Peter Quince at the Clavier
"Peter Quince at the Clavier" is a poem from Wallace Stevens's first book of poetry, Harmonium. The poem was first published in 1915 in the "little magazine" Others: A Magazine of the New Verse (New York), edited by Alfred Kreymborg.
It is a "musical" allusion to the apocryphal story of Susanna, a beautiful young wife, bathing, spied upon and desired by the elders. The Peter Quince of the title is the character of one of the "mechanicals" in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Stevens' poem titles are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the meaning of his poems, but Milton Bates suggests that it serves as ironic stage direction, the image of "Shakespear's rude mechanical pressing the delicate keyboard with his thick fingers" expressing the poet's self-deprecation and betraying Stevens's discomfort with the role of "serious poet" in those early years.
The poem is very sensual—Mark Halliday calls it Stevens' "most convincing expression of sexual desire". (Honorable mention might go to "Cy Est Pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et Les Unze Mille Vierges".) But "Peter Quince" has dimensions beyond Susanna's ablutions and the elders' desire.
For instance, the poem's Part IV contains a stunning inversion of Platonism and related theories about universals, such as the universal (property, feature) beauty. Instead of saying that beauty is an abstract unchanging Platonic Form existing perfectly in a world separate from the five senses, or an abstract unchanging concept in the mind, the poem says that, paradoxically, "Beauty is momentary in the mind": only transient beauty in the flesh is immortal. Kessler notes that "Unlike Plato or Kant, Stevens strives to unite idea and image."
Robert Buttel observes that each of the four sections has its "appropriate rhythms and tonalities", reading the poem as "part of the general movement to bring music and poetry closer together". He describes Stevens as "the musical imagist" and credits the musical architecture with organically unifying the poem. Some don't like it. For the New York Times poetry critic writing in 1931, it is a specimen of the "pure poetry" of the age that "cannot endure" because it is a "stunt" in the fantastic and the bizarre.
"Turning of music into words, and words into music, continues throughout the poem," according to Janet Mcann, "becoming metaphor as well as genuine verbal music." She instances the line "Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna" as mimicking the plucking of strings as well as suggesting the sexual itch. Because music is feeling, not sound, the analogy between music and poetry is tight. Poetry is feeling too.
Other commentators bring out Stevens' use of color images: "blue-shadowed silk", "green evening", "in the green water", even the "red-eyed elders". This is a reminder that he insisted also on the analogy between poetry and painting. In The Necessary Angel Stevens speaks of identity rather than analogy: "...it is the identity of poetry revealed as between poetry in words and poetry in paint."
Eugene Nassar explores a more abstract reading (and a more contentious one), according to which the poem is about the poet's "imaginative faculty", and Susanna represents the poem and the creative process of writing it. Laurence Perrine objects that Nassar's reading does violence to the poem and the story it leans on, naively ignoring Stevens" own "violence" in yoking a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream named in the title with a biblical narrative alluded to in The Merchant of Venice. The greatest "violence" that Stevens' poem does, though, is to the Susanna's biblical reputation for righteousness.
A close reading of the poem
A close reading explores the associations among the words and lines of a poem and resists going off into biography, history, and literary analogues unless forced to do so by the text. The sixty-six lines of Stevens's "Peter Quince at the Clavier" are complex but reward a reader who actively participates in making sense of them. Peter Quince, the poem's persona, is the speaking voice and is an extremely unreliable narrator. He begins by addressing a woman in blue silk, whom he seems to be trying to seduce. His approach wanders off into telling his intended paramour the biblical story of Susanna, who is celebrated as a righteous and beautiful woman. Peter's version, however, portrays her as a lecher, no more chaste than the red-eyed elders who are lusting after her. As Peter concludes Susanna's story, his half-hearted seduction ends. Since this is a modernist poem it does not need to arrive at a narrative conclusion to the "seduction."
Peter's febrile attempt, similar to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock's, begins with his posing a logical and poetical argument to his intended and then failing to thrust home his conclusion. Peter's unlikely approach is a frontal assault on the poor woman’s virtue:
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,
If she falls for this line, her intellectual defenses need fortifying. Quince’s argument commits a fallacy of undistributed middle. Restating his argument, one can say, “My fingers on these keys make music, which is sounds that in turn make music on my spirit. (Music makes sounds which make music inside me.) And inside me are feelings, so music must be feelings, not sounds. Thus, since my feeling for you is desire, my desire must be music.” Presumably, Peter considers music praiseworthy, so he tries to ally his desire with it.
Simplified further, he is saying:
- Proposition P: All music is feeling.
- Proposition Q: My desire is feeling.
- Conclusion: Therefore, my desire is music.
Fill the form with concrete words and the "undistributed middle" is even easier to see:
- P. All avocados are edible.
- Q. This banana is edible.
- C. This banana is an avocado.
