Imagination/Reality: Wallace Stevens' Harmonium and the Visual Arts

By the time Wallace Stevens moved to New York City in 1900 he had completed three years as a special student at Harvard, and had published a few poems in the Harvard Monthly and the Advocate (a literary journal at Harvard of which he was president). He continued to pursue a literary life in New York, but after an attempt at journalism and at the urging of his father (L59), he enrolled in New York Law School in the fall of 1901. In 1904 he passed the bar and eventually acquired a position in the insurance field after attempting to hang out his own shingle (Stevens, H., 77-8). He married Elsie Viola Moll (a woman also from Reading) in 1909 and in 1916 they moved to Hartford. Stevens was by this time working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., the insurance company he was to stay with for the rest of his career, becoming vice-president in 1934. Before leaving for Hartford, though, he caught the literary bug again (L 187) and by 1914 Stevens was submitting poetry again for publication and communicating with the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe (L 192).

The thirteen years separating any serious poetic output on the part of Stevens might easily be accounted for by his early career in law and his desire to make a secure place for himself there. Above all a practical man, Stevens may have simply put a sustained effort at poetry aside for a time in order to avoid poverty, as he said he did for eight years after publishing Harmonium in 1923 (L 364). Perhaps he was "stewing" during this time, having a few life experiences and just generally maturing. Also, his courtship and marriage, which might also have been delayed for economic reasons, had taken place during this interval. Any or all of these variables could have worked to delay his poetic achievement. The turning point came, I believe, once Stevens came into close contact with modern artists and their works. Although there is no sustained discussion of visual art or influences in Stevens' letters, I will argue that the writing of Harmonium is in a sense bracketed by Stevens' exposure to Walter Arsenberg and his salon. It is my contention that Stevens wrote Harmonium while steeped in modern art and it's theoretical underpinnings and that the poems contained in his first book of poetry reflect certain modern visual sources.

The Armory Show came to New York in February of 1913 and introduced modern art to America, but there does not exist any record to show that Stevens attended. Coincidentally, though, in August of that same year he wrote to his wife that he has "been trying to get together a little collection of verses" (L 187). After this, and once he begins submitting his work for publication, his correspondence with Harriet Monroe and various other editors of "little" magazines begins in which he discusses largely details of editing and printing.

Much of the myth surrounding Stevens might lead one to believe that he did indeed produce his work in virtual isolation.1 Owning, though, to the vibrant artistic community exploding everywhere around him during the next ten years, it is hard to believe that nothing rubbed off. Even the time between when he began to write the poems that would comprise Harmonium and when it was published in 1923 roughly correspond to Stevens' exposure to Walter Arsenberg and his salon. These facts, coupled with a belief that nothing originates in a vacuum lead me to believe that an investigation into, at least, the climate of the time at which Stevens was composing Harmonium might bring to light some interesting conclusions. In this paper, though, I will be attempting to illustrate the primary importance of visual art on Stevens while he was composing Harmonium. It is my contention that Stevens' poetic imagination was fueled and perhaps given the spark it needed to begin writing by viewing contemporary art and being in contact with its artists and theories.

In Wallace Stevens and Company: The Harmonium Years 1913 - 1923, Glen MacLeod looks at literary as well as visual artists who may have been influences for Stevens during this time. In this book, MacLeod gives a lively description of the climate surrounding the Arsenberg salon, and the influence of a few literary types, such as Gertrude Stein, W. B. Yeats, and a group he names the "Patagonians," comprised of Carl Van Vechten, Donald Evans, and Allen and Louise Norton. In a later book, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, Glen MacLeod discusses the relationship he sees between Stevens' poetry and visual art throughout Stevens' career. He discusses the use of multiple perspectives by Stevens and Cubist artists and cites, among others, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" as a Cubist poem. He also draws parallels between not only Duchamp's use of titles, but his ideas about the readymades, and Stevens' poetry. MacLeod's book has been very useful for me in citing a few examples of poems from Harmonium with possible visual sources. Also, he does an excellent job recording or pinning down Stevens' whereabouts during this time, which has proved very important. Unfortunately, his discussion of visual artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, is echoed in his later book with very few refinements. Both books, though, succeed in representing Stevens not as an isolated figure in modern literature, but as actively involved in his time and place.

