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  • A Probable Source for “The Silver Plough-Boy”
  • Sidney Feshbach

WHEN THE SECOND EDITION of Harmonium appeared in 1931, Wallace Stevens not only added fourteen poems, he also decided to delete three: “The Silver Plough-Boy,” “Exposition of the Contents of a Cab,” and “Architecture” (Cook 29).1 Thus, “The Silver Plough-Boy” disappeared from view for the rest of Stevens’s lifetime; it was not included in The Collected Poems . We still need to turn to J. M. Edelstein’s descriptive bibliography to trace its publication history to Alfred Kreymborg’s magazine Others, where it first appeared, together with “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” in August of 1915 (Edelstein 195). The poem was subsequently republished in the annual anthology of Others that Kreymborg collected in 1916, as part of a set of nine poems, four of which Stevens chose never to include in any of his later books (Edelstein 148).2 Here is the text:

The Silver Plough-Boy

A black figure dances in a black field.It seizes a sheet, from the ground, from a bush, as if spread there by  some wash-woman for the night.It wraps the sheet around its body, until the black figure is silver.It dances down a furrow, in the early light, back of a crazy plough,  the green blades following.How soon the silver fades in the dust! How soon the black figure  slips from the wrinkled sheet! How softly the sheet falls to the  ground!

(CPP 42)

In February and March of 1914, Harley Granville-Barker, a famous London playwright, actor, and director and producer of plays, staged a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was radically different from conventional Victorian performances in its handling of text, scenery, costume, and music. Details of this unique production appear to be reflected in “The Silver Plough-Boy.” Stevens probably attended a performance, possibly accompanied by his Harvard friend Walter Arensberg, who was strongly committed to the Baconian theory of Shakespeare’s authorship. These are some of the facts that we may assemble about the production: [End Page 97]

Harley Granville-Barker created in February 1914, his famous, startling A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Savoy Theatre. A year later [c. February to March 1915] it was brought to New York. Among its innovations, which included simplified, suggestive scenery and stylized costumes . . . Granville-Barker did away with [the music of Felix] Mendelssohn. . . . Old English folk songs and dances were used, provided by Cecil Sharp. . . . Titania’s call for “a roundel and a fairy song” was answered by a round; it then led into two folk melodies which Sharp selected to fit the lullaby itself. . . . An arrangement of several folk dance tunes was used for the final dance of the fairies—Granville-Barker’s famous golden fairies, gilded from head to foot in bizarre costumes with hair of metal shavings, rope beards, scimitars, and wire head-pieces. In the last scene, they weaved in and out among seven silver pillars set against a black and silver sky.

(Williams 65–66)

The woodland setting, like most of the other scenes, was created entirely through draperies. . . . [T]he dances were based on English folk dances. Somewhat contrarily, the fairies . . . were painted gold and moved slowly and artificially.

(Chaudhuri 16)

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Oberon (Dennis Neilson-Terry) and Titania (Christine Silver) in Granville-Barker’s production, Savoy Theatre, 1914. Reproduced in Shakespeare 17.

[End Page 98]

The moment captured shows Oberon standing to the left and Titania prone to the right. She seems to be wrapped in a silver sheet.

“The Silver Plough-Boy” begins with a description that could be taken to describe, in part, the scene on stage: “A black figure dances in a black field.” Stevens has changed Oberon into another performer, costumed in black, who “dances” before the black and silver drapery woodland; he performs with folk music. The replacement of Oberon with a single figure in black has drawn the scene in the poem into an expression of the single figure. Thus, both “The Silver Plough-Boy” and, at the least, the name of the title figure in “Peter Quince at the Clavier...


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