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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part One. Stevens’ Uses of French

Poetic Sanctions: Stevens’ French as the Language of Love and Law

Lisa M. Steinman

Texte intégral

  • 1 See E. Cook, Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens, p. 7.

1Wallace Stevens famously wrote that “French and English constitute a single language” (CPP, 914). In later letters he slightly revised his claim, writing “English and French are a single language” (Letters, 699) and “English and French are the same language” (Letters, 792). “To be” and “to constitute” are slightly different matters, with different connotations that Stevens (who paid attention to etymologies and inflections) would surely have heard.1 Moreover, one can discern the ways in which “to constitute” has a different ring to it than the copula by turning to the 1913 version of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, since Stevens noted that he used “a Webster” in a letter where he also said that a “good many words [came] to [him] from French origins” (Letters, 698-699).

  • 2 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828), “Constitute.”
  • 3 O. Barfield, History in English Words, p. 60-62. I am grateful to Michael Faletra for reminding me (...)
  • 4 See, in particular, J. V. Brogan, The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the (...)

2 Webster’s defines the verb “to constitute” (which does not have a French origin) as meaning “to enact” or “to compose”—suggesting not so much that English and French are equivalent, but that together they dynamically form something new. Moreover, the first of the sample sentences offered by Webster’s links the word “constitute” to the law, as does the fourth (already in 1913 obsolete) definition of the word as a noun, meaning an established law.2 As Owen Barfield has detailed, French deeply informs the related languages of law and government in English.3 I’ll return to the relationship between Stevens’ French and law; at the moment, my broader question is: what kind of a language was this single language composed of or enacted by English and French for Stevens? It is not that Stevens coins many new words; he most often intersperses French phrases and words within his usual English. So perhaps the better question is: why, or to what end, did Stevens import French words, or use words derived from French? That is, what did French signify for Stevens early in his career? I might add that I focus on earlier Stevens, in part because there is more than enough to say about this period, and in part because World War II changed the significance of France or French.4

3One might think that, in Stevens’ early work, French would be—as it often was in the wider US culture of the time—the language of love or coded eroticism, as indeed it sometimes seems to be. One need only think of the “starry connaissance” in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” (CPP, 11), or even the self-consciously ironized trope of spring “like a belle undressing” in “Of the Surface of Things” (CPP, 45), although occasionally in Stevens’ writing French appears (a bit differently) to be the language of civilized high culture, more refined than bawdy. Neither stereotype is unusual for the period.

  • 5 M. McKeon, “The Pastoral Revolution,” p. 272.

4What is more surprising is that even when Stevens imagined himself in or someday going to Paris, he rarely expressed any apparent desire for fashionable Paris, or the Paris of salons like those of the century’s first decade in which Mina Loy circulated or Gertrude Stein presided. In part, this may be because French and France could play different roles for Stevens; that is, he may have proclaimed that French and English constituted a single language, but French and France may still at times have been two different things for him. I will not say much here about Stevens’ imagination of France where it differs from his associations with French, but will concentrate on where these converge. Still, it is worth pointing out that while he was trying to make a living as a journalist in the summer of 1900, Stevens wrote in his journal that he hoped to get to Paris, and voiced his need to get “away from the endless chain to which [he felt he was] fastened like a link” (Letters, 48); also, in a letter to his wife in 1913 about how Reading, Pennsylvania, no longer felt like the place he remembered—Stevens had returned to work in New York, while she remained in Reading after the couple’s visit—he uses French ( “Je tremblais”); then recalls reading a sonnet by Du Bellay; and later he concludes noting that he would “like to be in Paris, sipping a bock under a plane-tree, and listening to Madame’s parrot from Madagascar” (Letters, 181). Here, Paris is figured through classic French texts (Flaubert’s parrot, Du Bellay’s poem, perhaps even Rimbaud’s “foin des bocks et de la limonade”), works that juxtapose the quotidian and the exotic or the elsewhere. Stevens’ Parisian scene might be said to work similarly, although his Paris also, as in his journal entry, proposes what might be called a kind of pastoral set against the daily grind. My sense of pastoral here is in line with Michael McKeon’s, where he writes, “Pastoral is a cultural mechanism whose poetic and ideological function is to test the dialectical fluidity of dichotomous oppositions.”5

