens the American burgher was self-conscious about the poses of aesthete and dandy, writing,

It is as though Stevens, having assumed the pose of aesthete, had suddenly caught sight of himself in a mirror; thereafter, his dismay and amusement became an integral part of the pose. The same might be said of his dandiacal poems, for the dandy is by definition someone who lives always as though reflected in a mirror; the dandy's vaunted wit sprang in the first place from an awareness of his own absurd pretensions. Further compounding the aesthetic dandy's self-consciousness, in Stevens' case, was his burgherly sense of his own foppish creations. [Bates, p. 114]
Allen Tate suggests a different interpretation in maintaining that Stevens's dandyism was "the perfect surface beneath which plays an intense Puritanism". [Tate, p. 506] The burgher does not look on with ironic dismay, but rather uses the poses to achieve reticence about self-disclosure. The poses allow modulation in revelation of the poet and his world. Tony Sharpe expresses a similar thought when he refers to Stevens as "that exponent of American loneliness." [Sharpe, p. x]

Meaning and Syntax

Stevens is often called a symbolist poet. Vendler notes that the first task undertaken by the early critics of Stevens was to "decode" his "symbols". (The scare-quotes are Vendler's.) Color symbolism is a vital part of Stevens' poetic technique, according to the symbolist critic Veena Rani Prasad, [Prasad, pp. 1-10; précis in "The Wallace Stevens Journal", p. 138.] who proposes the following color scheme for reading Stevens.

blue - imagination;
green - the physical
red - reality
gold - sun
purple - delight in the imagination
Vendler accuses the decoders of producing "some commentary of extraordinary banality", [Vendler, p. 53.] and favors appreciating Stevens's poems by understanding their syntactical novelty rather than by decoding the meanings of their symbols. Stevens lends support to this position, or at least expresses skepticism about `decoding', when he writes in "Adagia", "A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have." [Kermode and Richardson, p. 914] The upshot of Vendler's syntactical approach is to situate his poems in the realm of possibilities and potentialities, according to Beverly Maeder, who credits her with pointing the way. [Mader, p. 158]

Meaning or semantics is fundamentally about word-world relationships, which are particularly problematic in Stevens's poetry. His syntactical innovations are employed to frustrate simple answers about the relationship between language and reality. For instance, his use of the verb "seem" gives priority to appearances or aspects: "Let be be the finale of seem". Also orienting the poems away from certainties about an unproblematically given world are similes with "like" or "as", the hypothetical "as if", the modal "might", the conditional, sentence fragments, optatives, questions, and protean usage of the verb "to be" (as when an observer beholds "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is". [Maeder, p. 158]

'true subject' versus 'the poetry of the subject'

Stevens's symbolism is in aid of a polarity between "things as they are" and "things imagined". [Heringman, p. 325] This is at least often the true subject of his poetry. However, as the exchange between Joan Richarson and Helen Vendler attests, the true subject of a poem can be a matter of some controversy. For one thing, it can look `up' to the ideas about imagination/reality, or it can look `down' to the problems or pathologies of Stevens's life. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Monocle_de_Mon_Oncle]

Up for grabs is whether "things as they are" are to be understood in naturalistic terms (a tree is a tree) or in idealist or perspectival terms (a tree reduces to the various tree-perspectives) or Kantian terms (there is something, whatever it is, that is responsible for the tree, or the various tree-perspectives: Kant's "ding-an-sich"). The tree in "Of the Surface of Things" poses an interesting test of such philosophical interpretations. Also there is a moment in Stevens's poetic development when he realizes that the polarity of things as they are and things imagined is not safe, when red bleeds into blue in "Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks", Stevens's brutal encounter with Berserk. (See also "The Cuban Doctor" for a comparable encounter with the Indian.)

With an emphatic warning about the danger of depending on mechanical symbol mapping to understand Stevens's poems, one can propose that imagination, order and the ideal are often symbolized by blue, the moon, the polar north, winter, music, poetry, and art. Actuality and disorder are often represented by yellow, the sun, the tropic south, summer, physical nature. For instance, sun and moon represent this duality in "Harmonium"'s "The Comedian as the letter C", in which the protagonist, Crispin, conceives his voyage of self-discovery as a poet to be

An up and down between two elements,
A fluctuating between sun and moon,
Sun and Moon comprise an important polarity for Stevens. according to Edward Kessler, who also picks out North and South, Music and the Sea, the Statue and the Wilderness, and Colors and "Domination of Black".