P, Q, and C are basic symbols in sentential logic. That fact would not ordinarily concern a reader of poetry, but since Stevens’ poem begins and ends with sections that are logical arguments it does. The similarity between the logical notation and an abbreviation of Stevens' title, "PQ@C," is an interesting possible sidelight. A reader can conclude from Peter's sloppy, unfinished argument that is that he may be a passionate word spinner but he is not a passionate lover.
From this point in line eight, Peter starts telling his derogatory version of the story of Susanna. The narrative is opened and closed by lines that closely resemble each other, an important formal element. Here are these key passages:
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their being throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
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.
The lines from Part I are clear, but the syntax in the lines from Part IV is convoluted and highly compressed. Sometimes a close reading is helped by paraphrasing such passages. Remember that a paraphrase is not the "meaning of the poem," but is a tool for exploring and understanding.
The passage quoted above says on one level: “Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings in the elders, but, when she escaped [their attempt to accuse her of lechery], they heard only the sound of death (that “ironic scraping”) [their being condemned to death by the townspeople]. Susanna, on the other hand, hears her own music playing on the “viol of her memory,” [the same musical memories of her lovers she indulged in while bathing]. Susanna's "constant sacrament! of praise,” then, is the "melody" of "spent emotions" that have covered her naked body with "the dew / Of old devotions."
The poem's conclusion harkens back to this key passage in Part II, which conveys her lechery through the words "spent emotions":
For so much melody.
Upon the bank she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
Of old devotions.
Peter Quince has drastically changed the biblical story in order to describe Susanna as a lecher. (Remember, this is being written in 1915, not 2015!) Susanna enjoys lustful thoughts not all that different from the ones that tortured the red-eyed elders. That is the erotic music that at the end plays a “constant sacrament of praise” and "Hosannas," not to God but to her former lovers.
Paraphrasing "Peter Quince at the Clavier"
My fingers’ pressing these keys to make musical sounds resembles the way the musical sounds evoke feelings in me. Music is more than just sounds. It evokes feelings in listeners. Since I feel desire for you, that feeling must be music.The music that I’ve equated with my desire for you is like the music evoked in the elders by Susanna’s beauty [in the biblical book of Susanna]: Susanna was bathing quietly in a clear, warm pool in her garden one evening. Some elders of the village were secretly watching her, and perhaps because of her beauty--or something else--felt lust. Their desire for Susanna resembled music and it made their pulses quicken as if in praise [not of God, as “Hosanna” originally meant].
II Susanna was relaxing in a clear warm pool in her quiet garden. The warm springs of the pool drew forth repressed fantasies. These fantasies resembled beautiful music for her, and in her relaxed state she enjoyed them. When she got out of the water, she had clearly pleasured herself by thinking of former lovers. The breezes floated her diaphanous garments to her. Suddenly, she felt a breath on her hand and the garden became silent. She turned [and saw the elders]. Her shock was like the sound of cymbals and the loud sound of horns.
Her ladies in waiting ran in and their entrance resembled the noise of tambourines being shaken. Her attendants did not know why she was crying beside the elders. Soon the attendants surmised that Susanna had brought shame on herself, and they fled. Their fleeing resembled the sound of tambourines.
[Dear lady in blue silk, let me explain a few things to you.] The perception of beauty is transitory. Perceptions come and go. But the tangible embodiments of beauty are "immortal," in that they are almost always available. Of course, individual beautiful bodies die, but the beauty that was seen in them lives on in other mortal women. [This requires clarification, and I will clarify by making some analogies.] Beautiful evenings, waves, and gardens die, but their beauty returns in others; in addition, instantiations of beauty are sometimes “eternized” in art and music. Susanna’s beauty is in scripture, poems, and songs: an "auroral / Celebration of a maiden’s choral." Susanna’s beauty--or what she was doing in her bath--resonated with the elders’ lewd desires. She escaped [their false accusations of adultery], but the elders were executed. [Following their accusations of Susanna's lechery, the Prophet Daniel rescued her reputation and her life, and the townspeople condemned the elder to death.] Their death resembled an "ironic scraping" instead of music. The music of Susanna's "spent emotions"—the melody inside her as she enjoyed reminiscing about her former lovers—resembles for the rest of her life a psalm to her memories. Peter's calling that a "sacrament of praise" is hugely ironic and comical.
With all its innate musicality, it is not surprising that the poem has been adapted for music twice. Dominic Argento set it as a "Sonatina for Mixed Chorus and Piano Concertante," and Gerald Berg set it for bass voice, clarinets, percussion and piano. Both works have been recorded.
- Thus the poem is in the public domain in the United States and similar jurisdictions, as it is not affected by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extends copyright for works first published after 1922.
- Bates, p. 117.
- Robert Buttel, "On 'Peter Quince at the Clavier'"
- Kessler, p. 58
- The New York Times
- Stevens, p. 159.
A poem from the Harmonium collection
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- Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: a mythology of self. 1985: University of California Press.
- Kessler, Edward. Images of Wallace Stevens. 1972: Rutgers University Press.
- Nassar, Eugene. College English, volume 26.
- Perrine, Laurence. College English, volume 27.
- Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. (1942: Knopf)