Authors: Wallace Stevens

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet


Wallace Stevens’s life has been called a “double life,” split between the seemingly antithetical professions of poet and insurance lawyer. However, as critic Frank Kermode notes, “Stevens did not find that he must choose between the careers of insurance lawyer and poet. The fork in the road where he took the wrong turning is a critic’s invention.” Rather, Stevens became one of America’s most respected poets. He was an accomplished stylist whose power over language and intense imagination wrought exhilarating and complex poems.{$I[AN]9810000378}{$I[A]Stevens, Wallace}{$S[A]Parasol, Peter;Stevens, Wallace}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Stevens, Wallace}{$I[tim]1879;Stevens, Wallace}

Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879, of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, a fact important in some of his verse, notably “Dutch Graves in Bucks County.” However, Stevens does not approach autobiographical writing; his symbols are impersonal, and comprehension of his work does not depend closely on a knowledge of his life.

Stevens attended Harvard University from 1897 until 1900, and there his first poems appeared in The Harvard Advocate. He left Harvard before graduating due to a shortage of family finances and planned to go to Paris to write. Instead, Stevens took a job as reporter on the New York Herald Tribune. Later, he entered New York Law School. He received his law degree in 1903 and was admitted to the New York Bar Association, practicing law in New York City from 1904 until 1916. During this period, Stevens continued to write poetry and made friends among Greenwich Village writers, including William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), Marianne Moore (1887-1972), and Harriet Monroe (1860-1936). According to Williams, who, like Stevens, devoted himself to two professions, Stevens was always reserved, shy, “unwilling to be active or vocal. . . . He was always the well-dressed one, diffident about letting down his hair. Precise when we were sloppy. Drank little. . . . But we all knew, liked, and admired him.”

During his New York sojourn, Stevens published in Monroe’s Poetry as well as in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others, at first under the pseudonym Peter Parasol. Two plays appeared in Poetry, including Three Travellers Watch a Sunrise, which won a verse-play competition; however, more important, the journals of Monroe and Kreymborg offered an outlet for some of Stevens’s best early verse–for example, “Sunday Morning” and “Peter Quince.”

In 1916, Stevens joined the legal staff of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, becoming vice president of the firm in 1934. Like Crispin in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” Stevens in Hartford seemed to find the end of his journey, establishing “a nice shady home” and raising a “daughter with curls”–Holly Bright Stevens, offspring of Stevens and his wife Elsie. As a “romantic poet,” Stevens made Hartford his “ivory tower,” looking down on a reality made up of insurance law, Key West, Connecticut, and, at times, “an exceptional view of the public dump,” which any public man must face. Nevertheless, neither business, family life, self-scrutiny, nor social scrutiny seem important keys to Stevens’s verse. They function merely as “parts of a world”–three more “porpoises” and “apricots” in an “inscrutable” reality.

Stevens’s first volume of verse was Harmonium; it appeared in 1923 and was not widely noticed. There followed twelve years in which he published little, but then came Ideas of Order and The Man with the Blue Guitar. Subsequent volumes include Parts of a World, Transport to Summer, Three Academic Pieces, The Auroras of Autumn, The Necessary Angel, The Collected Poems, and Opus Posthumous. While Stevens did not relish public appearances and readings, later in his career he lectured in verse and read prose lectures that sounded like poetry–as The Necessary Angel, containing both prose and verse, testifies. When asked to be Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard for 1955 to 1956, Stevens declined the offer, feeling, as he was well on in years, that acceptance of the position would entail his retirement from Hartford Accident.

For The Auroras of Autumn, Stevens won the National Book Award in 1951, winning it again, along with a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, in 1955 for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Stevens was also recipient of the Yale Library Bollingen Prize in poetry in 1949. Following the publication of The Collected Poems, Stevens suffered from recurrent bouts with cancer and was often hospitalized. He died in August, 1955, after an operation.

BibliographyBates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A readable, biographical approach to studying the poems. Discusses the familial, philosophical, and aesthetic background of the poet. Family papers and letters are used extensively. The parallels between Stevens’s life and poetry are excellent in the account of the poet’s growth and development.Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. A full commentary on almost all Stevens’s poetry. A chapter on American poetics from Emerson to Stevens explores the prevalent themes of fate, freedom, and power. Includes an index of Stevens’s work.Brazeau, Peter. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered. New York: Random House, 1983.Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A study responding to critical misapprehension about Owl’s Clover, argues that the poem’s rhetorical poetics are crucial to understanding Stevens’s complete poetry as an ethical challenge to the destructive and rigidly repetitive routes of history.Cook, Eleanor. A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. This work elucidates several of Stevens’ poems and discusses some of the difficulties that students often encounter when reading his poetry. Includes a thorough appendix and a guide for reading modern poetry.Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002. Compares the conceptions of consciousness revealed in the poetry of Stein and Stevens.Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970. This study relates Stevens’s life to his poetry and introduces his poetic ideas, theories, and methods. This is the authorized critical biography commissioned by Stevens’s widow and daughter. Supplemented by a short select bibliography.Richardson, Joan. Wallace Stevens. 2 vols. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986-1988.Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002. A study of the role of myth in Stevens’s poetry.Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Sharpe explores the symbiotic and antagonistic relations between Stevens’s literary life and his working life as a senior executive, outlining the personal, historical, and publishing contexts which shaped his writing career, and suggesting how awareness of these contexts throws new light on the poems.
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