Wallace Stevens in Critiques. An Overview of Four Essays Written on Poetry and Thought of Wallace Stevens

Term Paper, 2014

10 Pages, Grade: PhD



The present paper aims to reveal how the poetry and thought of Wallace Stevens are represented in the four essays written in this regard. The first essay by Milton J. Bates involved with the idea of “supreme fiction”, implying that fiction and truth are not separate in nature, and so is God and imagination of the poet. In the second essay, Joseph Carroll asserts that Stevens admitted a “new romanticism” meant a recurrent mode of poetic imagination while romanticism was mostly accounted a historical concept in its traditional sense. Not only did Stevens come to change the concept of romanticism, but also he established a new method in adopting point of view in lyric poetry. As Helen Vendler argues, in order to convey his universal ideas, Stevens used “we”, “he”, or “one” in his works. And finally, a type of “ambivalent attitude” became Wallace Stevens concerning the gender issue while he experienced the social transition in reading the concept of the femininity. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan illustrates that, in order to keep the pervasive trait of his poetry, Stevens reached integration in duality of the masculine and the feminine.

Key Words: Wallace Stevens, supreme fiction, new romanticism, imagination, lyric poetry, femininity.

I. Introduction

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1879, Wallace Stevens is one of the most well-know American poets. He attended Harvard in 1879, but did not receive any qualification. Stevens graduated from New York Law School in 1903, and worked as a business lawyer for many years. He married in 1908, and had one daughter who was born in 1924. His background in poetry dates back to his presence at Harvard, but his professional start was in 1917 when his first work published although his first book released in 1923. Stevens continued his work in his seventies, and wrote some of her finest works in the later years of his life. Wallace Stevens died in 1955 in Hartford, Connecticut, at the age of 76.

That Wallace Stevens had a colorful role in the development of the American Modernist poetry is an undeniable reality. Walton Litz in his book on Stevens “Introspective Voyage” calls his poetry the “mythology of self,” Christopher Beach writes in The Cambridge Introduction To Twentieth Century American Poetry. He argues that Stevens’ self is different from selves illustrated in the works of other modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. What Stevens sees as self is based upon his own voice, and exclusive of the history, civilization, nature or any other institution could be invoked by him. Thematically, the duality and the interaction between reality and imagination was the very central message of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. To be exact, what favored by Stevens as reality is highly personalized by the poet’s imagination, and those workings of imagination were accounted his typical poetic mode. In his opinion, poetry was the “supreme fiction” which its goal to provide a sense of reality to the reader; but this sense of reality is transformed by the poet’s imaginative power (50-1).

Stevens’ early poems were impressed by a sort of imagism that was obviously different from imagist practice in abstraction and philosophy. His images recounted flowing in the motions as well as continuing and changing experiences. He does not represent things as they are; instead, he depicts the discovery of himself through his images. Technically, Stevens combines his concrete images with abstract words to mark the innovation of the phrases that paves the way for achieving his supreme fiction. Structurally speaking, Stevens fascinated to use the “dialogue form”, and its “repetition of symbolic motifs.” This repetitive structure creates a sense of harmony and internal cohesion when it is juxtaposed with the changing nature of the poet’s experiences. Among his poems, some finest ones are “A High-Toned Christian Woman,” “Sunday Morning,” “To the One of Fictive Music,” and “Domination of Black” (52-3).

This paper aims to present an overview of four essays concerning the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the American well-known poet. In this regard, four essays have been selected to study. One is Stevens and the Supreme Fiction by Milton J. Bates; the second is Stevens and Romanticism by Joseph Carroll; the other is Stevens and the Lyric Speaker by Helen Vendler; and the last is Stevens and the Feminine by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan.

II. Discussion

Studying the first essay, I would speak of the way Milton J. Bates explains Stevens’ engagement to the notion of ‘supreme fiction’ called “Stevens and the Supreme Fiction.” At the beginning, Bates argues that Steven believes in not only the possibility, but also the inevitability of fiction as something which is made up. Human experiences are interpreted mentally, and man has to rely on mind’s made-up version of reality – either material or spiritual. But not all people have the same consciousness in this regard. There are only few people agree with what Stevens calls as “the nicer knowledge of /Belief, that what it believes in is not true” (48).

Stevens chose supreme fiction as the central theme of his poems in the midway of his career, Bates continues. Firstly used in the poem “A High-Toned Christian Old Woman,” the phrase ‘supreme fiction’, in fact, unified Stevens lesser themes. The significance of the use of supreme fiction for the religious poem represents the fictitious nature of religion. And Stevens, under the influence of George Santayana, marks the mutual quality for both religion and poetry that is the ‘fictitious nature.’ The only difference lies in the fact that religion is a poetry we believe in the term of religion, without awareness and knowing. On the other hand, Santayana maintains that poetry and religion have the same nature, giving direction and meaning to our lives. He points out that the job of poetry is to provide a new mythology for us. Employing idealism and pragmatism as the two schools of thought in Santayana’s philosophy, Stevens attempts defining the supreme fiction in a long poem called “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” with the three complementary sentences in the poem: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It must change,” and “It must Give Pleasure” (48-9).

