Stevens’s Commonplace Book

Milton J. Bates, editor

Sur Plusiers Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’ Commonplace Book.

Stanford University Press/ Huntington Library, 117 pages, $19.95


Most writers scribble notes to themselves, often on scraps of paper or on the backs of envelopes. It tells us something about the kind of man Wallace Stevens was that he organized his notes into several discrete notebooks, each with its own title, and made entries in an extremely neat hand, using a pencil so that he could erase mistakes. In a notebook called “Adagia,” he recorded reflections, mostly in epigrammatic form, on his abiding theme, the relation of reality and imagination: “Poetry and materia poetica are interchangeable terms.” “We live in the mind.” “The poet is the priest of the invisible.” In “From Pieces of Paper” and “Schemata,” he jotted down images, title ideas, and the like: “Cats & Marigolds.” “A poem like a season of the mind.” “Asides on the Oboe.” Last of all—and probably least—he kept a two-volume commonplace book, its entries dating from 1932 to the early Fifties (he died in 1955), which contains a total of 104 items, most of them quotations. The collective title of these two notebooks, Sur Plusiers Beaux Sujects (“on several beautiful subjects”), apparently derives from that of a sixteenth-century French collection of ancient Greek epigrams (sujects is an early spelling for sujets).

Now Milton J. Bates, a professor at Marquette University and the author of Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of the Self has turned these two slim cahiers into a slim, handsome book. On the versos are facsimiles of Stevens’s lined gray notebook pages; facing them on the rectos are transcriptions of those pages’ contents, along with assorted citations, corrections, annotations, and translations by Professor Bates. The authors quoted range from Pascal to Lionel Trilling, from Confucius to Stephen Spender, from Bertrand Russell to Jacques Maritain; Stevens cites a review of an English gardening book in The New Statesman, a note on Schoenberg in The Musical Quarterly, a note on Picasso in Apollo. (Indeed, readers may be surprised to find far more extracts here from book reviews—mostly British and French—and letter collections than from the classics or modernist poetry.)

Diverse though the sources may be, however, virtually all the quotations reflect, in some way, Stevens’s preoccupation with truth, beauty, the character of the artist, the ordering role of the creative intellect, and the relation between everyday reality and the reality of art. This emphasis is not surprising, nor (given Stevens’s Francophilia) is the fact that many of the book’s pithiest lines come from Frenchmen, among them Jules Renard (“Truth is not always art; art is not always truth, but truth and art have points of contact; I look for them”), Gabriel Fauré (“The artist ought to love life and show us that it is beautiful”), and Jacques Tournier (“An authentic writer explores an authentic universe, under the guidance of an inner necessity. And that is all that counts”). A few quotations are followed by brief comments expressing Stevens’s agreement, qualification, or dissent; for example, an observation by Graham Bell about Cézanne’s integrity provokes Stevens’s approving remark that Bell “adds to the subject and manner the tiling that is incessantly overlooked: the artist, the presence of the determining personality. Without that reality no amount of other things matters much.”

Only a handful of the quotations that Stevens copied into his commonplace book can be identified, with any confidence, as direct influences upon his verse. A phrase quoted from Mario Rossi appears as an epigraph to the poem “Evening without Angels.” Another quotation contains the words “le plus pur,” which Stevens later used in the poem “The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air.” A remark by George Chapman to the effect that plainness in poetry represents “the plain way to barbarism” presumably inspired a line in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”: “The plainness of plain things is savagery.” Slim pickings. But Sur Plusiers Beaux Sujects does make for interesting browsing, and it does demonstrate that Stevens’s reading, in the words of Professor Bates, “nourished his lifelong thematic preoccupations.”

NEW CRITERION, September 1990