"LIFE IS AN AFFAIR of people not of places, but for me," Wallace Stevens was to say, "life is an affair of places and that is the trouble." Evidently the "trouble" began early in his life. This collection of auto-biographical writings and youthful poems prepared by his daughter gives few clues as to why , but it reveals a Stevens temperamentally isolated, gathering energies that would issue forth in the longest delayed, most auspicious poetic debut of our century. Stevens published his first book of verse, Harmonium , in 1923; he was 44.
On the evidence of these early journals and extracts from letters, it was as true for the youthful Stevens as for the older that "Description is an element, like air or water." The descriptive - helped sustain him through 16 years of living in New York as a newspaperman, law student, and apprentice in law and insurance. But "description" is hardly the word for these journal entries, which are not much concerned with botanical or geological detail. They are really ways of cultivating an interior Romance, and they record the exaltation of walking through life like a disguised god. "Sometime I wish I wore no crown - that I trod on something thicker than air . . . But alas! the tormenting harmonies sweep around my hat, my bosom swells with 'agonies and exultations' - and I pose."
In 1948 Stevens was to say that a poet is doomed by temperament to certain subjects: "A poet writes from noonday." In the journals Stevens shrinks with almost animal reflex from signs of other people. No friendships are acknowledged or celebrated in these pages, yet there is nothing from his very earlies years to suggest an abiding sense of betrayal. Certainly in these journals we see him turning an instinctive distrust of people into an imaginative strength. Even looking at paintings (which he loved and later collected) he had an eye for solitude. He praises a little Cazin study of a roadside house at dawn because it caught "the abandoned air of the world at that hour, that is, abandoned of humans. If there had been a light in the house - it would have been quite different."
Of course there were occasional misgivings and foot-stampings about loneliness: "I want to see somebody, hear somebody speak to me." But the imagined companion was one who could showhow enter the interior Romance: "One would have liked to walk about with some Queen discussing waves and caverns, like a noble warrior speaking of trifles to a noble lady."
Stevens, in fact, had met a lady upon whom he focussed these intentions, and his letters to Elsie Moll, who after five years wooing became his wife, are ever-sharpening versions of his descriptive journals. She lived in Reading where he had grown up and so, literally and figuratively, brought him in touch with the landscapes of his childhood. He was the "tireless Historian" of their periodic courtship meetings in landscapes rechristened "Valley of Moonlight" and "the Dark Pagoda." She was evidently content to be muse of this activity until 1914 (five years after their marriage) when he decided to begin his serious career as a poet by publishing some of the poems originally addressed to her privately in "birthday books." Though these poems contained little that was poetically interesting and nothing that was personally offensive, Mrs. Stevens, according to her daughter, later did not read Steven's poems "and seemed to dislike the fact that his books were published." In all probability, she severely edited his journals, so that by the time they passed to her daughter, there were excisions in the majority of the entries and severe cuts from the period when the courtship began.
Much of the material in this book was presented in the excellent edition of Steven's letters that Holly Stevens prepared in 1966 - which makes Souvenirs and Prophecies an odd publication. It seems a stopping place on the road to the memoirs Holly Stevens would probably like to write. Here she limits herself to a linking commentary in which she can be more open than she was in the Letters about what she calls her mother's "persecution complex." Elsie Moll, (whose beauty is preserved on the 1916 Liberty dime, for which she was a model) had a scarred and lonely childhood. Conceived out of wedlock and born only a few months after her parents' marriage (her father died a year later), she grew up "on the wrong side of the tracks" and suffered from questions about her legitimacy. Her daughter knew her as shy and self-conscious, a woman who refused to be called "Mommy" because it sounded too much like the dead dried Egyptian "mummy."
Souvenirs and Prophecies takes us to 1916, when Stevens left New York for Hartford and the insurance company with which he remained for the rest of his life. He was 37 and had begun to publish his poems seriously in magazines like Harriet Monroe's Poetry. The Wallace Stevens we know through his poetry had already passed through many of the youthful crises which other poets, like Yeats, record in their early publications. Stevens, after his long silent apprenticeship, emerged as a mature Romatic comedian, who was able to put his transcendental yearnings into ironic or jaunty perspective.
By the time Stevens moved to Hartford, both his parents had died. Holly Stevens suggests, as she traces her own parents' comings and goings, that, however devoted Stevens remained to his wife, his marriage did very little to change his feelings of isolation; in fact it may have only confirmed them. In the New York period Stevens spent a great deal of time apart from his wife, either because of business or because she chose to spend summers by herself near her home in Pennsylvania. The lonely exaltation of the journals became a firm source for his emerging verse. "I have no life except in poetry," he said much later in his life. It is likely, as the poetry shows, that he looked for confirmation of his vitality, as he had in the journals, to the hidden forces in the journals, to the hidden forces of nature; his own strength was more available to him there than in his contacts with people. Both in the poetry and in the journals, his own buried energies are discovered and authenticated when he is able to see nature as a figure of the self writ large, an imagined giant of the Earth: "It [Earth] is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds . . . The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless." For Stevens, the giant emerged, was projected from the self, in his poems:
It is a giant, always, that is evolved,
To be in scale, unless virtue cuts him, snips
Both size and solitude or thinks it does,
As in a signed photograph on a mantel-piece.
But the virtuoso never leaves his shape,
Still on the horizon elongates his cuts,
And still angelic and still plenteous,
Imposes power by the power of his form.