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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Three. Stevens’ French Connections Real and Imaginary

French Masks and the Life of the Mind in Stevens’ Poetry

Anne Luyat

Texte intégral

My route lies through an image in my mind
— Wallace Stevens, “Repetitions of a Young Captain,” IV

1Wallace Stevens’ recourse to theatrical characters and comic masks in some of his poetry arguably had its origins in an established French tradition of wit, impertinence, and improvisation that allowed him to privilege irony in his reflection on the human condition. The indefinite contours of the masks he tended to adopt could be modified to fit an almost unlimited range of new roles and situations. The spontaneity afforded by the masks, the anonymity they conferred, and how they allowed for improvisation, riddles, and saying the unexpected enabled Stevens to explore complex ideas. In his reshaping of French masks, Stevens sought to emphasize their abstract qualities in order to create a non-descriptive art and to utilize the corresponding sense of intimacy that the abstractions of language can confer. The surprising utterances of the masked characters that he placed in contexts far from the stage of the France with which he associated them allowed him to explore reflective states of mind, give dramatic resonance to his personal voice, and when necessary, to shield deeply held personal convictions.

2A tradition of French masks spanning three centuries gave Stevens an extended repertoire from which to choose. The theatrical tradition of improvisation that became known in seventeenth-century Paris as la commedia dell’arte transposed for French audiences the comic masks of an older Italian comedy in which the zanni (or servants) Arlequino and Pierrot sought to defeat the vecchi (or old men) il dottore, il capitano, and Pantalone, in a series of comic confrontations with endless complications. In the eighteenth century, at the court of Louis XV in Versailles, elegant ballets accompanied performances of fêtes galantes (or courtship parties) in which beautifully costumed commedia dell’arte characters sought romantic intrigues in mythic sylvan settings. Importantly for Stevens, these scenes had a lasting influence on the arts. Thus, the court painter Jean-Antoine Watteau portrayed the costumed commedia dell’arte characters with the gods of antiquity in attendance. In 1869, Paul Verlaine published the twenty-two poems of his own Fêtes galantes, which retained the frivolous commedia dell’arte characters of the eighteenth century but transposed their carefree songs of love into a minor key in which they could express their sorrow and regret. In the first half of the nineteenth century, at the theater of Les Funambules in Paris, the mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau transformed the comic mask of Pierrot into the mask of a sad poet-clown, a figure that inspired composers, poets, and painters to create their own adaptations of the character. Aware of the beauty and power of African masks in use in the French colony of Gabon, the critic Rémy de Gourmont asked the artist Félix Vallotton to create portraits or insignes masques of contemporary poets that he published in Le Livre des masques in 1898. From the outset, the abstract nature of the French masks allowed extensive imaginative re-interpretation of their original forms, a tradition Stevens would continue to explore in his turn.

The Mask of the Sad Poet-Clown

  • 1 Writing to Barbara Church after the death of her husband, Stevens told her that he had a copy of th (...)

3Through his friendship with Henry Church, whose book Les Clowns had been illustrated with three drawings of sad clowns by Georges Rouault,1 Stevens became personally aware of the tradition of sad clowns created by Jean-Gaspard Deburau. Marcel Carné’s 1946 film Les Enfants du paradis, in which Jean-Louis Barrault starred as Deburau, brought a sad Pierrot to the screen in a memorable performance. In Stevens’ poem “The Pastor Caballero” (published in the fall of 1946 and included one year later in Transport to Summer), a talented mime reveals a mask’s surprising ability to transform the traditional comic role of the boastful captain. On the surface, neither the English word “pastor” nor the Spanish word “caballero” (a gentleman or knight) in the poem’s title seem to have any connection to one another, or to the traditional comic mask of the boastful captain. Yet during stage performances of the kind described in the poem, i.e., pantomimes, the captain’s traditional role as a buffoon would be transformed into a new and entirely serious one. During the character’s transformation and its acquisition of a new consciousness, it would gradually acquire both the quality of mercy associated with a pastor and the quality of deference associated with the nature of a gentleman-knight.

