Wallace Stevens: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Beth Kulik

Beth has taught high school English for 7 years. She has a master's degree in Education Leadership.

In this lesson, we will examine a brief biography of the American Modernist poet Wallace Stevens. We will also read and analyze some of his poetry. The lesson will conclude with a short quiz.

Wallace Stevens

wallace stevens

Biography

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was an American poet during the Modernist movement. He was born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, and went to college at Harvard University. The son of a lawyer, Stevens also attended New York Law School and graduated in 1903.

In 1904, he married Elsie Moll after a long courtship. His parents did not approve of the marriage because they believed Elsie to be from a lower class. Thus, no one in his family attended his wedding. As a result of this, Stevens did not speak to any of his family members until after his father's death.

He and Elsie were happily married, living in New York City, when their daughter, Holly, was born in 1924. Years later, Elsie began to develop symptoms of mental illness, which caused some tension to arise in their marriage; however, they remained married.

Stevens did not begin publishing his poetry until he was 35 years old. Many considered him to be a superb poet, though. This is evident in the awards he received. In 1955, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his work titled Collected Poems. He also earned the National Book Award for Poetry twice: in 1951 for his collection The Auroras of Autumn and in 1995 for Collected Poems.

In August 1955, Stevens died from stomach cancer.

Poetry Analysis

Now that we know a little bit about the man, Wallace Stevens, let's take a look at some of his poetry! First, we will read and analyze a poem titled 'The Death of a Soldier.' I would like to read this poem twice. The first time, just read it for its content. The second time, read it for its theme and meaning; also, try to determine why Stevens chose to symbolize 'autumn' in the poem. Good luck!

'The Death of a Soldier' (1923)

Life contracts and death is expected

As in a season of autumn

The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days parsonage,

Imposing his separation,

Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,

As in a season of autumn,

When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,

The clouds go, nevertheless,

In their direction.

Now, that you've read the poem, what do you think Wallace Stevens intended you to take away from reading it? What do you think its meaning, or his message, is? Remember how I asked you to try to determine the meaning of the use of symbolizing autumn in the poem? Hopefully, this thought will help you with your analysis.

When writing a short, concise poem, the author must choose his diction wisely. In this case, Stevens selected each word perfectly. Look back at the second two lines in the first stanza: 'As in a season of autumn/the soldier falls.' When one thinks of 'autumn,' one of the first things to come to mind is its synonym 'fall.' Stevens is describing how just like leaves fall during autumn, soldiers fall during war.

Later, in the third stanza, Stevens writes, 'Death is absolute and without memorial/As in a season of autumn/When the wind stops.' He is explaining how death occurs during war as naturally as wind during autumn. In other words, Stevens' message in this poem is that death during war is just as inevitable as leaves falling during the season of autumn. This is a grim thought, although it unfortunately rings true.

Now let's read and analyze another one of Stevens' poems. This poem is titled 'Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock.' Again, please read through it twice. The second time you read it, focus on attempting to determine Stevens' message.

'Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock' (1915)

The houses are haunted

By white night gowns.

None are green,

Or purple with green rings,

Or green with yellow rings,

Or yellow with blue rings.

None of them are strange,

With socks of lace

And beaded ceintures.

People are not going

To dream of baboons and periwinkles.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,

Drunk and asleep in his boots,

Catches tigers

In red weather.

To analyze this poem, one of the first things we must do is focus on its title. Why do you think Stevens decided on this title? Hopefully, you were able to determine that it has something to do with dreams (although I'm sure you go to sleep well past ten o'clock!).

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