28 Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens

Mr. Saidul Haque

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This module introduces a critical reading of a few selected poems of one of the leading American poets of twentieth century, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Among his large corpus of poetic creation, this module would particularly focus on “The Emperor of Ice- Cream” and “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” from his first poetry collection titled,

Harmonium (1923).


Peter Conn, in his book, The Divided Mind (1983), argues that the American imagination is split between two extremes: a sense of the religious, mythic and organic past – and a sense of the technological, scientific future fraught with the weight of infinite advance. Frank D. McConnell asserts that “Stevens, more perhaps than any poet of his century, is the registrar of that tension. Eliot may have retreated – and retreated heroically – from the panic  of modern life into an idealized, neo-Christian ideal. Williams may have delivered himself to a vision of the infinitely expansive and infinitely empty universe of what is to come. But Stevens remains the invaluable poet of the present moment, poised between nostalgia and expectation” (166). This duality and ambivalence is intrinsic to Wallace Stevens’ life and his creation. He was a lawyer as well as a poet. His poetry tussle between romantic imagery and modernist trend; his philosophy engages with the duality between consciousness and the outer world; between imagination and reality; between words and the world.

Imagination and Reality in Stevens’ Poetry


Imagination for Stevens is one of the great creative powers. But he always linked imagination to reality. According to Stevens, it is “fundamental” for the poet to be “attached to reality” and for the imagination to “adhere to reality” (qtd. in Crook 11). He is a poet constantly trying to negotiate the war between reality and imagination. In Adagia he writes “There is nothing greater than reality. In this predicament we have to accept reality itself as the only genius” (qtd. in Critchley 278). Contradicting his argument he again comments that ‘Imagination is the only genius’ in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. Poetry is the exploration of this philosophical abomination. It is the  imagination, “the world within us” that keeps the outside world from being “desolate.” But there is an “interchange between these two worlds . . . migratory passings to and fro, quickenings, Promethean liberations and discoveries” (qtd. in Crook 11). Reality should be mediated through the creative power of imagination.


Idea of “Supreme Fiction” in Stevens’ Poetry


Towards the later phase of Steven’s poetic career, this ‘imagination-reality’ concern became marginal and moved towards “the possibility of a supreme fiction” (qtd. in Crook 11). When old notion of religion was no more compelling, Stevens was concerned about an alternative authority and poetry came to his rescue. In his book Opus Posthumous, Steven writes, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is the essence which takes its place as life’s redemption” (185). But the poet’s attempt to find a fiction to replace the lost gods gets problematic as the direct knowledge of reality is impossible. Here comes poetic imagination that purges the reality to suit the poetic purpose of redemption. Stevens invented the phrase “supreme fiction” in 1922 (“Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame,” “A High Toned Old Christian Woman”). But it was further explored in his “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”(1942). People replace belief in transcendent God with a fiction, something fictive. If this means that the idea of God is an illusion, Stevens argues that there were both harmful illusions and benign illusions, and “the idea of God” is an example of “benign illusion” (Crook 21). Stevens conceptualized imagination as “the next greatest power to faith: the reigning prince” (italics in original; qtd. in Crook 21). He shared Santayana’s view that the God of religion is a product of the poetic imagination. Because the will to believe persists even after a particular object of belief loses its appeal and this is how the imagination invents a credible alternative.


Eleanor Cook would further argue that Stevens’ instincts were beyond the binary between secular and sacred and he yearned for something sublime and noble. Stevens also had no clear idea about the concrete form of ‘supreme fiction’. It was an abstract and variable idea. Cook would comment that “How this might come about, he could not foretell, though he could imagine how…. He had no mystical notion of a zeitgeist, and he had no patience with cant or inflated formulations. He pretty clearly has in mind the parallels of Christianity’s beginning, as in the Incarnation and Christmas imagery in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” or the use of Constantine at the end of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (23). Cook further points out that “the desire for a supreme fiction is a need of the human spirit so great that it amounts to a violence. In a well-known description, he spoke of nobility as “a force . . . a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality…” (21-22). The possibility of a supreme fiction could provide human beings the pleasure of fulfillment. This is an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, which is apparently fictive but willfully believed.

