Where Did Wallace Stevens Get His Ideas?

Jerry Griswold
17 min readAug 26, 2021


In Holly Stevens’ portrait of her father as the young Wallace Stevens, Souvenirs and Prophecies, we see a youth who was a prodigious walker because he fancied himself a writer. His extensive trips into the country and his explorations of cities were fueled by a romantic desire to collect “experience.” Years later, a more mature Wallace Stevens would poke fun at these peripatetic explorations for subject matter by telling us of the ambitious travels of a boyish manqué named Crispin in his poem “The Comedian as the Letter C.”

But while his rambles might have provided him with subjects, the undergraduate at Harvard was late in discovering his technical virtuosity. His college publications are a uniformly woeful and derivative lot. Holly Stevens and others note that the poems are pale imitations of Shelley, Keats, and Santayana. Stevens had not found his voice, and he would wince years later at the suggestion that his college work be collected for a retrospective in Harvard’s Advocate.

Moreover, Stevens would have less time for his long walks after he left Harvard. Work, and later marriage, made demands which he admitted taxed him and left little time for expeditions in search of subject matter. He was forty-four when he published his first book of poems. In any event, by this time, he was less concerned with discovering subjects and more bent on discovering what he felt lacking: namely, his own voice and style.

It is hard to overlook the importance the mature Stevens attached to this issue of style and, at the same time, the nonchalance with which he came to regard subject matter. In the essay “Two or Three Ideas,” he describes the poet as a master of style for whom the subject is only an occasion for the exercise of those powers. Stretching for an aphorism he asserts, “The style of the poem and the poem are one” (OP 202). Then, to emphasize his view of poetry as virtuosity, he postulates: “It may be, or become that the poets who have little or nothing to say are, or will be the poets that matter” (OP 204).

Nonetheless, where did Stevens come across the subjects which would provide the occasions for his exercises of style? There was, of course, what Stevens was fond of calling the “quotidian”: everyday matters like a cat walking across the snow at night, snatches of conversation, and items from a newspaper recorded on pieces of paper and annotated “idea for a poem.” What is interesting to discover in daughter Holly’s Souvenirs and Prophecies is that when her father returned home in the afternoon from his work at the Hartford Accident and Insurance Company, it was his habit to retire to his library and turn to his readings and commonplace books to find something upon which he could improvise a poem.

That Stevens frequently found ideas for his poems in books is almost too obvious to mention. It’s worth recalling how little the man (who described the sombreros of Venezuela and the light in Venice) actually traveled. The Hartford poet may have painted the tropics, but he never visited Central or South America. And the man whose letters and poems reveal a love for Europe and things European, never crossed the Atlantic.

Books provided Stevens with the experience he previously collected on his undergraduate walks. Once the issue of style became paramount, the mature Stevens could turn to travel books and books of all kinds for the ideas he could reshape with his skills and sensibility. T.S. Eliot’s remark that “mature poets steal” does not quite apply. Stevens would have explained that if “the style of the poem and the poem are one,” then taking an idea from somewhere else and making it one’s own through voice and style–well, that’s what poetry is.

Stevens’ Books, Stevens’ Sources

Literary detectives interested in discovering the influence of other authors on the work of Stevens have had to seek their clues. Some of these are to be found in the poems; but these are not so revealing since the poet, when he made use of others’ ideas, was careful not to reveal that he had done so. The essays, with their frequent mentions of other authors, are more revealing. Even more helpful has been Holly Stevens’ edition of her father’s Letters and her subsequent publication of his journals, and then (later) even more letters in her Souvenirs and Prophecies.¹

One event that has considerably slowed scholarly investigation of Stevens’ reading was his widow’s decision in 1963 to sell, shortly before her death, shelf after shelf of the late poet’s books. Unfortunately, the bookdealer who made these purchases did not particularly identify them as from Stevens’ library and added them to his general stock.

There is, however, a list of some of Stevens’ books because of their sale at two Parke-Bernet Galleries auctions in 1959. J. M. Edelstein, in a personable essay in The Book Collector,² makes a number of comments on the volumes listed in the auction catalogs. Edelstein mentions that there were a good many history and travel books, and he adds his observation that “the reader of Wallace Stevens will recall the many references to Central America and the West, particularly the Southwest, in his writing, almost all of which came from his readings.”³ Among the books sold was Adagia Sacra Sive Proverbia Scripturae in which, Edelstein notes, we can hear echoes of Stevens’ own “Adagia.” Another curious fact that can be gathered from the auction catalogs is that Stevens owned all the works of the philosopher and essayist Emile Chartier Alain and took special care to have those fifty-six volumes specially bound for him.

