7 October (1948): Wallace Stevens to Thomas McGreevy

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Irish poet, critic, and lecturer Thomas McGreevy is rarely anthologized these days—despite the fact that his better-known compatriots (like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce) considered him both a creative peer and a pioneer of Irish modernism. Ever humble, in April of 1948, McGreevy wrote a fan letter to the American poet Wallace Stevens, praising his Peter Quince at the Clavier (“I have known your Susannah since my 1922 birthday”). What followed was seven years’ worth of admiring correspondence.

In this letter, a melancholy Stevens talks of the recent death of William Butler Yeats,  struck by how profoundly the loss of a great poet moved a nation. Stevens jumps from subject to subject, clearly trusting his friend to track his complex thoughts without transition— he leaps from art to politics to anecdote with speed. What emerges is evidence of a deep intellectual friendship, and—for the morbid—a little ominous foreshadowing; McGreevy would experience another peer’s death when Stevens died several years later.   

Hartford, Connecticut
October 7th, 1948

 

Dear Mr. McGreevy:

Your last two letters and the papers reached me safely. In spite of [William Butler] Yeats’ contributions to the national spirit, or, say, in spite of his additions to the national nature, it is hard to see how these ceremonies came to take on their public aspect. The transport from France on a corvette of the Navy, the procession from Galway to Sligo, the lying in state were acts of recognition and homage of a public character. Conceding that Yeats was a man of world-wide fame, it is an extraordinary thing in the modern world to find any poet being so honored. Yet the funeral of Paul Valery was a great affair. Moreover, people are as interested in Rilke as if he was human enough and, in addition, something more. The fact must be that the meaning of the poet as a figure in society is a precious meaning to those for whom it has any meaning at all. If some of those that took part in this episode did so, very likely because of the man’s fame, the fact remains that his fame could not be different from his poetry. So that in this event there was a good deal that had to do with human beings both deeply and, likewise, superficially. I shall save the papers. Thanks for sending them.

What you say in one of your letters about your westwardness as a result of living near the Shannon Estuary interested me. The house in which I was born and lived as a boy faced west and wherever I have lived if the house faced any other way I have always been pulling it round on an axis to get it straight. But that is the last of this sort of thing. After all, instead of facing the Atlantic, you might have faced London and Paris. The poem which I sent you some time ago is one of the two. The other is on this very subject: the westwardness of things. The poem does little more than make the point but the point is there to be made.

The neologisms of talk in one’s sleep or half-sleep are not nearly so worthwhile as the acceleration and definition of ideas when one lies awake early in the morning, say, after a thoroughly good night’s rest. How often when one has been trying to say something in one’s room during the evening and when one has not even been sure what it was that one wanted to say, things come to mind, with all the force of acute concentration as one sits on the edge of the bed wishing it wasn’t true that Guinness sells 25,000 barrels of stout a week (or a month) in the South of Ireland alone, or something equally irrelevant. Of course that common enough experience is actually an episode of concentration, so that after a bit one comes to recognize not that it is exceptional, like a blandishment on the part of a fat and happy muse, but that it is an elevation available at will. This sort of thing might interest Jean Dubuffet. Mrs. Church had him send me a copy of his Notice sur la Compagnie de l’Art Brut, which sounds like a rather desperate project. Yet one cannot dismiss that sort of thing however much it may seem like debility or frustration. It is the same sort of thing that is going on in every area of activity. It cannot be dismissed because there will be more and more of it: there is bound to be.

The Malahide man was merely a curiosity. He became known over here because he was a descendant of Boswell and because Boswell’s manuscripts were found in the cellar of his castle and sold to an American. The purchaser published them in an elaborate way. This set of books has turned up in all of the old book catalogues from the last few years and has intensified the boredom of such things. I enclose a clipping from a catalogue that came in the other day which shows that they are now selling odd numbers of the set. No doubt there are a good many people interested in Boswell but this set of books calls for all the enthusiasm of the man who purchased them and not all of the people interested in Bowell completely share that enthusiasm. No-one gets more from book catalogues than I do but that is not a reason for saying that repetitions of items in them are boring […]

We are just entering what is the most moving part of our calendar: the early autumn. Nothing could be lovelier than these cold nights and the warm days that follow. The papers are full of reports of hurricanes in the South, but those might as well be taking place in New Zealand. The more violent the hurricane is in Florida, the quieter the weather seems to be here. It is like a kind of old age in which everything comes to rest except for an occasional thought of Vishinsky.

  

Sincerely yours,
Wallace Stevens

 

From Letters of Wallace Stevens. Selected and edited by Holly Stevens. California: University of California Press, 1966.

FURTHER READING

Originally published in The Southern Review, this article on “The Irish Connection” between Stevens and MacGreevy expands on the origin and early days of their friendship. 

Find a 1954 New York Times profile of Wallace Stevens here