5In the passages just quoted, Stevens also associates France—and French— with the physical or the sensuous, as he includes taste, touch, and especially sound as well as his readings in French literature in his imagination of sitting at a Paris café. So France and French, for Stevens, apparently bespoke the sensuous, just not always the erotic per se, and often in a pastoral setting. Specifically, it seems as if it is often the natural world (usually pastoralized in McKeon’s sense of the word) that Stevens brought to the fore early on when talking about France. Most often, then, this is not the straightforward image of refinement or sophistication that, along with the idea of sensuality, would typically have been associated with France in the circles Stevens frequented during the early years of the twentieth century. More to the point, the more usual oppositions between bawdiness and refinement, between the quotidian and the exotic, or between the natural and the cultured, are binaries that are resisted, tested, and blurred.

  • 6 On Stevens’ use of French (and actual sophistication), see G. MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Company: (...)
  • 7 W. C. Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, p. 137. See also his chapter on “Pain (...)

6It is not that Stevens was unaware of the common association of France with sophistication. In 1915, when many French expatriates were in New York because of the war, he described a meeting with Marcel Duchamp, with whom he dined at Walter Arensberg’s invitation. Stevens wrote, perhaps disingenuously, that he “made very little out of” the pieces by Duchamp he saw after dinner at the Arensbergs’ apartment, claiming to be “without sophistication in that direction”; he sounds more enthusiastic when noting that Duchamp spoke little English, so when the three men therefore “spoke French, it sounded like sparrows around a pool of water” (Letters, 185, emphasis added).6 Stevens does briefly associate Duchamp with sophistication, but only in passing. In contrast, William Carlos Williams several times wrote of his grudging admiration for, but also his intimidation in the face of, Duchamp’s sophistication, noting sarcastically, for instance, that Americans at the Arensbergs’ gatherings were “unable to compete […] with the sophisticates of Montmartre.”7 Stevens, on the other hand, barely mentions Duchamp’s sophistication, to focus instead on the pleasure of speaking French; his description suggests a celebration of something like animal pleasure: the activity of speaking French makes both Duchamp and Stevens sound like sparrows, presumably speaking a language of pure sound, in an urban pastoral.

7Admittedly, there are moments, in particular one involving an early visit to an art exhibit in New York, when Stevens sounds more like Williams associating France with sophisticated refinement. In 1909, he wrote the following comment about a painting at the National Academy that had been exhibited first in Paris:

It had the number of the Paris exhibition on its frame and bore the “Medaille” mark—an honor picture. By looking at that, and at nothing else I would imagine myself in Paris, seeing just what any Parisian would see—I laughed in my sleeve at New-York, far out on the bleak edge of the world.
Letters, 117

8Presumably when saying he looked “at that, and at nothing else,” Stevens meant he looked at the painting. At the same time, the syntax is ambiguous. At first reading, the pronoun “that” seems to refer to the mark on the frame of the picture and the word “Medaille,” which in turn is what sets off Stevens’ imagination of someone in Paris seeing him as a yokel, looking at a picture displayed in some uncivilized, “bleak” outpost. Framed one way, this associates France with cultural capital, sophistication, and a barely concealed sense of superiority about both—although, unlike Williams, Stevens inhabits the perspective and language of the Parisian; he imagines laughing at an American: himself seen from the outside. Such moments are infrequent. However, it appears from the early journals and letters that, for Stevens, French was still a language with multiple associations: the language of urban pastoral (as with the sparrows near a pool or the parrot under the plane-tree), of the sensuous ( “sipping a bock”), and of the arts or high culture (as in the Paris exhibit).

