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The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens.
By Paul Mariani. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Around 1990 when Paul Mariani updated his 1981 acclaimed biography of William Carlos Williams, he composed a poem dedicated to Williams titled “Some Sort of Answer.” Noticing his refrigerator light on at 3 A.M., Mariani confronts Williams, who has taken out the bowl of plums. “Well, did I do it? Did you recognize / yourself in what I said?” Mariani asks. “You dredged up several selves, / I’ll give you credit,” Williams responds. “You gave a proper diagnosis, / and I was always one for celebrating light,” adding, “Only / in our poems are we ever really us.” Feeling he has gotten some sort of answer, Mariani tries to grasp Williams, “But he was still too quick for me,” and like Wallace Stevens’ angel of reality, quickly, too quickly, he was gone.

Such a poem might someday be written by Paul Mariani about his biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. Does it express the life and character of this unusually reticent, publicity-shy, private, and complex person? Is Mariani able to plumb the depths of Stevens’ poems to unmask the man beneath? Is he able to glean from Stevens’ voluminous prose—journals and notebooks, thousands of letters, essays, published interviews, prefaces, acceptance speeches, as well as observations by others—a genuine sense of the man himself? Mariani demands some sort of answer.

Mariani brings to the table an unusual combination of talents—teacher, biographer, literary critic, and poet—and he brings all these to bear on his subject. He writes with tact and discretion, never overstepping the bounds of what one might infer, as other biographers have done with interpretative and sometimes psychoanalytical leaps. He often presents insights with the deft touch of a poet. Commenting on the coldness of Stevens’ marriage, for example, he observes that “Good Man, Bad Woman” uses the same fifteen-line form as “The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard,” written two years earlier, “as if the new poem were broken off from that longer one, like a sliver of ice” (175 [uncorrected proofs]). Or when he discusses “The Widow,” that private three-line poem enclosed in a letter to Ronald Lane Latimer about a cold wife who kept her husband’s reliquiae in a gold case under her pillow upon which her husband’s head had never rested. Milton Bates notes the key to the poem lies in the word “reliquiae,” which Stevens used to refer to his poetry in an earlier letter. Mariani goes one step further: “‘Reliquiae’: the remains of what was once a man contained in a golden text, . . . words that would come in time to replace the living man himself” (195).

One of the strengths of this biography is that we get a genuine sense of Stevens as a person. Like Williams, Stevens admits his work, like the work of all artists, “is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise” (CPP 717). Mariani bases his portrait primarily on Stevens’ writings, [End Page 93] and he resists the easy temptation to take too much material from Peter Brazeau’s oral biography, thus preserving those revealing first-hand accounts for readers of that book. Although he begins in a traditional format—outlining Stevens’ parentage and upbringing in Reading, Pa., his Harvard education, his financial struggles and concomitant emotional ups and downs in New York, his break with his family over Elsie, the developing strain in his marriage, the extensive travel during the early years with the Hartford—when he turns to the poetry and essays, something magical happens. Blending paraphrase and quotation, he seems to slip into Stevens’ skin, and we feel as if Stevens himself is speaking directly and personally to us. As he takes us through challenging poems such as “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” or “The Auroras of Autumn,” or an essay such as “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” we experience a peculiar sense of intimacy, as if Stevens himself is explaining his poems or essays to us, and this has the outcome of illuminating both the man and his ideas. Because the effect is cumulative, it is difficult to illustrate, but it is similar to Stevens’ observation in “Effects of Analogy” that a prolonged reading, say of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, “creates just such a state of sensibility” (CPP 710).