McConnell would provide a wonderful interpretation of the idea through reading his

poem, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”:

Soldier, there is a war between the mind

And sky, between thought and day and night. It is

For that the poet is always in the sun,

Patches the moon together in his room

To his Virgilian cadences, up down,

Up down. It is a war that never ends.

The poet stands always in the sun, in the clear shadowless light of that harsh knowledge representing a harsh reality. But the harsh knowledge also illumines the poet. “The poet “patches the moon together” – that is, invents the gentler light of imagination, with his “Virgilian cadences.” He invents a fiction, a myth, a poem, an articulation of the uncaring universe around us that will let us believe in its benevolence, even though, or just because,  we do not believe in the articulation itself”.

Stevens’ Idea of Romanticism


Wallace Stevens wrote in one of his letter, “At the moment, the world in general is passing from the fatalism stage to an indifferent stage: a stage in which the primary sense is a sense of helplessness. But, as the world is a good deal more vigorous than most of the individuals in it, what the world looks forward to is a new romanticism, a new belief” (qtd. in Carroll 88). The new “belief” is the spiritual vision of the world for Stevens. It is undeniable that Stevens’ poetic style has elements of modernistic aspect, but his attempt to seek substitute for the loss of religious faith is a trend found among later Victorian poets. Joseph Carroll would argue that Stevens employs strongest force of imagination to explore the spiritual role of poetry. He argues that Stevens’ notion of “a new romanticism” or “a new belief” is to create “a poem equivalent to the idea of God”. Stevens draws heavily and directly on the great visionary poems of his romantic predecessors to create such poems. But there is one crucial difference between the old romanticism and Stevens’ “new romanticism”, according to Carroll. “In Stevens’ view, the single most important change in the  epistemology of the modern world is the recognition that all “belief” is “fictive”; that is, all beliefs are imaginative conceptions, products of the imagination. For the old romantics, the divine mind simply exists. The poet depicts it and by depicting it shares more fully in it” (Carroll 89-90). Nina Baym has also propounded that Stevens was able to create a path for alternative romanticism through its disassociation with the divine. Stevens often places an individual at the center of a poem and make that individual the perceiver of an action, not the doer of the action itself (Baym 1146). “The difference is that the Transcendentalists confidently assumed that their perceptions were guaranteed by God. Stevens was not sure of this”.


Wallace Stevens’ Poetry and the Figure of the Woman


At a time when women were demanding and articulating voice in personal, artistic, professional, and political realms in the United States, this is crucial to interrogate Stevens’ treatment of women characters in his poetic creations. Jacqueline Vaught Brogan argues that Stevens presented women in reductive manner. Stevens denies them any voice. In “A High- Toned Old Christian Woman”, Brogan explains:


This woman is not only “high-toned” and “old,” but she is also specifically a widow whose ideas are presumably naive and outdated. Most important, she is pitted in the poem (with no hope of receiving respect) against the injunctions of the speaker who forcefully articulates his own supposedly superior – and, shall we say? – sexist poetics. The poem concludes with these irrefutable lines: “This will make widows wince. But fictive things / Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince” (47). Notably, the “This” of that final assertion alludes to the opening claim of the poem, “Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.” But as the address to a madame underscores, the poem is not addressed to another (even if imaginary) male listener or friend. The female gender, as well as religion, is the object of mockery in this poem; making an old widower wince would not have been as witty.


In ‘Sunday Morning’, the woman’s feeble voice is overpowered by the male speaker and it is his ‘logocentric’ voice which reveals the ‘truth’ to the woman: “She hears, upon that water without sound, / A voice that cries, ‘The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay’” (qtd. in Brogan 184)). The woman in ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ is dead, ‘cold’, ‘dumb’ and her ‘feet protrude’. Even in her last journey ‘flowers’ will come wrapped in ‘last month’s newspapers’ and most importantly the help of a ‘muscular one’ becomes necessary for this woman’s wake. The female singer in “The Idea of Order at Key West” is portrayed as an idealized figure who is walking and singing by the shore: “And when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self/ That was her song, for she was the maker”( qtd. in Brogan 185). But she is just the source material for the speaker. She merely sings but it is the (male) speaker who derives philosophical ‘truth’ out of it. More interestingly, the moment the speaker address to a male friend – “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know” – she evaporates. “With this unexpected intrusion, it becomes apparent that she has been, all along, merely a cipher for Stevens himself and the way in which he sings. As a muse, she is totally dismissed and is replaced by the masculine “rage for order” (106) that Stevens really has in mind. Subsequently, lights “Mastered” the night, “portioned” out the sea, “Arrange[d]” and “deepen[ed]” night, so that the words, in a kind of phallic domination, ironically create the “fragrant portals,” or the feminine principle, which is ultimately erased and silenced in the poem”.

