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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Wallace Stevens (1883-1963)

[6041] Paul Cezanne, Bend in the Road (1900), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Wallace Stevens grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Harvard University for three years, leaving in 1897 to pursue a career as a writer. At the age of twenty-one, he joined the editorial staff of The New York Tribune, but discovered that he did not enjoy journalism. A year later he enrolled at New York Law School and was admitted to the Bar in 1904. He became a member of the legal staff of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916 and remained with the company until he died in 1955. He prospered with the company and became vice president, all the time working on his writing. In 1914, he began publishing his poetry in the popular “little magazines” of the period. He joined the literary culture of New York City in the early part of his career and became friends with such figures as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams.

Harmonium (1923), his first published collection, sold fewer than one hundred copies but was reviewed favorably and established Stevens as a leading poet of his day. His second volume of poetry, Ideas of Order, did not appear until 1935, and in 1936 he followed it with Owl’s CloverThe Man with a Blue Guitar was published in 1937, Parts of a World in 1942, Transport to Summer in 1947, and The Auroras of Autumn in 1950. His work is characterized by an interest in imagery and an attention to language, often revealing his belief that much of human meaning was created in the act of regarding the material world. In response to the modernist suspicion that humans could be sure of nothing, Stevens emphasized the importance of the activity of perception; though our perception is always extremely subjective, it is nonetheless meaningful. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” for example, the speaker takes pleasure in the different ways one may perceive a single object. In a world where religion had lost its force, Stevens believed that an appreciation of beauty–of nature, of music, of language–might help to reestablish human faith.

Three works in particular have received extensive critical attention: “Sunday Morning,” in which a woman enjoys a Sunday at home rather than worshipping in church, and “The Comedian as the Letter C” and “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which consider the life of the mind and the life of the senses, locating meaning within appreciation of the world. Stevens’s wit, insight, and careful diction earned him a place as one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century.

Teaching Tips

  • Though students may find Stevens’s poetry difficult, some of the ways his poems engage the central concerns of modernism are quite accessible. To help students better understand the issue of multiple perspectives, ask them to explain why the speaker of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” feels it is important to look at the blackbird from so many different vantage points. You might include a creative response to help them further appreciate the idea of perspective by asking them to compose a similar poem of their own.
  • You might include Stevens in a consideration of other modern poets who use material objects to comment on the human condition in the modern world. The poetry of William Carlos Williams or Marianne Moore, for example, would help to elaborate on the modernist search for meaning in a world that challenges humans’ ability to locate it.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Several of Stevens’s poems question the possibility of finding meaning in one’s life. What is meant by “the nothing that is” in “The Snow Man”? What is the significance of the statement “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”? What do you think the speaker is disillusioned about in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”?
  2. Comprehension: What is “Sunday Morning” saying about organized religion and the individual’s pursuit of pleasure? What is the significance of the question “What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams”?
  3. Context: Consider what “Gubbinal” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” seem to be saying about the possibility for human objectivity. How might you interpret these poems as being especially modernist in their outlook on the primacy of individual perception? Do you see connections between this interest in multiple perspectives and the work of modern artists, such as Picasso, Duchamp, or Braque?
  4. Exploration: Do you see similar concerns in Stevens’s poetry as in T. S. Eliot’s or Marianne Moore’s? What issues seem to preoccupy these and other modernist poets? Do other writers (poets and fiction writers) from this time period or other time periods also seem concerned with these issues?

Selected Archive Items

[6041] Paul Cezanne, Bend in the Road (1900), 
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. 
Wallace Stevens argued that human faith could be found in the appreciation of beauty in nature, music, and art, rather than religion.

[8009] Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., National Fire Group, Hartford, Connecticut, Long View of First-Floor Office (1942), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G613-T-41579]. 
Poet Wallace Stevens earned his living at an office building like this: the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked from 1916 until his death.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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