American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

STEVENS, WALLACE (1879-1955). Wallace Stevens is one of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century, whose central concern is with the relationship of the human imagination and the world of physical reality. Stevens grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Harvard College and then New York Law School, graduating in 1903; he spent most of his career in Hartford, Connecticut, as an insurance executive. At the same time he was writing poems, publishing his first lyrics in 1914 and his first book in 1923. Thereafter he published a collection of poems every few years, winning the National Book Award in Poetry for 1950 and 1954 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

Early in his law career Stevens traveled a good deal in Florida, a landscape and seascape that dominate his first two collections, Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1936). In several important poems throughout his career, Stevens explores his major theme, the relationship between imagination and reality, through sea imagery. His first long, narrative poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C” (1922), establishes the sea as a place of spiritual discovery. “The Idea of Order at Key West”* (1934) dramatizes the interplay of the self and the world: a female figure walking beside the sea sings a song that both reflects the inarticulate sounds of the waves and attempts to give meaning to those sounds; at the same time, physical reality is changed by the song. Later poems utilize sea imagery to present a merging of the self and the world. “Prologues to What Is Possible” (1952) uses an extended metaphor of a figure alone at sea in a boat to describe the state of mind of being at one with the world. Similarly, the sea voyage in “The Sail of Ulysses” (1954) becomes a metaphor for discovering a way of being that fluidly connects reality and the human imagination, so long in contention in Stevens’ earlier poems. [See also SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY]

Nancy Prothro Arbuthnot