Emotional deprivation

At least as controversial as the question about symbolism is whether and how Stevens's personal life should be read into his poetry. William Carlos Williams was not reluctant to do so, writing some months after Stevens's death, "He was a dandy at heart. You never saw Stephens in sloppy clothes. His poems are the result." [Bates, p. 90.] The remarkable "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" is particularly disputed with regard to the relevance of the biographical. Referring to the fact that Stevens's marriage to Elsie turned cold, Milton Bates writes, "Emotional deprivation became to some extent the condition of his craft, the somber backdrop for the motley antics of "Harmonium"." [Bates, p. 82.] ("Monocle" may be compared to "From the Misery of Don Joost".) To balance the ledger, the love poem "Jasmine's Beautiful Thoughts Underneath The Willow" may be contrasted with "Monocle".

Another dimension of deprivation to be taken into account is addressed by Stevens in "The Place of the Solitaires, which touches on the solitary discipline of writing poetry. See also "Two Figures In Dense Violet Night", which can be read as a humorous anecdote about the gauche male, or a meditation on the lover's otherness, or the poet's challenge to the imagination of the reader.

As Vendler notes in a discussion of the fluidity of self-reference in Stevens, the impersonal "one" is sometimes favored over "I" in order to enable disclosure of suffering: "One has a malady, here, a malady". [Vendler 2007, p. 134] And he often refers to himself in the third-person as part of an effort to see himself from the outside: "When this yokel comes maundering". however, note the use of the first-person in "The Man whose Pharynx was bad".

Enigmatic Naturalism

Although Stevens held that "All of our ideas come from the natural world: Trees = Umbrellas", [Kermode and Richardson, p. 903.] his imagination revealed nature as enigmatic. Bates notes that many of Stevens's images and symbols "combine clarity with an air of mystery", [Buttel, p. 122] . "The Public Square" illustrates this quality. Buttel explains this mysterious naturalism as Stevens's response to the ethos of the Symbolists, which brought him to take his earlier transcendentalist leanings, towards a union of nature and the ideal, "in the direction of the dark and mysterious". [Buttel, p. 122.] He was led to become urgently concerned with conveying the indefinable in the poem itself. "The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician" is as good an example as any. He redirects the longing to know a transcendent realm into nature itself, salving the frustrated platonic desire with his poetic gifts, notably the non-discursive effects borrowed from sound and sight, music and painting. He is ironic, as in "Invective Against Swans" and "Anatomy of Monotony", about the `spiritual' demand to transcend nature. Another aspect of Stevens's naturalism is his close attention to the perceptual act, particularly as not simply mirroring reality but rather as disclosing it in this or that creative aspect. This is arguably the subject of "Tattoo".

There is an issue about whether Stevens converted to Christianity on his deathbed, [http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/conversion.html] but his poetry predominantly expresses a naturalistic outlook in which the religious longing for eternal bliss is channeled into a poetic response to nature. "Lunar Paraphrase" can be read as such a response, despite its mention of religious figures. This reading would support what he wrote in "Adagia": "After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." [Kermode and Richardson, p. 901.] This enigmatic naturalism is given graceful and elegiac expression in "Sunday Morning". Stevens's skepticism about an afterlife is evident in "Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb". The finality of death is given emphatic expression in "Cortège for Rosenbloom". "Negation"'s witty depiction of God as a bungling potter indicates that the Deity didn't have a place in Stevens's belief system.

The Mind of China

Stevens's interest in Chinese art, notably the prints of Utamaro (See canto III of "Monocle") is discernible in his poetry, as in "Harmonium's" "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores". Should the reader note this and move on, or does it fortify the critiques of Stevens's aestheticism? [Stevens, H., p. 796: "I hate orientalism." (letter from Wallace Stevens to Paule Vidal, August 19, 1953.) But see Zhaoming Qian, "Late Stevens, Nothingness, and the Orient", which puts this remark in context.] Moore thought that Stevens's orientialism was a deep trait: "In his positiveness, aplomb, and verbal security, he [Stevens] has the mind of China." [quoted in Richardson, p. 33] Buttel offers a nuanced judgment when he writes, "Purging the excesses of this [orientalist] mode from his verse, he became attracted to the dazzling color and exotic qualities of the American South, the Caribbean, Latin America, and modern French painting. "Nomad Exquisite" illustrates this shift in the later poems of "Harmonium".