The sale of Stevens’ remaining books and papers by his daughter, and their acquisition by the Huntington Library in 1974, has resulted in other interesting reports in this regard. Edelstein was one of the first to see these and he notes that among the books are a few which were apparently Stevens’ favorites. These particular books, he observes, are full of annotations and marginalia which indicate Stevens was not only a fastidious reader but had an eye out for what he might turn into poetry.⁴ Denis Donoghue also examined the archive and noted that “in Stevens’ copy of Walter Pater’s Appreciations, the chapter on Style is heavily glossed, and the marginalia are as pointed as ‘Adagia’ in Stevens’ Opus Posthumous.”⁵

One of the books in the archive exciting the most attention is Stevens’ copy of Charles Mauron’s Aesthetics and Psychology. Edelstein observes that the book is so full of notes that “there is little white space left,” and he opines that Mauron’s book “must certainly be among the most influential on Stevens’ thought” since Mauron’s ideas and Stevens’ comments upon them echo themes the poet was to repeat over and over again.⁶ One indication of the reliability of Edelstein’s observation can be gathered from the catalog assembled by Daniel Woodward for the Huntington’s special exhibition of the Stevens archive in the Spring of 1975. Woodward notes that Stevens’ copy of Mauron’s book is “one of the most heavily annotated volumes in the library”; and he comments on its importance when, by way of example, he mentions that many of the ideas for Stevens’ poems “Three Academic Pieces” are to be found in Mauron’s book on page forty-six.⁷

Even before the acquisition of the Stevens’ material by the Huntington, literary sleuths, not taken in by the poet’s protestations to originality, have made pointed disclosures. Joseph Riddel revealed that Stevens’ essay “A Collect of Philosophy” relies on summaries of A Student’s History of Philosophy.⁸ Samuel French Morse, after extracting a concession from Stevens, has shown how much the poet’s first book Harmonium was inspired by Bergson’s Laughter.⁹

Among the most interesting revelations is Riddel’s about the source of Stevens’ posthumously published essay “On Poetic Truth.” Riddel generously calls the essay a “sympathetic borrowing and neat assimilation” of an article by the aesthetician H. D. Lewis.¹⁰ Stevens took Lewis’ twenty-three-page article and condensed it into a little more than three pages by deleting Lewis’ references and detailed arguments, and by concerning himself only with coherent generalizations. Here is a section of an example Riddel presents, with the passages Stevens appropriated appearing in brackets:

[It is the function of science to complete this interpretation] of facts, both for the sale of completer knowledge and for itself and to enhance the control we exercise over our environment. [The scientist can tell me much] about the table [which I cannot know from ordinary observation. But, however, exhaustive information of this kind may be, there is something which it does not cover, and that is] the [particularity] of this table [here and now] in this room.¹¹

There is no evidence that Stevens ever meant to publish “On Poetic Truth,” and Riddel suggests that the essay can be viewed as something like a set of coherent notes on Lewis’ article which Stevens was to use in an essay that was published, “About One of Marianne Moore’s Poems.” Stevens mentions H. D. Lewis and his article in the essay on Moore but, Riddel tactfully notes: “Only one of a number of direct quotations is typographically identified as being verbatim. Lewis’ statements become Stevens’ in the honest persistence of argument.”¹²

“A Collect of Philosophy,” or A Record of Inspiration

Stevens’ letters and essays indicate a renewed interest in Santayana beginning in1945.¹³ The next year Edmund Wilson published in The New Yorker his portrait of the old philosopher in Rome, and in a lecture in 1948 Stevens mentions Santayana and those circumstances as an example of a life that can be as purposely shaped as a work of art. Then — no later than the summer of 1950 — Stevens began composing the poems of The Rock inspired, as we have been suggesting, by Santayana’s philosophical ideas in Scepticism and Animal Faith.

