Document Type


Date of Award



Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), Criticism and interpretation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

William Bysshe Stein

Second Advisor

Vincent Freimarck

Third Advisor

Alex Fischer


On a first reading, Wallace Stevens‘ poems present a confusing spectrum of mutually cancelling ideas and opaque images that defy translation to rational terms. The author intends to foster some confusion, and not to present poetic theorems. But part of the surface ambiguity resolves itself on recognition that Stevens’ critical attitude toward his immediate predecessors shapes his own work. Many of the poems, especially the earlier ones, satirically appropriate the images and sentiments of traditional poets. Figures of speech, or entire poems, may refer directly to one or more specific models.

America just after the turn of the century offered no notably original poets. Most relied heavily on the verbal icons of the Symbolists, or the Victorians and Pre-Raphaelites, who had in turn adapted theirs from the medieval and Romantic poets, or from such luminaries as Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Poems from the time of Stevens’ youth—and his own undergraduate works—often take place in a somnolent paradise completely removed from immediate experience, a twilight realm presided over by “the yellow moon of words about the nightingale” (“Autumn Refrain”), and the ubiquitous Pre-Raphaelite muse-goddess. In this heaven-haven time stands still.

Stevens attacks this moribund world of words in his first volume, Harmonium, which asserts that “life is motion.” He assimilates the old images and techniques of versifying into ludicrous or unusual contexts, while presenting new, alternative fictive realms, a kaleidoscope of changing mental landscapes. While adapting the audacious satirical caricature of Wilde and Beardsley, Stevens often burlesques the trappings of the “dandyism” his early critics thought he espoused.

In these early poems Stevens creates personas, dramatic masks of the mind in the act of perception. Many poems disclose, not the author in confused reverie, but a dramatic monologue of a “character” materializing from the characters (letters) on the page. Stevens reiterates the motif of the poem as drama of sorts throughout his career.

Ideas of Order moves from Harmonium’s tropical setting to one of winter cold, a mental landscape of blight that results from the infiltration of late nineteenth-century pessimism into contemporary society. Many poems in Ideas stem directly from those of Matthew Arnold and Edward Fitzgerald. The lament over the passing of time, the nostalgia for the Romantic paradise when many were losing faith in the “idea of order” that informed the Romantics’ optimistic vision, still drift over the Western world, ghostly refrains in a familiar key.

Later poems, especially The Man with the Blue Guitar and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, continue the constructive deconstruction of the old conventions of “poetic” thought and language. With more frequency, Stevens directs his barbs at contemporaries, especially T. S. Eliot, who treats the literary heritage with reverence rather than contempt. In the poems written during World War II, Stevens, often accused by critics of political naiveté, develops the metaphor of the poet’s war with his environment as analogue to the soldier’s battle against political injustice, implying that the worldwide holocaust stems from the same sickness as the atrophy of thought and language. In the world where “life is motion” to be alive means to resist stagnation, the imposition of a rigid order on thought.

The late works engage in sleights of language, dramatizing the dynamics between perceiver and object. Motifs from the early poems resurface, modifying themselves. They reflect, not a rigid inability to break out of a self-imposed circle of language, but the artificer enjoying the endless variations of repetition that constitute experience.