Inky Pilgrimage

Mark Ford

  • The Contemplated Spouse: The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie edited by Donald Blount
    South Carolina, 430 pp, £30.95, January 2006, ISBN 1 57003 248 3

‘I am convinced,’ wrote Henry Church to the poet who had just dedicated to him his longest poem, ‘Notes toward a Supreme Fiction’, ‘that Mrs Stevens has had an important part to play in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.’ This was in 1943, by which time Mr and Mrs Stevens had been living together in marital discord for more than a third of a century. ‘Mrs Stevens and I went out for a walk yesterday afternoon,’ Stevens once quipped to a colleague at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; ‘we walked to the end of Westerly Terrace, and she turned left and I turned right.’ The Stevens household was neither mirthful nor relaxing, according to the few who penetrated it, for visitors were not encouraged and houseguests out of the question. ‘We held off from each other,’ Holly, their only child, recalled in Souvenirs and Prophecies (1977), her edition of the young Stevens’s journals; ‘one might say that my father lived alone.’

Yet Church was right: Elsie was central to Stevens’s poethood, although she refused to read his later poetry and resented his literary success. As part of his five-year courtship of her he composed a pair of 20-poem sequences, ‘Book of Verses’, which he presented to her on her 22nd birthday in 1908, and ‘The Little June Book’, given the following year. ‘It would only be proper,’ he wrote, ‘for you to have your own private book of verses, even if it were very small and if the verses were very bad.’ Although certain lines and images from both are carried over into Harmonium, neither sequence suggests that their author, who was then about thirty, was likely to metamorphose into one of the major poets of the 20th century. It seems to have taken the disappointment of the marriage itself, which he had fondly imagined as likely to ‘exceed all Faery’, to convert Stevens from a dabbler in 1890s-ish colours and textures and whimsicalities into the author of ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ and ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’.

Stevens met Elsie Viola Moll (née Kachel) in June 1904, during a visit to his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. He had been living in New York since 1900, and had discovered the hard way that ‘the world holds an unoccupied niche only for those who climb up – work and study, study and work,’ to quote one of the many exhortations with which letters to Stevens from his manically industrious father are filled. After a dispiriting attempt at a career in journalism, Stevens enrolled at New York Law School, and was admitted to the Bar a few weeks before a friend introduced him to Elsie at her home on South 13th Street, the wrong side of the Reading tracks. ‘All her life,’ Holly Stevens said of her mother, ‘she suffered from a persecution complex which undoubtedly originated during her childhood.’ Elsie’s parents married only shortly before she was born, and her father died the following year; her mother remarried when Elsie was eight, but her stepfather never formally adopted her. Unlike Stevens, who studied at Harvard, Elsie was not well educated: she had been forced by financial pressures to abandon high school in her first year. She was, however, an accomplished pianist, and found a job demonstrating sheet music in a local department store.

‘The music you desire,’ Stevens wrote to her midway through their prolonged courtship, ‘is the music that takes the spirit away from its surroundings and ministers to it.’ Certainly that was the music he desired of her, and in his courtship letters he frequently pictures her as a boundless source of soothing sounds that would allow him to forget the stresses of his surroundings and minister to his much battered spirit. When it comes to money, we tend to think of Stevens as the man who earned $17,500 a year in the middle of the Depression, or who purchased an 11-room house in a respectable district of Hartford, Connecticut with cash; but such affluence was the result of his dogged adherence to his father’s injunction to ‘work and study, study and work,’ and it was not until he was approaching forty that Stevens achieved a measure of financial security. A few months after meeting Elsie he writes in his journal: ‘Living a strange, insane kind of life. Working savagely; but have been so desperately poor at times as not to be able to buy sufficient food – and sometimes not any.’ At times it looked as if Stevens’s quest for a niche in the legal profession would turn out as badly as his career in journalism. On leaving law school he set up in partnership with a Harvard acquaintance, Lyman Ward, but this soon foundered. For the next three years he drifted from law firm to law firm. ‘Out of work,’ runs the terse entry in his journal for 15 September 1906. ‘I am in the mood for suddenly disappearing,’ that of 6 June 1907. It was not until he moved into insurance the following year, and the newly booming business of surety bonds, that Stevens found his professional niche – though even here his progress was slow and often thwarted. ‘I am far from being a genius – and must rely on hard and faithful work,’ he wrote disconsolately to his wife after being passed over for the position of surety manager in a New York bond enterprise. In 1914 he at last secured a better post, as resident vice-president of the New England Equitable Insurance Company, only for his branch of the firm to go belly up two years later. At this alarming juncture, however, one of Stevens’s earliest contacts in the surety world came to his rescue: James Kearney was now in charge of the bond department of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, an outfit poised to become a rival in literary fame to Kafka’s Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. ‘Come to Hartford,’ Kearney wrote to Stevens, ‘and I’ll put you to work.’ He remained on the company’s payroll for the next 39 years. Almost all his poetry was written during this period.

