What I'm not going to do, here, is interpret a poem.* That's perilous territory, not because it's impossible to say something insightful whilst being uncontroversial (indeed, offensiveness may be a barometer of insight), but rather because the poem I'm going to share with you is not, I think, meant to be interpreted in the old English-class-dissection way. One might argue that no poem is meant to be read as a kind or word problem, but some poems are particularly unyielding to that kind of analysis.
* Funny how writing works. As I finish up writing the post, what I've done is, actually, interpret the poem. I'm keeping this paragraph anyway, but know ahead of time that it's all lies. Of course, my disclaimer should be, instead, that I'm ignoring a whole lot of stuff I should be including in my interpretation, but the post is long enough without more detail.
Wallace Stevens is certainly a difficult poet to comprehend no matter what approach you use. Some of his poems - many of his poems - are not even all that pleasant to read, and don't necessarily seem to have a point outside of some bizarre and esoteric conviction that only the truly initiated understand. That, however, is not true of all of Stevens's poems. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird may be one of the more enigmatic poems that have made it into the Canon of English classes everywhere, but it is hardly unreadable.
Fun as it would be to play with that poem, I'm more interested, for the moment, in Peter Quince at the Clavier. A great many poems are described as "musical," which almost always annoys the Hell out of musicians. The problem is, most people don't really know what they mean when they call something "musical." A fairly technical definition might be something like: 'contains tones arranged in logical sequences to produce harmony, melody, and rhythm.' Poems do no such thing. Even if you grant that a poem read aloud has an auditory quality, it would be hard to argue that it is music unless it is sung. So describing a poem as "musical" implies a more touchy-feely definition. Unfortunately, that touchy-feely usage of "musical" often means, simply, "I liked it because it made me feel ______."*
* This is similar to calling music "beautiful." While a great many pieces are beautiful in some sense, it's kind of a throw-away, at a certain point. Calling music "beautiful" is often an excuse to not think about the how and the why of our love for a particular piece. "I can't explain it, it's just beautiful." While wonder and awe are certainly an important part of music - or poetry - that doesn't mean we should just let it be without trying to understand what's so wonderful about it. "Beautiful" music is sometimes the most terrifying and insidious, when you really think about it, and "musical" poetry can be the most disturbing. But we'll have to explore all of that at another time.
For my part, I would call Peter Quince at the Clavier a musical poem, not simply because I like it, but because it is actually an attempt to capture the spirit and form of music. Specifically, Stevens replicates the sonata form in the structure of the poem. This is a remarkable trick, because it asks not only that the reader see an analogy between the written word and the auditory piece of music (and not a fake analogy, but a meaningful, structural one), but also it presents its content - which is inherently more concrete than a sonata's - with a kind of musical sense of connotation.* What makes this connotation more powerful, to my mind, than the connotation in a typical "musical" poem is the self-consciousness of Stevens. He is writing a musical poem, and he knows it.
* Which is, of course, what people do mean when they call poems "musical." The kind of images the poem inspires are the kinds of images a song might.
Let's get the poem on the digital table. I want to present it couched in my own framework (you can read it at the link without my meddling).
Movement One - Sonata Allegro
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
"Music is feeling then, not sound." Ah, the other tenet of the "musical poem." But here the music comes not from trying to create a feeling in the reader - though certainly that does occur - but more from the description of the feeling itself. This is a poem not to generate a feeling, but about a feeling, and about why that feeling is musical. This is a more genuine way for a poem to be "musical."
More to the point, however, is the form here. The pacing of this section of the poem - this "movement" - is very much according to the sonata form, and, what's more, at the not-too-fast but not-too-slow allegro pace. The pacing you'll be able to tell from the coming sections, but the sonata form bears a little explanation. Sonata form, traditionally, goes A-B-A. That is, exposition to introduce the theme, development to depart from it, and recapitulation to return to it. Here the poem starts with music, a theme. What is music, it says, and what is a poem's relationship to music? That theme never goes away, but it transforms into desire, and metaphor. The development of that initial theme takes the form of "a green evening, clear and warm," a description of a setting for a feeling, which prepares us to return in our recapitulation. "The basses of their beings throb / In witching chords," We return to music, perhaps more specific, certainly more orchestral than our lonely piano at the opening, but music all the same. Our theme has been developed, and is now recapitulated.
Second Movement - Adagio
In the green water, clear and warm,
The touch of springs,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned --
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.
This reads slowly, because Stevens breaks lines in order to force delay. Those milliseconds we take to jump from "She searched" to "The touch of springs" are enough to slow us down, so that we feel the tempo has dropped, and the mood has deepened. The content - the theme - of the first "movement" of the poem was almost philosophical (music is feeling), and so the actual feeling - desire - was subsumed under a kind of joyful and playful intellectual romp. Not so in this movement. Here Stevens is not sad, per se, but he is reflective. His Susanna does not jump, she lies "in the green water, clear and warm."
