On "Peter Quince at the Clavier"

Robert Buttel

"In "Peter Quince," with its precise emphasis of meaning and emotion supported by variations in rhythm and sound, Stevens created a remarkable example of his musical Imagism. For the musical form of this poem, he had several possible models. Grace Hazard Conkling, for example, who was a trained musician as well as a friend of Amy Lowell, had her "Symphony of a Mexican Garden" published with Amy Lowell’s support, in the first number of Poetry (1912). The poem is divided into four sections ("The Garden," "The Pool," "The Birds," and "To the Moon") according to technical musical terms – "Poco Sostenuto in A Major," "Presto in F Major," and so on – and the sections have their appropriate rhythms and tonalities. The general quality of the poem is not Imagistic; it is, rather, a mixture of a lush Impressionism and tired echoes of Romantic and Victorian poetry. But nonetheless it is part of the general movement to bring music and poetry closer together, and it contains elements which could have served as hints for Stevens, such as the following:

An unimagined music exhales
. . .
Symphonic beauty that some god forgot,
If form could waken into lyric sound
. . .
Where the hibiscus flares would cymbals clash,
And the black cypress like a deep bassoon
Would hum a clouded amber melody.

John Gould Fletcher’s similar but vaguely defined musical arrangements were not measurably tightened by his more Imagistic practice. Fletcher, too, was fond of cymbals in "Irradiations, I":

A clash of cymbals – then, the swift swaying footsteps
Of the wind that undulated along the languid terraces.

Indeed, his Preludes and Symphonies (1914) contained many of the elements which Stevens was experimenting with: the arabesque, pavilions, terraces, pagodas, willows, quiverings and undulations, winds that "came clangering and clattering," clouds, the sea, and, of course, color.

But Stevens, the musical imagist, created in "Peter Quince" his own more succinct "Symphony" or "quartet." In contrast to the tenderly reflective music of the beginning of the first section there is at the end the sudden intrusion of the elders" bass music. … The throbbing and pulsing are made aurally acute as well as comic by the repetition of the b and p sounds. The comic grotesqueness of their excitement is augmented by the double meaning of "basses" and by the combination of "witching" and "pizzicatti." Similarly, Susanna’s poignant and spiritual music in section II of the poem – in which the few rhymes subtly interlace thought and emotion – is interrupted by the crash of the cymbal and the roaring horns. In section III, the nervous rhythms and the couplets create a mincing, simpering music appropriate for the Byzantine servant girls. And yet there are modulations between the "noise" of their arrival and departure and the delicacy of their hushed refrain: "And as they whispered, the refrain / Was like a willow swept by rain." … The music of Section IV is stately and sweeping, and close to the grand manner of "Sunday Morning." This section also evokes a sense of the continuity underlying change, partially by the use of the series of four rhymes ending in ing and of the word "interminably," which creates a drawn-out effect …

So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing,
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.

What might have been mere program music, mere effect, as it so often is in Fletcher’s symphonies, is turned in "Peter Quince" into a musical architecture which organically serves the whole thematic and emotional conception."

From Robert Buttel, Wallace Stevens and the Making of "Harmonium" (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1967), 137-140.

Eleanor Cook

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.

Mary B. Arensberg

The myth of the dream is the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders, the wife accused by two church elders of unchastity, probably because she had repelled their advance. Daniel exposed their treachery, and as a result, she was vindicated, and they were put to death. The retelling of the myth occupies the central portion of the text, over which is superimposed a musical structure that empties into the famous coda. As in a dream, time and space are eclipsed, and as the poem moves back and forth in time, the two events of the poem (Quince at the clavier and Susanna and the elders in the garden) seem to occur simultaneously. When reading "Peter Quince," we enter into the landscape of the dream where the artificial limits of linearity, history, and time are erased. In its deep structures, the myth itself is grounded in sexuality, betrayal, and death, while the manifest imagery consists of varied symbols: the clavier, the garden, the woman, and the portal. Throughout the dream-text too, there is a chain of metonymic signifiers that lead from touch, to desire, to language; and they form a kind of erotic bracelet between desire and death, arousal and climax. . . .

