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.