Launched on that endeavor, just a few months later, Stevens agreed to give the Moody Lecture at the University of Chicago in November of 1951. Stevens’ choice of lecture topics is revealing. He chose as his subject “the poetry of philosophy.”¹⁴

Stevens remarks for that lecture are gathered in the essay “A Collect of Philosophy” published in Opus Posthumous.¹⁵ Coming as they do — in the middle, I am suggesting, of the period Stevens was composing responses to the chapters of Scepticism and Animal Faith in the poems of The Rock — these remarks take on a special significance. Perhaps most importantly, “A Collect of Philosophy” indicates the way Stevens read philosophical works.

Stevens’ thesis is stated at the beginning of the essay and repeated a number of times: “It is often the case that concepts of philosophy are poetic” (267). To explain what he means, Stevens starts by identifying a few things not intended. He is not referring to philosophic poetry, like that of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Nor does he have in mind philosophers who employ a poetic way of thinking or writing; Stevens offers Bergson and Santayana as examples (269–270).

Instead, when he says “It is often the case that concepts of philosophy are poetic,” Stevens essentially means that, as a poet, he finds certain philosophical ideas inspiring. He explains by way of an example:

According to the traditional views of sensory perception, we do not see the world immediately but only as the result of a process of seeing and after the completion of that process, that is to say, we never see the world except the moment after. Thus, we are constantly observing the past. (272)

Stevens finds this concept fascinating:

Here is an idea, not the result of poetic thinking and entirely without poetic intention, which instantly changes the face of the world. Its effect is that of an almost inappreciable change of which, nevertheless, we remain acutely conscious. The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial. It has become an image in the mind. . . . What we see is not an external world but an image of it and hence an internal world. (272)

Stevens is excited by this idea. And in passing, we might note that Stevens’ addressed this idea in a poem where he observes that we are always — as the poem’s title has it — “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” (CP 135–136).

Providing a second example of what he means by inspiring philosophical concepts, Stevens quotes Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World:

“My theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time. In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times, for every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.” (cited in OP 273)

Stevens explains why he finds this notion attractive:

These words are pretty obviously words from a level where everything is poetic, as if the statement that every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location produced in the imagination a universal iridescence, a dithering of presences and, say, a complex of differences. (273)

Here is another example meant to illustrate Stevens’ thesis that “It is often the case that concepts of philosophy are poetic.” And again in passing, we might note that Whitehead’s idea (that “every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location”) finds its counterpart in Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” (CP 81).

Still, as interesting as this collection of Stevens’ enthusiasms may be (and the essay presents a handful of fascinating “poetic” concepts from Leibniz, Plato, Schopenhauer, and others), what is most revealing in “A Collect” is the picture it gives us of the kind of reader Stevens was. When it came to philosophical works, Stevens was a gourmand, a raconteur. Indeed, regarding his philosophic enthusiasms, Stevens described himself in a letter to Bernard Herringman as a kind of amateur aficionado (L. 636).

If Stevens read philosophy as a keen amateur, what interested him in his readings? As we have already seen, “A Collect” offers indications. His fascination with the notion that perception deals with after-images, his interest in Whitehead’s concept that “every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location,” as well as his enthusiasm for other philosophical concepts itemized in “A Collect” — all suggest that Stevens was especially attracted to epistemological alternatives and to notions arising from uncommon worldviews. These are the kind of ideas he has in mind when he says, “It is often the case that concepts of philosophy are poetic.”

In Stevens’ case, however, we can go farther and rephrase his repeated thesis to say: “It is often the case that concepts of philosophy [are inspiring to a poet.]” In “A Collect” Stevens speaks approvingly of Jean Wahl’s observation that notable authors have been inspired by the work of philosophers: Victor Hugo by Pascal, Shelley by Plato, Mallarmé by Hegel (274–275). And as the record shows, both in this study and in the wider body of Stevens scholarship, Stevens often found inspiration for poems in his reading, particularly in philosophical works which, again, he read as an amateur hunting for ideas that struck him as “poetic.”

This coincides with the picture Holly Stevens gives of her father returning from work and routinely retreating to his study where he consulted his reading and commonplace books for ideas around which he might build a poem. In that regard, Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith must have seemed a goldmine. But let me be clear: I can point to no mention of Santayana’s book by Stevens, nor can I offer any other proof that he read or consulted it. But that absence of evidence it is to be expected.

