Mary B. Arensberg: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

The myth of the dream is the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders, the wife accused by two church elders of unchastity, probably because she had repelled their advance. Daniel exposed their treachery, and as a result, she was vindicated, and they were put to death. The retelling of the myth occupies the central portion of the text, over which is superimposed a musical structure that empties into the famous coda. As in a dream, time and space are eclipsed, and as the poem moves back and forth in time, the two events of the poem (Quince at the clavier and Susanna and the elders in the garden) seem to occur simultaneously. When reading "Peter Quince," we enter into the landscape of the dream where the artificial limits of linearity, history, and time are erased. In its deep structures, the myth itself is grounded in sexuality, betrayal, and death, while the manifest imagery consists of varied symbols: the clavier, the garden, the woman, and the portal. Throughout the dream-text too, there is a chain of metonymic signifiers that lead from touch, to desire, to language; and they form a kind of erotic bracelet between desire and death, arousal and climax. . . .

In these stanzas, Susanna's autoerotic explorations are thinly disguised as ablutions, but they are also tropes for poetic "imaginings." As a figure for the muse, Susanna submerged in the green water is herself a locus amoenus, self-possessed and participating in the pleasure of her own creation. Her solipsism, here, has been noted by harold Bloom, and as Meyer and Baris suggest in a more recent reading of the poem, Susanna in this archetypal setting provides Stevens with "the garden [and] its dual theme of caritas and cupiditas, celebration and danger, realization and ravishment. Linking all the variations of the garden motif is the double strain of sensual and spiritual." Yet the muse-virgin can never be ravished by the poet, because she is the poet, the mirrored "self-object" of his own femininity.

The elders inhabit the space of Otherness in the dream: they are both the poet who would gaze on the primal scene of poetic invention and the principle of thanatos or the fall of language from myth into time and history. Here the brief glimpse of female sexuality is a link to the center of generative myth, which is, metaphorically, the precursor of language and poetic voice. The "presence" of the Elders in the dream-text also registers the voyeurism of the repressed poet, whose superego permits him to gaze on the onanistic activity of the muse but prevents him from entering her garden. Her discovery of the Elders' gaze, troped into the catachresis of "roaring horns" and "clashing symbols" is equivalent to the death of poetic vision that is killed by the intrusion of the reality principle. Like the child in a crib, exiled from the scene of his own origins yet seeing the source of his being enacted, the poet can only gaze at but never participate in the primal scene of creation.

From Wallace Stevens and the Feminine. Ed. Melita Schaum. University of Alabama Press, 1993.


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