The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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....

(The entire section is 611 words.)