Discoveries and Denials: The Anxiety of Influence

Stevens was always a little testy and more than a bit defensive when questioned about authors who had influenced him. Stevens had little patience for inquiries of this sort, as he explained to Richard Eberhart:

I am not conscious of having been influenced by anybody and have purposely held off from reading highly mannered people like Eliot and Pound so that I should not absorb anything, even unconsciously. But there is a kind of critic who spends his time dissecting what he reads for echoes, imitations, influences, as if no one were ever himself but is always the compound of a lot of other people. (L. 813)

Among the most interesting sets of correspondence that appear in Letters of Wallace Stevens are those directed to this kind of critic. Bernard Heringman was a student at Columbia University writing a dissertation on Stevens and frequently wrote the poet and asked him what authors and schools influenced his work. Stevens, almost always, issued denials and tried to steer Heringman away from the issue of influence. Stevens politely suggested in one letter that he had always regarded anything but explication de texte as impiety (L. 793).

Though Heringman apparently had no impious intentions and was not bent on exposing Stevens, the poet was oddly defensive when he responded to the student’s questions. Though an entire wing of Stevens criticism would establish his debt to modern French poets, Stevens wrote at the time to Heringman: “I was never a student of any of these poets” (L. 636). Another wing of Stevens criticism would establish, too, his incontrovertible debt to the English Romantics; but Stevens told Heringman, “While, of course; I come down from the past, the past is my own and not something marked Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. I know of no one who has been particularly important to me” (L. 792).

Perhaps one of the remarks to Heringman that is the most curious, and transparently the most untrustworthy, and it comes right after his denial that French writers influenced him:

The same thing is true about philosophers. I have never studied systematic philosophy and should be bored to death at the mere thought of doing so, I think the little philosophy that I have read has been read very much in the spirit in which Henry Church used to read it, He said that he had read it for forty years. It seemed to me that he read it as a substitute for fiction. He could sit up in bed until two or three o’clock in the morning with Nietzsche. I could never have any serious contact with philosophy because I have not the memory. (L. 636)

Stevens’ pretended casualness about philosophy cannot be explained as modesty. That he did study systematic philosophy, that he was fascinated by it, that his contact with philosophy was serious, and that he had a memory for it — all this is abundantly clear in his essays, letters, and poems. Stevens could and did refer to philosophers and their systems with ease and accuracy. A list of those mentioned in the essays alone would be longer than his denial: Plato, Locke, Hobbes, Croce, Kierkegaard, Schlegel, Bergson, James, Whitehead, Aristotle, Focillon, Russell, Descartes, Kant, Maritain, Pascal, Cassirer, Ayer, Bruno, Nietzsche, Leibniz, Lucretius, Hegel, Santayana, Schopenhauer, Berkeley, Planck, et al.

What are we to think, then, of a poet so defensive, and whose defenses are so untrustworthy? Did Stevens mean to tease his inquisitors by constantly throwing sleuths off the track, by suggesting that anything but explication de texte was impious? And why did he feel the need to hotly insist upon his uniqueness? To be sure, he may have recognized he lived in a time that treasured originality, and he may have felt what Harold Bloom has called the “anxiety of influence.” In any event, like the character in Hamlet, he “doth protest too much.”

Justification: Imitation Versus Resemblance

How, then, are we to accept Stevens’ sometimes strange but always strenuous assertions of his originality in the light of disclosures others have made about his influences and sources, as well as the revelations made in this study and any others yet to be made? Hasty answers may be too facile.

With a lawyer-like precision, Stevens defined originality in a particular way which allowed him room to acknowledge, albeit reluctantly, what he took from others and yet still allow him room to insist upon his originality. At first glance it may seem simpleminded to say that if Stevens borrowed from others, he nevertheless put things in his own words. But there is a measure of truth in this statement, and Stevens seems to have had something very much like this in mind.

An important distinction for Stevens is the one between “identity” and “resemblance,” and he distinguishes between them by mentioning paintings. The first term, “identity,” amounts to imitation and as such is within the domain of forgery and impersonation. To explain the latter term, “resemblance,” Stevens notes how many Western painters have addressed the subject of “the Virgin crowned by angels” and concludes that “The variation in these themes were not imitations, nor identities, but resemblances” (NA 73). Originality, in other words, arises in one’s own version.

Stevens’ choice of examples is, of course, calculated: it presents us only with occasions where themes and ideas (e.g., the subject of “the Virgin crowned by Angels”) are extra-personal and universal. But in his notion of imitation as an “identity manqué” we may come to some understanding of why Stevens insisted upon his own originality.

