Sound Unheard and Sight Unseen:
Imagery in Peter Quince at the Clavier
Published in 1915 in a compendium of the year’s magazine poetry, Wallace Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier” is widely regarded as one of his best works. In fact, he later included it in his Harmonium collection, released in 1923 (Lancashire, 1). Rhythmic and powerful, the poem is built around the theme of music and musical instruments, and it concerns issues religious and artistic in nature.
Structurally speaking, “Peter Quince” is rather complex. It consists of 66 lines in sixteen stanzas, but with an irregular stanza and rhyme scheme, made more irregular by contrasting editions. Stevens chose to divide the poem into four parts, marked, in most editions, by Roman numerals (I, II, ...). The first of these contains 5 sets of three unrhyming lines, usually grouped into four or five stanzas. This portion of the poem is very fluid, almost sweeping the reader along with its words and the choices of line breaks. Section II is also mostly unrhyming and contains four longer stanzas of irregular length. Notable in this section is the fact that, for the most parts, the lines alternate between long (around 3-6 words) and short (2-4 words). The third section “shifts gears” dramatically, changing to a sequence of 5 rhyming couplets in a classic, almost-Shakespearian style, which is again very rhythmic. Finally, the poem closes with section IV, consisting of 3 stanzas, one of three lines, one of seven, and one of six. Each of these contains a rhyming pattern, but this varies among them. All in all, the ever-changing, rhythmic and pulsing path traced by this poem is very reminiscent of the musical theme it contains. In Wallace Stevens and the Making of “Harmonium”, Robert Buttle suggests that Stevens patterned the “musical form” of the poem after the works of several of his contemporaries, some of whom were musically trained. The various patterns of the four divisions are reminiscent of the movements of a “symphony or quartet”, with character determined both by rhythm and internal literary devices (137-140). In effect, the structure of “Peter Quince” serves to change it from a literary work one might view written to one intended to be read, and heard musically.
Stevens opens his own “quartet” with the voice of a pianist, who the reader can only assume to be the title character, desiring an anonymous woman in a “blue silk” dress (line 7). Music and feeling, or emotion, are equated, and this identity is accentuated throughout the poem as music is used to define the concepts of beauty, desire, mortality, and death. Here in section I, Stevens introduces the “characters” of Susanna and the elders (line 9), who are actually a Biblical allusion to the Apocryphal story concerning the same parties (Arensberg in Brunner, 3). Susanna is the heroine of this story, chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel, in which “two elders attempt to seduce Susanna and are repulsed.” In response they falsely accuse her of illicit relations, from which charges she is saved by the virtuous Daniel (encyclopedia.com). Thus the reference to the elders’ desire for her in section I of “Peter Quince” is symbolic of the narrator’s own desire for the one he lusts after. Central to the Stevens’ expressed perception of the elders is the visual imagery of the third stanza (see Appendix). Here, Susanna is shown bathing in a “still garden” on a “green evening” as “red-eyed” elders watch. Green and red, as opposing colors, play a symbolic role in accenting the contrast of Susanna’s own Eden and the voyeurs’ less pure intentions. Visual imagery of this sort is extremely important throughout the poem. However, even more interesting is stanza 4 in which this desire takes on musical representation, in the throb of the “basses of their beings,” in “witching chords,” and in “the pulse pizzicati of Hosanna” (lines 13-15). Music is reintroduced as instruments are used as a metaphor for the elders themselves, and the music of these instruments as their sexual desire for Susanna. Here, a combination of alliteration and onomatopoeia is used to emphasize the auditory imagery of these instruments, with “witching” both betraying the spooky, occult quality of the chords and onomatopoetically representing their sound. In addition to the colorful visual imagery of the preceding stanza, this passage serves to evoke in a reader a near-perfect mental picture and “soundtrack” to this poem. Again, this is a reiteration of the fundamental unity of sound - or more specifically, music - and emotion as expressed in the opening of section I.
With the image of Susanna bathing in “green water,” as, presumably, the lecherous elders watch, Stevens transitions into section II of his poem. In contrast to the flow and sway of the first portion, section II has a more irregular, modern rhythm to it, which is nonetheless mellow and relaxing. Subtle internal rhyme, unapparent at first glance, is also used to help guide this portion, keeping it from being abandoned to the disorder of free verse. The modern, unusual sentiment is reinforced by nonstandard choices and combinations of words. Where section I was a flowing Andante, walking relaxedly to the ideas Stevens encompassed within it, section II is rather a lilting Pastorale, meandering its way through the realm of the exotic and the mundane, the natural and the ethereal. Similarly, in contrast to the amazingly vivid auditory “picture” the poet was able to portray with only a few lines at the end of the first section, the second part of the poem is very visual in nature, expressed carefully and with attention to detail. The natural images of warm, green water and a cool, shadowed bank are particularly effective, and interspersed are descriptions of grass, dew, and leaves. Not surprisingly, each of these visual elements is also a symbolic one, used in Stevens’ development of the more ethereal, philosophical aspects of “Peter Quince.” Water is representative of comfort, peace, and calm, although the idyll of Susanna’s bath is broken by her yearning for “melody” (line 23) – or music – which, the reader recalls, is actually representative of desire and lust. Thus one can tell that Stevens sees the elders’ victim herself as a sexual individual, presenting an interpretation of the Biblical myth that is perhaps separate from the norm. As Susanna leaves her bath, she steps onto the cool bank of “spent emotions” and comes into contact with the dew and leaves of “old devotions.” Both are less comfortable than the warmth of the water, yet more real and substantial. Figuratively, Susanna is abandoning safety in favor of exposure, where the elders can see her but where she can experience the emotion – plesant and unpleasant – of music. The reader gets a clear picture of the scene through Stevens’ word choices, which add to the visual image of the garden, including its breeze, compared to her maids “fetching her ...scarves” (line 34). As she walks, she is interupted by a crashing cymbal “Amid roaring horns” (line 40); this return to music representing the encroachment of desire upon her haven, specifically, her seduction by the elders. The sudden nature of the intrusion suggests that Stevens interprets this “seduction” as a rape or similar act of depravity, and it is with this violence that the second section of the poem ends.
