(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 in poetry) was a major American
Modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Life and career
Stevens attended, but did not complete a degree at, Harvard, after which
he moved to New York City and briefly worked as a journalist. He then
attended New York Law School, graduating in 1903. On a trip back to
Reading in 1904 Stevens met Elsie Viola Kachel; after a long courtship,
he married her in 1909. In 1913, the young couple rented a New York
City apartment from sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who made a bust of Elsie.
(Her striking profile was later used on Weinman's 1916-1945 Mercury
dime design and possibly for the head of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar.)
The marriage reputedly became increasingly distant, but the Stevenses
never divorced. A daughter, Holly, was born in 1924. She later edited
her father's letters and a collection of his poems.
1936 Winged Liberty
Head (Mercury) dime
After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, Stevens
was hired on January 13, 1908 as a lawyer for the American Bonding Company.
By 1914 he had become the vice-president of the New York Office of the
Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. When this job was
abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office
of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and left New York City
to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By
1934, he had been named vice-president of the company. After he won
the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at
Harvard, but declined since it would have required him to give up his
vice presidency of The Hartford.
In the 1930s and
1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered on
the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church.
Stevens was baptized
a Catholic in April 1955 by Fr. Arthur Hanley, chaplain of St. Francis
Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent his last days suffering
from terminal cancer. After a brief release from the hospital, Stevens
was readmitted and died on August 2, 1955 at the age of 76.
Stevens is a rare
example of a poet whose main output came at a fairly advanced age. Many
of his canonical works were written well after he turned fifty. According
to the literary critic Harold Bloom, no Western writer since Sophocles
has had such a late flowering of artistic genius. The Auroras of Autumn
was not published until after his seventieth year. His first major publication
("Phases" in the November 1914 edition of Poetry Magazine)
was written at the age of thirty-five, although as an undergraduate
at Harvard he had written poetry and exchanged sonnets with George Santayana,
with whom he was close through much of his life.
Stevens' first book of poetry, Harmonium, was published in 1923. He
produced two more major books of poetry during the 1920s and 1930s but
three more in the 1940s. It was in this later period that Stevens began
to be recognized as a major poet, and he received the National Book
Award in 1951 and 1955.
Stevens is very much a poet of ideas. “The poem must resist the
intelligence / Almost successfully,” he wrote. His main ideas
revolve around the interplay between imagination and reality and the
relation between consciousness and the world. In Stevens, "imagination"
is not equivalent to consciousness, or "reality" to the world
as it exists outside our minds. Reality is the product of the imagination
as it shapes the world. Because it is constantly changing as we attempt
to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive the world, reality
is an activity, not a static object. We approach reality with a piecemeal
understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to
make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a
worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no
dry philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order
and meaning. Thus Stevens could write in The Idea of Order at Key West,
Oh! Blessed rage
for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
In his book, Opus Posthumous, Stevens writes “After one has abandoned
a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s
redemption." But as the poet attempts to find a fiction to
replace the lost gods, he immediately encounters a problem: a direct
knowledge of reality is not possible.
that we live in the tension between the shapes we take as the world
acts upon us, and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon
the world. The world influences us in our most normal activities, "The
dress of a woman of Lhassa, / In its place, / Is an invisible element
of that place / Made visible." Likewise, were we to place a
jar on a hill in Tennessee, we would impose an order onto the landscape.
As Stevens says
in his essay, "Imagination as Value", “the truth seems
to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason
has established them." The imagination is the mechanism by
which we unconsciously conceptualize the normal patterns of life, while
reason is the way we consciously conceptualize these patterns.
The jar is a striking
example of an order that does not feel a part of the land, and so seems
to violate the existing order, “It did not give of bird or bush,
/ Like nothing else in Tennessee”. Contrast this to the feeling
one gets while looking over the water where boats are anchored in darkness,
with lanterns hanging on poles, “Arranging, deepening, enchanting
night”. When the imagination is available to reality and does
not try to force itself, reality becomes like a bar of sand onto which
the imagination naturally washes and recedes.
can only conceive of a world for a moment - a particular time, place
and culture - and so must continually revise its conception to align
with the changing world. And as these worldviews come and go, each person
is pulled in their normal lives between the influence the world has
on our imagination and the influence that our imagination has on the
way we view the world.
For this reason,
the best we can hope for is a well conceived fiction, satisfying for
the moment, but sure to lapse into obsolescence as new imaginings wash
over the world.
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.
When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while
its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect
that it will ever have.
Throughout his poetic
career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about
the world now that our old notions of religion no longer suffice. His
solution might be summarized by the notion of a “Supreme Fiction.”
In this satirical example from "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,"
Stevens plays with the notions of immediately accessible, but ultimately
unsatisfying notions of reality:
Poetry is the supreme
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. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.
