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Wallace Stevens is one of the main pillars in twentieth-century American poetry, notable for his meditative poems that engage with the natural world in order to explore and express personal meaning. Stevens balanced his writing life with a successful career in law and business, earning widespread literary recognition late in life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Aspiration and Inspiration
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He was close to his mother, a former schoolteacher, but his father, a prominent attorney in Reading, was a dominant force in the shaping of his personality and career. Stevens was deeply private, yet driven to succeed.
Stevens was a reporter for the student newspaper of his high school, and his interest in journalism led him to enroll at Harvard University in 1897. At Harvard, Stevens began keeping a journal full of lush descriptions of the natural world. He also began to write poetry seriously, publishing numerous poems in the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Monthly. He joined the staff of the Harvard Advocate in the spring of 1899, and soon thereafter he was named as a member of the editorial board.
Stevens left Harvard in June 1900 without earning a degree to pursue a career in journalism. He moved to New York City, which was quickly becoming the most important commercial hub of the United States after it consolidated its five boroughs in 1898. Stevens landed a position at the New York Tribune. During his time as a reporter, he kept a journal to catalogue his explorations of New York, and many of his entries reflect a tension between the natural world and the urban landscape of New York, which was full of industry and teeming with new immigrants. Despite his interest in writing, Stevens soon began to grow dissatisfied with journalism. During a visit home in 1901, his father urged him to start a career in law.
A Career in Law and Business, a Passion for Poetry
Although he had always had a longing for a literary career, Stevens was drawn to the stability of law. He took his father’s advice and enrolled at the New York Law School. He graduated in 1903, and began practicing in New York after he was admitted to the New York State bar in 1904. In 1904, he also met his future wife, Elsie Viola Kachel. They were married on September 21, 1909, in Reading. Stevens diligently pursued his legal career and was soon offered a prestigious position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He moved to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1916. His new position required a great deal of travel, including many trips to Florida, which became a central landscape for many of his most brilliant poetic works. Stevens’s professional success was sullied only by the death of his father on July 14, 1911.
Despite his flourishing professional career, Stevens still devoted time to his writing and poetry. He found time to compose and publish ”Cannet de Voyage,” a set of eight poems, in The Trend in 1914. These were the first poems Stevens had published since his days at Harvard. The same year as his appointment to Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, Stevens’s play ”Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise” won a prize offered by the Players’ Producing Company of Chicago. One of the judges was Harriet Monroe, the longtime editor of Poetry magazine. Stevens began a long-standing and beneficial association with Monroe, and Poetry became a regular publisher of Stevens’s poems throughout his life. From 1915 onward, Stevens gained substantial momentum as a writer, even as his career as a lawyer and businessman was also gaining substantial speed.
In 1915, Stevens published two significant early poems, ”Peter Quince at the Clavier” and ”Sunday Morning.” During the period from 1913 to 1920, Stevens was loosely associated with a group of poets named “Imagists” after poet Ezra Pound’s 1913 anthology Des Imagistes. Imagism was a movement that focused on clear expression through the use of the most precise images and language. Imagist poets included Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, and H.D. The impact of imagism is evident in many of Stevens’s early poems, including ”Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Although Imagism was an influence on his work, Stevens recognized the poetic limitations of imagism and soon parted ways with this group of modernist poets. From 1916 to 1917, Stevens published nearly a poem a month in various literary magazines, and by 1923 he had gained enough momentum to publish his first collection, Harmonium (1923). Unfortunately, Stevens’s literary experimentation and abstract approach in Harmonium was greeted with less than wild enthusiasm from critics. Discouraged by this lukewarm reception, Stevens shifted focus to his new daughter and his business career from 1924 until 1930.
