Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.
Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955)

"...imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos. It does this every day in arts and letters."
-- Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens went unrecognized for almost four years until a special 1914 wartime issue of Poetry, won a prize. It wasn't until he was thirty five years old when he began to write the poems in his first book, Harmonium, and forty four when it was published in 1923. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1879, he managed to write poetry while attending to a career with the The Hartford Insurance Company as an executive often times composing while being chaffered between home and office. His life is remarkable for its compartmentalization because his associates in the insurance company did not know that he was a major poet.

First published in Harmonium (1923), at first glance the scene is set at ten o'clock at night preparing to go to bed is a rather colorful and capricious image of a middle class bedtime having lived another day in a white nightshirt world. He begins by poking fun with his allusions to what's not there with fabrications of fabrics that could not possibly have existed in 1923:

    None are green,
    Or purple with green rings,
    Or green with yellow rings,
    Or yellow with blue rings.

A ceinture is a belt or sash from French origins which may have been in common usage of the day. Ceinture is also used as a verb as an act of encircling and that may be what the poet is after here, to encircle those without dreams. The middle class are ghosts dressed in white night shirts, not contemplating beaded and lacy things with visions of colors in various combinations.

A meeting of art and life as a chorus of naive truths Stevens would deprive the them of the fictions that enriches their lives by telling us that they do not want to appear strange by dreaming of baboons and periwinkles. The color red suggests the intensity of the sailor's commitment to his imagination, and if we believe with Stevens that the imagination is "The magnificent cause of being, the one reality/ In this imagined world," then surely the dreaming sailor's illusion will saves us as the reader from the disillusionment which reduces modern life to drab reality.

The old drunk sailor, a figure Stevens is thought to have borrowed from Charles Baudelaire, who writes in Le Voyage of "ce matelot ivrogne" a "drunken sailor" who "invents America". The seaman's dream life removes him from the middle class and their pipe dreams. This decadent hero, unappealing to middle class, is traveling in his red weathered tiger huntings to another continent on a lone safari.

Wallace uses repetition with his colors and by setting two images side by side and throws us completely off the scent of what's really on his mind. We have to listen with his ear for his distinctive wit, and color; his charming humor to discover how he has played tricks on us with his surprises of irony and insights. We peek through Steven's expressionist eyes while he indicts the middle class with complacency accusing them of being colorless and unimaginative with a cryptic melange of childhood and adult memories involving plain nightgowns and a colorful old mariner.


Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

The Wondering Minstrels:

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