W.B. Gerard: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

In the poem "Peter Quince at the Clavier," by Wallace Stevens, the narrator's mention of "blue-shadowed silk" (line 7) triggers a scene characterized by vivid physical imagery. Stevens uses carefully selected and arranged colors to frame the physical and temporal context of two very different segments of the poem.(1) These sections present juxtaposed ideas of beauty: one resplendent and fleeting, the other without the polychromatic intensity of perception, but fixed and eternal.

The image of "blue-shadowed silk" begins the scene of Susanna's bath, a segment of the poem that places particular significance on color. The narrator goes on to describe the "green evening" (10) when the "red-eyed elders" (12) watched Susanna "in the green water" (16) of her bath.(2) The simple, direct colors, the fabric of our everyday perception, connote a symbolic importance to the subjects they modify. "Blue-shadowed silk" implies a sensual fabric viewed in a dimly lit environment, heightening the erotic connotation of the color blue. The "green evening" and "green water" paint an environment that is natural, serene, and latently fertile, making the color an extension of Susanna herself.(3) The "red eyes" of the elders immediately convey an impression of an unnatural state, that of anxiety and agitation. Individually, the colors are symbolic of character attitude: the narrator's aesthetic/sexual desire, Susanna's quietly beckoning fertility, the elders' lustful envy. Even before any interaction has taken place, the colors set up a framework for plot development.

With their emphasis on the physical, the appearance of colors conveys an idea of a realistic and specific moment in time that is separate from the poet/speaker's meditations. The colors help frame this capsule of time and stress the importance of the visual in its perception.

Color reappears at the conclusion of the poem in more circumscribed form. "So evenings die, in their green going" (56) associates the measure of time with the course of life, recognizing the fleeting nature of life and beauty; green was closely associated with Susanna earlier in the poem. In contrast are the "white elders" (63), who, satisfied of anxious lust, are no longer "red-eyed," but are instead drained of color and warmth; they form an opposite to the green of life.(4)

Susanna's "music" (which the reader comes to understand as her beauty) is last described "in its immortality" (64) as playing "on the clear viol of her memory" (65). The ambiguity of language allows two meanings of "clear." Musically, the "clear viol" would produce a pure, uncompromised sound. The "clear viol of her memory" becomes a physically and psychically transparent instrument that does not alter or "color" memory of Susanna and her beauty, but disinterestedly continues it. The sections delineated by color represent two portrayals of beauty. The effusion of earthly color in the first scene emphasizes the reliance on the senses to construct an initial idea of beauty; but this beauty is "momentary in the mind" (52), a trick of the senses. The contrasting lack of color in the later section indicates a beauty removed from the senses to immortal memory. "The body dies; the body's beauty lives" (55) indicates the persistence of memory where the frail body has failed. The enduring memory of beauty is drained of th  intensity of immediate perception, yet assumes the clarity of the eternal. The poem explicates these ideas while it performs the function of the "clear viol of memory," immortalizing the beauty of Susanna in verse.

From The Explicator 56.3 (Summer 1998)


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