I’ve been reading The Whole Harmonium, a biography of Wallace Stevens. He is one of the greatest American poets, yet most people outside of poetry haven’t heard of him. This article will look at his “Two Letters.”
Honestly, his life isn’t all that interesting to read about. He basically lived a common life as an insurance salesman and wrote poetry in his spare time.
It’s not like he was a Beat roaming the country for adventure.
Since many people return home during the holiday season, I thought I’d share some of my own interpretation of Stevens’ “Two Letters,” which I think is one of his lesser-known poems.
Wallace Stevens Nostalgia
Stevens was a deeply nostalgic poet, and his poems often become self-reflective of this fact. It’s almost like he understands that nostalgia can distort our memory of the past, and he’s embarrassed that he feels it so much.
The “Two Letters” are addressed “A Letter from” and “A Letter to.”
We’ll look at “A Letter from.”
A Letter from
The central theme of this poem is a longing for his carefree childhood home again. The opening is breathtaking in its imagery, and once you parse the complicated phrasing, it strikes me as a deep truth about human nature.
Even if there had been a crescent moon
On every cloud-tip over the heavens,
Drenching the evening with crystals’ light,
One would have wanted more-more-more-
Humans can never be satisfied with what they have. We could be given the most stunning piece of heaven as described, but we’d still want “more-more-more-.”
I thought this was an appropriate opening sentiment for a time of year that is all about consumerism and wanting more. We rarely step back and appreciate what we have.
Stevens opens this way, not for the consumerism aspect, but the nostalgia aspect. He’s saying he has trouble appreciating what he has now because he longs for the past too much.
Some true interior to which to return
A home against one’s self, a darkness
An ease in which to live a moment’s life,
The moment of life’s love and fortune,
Free from everything else, free above all from thought.
The poem then turns inward and clarifies that it is about his home.
There’s comfort in reliving your life, but there’s darkness to it if you do it too much. I’ll try not to focus on interesting wordplay, but this is the type of stuff Stevens is most known for. He has “moment’s life” then “moment of life’s love.”
The first instance still only means a “moment.” You can ease whatever is going on for a moment by returning to those earlier comforts, but he chose this wording to prepare for a transition to contemplating the whole of life.
These nostalgic memories let us stop thinking about our current life, if only for a moment.
It would have been like lighting a candle,
Like leaning on the table, shading one’s eyes,
And hearing a tale one wanted intensely to hear,
As if we were all seated together again
And one of us spoke and all of us believed
What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.
Stevens really delivers in the conclusion to the poem. He drops that nostalgic imagery again. This is like those scenes in movies where the music surges, the two main characters are standing in the rain, one declares their love, …
While reading these stanzas, he paints that image of being with family around a table. Everyone is telling stories and laughing.
The light from the candle brings warmth to the scene. It’s brilliant how he puts that in to heighten the emotional content of the image.
He then concludes by returning to the opening idea. This is enough. Being with the family, telling stories, gentle candlelight. We can be grateful for that moment.
We don’t need more-more-more-.
You might also like my article on John Ashbery’s “The System.”