Although Wallace Stevens never has had as large an audience as that enjoyed by Robert Frost and did not receive substantial recognition until several years before his death, he is usually considered to be one of the best five or six English-language poets of the twentieth century. Harmonium reveals a remarkable style—or, to be more precise, a number of remarkable styles. While critics praised, or more often condemned, the early poetry for its gaudiness, colorful imagery, flamboyant rhetoric, whimsicality, and odd points of view, one also finds in this volume spare Imagist poems as well as abstract philosophical poems that anticipate his later work. The purpose of his rhetorical virtuosity in Harmonium and in subsequent volumes was not merely to dazzle the reader but to convey the depth of emotion, the subtle complexity of thought, and the associative processes of the mind.
Strongly influenced by early nineteenth century English poets, Stevens became a modern Romantic who transformed and extended the English Romantic tradition as he accommodated it to the twentieth century world. Harmonium and subsequent volumes reveal his assimilation of the innovations of avant-garde painting, music, poetry, and philosophy. One finds in his canon, for example, intimations of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Henri Bergson, and of cubism, Impressionism, Imagism, and Symbolism. Such influences were always subordinated to the poet’s romantic sensibility, however, which struggled with the central Romantic problem—the need to overcome the gulf between the inner, human reality and outer, objective reality. A secular humanist who rejected traditional Christianity, arcane mysticism, and the pessimism of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972), he succeeded as a Romantic poet in the modern world. His contribution to poetry was recognized with the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1920, the award of the Bollingen Prize in 1950, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1951, and a National Book Award in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn. In 1955, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens won both a second National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His reputation has continued to grow since his death in 1955.