4In Stevens’ poem, the captain’s shift away from the worn trope of comic swaggering is a gradual one that culminates in the creation of a modern abstract portrait of a distinguished and accomplished artist. In a silent performance that reveals his impressive stage presence and dramatic ability, the captain deftly manipulates his comically oversized hat, and moves with surprising grace as he performs a series of gestures that enable him to become a more noble version of himself. Underlining the fact that his readers are attending a performance, Stevens suggests that a quality of mercy will become visible in the captain during the pantomime only if an observer can confirm its presence on the stage, as the following lines suggest: “The importance of its hat to a form becomes / More definite. The sweeping brim of the hat / Makes of the form Most Merciful Capitan, // If the observer says so […]” (CPP, 327). The reader is presented with a performance within a performance, during which the reader as audience must judge the success or failure of the actor’s ability to play his role.

5While abstract forms are more difficult to compose than drawings from life, they are also more powerful, for the virtual empowers the real with its imaginative force. Bowing toward the audience while tipping his hat—a gesture that in commedia dell’arte performances had been melodramatic and bombastic—the mime in Stevens’ poem paradoxically becomes a master of restraint. His gift for improvisation and artistry is articulated in a sinuous formulation as the character acknowledges the presence of the audience by extending his flamboyant hat in a gesture of welcome:

Locution of a hand in a rhapsody.
Its line moves quickly with the genius
Of its improvisation until, at length,
It enfolds the head in a vital ambiance […]
CPP, 327

6Finally, the depth and breadth of a fine and noble mind is revealed in the following gesture: “The actual form bears outwardly this grace, / An image of the mind, an inward mate […]” (CPP, 328).

Soliloquy in a Time of War

  • 2 See A. Filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, p. 35.

7In “Repetitions of a Young Captain,” which also appears in Transport to Summer, a stage performance once again engages the real with its powerful imaginative force as Stevens transforms the mask of the traditionally warlike and boastful captain into a reflective meditation on war itself. Under a glittering canopy of stars on an empty stage, in a theater devastated by war and reduced to ruins by a tempest, a young actor playing the role of a captain is repeating a soliloquy about the nature of reality. Alan Filreis has identified the poem’s setting in the city of Algiers from information given by the Swiss poet Fernand Auberjonois to Stevens concerning the collaboration of the philosopher Jean Wahl and other French writers who contributed to the anti-Nazi magazine Fontaine supported and funded by Henry Church. Many of the Fontaine writers lived in Algiers during the war. In the evening, they would gather in a hilltop villa from whose balcony they could see German and Italian planes descending to make bombing raids on the city’s harbor.2

8As he repeats the lines of his soliloquy, the young captain of Stevens’ poem becomes acutely aware of the changing nature of reality in a time of war. His feelings of uncertainty and doubt concerning his own imminent departure are essential to the depth of emotion that he can bring to the lines he is rehearsing. As he begins to voice his apprehension about what may await him as a soldier, the wind rips across what remains of the theater: “It had been real. It was not now. The rip / Of the wind and the glittering were real now, / In the spectacle of a new reality” (CPP, 271). The reader’s growing awareness that the young captain will not be the same when he returns—if he is able to return—is echoed by the quiet observations of the poem’s speaker: “The departing soldier is as he is, / Yet in that form will not return. But does / He find another?” (CPP, 272). The speaker’s question will not be answered, because the young captain’s script is as yet unfinished. However, his reported discourse reverberates with doubt and dread, as Stevens manages to locate and portray the theatrical character’s pleasure in discovering a new means of investigating and engaging his consciousness: “My route lies through an image in my mind” (CPP, 272).

9Speaking through a mask is a well-known acting technique that requires the actor to concentrate all of his or her energy into his or her voice, in order to gain increased resonance for the spoken lines. As the actor in Stevens’ poem moves across the stage in the shadow of the moon, he becomes a silhouette, an abstract projection:

His hands became his feelings. His thick shape

Issued thin seconds glibly gapering.
Then faintly encrusted, a tissue of the moon
Walked toward him on the stage and they embraced.
CPP, 271

10The image of the young captain silhouetted on the stage in a thin sliver of moonlight is a wedge Stevens drives into the thick impassivity of the real. The speaker says admiringly of the young captain at the end of the poem, “Green is the orator / Of our passionate height” (CPP, 274). The line’s dramatic eloquence creates a pleasurable form that invites the reader to share the space of the young captain’s voice and consciousness from within, at the same time as it invites a sense of identification with the departing soldier.

