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by Bamber Gascoigne

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)


Critically regarded as one of the most significant American poets of the 20th century. Wallace Stevens largely ignored the literary world and he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems (1954). Stevens explored inside a profound philosophical framework the dualism between concrete reality and the human imagination. "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully," Stevens wrote in 1949 in 'Man Carrying Thing.' For most of his adult life, Stevens pursued contrasting careers as an insurance executive and a poet.

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

(from 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird')

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of Garrett Barcalow Stevens, a prosperous country lawyer. His mother's family, the Zellers, was of Dutch origin; she taught at school. Stevens attended the Reading Boys' High School, and enrolled in 1893 at Harvard College. During this period Stevens began to write for the Harvand Advocate, Trend, and Harriet Monroe's magazine Poetry. Stevens' literary aspirations were encouraged by George Santayana, who taught at Harvard University from 1889 to 1912. His first play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, won that magazine's prize for verse drama in 1916. It was produced in the following year at New York's Provincetown Playhouse. When the Wisconsin Players toured in the eastern United States, and appeared at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the New York City, a reviewer wrote in the New York Times of his one-act piece Carlos Among the Candles:  "It is by itself a not uninteresting experiment in atmospheres, a game of hide and seek among the shadows of thought, a pursuit of elusive visions of unreality that the hand never closes on."

After leaving Harvard without degree in 1900, Stevens worked as a reporter for the New York Tribune. He then entered New York Law School, graduated in 1903, and was admitted to the bar next year. With Lyman Ward he formed a law partnership, which lasted only a short period.

From 1905 to 1907 Stevens worked as an attorney for a number of law firms, such as Eugene A. Philbin, Eaton and Lewis, and Eustis and Foster. In 1908 he secured a position with the American Bonding Company. Stevens married in 1909 Elsie Kachel Moll, from his home town; they had met in 1904. Stevens once said that "she was the most beautiful girl in Reading". Elsie had served Adolph Weinman as the model for the Mercury dime and the Liberty half-dollar. Before the marriage she had worked as a saleslady, milliner and stenographer, she had also learned to play the piano. For her twenty-second birthday in June 1908, he wrote twenty poems. Their daughter, Holly Bright, was born in 1924. She later edited her father's letters. The marriage was unhappy but stable. Elsie was fanatical in her housekeeping, she did not like city life, and she disapproved of her husband's drinking habits. Stevens often invited colleagues to lunch with him at Hartford's Canoe Club, but he did not like visitors at home – he kept distance to people while gaining also fame as a serious joker. Stevens spent much time with avant-garde writers and artist around Walter Arensberg, his Harvard classmate and art collector.

Influenced by imagism (see Ezra Pound) and French symbolism, Stevens wrote 'Sunday Morning', his famous breakthrough poem. It starts with 'coffee and oranges in a sunny chair' but end with images of another reality, death, and universal chaos.

She hears, upon that water without soud,
A voice that cries: "The tomb in Palestine,
Is not the porch of spirits lingering;
It is the grave of Jesus, where He lay."
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

(from 'Sunday Morning')

Stevens published his first collection of verse, Harmonium (1923), at the age of forty-four. Although it was well received by some reviewers, such Marianne Moore, it sold only 100 copies. "From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind, there is not a word that can arouse emotion. The volume is a glittering edifice of icicles. Brilliant as the moon, the book is equally dead," wrote Percy Hutchison in The New York Times (August 9, 1931). Now the collection is regarded as one of the great works of American poetry.

Harmonium included 'The Emperor of the Ice Cream', one of Stevens' own favorite poems, 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle', 'The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad', and 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'. The poems were partly autobiographical, also referring to the failure of the author's marriage. 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream' is not about what its title says, but more about death seen in harsh light – 'If her horny feet protrude, they come / To show how cold she is, and dumb" – and respect in front of too-short life – "Bring flowers in last month's newspapers."

In the mid-1910s, Stevens moved to Connecticut, where he worked as a specialist in investment banking of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company – one of the largest in the USA. Younger staff members learned to appreciate Stevens' wordplays and his habit of quizzing them on the meaning of a word.

Business trips to the various parts of the country and the investigation of insurance claims took most of Stevens' time and he published little. His secretary undertook the duty of typing up the drafts of his poems. Stevens also suffered from blurring of vision – eventually he took three medicines for his eyes. To William Carlos Williams he said: "my job is not now with poets from Paris. It is to keep the fire-place burning and the music-box churning and the wheels of the baby's chariot turning and that sort of thing." In 1934 Stevens was named a vice president of the company. Stevens had declared Elsie that he did not desire money, but at Harford their financial situation was secured and some of the pressures in the marriage eased. The Depression did not affect them much; Stevens earned $20,000 in the middle of it.

Ideas of Order (1935), Stevens' next collection of poems, received mixed critics, with accusations of indifference to political and social tensions of the day from the Marxist journal New Masses. However, according to Joan Richardson's biography from 1988, Stevens was a closet socialist during the 1930's, but did not make his views a public issue (see Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955). In Owl's Clover (1936) Stevens meditated on art and politics, as a reaction to the critic of politically committed critics. The Man with the Blue Guitar and Other Poems (1937) affirmed that "Poetry / Exceeding music must take place / Of empty heaven and its hymns."

