Theory (poem)

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"Theory" is a poem from Wallace Stevens's first book of poetry, Harmonium. It was first published in 1917, so it is in the public domain.[1]


 I am what is around me.

 Women understand this.
 One is not duchess
 A hundred yards from a carriage.

 These, then are portraits:
 A black vestibule;
 A high bed sheltered by curtains.

 These are merely instances.

The instances are instances of imagination at work, as in the creation of a poem. They are not instances of a scientific theory, for they represent the particularizing quality of the imagination, not the generalizing that takes place in scientific reasoning. (This is itself a generalization from the theoretical or "scientific" perspective being minorized, which the line "Women understand this" also partakes of.) They may allude to a theory about poetry to the effect that it should be local, engaging the environment one has roots in. (See the main Harmonium essay about localism.) But the instances are so loosely connected to any particular locale that they suggest the theory's refutation (as unconvincing as the theory premised on locale is to begin with). The poet's imagination can go anywhere.

Buttel interprets the poem as one of Stevens's attempts to approach the rhythms of prose, as part of a strategic understatement that moves into a poem in an offhand, 'anti-poetic' way. He sees that the instances must carry the strength of the theory, but he says nothing about how to understand theory in Stevens's specific sense, and nothing about what strength amounts to in this context.

Compare the opening line to Byron's assertion in the first lines of Canto III, Stanza LXXII of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: "I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me."


  1. ^ Buttel, p. 206. See also Librivox


  • Buttel, Robert. Wallace Stevens: The Making of Harmonium. 1967: Princeton University Press.