Bonnie Costello, in her article "Effects of an Analogy: Wallace Stevens and Painting," looks at the whole of Stevens' career and its relation to painting. Her discussion of "Sunday Morning" from Harmonium cites a few possible visual sources, among them Manet's Woman with a Parrot, but stops short of drawing an explicit parallel. This understanding is essential since I do not believe that there is a one-to-one relationship between any work of art and any poem by Stevens. Robert Buttel, in Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium, discusses the painterly technique he sees in Stevens poetry as stemming from the Impressionists and Matisse. While I think his analysis does go far in illustrating the "art-gallery or hothouse atmosphere" (Buttel, 168) of Harmonium, it is only once he breaks out of his review of color, light and style and looks at the implications of technique that I see his work as helpful.

I see modern art's usefulness for Stevens in its reconfiguration of the relationship between imagination and reality. While the techniques that modern artists use to illustrate this, including the use of multiple perspectives, "unnatural" combinations and juxtapositions of color, and the capturing of movement within a static medium are important, the theory behind it is what I see Stevens utilizing. Unlike Williams, who, one could say, paints a poem with words, or uses the techniques of painting to "tell" a poem, and as ends in themselves ("By the road to the contagious hospital" or "Pink confused with white"), Stevens will incorporate a device from painting to illustrate his poetic idea. For instance, "Metaphors of a Magnifico" (Harmonium, 35)2 illustrates an idea about the fragmentation and/or subjectivity of reality and the importance of perspective by incorporating the Cubist technique of multiple perspectives. Similarly, in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," (H, 135) Stevens playfully integrates the fragmentation and recombination of vision into a poem of successive sensory impressions. Like Braque or Duchamp, Stevens has taken an object, in this case a blackbird, and has used multiple perspectives not to better illustrate the bird or blackbirdness, but to render it, reworked through his own imagination, on the page.

This relationship between reality and imagination conceived by modern artists is the meeting point with Stevens. Throughout most of his career Stevens was an avid follower and collector of modern art. He attended exhibits in New York and later at the Wadsworth Athenium, a vital center for advanced art located in Hartford, and he read current books and periodicals on art (WS & MA, 27-8). In addition, his good friend Walter Arsenberg played an invaluable part in exposing the young Stevens to the newest art movements and their creators (WS & Co., 19-22, WS & MA, 4). From each of these vantage points Stevens could get a grasp on the newest and most important theories of art coming from Europe and other parts of America. One of these theories, Cubism, was to come over from Europe with the Armory Show in 1913. Cubist painters like Picasso and Braque inherited representational techniques from Cezanne and the cinema and radically transformed painting's spatial conventions. They depicted objects from a multiplicity of perspectives on a single canvas. It was almost as if they had taken an object and smashed it to pieces, only to put it back together dimentionally askew. Cubism provided a different way to view reality, even perhaps experience time.

In looking at, for instance, Georges Braque's Still Life with Violin and Pitcher (1910) one can see the way that space has been divided into an innumerable amount of planes and how, while one can still see a violin, it is broken up, disjointed. The relationship that I see here with Stevens' poetry has to do with the way that reality gets imaginatively reworked by a single ordering consciousness to create a new vision, wholly one's own, but no less real or recognizable. "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" (H, 97) depicts this idea quite clearly. In this poem the speaker questions from where a series of sensory impressions are emanating from. Answering himself, he states:

It is his reality, not simply an objective world that he looks out on and experiences. He, or his imagination acts on the world, and in the process becomes not only a part of it, but in fact it's creator.

Stevens here has not represented anything visually. There are no "pictures" that occur in the mind of the reader, but the theory behind the poem is shared with Cubism and much of modern art. The imagination not only has the right but the responsibility to participate in the creation of reality.

Unlike "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in which Stevens incorporated a painterly technique (multiple perspectives) to render an object verbally, there is no object represented here. Rather, what is being drawn attention to is the working of the speaker's imagination. Stevens depicts verbally not the process or the product of the transformation of the world by the imagination, but a new approach with which to envision reality. This is not some empty solipsism, though, nor is Cubism, for in both endeavors there is a world that results, a creative aspect that aligns one with the world. Cubism, while it departs from conventional ways of representing the world, of experiencing reality, uses recognizable materials from the world without changing their essence, shall we say. The violin from Braque's painting is still a violin and the ointment and hymns from Stevens' poem are still ointments and hymns. The only thing that has changed is the way they are represented after being imaginatively reworked. They are still permeable worlds.

