Mark Halliday: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

His most convincing expression of sexual desire, though, is in "Peter Quince at the Clavier," where the red-eyed elders are bewitched into a dissonant concerto of yearning by the sight of Susanna bathing. Does this poem endow Susanna with human identity? Is she more than just an attractive shape beside a garden pool? She at least has a name, which is more than can be said for the other beauties referred to so far (except Ursula). It is true that in section II of "Peter Quince" Susanna is given a point of view. Her thoughts, though, are awfully nebulous:

She searched

The touch of springs,

And found

Concealed imaginings.

She sighed,

For so much melody.

So nebulous that we are certainly not encouraged to think of her as a particular woman with a particular personality. Meanwhile, it is easy to overlook the fact that the poet's reverie about Susanna is apparently stimulated by the beauty of another woman, a present woman:

            what I feel,

Here in this room, desiring you,


Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, 

Is music. It is like the strain

Waked in the elders by Susanna.

As I will explain later, I don't think the mere attribution of a blue garment to this present figure (blue being associated with the imagination in Stevens' oeuvre) suffices as proof that the "you" is an aspect of the speaker's mind rather than a woman, nor can I believe that Stevens intended us to hear the passage only in that way. When the poet informs the woman in the blue dress that what he feels for her is music, she might be forgiven if she replied, "Oh, is that so? Does this mean we won't be going to bed together?" Also she might be wise to wonder whether this lover who claims to be thinking not exactly of her but of her blue-shadowed silk will be able and willing to give her the kind of personal attention she deserves.

Such thoughts on her part would, one feels, be unlikely to please Mr. Stevens (or Mr. Quince), if she were to voice them. Here I think it is apposite to quote a reminiscence by Naaman Corn, who was the chauffeur for the Stevenses on family outings:

He didn't carry on any conversation with Mrs. Stevens much about something. She wouldn't talk on account of he would snap at her quickly. So she got where she just went in a shell, and she wouldn't say anything. One time I thought she couldn't talk because she never did say nothing, but I found out why. If every time you say something to a person, you're going to snap at them, they quit talking. They go underground. You could hear that, and you figured that's the reason why she clams up.

With no one to help her in her victimization except "simpering Byzantines," Susanna has no chance to make her case against the guilty elders; trapped in a poem controlled by Peter Quince, she can only clam up and go underground.

By being so attractive, Susanna causes a lot of trouble, for the elders and for her Byzantines as well as for herself (even though "The fitful tracing of a portal" is a lullingly cleansed way of alluding to rape fantasies). The very simplicity and clarity of her appeal make her alarming, an unavoidable disturbance of the peace. In situations when our poet, or his male speaker, cannot for some reason commit himself to a decisive, simple sexual response to such a woman's appeal, he is inclined to propose revisions of her behavior, or reconceptions of her nature, so that her appeal will not be so bluntly sexual in its impact. . . .

Stevens himself would perhaps disdain my literal-minded argument on behalf of the actual human women glimpsed in his poetry. He would feel amused pity for readers who find the wrong kind of solace in his "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour." Readers who worry about the strength and value of their love relationships with other people feel a powerful attraction in the matching of the word "together" with the word "enough" in the poem's ending: "We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough" (CP 524). Alas, it is not a man and a woman who live together in this poem; it is not two persons; the title of "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" makes this clear. Note, however, that if the poem is looked at without its title, a reader can justifiably feel invited to think of two persons who have joined in love. And in many Stevens poems, including those I have discussed thus far and most of those I will soon speak of, the female lover is not so decisively dehumanized, nor the idea of an actual human lover so firmly repudiated, as the title of this particular poem requires.

I think we are wrong to so readily accept the notion that Stevens can evoke a beautiful "woman" in poem after poem and mean "only" an idea, a conception, an attitude, a principle, but not an actual woman. My argument is that you cannot describe something as "a woman" without meaning something about actual women. Metaphors are not innocent in either direction. When you say that A is like B, you reveal something about your sense of A and your sense of B as actualities in your experience. Stevens' critics, fascinated by the metaphysical meaning of his female presences, have indulged him too gently in accepting them as only metaphysical. Critics sometimes go to absurd lengths to let Stevens escape from moral implications in this way. Here, for example, is Eugene Paul Nassar on "Peter Quince at the Clavier":

"Peter Quince" is really a poem about the imaginative faculty, its seasons and its value. It is not a poem about love between the sexes, nor in any way about relations between people. It is, rather, about the poet in solitude carrying on his sometime love affair with his "interior paramour," she who brings forth each "spring" children of desire that of necessity must be raped in "autumn." "Peter Quince" is an "amoral" poem in that it does not deal with moral problems at all, but with the inevitable cycle of creation and destruction that is the life of the poetic mind. The skeptical poet has his own obligations to his poems, the "Susannas" he creates, which are antithetical to the obligations that obtain in the love of one person for another.

To some extent, I'm afraid, Stevens would endorse Nassar's rather repellent interpretation. Yet consider: Stevens knew perfectly well, when he was writing his stanzas about Susanna and the elders, that he was causing us to think about (among other things, yes, but first and most vividly) an actual vulnerable woman and actual lustful old men and actual sexual molestation. Stevens was choosing to affect our ways of thinking about such people and such events. If he tells us the story of an attempted rape in an imaginative context that guides us toward accepting the event as inevitable and even conducive to poetic creation, as Nassar suggests, then Stevens is doing something that has moral implications for which he bears some moral responsibility. Similarly, whenever he speaks to us metaphorically in terms of romantic love, sexuality, or femininity, one of the things he is doing is describing, and influencing (or seeking to influence) our understanding of interpersonal love, actual sex, and real-life women. When he writes in "Adagia" (OP 165), "A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman," he proposes to explain something about the relation between poet and world by analogy with what he assumes to be the more obvious relation between a man and a woman. A sexually desirable woman? The analogy doesn't explicitly include this meaning but does deliberately call it to mind. Stevens' confidence in the analogy, and his tone of approval, are not shaken by the fact that the analogy locates all human subjectivity and agency in the male hero. As before, whether he encourages us to focus on this truth or not, Stevens is partly writing about people.

It is on that basis that I have seen fit to discuss Stevens' habitual failure or refusal to present images of mutual love or two-way relationship between individual men and women; and on that basis I maintain that my point is not vaporized by the objection that Stevens does not (primarily) intend to refer to real women in many of his references to femininity. Besides, as Helen Vendler has persuasively argued, Stevens' veiling of his references to sex and love has hidden his study of sexual desire and romantic/sexual emotions more effectively than he himself ultimately must have intended.

The pattern I have shown is one of consistent failure by Stevens to describe the female other as a fully human individual, as a separate subjectivity, an independent actor and perceiver outside his own mind. This has held true across a spectrum of attitudes toward love, from aggressively candid sexuality at one extreme to ontological mystery at the other extreme. Stevens is not inclined to pay steady attention to real women in writing of romantic/sexual love. Real women cause problems; they impinge. They impinge upon the male poet's freedom by exciting an animal desire which is too simple and vulgar, unimaginative and therefore deathly, or by calling for delusory romantic revisions of desire, which are also deathly when they pull him too far from reality.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1991 by Princeton University Press.


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