Stevens’s courtship of Elsie was carried on largely by correspondence. He once described it as an ‘inky pilgrimage’. This was partly due to pressures of work, or the search for it, but also because Stevens wanted it that way. He was acutely conscious of the difference between himself ‘on paper’ and ‘in reality’, and at times almost acknowledged that he preferred thinking about and writing to his ‘vraie princesse lointaine’ to actually being with her. Almost three years into the relationship, on 10 March 1907, he considers

the reason for our being easier in our letters than we are – when we are together. It must be because you are more perfectly yourself to me when I am writing to you, and that makes me more perfectly myself to you. You know that I do with you as I like in my thoughts: I no sooner wish for your hand than I have it – no sooner wish for anything to be said or done than it is said or done; and none of the denials you make me are made there. You are my Elsie there.

Returning to New York after an Easter visit to Reading a month later, he wonders why ‘we were like two people in a dark room groping for each other’; could this be ‘because we both feel that we are becoming “all letters”, as you said’? In his journal he is somewhat franker: ‘Family about as depressing as usual; Elsie more or less unmanageable.’

Stevens was a very conventional man, and when contemplating his spouse he liked to figure her as meek and pliable and on occasion somewhat doll-like, dressed in ‘that pink ribbon and the pink slippers – or if you would rather be a snow-maiden, white ribbon and white slippers, and, maybe, a little white daub on the tip of your nose.’ He dreams of her performing for hours for him on the piano, banishing dull cares, making a delightful ‘fuss’ over him, and in return promises to shelter her from the rude winds of reality. ‘You act the woman’s part when you give comfort,’ he notes approvingly. His very first journal entry concerning her suggests the almost Dickensian nature of the fantasy on which their courtship was based, as well as his delight in the disparity of their sizes (Stevens was large and Elsie small) and ages (he was 25 and she was 18): ‘Dear me, that warm mouth counts, too; and that ravishing hand; and that golden head trying to hide in my waistcoat somewhere; and those blue eyes looking at me sweetly though without intent.’ What one only subliminally senses in the love letters on which he then embarks is the pressure of sexuality, and the threat it poses to the gauzy trappings of romance and the vistas of domestic bliss, although this obtrudes itself in poem after poem in Harmonium:

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.

(‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’)

In ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’, music and desire are initially fused into a decorous, high romantic analogy, but in the blink of an eye this slides into the cacophonous, frog-like lust of the lecherous elders spying on Susanna bathing – a story told in the Apocrypha:

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Wakened in the elders by Susanna.

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

We have a full record only of the latter stages of their courtship. Elsie destroyed all but 17 of the letters she received from Stevens between July 1904 and November 1908, the month they became engaged, though only after typing onto small note-cards paragraphs that she chose to preserve. She probably intended also to reduce the rest of his letters to a series of extracts from the academy of fine ideas, but was prevented by a series of strokes she suffered two years after Stevens died. ‘Elsie’s Book’, as this compendium is known, reads somewhat like the miscellanies of odd, dandyish aphorisms Stevens himself collected under the titles Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujets (1932-37) and Adagia (1934-40): ‘Sentimental things are things to cherish – not to speak of’; ‘Facts are like flies in a room. They buzz and buzz and bother’; ‘We are a part of the world about us – that’s the plot’; ‘Serious views are an offence.’ It is fortunate that so many of the post-engagement epistles survive, for increasingly Stevens began to confide to Elsie the perceptions he had previously kept to his journal. At the heart of The Contemplated Spouse are the 112 letters composed by Wallace to Elsie in the nine months between their betrothal at the end of 1908, which caused a serious and never-healed rift with his parents, and their finally becoming Mr and Mrs Stevens on 21 September the following year. Some of these have previously appeared in Holly Stevens’s edition of his Letters (1966), but many are published here for the first time.

