On "Mozart, 1935"

Alan Filreis

"Calling a lyricist to a piano Stevens knows is out of tune with the times, "Mozart, 1935" begins by directing this poet-figure to continue nevertheless playing sound over sense ("hoo-hoo-hoo," "shoo-shoo-shoo," "ric-a-nic") and to "practice arpeggios" for the purpose, apparently, of diverting the speaker"s attention from the battle being waged nearby. But the threat is near: People have been throwing stones on the roof from the streets outside the room in which the pianist has been instructed to take his seat. The poem has begun, then, by suggesting itself as contributing to a diversionary tactic, a fine looking away from trouble:

Poet, be seated at the piano.

Play the present …

And yet, in its own time, this poem emerged as the one work William Rose Benét could say "most clearly" expressed "[t]he poet’s attitude toward the epoch in which he finds himself." How was such a double politics possible? "Mozart, 1935" immediately discloses a will to counter complaints of pure poetry, to refute that charge heard regularly from Stevens’s critics, to find "his particular celebration out of tune today" on his own if necessary; and, in short, to meet the communist [poet and critic Willard] Maas’s "respect for his magnificent rhetoric" at least halfway across from right to left. That Stevens’s poetry was all music and no ideas became the repeated refrain of some of his Leftist critics. Even so eager a devotee of the communist lyric as T. C. Wilson , we recall, expressed the point privately to [Marianne] Moore by insisting that Stevens’s work was too much "of the senses." Perhaps more important, the notion that the old tyranny of form held sway over Stevens was becoming the obligatory lament of many nonradical critics who were unaware of the extent to which the Left had already touched them. … Then there was [Louis] Untermeyer, the liberal whose entrepeneurial anthologizing had come in for much blunt left criticism, passing on a bit of the same. "Often enough a [Stevens] poem refuses to yield a meaning," Untermeyer wrote, "but "Academic Discourse at Havana" and "The Idea of Order at Key West" surrender themselves in an almost pure music."

[Filreis suggests that Stevens’s poem was a reply to Isidor Schneider’s ""Portrait of a False Revolutionist" as published in The Dynamo 1:3 (Summer 1934), 12.] … The speaker now urges the pianist to be "the voice, / Not you" – to speak indeed for others as well as himself. The pronominally reflexive is really deftly transitive, and depression-era selfhood becomes seen by self as object – not "be thou" but "be though / The voice" of the people:

Be thou, be thou

The voice of angry fear,

The voice of this besieging pain.

Literalized outsiders are hurling stones at the house, and "the streets are full of cries" – perhaps, or perhaps not, because the pure poet is making all sound and not singing a song of social significance. In the middle of the poem the speaker’s strategy is evidently to implore the pure poet to practice well the very reverberations of his opponents. If in being merely oneself (on "be thou" reflexivity) the artist in 1935 must adapt the voice that shouts down one’s art (be thou this voice), then must oneself bespeak one’s besieger. Soon the spaker becomes shrewder still:

Be thou that wintry sound

As of the great wind howling,

By which sorrow is released,

Dismissed, absolved

In a starry placating.

"The voice" that had seemed to oppose a Mozart for 1935 is now fully naturalized. To the poet of pure sound, the artist who knows the sound itself and not the treasons why the sound is heard, the streets of cries augur the confused howling of the winter wind, a howl to be quelled by the precision and utter clarity of the stars. Through this disembodiment of sound the speaker will finally recognize that in such expression of anger sorrow might be diminished. So the piano playing does, after all, smooth over the contradictions of "1935" currency on one hand and outmoded "Mozart" on the other, absolving and placating the voices raised up by one against the other."

from Alan Filreis, Modernism from Left to Right: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties and Literary Radicalism (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1994), 211, 214-215.

Mark Halliday

In"Mozart,1935," "The snow is falling / And the streets are full of cries." How shall the poet respond?

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.