One way, perhaps, of better illustrating this point might be to discuss a few examples of empty solipsism in Harmonium. In other words, I will cite a few places where there is no resultant or created world, wherein the speakers cannot break out of the thinking that they can know anything outside of themselves or their experiences. "Gubbinal" (H, 126) and "Bantams in Pine-Woods" (H, 111) both depict characters whose solipsistic impulses isolate them from the world and turn that world into an enclosed space from which they cannot escape, nor can anyone else enter or share. The person to whom the speaker is speaking in "Gubbinal" is not involved in any creative endeavor. Whereas in poems like "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" or "Nomad Exquisite" (H, 138) the world comes from the speakers, here the world is simply something to react to, to project one's emotions upon without creating something new. It is empty. There are no value judgements assigned in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" or "Nomad Exqisite" or even in Braque's painting, here, though, "the world is ugly,/ And the people are sad." While the character in "Gubbinal" shares the idea of a personal vision of the world with these other works, there is no sense of unchanging refusal in them. The speaker in "Gubbinal," on the other hand, can only shrug at his companion' refusal to view the world any differently, saying: "Have it your way/… It is just as you say/… The world is ugly,/ And the people are sad." Conversely, Cubism embodies the idea of being able to view the world from a multiplicity of standpoints, and in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" and "Nomad Exquisite" one gets the sense that the speakers will create new worlds wherever they go.

The speaker in "Nomad Exquisite" attempts to mimic the creative aspect of Florida. As its dew brings forth material from the land ("the big-finned palm/ And green vine angering for life"), and feeling in the beholder, so too does the speaker bring forth "[f]orms, flames, and the flakes of flames." On the other hand, the speaker in "Bantams in Pine-Woods" refuses union or even exchange with the world, much less anybody in it, saying: "… I am the personal./ Your world is you. I am my world." In the examples of "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" and "Nomad Exquisite" we have seen Stevens' "collaboration" with some theories of Cubism, but as we have also seen from other examples, it would be wrong to assume that Stevens is in any way wholly a Cubist poet.

Similarly, in the poems "Fabliau of Florida" (H, 40) and "Earthly Anecdote" (H, 15) we see Stevens appropriating elements from Cezanne and Futurism, but to call Stevens a Post-Impressionist or a Futurist poet would also be wrong. It is in both of these poems that Stevens comes closest to Williams in his use of the techniques of painting as ends in themselves. The difference, I believe, lies in the fact that Williams' poems are very still, as if he was describing a still life. It is possible to imagine the poem "By the road to the contagious hospital" as a slow camera tilt, from top to bottom, of a landscape painting, with Williams providing the voice-over and describing each element of the painting as it comes into view. Stevens' poem "Fabliau of Florida" can have a similar effect in the way that he describes a scene element for element. The similarity ends, though, as Stevens sets the scene in motion, directing the elements to move certain places at certain times. How he moves these elements is even more painterly by the fact that what he ends up picturing is a foreshortening of space or perspective, similar to Cezanne. He directs the "barque of phosphor," originally unmoving on a beach, to

As the boat drifts backward into space, Stevens tells us "Foam and cloud are one," seemingly bringing forward what was once in the "background," the clouds, to merge with the foam. The next few lines solidify, for me, Stevens' appropriation of Cezanne's technique of passage.

This movement of elements in the foreground (the barque, and then the hull) to the background (heaven, and then moonlight), and the background (cloud) into the foreground (foam), thereby flattening perspective, brilliantly mimics Cezanne's groundbreaking technique. Again, though, as I would argue is characteristic of Stevens' "painterly" poems in Harmonium, he merely use the technique for poetic purposes, for the poem does not end solidified or still, as a painting. Rather the scene is pulled out of a staid visual representation and put back into motion, "There will never be an end/ To this droning of the surf." The poem never reaches the painterly representation of a still life that Williams achieves and even the title itself signals a verse form (fabliau) rather than a visual field or particular scene.

In "Earthy Anecdote" we again see Stevens incorporating a device from painting for his poetic purposes. The Futurist technique I see Stevens appropriating for this poem is the use of verbal force lines. I am referring to the "swerving" of the bucks in order to avoid the firecat "in a swift, circular line." This poem (along with "Moment of Light") was illustrated by Walter Pach, a good friend of Walter Arsenberg's and Stevens', and appeared in The Modern School. Although Stevens commented that Pach's illustration is "just the opposite of my idea," that he "intended something quite concrete; actual animals, not original chaos" (L 224), he may have been simply referring to Pach's technique and not the disavowal of all visual influences. These "swift, circular lines" seem to signal an immediate visualness. It is as if at a moment of frozen action, there were swift, circular lines depicted behind and in front of the bucks to show where they had left their path in order to avoid the motionless firecat and where they are headed to get back on to it. Giacomo Balla depicts such lines of force around birds in flight in Swifts: Paths of Movement and Dynamic Sequences (1913). Illustrating the influence of cinema and an aesthetic of speed, one of the Futurist's designs was to attempt to capture movement within a static frame or medium. In Balla's earlier attempts at this, for instance in Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912), he used more primitive devices, and while he has the same technique in mind, movement is much more elegantly, and even realistically, rendered in the later work. I see Stevens "collaborating" with Balla in this endeavor in his attempt at rendering motion in a frame of static entities.