Even so, orientalism left its mark, in delicacy of effect and in such details as `Utamaro's beauties,' `umbrellas in Java,' and `a woman of Lhassa.'" [Buttel, p. 73-4] The latter refers to the final stanza of "Anecdote of Men by the Thousands".

The dress of a woman in Llhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Made visible.
The phrase "Utamaro's beauties" comes from canto III of "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle":
You know how Utamaro's beauties sought
The end of love in their all-speaking braids.
The phrase "umbrellas in Java" comes from "Tea".

The influence of Japanese art, specifically haiku, is also notable. The first "landscape" in "Six Significant Landscapes" is a case in point, as is "Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird". Buttel holds that "the objectivity, indirectness, and condensation" of haiku "seem to have had a more beneficial and lasting effect on his style than the merely ornamental details of orientalism." [Buttel, p. 67n] This effect may be responsible for the sense in which he honors the Imagist injunction to "Use no superfluous word," as in such poems as "Valley Candle", which refers literally to an image, and "The Load Of Sugar-Cane", with its image of a red turban. Light-hearted Imagism is evident in the parakeet of The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws.

The gaudiness of poetry

In a letter written in 1933 Stevens selects "The Emperor of Ice Cream" as his favorite among his poems because it contains something of "the essential gaudiness of poetry". [http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/letters.htm] (Later, in 1939, he wrote a letter expressing fondness for "Fabliau of Florida".) The gaudiness of color images is striking in such poems as "Domination of Black" and "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock", which also associate Stevens with the imagist movement in early twentieth-century art. There may be a link between the gaudiness of poetry and the title of the book. His original choice was "The Grand Poem: Preliminary Minutiae", but he may have chosen the title "Harmonium" for its eponymous relation to a harmonium — that is, a gaudy little organ-like calliope, suggesting Calliope, muse of poetry. Note also the "Adagia" thesis that words are "the only melodeon". [Kermode and Richardson, p. 909]

The gaudiness of Stevens's poetry endears him to many, even those who, with a wink, profess to be among his enemies. [http://www.wesleyan.edu/wstevens/cohen.html] It has earned him the sobriquet "the Matisse of poets". Buttel particularly, with reference to "Sunday Morning" and Matisse's Odalisque paintings, is insistent on Stevens and Matisse as kindred spirits. Others are impressed by his affinity with Klee, viewing Stevens as sharing Klee's delight in the playful and evocative ways in which aminimal use of color and scene could create much larger panoramas. "The colors and linear forms in Stevens’ poetry evoke imagesthat dance and tease the imagination," Feinstein writes, "in much the same way as the visualimages in Klee’s paintings." [Feinstein, p. 64] Marianne Moore favored a comparison to Rousseau, likening the effect that Stevens was trying to achieve with "Rousseau's paintings of banana leaves and alligators". [quoted in Richardson, p. 31] "Floral Decorations for Bananas"nicely illustrates Moore's comparison. Another example of the painterly virtues of Stevens's "Harmonium" poems is "The Apostrophe to Vincentine", which Buttel views as an instance of Stevens's practice of evoking reality through resemblances between the world and the visual or tactile qualities of paintings. [Buttel, p. 150. See the linked poem and commentary for elaboration.] Another example is "Explanation" and its allusion to Chagall.

The musical imagist

The critic Paul Rosenfeld described Stevens as "the musical imagist". [Rosenfeld, p. 152] "To The One Of Fictive Music" is one deep and difficult justification for this description. invoking the muse of poetry for "an image that is sure" in a kind of music that "gives motion to perfection more serene" than other forms of music summoned by the human condition. This primacy is given an exaggerated statement in the "Adagia" aphorism, "Words are the only melodeon." [Kermode and Richardson, p. 909]

Stevens might also be called the Vivaldi of poets because of the importance to him of the seasons and weather generally. Harold Bloom chides Vendler for writing in "On Extended Wings" that "the only phenomenon to which he [Stevens] is passionately attached is the weather", replying, "If Mrs. Vendler were wholly correct, readers deeply moved by Stevens might have to murmur that never has so much been made out of the weather." [http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/21/home/stevens-vendler.html] . [See "The Man whose Pharynx was bad" for one resolution of this difference about the weather.] Responding to the seasons, nature, and the world generally is the work of the imagination, whether the poet's or anyone else's, and failure of imagination is associated with death, as in "Another Weeping Woman". The seasons also serve for Stevens's musings on the passage of time, as in "The Man whose Pharynx was bad".