In these stanzas, Susanna's autoerotic explorations are thinly disguised as ablutions, but they are also tropes for poetic "imaginings." As a figure for the muse, Susanna submerged in the green water is herself a locus amoenus, self-possessed and participating in the pleasure of her own creation. Her solipsism, here, has been noted by harold Bloom, and as Meyer and Baris suggest in a more recent reading of the poem, Susanna in this archetypal setting provides Stevens with "the garden [and] its dual theme of caritas and cupiditas, celebration and danger, realization and ravishment. Linking all the variations of the garden motif is the double strain of sensual and spiritual." Yet the muse-virgin can never be ravished by the poet, because she is the poet, the mirrored "self-object" of his own femininity.

The elders inhabit the space of Otherness in the dream: they are both the poet who would gaze on the primal scene of poetic invention and the principle of thanatos or the fall of language from myth into time and history. Here the brief glimpse of female sexuality is a link to the center of generative myth, which is, metaphorically, the precursor of language and poetic voice. The "presence" of the Elders in the dream-text also registers the voyeurism of the repressed poet, whose superego permits him to gaze on the onanistic activity of the muse but prevents him from entering her garden. Her discovery of the Elders' gaze, troped into the catachresis of "roaring horns" and "clashing symbols" is equivalent to the death of poetic vision that is killed by the intrusion of the reality principle. Like the child in a crib, exiled from the scene of his own origins yet seeing the source of his being enacted, the poet can only gaze at but never participate in the primal scene of creation.

from Wallace Stevens and the Feminine. Ed. Melita Schaum. University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Janet McCann

"Peter Quince at the Clavier" is another poem of male and female--this time, Susanna and Peter Quince are elements of the poet--that seems to recommend a form of paganism, in this case implicitly. Traditionally, the poem is seen as a reinterpretation of the notion of art's permanence, an inversion of cliché. Peter Quince, as the director of the naive troupe of tradesmen-players in Midsummer Night's Dream, is a comic figure, another of Stevens's comedians; the title gives us the ironic image of Peter Quince at the delicate instrument, his rough hands attempting perhaps a sonata. (Several critics have suggested that the poem imitates the sonata form.) The somewhat awkward would-be lover at his instrument wishes to find some adequate chords to communicate his desire, which he compares to the lust of the elders in the story of Susanna, whose tale is told in those later additions to the book of Daniel that are collected in the biblical Apocrypha. Peter Quince suggests that desire is the origin of art; beauty plays on the spirit of the perceiver just as the perceiver plays on the keys of his instrument. There is a correspondence between the dynamic of arousal and that of artistry.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too. (CP, 89)

The poem develops the theme that "music is feeling" by combining the poetic devices of alliteration, assonance, and consonance with puns on musical terms to suggest the sounds of the musical instruments mentioned, as in this passage describing the feelings of the lascivious elders:

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna. (CP, 90)

"Basses" fuses "base," suggesting both "low and unworthy" and "foundation," with the musical term "bass." Musical tone then becomes moral tone. The line "Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna" mimics the plucking of strings but also may suggest the sexual itch. This turning of music into words, and words into music, continues throughout the poem, becoming metaphor as well as genuine verbal music.

In the Apocrypha, Susanna is a beautiful and chaste young wife desired by the elders of the church, who tell her that if she will not grant them her favors, they will claim to have witnessed her committing adultery. She refuses, and they accuse her; she is sentenced to death, but God hears her prayers and arranges for Daniel to acquit her by cleverly trapping the elders into giving conflicting narratives. As he usually does, Stevens uses only those elements of the story that fit into his plan. The poet-pianist-player's desire transcends that of the elders. He cannot possess his beloved physically, but he can hold her in his mind in a platonic and permanent sense. Susanna is moved from the world of facts to the world of forms, where her beauty continues to exist.