9Another point is worth making here. In Stevens’ early writings it is not typically another country but the modern, work-a-day world (urban crowds, work, law school) to which his imaginary French or French imaginary is most often opposed. And yet, as already mentioned, his professional training was full of the language of the law, which in English is heavily indebted to French due to the consolidation of English law after the Norman Conquest. So even here, usual or expected oppositions—not just nature or a freedom from the constraints of life in the modern world vs. culture, but nature, freedom, and high culture vs. legal or governmental codes—do not hold. This could, of course, simply imply that Stevens separated the legal, French-inflected language encountered in his role as a lawyer from the French found in his more personal or poetic writings. He did make various statements to the effect that logic and reason rested uneasily with art and poetry (see, for instance, Letters, 306), and he equated reason with the law (Letters, 761). As I have argued, early Stevens uses French differently: as the language of sensuousness and the erotic, the language of a pastoral kind of freedom, and of refinement. Yet, in light of his legal education and his interest in etymology, Stevens would always already have perceived French as being inflected, by association, with the language of order or regulation, that is, the language of the law. Thus, if poetry does not rest easily with law or reason, and if French is the language of the law, Stevens’ French is also, at the same time, the language of the sensuous, of the imagined elsewhere, both inside and outside of civilized culture.

10Another distinction is worth making here, between the language of the law and the language used when working as a lawyer. As in the passage cited earlier where he wrote that his professional life made him feel like a link in an endless chain, when he was about to get his law degree, Stevens noted, “I’m sure of my law degree. One week more and the drowning out process begins. It feels like entering the hospital for an operation. Nevertheless I’m not so gloomy as I might be” (Letters, 63). It is not entirely clear what will be “drowned out,” or what organ he anticipates the operation will remove but entering a profession and earning his daily bread are clearly marked as potential occasions for gloom, presumably because he worried that devoting his time to work would keep him from writing poetry or feeling alive. By the time he was working as a lawyer in New York, Stevens wrote, “I certainly do not exist from nine to six, when I am at the office,” adding that the “year has been marked by important advances;—but to-night I could not write a single verse. There is no every-day Wallace, apart from the one at work—and that one is tedious” (Letters, 121).

  • 8 Both J. Utard, “‘Chez Moi’: Stevens at Home in the French Language,” p. 277, and B. Maeder, “Steven (...)

11It is not simply that Stevens describes his legal work as being at odds with poetry and pleasure, or with anything not tedious, but also that the law as Stevens first practiced it apparently did not involve much of the French-inflected language that he would presumably have encountered in law school; rather, he complained of spending his days at the office drawing up agreements “full of ‘Whereas’ and ‘Now, Therefore’” (Letters, 113). So if he did associate French with the language of the law, as I am arguing here, it is the French he used outside of his daily work that is at issue. Even when his description of practicing law sounds like what could also be said of his poetry, as when he wrote that “law is mostly thinking without much result. It consists of passing one question to take up another” (Letters, 110)—which might be thought of as making law a form of “Merely Circulating” (CPP, 120)—Stevens’ tone still clearly distinguishes between poetry, which he associates with the pleasures of language, and the “tedious” language used when making his living as a lawyer. The early writings point up a stark contrast: for Stevens, working as a lawyer was not linguistically interesting, while during the evenings when he was not at work but writing letters, poems, or in his journal, he launched into not only wordplay, but also often into French, in a way that seems to confirm what he later said, namely that he turned to French not because of an interest in etymology (although that does play a role in Stevens’ word choices) but, above all, “for the pleasure that it gives” (Letters, 792).8 The pleasure of which he writes seems to be a positive “result” of thinking in poetry, or thinking outside of accepted categories, as opposed to the presumably more tedious “thinking without much result” that he associated with practicing the law. In other words, there is a result when thinking in poetry, and pleasure is that result. Poetry is not, then, to quote one of Stevens’ earlier poems, “maundering” (CPP, 5); it is not aimless.

  • 9 I echo here much that is played out in a different register in C. Altieri, Wallace Stevens and the (...)