The saxophones squiggle because, as J. Hillis Miller says of Stevens
in his book, Poets of Reality, the theme of universal fluctuation is
a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: "A great many of Stevens’
poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling
movement.” In the end, reality remains.
The supreme fiction
is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness,
so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something
actual and real.
I am the angel of
seen for a moment standing in the door.
I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone
Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
Like watery words awash;
an apparition appareled in
Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?
In one of his last poems, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour",
Stevens describes the experience of an idea which satisfies the imagination,
“This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous. / It is in that
thought that we collect ourselves, / Out of all the indifferences, into
one thing.” This one thing is “a light, a power, the miraculous
influence” wherein we can forget ourselves, sensing a comforting
order, “A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, / within
its vital boundary, in the mind.”
This knowledge necessarily
exists within the mind, since it is an aspect of the imagination which
can never attain a direct experience of reality.
We say God and the
imagination are one . . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Stevens concludes that god is a human creation, but that feeling of
rightness which for so long a time existed with the idea of god may
be accessed again. This supreme fiction will be something equally central
to our being, but contemporary to our lives, in a way that god can never
again be. But with the right idea, we may again find the same sort of
solace that we once found in divinity. "[Stevens] finds, too, a
definite value in the complete contact with reality. Only, in fact,
by this stark knowledge can he attain his own spiritual self that can
resist the disintegrating forces of life . . . . Powerful force though
the mind is . . . it cannot find the absolutes. Heaven lies about the
seeing man in his sensuous apprehension of the world . . .; everything
about him is part of the truth." 
. . . Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place
In this way, Stevens’ poems adopt attitudes that are corollaries
to those earlier spiritual longings that persist in the unconscious
currents of the imagination. “The poem refreshes life so that
we share, / For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies / Belief
in an immaculate beginning / And sends us, winged by an unconscious
will, / To an immaculate end." The "first idea" is
that essential reality that stands before all others, that essential
truth; but since all knowledge is contingent on its time and place,
that supreme fiction will surely be transitory. This is the necessary
angel of subjective reality - a reality that must always be qualified
- and as such, always misses the mark to some degree - always contains
elements of unreality.
Stevens's position: "Though this dissolving of the self is in one
way the end of everything, in another way it is the happy liberation.
There are only two entities left now that the gods are dead: man and
nature, subject and object. Nature is the physical world, visible, audible,
tangible, present to all the senses, and man is consciousness, the nothing
which receives nature and transforms it into something unreal..."
The role of poetry
Stevens often writes directly about poetry and its human function. The
poet “tries by a peculiar speech to speak / The peculiar potency
of the general, / To compound the imagination’s Latin with / The
lingua franca et jocundissima.” Moreover, “The whole
race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its
fate.” In a manner reminiscent of Wordsworth, Stevens saw
the poet as one with heightened powers, but one who like all ordinary
people continually creates and discards cognitive depictions of the
world, not in solitude but in solidarity with other men and women.
depictions find their outlet and their best and final form as words;
and thus Stevens can say, "It is a world of words to the end of
it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self." In a poem
called "Men Made out of Words," he says: "Life / Consists
of propositions about life.” Poetry is not about life, it
is intimately a part of life. As Stevens wrote elsewhere, “The
poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about
it. / The poet speaks the poem as it is, // Not as it was.”
Modern poetry is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding /
What will suffice.”
It has to be living,
to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. 
From the first, critics and fellow poets recognized Stevens's genius.
In the 1930s, the critic Yvor Winters criticized Stevens as a decadent
hedonist but acknowledged his great talent. Hart Crane wrote to a friend
in 1919, after reading some of the poems that would make up Harmonium,
"There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail."
Beginning in the 1940s, critics such as Randall Jarrell spoke of Stevens
as one of the major living American poets, even if they did so (as Jarrell
did) with certain reservations about Stevens’s work. Stevens’
work became even better known after his death. Harold Bloom was among
the critics who have ensured Stevens’ position in the canon as
a great poet. Other major critics, such as Helen Vendler and Frank Kermode,
have added their voices and analysis to this verdict. Many poets—James
Merrill and Donald Justice most explicitly—have acknowledged Stevens
as a major influence on their work, and his impact may also be seen
in John Ashbery, Mark Strand, John Hollander, and others.
Critically regarded as one of the most significant American poets of
the 20th century. Stevens largely ignored the literary world and he
did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his
COLLECTED POEMS (1954). Stevens explored inside a profound philosophical
framework the dualism between concrete reality and the human imagination.
"The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,"
Stevens wrote in 1949 in 'Man Carrying Thing.' For most of his adult
life, Stevens pursued contrasting careers as an insurance executive
and a poet.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
(from 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird')
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, as the son of Garrett
Barcalow Stevens, a prosperous country lawyer. His mother's family,
the Zellers, was of Dutch origin; she taught at school. Stevens attended
the Reading Boys' High School, and enrolled in 1893 at Harvard College.
