24 MARCH 1967, Page 16

Poet of a cold climate


Wallace Stevens was a tall, overweight Keats with normal temperature and an important position in an insurance firm. For a long time his primary energies went into his professional career as a lawyer and businessman. He de- veloped slowly as a poet and was in his late thirties when his talent began to be recognised by Poetry magazine and by a small group of his peers: and he was forty-four when his first book, Harmonium, appeared in 1923. The pieces in that book are marvels of gay, gaudy, witty, dauntlessly pessimistic but humane writ- ing. Little noticed at first it has become a classic (in its revised form) for thousands of readers. This is the book that has 'Sunday Morning,' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,' Peter Quince at the Clavier,' and a dozen other poems the very names of which summon envy and delight.

After Harmonium there was a long silence while Stevens went abow the work of his firm. There are wry comments in this volume and odd sparks in the poems, about his self-chosen prison of dollars, but no overt self-pity. After all, he hadn't been forced to play it safe. The timidity was in his own nature, though rein- forced by the influence of his father and, perhaps, by his marriage to a not very robust and hardly bohemian girl from his home town in Pennsylvania. The nearest he comes to outright complaint is in a letter he wrote, at sixty-three, to his daughter Holly Stevens when she decided to drop out of Vassar Col- lege and find herself a job. `Take my word for it,' he wrote, 'that making your living is a waste of time. None of the greEi things in life have anything to do with making your living...

If it were not clear that his own way of making a living—and his echt-bourgeois way of life—were important expressions of his per- sonality, this admonition would seem pitiful indeed. He dreamed of riotous colour and pas- sionate release, but was thrown into a panic when he learned that a mildly unconventional couple, on a walking tour and wearing walking shorts, were planning to drop in on him in the fortress of his insurance company in Hart- ford, Connecticut.

He had a romantic love of France and her 14nguage and literature—the poems swarm with Symbolist echoes and Anglo-French puns like 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle'—but was in fact as provincially landbound as most good French- men. '. ou'd have expected him to follow his exotic imagination, not so far as to become an American Malraux but at least to get to one of the places he dreamed about—China, Yucatan, the Near East. But he was far too passive. Instead of going abroad, he manipulated all sorts of people to send him things from those places: tea, carved objects, paintings, surprises. He purchased, appreciated, imagined, rather than experiencing directly. Granted, it made for some amusing letters, and it was a mode of experience, after all. Still, he isolated and protected himself from the very wildness and dangers that magnetised his inward attention.

One of the reasons for the ultimately de- pressed feeling in his poems lies deep in all this. There seems to have been a kind of early inward surrender, so that beauty became a consolation rather than something to be won, let alone anything like salvation. The poems say in many ways that the chaotic and death- oriented character of reality must finally pre- vail over the ordering imagination that cul- minates in art. Art can, however, intensify and make exquisite what is otherwise intrinsi- cally meaningless.

A number of the letters suggest these half- Keatsian motifs finely, often in the course of clarifying particular poems. These letters are more helpful than all but a tiny fraction of the great mass of critical commentary on Stevens, most of it quite inert. They make fascinating reading, for they are casual distillations of his dearest contemplative themes. He wanted very mitch to be understood, though he sometimes deplored the need to explain. Like all true poets,

he detested mere appreciation of his technique, his 'sound and music,' though his poetry is so rich formally.

The conservative practicality of the whole background out of which Stevens came, pro- vincial Pennsylvania with a strong Penn- sylvania-Dutch strain, must have had a good deal to do with the walling-in of his sensibility. His method was to accept circumstances while keeping the inward life intact. He was like the Maine man whose epitaph reads, 'He et what was sot before him.' The Letters include some letters written to him by his father, a man whose mind seems to have been lively and who was affectionate enough, apparently, but who kept continually cracking the whip of worldly self-discipline over his head. 'I am convinced,' one letter written to him while he was at Harvard goes, 'from the Poetry (?) you write your Mother that the afflatus is not serious—and does not interfere with some real hard work.'

When Stevens was invited to write for the Harvard Advocate, his father wrote: 'It is all right to talk gush and nonsense—but to see it in cold type don't seem worth while.' Some of Stevens's journal entries are also included in the volume, and one of them concedes, after what seems a very short-lived difference of opinion about devoting his time to writing rather than to earning a living, that his father 'seems always to have reason on his side, confound him.' The depressingly stupid views he sometimes expressed may go back to the same influence: 'I am pro-Mussolini per- sonally. . . . The Italians have as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors.' (On the other hand, he could express unusually sophisticated, enlightened views.) There is a curious chilliness in these letters. Some of them seem to slap correspondents in the face with an icy glove, for no very valid reason. The young Stevens worried about his coldness in an early journal entry, but later seems to have accepted it as he accepted other limiting aspects of his life and personality— and, of course, he could be warm and charm- ing, and had the faculty of being aloofly kind. You will not find any very intimate revelations about his private life and feelings in this highly selective edition of his letters. There are delicately chosen letters of courtship to Mrs Stevens and cordial enough letters to such writers as William Carlos Williams (whom he regarded, apparently, with unusual camaraderie), Marianne Moore, and Allen Tate, as well as to a host of other people, but everything is under control.

Even the letters to and about Holly on the occasion of her leaving Vassar are finally rather restrained, despite their obvious dis- appointment. But then there are vast gaps— only two letters available, for instance, for 1879-1906. The physically restless young man who went for giant walks of forty miles or more on a single day is lost in the whimsically reflective, not quite committed voice that dominates these pages. Coldness is a theme of many of his poems, and pops up as well in a little poem that is inserted in one of the letters.

The Widow The cold wife lay with her husband after his death, His ashen reliquiae contained in gold Under her pillow, on which he had never slept.