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How the insurance executive Wallace Stevens came to stand as one of America’s greatest poets
Thinking about Wallace Stevens, one keeps coming back to what appears to be the irresolvable double nature of a man who spent much of his life as a busy insurance company lawyer and at the same time became an American poet who stands alongside Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Williams, Berryman, and Bishop.
Try to sum him up by way of biography and here is what you might come up with. Born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, he was the second of five children. His parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, with an American ancestry going back to when Manhattan was New Amsterdam. His father was a prosperous lawyer who in mid-life suffered devastating financial reversals and then a nervous breakdown. Stevens grew up in Reading until he left for Harvard, which he attended from 1897 to 1900 in a three-year accelerated program (to save his father money), and then went to New York City to try his hand at newspaper reporting. Within a year, he left journalism to go to law school. After a failed attempt at private practice, he moved over to the insurance business, in large part because he was more at ease working with complicated documents than he was with human beings.
He read incessantly—the classics in literature and philosophy—Plato’s Dialogues, Aristotle, Longinus, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and especially Coleridge. He also read Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as French and German literary classics in the original. Among the professors he had felt a close connection with was his mentor and model, a Spanish agnostic who defined himself as an aesthetic Catholic, George Santayana, poet and philosopher.
Stevens would live and work in New York City from 1900 to 1916. In 1909, he married Elsie Kachel, his dream girl, also from Reading, who clerked and played piano in a sheet music store. His parents found her below family standards and refused to attend the wedding, which took place just three blocks from where Stevens had grown up. While Wallace and Elsie remained faithful to their vows, the marriage itself soured quickly, so that Stevens soon found himself relegated to a solitary, if plush, attic bedroom, where for consolation he listened to Jack Benny and opera on the radio. He wrote poems, especially sonnets, which he gathered in two collections for Elsie on her birthdays in 1907 and 1908. But he did not begin publishing poems until 1914, when he was 35. Within three years, he published in journals and magazines many of the poems by which he is best known, including “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man,” and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
In 1916, the couple moved to Hartford, the insurance capital of America, where Stevens went to work at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company. Each morning and evening Stevens walked the two miles between his home and his grand office in the Hartford building. Famously, he composed poetry during those daily perambulations. His first book, the collection he called Harmonium, appeared in 1923 and was well received by the critics, if not by the public. He would publish seven more volumes during his lifetime, earning a Bollingen Prize (1949), two National Book Awards (1951 and 1955), and, for his 1954 Collected Poems, a Pulitzer. He and Elsie had one child, a daughter, Holly, born when Stevens was in his mid-forties.
An able and diligent lawyer, Stevens was named a vice president at the Hartford in 1934. He was not known there—or in most other places—for warmth and sensitivity. Once, a colleague told Stevens that he’d admired a eulogy Stevens had given at the funeral of another Hartford executive. Stevens replied, “I hope to do the same for you some day.” In 1955, the same colleague, on learning that Stevens had died, asked if it was a heart attack, noting that he would be surprised to learn that Stevens had a heart.
Stevens was a large man—six feet two, and 240 pounds—and in photos seems to tower over whoever stood near him. Not suited for leadership or working closely with others, he became a solo legal practitioner within the company, meeting with other lawyers and courthouse officials only when necessary. For his last decades on the job, he worked in large part by dictating memoranda to his secretaries.
His literary relationships were no warmer. He tried to goad Robert Frost into an exchange of insults, but Frost demurred. Each February for 20 years Stevens spent several weeks in the Florida Keys, and especially Key West. Stevens drank, and he could be unruly when he drank too much. On one well-known occasion he provoked a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway, 20 years his junior, that left Stevens with a bruised, swollen face and a hand he broke on Hemingway’s jaw.
For reasons that may have to do with his witnessing the collapse of his father’s business, Stevens stayed with the Hartford after he became an honored literary figure, working there into his mid-seventies, even after he was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him. Months before his death, he turned down a prestigious lectureship at Harvard because he was afraid that his absence for an academic year would cost him his job. He died an employee of the Hartford.
He’d worked hard there, eventually becoming known as the King of Surety (a method of contract protection). Still, he managed to find the time necessary to compose hundreds upon hundreds of exquisite poems, usually on those walks between home and work. Reaching the Hartford in the morning, he would hand his secretaries, for typing, the lines he’d written in a scrawl only they could understand. It is no mistake that you can feel the steady iambic beat of those lines grounded in the repetition of steps he took each day.
