Peter Quince at the Clavier

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

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The salient themes and meanings of the poem seem to be in the unraveling of “Beauty is momentary in the mind” but immortal in the flesh. One way to read this puzzle is to put the young poet together with the lecherous old man, much as one might prefer to keep them apart—the one loving, the other violent toward his object of desire. In such minds (young poet/old lecher), Susanna (the beauty) is only able to last momentarily, since these individual minds die away. Susanna is independent. First, her flesh lives on in other flesh. Susanna, as a beauty in body and soul, survives people’s weaknesses—moral and physical. Second, her flesh is immortal in the whole scheme of nature and of change. One knows evenings both in their multiple and in their individual returns. There is no way for one to know an evening without knowing constant change from day to evening, nor is there any way to forget. Susanna lives in the perception of beauty always with people in the flesh. Her body dies, but that dying is only an escape from desire’s pitiful scrapings. When the speaker says that after all this time Susanna is still remembered, readers must remember that the “now” of the poem is at the beginning, when Peter Quince plays “in this room” to his Susanna and tries, by placing his fingers on the keys, to connect the two beauties and thus participate in a constant music, a “constant” (or immortal) sacrament of praise.

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