During this period Stevens began to write for the Harvand Advocate,
Trend, and Harriet Monroe's magazine Poetry. In his writing aspirations
he was encouraged among others by George Santayana. Stevens's first
play, THREE TRAVELLERS WATCH A SUNRISE, won that magazine's prize for
verse drama in 1916. It was produced in the following year at New York's
After leaving Harvard
without degree in 1900, Stevens worked as a reporter for the New York
Tribune. He then entered New York Law School, graduated in 1903, and
was admitted to the bar next year.
Stevens worked as
an attorney in several firms and in 1908 secured a position with the
American Bonding Company. He married Elsie Kachel Moll, a shopgirl,
from his home town; their daughter, Holly, was born in 1924. She later
edited her father's letters. The marriage was unhappy but stable. Elsie
was fanatical in her housekeeping and Stevens idealized and rejected
her presence. Stevens did not like visitors at home - he kept distance
to people but gained also fame as a serious joker. On the other hand,
Stevens spent time with avant-garde writers and artist around Walter
Arensberg, his Harvard classmate and art collector.
Influenced by imagism
(see Ezra Pound) and French symbolism, Stevens wrote 'Sunday Morning',
his famous breakthrough poem. It starts with 'coffee and oranges in
a sunny chair' but end with iimages of another reality, death, and universal
She hears, upon
that water without soud,
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.
(from 'Sunday Morning')
Stevens published his first collection of verse, HARMONIUM (1923), at
the age of forty-four. Although it was well received by some reviewers,
such Marianne Moore, it sold only 100 copies. "From one end of
the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the
mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering
edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead,"
wrote Percy Hutchison in The New York Times (August 9, 1931). Now the
collection is regarded as one of the great works of American poetry.
'The Emperor of the Ice Cream', one of Stevens' own favorite poems,
'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle', 'The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad', and 'Thirteen
Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'. The poems were partly autobiographical,
also referring to the failure of the author's marriage. 'The Emperor
of Ice-Cream' is not about what its title says, but more about death
seen in harsh light - 'If her horny feet protrude, they come / To show
how cold she is, and dumb"- and respect in front of too-short life
- "Bring flowers in last month's newspapers."
In the mid-1910s,
Stevens moved to Connecticut, where he worked as a specialist in investment
banking of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company - one of the
largest in the USA. Insurance business took most of Stevens' time and
he published little. However, his secretary typed up the drafts of his
poems. In 1934 Stevens was named a vice president of the company. Before
his marriage, Stevens had declared Elsie that he did not desire money,
but at Harford their financial situation was secured and some of the
pressures in the marriage eased. The Depression did not affect them
'IDEAS AND ORDER
(1935), Stevens' next collection of poems, received mixed critics, with
accusations of indifference to political and social tensions of the
day from the Marxist journal New Masses. However, according to Joan
Richardson's biography from 1988, Stevens was a closet socialist during
the 1930's, but did not make his views a public issue (see Wallace Stevens:
The Later Years, 1923-1955). In OWL'S CLOVER (1937) Stevens meditated
on art and politics, as a reaction to the critic of politically committed
critics. THE MAN WITH THE BLUE GUITAR AND OTHER POEMS (1937) affirmed
that "Poetry / Exceeding music must take place / Of empty heaven
and its hymns."
From the early 1940s
Stevens entered a period of creativity that continued until his death
in Hartford on August 2, in 1955. He turned gradually away from the
playful use of language to a more reflective, though abstract style.
Among his acclaimed poems were 'Notes toward a Supreme Fiction', 'The
Auroras of Autumn', 'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven', and 'The Planet
on the Table'. Echoing the ideas of Baudelaire, Stevens argued in 'Esthétique
du Mal' that beauty is inextricably linked with evil. Stevens also pondered
much on the nature of writing and in 'A Primitive Like an Orb' he stated:
"We do not prove the existence of the poem. / It is something seen
and known in lesser poems. / It is the huge, high harmony that sounds
/ A little and a little, suddenly, / By means of a separate sense."
Before gaining national
fame as a poet, Stevens enjoyed a high respect among his colleagues.
His work as a corporate lawyer did not much affect his role a lyric
poet - and he never retired from his job to devote himself entirely
to writing. Like the Italian novelist and businessman Italo Svevo, Stevens
managed to balance between the pressure of numbers and calculations
and the poetic imagination, the unpredictability of literary texts,
concluding once that "unreal things have a reality of their own,
in poetry as elsewhere." (The Necessary Angel, 1951) In 1946 Stevens
was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1950 he
received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, and in 1955 he was awarded both
the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.