The Poem

“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....

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Forms and Devices

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...

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