Is it just Lust?

This past fall I took a graduate course covering Robert Frost, the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur, all American poets esteemed for their attention to poetic form. The professor gave us his in-depth analysis of the lives, the times, and the poems of these poets. Although my appreciation for Stevens has changed from awe and confusion to a quiet respect, there are areas concerning his life and his work that still make me pause.

Recently I posted a painting of Susanna and the Elders by Thomas Hart Benton, because it depicts a scene in a Stevens poem we read: “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” Peter Quince is a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream–he was one of the players who served as comic relief. In this poem, Quince is the speaker. Using Quince’s name was Stevens’ way of making a joke, because Quince could never have expressed himself as eloquently as the speaker does in the poem.

The poem uses the story of Susanna and the Elders as a rhetorical situation for the speaker. Quince plays the piano (the clavier) because of the desire he feels for his beloved.

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

The basic argument of the poem is that poetry is feeling. If I feel desire, I will make music. My art (or poem, song…) will convey my feelings to the viewer or the listener. The reader of the poem will have similar thoughts to my own– the mere thinking of  “your blue-shadowed silk” becomes art (or music, poetry, etc…). Thought and feeling equals art when it is reproduced for another to perceive.

But the story of Susanna complicates the argument of “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” because the speaker compares his desire for “the blue-shadowed silk” of his beloved to the desire the elders felt for Susanna. And the poem becomes even more byzantine because Quince is playing the clavier. The story of Susanna serves as a backdrop to a concert.

My blogging friend, poet and writer Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, summarized the story of Susanna in my last post on this poem, and she brought up a pertinent point:

[The elders] cornered Susanna in the garden and told her they would have her put to death if she did not have sex with them. If she said no, they told her they would publicly announce that she had been having sex with a young man. The penalty would be death.

She remained loyal to God, and would not have sex with the elders, regardless of the threat of death. God saved her for her faithfulness. The elders were put to death for their false witness. It was unusual in her time and culture for a woman to be spared death when accused by elders.

The elders were blackmailers, voyeurs, horrible in every way. The story is part of the Apocrypha, portions of the Old Testament that were excised from the Protestant Bible. Susanna and the Elders comes from Book 13 of Daniel.

I’m still confused why Stevens used the Susanna and the Elders story to depict merely lust. In the Old Testament, Daniel saved Susanna from the elders by proving their false testimony. And Susanna would not relent to the elders’ lust for her. Maybe Stevens uses the story as a symbol for lust, and I’m over-thinking it. The symbol could be just one more Modernist affectation, to be considered in an abstract light.

What do you think? Was it a good story to invoke the feeling of lust? I think many women will balk at Stevens’ poem, in spite of its perfection of form.

6 thoughts on “Is it just Lust?

  1. dale says:

    (Isn’t Quince from Midsummer Night’s Dream? He’s the wannabe playwright?)

    Well, I guess this is one of the reasons I find Stevens creepy. The point of the Susanna story, for him, is simply that lust conquers all. Susanna’s experience is incidental — not an integral part of the story, to him, at all. It’s kind of breathtaking. It’s like Yeats’s indifference to the trauma of rape in “Leda.” He’s so locked in to the male experience that the female experience doesn’t even register.

    It’s ahistorical to expect much political consciousness from these guys about gender issues. But compassion and empathy was as available then as it is now: they didn’t choose to avail themselves of it.

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  2. christine says:

    Dale, thanks for noticing the reference to Quince. I fixed it! And yes, you put it much better than I did about why this poem is sort of a bummer, even though technically it’s very good.

    Michael, I enjoy Reading about all the spiritual joy in your life.

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  3. Julie says:

    Beautiful, Christine. Your post and Dale’s comment sum up what I feel when I read the poem. I was wondering if it was just me being overly sensitive when I read it in my younger years, so I went back and read the poem several more times.

    I do think it’s technically and musically a brilliant piece, which might be all I’m supposed to take away from the read. The musical “movements” are amazing. But I still don’t understand why he chose this particular story to show desire. There were other beautiful women in the Bible (and throughout all of history) who were desired by men. I guess I’m looking at it with twenty first century eyes and shouldn’t do that.

    What bothers me the most is that I see the Susanna story as attempted rape, and that’s not sensuous at all to me. I also love her strength and character.

    Thank you so much for these posts, Christine! It has inspired me very much. We should write our own Susanna poems and give her a voice:)

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  4. carolee says:

    disclaimer: i’m not a scholar. i know nothing about stevens or the old testament. i know only passable amounts of shakespeare.

    now that that’s out of the way …

    even the excerpt from stevens you provide tells us susanna is “credited” with waking something in the elders. my gut reaction was that not so much has changed. 21st century women and girls are still blamed for drawing inappropriate sexual attention (harassment, abuse, rape). i wouldn’t necessarily expect stevens to have been more enlightened than many modern day men (and cultures, including, sadly, women ourselves).

    reading more of the piece, stevens also uses the word “witching” — is that further implication that she was “asking for it”? (there’s also “susanna and her shame.”) in the end of the piece, though, i can’t tell if he’s paying homage to her b/c she resisted.

    on the subject of lust, i don’t attribute to it a positive/negative (appropriate or inappropriate) quality. it’s pure desire. we rely on our sensibilities to decide whether to act upon it or not. certainly a poet with time to pay attention to craft so carefully has time to call upon sensibilities. unless stevens uses the susanna story to show lust as downfall (of the elders)? i can’t imagine it being a successful poem about lust in any positive light.

    i have more questions about this than answers. obviously. but i do find it very interesting.

    so glad you’re sharing some of the inquiries of your studies. 🙂

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  5. christine says:

    Carolee, I’m not a scholar either. I just read the poems, took notes, and asked a few questions. From my flimsy grasp of the poem, I think Stevens is using the story of Susanna as a a way to show the immortality of beauty. Just as Susanna called up desire in the elders, so does the blue silk of the speaker’s beloved call up his desire. So the feelings live on through art, music, etc.. . I think Susanna’s story was incidental to him, just like Dale said.

    Everything you say about a woman’s perspective would probably go down very well in a class on feminist literary theory!

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