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream”


‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ is in two stanzas, both comprising eight lines. The first stanza is spoken by what Helen Vendler calls ‘an unknown master of ceremonies’. This personae gives orders, demanding that a muscular man who works in a cigar-rolling factory whip up some ‘concupiscent curds’ for the guests. He asks the ‘wenches’ (girls) wear what they would normally wear implying that they needn’t wear some dress meant for the rituals  of mourning. He asks the boys to bring flowers wrapped ‘in last month’s newspapers’. The stanza ends with the cryptic note: ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream’.


The second stanza makes it clear that all this was for preparation of funeral –as the poem takes us to the room where the solitary corpse of the dead woman is lying. This master of ceremonies continues to give commands, asking that a sheet (on which the dead woman, when alive, ‘embroidered fantails’) be taken from the dresser (which has three glass knobs missing from it), to cover the dead woman’s face. If the woman’s ‘horny’ feet is not covered because of the sheet’s short length this doesn’t matter as it reflects the coldness and silence of death. The ‘lamp’ should ‘affix its beam’ and shine fully on the woman without hiding away her dead body. The poem enigmatically ends with the refrain: ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream’.


The poem is anti-poetic because it goes against the tradition of funeral poems in its instructions to the mourners and in tones. Stevens asks for ice cream for the wake; flowers in last month’s newspapers; a sheet to cover the face of the deceased. The poem breaks the usual sentimentality of death. Rather the poem celebrates the pleasure of survival with the pleasant taste of ice-cream amidst the inevitability of death. The corpse is “cold and dumb,” while ice cream (the symbol of pleasure as absolute good) is cold but concupiscent. Some critics also interpret that the woman trafficked in concupiscence and concupiscence is reasserted as the rule or ruler of life. The poet here advocates desire as the sustenance of life.


While the first stanza is potent with imagery of life, the second stanza deals with imagery of death. O’Connor elucidates that the poem “exhibits the relationship between illusion and things-as-they-are,” and it reveals that “life is change or flux, a shifting from illusion to reality; from delight and enjoyment … to difficult experiences [i. e., death]. We should accept it as such”(qtd. in Culbert and Violette 39). Culbert and Violette locate the element of irony and satire in the poem. For them, Stevens criticizes the Emperor who has no wisdom and his authority derives from the ignorance and purposelessness of his subjects. Their gods are dead and they have placed their futile lives into the hands of a monarch whose throne is as transient, unstable and negligible as the ice-cream. The Emperor’s authoritative power is also clear in the verbs like ‘call’, ‘bid’, ‘let’, spread’. The poem might also be a product of capitalist reign where mourning over a corpse becomes less significant than the consumption of ice-cream. Culbert and Violette also note the incongruity of the role given to the muscular man who rolls big cigars. Instead of a ‘masculine job’, he is assigned the trivial job of applying his strength to “kitchen cups”. “Concupiscent curds” that has the desirous and lustful undertone indicates that the futile empire provides artificial stimulation to its physically deficient boys and wenches. Again Richard Andersen reiterates Shaw’s interpretation of the poem. He interprets the cigar as phallic symbol and as ‘concupiscent’ connotes sexual desire/lust and since there is the presence of curds, the juxtaposition connotes semen. The women in the poem are whores including even the dead woman. They “dawdle” before the boys wearing ‘dress’ and the boys court them by bringing the flowers. He hypothesizes that there is no God, only an emperor of ice cream, that is, “the parody of a ruler, who rolls, his suggestive cigar and mixes up perverse concoctions in kitchen cups”(qtd. in Anderson 81). We can assume that the two contradictory forces, namely Desire and Death becomes intermingled in the poem.