12What does this tell us about Stevens’ use of French in the poems? Let me concentrate on the poem from which I just quoted, “The Plot Against the Giant” (CPP, 5-6), not least because it nicely illustrates what comes to light when one reads Stevens’ poems thinking about how for him French could bespeak culture and license, physical pleasure or sensuality and refinement, the language of the law but not the language of working as a lawyer. For one thing, with these multiple associations in mind, we can easily see how the use of French in “The Plot Against the Giant” highlights Stevens’ refusal of culturally expected categories.9

13It is useful to rehearse the plot of “The Plot Against the Giant” (CPP, 5-6), beginning with the title itself. The word “plot,” as it comes from Old English, suggests “a plot of ground,” while the word as it comes into English by way of Old French suggests the primary meaning found in the poem, namely a “scheme.” Both connotations operate in the title of the short 1917 poem, especially given the earthiness of the three girls who use odors, colors, and language (specifically French and French-inflected language) against the giant. Moreover, if the scheming girls are linked to earthy sensuality and garden plots, giants too have multiple possible associations in Stevens’ early writings. They could be associated with Stevens himself (perhaps especially as a breadwinner) or with the earth. The association of giants with Stevens is the less interesting one, I think, although he was notably a large man, and he signed some of his letters to his future wife, especially one complaining about work, “Your / Giant” (Letters, 160). More interestingly, it is difficult to read “The Plot Against the Giant” without also thinking of a journal entry from April 18, 1904, where after a long walk in the countryside about which Stevens waxes rhapsodic, he muses about how humans living in cities have “shut out the face of the giant,” this giant being

there, nevertheless. […] There are his huge legs, Africa + South America, still, apparently, free; and the rest of him is pretty tough and unhandy. But […] we do not think of this. There was a girl on the train [which Stevens took home after his walk] with a face like the under-side of a moonfish. Her talk was of dances + men.
Letters, 73

14The giant of this journal entry is specifically the uncultivated earth—not, Stevens writes, “gardens + orchards + fields” (Letters, 73), but still imagined or anthropomorphized as a “tough” character. As in “The Plot Against the Giant,” furthermore, he is set against a “girl,” although the girl on the train is framed as decidedly less seductive or attractive than the girls in the poem—the undersides of moonfish are red with white spots—even if she is nonetheless associated with sexuality or license, namely, men and dancing. Thus, early in his career, Stevens’ giants could figure the earth, or be an ironic self-reference. But what can one say more specifically of the giant against whom the three girls plot in the 1917 poem?

15The first girl calls the giant a “yokel,” who is “checked”—stopped or perhaps repressed—by “the civilest odors,” which seems to align the giant with the journal entry’s natural world in its wild state, while the girls first seem to be associated both with the bawdier world of the senses (to judge by the double entendres throughout the poem) and also with refinement (the odors are civil; the colors part of a finely-wrought or crafted textile). Moreover, the third girl speaks French when she says “le pauvre,” boasting that she will “undo” the giant with “Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.” The erotic suggestiveness of “labials” and of “undoing” the giant, at first, aligns language, and particularly French, with sexuality and the sensuous. We also find what first sound like a series of contrasts being constructed: the English interjection “Oh, la,” coming right before “le pauvre,” makes us think of the masculine and feminine French articles le and la, as well as of the French “Oh là là”; in addition, we may hear—actually, mishear— “gutter” when we read “guttural,” so that what is down-to-earth seems to be contrasted with what is heavenly. In short, we hear various oppositions: between English and French, masculine and feminine, gutters and heavens, gutturals and labials.

  • 10 This comes not from the Webster’s Stevens would have seen, but from a more modern Merriam Webster D (...)