Literary Success Late in Life
In 1931 Harmonium was republished with the addition of fourteen new poems. In 1935, Stevens published Ideas of Order, a collection that includes ”The Idea of Order at Key West,” a poem that focuses on the question of representation and the relationship of art and the world. The poem is a milestone in Stevens’s career and a strong articulation about poetry and philosophy that is central to most of his writing from 1935 until his death. Stevens’s critical reception also increased after the release of Ideas of Order. In 1936, his poem ”The Men That Are Falling” was awarded the poetry prize from The Nation. The 1940s were an even more prolific period for Stevens, beginning with the publication of the collection Parts of a World (1942), which includes his classic ”Of Modern Poetry.” His readership continued to grow as well, and he garnered numerous accolades, including induction into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1946 and the Bollinger Prize in poetry in 1949. In 1951, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America, and the National Book Award for Poetry. In 1954, in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday, Alfred A. Knopf published The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which included his final twenty-five poems. In 1955, his collected poems received the National Book Award, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Stevens died later that year of stomach cancer. Many of his last poems are retrospective and affirm the importance of poetry and the power of the imagination.
Works in Literary Context
Modernism was a cultural movement that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and America, and included art, architecture, philosophy, and literature. Modernist writers are chiefly distinguished by their desire to break from the past and experiment with literary forms and styles. Modernist poetry was often characterized by discarding traditional meter and rhyme for free verse. In addition to Stevens, poets who are commonly recognized as modernist include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, H.D., and Marianne Moore.
The Power of the Poetic Imagination
At the heart of Stevens’s poetry is a bold assertion about the power of the imagination and how it can help people to live and to experience a sense of fullness. Stevens’s poems are characterized by wordplay, rich imagery, and thoughtful meditation. One of his greatest contributions to poetry is his reinforcement of its importance. To Stevens, poetry infused life with meaning by maintaining the balance of the real and the imaginative, as well as the harmony between the individual and the natural world.
Works in Critical Context
Now revered as a master of poetic language, as well as a profound philosophical thinker, Stevens did not achieve widespread critical recognition until shortly before his death. Many critics of his early works felt that his abstract language and approach to poetry was impersonal and obscure. By the latter half of the twentieth century, critics began to applaud both his form and themes, widely agreeing with the literary critic Harold Bloom, who hails Stevens as ”the best and most representative American poet of our time.”
An early work, ”Sunday Morning” has been singled out by critics because of its eloquent, bold assertion that poetry should be regarded as the supreme religion in the twentieth century. The poem focuses on a woman’s contemplation of Christianity and spirituality, and concludes with a celebration of poetry as engaging and interrogating the individual place in the world. Critical appraisal has centered on Stevens’s articulation of the relationship between poetry and the natural world. Critic J. Hillis Miller concludes:
”Sunday Morning” is Stevens’ most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture.
”The Idea of Order at Key West”
”The Idea of Order at Key West” is one of Stevens’s most complex, challenging, and popular works. Early critics tended to view the poem as a discourse on just the creative process, but today’s critics regard it as a demonstration of the vitality of poetry and power of the poetic imagination. Richard Gray discusses the power of the poem by emphasizing ”the poet as maker, inventing a world rather than simply reporting one,” noting that in doing so, Steven is ”uncovering a possibility available to everyone.” The essence of ”The Idea of Order at Key West” examines the issue of human and natural order, as well as the vitality of the creative process and artistic representation.
- Beckett, Lucy. Wallace Stevens. Cambridge, M.A.: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
- Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
- Borroff, Marie, ed. Wallace Stevens: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
- Miller, J. Hillis. Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
- Kermode, Frank. Wallace Stevens. London: Oliver & Boyd, 1960.
- Kessler, Edward. Images of Wallace Stevens. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972.
- Pearce, Roy Harvey and J. Hillis Miller, eds. The Act of the Mind: Essays on the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.
- Eberhart, Richard. ”Emerson and Wallace Stevens,” Literary Review, 7 (1963): 51-71.
- Gray, Richard. ”Poetry and the Subject of the Poem: Wallace Stevens.” Modern American Poetry, (1984): 41-57.
- McFadden, George. ”Poet, Nature, and Society in Wallace Stevens.” Modern Language Quarterly,23 (1962): 263-271.
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