Wallace Stevens, Harmonium

HarmoniumHarmonium by Wallace Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have long had an interest in Wallace Stevens but have never read him with any disciplined attention. To correct this, I read Stevens’s landmark first book, Harmonium (1923), in a library copy of the Goodreads edition pictured above, along with the selections from it in The Palm at the End of the Mind, which I hope to read in its entirety before too long. The Palm was arranged (by Stevens’s daughter after his death in 1955) in the poems’ order of composition, while Harmonium follows its own sequence. Unless I am mistaken, I could find no grand design in Harmonium. The following review, then, will be structured according to Stevens’s governing themes rather than by either volumes’ ordering of the poems.

Earlier, I suggested that one way to become a literary original and overcome one’s belatedness is to write as if you are two of your most radically opposed influences in one or at once. This may well be Stevens’s whole secret: he writes as if Mallarmé (or do I just mean Poe?) and Whitman could be one poet: his is a formalist, decadent verse, disporting itself in pleasurable autonomous soundscapes whose non-meaning signifies the absolute—but all of it testifying to the Adamic New World power of arranging a fresh reality in primal, sensuous names.

Take “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which the poet’s perfumed and aristocratic inner world, like des Esseintes’s or Dorian Gray’s chambers, is shown to be a Whitmanian song of himself, where the self is strange even to the consciousness of it, with the democratic or Transcendentalist implication, largely absent in the European decadents and aesthetes, that we are all so endowed:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

Stevens’s verse is difficult; it is more readily understood than that of Crane or Moore, not because the references can all be decoded and the allegories explained, as with The Waste Land—some can, though just as often Stevens is pleasuring himself, and/or us, with words (“But ki-ki-ri-ki / Brings no rou-cou, / No rou-cou-cou”)—but because he has a nearly constant subject, which is the vicissitude of the post-Romantic poet’s imaginative power in 20th-century America.

The entirety of Harmonium‘s long mock-epic, “The Comedian as the Letter C,” concerns Crispin’s, or the poet’s, attempt to find an aesthetic beyond the faded Romanticism of Old Europe in an American itinerary:

Bordeaux to Yucatan, Havana next,
And then to Carolina. Simple jaunt.

“The Comedian” is self-lacerating, not only about Crispin’s earlier cultural role as “general lexicographer of mute / And maidenly greenhorns” corrupted by the “distortion of romance,” but also about how his quest for authenticity, for “the veritable ding an sich” or “the fecund minimum,” leads him first to an aesthetic of modernist asceticism—

He gripped more closely the essential prose
As being, in a world so falsified,
The one integrity for him, the one
Discovery still possible to make,
To which all poems were incident, unless
That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last.

—and then to his eventual domestic fate with poetry-blocking wife and daughters in his American colony:

Yet the quotidian saps philosophers
And men like Crispin like them in intent,
If not in will, to track the knaves of thought.

This third-person poem, epic rather than lyric, is not confessional but anti-confessional, Stevens’s virtuoso rhetorical narration of his defeated double certifying that he is still a poet even if Crispin is not. It reminds me, in this way, of a Dubliners story: the author’s triumphant, radiant showing-forth of his creature’s defeat and paralysis (remember, MFA kids: in Joyce, the epiphany is for the reader, not for the character!).

“The Comedian as the Letter C” is certainly dazzling, and its seventeen pages took me three days at the rate of an hour a day to read properly, pencil in hand to crowd the margins, so dense is the poem with involuted meaning and rich imagery, but it is not my favorite: too much of a good thing and too provincial in its concerns, not too mention a bit too bitter for my taste. Are Europe and America, and women and children, really so comical as Stevens makes them here? I think of another poem in this volume, the nonsensically but suggestively titled “Gubbinal,” a warning against emotional reductiveness, precisely because the imagination for Stevens really does make the world:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

I like our poet better when he is briefer, more anecdotal, to refer to one of his preferred genres (e.g., “Anecdote of Canna,” “Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks,” “Anecdote of the Jar”).

Taken together, his shorter lyrics describe the arc of his constant swing between an aesthetic of proto-Beckettian modernist minimalism or nihilism, as in “The Snow Man” and accordingly identified with the north—

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow…

—and his lush and sensuous, if always half-self-parodic and sometimes perilous-seeming, late-Romanticism or late-Decadence, associated with the south, as, for example, in “Floral Decorations for Bananas”—

And deck the bananas in leaves
Plucked from the Carib trees
Fibrous and dangling down,
Oozing cantankerous gum
Out of their purple maws,
Darting out of their purple craws
Their musky and tingling tongues.

Poetic imagination and its geography, yes, but what else does Stevens write about? The poetic imagination would not be so free to make the world if it had to contend with a divine rival: whereas the middle to late 19th century boasted great poetry of Christian doubt, from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. to Hopkins’s terrible sonnets and such Dickinson verses as “This World is not Conclusion” and “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” then Stevens is the bard of atheism.

Harmonium‘s famous example of this motif is “Sunday Morning,” another third-person poem, about a young woman avoiding church on the Sabbath. She learns to refuse not only organized religion but also the need for any metaphysical certitude at all—to accept the finality of death as the frame that makes her experience a beautiful picture:

She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

The poem’s pagan pedagogy is clear:

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

Stevens’s anti-ecclesiastical harmonium can play great variations on this theme. The barbaric yawp of “Ploughing on Sunday” provides another way to break the Sabbath:

Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday,
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!

