- “Thinking of Your Blue-Shadowed Silk”: The Strain of Masculine Desire in Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier”
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 1915 and then later included in the first edition of Harmonium, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” has gone on to become one of Wallace Stevens’ most frequently anthologized and iconic poems. Its popularity stems no doubt from such features as the poem’s inherent playfulness, its elaborate musical structure, its largely accessible and erotically charged narrative, and the fact that it expresses several of Stevens’ central philosophical and aesthetic concerns. Despite such popularity, however, the poem has tended to trouble contemporary readers on a number of levels, not least because of its sexually explicit portraiture of Susanna as an object of desire, and its seeming aestheticization of her attempted rape by the elders who spy on her in her bath. This strange and troubling description of aggressive male sexuality, which takes up the central narrative of the poem, has been a point of departure for several critics, including Mark Halliday, Mary Nyquist, and, to some degree, Eleanor Cook, all of whom explicitly criticize the use of the story of Susanna as an apparent metaphor for sexual desire. For Halliday and Nyquist, Stevens’ depiction of Susanna is yet another example of the poet’s failure to treat the female other as fully human (46; 310), while for Cook the use of the story of Susanna and the elders is such a bizarre and incongruous vehicle for sexual desire that it knowingly calls attention to its own inappropriateness (65). Though all of these critics are quick to point out the problems of the metaphor, including the way that it whimsically seems to objectify what Halliday calls “an actual vulnerable woman” (54), none of them adequately considers the implications of the bigger cultural and historical contexts of the complicated and, as I will argue, ultimately self-policing vision of male sexuality and masculine desire put forth in the poem. By placing the poem within the context of turn-of-the-century constructions of masculinity and heterosexuality, we gain a better sense of how it engages with, exploits, and even challenges the prevailing sexual values of its time.
Although it is hard to believe Stevens intended it, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” provides an excellent example of the near-schizophrenic nature [End Page 131] of male sexuality at the turn of the twentieth century, when, as the social historian Angus McLaren explains in The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870–1930, the social and legal prohibitions against so-called aberrant behavior—such as the viewing of pornography, masturbation, voyeurism, and exhibitionism (as well as sadomasochism, homosexuality, and cross-dressing)—helped to reinforce and normalize a more aggressive, frequently violent form of heterosexual desire. Seen from this perspective, the poem can be understood, at least in part, as an exploration and critique of Stevens’ own culturally inherited sexuality. The purpose of my investigation, however, is not to make any definitive claims about Stevens’ personal or sexual life (an impossible and problematic task after all), but to show how the already well-known facts of the poet’s experience might help us to understand the complicated underlying sexual tensions and desires that the poem stages. Though Stevens was without a doubt a sensitive and attentive critic of his times (as Alan Filreis has meticulously catalogued), he was also, like any human being, the product of an age. As such, it is inevitable that he would have internalized and struggled with many of the same ideas about sex and sexuality as did other men of his culture and class. That such struggles would have made their way into his poetry is also no surprise.
Indeed, the sexual aggressiveness that characterizes the central narrative of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” may well have been an important part of Stevens’ early formation of masculine and poetic identity. In the first part of her two-volume biography, Joan Richardson offers an interesting anecdote by Stevens’ college friend and fellow Advocate writer Witter Bynner. The account is telling not only in that it provides some insight into Stevens’ understanding of his own masculinity, but also because...