In a draft of “The Figure of the Youth,” a lecture Stevens gave at Mount Holyoke College in 1943, the poet wrote, “We take a man like Picasso, for instance, and assume that here is Picasso and there is his work. This is nonsense, where one is, the other is.” Both the passage and its omission from the final version are revealing. The fact that Stevens decided to delete the observation indicates that he was, as Joan Richardson repeatedly emphasizes, something of a comedian, an actor unwilling to unmask himself completely before his audiences. Had he left the statement in the speech, he might have made too plain how much of himself went into his poetry.
Richardson, whose dissertation dealt with the sources upon which Stevens drew to create his work, provides many fascinating glimpses into Stevens’ writing. Biography played an important role; Stevens was not separate from his work. His wife was often distressed by what she regarded as his poetic betrayals of their intimacies, and Richardson shows that she had reason to object. “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” for example, recounts a trip Stevens and his wife took, during which, “in that November off Tehuantepec,” their daughter, Holly, was conceived. Elsie was always a difficult woman in many ways, though Richardson points out that Stevens remained a devoted husband who assisted with housework—Elsie’s personality drove hired help away—and praised her “perfections,” even if he did not specify what these were. During her pregnancy she became even more unreasonable, prompting Stevens to write “Red Loves Kit” (Red was one of Stevens’ nicknames):
Your yes her no, your no her yes. The wordsMake little difference, for being wrongAnd wronging her, if only as she thinks,You never can be right.
“The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard” and “Good Man, Bad Woman” also deal with his unhappy relationship with Elsie.
Elsie’s attitude toward Holly is not clear from this biography. Even Stevens’ own dealings with his daughter are described only occasionally, and these especially during Holly’s difficult adolescence, are strained at times. Richardson speculates that “Sonatina to Hans Christian” reflects Stevens’ perception of Holly as a swan being treated by Elsie as an ugly duckling, for he speaks of a duck—his pet name for his child—who “seemed the helpless daughter/ Of a mother/ Regretful that she bore her.”
Other events in his life also found their way into the poetry. “Lions in Sweden” dates from the period in which Stevens was corresponding with a Swede, ordering a rug for his new house and learning about the country. From France he received a still life by the Breton artist Pierre Tal Coat, depicting a Venetian glass bowl surrounded by bottles, glasses, and terrines. This painting prompted “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” for Stevens saw the bowl as a celestial creature in a group of peasants. Stevens’ frequent trips to Florida in the 1920’s and 1930’s also provided stimuli for verse.
A nice feature of the book is its correlating photographs and poetry. Thus, above an excerpt from “Ballade of the Pink Parasol” is a picture of Holly holding a pale Oriental umbrella. Scenes from the Stevenses’ garden illustrate a passage from “The Comedian as the Letter C.”
The relationship between life and poetry is more complex, though. In 1948, dining with Dudley Fitts, Stevens asked the younger poet why he—Fitts—was devoting so much effort to teaching at Phillips Academy instead of giving himself completely to literature. This was a strange question for Stevens to pose, since he had not totally dedicated himself to poetry. Just as his friend William Carlos Williams earned his living as a doctor and wrote when he could snatch the necessary time, so Stevens worked as a lawyer for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, scribbling phrases and lines as he walked to his office each morning. His secretary would type these up, and in the evening Stevens would review, revise, and rewrite in his attic study.
Richardson attempts to explain Stevens’ reasons for choosing such a life rather than the one he was urging on Fitts, and she offers a number of possibilities. Stevens’ father, himself a versifier with a local reputation around Reading, Pennsylvania, had wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps as a lawyer. The Calvinist emphasis on hard work and discipline with which Stevens grew up also played a part in this decision. Even when he was seventy-five years old, dying and in great pain, Stevens would go to the office and remain dutifully until half past one, though as a vice president he could have retired.
The desire for money, too, influenced Stevens. Richardson quotes a revealing letter from the poet to Ronald Lane Latimer:A good many years ago, when I was really a poet in the sense that I was all imagination, and so on, I deliberately gave up writing poetry because, much as I loved it, there were too many other things I wanted not to make an effort to have them. . . . I didn’t like the idea of being bedeviled all the time about money and I didn’t for a moment like the idea of poverty, so I went to work like anybody else and kept at it for a good many years.
The period he refers to is that immediately following the birth of Holly, when for six years he...
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