Stevens was a man made out of words, to adapt one of his greatest poem’s titles. ‘Are you really fond of books,’ he asks Elsie; ‘paper valleys and far countries, paper gardens, paper men and paper women? They are all I have, except you; and I live with them constantly.’ Yet one of the dominant themes of both his journal and his letters to Elsie is the urge to escape the ‘terrible self-contemplation’ to which he is prone, especially at weekends, in the city; and to recover through contact with nature a sense of his physical being. ‘I doubt,’ he writes of an outing in the autumn of 1902,

if there is any keener delight in the world than, after being penned up for a week, to get into the woods on such a day – every pound of flesh vibrates with new strength, every nerve seems to be drinking at some refreshing spring. And after one has got home, how delicious to slip into a chair & to feel the blood actually leaping in one’s pulses, a wild fire, so to speak, burning in one’s cheeks.

Stevens thought nothing of covering forty miles in a day, and his vigorous outings to New Jersey, up the Hudson, or out to Long Island are described with excitement and relish. His excursions with Elsie were less strenuous, but he is pleased to note that she is ‘an excellent walker’, for ‘a walk is better, almost, than sleep.’ ‘Take a little walk on Sunday,’ one letter ends, advice pressed also on the unnamed woman of ‘Sunday Morning’:

Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

Stevens’s poetry tends to present his observations and experiences of nature in relation to an ongoing argument or set of philosophical axioms, but these letters reinforce the impression made by the journals of how intensely and precisely the young Stevens responded to details of weather and landscape; his ‘holidays in reality’ were valued for the temporary relief they offered from urban loneliness and the discomforts of noisy, dingy lodging-houses and the daily grind of the law. The longing for exercise outdoors is felt particularly keenly after Stevens begins spending months at a time travelling the country on business, and by the mid-1920s a doctor’s report records that he is seriously overweight, as well as suffering from hypertension and arterio-capillary fibrosis; on account of all this, the Dean of Surety Bonds, as he came to be known, was himself deemed too risky a prospect when he applied for life insurance in 1931.

Stevens’s poetry emerged from the side of him that sought to escape the exigencies of the public and masculine world of work, and from the moment he met Elsie in 1904 to his death 51 years later, she was inextricably bound up with his quest to satisfy his inner emotional and imaginative needs. These letters – ‘you are more perfectly yourself to me when I am writing to you’ – reveal his slightly unsettling metamorphosis of Elsie into an interior paramour, even though he insists she is also ‘the real Elsie, all the time’. No doubt many courtships and marriages of the period were prosecuted on similar lines, but it is still puzzling to witness someone as formidably intelligent as Stevens setting aside the ‘unmanageable’ aspects of Elsie’s personality, those that refused to fit with the fantasy helpmeet these letters describe, and convincing himself that her life would find its fulfilment in ministering to his wishes or dwelling poetically in the central mind of the central man. Elsie was, according to all who met her, painfully shy and stiff (‘like a gendarme, almost,’ as a Reading friend put it). She was also very beautiful, as any American with a dime or half-dollar in his pocket could have ascertained, for in 1913 she served as Adolph Weinman’s model for the figure of Liberty featured on those coins. But though she didn’t seem to mind her image being made available in this mass form, she took deep exception to Stevens’s decision to publish, in 1914, some of the poems included in ‘The Little June Book’, which she believed should have remained for her eyes only. ‘He had made public,’ Holly writes in an attempt to explain her mother’s undying resentment, ‘what was, in her mind, very private.’