From the early 1940s Stevens entered a period of creativity that continued until his death in Hartford on August 2, in 1955. He turned gradually away from the playful use of language to a more reflective, though abstract style. Among his acclaimed poems were 'Notes toward a Supreme Fiction', 'The Auroras of Autumn', 'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven', and 'The Planet on the Table'. Echoing the ideas of Baudelaire, Stevens argued in 'Esthétique du Mal' that beauty is inextricably linked with evil. Stevens also pondered much on the nature of writing and in 'A Primitive Like an Orb' he stated: "We do not prove the existence of the poem. / It is something seen and known in lesser poems. / It is the huge, high harmony that sounds / A little and a little, suddenly, / By means of a separate sense."

Before gaining national fame as a poet, Stevens enjoyed a high respect among his colleagues, although his acquaintance with Robert Frost never grew into a true friendship. Like Frost, he often vacationed in Key West, where he once had a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway, breaking his right hand on the novelist's jaw. Hemingway, a vastly superior boxer compared to the overweight Stevens, later boasted in a letter, that "Didn't harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him." When Frost visited Hartford, Elsie insulted their rather touchy guest. "You know, she insults everybody," explained Stevens.

Stevens' work as a corporate lawyer did not much affect his role a lyric poet – and he never retired from his job to devote himself entirely to writing, to set up "words in their sites". Partly due to his stand, that "poetry is nothing if it is not emperiment in language," he was criticized in the 1920's for having no moral purpose, and in the 1930s for lack of political purpose. Like the Italian novelist and businessman Italo Svevo, Stevens managed to balance between the world of counting and numbers and the freedom of imagination, concluding once that "unreal things have a reality of their own, in poetry as elsewhere." (The Necessary Angel, 1951) In 1946 Stevens was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1950 he received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, and in 1955 he was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Some of his late poems, not included in The Collected Poems, appeared as The Palm at the End of the Mind (1967), edited by his daughter, Holly Stevens.

Selection for further reading: Wallace Stevens by Robert Pack (1958); Wallace Stevens by F. Kermode (1960); Wallace Stevens: Tha Making of Harmonium by Robert Buttel (1967); On Extended Wings by H. Vendler (1969); Introspective Voyager by A. Litz (1972); Wallace Stevens by L. Beckett (1974); Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate by H. Bloom (1977); Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem by F. Doggett (1980); The Modern Poetic Sequence by M.L. Rosenthal and S.M. Gall (1983); Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire by H. Vendler (1984); Wallace Stevens, ed. by H. Bloom (1985); Wallace Stevens by M.J. Bates (1985); Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction by J. Carroll (1987); Critical Essays on Wallace Stevens, ed. by S.G. Axelrod (1988); Wallace Stevens: The Later Years by J. Richardson (1988); Wallace Stevens by J. Longenbach (1991); The Wallace Stevens Case by Thomas C. Grey (1991); Early Stevens by B.J. Leggett (1992); Wallace Stevens and the Feminine, ed. by M. Scaum (1993); Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief by David R. Jarraway (1993); Teaching Wallace Stevens by J.N. Serio and B.J. Leggett (1994); Wallace Stevens: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography by John N. Serio (1994); The Metaphysics of Sound in Wallace Stevens by Anca Rosu (1995); The Web of Friendship by Robin G. Schulze (1995); Wallace Stevens Revisited by Janet McCann (1995); The Never-Resting Mind by Anthony Whiting and Robin G. Schulze (1996); Notations of the Wild by Gyorgyi Voros (1997); Wallace Stevens by Tony Sharpe (1999); Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens by Simon Critchley (2005); A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens by Eleanor Cook (2009); Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism, edited by Lisa Goldfarb and Bart Eeckhout (2012); The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani (2016); Making the Poem: Stevens' Approaches by George S. Lensing (2018); Wallace Stevens and the Poetics of Modernist Autonomy by Gül Bilge Han (2019); The New Wallace Stevens Studies, edited by Bart Eeckhout and Gül Bilge Han (2021) - Huom.: Wallace Stevensin runo 'Kolmetoista tapaa tarkastella mustarastasta' on käännetty teoksessa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. ja suom. Aale Tynni (1973). Suomennoksiin kuuluu myös valikoima Runoja.

Selected bibliography:

  • Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, 1916 (play)
  • Carlos Among the Candles, 1917 (play)
  • The Snow Man, 1921
  • Harmonium, 1923 (rev. ed. 1931)
  • Ideas of Order, 1935
  • Owl's Clover, 1936
  • The Man with the Blue Guitar, and Other Poems, 1937
  • Parts of a World, 1942
  • Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, 1942
  • Esthétique du Mal, 1945
  • Transport to Summer, 1947
  • The Auroras of Autumn, 1950
  • The Necessary Angel, 1951
  • Selected Poems, 1952
  • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954
  • Opus Posthumous, 1957
  • Letters of Wallace Stevens, 1966 (edited by Holly Stevens)
  • The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, 1967 (play: Bowl, Cat and Broomstick; edited by Holly Stevens)
  • Souvenirs and Prophecies: the Young Wallace Stevens, 1977 (edited by Holly Stevens)
  • Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens & Jose Rodriguez Feo, 1986 (edited by Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis)
  • Sur plusieurs beaux sujects: Wallace Stevens's Commonplace Book, 1989 (edited by Milton J. Bates)
  • Collected Poetry and Prose, 1996
  • The Contemplated Spouse: The Letter of Wallace Stevens to Elsie, 2006 (edited by J. Donald Blount)
  • Selected Poems, 2009 (edited by John N. Serio)
  • Harmonium, 2019 (Dover Publications)
  • The Rock, 2020 (Counterpoint Press)

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