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Short poem

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Peter Quince at the Clavier

              1Just as my fingers on these keys
              2Make music, so the self-same sounds
              3On my spirit make a music, too.
              4Music is feeling, then, not sound;
              5And thus it is that what I feel,
              6Here in this room, desiring you,

              7Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
              8Is music. It is like the strain
              9Waked in the elders by Susanna;

            10Of a green evening, clear and warm,
            11She bathed in her still garden, while
            12The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

            13The basses of their beings throb
            14In witching chords, and their thin blood
            15Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

            16In the green water, clear and warm,
            17Susanna lay.
            18She searched
            19The touch of springs,
            20And found
            21Concealed imaginings.
            22She sighed,
            23For so much melody.

            24Upon the bank, she stood
            25In the cool
            26Of spent emotions.
            27She felt, among the leaves,
            28The dew
            29Of old devotions.

            30She walked upon the grass,
            31Still quavering.
            32The winds were like her maids,
            33On timid feet,
            34Fetching her woven scarves,
            35Yet wavering.

            36A breath upon her hand
            37Muted the night.
            38She turned --
            39A cymbal crashed,
            40Amid roaring horns.

            41Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
            42Came her attendant Byzantines.

            43They wondered why Susanna cried
            44Against the elders by her side;

            45And as they whispered, the refrain
            46Was like a willow swept by rain.

            47Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame
            48Revealed Susanna and her shame.

            49And then, the simpering Byzantines
            50Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

            51Beauty is momentary in the mind --
            52The fitful tracing of a portal;
            53But in the flesh it is immortal.

            54The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
            55So evenings die, in their green going,
            56A wave, interminably flowing.
            57So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
            58The cowl of winter, done repenting.
            59So maidens die, to the auroral
            60Celebration of a maiden's choral.

            61Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
            62Of those white elders; but, escaping,
            63Left only Death's ironic scraping.
            64Now, in its immortality, it plays
            65On the clear viol of her memory,
            66And makes a constant sacrament of praise.


1] Peter Quince, one of the bumbling rustics in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream who put on a well-meant but unintentionally funny play of the tragic love of Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Stevens recognized this in a late letter (Letters, 786).

9] Susanna: as told in the apocryphal book of Daniel (chapter 13), this virtuous wife of Joakim in Babylon rejected the sexual demands of two old men of the tribe, who then calumniated her in revenge. Daniel discovered they were lying and had them executed.

15] pizzicati: the sound of plucked strings.
Hosanna: "pray, save us" (Greek).

41] tambourines: thin handheld drum with jingling metal trickets on the edges.

42] Byzantines: servants originating in the post-Roman Byzantine empire (an anachronism).

58] cowl: hood (as of a monk).

59] auroral: dawn.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Harmonium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, [September 7], 1923): 132-34. York University Library Special Collections 734
First publication date: 1915
Publication date note: Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1915 and Year Book of American Poetry, ed. William Stanley Braithwaite (New York: Gomme and Marshall, 1915): 15-17
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 2000.
Recent editing: 2:2002/2/14

Composition date: 1914 - 1915
Composition date note: (Richardson, I, 425)
Form note: varying from section to section (I-II are unrhyming; III-IV have rhyming couplets)

Other poems by Wallace Stevens