This movement rhymes, at points, as well, engaging our ears and further slowing our progress as we reflect back to the line with which the rhyme occurs. In all this strikes me as a minor theme, not because it is sad, but because it is unsure. If we had opened in C Major, we are in A minor with strong intonations of C ("so much melody"). The picture here is one of longing, desire, loss even. In some way we are completely divorced from the first movement - as we would be in most music - but there is a vague connection, a promise that this image of Susanna by the water, shares a certain musical feeling with the desires of the opening Allegro. It is an explication of what was melancholy amidst the romp.
Of course, it ends with a nice crescendo into the Scherzo.
Third Movement - Scherzo
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
While there is something uncomfortable about the story here, it is very much in the playful, jovial style of a Scherzo. For one, it is undoubtedly the fastest movement yet. The couplets jump off the page quickly, especially because of the regular meter (iambic quatrimeter, for those technical readers out there*). "Scherzo" means "joke," and while the joke here may be a cruel one for Susanna, it is a joke nonetheless. Even the diction (rhyming Byzantines with tambourines twice, for example) here suggests that things are, if not rofl-funny (I'm coining that one), at least a bit absurd.
* It is worth noting that quatrimeter could be considered far more musical than pentameter, the more common poetic meter. Quatrimeter is, basically, 4/4 time. "Revealed (1) Susan- (2) -na and (3) her shame (4)." Each foot is an eighth-note. 5/4 time does happen, of course, but it is exceedinly rare. Especially in sonatas.
Scherzo's also tend to be shorter movements, and this is certainly brief. Nevertheless, they play an important musical role, separating the reflective Adagio from the culminating Finale, punctuating the depth of reflection with a joviality that does not fully forget the melancholy - indeed, it comes from the same source - but recharacterizes it in a different way. Our original theme, "music is feeling," is a bit distant, but the image of Susanna, the desire and longing that she represents, is made sharper here.
Susanna is a delicate, almost mournful creature in the second movement, but here, in the Scherzo, this musical desire that our Peter Quince (a telling name) has takes on it's true form. He may love her beauty, but he also loves her shame. His desire is conent to fester, but it is nonetheless a desire to be bawdy and lusty. His music may be beautiful, sensual, and melancholy at one turn, but at the next it is devious. And should this surprise us? The longings of Beethoven's music were thought dangerous and innapropriate in his time.
Fourth Movement - Finale, Theme and Repetitions
Beauty is momentary in the mind --
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden's choral.
Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
Most every sonata culminates in a Finale that, while encompassing the thematic material (if not in actual notation, in spirit) of the previous movements while moving beyond to a more profound and usually more theatrical climax. Here Stevens winds his Finale around Death, perhaps to our great surprise. As if the movement - which I say is a "Theme and Variations" because "So ____ dies" is a refrain here - were not surprising enough thematically, it opens with a chord we did not expect: "Beauty is momentary in the mind... But in the flesh it is immortal." Music? Longing? Our themes are gone.
Except they are not. Stevens has jumped from music and desire to death, perhaps, but what is that death? The obvious play here is the French "petit mort," seeing the Scherzo here as a culmination of desire in orgasm. I think Stevens may be suggesting that - he is certainly a fan of innuendo* - but I think he is also drawn to death as a musical question. Our sonata is to reach it's final cadence, our poem is to end, our romance is to play out for better or worse. The death here is a death of many things, not the least of which is the true death that awaits all lovers and all musicians, not particularly because they are lovers or musicians, but because they are men (who may also be lovers and musicians for the same reason). Is that too broad? Probably, and Stevens has more going on here, but it is certainly the theme against which his variations are played.
* I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Against death Stevens pits immortality, but of a strange kind. The immortality of physical beauty and the immortality of music are separate from the body itself, from even the mind or the poet or the musician. This immortality that "makes a constant sacrament of praise" depends upon music, or feeling, or desire. What is immortal, what is beyond death - we can hope - is just that; the desire to be musical, to love and to lust after, to play song after song and sonata after sonata.
And yet there is Peter Quince, the Shakesperian ass, playing the Clavier. For all the depth of meaning - most of which I am sure I do not understand - in the poem, there is always that self-depricating, self-sabotaging irony that says we ought not to take any of this too seriously. That may be a profound piece of wisdom, or it may be a reminder that poetry and music are too different to really be translated, even in the clever way that Stevens has tried to do so.
Regardless, this sonata by Stevens - or Peter Quince, I'm not sure - is musical to me, as I said at the outset. It is musical because I feel I need to read it aloud, to feel the meaningless connotations as much as the loaded ones, to explore my own reaction to it as much as the attempt at self-expression that it must clearly represent. It is musical because it exists somewhere in that paradoxical land of great art, being the supremely selfish creation of a particular mind, whilst being so universal as to be comprehensible - on some level anyway - to just about anyone. Perhaps, above all, it is musical because it says it is, and who are we to argue?