And the fact is that Stevens was a stunning and original poet, a Modernist and a Romantic, as well as a visionary in quest of what he called “the Real.” Here was someone pursuing a language and a music that would be capable of nourishing, delighting, and comforting both the writer and his readers in the face of whatever social, political, and economic troubles humans of his time were compelled to endure, including—thanks to Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and a host of others—the eclipse of God.
By the time Stevens turned 35, he believed he had found the music he had been searching for. First came a form of poetry that captured something of the New York avant garde, as original in its own way as the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp that had stunned viewers in the 1913 New York Armory Show. These are the poems, collected in Harmonium, that most people think of when they recall Stevens—poems including “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” whose haiku-like sections summon, with chiseled courage, the end that awaits all:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
In his signature poem, “Sunday Morning,” also from Harmonium, Stevens addresses a modern young woman who lounges with coffee and oranges in her New York City apartment on an Easter Sunday, assuring her that she’s made the right choice in staying home, for “The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
But that pronouncement could not satisfy Stevens. He spent the rest of his life searching for the “Real” that was hidden behind the merely visible. And his later poems, which are not as universally beloved as his earlier work, keep revising his earlier assertions.
Between the publication of Harmonium in 1923 and 1932 Stevens stopped writing poetry altogether. He felt he had written himself into a corner and would need a new poetic and a new poetry if he was to speak to radically changing times. By the mid-1930s, the new realities included an American Depression and long bread lines and an unemployment rate that exceeded 25 percent of the work force. There was the rise of international Communism, as well as the specters of Mussolini’s and Franco’s Fascism, Nazism, and Japanese imperialism. Stevens was in his early fifties when he returned to poetry, and he came back with a force that sustained him until illness and death stilled him.
At first he tried his hand at responding to the issues of the day, including the Spanish Civil War and Mussolini’s incursions into Abyssinia. But before long he understood these were not his topics. His was the search for what underlay such events—the “Real” problem of evil. He needed to invent a language of poetry capable of taking on that theme, a poetics steeped in the deepest philosophical abstractions. In “The Men That Are Falling” (1936), written as it became clear that the Spanish Loyalists were losing their struggle against Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler, the poet, lying in his bed at midnight, unable to sleep, stares at his pillow, which transforms into what he takes to be a sudarium, the traditional Jewish cloth placed over the head of someone who has been crucified. This is the Christ-like man who dies for a cause he ardently believes in:
What is it he desires?
But this he cannot know, the man that thinks,
Yet life itself, the fulfillment of desire
In the grinding ric-rac, staring steadily
At a head upon the pillow in the dark . . .
Thick-lipped from riot and rebellious cries,
The head of one of the men that are falling, placed
Upon the pillow to repose and speak,
Speak and say the immaculate syllables
That he spoke only by doing what he did. . . .
This death was his belief though death is a stone.
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.
In the end, Stevens’s quest became a search for the foundational sacredness of the everyday—the bird, the plum, the vase of roses, the chair in his room, the ordinariness, commemorated in a 1950 poem, of an evening spent in New Haven. “It is a kind of total grandeur at the end,” he wrote three years before his death, in “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” a reflection on his mentor, George Santayana, then dying in a convent in Rome and cared for by nuns in blue:
With every visible thing enlarged and yet
No more than a bed, a chair, and moving nuns,
The immense theatre, the pillared porch,
The book and candle in your ambered room,
Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by the inquisitor of structures
For himself. He steps upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.
I have read and taught this original, lovely poet for 50 years, and he never ceases to delight. Admittedly, he is difficult, but meditating on his poems is worth the effort. And though he speaks to many different sensibilities, including atheism and agnosticism, it surprises and comforts me how synchronous his poems are with the Catholic sensibility of things, the sense in which God’s imagination and the human imagination, if we are fortunate, mesh and fuse.
As he wrote in what turned out to be his final poem, “Of Mere Being,” “You know then that it is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy.” In the end it will be a “gold-feathered bird” singing in the palms a song “without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song.” It will not be a flawed reality that will greet us, but something far greater than ourselves, which will comfort and surprise, a vision where, like the emblazoned Spirit, “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”
Paul Mariani taught at Boston College from 2000 until his retirement in June 2016. He is a poet (Epitaphs for the Journey, 2012), critic, and author of biographies of William Carlos Williams (1981), John Berryman (Dream Song, 1992), Robert Lowell (Lost Puritan, 1994), Hart Crane (The Broken Tower, 1999), Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008), and—most recently—The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens (2016).
Read more by Paul Mariani