Where Did Wallace Stevens Get His Ideas?

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

“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.

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:

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.

  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.

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Jerry Griswold

Jerry Griswold

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