Eleanor Cook: On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

Peter Quince at the Clavier is Stevens' version of the story of Susanah, the story of how a private place is violated. Here, as in Le Monocle, there is tension, tension that is obvious in the poem's plot, its rhetoric, and its uncertainty about its own possible comedy. We have taken a long time to hear the odd disjunctions between the opening and closing lyric voices, and between the figures of Peter Quince and the red-eyed elders. Why is it that we have accepted with so little comment the analogy that follows this: "what I feel, / Here, in this room, desiring you, / Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, / Is music." So far, so good, even if this sounds like no Peter Quince (except as the fruit of desire). It is the next parallel that causes trouble, or ought to, given the tone of the opening lines: "Is music. It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna. . . ." The simile is so astonishing that it questions itself, and becomes a query or plea: It is like. . . . It is what? Let it not remain like, or why must it be like? Stevens' word "strain" is a fine choice: a musical strain, first of all ("that strain again; it had a dying fall"); the strain of the elders' eyes, and of their desire; most of all, the strain of the simile itself. Why should thinking in desire about a woman awaken thoughts of this story? It is as if a woman, thinking in desire about a man, is reminded of the story of Hosea and his wife, or of Potiphar's wife. And to say this to the addressee, unless the poem is about to turn comic--is this Peter Quince's bumbling?

In the poem's last section, Stevens contains his story of desire, as Peter Quince's drama is contained. Later, he did not contain the better-known biblical story of a woman spied on in her bath, the story of Bathsheba. In a 1924 poem, a man accuses himself, using Nathan's words to David: "You are the man." What husband, what Uriah, what shepherd, has this accused man killed? Peter Quince simply turns back to song and praise on the viol without resolving the strains of desire.

From Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1988 by Princton University Press.


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