For many critics, Wallace Stevens is the most ‘Keatsian’ of all 20th century poets. Stevens (1879-1955) was born in Reading, Pennsylvania; he attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, and received a law degree from New York University. In 1904, having been admitted to the bar, he was hired by the Hartford (Conn.) Accident and Indemnity Company. His first four poems were published in 1914, but it wasn’t until 1923 that he published his first book, titled Harmonium. Fame, however, did not come to him until just before his death over thirty years later.
Stevens was a disciple of the English Romantics, but he was also a wholly original talent. Like Keats, his poetic philosophy centered around the power of imagination, and its transformative effect on human experience. But unlike Keats, Stevens never attempted to make a career from poetry; he walked to and from his office every day and lived quietly and successfully as an employee, and later vice president, of the Hartford Co.
But while he lived such a quiet life, he was also composing some of the most beautiful poetry of the 20th century – or, indeed, any century.
Take a moment and imagine him walking home alone in the dusk, a middle-aged man in a business suit – perhaps he is carrying a briefcase – he is balding and a bit portly. What do we think of him as we pass by? He’s only a businessman like any other, returning home after a long day at work.
And yet all the while his mind is humming with the sounds of creation….
As anyone who has read the Introduction to this site knows, I have long felt surrounded by pretentious ‘artists’ who dress all in black and force their immature and nonsensical verse upon me – all the while calling it ‘poetry’ (which is surely blasphemy!) Stevens did not play at poetry, or the role of poet. He lacked the stylized collegiate approach to modern poetry which has destroyed most contemporary talent. He was rarely self-indulgent in his verse and he believed passionately in the importance of poetry in our lives. As a reader, it is always bracing to find a poet who approaches his reader with respect. And so – who needs ‘hip’ or ‘trendy’ poets when we can read Keats and Stevens? Or perhaps we could force everyone to abide by a simple rule – if you need to say you’re a ‘poet’, then you’re not.
After reading the following selections, the most obvious question to ask is – Was Wallace Stevens the 20th century John Keats? Undoubtedly not; Stevens’ genius was all his own. But the influence of the English Romantics is clear enough, and provides an interesting road of inquiry into Stevens’ work.
Read Wallace Stevens:
A High-Toned Old Christian Woman
To an Old Philosopher in Rome
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Wallace Stevens Facts & Information" https://englishhistory.net/keats/wallace-stevens/, March 6, 2015