The Vivaldi of poets has also been accused of "some hazy notion of an analogy between music and poetry." [http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/21/home/stevens-harmonium.html] Whether hazy or not, the notion colors such poems as "Harmonium"'s "Peter Quince at the Clavier" and "Infanta Marina", which Vendler likens to a "double scherzo". She also observes that for Stevens "looking and hearing, imagery and musicality, occupy equal ground". [Vendler, p. 48.] Essayist Llewelyn Powys also pursues this notion, finding that "each unexpected verbal manipulation conceals some obscure harmony of sense and sound which not only provokes intellectual appreciation, but in the strangest possible way troubles the imagination." [Powrys, p. 46] Anca Rosu gives priority to sound: "To Plato's metaphysics of sight Stevens responds with a metaphysics of sound." [Ancu, p. xiii]

See Michael O. Stegman's "Checklist of Musical Compositions Relating to Stevens" for a considerable number of musical tributes to Stevens, such as John Gardner's "Five Partsongs to Poems by Wallace Stevens".

A particular comic quality

Stevens the ironist should not be overlooked. Irony (arguably) suffuses "The Ordinary Women", "Invective Against Swans", "Nuances of a Theme by Williams", and other poems in "Harmonium". Also a sense of humor is a significant characteristic of the collection, as indicated by many of the poem titles and in some cases by the content as well. Both title and content of "Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges" testify to this lighter side. Samuel French Morse, who categorized the years 1914-1930 as the "Harmonium" years, wrote that nothing Stevens was to write later would achieve "the particular comic quality of these early exercises" in "Harmonium", though the tone of the poetry would deepen. [Morse, p. 33.] Even Stevens's experimentation with perspective, coolly executed in "The Snow Man", is presented with bawdy humor in a poem like "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman". One vein of Stevens's poetic humour expresses his reaction against the conventions of the Victorian tradition. "Depression Before Spring" for instance refuses to gush about spring as a season of renewal; it compares a fair maiden's flaxen hair to cow spit; and it introduces such "unpoetic" lines as "Ho! Ho!" and

But ki-ki-ri-ki
Briings no rou-cou
No rou-cou-cou.
Another aspect of Stevens's sense of humor is the cleverness of such poems as "Anecdote of Canna" and "Hymn From a Watermelon Pavilion", which subtly exploit within-a-dream scenarios.

Stevens seems to have attempted to achieve a balance between somber and light in the "Harmonium" collection. For instance, though most of the fourteen poems introduced in the second (1931) edition, like "Sea Surface full of Clouds", are somber, "The Revolutionists stop for Orangeade" is light.

Knowing the ultimate Plato

In the ancient quarrel between poetic imagination and philosophical reason, Stevens sides with the former, though he emphasizes not an unchanging mental faculty but rather the continual work of imaginative reconstruction of the material the world provides --- turning ever-changing shades of green into ever-changing shades of blue, so to speak. One of Stevens's themes is the contrast between an imaginative, poetic disclosure of reality as opposed to rationalist abstraction. See for example "On the Manner of Addressing Clouds". Stevens defends the sensuous ground he favors against the philosophers' Plato in "Homunculus et la Belle Etoile", contrasting and recommending instead "the ultimate Plato".