16On reading the poem again, however, these contrasts do not hold up, especially if one reads with attention to etymologies. According to Webster’s, “labials” enters both English and French from the Latin and has to do with the lips, articulation, and presumably poetry, especially given that a light third echo of the fifth and sixth notes in the musical scale, sol and la (G and A), can be heard in the third girl’s “Oh, la”; yet, surprisingly, it is the adjective “guttural,” having to do with the throat—etymologically linked with the gullet, which is to say with appetite—that comes into English by way of Middle French. So the contrast between labials and gutturals is not as it first seems,10 nor is the heavenly distinguished from the earthly. Indeed, both labials and gutturals are affiliated with earthier appetites or desires, even as the labial “b” (in “labials”) and the guttural “g” (in “gutturals”), not to mention the guttural “k” (in “yokel” and “hacker,” both words associated with the giant) do, aurally, enact and maintain some contrast. Lastly, the girl’s “undoing” of the giant is equally polyvalent. “Undo,” as mentioned, sounds suggestive in that it means “to open or loosen by releasing a fastening.” But it also means to emasculate or—more relevant to my argument—to cause someone to lose their composure, which is rather different from civilizing or refining someone. In short, the more one reads the poem, the more it seems that fixed ways of framing, even of gendering, contrasts are part of what is “undone” in the poem.

  • 11 See Letters, p. 26, 180, as well as L. M. Steinman, Made in America: Science, Technology, and Ameri (...)

17Admittedly, an association between poetry and the feminine is not unusual in Stevens’ early writing, even if he often challenged that cultural commonplace.11 What interests me in “The Plot Against the Giant” is that the world of gutturals and giants (whether one views the giant as the untamed natural world or the world of work at odds with poetry) is set against the feminized poetic, and civilized, labials only at first. True, the giant, associated with gutturals, is the “yokel” (as Stevens saw himself at that art exhibit as if from the perspective of a Parisian); the girls and the senses (scent, sight, sound) are cultured, urbane, and French. Yet, on rereading, we see that the gutturals associated with the giant are etymologically more related to French than are the third girl’s labials. In the 1917 poem, then, as in the encounter with Duchamp two years earlier, French is at once the language of nature or of pastoral or of the routinized work-a-day world of sparrows and gutturals, and the feminized language of culture used to civilize and disconcert.

  • 12 “Sanction” is also a legal term in both French and English, and at the same time in both languages (...)
  • 13 In this last sense, Stevens’ view is not unlike Norbert Elias’ later account of civility in The Civ (...)

18I may have overstated the case here. The third girl explicitly speaks French; the French roots of “gutturals” are not obvious. The blurring of distinctions is subtle. Still, the third girl’s potential undoing of the giant seems a form of domestication, a regulation and enculturation, as well as an erotic seduction figured as a kind of loss of composure. In other words, if the girls figure sensuality and poetry, they finally suggest both are also kinds of order. Relatedly, in 1935, Stevens wrote that “life without poetry is, in effect, life without a sanction,” where “sanction,” in context, means something like “an underlying principle” or “that which offers permission to take action” (Letters, 299, see also Letters, 347)—although, of course, the word also suggests coercion or a mechanism of social control for enforcing standards.12 “Sanction,” in other words, bespeaks both “permission” and penalty—like the law. My argument, then, is that, for Stevens, French similarly suggests culture and sensuousness; love and law; culture and, or maybe culture as, policing.13

19I would further suggest that thinking about Stevens’ sense of French as the language of law, culture, nature, freedom, and sensuousness complicates accounts of how, and to what effect, his earlier poems figure the relationship between the physical, social, and historical worlds and the world of words. For example, if one asks whether, in “The Plot Against the Giant,” language for Stevens counts as pure, physical sound or civilized and civilizing, ordered sound, the answer seems to be that this is not the right question. Rather, we are invited to see that civility and civilization need not preclude physicality, that bodies (natural or human) are still framed by cultural norms. So the question is not into which category girls or giants fit. Instead, keeping such categories in motion, seeing them as neither fixed nor discrete, seems more to the point.

20This leads to my final question, namely: what is served by—or, to use Stevens’ word, what sanctions—the destabilization of received or preexisting categories? I do not claim to have a definitive answer (that would seem most un-Stevensian). I do think I can say that, as in other anecdote-like poems in Harmonium such as “Earthy Anecdote,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” and “Life Is Motion,” the content of “The Plot Against the Giant” is not meant to invite readers to cash in the meaning of, or decode, the statements being made about the various things that girls and giants might stand for. On the contrary, surely it is to avoid the tedium of settling for prescribed meanings. At the same time, the registers in which we are invited to make or unmake meaning, or to question categories—for example, as we redraw the lines concerning what counts as the “natural” (or as freedom from constraints) and as “civilized culture”—are not random; these are the registers in which Stevens addresses questions about what poetry offers, and why it matters.