Section III is in the same voice of the pianist, explaining his desire through Biblical allegory, but shifts its focus to Susanna’s Byzantine servants. This section is fast and rhythmic (an Allegro Vivace, in the musical metaphor) with quick rhyming couplets, and seems to be over before it has begun. The Byzantines come suddenly “with noise like tambourines” (line 41), observe Susanna and her plight, and leave directly in the manner in which they arrived (line 50). Their confusion, expressed in lines 43-44, perhaps explains why they abandoned their mistress to her destiny; the servants may have misinterpretted the sexual act as consensual, or it may even have actually have been so. Regardless, it is shameful for Susanna, and she is left to deal with it on her own. But what of the percussive tambourines? As musical instruments they should represent some sort of desire, and indeed they might be interpretted as symbolic of the indulgence of gossip: “And as they whispered the refrain / was like a willow, swept by rain” (lines 45-46). This simile merely auditory imagery, as are the tambourines, the quiet nature of which suggests the silence and anonymity with which the attendants make their observations and discuss what they see. And, religiously speaking, it is this silence and anonymity that is important to Stevens’ message, for he expresses in section III the fact that Susanna might have been saved, but for whatever reasons she was not. Thus this portion of the poem seems sad in its haste, for it represents missed opportunity and those “...but what if...?”s that plague the victims of tragedy.
“Peter Quince” remains in this regretful state as it transitions into its fourth and final section. It is here that Stevens presents his overarching message or moral, and not very subtly, stating “Beauty is momentary in the mind - /.../ But in the flesh it is immortal” (lines 51 & 53). This, however, is not to say that the theme is an uninteresting one, for it is by no means standard. Stevens is talking about deflowering, figurative and literal. As Susanna’s beauty and peoples’ memories of it were unmarred physically by her horrible experience despite its effect upon her pristine state, so was her garden left unaffected by the terrible events that occured within it. These are merely examples of the general principle that is the message of this poem, the unintuitive assertion that it is the physical not the emotional and psychological that is permanent. In this manner Stevens introduces the concept of Death and mortality in general to the final stanzas of “Peter Quince.” With a succession of medium-fast rhyming couplets that propel the poem to its finish (musically, perhaps section IV is an Allegretto, or “a little bit fast”), impermanence and entropy are stressed. Bringing the poem (nearly) full circle to Susanna individually, Stevens represents her purity and beauty as her “music” and the elder’s weakness as their “bawdy strings,” a clearly sexual image (line 61). This event lives on by playing on “the viol[a] of her memory,” symbolic of the psychological permanence of her maybe-rape’s effects.
As the poem ends, it is interesting to consider how its message relates back to the title character and his own desire for the woman in the blue, silk dress. Clearly, desire and lust (as we can only evaluate the pianist’s yearning for the “shadows” of her silk dress to be) are portrayed negatively in the story of Susanna. It is desire that leads the elders to seduce their victim, or worse, and it is desire that leads her to leave the sanctuary of her bath. All in all, the logical conclusion of part IV seems to be that in his longing for the blue-clad woman, Peter Quince (the narrator) is succumbing to weakness and immorality. Such a conclusion suggests a Stevens to be a highly religious figure, which, considering his practical business occupation and his other poetry, may or man not be an accurate evaluaiton. Nevertheless, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” is a poem religious in tone and moral in message, musical in inspiration and structure, and subtle in execution and principle.
Anonymous. “Susanna.” Encyclopedia.com. 2002. Online, available <http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/s/susanna.asp>. Accessed June 5, 2002.
Brunner, Edward, et al. “On ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier.’” Modern American Poetry. Online, available <http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/clavier.htm>. Accessed June 5, 2002.
Buttle, Robert. Wallace Stevens and the Making of Harmonium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Lancashire, I., ed. “Wallace Stevens (1879-1955).” Representative Poetry On-Line. 2000. Online, available <http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/peoms/stevens5.html>. Accessed June 5, 2002.