Despite Stevens's commitment to this theme, interpreters have not been prevented from exploring the philosophical implications of his poetry. A few poems from "Harmonium," on no account excluding "The Comedian as the Letter C", "O Florida, Venereal Soil", "Bantams in Pine Woods", "Palace of the Babies", and "Theory" are occasionally mentioned as examples of pataphysics, an attempt to go beyond metaphysics that is sometimes cited as responsible for the high tides of language in Stevens's poetry. It has also been read as expressing philosophies as various as Santayana's, Nietzsche's and Kant's. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmonium_%28poetry_collection%29#On_Stevens.27s_.22symbolism.22] (See "The Snow Man" and "Gubbinal" for some references.) Many would agree with Simon Critchley, who favors a broadly Kantian reading, that Stevens was the philosophically most important poet writing in English in the twentieth century. Anca Rosu reads Stevens as claiming poetry as a way of thinking and reaching for the knowledge usually associated with philosophy. This brings him close to Martin Heidegger, she writes, but "the notable difference is that while Heidegger's passion for poetry threatens his profession -- philosophy, as it has traditionally been understood -- with its end, Stevens, being a poet, can only triumph in the triumph of poetry." [Ancu, p. xiv] She finds deeper philosophical affinities between Stevens and the American philosophers William James and George Santayana, "who themselves challenged the tenets of traditional philosophy by stressing the cultural construction of such notions as reality, truth, and knowledge." [Acu, p. xiv] She emphasizes that Stevens's purpose is not to replace philosophy with poetry but "to enhance the poetic and endow it with philosophical import." [Ancu, p. xiii]


As for "Earthy Anecdote", Vendler believes that "this apparently trivial little poem" revealed to Stevens how much his art depended on obstructions and the consequent swerves they provoked. On the other (dramatically different) hand, Nicholson reads it as an anecdote about planet Earth. The bucks are spinning planets and the firecat is the Sun — so the poem's title is a pun.

Stevens is on record as saying that he "intended something quite concrete: actual animals, not original chaos," commenting on Walter Pach's illustration for his poem, which he judged "just the opposite of my idea". [Steven, H. Letter to Carl Zigrosser, July 10, 1918. p. 209] If chaos is just the opposite of his idea, Nicholson's astronomical interpretation might fall under the same censure, and perhaps Vendler's "poet's struggles" reading as well. Martha Strom's approach may be more in line with Stevens's idea. She explains the position of the poem at the beginning of "Harmonium" as signifying Stevens's departure from the dominant `local' school, which enjoined the poet to stay close to his roots and locale. She writes,

Stevens locates the bucks in Oklahoma, which firmly situates the poem in the "local" school of writing, but he imbues the localist donnée — a particular landscape, some bucks, and a cat in Oklahoma — with the motion of his imagination, and the flat "local" scene acquires texture and life. [Strom, p. 429]
She quotes from an editorial on `Local Color' that Stevens wrote in 1900 while an undergraduate at Harvard and president of "The Harvard Advocate", proposing that Stevens's interest in overcoming locality can be traced back to those days.
So many of the stories submitted to us of late have had their scenes laid in and about the College...that a word in regard to local color may not be out of place. It is of course possible for an amusing event to take place in the Yard....But because an event does take place in the Yard does not make it amusing....Nevertheless it seems to be a popular fallacy with a great many contributors that it is only necessary to stay within the shadow of the dormitories to write an entertaining story or poem. [Strom, p. 132]

This departure from the strictures of "locality" reaches a fulfillment in the final poem that Stevens wrote for "Harmonium," "The Comedian as the Letter C", in which the poet voyages away from his local soil into a sea of poetic possibilties that, he supposes, will occasion his artistic growth. However, Crispin is left there at an impasse, frustrated in his hope to find roots in some locale or other. One reading of "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" is that it anticipates the direction that Stevens would take in the thirties, towards a pure poetry that would be independent of locale.

The Whole of "Harmonium"

Yet another approach to interpreting "Earthy Anecdote" and its place in "Harmonium" is suggested by Richard Blessing's recommendation that the individual poems should be read holistically, as contributing to a single, unified, grand poem. In the first instance the whole would be "Harmonium," and beyond that `The Whole of Harmonium' would be Stevens's collected poems. Such an appeal to the organic unity of his oeuvre as a whole may belong to the best response to the characterization of "Harmonium" as a motley or miscellany. For instance, the holistic view would explain the inclusion of "To the roaring Wind" in "Harmonium", despite its modest intrinsic merits, and its placement as the last poem in both the 1923 and 1931 editions. It has a function in the book as a whole, as signifying the possibility that the poet will find his voice again.


Let the poet himself have the last word. From a 1918 letter, he writes: "There's no symbolism in the "Earthy Anecdote". There's a good deal of theory about it, however; but explanations spoil things." [Stevens, H. p. 204]


Listen|filename=Poems_vol1_52_stevens.ogg|title=To the Roaring Wind|description=Concluding poem of "Harmonium" collection|format=Ogg



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