B.J. Leggett, however, has pointed out that the problems of this poem have not been resolved by commentators. They have not dealt with the fact that Stevens's Susanna is not the innocent wife of the Apocrypha but a sensual, even lusty virgin; nor have they addressed the abrupt gaps in tone and logic within and between parts of the poem. Using Nietzsche's distinction between Appollonian and Dionysian as intertext, Leggett pulls the poem together as a medication on the question: "How does the lyric speaker's own subjective feeling, his desire, transcend the merely personal, the individual?" (Leggett, 67). The poem's answer is that through the power of music he "surrenders his subjectivity to the Dionysian process" (70), a surrender that happens to Peter Quince and in a sense to Susanna herself. Leggett's interpretation brings the various elements of the poem into balance: the elders, the evocative/provocative Susanna, and Peter Quince all have self-consistent roles in this parable of the creation of lyric poetry through the dissolution of the self in music--through, in fact, a Dionysian ecstasy. Thus, another form of paganism appears, deeper and more sophisticated than the "natural religion" Stevens identifies as belonging to "Sunday Morning." "Peter Quince" shows an effort to find transcendence by elevating the artist to the stature of a god, allowing him to break out of the limitations of self in his creative frenzy. Ultimately, the idea of the loss of self through the transformative process will not "suffice" either but will prove one of a series of efforts to find transcendence.

From Wallace Stevens Revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright © 1995 by Twayne Publishers.

Mark Halliday

His most convincing expression of sexual desire, though, is in "Peter Quince at the Clavier," where the red-eyed elders are bewitched into a dissonant concerto of yearning by the sight of Susanna bathing. Does this poem endow Susanna with human identity? Is she more than just an attractive shape beside a garden pool? She at least has a name, which is more than can be said for the other beauties referred to so far (except Ursula). It is true that in section II of "Peter Quince" Susanna is given a point of view. Her thoughts, though, are awfully nebulous:

She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

So nebulous that we are certainly not encouraged to think of her as a particular woman with a particular personality. Meanwhile, it is easy to overlook the fact that the poet's reverie about Susanna is apparently stimulated by the beauty of another woman, a present woman:

            what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

As I will explain later, I don't think the mere attribution of a blue garment to this present figure (blue being associated with the imagination in Stevens' oeuvre) suffices as proof that the "you" is an aspect of the speaker's mind rather than a woman, nor can I believe that Stevens intended us to hear the passage only in that way. When the poet informs the woman in the blue dress that what he feels for her is music, she might be forgiven if she replied, "Oh, is that so? Does this mean we won't be going to bed together?" Also she might be wise to wonder whether this lover who claims to be thinking not exactly of her but of her blue-shadowed silk will be able and willing to give her the kind of personal attention she deserves.

Such thoughts on her part would, one feels, be unlikely to please Mr. Stevens (or Mr. Quince), if she were to voice them. Here I think it is apposite to quote a reminiscence by Naaman Corn, who was the chauffeur for the Stevenses on family outings:

He didn't carry on any conversation with Mrs. Stevens much about something. She wouldn't talk on account of he would snap at her quickly. So she got where she just went in a shell, and she wouldn't say anything. One time I thought she couldn't talk because she never did say nothing, but I found out why. If every time you say something to a person, you're going to snap at them, they quit talking. They go underground. You could hear that, and you figured that's the reason why she clams up.

With no one to help her in her victimization except "simpering Byzantines," Susanna has no chance to make her case against the guilty elders; trapped in a poem controlled by Peter Quince, she can only clam up and go underground.

By being so attractive, Susanna causes a lot of trouble, for the elders and for her Byzantines as well as for herself (even though "The fitful tracing of a portal" is a lullingly cleansed way of alluding to rape fantasies). The very simplicity and clarity of her appeal make her alarming, an unavoidable disturbance of the peace. In situations when our poet, or his male speaker, cannot for some reason commit himself to a decisive, simple sexual response to such a woman's appeal, he is inclined to propose revisions of her behavior, or reconceptions of her nature, so that her appeal will not be so bluntly sexual in its impact. . . .