11In “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War,” an earlier poem published in Parts of a World (1942), Stevens had indicated that the hero could no longer be troped, for the condition of being a hero requires an internal force that one cannot and should not externalize. “There is no image of the hero. / There is a feeling as definition,” he writes (CPP, 248). Five years later, taking a step back from reality and transforming the traditionally comic mask of the captain into a potentially tragic one, Stevens was able to give his readers a glimpse of the absence of illusion in a young soldier’s mind as he contemplated the possibility of a future that might or might not lie in store for him. In sum, the disillusionment characteristic of the mask of the captain gave Stevens a powerful stance from which to view the world in a time of war.

Stevens’ Masks and Paul Verlaine

  • 3 See R. Taupin, L’Influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine.
  • 4 P. Verlaine, One Hundred and One Poems: A Bilingual Edition, p. 62-63.

12Although Verlaine’s masked characters in Fêtes galantes were modeled on courtly masks, their conversations and apparent gaiety were often tinged with expressions of sorrow and regret. While they continued to seek out romantic adventures, they spoke of a sense of disappointment in human conduct and in human aspirations. Unable to believe in the possibility of their own happiness, they preferred to cast aside their sentimental illusions. In fact, the French critic René Taupin believed that Verlaine transmitted the critical vision of Baudelaire and that the poets influenced by Verlaine were those who, like Baudelaire himself, most strongly contested tradition.3 In Verlaine’s poem “Colloque sentimental” ( “Lovers’ Chat”), a masked character described as being a ghost refuses to remember what seems to have been a shared romantic past with a second ghostly figure. When the first character is asked by the second, “—Do you remember how our souls would ache / With bliss?” [Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?], the answer is unequivocally negative: “—Why ask? What difference does it make?” [Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne?].4

13Stevens wrote about a similar refusal to remember what seems to have been a shared romantic past in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” a poem in which a man described only by the eyepiece he wears berates a companion for clinging to remembered rapture: “No spring can follow past meridian. / Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss / To make believe a starry connaissance” (CPP, 11). Is the similar counsel of non-attachment to romantic bliss in the poems of Verlaine and Stevens a simple coincidence, or is it possible to find a shared complicity of purpose? As early as 1908, Stevens had written a letter to Elsie Moll in which he praised Verlaine: “I like Verlaine—watercolors, little statues, small thoughts,” he wrote (Letters, 110). In a reply to Bernard Heringman, who in 1949 had questioned him about the influence of Stéphane Mallarmé on his poetry, Stevens replied that while the influence of Mallarmé had been an important one, the poetry of Verlaine had made an even deeper impression on him: “Mallarmé was a good deal in the air when I was much younger. But so were other people, for instance, Samain. Verlaine meant a good deal more to me. There were many of his lines that I delighted to repeat” (Letters, 636). Stevens and Verlaine were both able to transform the tropes of the past in order to address contemporary minds through the use of masks. In “Of Modern Poetry,” Stevens insisted that poetry had to live in the minds and in the speech of the poet’s own time, that “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / The women of the time” (CPP, 218-219).

French Poets and the “Book of Masks”

  • 5 Le Livre des masques entered the catalogue of the New York Public Library in 1908.

14The concept of creating masks for contemporary poets already existed in Parisian literary circles at the end of the nineteenth century. The speaker wearing a monocle in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” for instance, could have been included among the portraits of contemporary poets that Félix Vallotton drew for Rémy de Gourmont’s two-volume edition of Le Livre des masques (1898).5 In his drawings, Vallotton sought to emphasize the poets’ facial expressions and salient features in order to make visible what might not be evident in their everyday aspect, for masks can reveal as well as hide identities. The incisive literary biographies by Gourmont that accompanied the portraits constituted a critical unmasking of each poet’s style and manner of writing.

  • 6 R. Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, p. 1 (...)