The job to be done is not an attractive one, as Stevens indicates by nonsense syllables whose vulgarity testifies to the miserable gulf between 1935 and the delicate sounds of Mozart. The nonsense syllables, moreover, erect a blank wall of sound between the poet and the real human cries in the street. To summarize those cries as "hoo-hoo-hoo" and equate this noise with "shoo-shoo-shoo" is to postpone the human seriousness of those cries. Notice that the noise of the present is characterized as "envious". If the "cachinnation" (loud harsh laughter) emanates from people who can't find work and can't feed their children, people whose "cries" fill the streets, the adjective selected seems tellingly unsympathetic. (Notice also the inclination to meld cries with laughter, as if from the poet's distance all human noises sound the same. More on this point later.) The poet-pianist is estranged from the street people, at least so long as he devotes himself to Mozart's "lucid souvenir of the past":

If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.

The poem, especially in the above stanza, provides a startling intimation of a need for political relevance in art--startling, that is, from Stevens, who vigorously opposed demands for such relevance in many letters and in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words." The pianist is summoned to "Strike the piercing chord" of a new music which will express the suffering of all those people whose losses have been symbolically aggregated into "A body in rags.""

There is an urgency in the summoning of the poet-pianist to his new work, urgency caused by the importunate quality of suffering when we cannot look away from it. We can dodge the apprehension of severe pain in others--and most of this chapter will examine methods for such dodging--but when it is immediately before our eyes, it produces not only fascination but also an instinctive (at any rate, deep and prerational) sense of imperiously required response. (In this respect the apprehension of suffering in others is like sexual desire for another person--a second kind of importuning of the self which generated great anxiety in Stevens. This will be the focus of chapter 2.) Admittedly our range of responses to vivid suffering in others includes noncompassionate responses, such as flight from the scene, passionate denial of the reality of what we have witnessed, and even sadistic desire to prolong or intensify the suffering. But none of these is a calm, relaxed response; my point is that severe pain undergone directly in front of a viewer normally jolts the viewer into a sense that something must quickly be done. In "Mozart, 1935" the stress of this sense of obligation is manifested both by the baldness of the terms of confrontation with suffering and by the effortful didacticism with which Stevens tries to control and cool the inflamed problem of injured others:

[Halliday quotes lines 16-24]

A different poet--one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)--having turned to face the "angry fear" of people, would feel that his poem's project must be to explore "this besieging pain" and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. "Mozart, 1935" is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake. Stevens' earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others' experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word "thou," which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a "you" among "yous." Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: "Be thou the voice, / Not you." Stevens requires an artist abstracted from--and thus, we may suggest, protected from--the mess of injured egos and competing claims out there where "the streets are full of cries." When such a distance is preserved, a satisfactory outcome of the poet's effort to respond to those cries can be much more readily imagined by Stevens; the poem can arrive at "a starry placating" just five lines after "this besieging pain." The arrival can come so soon because the poet, functioning austerely as a "thou" (not a mere "you"), has stayed in generality, abstracting countless instances of suffering into simple terms--a body in rags, fear, pain, cries--whose generality renders them swiftly manageable.

But what then does Stevens' poet-pianist manage in response to the social conditions of 1935? What is a "starry placating"? Educated by other Stevens poems, we may presume it is a spirit of acceptance, in which the people's longings are calmed, though perhaps only provisionally and temporarily, that is, they are placated. It is acceptance of the human lot through acceptance of the natural universe--"Merely in living as and where we live," as Stevens puts it wistfully in the last line of "Esthétique du Mal" (CP 326)--this acceptance to be nurtured by the supreme fictions of poetry. "Starry" seems to mean "imaginary." We notice that this achievement of a starry placating is not to involve any attempt to change the social conditions that have brought others' pain to Stevens' attention. Sorrow is not to be remedied, nor even alleviated, but "released, / Dismissed, absolved . . . " We should wonder why suffering would need absolution--is it sinful? Has suffering come from a spiritual failure on the part of the suffering people? The poem is elusive about this, but it is sure that what the people need is a new way of thinking, not just food, shelter, jobs.

From Stevens and the Impersonal. Copyright © 1991 by Princeton UP.

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