Life and career
Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and attended, but did not complete a degree at, Harvard, after which he moved to New York City and briefly worked as a journalist. He then attended New York Law School, graduating in 1903. On a trip back to Reading in 1904 Stevens met Elsie Viola Kachel; after a long courtship, he married her in 1909. In 1913, the young couple rented a New York City apartment from sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who made a bust of Elsie. (Her striking profile was later used on Weinman's 1916-1945 Mercury dime design and possibly for the head of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar.) The marriage reputedly became increasingly distant, but the Stevenses never divorced. A daughter, Holly, was born in 1924. She later edited her father's letters and a collection of his poems.
After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, Stevens was hired in 1908 as a bonding lawyer for an insurance firm. By 1914 he had become the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Company of St. Louis, Missouri. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named vice-president of the company. After he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard, but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice presidency of The Hartford.
In the 1930s and 1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered on the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church. Stevens died in 1955 at the age of seventy-six.
Stevens is a rare example of a poet whose main output came at a fairly advanced age. Many of his canonical works were written well after he turned fifty. According to the literary critic Harold Bloom, no Western writer since Sophocles has had such a late flowering of artistic genius. The Auroras of Autumn, arguably his finest book of poems, was not published until after his seventieth year. His first major publication ("Sunday Morning") was written at the age of thirty-eight, although as an undergraduate at Harvard he had written poetry and exchanged sonnets with George Santayana, with whom he was close through much of his life.
Stevens' first book of poetry, Harmonium, was published in 1923. He produced only two more major books of poetry during the 1920s and 1930s but three more in the 1940s. Some have argued that his best poetry was written after he turned 60. It was in this later period that Stevens began to be recognized as a major poet, and he received the National Book Award in 1951 and 1955.
Imagination and reality
Stevens is very much a poet of ideas. “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,” he wrote. His main ideas revolve around the interplay between imagination and reality and the relation between consciousness and the world. In Stevens, "imagination" is not equivalent to consciousness, or "reality" to the world as it exists outside our minds. Reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the world. Because it is constantly changing as we attempt to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive the world, reality is an activity, not a static object. We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning. Thus Stevens could write in The Idea of Order at Key West,
- Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
- The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
- Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
- And of ourselves and of our origins,
- In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
In his book, Opus Posthumous, Stevens writes “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption” (WS, OP, 158). But as the poet attempts to find a fiction to replace the lost gods, he immediately encounters a problem: a direct knowledge of reality is not possible.
Stevens suggests that we live in the tension between the shapes we take as the world acts upon us, and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon the world. The world influences us in our most normal activities, "The dress of a woman of Lhassa...is an invisible element of that place / Made visible." Likewise, were we to place a jar on a hill in Tennessee, we would impose an order onto the landscape.
As Stevens says in his essay, Imagination as Value, “the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them”. The imagination is the mechanism by which we unconsciously conceptualize the normal patterns of life, while reason is the way we consciously conceptualize these patterns.
The jar is a striking example of an order that does not feel a part of the land, and so seems to violate the existing order, “It did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee”. Contrast this to the feeling one gets while looking over the water where boats are anchored in darkness, with lanterns hanging on poles, “Arranging, deepening, enchanting night”. When the imagination is available to reality and does not try to force itself, reality becomes like a bar of sand onto which the imagination naturally washes and recedes.
The imagination can only conceive of a world for a moment - a particular time, place and culture - and so must continually revise its conception to align with the changing world. And as these worldviews come and go, each person is pulled in their normal lives between the influence the world has on our imagination and the influence that our imagination has on the way we view the world.
For this reason, the best we can hope for is a well conceived fiction, satisfying for the moment, but sure to lapse into obsolescence as new imaginings wash over the world.
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have. (Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel)
Throughout his poetic career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about the world now that our old notions of religion no longer suffice. His solution might be summarized by the notion of a “Supreme Fiction.” In this satirical example from A High-Toned Old Christian Woman Stevens plays with the notions of immediately accessible, but ultimately unsatisfying notions of reality:
- Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
- Take the moral law and make a nave of it
- And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
- The conscience is converted into palms
- Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
- We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
- The opposing law and make a peristyle,
- And from the peristyle project a masque
- Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
- Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
- Is equally converted into palms,
- Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
- Madame, we are where we began.
The saxophones squiggle because, as J. Hillis Miller says of Stevens in his book, Poets of Reality, "The theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry. A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement.” In the end, reality remains.
The supreme fiction is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness, so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something actual and real.
- I am the angel of reality,
- seen for a moment standing in the door.
