Wallace Stevens: the determining personality
This study examines Wallace Stevens' personality as revealed in his journals and letters. It attempts to show how the underlying forces at work in Stevens' temperament stimulated and shaped his poems. My purpose is to shift the emphasis away from the usual view of Stevens as a philosophical poet of ideas toward a view of him as a lyric poet of feelings.The first two chapters are devoted to a close reading of the journals Stevens kept during his twenties. These early journals provide a vivid portrait of Stevens as a young man. Although written several years before the poems of Harmonium, they clearly reveal the preoccupations and contradictions which would eventually shape his poems. Most strikingly, they show that the vacillation between "imagination" and "reality" which characterizes Stevens' later poetic career was an outgrowth of a basic ambivalence that was rooted in his temperament from the beginning. The theme which pervades the journals is the young Stevens' struggle to reconcile his esthetic values with the seemingly harsh facts of life in the "real world." The journals demonstrate Stevens' deep-seated enthusiasm for nature (whether a brilliant sunset or an icy winter day in Central Park) and for marathon walks through the New Jersey countryside, as well as his linguistic inventiveness and playfulness, his love of metaphor and embellishment. They also reveal the darker side of his personality, the black moods that came over him in periods of ennui. Such passages provide a personal context for the "dejection odes" which occur throughout Stevens' career, from "The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad" to the "The Course of a Particular."The remaining four chapters deal with the major phases of Stevens' poetic career. These chapters draw on both poems and letters to trace Stevens' psychological growth--his feelings about people and places, his responses to natural surroundings and seasonal changes, his struggle against ennui. The governing purpose in discussions of individual poems has been to delineate what Stevens called "the presence of the determining personality." I have tried to bring to light the feelings, anxieties, and enthusiasms which motivate and inform the poems, and in the process to show that Stevens' poems are often personal in ways that are not obvious on the surface.A subsidiary theme running throughout this study concerns Stevens' effort to overcome a private failure of feeling by means of renewed contact with the reality of ordinary appearance, with what he sometimes called "the normal." I find the lyrical core of Stevens' poetry in this effort, rather than in his labored attempts to find consolation in the creation of abstract, transcendent fictions. The last two chapters, on Stevens' late work of the 1940s and '50s, are largely devoted to attempting to show that this affection for "the normal" persisted even when Stevens seemed most preoccupied with his grandiose fictions.In old age, Stevens turned inward in a poetry of introspective meditation, apparently divorced from the external world. Yet he was still moved to seek moments in which he could rediscover the feeling for everyday reality. Such moments were rarer and harder to come by, thus all the more precious and poignant. Despite the predominance of Stevens' philosophical concerns, the lyrical voice continues to be heard in his last work, and through it a saving sense of the man behind the poems.
- English