There are few glimpses here (or anywhere) of Wallace and Elsie as a couple in a social context. Until the move to Hartford they lived near Chelsea Square in Manhattan, on 21st Street, though Elsie soon began returning for extended visits to her family in Reading. Stevens encouraged these absences, for certain basic incompatibilities had become apparent. Elsie disliked New York, and spent most of her days there alone in the apartment: ‘It is not hard to see why you are discontented here,’ he wrote to her during the summer of 1911. ‘It is undoubtedly lonely – and if by nature you are not interested in the things to be done in a place like New York, you cannot, of course, force your nature and be happy.’ There is a telling account, from Carl Van Vechten, of an evening they spent in 1914 with the circle of Walter Arensberg. Stevens

brought out his poems, rather diffidently, and his wife, whose contributions to the conversation were accented by a painful nervous gulping laugh which came from her throat, gave a hint of her lack of appreciation.

‘She doesn’t like them,’ he began. ‘Perhaps you will.’

‘I like Mr Stevens’s things,’ she said, ‘when they are not affected; but he writes so much that is affected.’ And she settled down to the attitude of an unwilling listener.

Alas, the fact that Stevens found an increasing number of admirers in the nascent Modernist American poetry scene for the ‘affected’ poems he was writing between 1914 and 1923, which were eventually collected in Harmonium, seems only to have exacerbated the marital disunity.

Holly Stevens once asked her father why he had married Elsie, to which he replied: ‘Quite simply, she was the prettiest girl in town.’ In the years that followed their marriage he seems to have been surprised to discover in his small-town belle a streak of stubbornness, and the frustrations this led to seemed to play a significant role in shaping his conception of human character. ‘A man’s sense of the world,’ he wrote in the essay ‘Effects of Analogy’ (1948), ‘is born with him and persists, and penetrates the ameliorations of education and experience of life.’ And a woman’s too: in their seven years of married life in New York, Elsie sternly resisted the ameliorations of education on offer from Stevens’s slowly expanding circle of avant-garde artist friends, and indeed from the city as a whole. Her nerves, like those of the wife of another Harvard-educated poet, were often bad tonight: ‘Personally,’ Stevens writes in one letter, ‘I think the whole trouble is with your eyes. The strain on them gets on your nerves and I’m a firm believer in the deviltry of the nerves.’ The Stevenses’ apartment in New York boasted three large closets, in one of which he would sometimes stand and recite poetry, or so the sons of their landlord once told Holly; Elsie, meanwhile, was recalled pacing angrily ‘through the apartment slamming doors vigorously’.

‘When amorists grow bald,’ the narrator of ‘Le Monocle de Mon Oncle’ observes,

then amours shrink
Into the compass and curriculum
Of introspective exiles, lecturing.

The poetry of Harmonium, and later collections too, developed out of the kinds of separation the Stevenses established in their respective exiles, and the accommodations they made with this state of affairs. His zany narratives, outlandish puns and florid vocabulary are often oblique ways of figuring this gulf, mimed in Harmonium’s ‘The Ordinary Women’, for instance, by the distance between ‘catarrhs’ and ‘guitars’:

Then from their poverty they rose,
From dry catarrhs, and to guitars
They flitted
Through the palace walls.

Here the incessant rumbling wooings of the gaunt guitarists gradually unite with the women’s insistent erotic dreaming, physically expressed by their ever more extravagant coiffures, to precipitate a movement towards a sexual climax that the poem then insists must remain entirely imaginary, for only ‘catarrhs’ await any attempt to fulfil their mutual ‘insinuations of desire’ in reality:

And there they [the women] read of marriage-bed.
Ti-lill-o!
And they read right long.

The gaunt guitarists on the strings
Rumbled a-day and a-day, a-day.
The moonlight
Rose on the beach floors.

How explicit the coiffures became,
The diamond point, the sapphire point,
The sequins
Of the civil fans!

Insinuations of desire,
Puissant speech, alike in each,
Cried quittance
To the wickless halls.

Then from their poverty they rose
From dry guitars, and to catarrhs
They flitted
Through the palace walls.

