18 pages • 36 minutes readWallace Stevens
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American Modernist poet Wallace Stevens again addresses the source of artistic inspiration as well as the relation between human thought and feeling in “The World as Meditation” (1952). From its epigraph onward, the poem maintains that artistic creation requires periods of stillness and introspection. Stevens uses characters from the Classical epic The Odyssey and an epigraph from a modern interview with a composer to portray the latent power in contemplation and the way in which artists construct their own realities. The poem’s central figure, Penelope, assembles her own identity in response to her environment, especially as she waits for Ulysses’s return. As her mental and emotional forces combine, the world around her changes in sympathetic response, and Ulysses’s own identity depends on Penelope, who dreams it into existence.
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Wallace Stevens lived and wrote with equal consideration and care. His precise vocabulary and images strive toward a consistent personal poetics, one that represents Stevens’s artistic search for clarity and beauty. Though Stevens believed that the true world was the world of thought and feeling, he maintained a life of order and responsibility, taking long breaks from writing to focus on parenting and on his work at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was an insurance actuary and executive.
Stevens’s father encouraged his study and practice of writing until financial concerns necessitated his withdrawal from Harvard before he could finish his degree. On New Year’s Eve at the turn of the 20th century, the young Stevens wrote to his father as he struggled with his decision to attend law school rather than pursue his writing career. In 1901, Stevens enrolled at the New York School of Law. His degree led him quickly to the field of insurance law, where he would find the financial stability and success to underwrite his long career as a poet. Rather than diminishing his creativity, Stevens’s office work anchored him physically, allowing his imaginative life to flourish. From 1916 until his death in 1955, Stevens worked for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, composing during his morning walks to work. Drafts of some Stevens poems exist on Hartford company letterhead, typed after his arrival at the office.
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Around the time Stevens established the foundations of his insurance career, Stevens began publishing many of his important early poems. “Sunday Morning” and “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” anchored his first book, Harmonium (1923). Works from that collection drew the endorsement of Harriet Monroe in her journal Poetry. Monroe continued to support Stevens’s work throughout his career, during less productive periods Stevens attributed to the demands of work and family, all the way up to his acclaimed mid-career collections The Man with the Blue Guitar and Parts of a World. His 1950 volume The Auroras of Autumn won the National Book Award. His essay collection The Necessary Angel, appearing that same year, offered “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” an essential examination of the Modernist poetic impulse and a lasting comment on the nature of artistic imagination and temperament.
Stevens maintained few close relationships in the literary world, but he and poet Marianne Moore maintained a decades-long friendship and correspondence, each influencing the other’s work. Other literary social interactions were less congenial: After a slight from Stevens, Robert Frost accused him of writing poems about “bric-a-brac.” On one of the poet’s trips to Key West, he broke his hand on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw, for reasons that remain unclear in each retelling of this story.
Despite his absence from the inner circles of the literary world, Stevens enjoyed a measure of popular and critical recognition during his lifetime. In 1955, Stevens won another National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. From his death that same year, his reputation and influence within American poetry continued to amplify. Championed by prominent 20th-century critics Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom, Stevens’s reach increased even as other early 20th-century figures lost relevance.
Stevens, Wallace. “The World as Meditation.” 1952. Brinkerhoff Poetry.
Stevens’s “The World as Meditation” (1952) revisits characters from Homer’s The Odyssey, finding in Penelope’s long vigil for Ulysses a place to examine the shaping power of memory and imagination. The poem’s anonymous speaker holds an omniscient third-person limited perspective, meaning that while Penelope herself is not the speaker, the speaker conveys Penelope’s perception and psychological experience.
Very little action occurs across the eight stanzas; the entirety of the poem depicts Penelope’s anticipation of Ulysses’s return. An epigraph from composer Georges Enesco calls “meditation” the most necessary exercise for an artist, and Penelope’s state throughout the poem demonstrates that exercise. In the opening stanza, Penelope wonders if the figure on the horizon might be Ulysses, for whom she has been waiting. The figure, first described as a “form of fire” (Line 2), remains in the distance and unidentified throughout the poem, but Penelope’s own imaginative idea of Ulysses potentially moving forward on the horizon shapes and renews her surroundings: The third stanza describes how, in her years of anticipation, even Penelope’s sense of self has changed through the experience of desire—but this has been an artistic process, as she’s “composed, so long, a self with which to welcome [Ulysses]” (Line 7). The trees, too, “had been mended” (Line 10) in her long contemplation. The fifth stanza emphasizes her longing, as she desires Ulysses and only Ulysses. She cares nothing for material gifts he might bring.
By the closing two stanzas, still there is the figure on the horizon, and still Penelope cannot say if it is a true homecoming: “It was Ulysses and it was not” (Line 19). For all the drawn-out ambiguity and nonconsummation, Penelope’s desire remains undiminished, an unending “barbarous strength” (Line 21). In all the poem, Penelope’s only physical actions include the ruminative gesture of combing her hair and her incantatory chant of Ulysses’s name, all of which occurs in the poem’s final three lines.
By Wallace Stevens