Illusion and Reality


Helen Vendler would argue that the embroidered sheet as the symbol of Art itself is too insufficient to cover the crude reality. The embroidery (or art) of Stevens’ woman only goes to show how “cold she is, and dumb.” The poem represents the duality between reality and appearance- “Let be be finale of seem.” Seeming of art or illusion fails to supersede the being of life. For Stevens poetry through its ‘irrational distortion’ can transform the ordinary world into the fluent world (“Collected Poems”). Thus Stevens’ poem makes it possible to portray a pleasurable ice-creamy world of sensation. But isn’t this momentary unlike the Death which is nothing but an eternal exit from the material world! Stevens’ Imaginative impulse confronts Reality of death in the poem and the war goes on throughout the poem.


The poem raises issues like whether art can be perfect (the embroidery sheet lacked three glass knobs); whether art should be the mimesis of reality where it will show blatantly ‘her horny feet protrude’(Stevens 13) or art should cover up the imperfection of life and present it with pleasant metaphor of ice-cream; whether poetry could reveal the ‘truth’ that is the crude reality of death or it could only employ the mask of fictiveness to evade that reality; whether poetry could be the ‘supreme fiction’ replacing the God who caused the woman’s death or in other terms poetry could replace the emperor of ice-cream who believed in the vigor of life more than the coldness of death.


“A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”Like the earlier poem, this poem also appeared in Wallace Stevens’ first volume, Harmonium. Like his famous poem, ‘Sunday Morning’, this poem is also considered as the ‘anti-mythological poem’ in its debunking of traditional Christianity. But whereas ‘Sunday Morning’ is meditative, philosophical and carries religious undertone, this poem is more challenging and anti-religious in articulation. The former poem embraces the lot of mortal man where “Death is the mother of beauty”; the latter parades a “bawdiness,/ Unpurged by epitaph”(Lensing 43). According to Joseph Riddel, the poem is “a kind of traditional body- soul debate, with the moral reversed” (Lensing 43). The old Christian widow in the poem represents ‘the moral law’. This law is in clash with ‘the opposing law’ free from puritanical restraint. This debate continues culminating in the playful repudiation of the woman. George S. Lensing explains the poem minutely:


The poem is constructed around a series of metonymies which are associated with the two points of view. The old woman and “moral law,” for example, are represented by the nave of a church, by palms, by citherns, and by haunted heaven. The speaker “opposing law,” on the other hand, are represented by a peristyle and masque, by palms, by saxophones and by the planets. In manner, a series of parallel images is established.


The images accompanied by word-play, irony, and inevitable bathos. The architectural projections (nave vs. peristyle) are the principal metaphors: the nave is associated with the Christian church while the peristyle recalls the temple of the Greeks.


Wallace Stevens is comparing the Christian nave to the pagan peristyle. Free- standing columns of Hellenic Greece is pitted against the enclosed nave. “In place of Christian puritanism, the reader is relocated in a period without parallel in its artistic, athletic, and political acts of human achievement” (Lensing 44). The poem progresses further through the change of the imagery from the architecture to religious rituals; from the peristyle to the masque: “But take/ The opposing law and make a peristyle,/ And from the peristyle project a masque /Beyond the planets”(Stevens 6-8). Though masque was the spectacle of music and costuming performed during Elizabethan and Jacobean age, it has its precedence in ancient pagan ceremonies which celebrated the passage of the seasons. Again a binary is established between masque as pagan counterpart and religiosity of the mass performed in the church. Reversing the religious order, the nave reaches out toward “haunted heaven”(3), while the masque becomes cosmic in its reaching out “Beyond the planets”(9). Both projections result in conversions into palms. The nave’s extension to “haunted heaven”(3) leads to the first conversion: “Thus,/ The conscience is converted into palms,” while the masque’s extension “Beyond the planets. . .Is equally converted into palms” (3-4, 9-11). In the Christian context, palm branches were waved at the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It was adopted into Christianity to represent the victory of martyrs, or the victory of the spirit over the flesh. A. Walton Litz points out a second meaning: “The stuff of life can just as easily be converted into the ‘palm’ of tropic pleasure as the ‘palm’ of frozen morality” (qtd. in Lensing 45). After the imagery of architecture and ritual Stevens now contrasts the ‘moral law’ and ‘opposing law’ with the imagery of music. The conversion into palms by the old woman is “Like windy citherns hankering for hymns” (Stevens 5). The speaker’s own conversion is also to the accompaniment of musical sounds- here “Squiggling like saxophone” (Stevens 12). The soft and cold sound of the citherns is overpowered by the boisterous and lively sound of the saxophones.


