Throughout, Stevens uses a variety of rhythmic patterns, giving each of the four sections its own tone and feeling. He comments on the story of Susanna and the concept of beauty. The poem steps away from traditional concepts of beauty, such as those popularized by Plato, and includes the memorable line:
Beauty is momentary in the mind
The title is another point of interest. ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’ alludes to the speaker or the person telling the story in the four sections. Stevens casts Peter Quince from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the role of narrator. He’s playing “the clavier,” or a keyboard instrument with strings, most likely a harpsichord. It’s these keys that the poet references in the first lines as playing on the speaker’s mind.
Quince is one of the six mechanicals, or performers, of Athens, who takes part in Pyramus and Thisbe, a play-within-a-play. He, like the other five actors, is an amateur. He’s known for his poor playwriting skills and inability to fit what he wants to say into the meter of the lines.
Explore Peter Quince at the Clavier
‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’ by Wallace Stevens is a musical poem that explores the story of Susanna and the Elders with an emphasis on desire, music, and the mind.
The poem begins with the speaker, Peter Quince, dedicating lines to someone he desires. He compares his love for this person to the lust that the elders felt when they saw Susanna bathing in her garden. He speaks about the ways that music is the same as “feeling” and provides some details regarding what happened to Susanna after she refused to have sex with the two older men.
Stevens also includes a discussion of the concept of beauty, diverging from the Platonic assertions of its autonomy from the five senses.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Peter Quince at the Clavier’ by Wallace Stevens is a four-part poem that uses a variety of metrical patterns and stanza lengths. The poem begins with five tercets and some rhyming words, like “Hosanna” and “Susanna.” The following section uses shorter lines and a few more rhymes, like “springs” and “imaginings.” The third section is written in rhyming couplets, and the fourth contains one three-line stanza, one seven-line stanza, and two more concluding tercets.
Throughout this poem, Stevens makes use of a number of literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same words or phrases at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “She” begins lines three and seven of part II’s first stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza of part I as well as lines three and four of the first stanza of part II.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “make music” in line two of stanza one and “basses” and “beings” in line one of the fifth stanza.
- Allusion: this poem is based on the poet’s allusions to the story of Susanna, a young wife who was seen bathing by the elders from the Book of Daniel. The poem also contains an allusion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Stanzas One and Two
Just as my fingers on these keys
Here in this room, desiring you,
In the first stanzas of ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier,’ the speaker, Peter Quince, begins by describing the effect of music on his body. His fingers make music when they press the keys, so too does music press the same keys in his soul, creating a new kind of music. Music, he says in stanza two, is “feeling.” Music is a feeling, he decides, not a sound, and it is very much like what he feels when he thinks about “you.” Here, the speaker directs his words to an unknown listener, someone he “desires.”
The lines in these first stanzas are quite simple. But, are made more complex through the poet’s introduction of religious allusions in the next stanzas.
Stanzas Three and Four
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The speaker compares his affection for “you” to the “strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna,” who saw her bathing in her “still garden.” They, “red-eyed,” watched her and felt their beings transformed. This is how he feels about his relationship with “you.” Seeing “you” and “your blue-showed silk” is like the music playing in his soul, a beautiful and all-consuming feeling.
Stevens is alluding to a story from the Book of Daniel by the Catholic Church. The story is concerned with a Hebrew woman, Susanna, who is falsely accused by “Elders.” They watch her bathe in her garden and, having seen her, are aroused by their newfound lust and demand that she has sex with them. After she refuses, they leave and have her arrested, claiming that she was having sex with a different man under a tree in her yard.
Susanna was arrested based on their allegations and was going to be put to death. Right before her execution, a young man, Daniel, interrupts and demands that the elders be questioned before an innocent is put to death. The men are examined in the details of their story, and their lies come to light. They are put to death and Susanna’s place.
The basses of their beings throb
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
The fifth stanza provides more details from the story in Stevens’ own words. He describes how, like one feels music inside their body when the “bass” is particularly loud, so too did these men feel a longing for Susanna. He makes other specific allusions to a pizzicato or a specific technique employed for playing an instrument. He also uses “Hosanna,” a religious term used to express joy and praise, usually regarding God’s presence and creation.
