Wallace Stevens Questions for English 222 American Literature, CSU Fullerton



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"The Snow Man" (Norton American Lit. 8th. ed. Vol. D 283-84); "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" (Vol. D 285); "Sunday Morning" (Vol. D 285-88); "Anecdote of the Jar" (Vol. D 288-89); "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (Vol. D 289-90); "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Vol. D 291-92); "The Idea of Order at Key West" (Vol. D 293-94); "Of Modern Poetry" (Vol. D 294); The Plain Sense of Things" (Vol. D 295).

"The Snow Man" (Norton Vol. D 283-84)

1. In Stevens' "The Snow Man," how does this poem counter the Romantics' way of relating to and representing nature as an expressive vehicle for the human mind and spirit? What must happen, according to the speaker, for someone to write about winter accurately?

"Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" (Vol. D 285)

2. Stevens' "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" takes for its subject going to bed at ten o'clock at night: what will one wear, what dreams will come and what do they say about the dreamers? Sort out the groups of wearers/dreamers evoked by the speaker -- who would perhaps dream of "baboons and periwinkles," and who would be quite unlikely to do that? Finally, why does the drunken sailor's dream get pride of place; i.e. why is it mentioned last?

"Sunday Morning" (Vol. D 285-88)

3. In "Sunday Morning," Stevens' speaker contrasts traditional metaphysical abstractions with beautiful material realities and passions, but there's more to the poem than that. Critic J. Hillis Miller writes that "'Sunday Morning' is Stevens' most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair" (Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers Harvard UP, 1966). What, then, does Stevens suggest humanity does in such a case -- how do the lady and others referenced in the poem respond, and what at least partly underlies that response?

"Anecdote of the Jar" (Vol. D 288-89)

4. In Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar," what does the simple jar (a human artifact) that the speaker has placed on a hill in Tennessee do to the surrounding landscape? How do you interpret the thought that the jar "did not give of bird or bush, / Like nothing else in Tennessee"? Why do you suppose that distinctness from bird or bush should matter to us, and what motive can you conjecture for the speaker's having placed the jar on a hill in the first place?

"Peter Quince at the Clavier" (Vol. D 289-90)

5. In Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier," the poet alludes to the story of Susanna in the apocryphal biblical book Susanna? The speaker says that with regard to his thinking about the female addressee's blue silken clothing, "It is like the strain / Waked in the elders by Susanna." What, then, is that "strain" like, so far as you can tell from the rest of the poem? And how is Susanna herself pictured – what is she doing, and how does she react to the elders who covet her?

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (Vol. D 291-92)

6. The blackbird is hardly a creature we associate with romantic transcendence of the ordinary, so what, if anything, is special about the blackbird in Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"? Why are there thirteen ways (and counting, we may suppose) of looking at a blackbird? Do these ways of perceiving or considering the bird somehow connect, or should we just consider each as separate and equally worthwhile? Explain why you respond as you do.

7. In Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," concentrate on any two of the "ways of looking at a blackbird" specified, and try to explain what you believe to be the significance of the perceptions evoked.

"The Idea of Order at Key West" (Vol. D 293-94)

8. In Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," what is the basic scene described at the poem's beginning? That is, what's happening and who are the characters participating in the scene? If the scene is subject to development, how would you describe that development? In other words, what is happening in the middle part of the poem, and then in the final portion (say, line 45-end)?

9. In Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," the speaker says that he and his companion Ramon Fernandez hear the poem's "she" singing and "not the sea" (14). What relation, if any, does the speaker posit between the female singer and the ocean scene around her? Furthermore, what is the source of her song, if the poem offers any hints about it? Finally, we might broaden the first question to one about the relationship between words/perception/imagination and the world around us: what might Stevens' poem be suggesting about this relationship?

10. In Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West," the speaker refers to a "blessed rage for order" and to "the maker's rage to order words of the sea . . . / And of ourselves and of our origins" (52-55). How do you understand this "rage for order" – according to the poem's final stanza, what are we supposedly trying to accomplish by means of our speech, our perceptual acts, our imaginings?

"Of Modern Poetry" (Vol. D 294)

11. In "Of Modern Poetry," Stevens' speaker explains what is meant by "poem of the act of the mind" (28). How do you understand the meaning of that phrase? Why, for instance, does Stevens use the metaphor of "theater" to describe the kind of thinking that a modern poet must do? How does that kind of thinking supposedly differ from the kinds of thinking we engage in every day, just to get by in the world?

"The Plain Sense of Things" (Vol. D 295).

12. In "The Plain Sense of Things," Stevens' speaker addresses the role of imagination in our lives, its role in our perceptions of what things are and how things are. What, then, is "the plain sense of things," and why does even that plain sense need to be imagined and reflected on?

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