This past fall I took a graduate course covering Robert Frost, the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur, all American poets esteemed for their attention to poetic form. The professor gave us his in-depth analysis of the lives, the times, and the poems of these poets. Although my appreciation for Stevens has changed from awe and confusion to a quiet respect, there are areas concerning his life and his work that still make me pause.
Recently I posted a painting of Susanna and the Elders by Thomas Hart Benton, because it depicts a scene in a Stevens poem we read: “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” Peter Quince is a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream–he was one of the players who served as comic relief. In this poem, Quince is the speaker. Using Quince’s name was Stevens’ way of making a joke, because Quince could never have expressed himself as eloquently as the speaker does in the poem.
The poem uses the story of Susanna and the Elders as a rhetorical situation for the speaker. Quince plays the piano (the clavier) because of the desire he feels for his beloved.
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;
The basic argument of the poem is that poetry is feeling. If I feel desire, I will make music. My art (or poem, song…) will convey my feelings to the viewer or the listener. The reader of the poem will have similar thoughts to my own– the mere thinking of “your blue-shadowed silk” becomes art (or music, poetry, etc…). Thought and feeling equals art when it is reproduced for another to perceive.
But the story of Susanna complicates the argument of “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” because the speaker compares his desire for “the blue-shadowed silk” of his beloved to the desire the elders felt for Susanna. And the poem becomes even more byzantine because Quince is playing the clavier. The story of Susanna serves as a backdrop to a concert.
My blogging friend, poet and writer Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, summarized the story of Susanna in my last post on this poem, and she brought up a pertinent point:
[The elders] cornered Susanna in the garden and told her they would have her put to death if she did not have sex with them. If she said no, they told her they would publicly announce that she had been having sex with a young man. The penalty would be death.
She remained loyal to God, and would not have sex with the elders, regardless of the threat of death. God saved her for her faithfulness. The elders were put to death for their false witness. It was unusual in her time and culture for a woman to be spared death when accused by elders.
The elders were blackmailers, voyeurs, horrible in every way. The story is part of the Apocrypha, portions of the Old Testament that were excised from the Protestant Bible. Susanna and the Elders comes from Book 13 of Daniel.
I’m still confused why Stevens used the Susanna and the Elders story to depict merely lust. In the Old Testament, Daniel saved Susanna from the elders by proving their false testimony. And Susanna would not relent to the elders’ lust for her. Maybe Stevens uses the story as a symbol for lust, and I’m over-thinking it. The symbol could be just one more Modernist affectation, to be considered in an abstract light.
What do you think? Was it a good story to invoke the feeling of lust? I think many women will balk at Stevens’ poem, in spite of its perfection of form.