  • 14 J. Utard, op. cit., p. 281.

21Finally, I would suggest that the interrelatedness of—and, more importantly, the lack of fixity in—especially the categories used to define and defend the arts are enacted when we consider French and English as constituting a single language, that is, when we consider them as part of a larger whole in which other languages interrelate. My argument is not that far from Juliette Utard’s on how Stevens’ use of French helps in “emancipating language from linguistic borders.”14 In a way, I am merely adding that the borders such emancipation allows Stevens to imagine crossing are multiple, and I am insisting that multiplicity matters as a way of not feeling like a “link” in an endless chain (to quote again from Stevens’ journal entry from 1903) or, to quote from Adagia, as a way to “live in the world but outside of existing conceptions of it” (CPP, 904), which may offer “a satisfaction in the irremediable poverty of life” (CPP, 906).

22In 1940, writing to Hi Simons, Stevens looked back to say that when he was a boy—presumably even before 1903, when he was already 24—he “used to think things progressed by contrasts […]. But […] [he] came to think more of the energizing that comes from mere interplay, interaction”; the paragraph concludes by noting, “there is an exquisite pleasure and harmony in these inter-relations, circuits” (Letters, 368). I take it that “these […] circuits” are, even in Stevens’ poem from 1917, those in which the physical sensuousness of language is regulating (or already regulated) as well as liberating; in which English is and is not French; and in which, too, the resulting “energizing” that Stevens would only later theorize was already a sanction for life.


1 See E. Cook, Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens, p. 7.

2 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828), “Constitute.”

3 O. Barfield, History in English Words, p. 60-62. I am grateful to Michael Faletra for reminding me of the historical and etymological connections between French and the language of law in English.

4 See, in particular, J. V. Brogan, The Violence Within/The Violence Without: Wallace Stevens and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Poetics, p. 57-79.

5 M. McKeon, “The Pastoral Revolution,” p. 272.

6 On Stevens’ use of French (and actual sophistication), see G. MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Company: The Harmonium Years, 1913-1923, p. 26-27, 35, and J. Utard, “‘Chez Moi’: Stevens at Home in the French Language,” p. 279.

7 W. C. Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, p. 137. See also his chapter on “Painters and Parties,” p. 134-142, and his description of dining with Duchamp and others in Paris, p. 194-195.

8 Both J. Utard, “‘Chez Moi’: Stevens at Home in the French Language,” p. 277, and B. Maeder, “Stevens and Linguistic Structure,” p. 153-154, discuss the connection between Stevens’ use of French and pleasure.

9 I echo here much that is played out in a different register in C. Altieri, Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value, especially p. 46-89, although what follows will make clear that I do not read “The Plot Against the Giant” quite the same way Altieri does.

10 This comes not from the Webster’s Stevens would have seen, but from a more modern Merriam Webster Dictionary.

11 See Letters, p. 26, 180, as well as L. M. Steinman, Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets, p. 15-16, 136.

12 “Sanction” is also a legal term in both French and English, and at the same time in both languages the idea of making something holy—in the etymologically related word “sanctify”—comes to mind.

13 In this last sense, Stevens’ view is not unlike Norbert Elias’ later account of civility in The Civilizing Process.

14 J. Utard, op. cit., p. 281.


Is the Kenan Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. A poet, critic, and teacher, her books include Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets (Yale University Press, 1987); Invitation to Poetry: The Pleasures of Studying Poetry and Poetics (Blackwell-Wiley, 2008); Masters of Repetition: Poetry, Culture, and Work (St. Martin’s, 1998); and Absence and Presence (University of Tampa Press, 2013). She is also co-editor of the poetry magazine Hubbub.

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