Stevens himself would perhaps disdain my literal-minded argument on behalf of the actual human women glimpsed in his poetry. He would feel amused pity for readers who find the wrong kind of solace in his "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour." Readers who worry about the strength and value of their love relationships with other people feel a powerful attraction in the matching of the word "together" with the word "enough" in the poem's ending: "We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough" (CP 524). Alas, it is not a man and a woman who live together in this poem; it is not two persons; the title of "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" makes this clear. Note, however, that if the poem is looked at without its title, a reader can justifiably feel invited to think of two persons who have joined in love. And in many Stevens poems, including those I have discussed thus far and most of those I will soon speak of, the female lover is not so decisively dehumanized, nor the idea of an actual human lover so firmly repudiated, as the title of this particular poem requires.

I think we are wrong to so readily accept the notion that Stevens can evoke a beautiful "woman" in poem after poem and mean "only" an idea, a conception, an attitude, a principle, but not an actual woman. My argument is that you cannot describe something as "a woman" without meaning something about actual women. Metaphors are not innocent in either direction. When you say that A is like B, you reveal something about your sense of A and your sense of B as actualities in your experience. Stevens' critics, fascinated by the metaphysical meaning of his female presences, have indulged him too gently in accepting them as only metaphysical. Critics sometimes go to absurd lengths to let Stevens escape from moral implications in this way. Here, for example, is Eugene Paul Nassar on "Peter Quince at the Clavier":

"Peter Quince" is really a poem about the imaginative faculty, its seasons and its value. It is not a poem about love between the sexes, nor in any way about relations between people. It is, rather, about the poet in solitude carrying on his sometime love affair with his "interior paramour," she who brings forth each "spring" children of desire that of necessity must be raped in "autumn." "Peter Quince" is an "amoral" poem in that it does not deal with moral problems at all, but with the inevitable cycle of creation and destruction that is the life of the poetic mind. The skeptical poet has his own obligations to his poems, the "Susannas" he creates, which are antithetical to the obligations that obtain in the love of one person for another.

To some extent, I'm afraid, Stevens would endorse Nassar's rather repellent interpretation. Yet consider: Stevens knew perfectly well, when he was writing his stanzas about Susanna and the elders, that he was causing us to think about (among other things, yes, but first and most vividly) an actual vulnerable woman and actual lustful old men and actual sexual molestation. Stevens was choosing to affect our ways of thinking about such people and such events. If he tells us the story of an attempted rape in an imaginative context that guides us toward accepting the event as inevitable and even conducive to poetic creation, as Nassar suggests, then Stevens is doing something that has moral implications for which he bears some moral responsibility. Similarly, whenever he speaks to us metaphorically in terms of romantic love, sexuality, or femininity, one of the things he is doing is describing, and influencing (or seeking to influence) our understanding of interpersonal love, actual sex, and real-life women. When he writes in "Adagia" (OP 165), "A poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman," he proposes to explain something about the relation between poet and world by analogy with what he assumes to be the more obvious relation between a man and a woman. A sexually desirable woman? The analogy doesn't explicitly include this meaning but does deliberately call it to mind. Stevens' confidence in the analogy, and his tone of approval, are not shaken by the fact that the analogy locates all human subjectivity and agency in the male hero. As before, whether he encourages us to focus on this truth or not, Stevens is partly writing about people.

It is on that basis that I have seen fit to discuss Stevens' habitual failure or refusal to present images of mutual love or two-way relationship between individual men and women; and on that basis I maintain that my point is not vaporized by the objection that Stevens does not (primarily) intend to refer to real women in many of his references to femininity. Besides, as Helen Vendler has persuasively argued, Stevens' veiling of his references to sex and love has hidden his study of sexual desire and romantic/sexual emotions more effectively than he himself ultimately must have intended.

The pattern I have shown is one of consistent failure by Stevens to describe the female other as a fully human individual, as a separate subjectivity, an independent actor and perceiver outside his own mind. This has held true across a spectrum of attitudes toward love, from aggressively candid sexuality at one extreme to ontological mystery at the other extreme. Stevens is not inclined to pay steady attention to real women in writing of romantic/sexual love. Real women cause problems; they impinge. They impinge upon the male poet's freedom by exciting an animal desire which is too simple and vulgar, unimaginative and therefore deathly, or by calling for delusory romantic revisions of desire, which are also deathly when they pull him too far from reality.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1991 by Princeton UP.

W.B. Gerard

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)

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