15Like the portraits of their contemporaries who appeared in the volume, Paul Verlaine, Albert Samain, and Stéphane Mallarmé were also shown in the book wearing different types of eyewear, including the then-fashionable monocle. In the preface’s closing sentence, Gourmont defined Vallotton’s portraits as “insignes masques,” a technical term used to describe a small Fang mask that travelers would wear to define their ethnicity in the French protectorate of Gabon from 1885 to 1910. Also called passport masks, these were the symbol of a person’s identity and were thought to make visible certain aspects of a person’s character that otherwise remained unseen. The literary historian Roger Shattuck noted that Gourmont and his friend the dramatist Alfred Jarry had discovered African masks as early as fifteen years before Guillaume Apollinaire showed similar masks to Pablo Picasso. Because of their appreciation of primitive art, Gourmont and Jarry were able to recognize the beauty of African masks, and to understand their transformative as well as revelatory powers.6

  • 7 R. Aldington, “Remy de Gourmont,” p. 10.
  • 8 E. Pound, “Remy de Gourmont.”
  • 9 Quoted in G. S. Burne, Remy de Gourmont: His Ideas and Influence in England and America, p. 19.
  • 10 E. Pound, Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, p. 257.

16During Stevens’ lifetime, Gourmont was well-known as a poet, novelist, and critic not only in France but also in England, where his work often appeared in translation. Shortly before Gourmont’s death in September 1915, Richard Aldington wrote, “he has an influence, especially over the younger and more adventuresome spirits, which few writers today possess.”7 A few weeks after Gourmont died, Ezra Pound wrote, “He stirs the ‘sense of the imagination, ’ the reader is pervaded by luxurious rest, and then when the mind is most open, de Gourmont darts in with his acumen, a thrust, an incisive or revolutionary idea, spoken so softly.”8 To the readers of Poetry, Pound declared in one of his eulogies, “Gourmont is dead and the world’s light is darkened.”9 Almost twenty years later, in 1934, Pound again acknowledged his debt to Gourmont in a letter to Sarah Perkins Cope (a student at Bryn Mawr College), writing, rather emphatically, “My generation needed Rémy de Gourmont.”10

A Satire with Pathos

17By the time Stevens published “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” in 1918, the elegant eyepiece worn by distinguished members of the Parisian avant-garde in the nineteenth century had passed from fashion. As the sound-jarring title of Stevens’ poem indicates, the monocle is not the speaker’s own but one borrowed for the occasion. The eyepiece serves as a literary mask whose powerful lens enables the speaker to evaluate and satirize the fin-de-siècle poetry with which the monocle was associated in Le Livre des masques.

18Readers of the poem may be surprised to discover that the man with the borrowed monocle is interested neither in the sartorial elegance of the past generation nor in its poetry. In fact, he mocks both with aplomb: “The fops of fancy in their poems leave / Memorabilia of the mystic spouts, / Spontaneously watering their gritty soils” (CPP, 13). The human species is viewed with a withering irony: “Every day, I found / Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world” (CPP, 14). Because the monocle allows the speaker to assume a nineteenth-century pose of detachment from the world around him, he can assume a theatrical stance in which his “mincing world” evokes a stage and the rehearsing of “gobbets” or chunks of text appears, like his own passionate outbursts, to be part of the staged experience.

19The monocle also acts as a filter that allows the speaker to examine closely what appears to be a serious difficulty with his writing. His exasperation in the opening lines of the poem seems to be at least partly due to words that will not come together for him in harmonious accord. He addresses his grievances with mocking exaggeration and negative repetition to a woman—or perhaps a muse—in the well-known opening lines, framed by quotations marks:

“Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds,
O sceptre of the sun, crown of the moon,
There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing,
Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.”
CPP, 10

  • 11 C. Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, p. 72-73.

20Interestingly, Charles Baudelaire wrote a similar invocation—but without quotations marks, and in a tone of admiration—to his muse and mistress Jeanne Duval in a poem entitled “The Balcony”: “Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses, / O thou, source of all my pleasures, all my debts of love!” [Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses, / Ô toi, tous mes plaisirs! ô toi, tous mes devoirs!].11 The person to whom the poem is addressed will continue throughout to be an amalgam of muse and intimate mistress, with the boundaries between them in a constant state of flux.

