By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’ is one of Wallace Stevens’s most assured, and popular, short poems. It belongs to his early period: it was first published in 1915 before being collected in his first book-length collection, Harmonium, in 1923. You can read ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
Upon reading ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’, a number of questions arise. What is the poem ‘about’? Can we even ask such a question?After all, Wallace Stevens’s poetry is an example of modernism, which is known for challenging our assumptions about literary meaning and what a poem should be for. (As Stevens’s fellow American modernist poet, Archibald MacLeish, memorably put it: ‘A poem should not mean / But be.’)
From this starting point, our analysis is likely to throw out some further questions. What is the significance of the poem’s use of colour? Are we meant to contrast the lace and the purple and green garments mentioned (summoning the elaborate dress of women in the Renaissance) with the plain old ‘white gowns’ women wear in modern-day America? And just what is a ‘beaded ceinture’ anyway?
Quite a big clue to solving these questions is provided by the poem’s title, ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’. In summary, Stevens is capturing the disillusionment and disappointment of most ordinary people’s lives: they live their ordinary, bland lives, and go to bed every night at ten o’clock, in their plain old white nightgowns, and have nothing exciting to dream about.
Note how Stevens doesn’t simply say they lead dull, uninspiring lives during their waking hours: even at night, their imaginations are so stultified that they cannot even dream of a fantastical escape into an inner world of adventure and excitement, involving the exotic (those baboons) and colourful (those periwinkles: as well as denoting a marine mollusc, the world also refers to a plant of a vivid blue-violet colour; the word is also, by extension, used to refer to this colour).
There is the odd exception to all this, one or two individuals who aren’t vacuous automata simply sleepwalking through life: the old sailor, who doesn’t even bother to go to bed (let alone slip into a plain old white nightgown!) to sleep, but instead sleeps where he sits, with his boots on, and whose dreams are exciting, exotic, and colourful (catching tigers in ‘red weather’: this phrase suggesting passionate and tempestuous excitement that stands in stark contrast to the staid purity, the whiter-than-whiteness, of those white gowns).
‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’ is written in free verse, but Stevens’s use of repetition reinforces the sense of disillusionment: in ll. 4-6, the repetition of the formulation ‘Or … with … rings’, with only the colours changed, creates the impression of someone who has reached the end of their tether when staring into the spectral emptiness of life, with its colourlessness and lack of ornamentation.
The repetition of negatives (‘None … None … not going’) also brings home just what is lacking in the lives Stevens describes. (A ‘ceinture’, by the way, is a belt or girdle; the French origin of the word, along with the adjective ‘beaded’, once again suggests refinement and ornament – but here, again, only present as a negative, or absence.)
‘Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock’ is a fine early lyric by one of America’s major modernist poets, and a nice way into the world of Wallace Stevens’s poetry.
Capturing the mundane ordinariness of most people’s lives, Stevens skilfully suggests what might have been, gesturing towards a world of colour and excitement; but before the poem can become too self-pitying or miserable, he brings it back from the brink and reminds us that some people find excitement through their dreams, and some ordinary people are capable of thinking beyond the confines of their own lives.