‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’ by Wallace Stevens was published in 1915 and appeared in Stevens’ first book of poetry, Harmonium. Stevens chose to structure this piece in free verse. This means that there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. His choice was not made lightly, it makes sense that this text would be without constraint as it deals with the engagement of imagination.
One of the first things a reader will notice about this piece is the repetition of colours. They are used to enhance the metaphorical “white night-gown” of one’s life. Lines four-six all begin in and end in the same way. This is known as anaphora and epistrophe.
Rhyme and Rhythm
While there is not a rhyme scheme, that does not mean that rhymes do not exist in the text. For instance, the second line contains the words “white” and “night” right next to one another. Slant rhymes occur in lines four and seven between the words “green” and “rings” and “strange” and “rings.” These are words that do not rhyme, but share enough characteristics to be worthy of note.
He chose to use these instances of half/slant rhyme, as well as moments of assonance and consonance in order to unify the text. The poem is short, but these connections help move a reader from line to line. The sounds are more pleasing to the ear and easier to read when they are related to one another.
Summary of Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock
‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’ by Wallace Stevens describes a speaker’s disappointed with a population living predictably boring lives.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he can see a number of houses that are “haunted / By white night-gowns.” The residents of these houses, whether they make up a street or a town, are boring. They all wear the same thing to bed. Their clothes stand are a larger metaphor for the state of their lives. The speaker sees them as living no where close to their full potential.
He goes on to list out all of the different colours that the nightgowns could be, but aren’t. They might be green, or even “yellow with blue rings.” In the next sections he goes on to explain how a boring life leads to boring dreams. There is one contingent of the population which doesn’t live as straightforwardly— the sailors. They too sleep but they dream of chasing tigers. Their lives are different enough to supply them with some interest, at least when they’re sleeping.
Analysis of Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
In the first two lines the speaker begins with a strange metaphor comparing the complexity of a certain group of people to “white night-gowns.” He sees these gowns as being the most plain, simple items one could wear. In the case of the specific place he is talking about, everyone wears them. They are so prevalent it seems like the “houses are haunted” by their presence.
Due to the fact that hauntings are not typically considered to be good things, it is clear the speaker is passing a negative judgment on the night-gown wearers. He is bothered by their lack of creativity.
He goes on to list out a number of colours that the night gowns are not. The speaker expresses regret over the fact that none of the night-gowns are “green.” This is only the beginning though. If it were up to him they would also be “purple with green rings” or “yellow with blue rings.”
A reader should take note of the use of anaphora and epistrophe in lines four through six. Stevens starts these lines with the same word, “or” and ends them “rings.” The use of repetition ensures a reader will truly feel the speaker’s conviction. He really does wish that color, or diversity appeared more often.
This diversity could take many forms, but most likely he wishes people to prove themselves to be different from one another. Either in what they wear, care about or how they act. His life, and he thinks theirs, would be more interesting if this change were made.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
The speaker goes on to emphasize the “strange[ness]” he is looking for. He is unable to find it in the nightgowns and is disappointed by that fact. If he had his way everyone would wear items like “socks of lace” and “beaded ceintures” or belts. These accessories would improve his opinion of the population and he believes, their own lives.
One of the poor outcomes of living such boring lives is that they won’t have interesting dreams. Unfortunately for the night-gown wearers, they will not “dream of baboons and periwinkles,” or little flowers. The speaker does not include an explanation for why he is interested in these two images, adding to the strangeness of the poem. It also further emphasizes the imagination he wants to encourage. Perhaps Stevens was hoping to inspire further thought on the part of his reader.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
In amongst all the duplicate lives in the town at there are a few interesting people. They are drunken, old sailors. In comparison to the rest of the population their lives are radical, especially considering they are “asleep in [their] boots.” They do not adhere to the standards of decorum the others seem interested in.
There is another difference between the sailors and the night-gown wearers. When a sailor dreams he “Catches tigers / In red weather.” This image is meant to be more thrilling than it is terrifying. At least the sailor is able to experience a rush of adrenaline in his dreams. He is having a much more exciting time than the other residents.