In a letter to Richard Eberhart, Stevens considers why “poets in particular” object to discussion of their influences:

The customary answer to this is that it gives them the appearance of being second-hand. That may be one of the aspects of what seems to me to be the true answer. It seems to me that the true answer is that with the true poet his poetry is the same thing as his vital self. It is not possible for anyone to touch it. (L. 815)

Here is what Stevens means when he says in an essay that “a man’s sense of the world is born with him” (NA 120) and that “a poet manifests his personality . . . by his style” (NA123).

That Stevens’ style is uniquely his is incontrovertible. It is almost a truism to say that, unlike other modern poets, a poem by him is easily recognizable. The mature Stevens was not an “identity manqué,” nor are his poems what they were in his undergraduate days: pale imitations of Keats, Shelley, and Santayana.

In this sense Stevens is original. But to limit the notion of originality in this way is to confine inquiries about influences solely to matters of style; the source of ideas becomes unimportant. To hold in mind the evidence of Stevens’ borrowings and still admit his protestations of originality requires the acceptance of a notable assumption: that the influence of others’ ideas upon one’s writing can never subtract from the poet’s originality in his giving expression to them.


  1. Holly Stevens, Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens (New York, 1977).
  2. J. M. Edelstein, “The Poet as Reader: Wallace Stevens and his Books,” The Book Collector, 23 (Spring 1974), 53–64.
  3. Ibid., 64.
  4. Op cit.
  5. Denis Donoghue, rev. of Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens, by Holly Stevens, in The New York Review of Books, XXIV, №3 (March 3, 1977), 21.
  6. Edelstein, p. 63.
  7. Daniel H. Woodward, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens, a catalog prepared by the Huntington Library for special exhibition of the Wallace Stevens archive in Spring 1975, unpaged.
  8. Joseph N. Riddel, The Clairvoyant Eye (Baton Rouge, 1965), 24.
  9. Samuel French Morse, “Wallace Stevens, Bergson, Pater,” ELH, Vol. 31, №1 (March 1964), 1–34.
  10. Joseph N. Riddel, “The Authorship of Wallace Stevens’ ‘On Poetic Truth’,” Modern Language Notes, LXXVI (February 1961), 126.
  11. Ibid., 128.
  12. Ibid., 127.
  13. Except for the occasional remembrance of his Harvard days (1897–1900), Stevens’ letters and essays do not indicate a special interest in Santayana until 1945. In April of that year, Stevens thanked one of his correspondents, José Rodríguez Feo, for sending a letter Feo had received from Santayana. In his thank-you note to Feo, one senses that, for the first time, Stevens’ attention shifts from golden memories (of the young and popular professor some fifty years earlier in Cambridge, Massachusetts) to a more contemporaneous view of Santayana (as an old philosopher living in Rome). In that regard, remarking to Feo about Santayana’s letter, Stevens extends geriatric compliments: “How strong his handwriting is and how the whole letter convinces one that there is nothing that mixes with long life like a strong mind” (L. 635).
  14. In a letter to Barbara Church (July 25, 1951), Stevens writes: “I am going to give the Moody lecture [sic] at the University of Chicago in November and have chosen as my subject the poetry of philosophy. I don’t mean philosophy expressed in poetry as in the case of Lucretius, nor do I have in mind the style of particular philosopher as, say, Nietzsche or Santayana. What I want to call attention to is the poetic nature of many philosophical conceptions. For instance, the idea that because perception is sensory we never see reality immediately but always the moment after is a poetic ideas. We live in mental representations of the past” (L 721–722).
  15. In the 1966 edition of Opus Posthumous (ed. Samuel French Morse), the essay appears on pp. 183–202. In the 1989 edition of Opus Posthumous (ed. Milton J. Bates), the essay appears on pp. 267–280 along with the following note: “This is the text of the typescript at the Huntington Library, which seems to be the final version of the lecture Stevens delivered at the University of Chicago on 16 November 1951 and again at the City College of New York, Harlem campus, on 26 November. From holograph and typed manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Peter Brazeau has reconstructed three different conclusions to the lecture; see “‘A Collect of Philosophy’: ‘The Difficulty of Finding What Would Suffice,’’ in Wallace Stevens: A Celebration, ed. Frank Doggett and Robert Buttel (Princeton U. Press, 1980), 46–56.



Jerry Griswold

former literature professor (San Diego State, UCSD, UCLA, UConn, NUI Galway) and literary journalist (NYTimes, LATimes, & elsewhere)