Alan Filreis: On "Mozart, 1935"

"Calling a lyricist to a piano Stevens knows is out of tune with the times, "Mozart, 1935" begins by directing this poet-figure to continue nevertheless playing sound over sense ("hoo-hoo-hoo," "shoo-shoo-shoo," "ric-a-nic") and to "practice arpeggios" for the purpose, apparently, of diverting the speaker"s attention from the battle being waged nearby. But the threat is near: People have been throwing stones on the roof from the streets outside the room in which the pianist has been instructed to take his seat. The poem has begun, then, by suggesting itself as contributing to a diversionary tactic, a fine looking away from trouble:

Poet, be seated at the piano.

Play the present …

And yet, in its own time, this poem emerged as the one work William Rose Benét could say "most clearly" expressed "[t]he poet’s attitude toward the epoch in which he finds himself." How was such a double politics possible? "Mozart, 1935" immediately discloses a will to counter complaints of pure poetry, to refute that charge heard regularly from Stevens’s critics, to find "his particular celebration out of tune today" on his own if necessary; and, in short, to meet the communist [poet and critic Willard] Maas’s "respect for his magnificent rhetoric" at least halfway across from right to left. That Stevens’s poetry was all music and no ideas became the repeated refrain of some of his Leftist critics. Even so eager a devotee of the communist lyric as T. C. Wilson , we recall, expressed the point privately to [Marianne] Moore by insisting that Stevens’s work was too much "of the senses." Perhaps more important, the notion that the old tyranny of form held sway over Stevens was becoming the obligatory lament of many nonradical critics who were unaware of the extent to which the Left had already touched them. … Then there was [Louis] Untermeyer, the liberal whose entrepeneurial anthologizing had come in for much blunt left criticism, passing on a bit of the same. "Often enough a [Stevens] poem refuses to yield a meaning," Untermeyer wrote, "but "Academic Discourse at Havana" and "The Idea of Order at Key West" surrender themselves in an almost pure music."

[Filreis suggests that Stevens’s poem was a reply to Isidor Schneider’s ""Portrait of a False Revolutionist" as published in The Dynamo 1:3 (Summer 1934), 12.] … The speaker now urges the pianist to be "the voice, / Not you" – to speak indeed for others as well as himself. The pronominally reflexive is really deftly transitive, and depression-era selfhood becomes seen by self as object – not "be thou" but "be though / The voice" of the people:

Be thou, be thou

The voice of angry fear,

The voice of this besieging pain.

Literalized outsiders are hurling stones at the house, and "the streets are full of cries" – perhaps, or perhaps not, because the pure poet is making all sound and not singing a song of social significance. In the middle of the poem the speaker’s strategy is evidently to implore the pure poet to practice well the very reverberations of his opponents. If in being merely oneself (on "be thou" reflexivity) the artist in 1935 must adapt the voice that shouts down one’s art (be thou this voice), then must oneself bespeak one’s besieger. Soon the spaker becomes shrewder still:

Be thou that wintry sound

As of the great wind howling,

By which sorrow is released,

Dismissed, absolved

In a starry placating.

"The voice" that had seemed to oppose a Mozart for 1935 is now fully naturalized. To the poet of pure sound, the artist who knows the sound itself and not the treasons why the sound is heard, the streets of cries augur the confused howling of the winter wind, a howl to be quelled by the precision and utter clarity of the stars. Through this disembodiment of sound the speaker will finally recognize that in such expression of anger sorrow might be diminished. So the piano playing does, after all, smooth over the contradictions of "1935" currency on one hand and outmoded "Mozart" on the other, absolving and placating the voices raised up by one against the other."

From Alan Filreis, Modernism from Left to Right: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties and Literary Radicalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 211, 214-215.

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Criticism Overview
Title Alan Filreis: On "Mozart, 1935" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Alan Filreis Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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