Literature

A Short Analysis of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’

‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ (1946) is one of Wallace Stevens’s finest later poems. In just sixteen lines and eight couplets, Stevens summons the quiet and calm of solitary reading inside a house. You can read ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.

As with many of Wallace Stevens’s poems, ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ is about the intersection of different sensory experience, and how their combination creates a particular mood or moment. (See his ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ for another celebrated example.) Specifically, this poem is about how the act of reading, the quiet of the house, and the solitariness of the house-dweller intersect.

‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ is a lyric poem reflecting on an experience that will be familiar to many readers of poetry (and readers of this blog): reading late into the night. The house in which this solitary reader reads their book is quiet, and the whole world seems calm. Of course, seems is the key word, but Stevens doesn’t use it: for him, or for the book-reader in the poem, the world was calm. Subjective personal experience appears objectively real.

As the poem develops, everything within it – the book and the reader, the reader and the house, the house and the reader’s mind, and then finally, truth itself with all of the above – merges together into one. This moment, a reader reading a book late into a summer night, seems to be come ‘truth’ itself. This conclusion is one of many examples of Stevens’s debt to John Keats, whose Grecian urn told him that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

The metre of ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ is iambic pentameter, as we can observe in the line ‘Was like the con-scious be-ing of the book’ (where the italicised syllables are stressed; the non-italicised unstressed). There are some variations and departures from this ground-plan (as we’d expect from a modern poem, Stevens is trying to convey a loosely colloquial tone), but this is the basic metre for the poem.

So much for metre; but what about form? Those couplets (unrhymed, although hardly arbitrary when we observe that Stevens repeats a number of end-words, namely ‘calm’, ‘book’, ‘page’, ‘itself’, and ‘to be’, as well as the semantic ‘rhyme’ of ‘mind’ and ‘thought’) break the poem into miniature, imagistic statements.

But the repetition is worth dwelling on. In our analysis of ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, we observed that the repeated end-words create the same rhythm and ‘feel’ of the sestina verse form, although Stevens’s poem is not a sestina. Did he have the sestina form in mind when he wrote ‘The Idea of Order’? Perhaps. Similarly, one wonders if Stevens was drawing on the villanelle form for ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’. In a villanelle, the same two lines of verse are repeated (sometimes with minor variations to wording) throughout the poem at regular intervals. These two lines act as refrains, and first appear in the very first stanza of the villanelle (as the first and final lines of that stanza). Here’s an example from Edwin Arlington Robinson, called ‘The House on the Hill’:

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

We chose this example because it’s about a house, like Stevens’s poem; but it’s worth pointing out that, when the villanelle really became popular among English and American poets (from the 1930s onwards), iambic pentameter – the same metre as Stevens employs in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ – was more commonly used than the shorter trimeter used by Robinson in the above poem.

Still, we can see how Stevens’s poem summons the spectre of the villanelle. It’s just that he doesn’t stick as rigidly to the refrains or their placing within his poem, and his stanzas have two lines instead of three. But the two refrains – which centre, respectively, on the house as a locus of ‘calm’ and on the reader reading the book – are there in that first stanza, in the first and last lines of that stanza; they are there in the final two lines of the poem, as they are in a villanelle; and in between, Stevens returns again and again to the calm house and the reader and the book.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Butler

    fine to get so many commentaries on American poetry but you don’t do much for contemporary British poetry.

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