- I am the necessary angel of earth,
- Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
- Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
- And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone
- Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
- Like watery words awash;
- an apparition appareled in
- Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
- Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone?
In one of his last poems, Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, Stevens describes the experience of an idea which satisfies the imagination, “This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous / it is in that thought that we collect ourselves / Out of all the indifferences, into one thing.” This one thing is “a light, a power, the miraculous influence” wherein we can forget ourselves, sensing a comforting order, “A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, / within its vital boundary, in the mind.”
This knowledge necessarily exists within the mind, since it is an aspect of the imagination which can never attain a direct experience of reality.
- We say God and the imagination are one . . .
- How high that highest candle lights the dark.
- Out of this same light, out of the central mind
- We make a dwelling in the evening air,
- In which being there together is enough.
Stevens concludes that god is a human creation, but that feeling of rightness which for so long a time existed with the idea of god may be accessed again. This supreme fiction will be something equally central to our being, but contemporary to our lives, in a way that god can never again be. But with the right idea, we may again find the same sort of solace that we once found in divinity. "[Stevens] finds, too, a definite value in the complete contact with reality. Only, in fact, by this stark knowledge can he attain his own spiritual self that can resist the disintegrating forces of life . . . . Powerful force though the mind is . . . it cannot find the absolutes. Heaven lies about the seeing man in his sensuous apprehension of the world . . .; everything about him is part of the truth." (Southworth, 92)
- . . . Poetry
- Exceeding music must take the place
- Of empty heaven and its hymns,
- Ourselves in poetry must take their place
- from, The Man With The Blue Guitar
In this way, Stevens’ poems adopt attitudes that are corollaries to those earlier spiritual longings that persist in the unconscious currents of the imagination. “The poem refreshes life so that we share / For a moment, the first idea . . . It satisfies / Belief in an immaculate beginning / And sends us, winged by an unconscious will, / To an immaculate end”. The "first idea" is that essential reality that stands before all others, that essential truth; but since all knowledge is contingent on its time and place, that supreme fiction will surely be transitory. This is the necessary angel of subjective reality - a reality that must always be qualified - and as such, always misses the mark to some degree - always contains elements of unreality.
As J. H. Miller summarizes Stevens's position, :"Though this dissolving of the self is in one way the end of everything, in another way it is the happy liberation. There are only two entities left now that the gods are dead: man and nature, subject and object. Nature is the physical world, visible, audible, tangible, present to all the senses, and man is consciousness, the nothing which receives nature and transforms it into something unreal..."
The role of poetry
Stevens often writes directly about poetry and its human function. The poet “tries by a peculiar speech to speak / The peculiar potency of the general,” he says, “To compound the imagination’s Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima.” Moreover, “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.” In a manner reminiscent of Wordsworth, Stevens saw the poet as one with heightened powers, but one who like all ordinary people continually creates and discards cognitive depictions of the world, not in solitude but in solidarity with other men and women.
These cognitive depictions find their outlet and their best and final form as words; and thus Stevens can say, "It is a world of words to the end of it, / In which nothing solid is its solid self." In a poem called "Men Made out of Words," he says: "Life / Consists of propositions about life.” Poetry is not about life, it is intimately a part of life. As Stevens wrote elsewhere, “The poem is the cry of its occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it. / The poet speaks the poem as it is, / Not as it was.” Modern poetry is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.”
- It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
- It has to face the men of the time and to meet
- The women of the time. It has to think about war
- And it has to find what will suffice. It has
- To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
- And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
- With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
- In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
- Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
- Of which, an invisible audience listens,
- Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
- In an emotion as of two people, as of two
- Emotions becoming one.
- "On Modern Poetry"
Reputation and influence
From the first, critics and fellow poets recognized Stevens's genius. In the 1930s, the critic Yvor Winters criticized Stevens as a decadent hedonist but acknowledged his great talent. Hart Crane wrote to a friend in 1919, after reading some of the poems that would make up Harmonium, "There is a man whose work makes most of the rest of us quail." Beginning in the 1940s, critics such as Randall Jarrell spoke of Stevens as one of the major living American poets, even if they did so (as Jarrell did) with certain reservations about Stevens’s work. Stevens’ work became even better known after his death. Harold Bloom was among the critics who have ensured Stevens’ position in the canon as a great poet. Other major critics, such as Helen Vendler and Frank Kermode, have added their voices and analysis to this verdict. Many poets—James Merrill and Donald Justice most explicitly—have acknowledged Stevens as a major influence on their work, and his impact may also be seen in John Ashbery, Mark Strand, John Hollander, and others.