“Ploughing,” critics agree, literally means “working,” figuratively signifies “writing poetry,” and, as in Joyce and Nabokov, also suggests “fucking.” There is moreover the astringent Hamlet-like (or schoolboy-atheist) comedy of “The Worms at Heaven’s Gate,” wherein the titular invertebrates deliver Badroulbadour (wife of Aladdin) to her eternal reward by disgorging the pieces of her corpse they’ve swallowed. More sensitively, in a very early and very Decadent poem about St. Ursula, Stevens not only diagnoses the saint’s worship as a displacement of erotic desire but even imagines a suspiciously aesthetics-oriented God responding in kind to Ursula’s attractions:

The good Lord in His garden sought
New leaf and shadowy tinct,
And they were all His thought.
He heard her low accord,
Half prayer and half ditty,
And He felt a subtle quiver,
That was not heavenly love,
Or pity.

The triumphant poem in this atheistical vein is “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”:

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets.

Here the speaker instructs his pious interlocutor that, all faiths being instances of the supreme fiction of poetry, “the moral law” is no more true than its pagan opposite, and that even Christian ascetics might be taught to dance. That this disturbs the old woman, the poet allows, but he grants her no quarter:

This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

I am supposed to say that this is sexist (also ageist), and I guess it is, but is it much different—except that its rhetoric is less violent!—than Woolf’s murder of “the Angel in the House” in “Professions for Women” (“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her”), or even Cather’s protest against small-town small-mindedness in My Ántonia? For the modernists, male and female, the image of middle-class domestic woman’s authority over culture was an ideological tyranny no less to be overthrown than gray-bearded Victorian patriarchy.

Which brings me to my finale, Stevens and gender and sex. Much of his most vital poetry seems to be a communion with his Jungian anima; rather than anguish over the modern poet’s feminized role, as in Tennyson or Browning or Dickens, Stevens enjoys figurations of female aesthetic capacity when he forgets to mock it. The best of this kind is “The Plot against the Giant,” a little detumescent anti-epic, also counter-Biblical as it replaces David with a triple goddess:

First Girl

When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.

Second Girl

I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
The threads
Will abash him.

Third Girl

Oh, la…le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.

The south, the French language, and femality: these, ranged against an equally strong attraction to northern masculine asceticism, each bearing its own danger, mark the boundaries of Stevens’s unique poetic.

Stevens is not a biographical poet, and he especially displaces the biographical in my favorite of the longer poems, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” a supposed monologue of the poet’s aged uncle reflecting on vanished desire in and out of marriage:

Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.

But its concluding credo, the speaker’s resolve to study love and to appreciate especially what is most subtle, is the motive force, I think, of even this difficult modernist poet’s most acerbic or recalcitrant verse:

Like a dark rabbi, I
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,
In lordly study. Every day, I found
Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world.
Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.

I have complained more than once about the impossibility of reading poetry, in the way one reads (i.e., finishes) a novel by coming to the end of its narrative; but poetry is still more impossible to write about. I could go on forever about poems I haven’t even mentioned—”The Doctor of Geneva,” “Banal Sojourn,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” “Cortège for Rosenbloom,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” and more—or individual lines within them. In lieu of that, let me just enjoin you, if it is great poetry you want to read, to read Wallace Stevens.



  1. You’re a braver man than pseudonymous-I to touch the subject of the cultural authority of “middle-class domestic women” with a paragraph of less than 100 words. Than Emerson, too, who only excerpted the first two sentences of the following 100+ word paragraph on that topic from his journals for use in “The Young American”:

    In America out of doors all seems a market; in-doors, an air tight stove of conventionalism. Every body who comes into the house savors of these precious habits, the men, of the market; the women, of the custom. In every woman’s conversation & total influence mild or acid lurks the conventional devil. They look at your carpet, they look at your cap, at your saltcellar,
    at your cook & waiting maid, conventionally,—to see how close they square with the customary cut in Boston & Salem & New Bedford. But M[ary].M[oody].E[merson]. and E[lizabeth]. H[oar]. do not bring into a house with them a platoon of conventional devils.

    As an evil, florescent bemustached, shape-shifting, reptilian kitten-eater, I bend the knee to the teraphim, brownies, and whatever other infernal household deities & vestigial pagan excrescences Emerson is invoking here.

    Writing about poetry is, you’re right, even worse in its impossibility, if not quite as dangerous as domesticity, but this is really good writing on poetry. Particularly good as an introductory anatomy of Stevens’s early poetic modes (self-pleasuring, epic, anecdote, etc.). Have you read any of the late Stevens epics? Are you down with the Supreme Fiction, or at least the rough identity of universes, religions, poems, and hoaxes? I would describe myself as steeped in Stevens, possibly drowning, & I learned a lot from this. Let’s hope your students & mine cite you correctly.

    • Thank you very much!

      In that brief paragraph I apotropaically included a link to a monograph on the subject by the supervisor of my doctoral dissertation, for something like the reasons you mention. I hope I conveyed that I am ambivalent about the anti-bourgeois spirit of modernism, signaled by my distaste for the satirical extremity of The Comedian as the Letter C.

      Speaking, as you were, of anti-domestic-sentiment and the American Renaissance, I am currently reading Pierre, or The Ambiguities, which appears so far to be a monstrous elaboration of Emerson’s complaint.

      Among the post-Harmonium long poems, I have read only Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction before, but quickly and sans marginalia, and I remember nothing below the high points (to impose is not to discover, war between the mind and the sky, fat girl terrestrial, blazoned days—that’s from memory and in no particular order, so take with a grain of salt); I will have to revisit. Other than that, I only know some of the more famous shorter lyrics.

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