“Peter Quince at the Clavier” is made up of four lyrics of differing formal properties, and through them one senses that the poem has “movements,” as a musical composition often does. As in a sonata, the distinct parts involve changes of mood, tempo, and emphasis. This is one of the best-loved and most often recited poems of Wallace Stevens’s long career, perhaps because it handles, both playfully and seriously, ideas about art that are as suggestive as John Keats’s famous “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-1596), Peter Quince is a comic character—an overachieving, self-conscious, aspiring director of the stage who brings his unskilled actors into the woods to rehearse a short play for the Duke and Duchess’s impending nuptials. In Stevens’s poem, the “Peter Quince” speaker is a serious thinker on the relationship between music and feeling, beauty and desire. To make his point, Quince ventures into an unusual account of Susanna and the elders, a story of beauty and lust in the Old Testament Apocrypha. In the apocryphal account, Susanna fails to be seduced by court officials who spy upon her bathing; in their outrage, they try her as an adultress and she is put to death. In Stevens’s account, the violence is only suggested. He places the emphasis on music and beauty. The speaker, in an unusual way, associates himself with the elders. Like those who lusted for Susanna, he says, he sits “here in this room, desiring you”—his beloved in part I.
In part II, the reader is taken into Susanna’s point of view by a free-verse song in which Susanna, bathing, hears music and senses a unity in everything around her. Only the last two lines of her song hint at the cruel authority about to destroy her complete accord. In the five tightly rhymed couplets of part III, the poem shifts to the point of view of Susanna’s weak-willed attendants, who arrive too late to help their mistress. By the time they respond, she has already been accused by the noblemen. Susanna is abandoned to her fate.
The last part (IV) takes a tremendous jump from the elliptical nature of the Susanna narrative to the deeply reflective and almost philosophical tone of the ending. The sixteen lines of this self-contained poem are rhymed and have the tight, rhymed argument and reasoned logic of a sonnet. The difficulty in the argument has somewhat to do with a conundrum: Beauty is momentary in our minds, while in the physical body it is immortal. One would have expected the poet to say just the opposite—that beauty is immortal in the mind and merely fleeting in the flesh. Thus, the poem carries the burden of explaining how flesh and immortality are not at odds as is normally thought. The poet explains it four times until one accepts the subtle truth of the argument. Bodies do die, but other bodies take their place; evenings die but produce a succession of evenings; gardens and maidens die, only to set up an eternity of gardens and maidens, and one maiden celebrates the whole. The last six lines argue, in difficult but lyrical language, that Susanna’s music lives in the “you”—the beloved mentioned at the beginning of the poem—and lives in Peter Quince’s musical attempt to consecrate Susanna by retelling her story. Some consider these last six lines among the most gorgeous in the English language; they place Stevens in the company of Sappho, Shakespeare, and Keats.
(This entire section contains 611 words.)
References to music abound in the poem. Some musical references are stated obviously, and others lie embedded in puns. On the narrative level, the word “music” is repeated four times in the first six lines of the poem, in which a speaker is seated at a keyboard. Other direct musical references (“melody,” “chords,” “choral,” and “play,” as in play upon a violin) combine with a host of musical instruments—clavier, viol, basses, cymbals, horns, and tambourines. These references are further compounded by “strains,” “pizzicati,” “pulse,” “springs,” “winds,” “breath,” “refrain,” “flowings,” and even “scrapings” (as of a violin badly bowed). The poet says outright that “thinking of your blue-shadowed silk/ Is music.”
A reader’s awareness of all these compounded references, however, does not make the poem easier to understand. In fact, awareness can add to the complication and bewilderment readers feel when they try to make sense of it. The poem’s opening narrative takes place in a parlor, where a lover is making love at the keyboard. Immediately, the poem jumps to a mythic time (part II) in which a woman is made love to by bawdy, red-eyed elders (later, “white elders”). The poem seems to guide readers to a reconciliation of these two opposing images. Such reconciliation is not found in the immediacy of a story line or in the argument at the end. Stevens elsewhere stated his beliefs in “new ways of knowing.” On the simplest level, this poem requires that readers find in its formal elements, involving associations of words and narratives, a new way of knowing an old story that, in the Apocrypha at least, seems to be about lust and treachery. Formally, one is presented with a way of knowing Susanna’s story by the juxtaposition of a modern lover (presumably young) with those ancient thin-blooded, lecherous old men. He seems to hint that he is somewhat like these old men in the tale. His puns help him explain himself.
All lovers feel the “strain” of love, whether they feel it in a genteel way (as a strain of music) or in a more physical way—the strain in copulation and sexual performance. Lust in the old is less of a physical strain than the act itself is; lust for the young is more of a musical strain, and lovemaking is easier. Stevens was a master of serious puns. His pun on “strain” allows readers to suppose (in III) that the old men may have tried and failed at rape; they resorted to accusations when their own desire failed. The “uplifted flame” of passion reveals only the shame of lust, not the act itself. When the simpering attendants flee the scene, their tambourines make no music, only noise. Without true feeling there can be no music. When readers understand this, Peter’s first puzzling statement (in I) becomes much clearer: Music is not sound; music is feeling.
Susanna herself (in II) seems to intuit what Peter knows without speaking a word on her own behalf. A repeated subject/verb refrain forms a kind of scaffolding for section II: “Susanna lay./ She searched// And found// She sighed,//she stood// She walked . . .// She turned.” Balancing these subject/verb constructions are the less active and more tentatively worded lyrical phrases—the quavering of a different sensibility in Susanna’s reality—the music felt beyond sound. She is counterpart to male certainty and forced entry—the crashing cymbals and roaring horns. These cymbals and horns are the noise of desire that can be heard if Susanna’s complement of music is overridden.
Stevens takes a phrase such as “touch of springs” in Susanna’s section (II) and replays it in part IV as “touched the bawdy strings.” Stevens relies on the reader hearing from phrase to phrase the various plays in his puns and associations and repetitions. This is part of the tremendous formal pleasure of the poem; every reading turns up more and more sound.
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Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
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