In the poem one question is posed concerning the ultimate aim of the poetry and the way it helps us to live our lives. The answer which is supplied by a poet master is: “… poetry constructs a grand but credible image of human kind, a ‘major man’ that lends significance to the lives of ordinary people” (50). Also Bates compares Stevens to Coleridge in the nineteenth century: “Stevens develops a modern theory of creative imagination grounded in an idealist theory of perception. To see the world and to write poetry are essentially the same fiction-making activity, arising from the same desire to overcome our estrangement from reality” (51).

Another point which is discussed in the essay is the comparison that is made between Stevens’ ‘major man’ and Nietzsche’s ‘superman.’ Bates argues that there is at least a great difference between the two theories. While Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ accentuates the uniqueness and greatness of his superman, commonness of ordinary man is stressed in Stevens’ ‘major man’(52). Additionally, Bates quotes the definition of ‘modern reality’ from Stevens as “a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of the belief, but the precious portents of our own poems. The greatest truth we could hope to discover, in whatever field we discovered it, is that man’s truth is the final resolution of everything” (56).

Bates continues his essay with saying that Stevens sees his poetry equivalent of war from a moralistic point of view, describing poetry as the bread given to the soldier to create the necessary courage to face death. On the other hand, the poet will lack the “empirical basis for his fiction” without real soldiers (57-8).

According to Bates, Stevens said to a correspondent that he had decided to add a fourth section to his poem “Notes” called “It Must Be Human.” Bates maintains that Stevens had realized that “he could not make his supreme fiction more definite without contradicting the first note, ‘It Must Be Abstract.”” (58) Yet, Stevens’ job of poetry went ahead by writing some poems after “Notes,” regarding the ideal hero, such as “Montrachet-le-Jardin” (1942) and “Paisant Chronicle” (1945). But the ‘supreme fiction’ remained the major concern of Stevens. (58)

And the last important point in Bates’ essay is Stevens’ most suggestive treatment of the ‘supreme fiction’ is articulated in “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (1951) which is “God and imagination are one.”

Joseph Carroll in another essay, “Stevens and Romanticism”, gives a general definition of Romanticism, according to Wallace Stevens: “Romanticism is not just a single historical period. It is a recurrent mode of the poetic imagination, and for Stevens that mode constitutes the wellspring of all poetic vitality.” In this regard, Stevens sees the confrontation of this vitality in a “degenerative direction leading to exhaustion, and then returns to romanticism.” Also, Stevens believes that romanticism is bound to “imaginative fulfillment” more than anything else. He thought his poetry in realm of a new romanticism which was to express new life in terms of imagination. (87)

Stevens employed, additionally, the word “belief” as an appositive to the term romanticism, “a spiritual vision of the world.” He shares the sense of religious faith with the last of the Victorians as portrayed in “Sunday Morning.” (88) He was always seeking a substitute which devotes purposefulness to the life. For Stevens and other Victorians, the poetry of Wordsworth and other romantics were the literary substitute for that loss of faith. Stevens argues that the “major poetic idea in the world is … god”, Carroll adds. Stevens means that creating a poem is the reminder of the idea of God. (89)

Furthermore, there is a great difference between the traditional romanticism and Stevens’ “new romanticism.” This difference lies in the fact that Stevens recognizes belief as the product of imagination while the old romantics believe the existence of the divine mind reflected in poetry. (89-90) Like Bates’ essay, Carroll also uses the poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”, indicating that Stevens “contrasts poetry with traditional Christian religious belief.” In later poems he combines the idea of “poetry as the supreme medium” with the idea of God “as the supreme image created by poetry. (90) As pointed out about the former essay, Stevens assumes the “essential imagination” associated with the notion of “pure poetry”, and synonymous to some other phrases including “highest objective of the poet”, “essential unity”, “pure principle”, “the first idea”, and above all the “supreme fiction.” (90-1)

In the next step, Carroll utters the sameness of images and motifs which some of them are “archetypal” and “universal”, and some other “are directly inspired by figurations in the work of his [Stevens’] romantic predecessors, and some are both universal and romantic.” In result, in order to understand Stevens’ “poetic meditation”, it is necessary to read all the poems and to pursue the chronological order of his writing. (91)


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Wallace Stevens in Critiques. An Overview of Four Essays Written on Poetry and Thought of Wallace Stevens
University of Tehran
A Survey of American Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Wallace Stevens, American Poetry, Modern Poetry
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Amir Hossein Yasini Visti (Author), 2014, Wallace Stevens in Critiques. An Overview of Four Essays Written on Poetry and Thought of Wallace Stevens, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/384243


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