Robert Buttel: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

"In "Peter Quince," with its precise emphasis of meaning and emotion supported by variations in rhythm and sound, Stevens created a remarkable example of his musical Imagism. For the musical form of this poem, he had several possible models. Grace Hazard Conkling, for example, who was a trained musician as well as a friend of Amy Lowell, had her "Symphony of a Mexican Garden" published with Amy Lowell’s support, in the first number of Poetry (1912). The poem is divided into four sections ("The Garden," "The Pool," "The Birds," and "To the Moon") according to technical musical terms – "Poco Sostenuto in A Major," "Presto in F Major," and so on – and the sections have their appropriate rhythms and tonalities. The general quality of the poem is not Imagistic; it is, rather, a mixture of a lush Impressionism and tired echoes of Romantic and Victorian poetry. But nonetheless it is part of the general movement to bring music and poetry closer together, and it contains elements which could have served as hints for Stevens, such as the following:

An unimagined music exhales

. . . 

Symphonic beauty that some god forgot,

If form could waken into lyric sound

. . .  Where the hibiscus flares would cymbals clash,

And the black cypress like a deep bassoon

Would hum a clouded amber melody.


John Gould Fletcher’s similar but vaguely defined musical arrangements were not measurably tightened by his more Imagistic practice. Fletcher, too, was fond of cymbals in "Irradiations, I":

A clash of cymbals – then, the swift swaying footsteps

Of the wind that undulated along the languid terraces.

Indeed, his Preludes and Symphonies (1914) contained many of the elements which Stevens was experimenting with: the arabesque, pavilions, terraces, pagodas, willows, quiverings and undulations, winds that "came clangering and clattering," clouds, the sea, and, of course, color.

But Stevens, the musical imagist, created in "Peter Quince" his own more succinct "Symphony" or "quartet." In contrast to the tenderly reflective music of the beginning of the first section there is at the end the sudden intrusion of the elders" bass music. … The throbbing and pulsing are made aurally acute as well as comic by the repetition of the b and p sounds. The comic grotesqueness of their excitement is augmented by the double meaning of "basses" and by the combination of "witching" and "pizzicatti." Similarly, Susanna’s poignant and spiritual music in section II of the poem – in which the few rhymes subtly interlace thought and emotion – is interrupted by the crash of the cymbal and the roaring horns. In section III, the nervous rhythms and the couplets create a mincing, simpering music appropriate for the Byzantine servant girls. And yet there are modulations between the "noise" of their arrival and departure and the delicacy of their hushed refrain: "And as they whispered, the refrain / Was like a willow swept by rain." … The music of Section IV is stately and sweeping, and close to the grand manner of "Sunday Morning." This section also evokes a sense of the continuity underlying change, partially by the use of the series of four rhymes ending in ing and of the word "interminably," which creates a drawn-out effect …

So evenings die, in their green going,

A wave, interminably flowing,

So gardens die, their meek breath scenting 

The cowl of winter, done repenting.

What might have been mere program music, mere effect, as it so often is in Fletcher’s symphonies, is turned in "Peter Quince" into a musical architecture which organically serves the whole thematic and emotional conception."

From Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens and the Making of "Harmonium" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 137-140.


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