Another painter who had a considerable amount of influence on Stevens at this time was Marcel Duchamp. Stevens met Duchamp in 1915 through Walter Arsenberg (L, 196) and since Duchamp had his studio in Arsenberg's apartment, Stevens was to be in fairly close contact with him throughout the writing of Harmonium (WS & MA, 10). The apartment was also a salon during this time and many expatriate French artists and intellectuals would stop by and visit periodically (WS & Co., 27). Stevens, who never traveled abroad, but spoke and loved the French language, even commenting at one time that for him "English and French are a single language" (L 699), must have been overjoyed at the sight and opportunity to meet some of the leading French thinkers and artists. Glen MacLeod does an excellent job in both Wallace Stevens and Company and Wallace Stevens and Modern Art of detailing the heady atmosphere of the Arsenberg salon during this time and Stevens' place in it. What will be of interest here, though, is Stevens' relation to Marcel Duchamp and some of the products of their intellectual and artistic convergencies.

Duchamp made his debut in America with his Nude Descending a Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show. Although this was only one of the many Cubist paintings in the show, it caused a considerable stir, even provoking one critic to state that it resembled "an explosion in a shingle factory" (WS & MA, 7). Man Ray's comments, though, might be more illuminating as to why the painting was so popular. MacLeod quotes Man Ray: "If the picture, Nude Descending a Staircase, had not had that title, it would not have attracted any attention at all. It was the title. Let's face it" (WS & MA, 14). Later that same year Duchamp was to paint another work with nude in the title, King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes, both of which hung in Arsenberg's apartment (WS &MA, 16). This playful attention to titles, which Duchamp was to take to a higher level with his readymades, is echoed throughout Harmonium, in such poems as "The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage" (which owes a larger debt to Botticelli than Duchamp), "Le Monocle de Mon Uncle," and "The Emperor of Ice Cream."

Duchamp's readymades, which were to premiere after his decision to discontinue painting for life (a move still noted in the history of modern art), challenged the very assumptions about and definitions of art that people held at the time. The most famous readymade, Fountain by R. Mutt, a urinal tilted on its side and placed on a pedestal, was to make its debut at the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 (WS & MA, 18-19). This supposedly democratic show advertised that it would accept any work of art presented for exhibition, provided the artist was willing to pay the five-dollar entry fee. Therefore, when R. Mutt and his Fountain were not allowed into the show, a much-publicized debate began over the nature of art. Duchamp's piece struck at the core of the myth of the artist as craftsman, for what he did was chose an already constructed object, gave it a title, placed it in an alien environment, and called it art. MacLeod, in Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, sees an affinity with this theory behind the readymades and Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar." He states:

Stevens' time in New York, and especially his exposure to the Arsenberg salon, did indeed prove valuable. In particular, the influence of the art that Stevens familiarized himself with during this period was enormous. Throughout his career, Stevens was to go on to further explore this new-found relationship of imagination and reality. Far from being an isolated, enigmatic figure in modern literature, Stevens was notably involved in his time and place. His attention to the newest art theories and movements, I would argue, shows itself distinctly on the pages of Harmonium.


Click here for a paper by Brad Ricca on The Fourth Dimension. His discussion includes Cubism's relation to visual imagination.

Click here for a paper by Ben Johnson on William Carlos Williams' short stories. Mr. Johnson cites a cubist iinfluence in Williams' stories.



  1. See MacLeod, Glen, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art, New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Pp. 4. All subsequent citations will be noted with (WS & MA) followed by the page number. To avoid confusion, I will be citing MacLeod, Glen, Wallace Stevens and Company, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983 with (WS &Co.) followed by the page number.
  2. Page numbers refer to 1975 photographic reprint of Harmonium published by St. James Press. All subsequent citations from Harmonium will be noted with an (H) followed by the page number.


















Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. Princeton: Princeton UP,


Costello, Bonnie. "Effects of an Analogy: Wallace Stevens and Painting." Wallace

Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space 1880 - 1918. Cambridge: Harvard UP,

Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford

UP, 1991.

MacLeod, Glen. Wallace Stevens and Company: The Harmonium Years 1913 - 1923.

---. Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract

Steinman, Lisa. Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets.

New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. 1923. London: St. James Press, 1975.

---. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.