For Stevens such baroque fantasies were a means of making both his exile and the ordinary bearable; Elsie, though she refused to share in them, seems to have understood the fantasies, and his urge to write poetry in general, in just these terms. Five years after he died she told a prospective biographer, Samuel French Morse, that ‘Mr Stevens’s poetry was a distraction that he found delight in, and which he kept entirely separate from his home life’ (her emphasis). As a further discouragement, she made clear to Morse her personal dislike of her husband’s poetic fame: ‘The publicity that Mr Stevens’s renown offers, is offensive to me.’

There is nothing in these letters that really helps explain the astonishing leap forward as a poet that Stevens made around five years into their marriage. Two sequences appeared in print in the autumn of 1914 – ‘Carnet de Voyage’ in Trend, and ‘Phases’ in Poetry – and one rubs one’s ‘eyes a little’, to borrow a phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dumbfounded letter to Walt Whitman on receipt of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, to think that the author of these not particularly distinguished verses (‘Here the grass grows,/And the wind blows,/And in the stream,/Small fishes gleam’) was at the time of their publication at work on ‘Sunday Morning’. Like Whitman, Stevens discovered his poetic power at something of a stroke in his mid-thirties; though there was, as with Whitman, ‘a long foreground’, to quote again from Emerson’s letter. That foreground has now been exhaustively excavated by legions of scholars, and yet, even with so much evidence now in, the transformation still seems to verge on the miraculous.

Unlike her husband, Elsie was pleased by the move in 1916 to Hartford, a town roughly the same size as Reading. Stevens reported missing New York ‘abominably’, but Elsie, as he wrote somewhat caustically to a friend, found the capital of Connecticut ‘sweet to her spirit’. Stevens initially spent little time there; his new post at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity required him to take prolonged business trips, mainly to the South and Midwest. For seven years – the period in which Harmonium was written – we find him dutifully reporting back to Elsie from Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Omaha, Kansas City, Toronto, Houston, San Antonio, Tampa, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Muskogee, Erie, Cleveland, Youngstown, Columbus, Charleston, Greensboro, as well as from Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Elizabethton and Johnson City in Tennessee, outside one of which one likes to imagine him ascending a hill with a jar in his hand. It was Florida, and in particular the resort of Long Key, to which he was first invited by Judge Arthur Powell in January 1922, that established for Stevens the geographical polarities that came to serve as his dominant metaphor for irreconcilable opposites. ‘We must come together as soon as we can and every winter afterwards,’ he wrote back to Elsie excitedly – but would not actually arrange a shared visit to the scene of so many of his poems for another 18 years. ‘This morning I just stepped outdoors in my pajamas and used them as a bathing suit, taking a surf-bath,’ he continues. ‘There are no ladies here so one can do as one pleases.’ The ‘immense dew of Florida’ inspired Stevens to many of his most enchanting raptures:

As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,

And blessed mornings
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors,
So, in me, come flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.

(‘Nomad Exquisite’)

When Elsie criticised his poetry as ‘affected’, one assumes she was complaining about the imaginative exuberance that characterises Harmonium as a whole, its ‘flinging/ Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames’, and which informs even such explorations of absence and ennui as ‘The Snow Man’. Elsie was not somebody to delight in the metaphors of a magnifico, and it might be argued that she is what is being defied in Harmonium’s many triumphs over restraint and stiffness, over decorum and religion. If Elsie wasn’t exactly the model for the ‘high-toned old Christian woman’ of the poem of that title, who is so grievously offended by the bawdiness of the poetry of earth, there is a sense in which she was the widow’s close kin – she joined a church, on Stevens’s insistence – and, as the poem’s final lines acknowledge, Stevens’s ‘jovial hullaballoo’, his ‘tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,’ depended in some measure on her disapproval and opposition:

This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

At times Elsie can seem like a poetry-widow, abandoned by her husband for his interior paramour, though Stevens, great poet that he was, could also take over her boredom and loneliness and forms of self-communion and make them his own, as for instance in the extraordinarily moving late poem ‘The World as Meditation’. Here, three years before his death, he presents the inner life of a Penelope ambivalently awaiting a Ulysses who will never return, and perhaps doesn’t even exist. ‘Yet they had met,’ the poem insists, and out of their meeting was born Stevens’s unique manner of meditating on the world in all its ‘barbarous strength’:

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet’s encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.