Stanzas One and Two
In the green water, clear and warm,
Of old devotions.
The second part of ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier‘ uses a slightly different structure. The lines are shorter with fewer words, usually no more than two. They are dedicated to depicting Susanna as she was before the elders’ accusations. She was innocent, alone, bathing in her own garden enjoying the feeling of the water, “clear and warm.”
She rose from the water, stood up on the bank, and was filled with emotions, the same musical feelings that the speaker described in the first few lines when he looked at “you” and how the elders felt when they saw Susanna at this exact moment. The speaker suggests that while Susanna stood in her garden, she was thinking about “The dew / Of old devotions.” She was consumed with her own thoughts and had no knowledge of the two men who were watching her.
Stanzas Three and Four
She walked upon the grass,
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.
The third stanza continues the peaceful and calm tone of the previous two. Susanna, moved by the music of feeling, was still “quavering” as she walked through the grass. She was alone, except for the elements which were “like her maids.” She walked on “timid” feet and was “wavering” as she moved, experiencing a deep emotional state that was soon to be broken by the “cymbal crash…/ and roaring horns.” Her reverie is interrupted by the revelation that the two elders were watching her the whole time. The poet uses a metaphor here, comparing this realization to musical dissonance.
Stanzas One through Three
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Was like a willow swept by rain.
The third part of the poem is structured with couplets. The “noise like tambourines,” which is a metaphor for the ruckus the elders caused in the garden (as well as how they disrupted Susanna’s peace), calls the “attendant Byzantines” to Susanna’s side. They were confused by the scene and whispered about what possibly could’ve happened as the elders pitted themselves against Susanna and, having been turned down by her, were infuriated enough to have her arrested.
Stanzas Four and Five
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
The word “anon,” meaning “soon” or “shortly,” begins the fourth stanza. The poet describes how soon the elders “Revealed Susanna and her shame.” Here he alludes to the story they crafted, allowing them a chance to ruin Susanna’s reputation and have her arrested for adultery. They accused her of having sex with a man in her garden, a fact that drove off everyone Susanna knew and who claimed to care for her. They “Fled, with a noise like tambourines” (a great example of a simile).
Stanzas One and Two
Beauty is momentary in the mind—
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
In the final section of ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier,’ the poet describes how “beauty is momentary in the mind.” It lasts there for a time (as it did for the elders who saw Susanna bathing and as it did within Susanna’s mind before realizing that she was being watched).
It comes and goes from “the mind,” but it is “immortal” in the flesh.” It lives on; the second stanza continues, even after the body dies. The poet uses several comparisons to further this assertion. He compares the immortality of beauty to the way that a wave dies out and how evenings move into night. These temporary, incredibly beautiful sights are “Interminably flowing” or endlessly occurring.
He continues the comparison of the garden and the lives of maidens (while using an example of personification). Beauty in young women fades, but it is continually replaced by the “auroral / Celebration of a maiden’s choral.” Or the beauty of another young woman (who here the speaker compares to the aurora borealis).
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
The final stanza returns to Susanna and the elders. He describes how her beauty was music-like (as noted in the first stanza, “music” is a “feeling”) and touched the “bawdy” or indecent minds of the “white elders.” He alludes to how her story concludes with the execution of the elders who tried to have her executed for her refusal of them.
Now, Susanna’s music/beauty/the feelings she evokes in others live on through her memory. It “plays,” the speaker notes, on the “clear viol of her memory / And makes a constant sacrament of praise.” A viol, or musical instrument from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It is used as a metaphor for her existence and what her story evokes and people to this day.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Peter Quince at the Clavier‘ should also consider reading some other Wallace Stevens’ poems. For example:
- ‘The Snow Man’ – was first published in Poetry magazine in 1921. This poem features the poet’s perspectivism concerning an image of the wintry landscape.
- ‘Table Talk’ – explores the random nature of life, and how people like different things without reason.
- ‘Of Modern Poetry’ – shares his rules or theories on how “modern poetry” should be. According to him, it must be something new, something set upon real places, people, and events.