The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

“The Man with the Blue Guitar” is a long poem consisting of thirty-three rather short sections in four-beat couplets, most of them unrhymed. The title, which reminds the reader of a Pablo Picasso painting by the same title, suggests a musical piece, though more in the sense of an improvisation than a formal musical composition (something that Wallace Stevens imitates effectively in “Peter Quince at the Clavier”).

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The poem starts out in the third person but switches to the first person, so the piece becomes a dialogue between the guitarist and his audience, which acts as a kind of chorus. The chorus seems to pose certain idealized questions about its own place in poetry. Rejecting those overtures, the guitarist says that he plays things “as they are,” although things “Are changed upon the blue guitar.” He then goes on to improvise in various ways about how this might be done—in essence, about how poetry is related to the audience or to the world in general.

Stevens himself was an insurance executive, so he knew the world in a practical sense; yet he was also a poet, a creator. Though he did not confuse the two worlds, he saw them as coextensive. In “The Man with the Blue Guitar” he takes the reader into the world of the poet and asks the reader to see, feel, or improvise about the world from the poet’s perspective.

Sections I-VI set the stage for the musical drama. Stevens tests out various interrelationships between the blue of the guitar, or the poet’s imagination, and the green world, “things exactly as they are.” The poet/guitarist depends upon the world he changes—shears, patches, tries to “bringround”—but is never able to remake perfectly.

In section VII, the improvisation changes; the guitarist becomes more metaphysical. He begins to play with various ideas about reality and what the fictive person can do with it. Thinking becomes a metaphor or stage for the guitarist’s, or poet’s, activity as creator. It is as if the poet takes over the role of the godhead and in the process, now wholly secular, tests out the possibilities as well as the limits of a poet’s abilities relative to the world.

The guitarist also sets himself a task: to “evolve a man” (section XXX). He speaks of the poet as singing “a hero’s head,/ large eye,” or creating man in a mythic or symbolic sense. He hopes to do more than this, and he uses certain metaphors for man, such as the clown on the stage (XXV) or the notion of “the old fantoche” (XXX), reminiscent of the “walking shadow” in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606).

In the final sections of the poem, however, the poet returns to the original thesis—the relationship between poet and audience. In the closing couplet, which is rhymed, suggesting a certain finality, the “imagined pine, the imagined jay”—the world and the imagination—are still in juxtaposition, as if to say the guitarist still needs to balance outer and inner worlds in the ever-changing drama called life.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

As the title suggests, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” is similar to a musical piece, specifically an improvisation. There is no poetic precedent for this form, so the poet employs a loosely knit structure to fit his theme. The use of thirty-three (an odd number) parts suggests that there is nothing set about the overall composition. Similarly, in each part the number of couplets, usually five or six, varies from as few as four to as many as seven. Nor is the rhyming consistent, though certain sections do rhyme, giving the illusion of finality.

The poem is filled with musical terms to reinforce the aesthetic nature of the exercise; it is “a tune,” a “serenade.” At the same time, the musician is a creator, so Stevens employs images more appropriate to a carpenter. The guitarist’s “bang” suggests violent action, where things may be “destroyed,” but at the same time the guitarist (or builder) is “a mould” to shape things—ultimately “to evolve,” or recreate, man himself. This is a mammoth task, involving “mountainous music,” but it is still music and, therefore, temporary—always “passing away.” While the “leaden twang” continues, however, it is like “reason in a storm,” suggesting that all reality, including the listener, is caught up in the rhythms of the improvisation.

In addition to being musical, the poet is an artist. Like Pablo Picasso, the guitarist becomes an abstract expressionist, rearranging fragments of reality into a unified whole. One way the artist works is through color, changing the world so that what one sees is the “sun’s green” and “cloud’s red”—unnatural but imaginative realities. Sometimes colors are used to dismiss transcendent realities, the “gold self aloft,” or to show the limits of the imagination, “enraged by gold antagonists in air.” Stevens always returns to the blue imagination in balance with the green world; in fact, they are so close that occasionally the artist speaks of the “overcast blue of the air,” as though mind and object often intermingle in the process of imagining, or creating.

The artist is a master of imagery—he works in visual representations; Stevens uses animals, for example, to fill in his canvas. Many might see the poet as “angelic,” but for Stevens he is always of this world, “a worm composing on a straw.” Sometimes he must deal with fluctuating subjects in the world, such as “liquid cats,” but he never resorts to romantic or idealized visions, “the lark fixedin the museum of the sky.” He rather tries to maintain a balance between the guitarist, “the lion in the lute,” and external reality, “the lion lock in stone.”

Finally, the guitarist is also part dramatist. Sections I-VI are a virtual stage, after which the poem moves toward a climax in section XXII, where Stevens tells the reader directly: “Poetry is the subject of the poem.” In XXV, the poet-dramatist imagines the mind itself as a stage, where the poet is a clown, and his “nose” and “fat thumb” are properties that help one to experience the dramatic and comic process of re-creating reality through imagination. Here the clown’s nose is primary, for it enables the poet to give a center of gravity, or stability, to the poet vis-à-vis the world as he educates, entertains, indeed re-creates the world for his audience.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

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