In 1923, the year Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium was published, the French Symbolists Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue were being assimilated as influences and models in English poetry as well, and the imagist movement had not yet run its course. Because Stevens exhibited the tangential imagery, elisions, and regard for symbolic order of the first group and the concentrated exactness of the second, most readers found little in his poetry to link it with the native tradition. Instead, they seized on the exotic and ornate qualities of his verse as if these were its final effect rather than a means to an end.
Stevens appears to be, at first reading, a poet whose purity of vision and absolute integrity insulate him from the material concerns of his society. In thus assuming a position of isolation and authority, he resembles T. S. Eliot in England and James Joyce in Paris. The author of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” “The Comedian as the Letter C,” and “Peter Quince at the Clavier” seems to provide a similar image of the dedicated artist.
As it later developed, Stevens was neither a master of decor for decoration’s sake—the literary dandy and James Whistler in words, as some called him—nor the alienated poet the period demanded. An aesthetic-moral writer of the highest order, he had already in Harmonium charted those areas of experience and precept that were to form the whole body of his work: the re-creation of the physical world in bold and brilliant imagery, the relation of imagination to reality, the nature and function of art, the poet’s place in modern society, and problems of structure and style.
Stevens was not a poet of growth but of clarification, and his later books merely order and refine his vision and techniques. Unlike most poets, who achieve only a temporary balance between temperament and environment, he created a total world for his imagination and his belief in the nourishing power of art. Perhaps the greatest service he provides is to show the possible in poetry if humans are to find a source of imaginative faith in an age of disbelief or to establish once more a sustaining relationship with the world about them. Harmonium “makes a constant sacrament of praise” to poetry—the imaginative ordering of experience—as the supreme fiction.
The unmistakable signature of these poems is the richness of their diction , the use of words not common (at least in those plain-speaking times) to English poetry, and a parade of brightly colored images and startling turns of phrase. Such words as fubbed, coquelicot, barque, phosphor, gobbet, fiscs, clavier, pannicles, girandoles, rapey, carked, diaphanes, unburgherly, minuscule, ructive, shebang, cantilene, pipping, curlicues, and funest reveal the poet’s delight in the unusual and the rare. As R. P. Blackmur pointed out long ago, however, Stevens’s poetic vocabulary was not chosen for affected elegance, coyness, or calculated obscurity. These words give an air of rightness and inevitability within what frames them. It is not the word itself but its relationship to other words in the poem that gives to Stevens’s poetry its striking qualities of style. The same is true of his images, the strategic effectiveness of “barbaric glass,” “poems of plums,” “venereal soil,” “golden quirks and Paphian caricatures,” “rosy chocolate and gilt umbrellas,” “oozing cantankerous gum,” “women of primrose and purl,” and “the emperor of ice cream,” which convey a luxuriance of sense impressions. This diction of odd angles of vision and strange surfaces gives the impression of language revitalized as if it were the invention of the poet himself. The diction becomes a part of what Stevens once called “the essential gaudiness of poetry,” and it is capable of a variety of effects, as the following examples show: “The mules that angels ride come slowly down/ The blazing passes from beyond the...
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