Given his familiarity with the lives and works of other poets (he has published biographies on Hopkins, Crane, Lowell, Berryman, and Williams), Mariani enriches our understanding of Stevens’ poetry through connections with other writers, especially with Williams and Marianne Moore. In his discussion of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” for example (a poem, by the way, oddly omitted or given short shrift in other biographies), he clarifies Stevens’ poetic project by contrasting it with that of Williams:

Reality is “the beginning not the end.” It is “naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,” clothed in the “dense investiture” the imagination offers. Was he thinking of Williams here as the Aristotle to his Plato, where “for one it is enough; for one it is not,” both appointing themselves the custodian “of the glory of the scene, / The immaculate interpreters of life”? Williams as Alpha, with his mantra always to begin again, Stevens as Omega, “refreshed at every end,” both “rigid realists” and both, because they are human, “impoverished architects” becoming, even in their desire to touch the hem of reality, “much richer, more fecund, sportive and alive,” even in their searches, displaying “the truth about themselves,” because they have lost “that power to conceal they had as men.”

(336)

Another distinguishing feature is that Mariani contextualizes poems in their moment, whether it be personal, such as traveling for the Hartford or vacationing in Florida, or historical, such as integrating the everyday realities of the two World Wars, the Depression, and the Cold War. Mariani frames his discussion of “Esthétique du Mal,” for example, with a description of the March 18, 1944, Allied attack in southern Italy, with bombers flying over Vesuvius as it erupts for the first time in decades, “its black plume billowing like some hell flower higher than the bombers themselves, hell-bent on bombing [End Page 94] the monastery of Monte Cassino and environs. . . . Here is man’s destruction dwarfed for the moment by nature’s age-old destroyer” (295). Mariani links the imagery of the red-hot lava not only with the destructive power of the bombs, but also with the sacrificial blood of the soldiers. He introduces “Credences of Summer” by characterizing the summer of 1946 as a “midsummer’s interlude after the years of war, a gift, something to be believed in,” and he cleverly relates “‘all fools slaughtered’” not only to spring’s April Fools, now that summer has arrived, but also to “those fools Hitler and Mussolini [who are] gone as well” (300–01).

Even if one admits that Mariani is a Catholic apologist, he gathers enough evidence during Stevens’ last days to persuade us that Stevens’ conversion to Catholicism was a willful and conscientious act. This is the one time Mariani relies on Brazeau’s first-hand accounts, but he has little choice, since Stevens no longer had the strength to write. Mariani adds to these personal testimonies other elements as well, such as Stevens’ late fascination with Jacques Maritain, the allusion, in “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside,” to Matisse’s Catholic chapel at Vence, and the creation of a mystical, paradisal place beyond human conception in “Of Mere Being,” reputedly Stevens’ last poem. Yet, though it was a free choice, Mariani does not push it too far: “What Stevens assented to is probably what Santayana had wanted, the beauty of the idea of an idealized Catholic Church, and—being a surety lawyer—he opted to sign on the dotted line at the end, perhaps to assure himself (insofar as he could assure himself of anything) that Love, Beauty, and Mercy were parts of a Supreme Fiction he could sign off on,” and adds with teasing subtlety: “Perhaps there was something more” (401).

This is a fresh and illuminating account of the life and poetry of Wallace Stevens. There are just a few minor quibbles: Mariani presents Stevens’ meeting George Santayana in May 1900, just before Stevens left Harvard, as if it were for the first time rather than for nearly the last time; though Mariani tries to suggest that Stevens’ 1903 hunting trip to the Canadian Rockies introduced Stevens to “bright sublimities” (402), when describing the trip, he emphasizes the annoyances, discords, and misery; he conflates “The Comedian as the Letter C” with “From the Journal of Crispin,” so that it is often unclear from which text he is quoting; he mentions all the honorary degrees but strangely omits the first one from Wesleyan in 1947.

Once again it is 3 A.M. and the refrigerator light is on. This time Mariani encounters Wallace Stevens, who is looking for he knows not what. Is it for the dish of peaches from Russia, the two pears, the Belgian grapes? “Well, did I do it? Did you recognize / yourself in what I said?” Mariani asks. “You evoked several selves, / the lover, the believer, and the poet, / I’ll give you credit,” Stevens responds. “You gave a thorough analysis, / and we both know / how high that highest candle lights the dark.” Feeling he has gotten some sort of answer, Mariani reaches out to touch Stevens, “But he was still too quick for me,” and like the angel of reality, quickly, too quickly, he was gone. [End Page 95]

John N. Serio
Clarkson University