Both the proponents of ‘moral law’ and ‘opposing law’ prescribe life after death – though they are ironically directions for life as well. The aging Christian woman can anticipate through rigorous adherence to religion, nothing more than the unsubstantial (“haunted”) heaven. The proponents of the “opposing law,” however, will be “Unpurged by epitaph” (Stevens 10, Lensing 46). After their death, they will simply practice the bawdiness. The final section of the poem explores this theme of bawdiness in a celebratory and carnivalesque manner. As both the paths lead towards death and ‘converted into palms’(Stevens 4), Stevens advocates for celebration in the earthly life. Stevens asks the ‘disaffected flagellants’ (Stevens 15; The image is of the fervent believers whipping themselves to intensify their religious fervor) to join in “A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres” (Stevens 20). The spiritual self-abnegation at the cost of hurting oneself to attain the divine favor is countered with playful hullabaloo. This is nothing but a kind of ribald mask, a carnival, a release, a pleasure principle. There is a sensual tone in the wonderfully jazzy line “Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk” (Stevens 18) in which the pleasure principle moves beyond Christianity. Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame (“A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”)


George S. Lensing would claim that this is not so a poem of theological repudiation. Rather this is a poem about “poetics and dramatization of the role of “fictive things” in the creation of poetry” (Lensing 47). He draws on other critics like James Baird’s argument that ‘supreme fiction’ is the opposing law of the poem’s speaker. Therefore fiction and unrestrained bawdiness seem to be equated. Lensing then explains:


When the speaker declares that “poetry is the supreme fiction,” he means in the most obvious sense that poetry is a fiction which supersedes the fiction of Christianity…. Stevens never suggests that the embellishments of poetry and the imagination are not themselves fiction. The difference is simply that one accepts them as fictions. In one of his “Adagia,” he asserts, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly”.


There is then a similarity between the fictionality of poetry and fictionality of religion and Stevens argues elsewhere that both the religion and poetry relies on the imagination and it is the imagination which grapples with reality and creates fiction. It is thus poetry which fictionally converts the conscience of the Christian woman into palms, the bawdiness of the nonconformists into palms and finally the ‘disaffected flagellants’ of an ascetic Christianity into the parade of fleshly celebration. Art is more powerful medium than religion. Interestingly the ‘hymns’ and ‘epitaphs’ of Christianity are insufficient in comparison with the poem’s “jovial hullabaloo”. “Jovial hullabaloo” (Stevens 20) symbolizes vitality of life and it is the poetry, the ‘supreme fiction’ that can only create and sustain this pleasurable fictive world. It is poetry and art and fiction that creates, exposes and finally overpowers the fictiveness of religion.

Taking this line into consideration, “But fictive things/Wink as they will” (Stevens 21-22), Lensing comments that ‘wink’ is not here targeted merely at the wincing widow, but also this is a reference where fiction/imagination/poetry winks at reality. The debate between Imagination and Reality is a constant theme in Stevens’ poetry: “Perhaps poetry, instead of being the rather meaningless transmutation of reality, is a combat with it; and perhaps the thing to do when one keeps saying that life is a dull life is to pick a fight with reality” (Stevens’ 1942 Letter to Barbara Church; qtd. in Lensing 48). The poem is in a way metafictional in nature which directs attention to itself as a poem about fictionality. The reference to the ‘masque’ in the poem also symbolizes the fictionality of the poem. Critics also locate modernist sensibility in Stevens’ poem with the phrases like “squiggling like saxophones” (12), “muzzy bellies in parade” (16), and “tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk- tunk”(18) which actually represent the Godless and confused world of modernism.



Stevens’ poetry talks about Art’s desperate attempt to grapple with the outer Reality of the world through the magical world of imagination; through the charm of fictionality. In the end ‘Poetry is the supreme fiction’ and we willingly believe in that fictionality to negotiate with the mundane reality. Even amidst Art’s imperfectability, it is fictionality of Art that conquer forces like Death and Religion.

you can view video on Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens


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