A CERTAIN ORDER OF FORMS: THE MUSIC OF "HARMONIUM" (WALLACE STEVENS)

MARY F. COURTNEY ALFANO, Fordham University

Abstract

Music is an organic component of Wallace Stevens' poetry of "fictions." Music is present everywhere in the poems, in diction, titles and allusions, and in imitative devices. Indeed, a close study of Stevens' essays and letters shows that he conceived of music as a parallel fiction to the fictions of poetry and painting. Music lies at the very source of Stevens' theory of poetry, and this is revealed most clearly in the earliest mature poetry at the level of formal poetic structures.^ Stevens' achievement in Harmonium, his first published volume which appeared in 1923 during a time of dramatic change in the arts, establishes his place as a true modernist. Harmonium contains his "first central hymns" and the first "tests of the strength/Of his aesthetic," an aesthetic which includes his conception of music as poetic metaphor. A textual analysis of four representative poems for Harmonium clarifies Stevens' adaptation of musical forms and conveys his sense of the relationship between the poet and the traditions of musical and visual art. Music is the explicit theme of "Peter Quince at the Clavier." In this poem Stevens synthesizes material from the Old Testament, Shakespeare, Handel, and the long tradition of European figure painters, within a poetic oratorio composition. "To the One of Fictive Music" introduces Stevens' notion of "fiction" which he develops from musica ficta, a theory of musical chromaticism. With its allusions to Bernard's prayer to the Virgin from the Paradiso as a ground, Stevens' hymn to the imagination approximates the elaborate contrapuntal writing of the Medieval trope. "Explanation" "resembles" a Schubertian Lied, a structure that Stevens uses to contrast the traditions of French and German art song in this poem about form. "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" recapitulates the history of musical variation form at the same time that it develops Stevens' idiosyncratic aesthetic. Stevens' use of diction achieves a virtuosic level of verbal and visual chromaticism in this poem. These four poems show Stevens to be an accomplished master of poetic music in Harmonium. They firmly establish music as a major thematic and structural factor in the aesthetics of Harmonium and point to its function as an important element of Stevens' later poetry as well. ^

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

ALFANO, MARY F. COURTNEY, "A CERTAIN ORDER OF FORMS: THE MUSIC OF "HARMONIUM" (WALLACE STEVENS)" (1986). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8615709.
http://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8615709

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