  • 12 See G. S. Lensing, Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth, p. 83.

21Unlike Baudelaire who praised his muse, however, the man with the monocle berates the person he is addressing for clinging to a tired and worn trope of romantic bliss, and for attempting to feign an intimacy that the two of them no longer share: “No spring can follow past meridian. / Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss / To make believe a starry connaissance” (CCP, 11). The word “connaissance” (meaning both a knowledge and an acquaintance), which points to a no longer existing complicity, falls at the end of the line with the weight of a stone and underlines with bilingual emphasis two separate points of view. The word “bliss” used here may be an indirect reference to the Canadian-born poet Bliss Carmen, who was much admired at the time. George Lensing indicates that Stevens admired Bliss Carmen’s Songs from Vagabondia enough to send Elsie Moll three poems of his own entitled “From a Vagabond” as a Christmas gift, and that he even considered gathering his own poems in a collection to be called Vagabondia.12 It would seem that the monocle allowed Stevens to both see his past poetic infatuations clearly and ultimately reject them.

22In “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” the satire of an overly refined style of poetry is counterbalanced by the speaker’s expression of regret for the disappearance of its tender and affectionate elements, which still move him deeply:

The sea of spuming thought foists up again
The radiant bubble that she was. And then
A deep up-pouring from some saltier well
Within me, bursts its watery syllable.
CPP, 10

  • 13 C. Baudelaire, “The Setting of the Romantic Sun” [Le Coucher du soleil romantique], op. cit., p. 29 (...)

23These lines echo a poem by Charles Baudelaire expressing regret for the passing of Romantic poetry: “How lovely is the sun fresh in the skies […]. / But I pursue the dying God in vain” [Que le soleil est beau quand tout frais il se lève […]. / Mais je poursuis en vain le Dieu qui se retire].13 By conferring a degree of incognito and, in a way, the protection of a bygone era, the monocle allows the “uncle” to explore his personal relation to many aspects of the craft of writing, and to employ an aggressive tone when addressing the reality of physical decay and aging not only for himself, but also for the old poetry. When he speaks disparagingly in stanza XI of a mode of writing that privileges physical sexuality ( “If sex were all”) and refers to the “odious chords” of mating frogs (CPP, 14), the speaker may be alluding to Rémy de Gourmont’s well-known treatise of 1903 on the importance of natural instincts, Physique de l’amour: Essai sur l’instinct sexuel, which Pound translated in 1922 as The Natural Philosophy of Love.

24In the spirit of self-irony and playfulness that masks enable and generate, the monocle reaches back to another age and to another language. Its powerful lens ultimately allows the speaker to create witty transformations from his refusal to accept the traditions of the past, and follow instead his dream of finding an eternally beautiful muse—or the “radiant bubble that she was” (CPP, 10): “Suppose these couriers brought amid their train / A damsel heightened by eternal bloom” (CPP, 12).


1 Writing to Barbara Church after the death of her husband, Stevens told her that he had a copy of the story: “Mr. Church gave me a copy of a short story for which Roualt [sic] made some illustrations” (Letters, 566).

2 See A. Filreis, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World, p. 35.

3 See R. Taupin, L’Influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine.

4 P. Verlaine, One Hundred and One Poems: A Bilingual Edition, p. 62-63.

5 Le Livre des masques entered the catalogue of the New York Public Library in 1908.

6 R. Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, p. 196.

7 R. Aldington, “Remy de Gourmont,” p. 10.

8 E. Pound, “Remy de Gourmont.”

9 Quoted in G. S. Burne, Remy de Gourmont: His Ideas and Influence in England and America, p. 19.

10 E. Pound, Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, p. 257.

11 C. Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, p. 72-73.

12 See G. S. Lensing, Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth, p. 83.

13 C. Baudelaire, “The Setting of the Romantic Sun” [Le Coucher du soleil romantique], op. cit., p. 296-297.


The author of various essays on Wallace Stevens and has translated some of Stevens’ essays and poems into French. Until recently she taught at Université d’Avignon as a Professor of English and American Literature. She was a guest editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal for the special issue “Wallace Stevens and France” (Fall 2008).

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