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  • A Pretext for Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”
  • Sidney Feshbach (bio)

The poems extant from 1898 to about 1914 show that Wallace Stevens had written or saved only short poems. 2 In the spring of 1914, he evidently decided that it was time to attempt something longer, and over the next six months he wrote “Sunday Morning” (Collected Poems, pp. 66–70) 3 and “Peter Quince at the Clavier” (pp. 89–92); in 1915–16, he composed “For an Old Woman in a Wig,” extant in a fragment. 4 The title of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” indicates an important relationship to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its “rude mechanical,” Peter Quince, while its reference, “like the strain/ Waked in the elders by Susanna,” (p. 90) is to the Book of Daniel’s addition of the Apocryphal “Susanna and the Elders.” The rhyme scheme of “For an Old Woman in a Wig” imitates the terza rima of Dante’s Commedia; and its three sections borrow Dante’s structure of three domains of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Stevens appears to have turned to Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Book of Daniel, and the Commedia for help with his problems in moving from the short lyric to the longer poem. It is highly likely that for “Sunday Morning” he turned for help to another work, George Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. 5 He followed [End Page 59] Santayana’s work so closely that the sequence of the stanzas corresponds to the sequence of its chapters: Stanza I to Chapter 1, II to 2, III to 3, IV to 4, V to 5, VI to 6, VII to 7 and 8, and VIII to 9 and 10. (The last chapter applies to the last stanza, but as its topic is so general, “The Elements of Poetry,” it may apply as well to the entire poem. He also drew some material from across the thresholds of adjacent chapters and some from quite distant passages.) 6 This is especially apparent in Stanzas VII and III.

* * * *

Generally accepted by Stevens’ scholars and critics is the fact that Stevens made deliberate—and often easily traced—use of his readings in literature and philosophy, especially, aesthetics, in books and journals, as of his meditating on, and playing with, such items as flowers, gardens, weather, paintings, classical music, musical theatre, popular song, and radio broadcasts. 7 These resources were an important part of his frequently-used technique for stimulating poetic invention. He once pictured himself, in “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” as staying alert to, even deliberately seeking ordinary stimuli, or pressures, for poems: “A day or two before Thanksgiving we had a light fall of snow in Hartford. It melted a little by day and then froze again at night, forming a thin, bright crust over the grass. At the same time, the moon was almost full. I awoke once several hours before daylight and as I lay in bed I heard the steps of a cat running over the snow under my window almost inaudibly. The faintness and strangeness of the sound made on me one of those impressions which one so often seizes as pretexts for poetry.” 8 For him, texts did work as pretexts.

Accepted by his scholars and critics is that Stevens knew Santayana personally, read his work, and deliberately derived from him aspects of his own aesthetics. Joel Porte writes that “Santayana’s truest disciple, his most constant ephebe . . ., was Wallace Stevens . . . “(Interpretations, p. xxix). Discussions of Santayana’s influence on Stevens narrow repeatedly to Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. Frank Kermode writes that Stevens “presumably absorbed” the writings of Santayana “in his youth,” and “Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900) is a key book for [his] thought. . . ].” 9 Before the publication of Santayana’s book, Stevens could have seen or heard portions of it. George Lensing indicates that “In Stevens’ last year at Harvard, Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion was published. Stevens must have known it well, and Santayana may have shared some of its [End Page 60] formulation with him.” 10 Expanding on Kermode’s insight, Lensing suggests “that Interpretations of Poetry and Religion is a...

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