Shakespeare as Relic in Wallace Stevens’ Late Poetry

Wallace Stevens: the interacting veins of life between his early and late poems are an ever-continuing marvel to me.1

In a response to a letter from an American professor interested in Wallace Stevens’ use of William Shakespeare’s work, Stevens replied, on 1 July 1953, almost exactly two years before his death:

1. Is not Peter Quince in Midsummer Night’s Dream?

My Shakespeare is in the attic, which is hotter than the Sahara and I could not bring myself last night to go up to look. I think you should verify this under refrigerated conditions in the library at Harvard.2

Stevens, famous for his wry sense of humour, makes reference to Shakespeare throughout his poetic career, but the following discussion begins with the ways in which he employs the plays toward the end of his life, when the idea of Shakespeare was at its most virile, burning hot in the attic of his imagination. Shakespeare’s last plays hold a privileged place in Wallace Stevens’ late poetry, and in this paper I will argue that Stevens’ appropriation of the play he considered Shakespeare’s last, The Tempest, forms part of a constructed late style. Theodor W. Adorno coined the term ‘late style’, Spätstil, in the 1930s in his essay on Beethoven’s final compositions.3 Regardless of whether or not Stevens was familiar with this seminal essay, his final poetic compositions reveal that he clearly understood the facets of aging and ending in literature in a manner that were held synonymous with Shakespearean ‘lateness’ from the nineteenth-century. I have two primary aims in this paper: the first is to demonstrate that Wallace Stevens knew what lateness was and what it meant to have a literary ‘late phase’, as the idea had been fashioned through Victorian reception of Shakespeare’s last plays, and the second is to reveal how employing late Shakespeare helps him achieve a late style of his own. That Stevens secures a place in the canon as a late poet is evidenced by a body of criticism that still reveres his last poems as revealing an organic, transhistorical connection to Shakespeare’s late phase. What will become clear throughout this discussion is that his conception of lateness belongs to a masculine literary inheritance. For Stevens, Shakespeare represents a significant male figure in the late canon, and by uncovering the way Shakespeare’s works are used, and the possible motivations behind using them, we gain further insight into the privileged place Shakespeare holds in modernist poetics. By first shedding light on the way that certain modernist writers see late style as a specifically male-dominated phenomenon, this paper then questions the absence of women writers in late style studies, uncovering the gendered nature of the construct.4

The OED defines a ‘relic’, among other things, as a surviving trace or idea of something past, and it is with this in mind that I will discuss ‘late Shakespeare’ as an idea that informs Stevens’ final poems. Gordon McMullan is apparently the first to interrogate traditional perceptions of late style, redefining lateness as a critical theory and construct applied to literary works. He traces its history in Shakespearean scholarship, exploring traditionally and specifically ‘late’ ideas and tropes, and the psychological and/or physical dispositions of the artist on which they are predicated.5 The body of scholarship from which the concept of late style emerged he refers to as the ‘discourse of lateness’, and criticism on Shakespeare’s late style has contributed to this.6 I will show how appraisals of Stevens’ final works that embrace the supposedly ‘organic’ nature of his late style tout court are also a part of what we now understand as a ‘discourse’. A theory of how writers might create a late style thus begins to come into view. In many regards, it was precisely the prolonged lack of such a theory that enabled critics and writers to attribute late style where, and when, they deemed appropriate. Two main tools used to support the idea of a naturally occurring late style in past scholarship have been the notion of charting literary patterns through the lifetime, and the belief that the writer’s psychology unconsciously informs the work. The idea that late style is a naturally occurring phenomenon with a biographical imperative still persists in scholarship on Shakespeare and Stevens today, and for my purposes here I will simply clarify that the ‘late style’ that has been attributed to Shakespeare and Stevens refers to a natural, unconscious shift in both verse style and thematic, which arises from contemplation of death, or a direct closeness to it, through ill health, retirement and in Stevens’ case, old age.

  1. Marianne Moore, cited in Marius Bewley, The Complex Fate: Hawthorn, Henry James, and some other American Writers (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952), 171 []
  2. Holly Bright Stevens, ed., Letters of Wallace Stevens, 2nd edn (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996), 786. []
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Late Style’, in Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 123–37 (124). []
  4. For an outline of the absence of women in late style criticism, see Gordon McMullan’s introduction to Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), particularly 18–23. []
  5. McMullan has written extensively on the problematic nature of Shakespeare’s late style in early modern England, a culture in which the process of play writing was collaborative, and the notion of the ‘author’ as we know it today did not exist. See in particular Late Writing, Chapter 4, ‘Last words/late plays: the possibility and impossibility of late Shakespeare in early modern culture and theatre’, 190–258. []
  6. Late Writing, 5. Emphasis his. []

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