Janet McCann: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

"Peter Quince at the Clavier" is another poem of male and female--this time, Susanna and Peter Quince are elements of the poet--that seems to recommend a form of paganism, in this case implicitly. Traditionally, the poem is seen as a reinterpretation of the notion of art's permanence, an inversion of cliché. Peter Quince, as the director of the naive troupe of tradesmen-players in Midsummer Night's Dream, is a comic figure, another of Stevens's comedians; the title gives us the ironic image of Peter Quince at the delicate instrument, his rough hands attempting perhaps a sonata. (Several critics have suggested that the poem imitates the sonata form.) The somewhat awkward would-be lover at his instrument wishes to find some adequate chords to communicate his desire, which he compares to the lust of the elders in the story of Susanna, whose tale is told in those later additions to the book of Daniel that are collected in the biblical Apocrypha. Peter Quince suggests that desire is the origin of art; beauty plays on the spirit of the perceiver just as the perceiver plays on the keys of his instrument. There is a correspondence between the dynamic of arousal and that of artistry.

Just as my fingers on these keys

Make music, so the selfsame sounds

On my spirit make a music, too. (CP, 89)

The poem develops the theme that "music is feeling" by combining the poetic devices of alliteration, assonance, and consonance with puns on musical terms to suggest the sounds of the musical instruments mentioned, as in this passage describing the feelings of the lascivious elders:

The basses of their beings throb

In witching chords, and their thin blood

Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna. (CP, 90)

"Basses" fuses "base," suggesting both "low and unworthy" and "foundation," with the musical term "bass." Musical tone then becomes moral tone. The line "Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna" mimics the plucking of strings but also may suggest the sexual itch. This turning of music into words, and words into music, continues throughout the poem, becoming metaphor as well as genuine verbal music.

In the Apocrypha, Susanna is a beautiful and chaste young wife desired by the elders of the church, who tell her that if she will not grant them her favors, they will claim to have witnessed her committing adultery. She refuses, and they accuse her; she is sentenced to death, but God hears her prayers and arranges for Daniel to acquit her by cleverly trapping the elders into giving conflicting narratives. As he usually does, Stevens uses only those elements of the story that fit into his plan. The poet-pianist-player's desire transcends that of the elders. He cannot possess his beloved physically, but he can hold her in his mind in a platonic and permanent sense. Susanna is moved from the world of facts to the world of forms, where her beauty continues to exist.

B.J. Leggett, however, has pointed out that the problems of this poem have not been resolved by commentators. They have not dealt with the fact that Stevens's Susanna is not the innocent wife of the Apocrypha but a sensual, even lusty virgin; nor have they addressed the abrupt gaps in tone and logic within and between parts of the poem. Using Nietzsche's distinction between Appollonian and Dionysian as intertext, Leggett pulls the poem together as a medication on the question: "How does the lyric speaker's own subjective feeling, his desire, transcend the merely personal, the individual?" (Leggett, 67). The poem's answer is that through the power of music he "surrenders his subjectivity to the Dionysian process" (70), a surrender that happens to Peter Quince and in a sense to Susanna herself. Leggett's interpretation brings the various elements of the poem into balance: the elders, the evocative/provocative Susanna, and Peter Quince all have self-consistent roles in this parable of the creation of lyric poetry through the dissolution of the self in music--through, in fact, a Dionysian ecstasy. Thus, another form of paganism appears, deeper and more sophisticated than the "natural religion" Stevens identifies as belonging to "Sunday Morning." "Peter Quince" shows an effort to find transcendence by elevating the artist to the stature of a god, allowing him to break out of the limitations of self in his creative frenzy. Ultimately, the idea of the loss of self through the transformative process will not "suffice" either but will prove one of a series of efforts to find transcendence.

From Wallace Stevens Revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright © 1995 by Twayne Publishers.


Criticism Overview
Title Janet McCann: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Janet McCann Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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