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The Figure Concealed

Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echoes

Lisa Goldfarb is Professor at the Gallatin School of New York University, President of The Wallace Stevens Society, and Associate Editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal. She is author of Unexpected Affinities: Modern American Poetry and Symbolist Poetics (2018), co-editor of Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism (2012), Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens (2017), and three special issues of The Wallace Stevens Journal.


In a letter of January 1955, Wallace Stevens referred to Paul Valéry as a “prodigy of poetry.” Although his correspondence reveals that he was long familiar with both Valéry’s poetry and prose, and scholars from the early days of Stevens criticism to the present – from Frank Kermode to Harold Bloom and Eleanor Cook – have acknowledged Valéry’s importance for Stevens and noted the mark of Valéry’s poetics on Stevens’ prose and poetry, until now there has been no comprehensive analysis of the affinities between them. The first full-length study of its kind, The Figure Concealed explores the multiple parallels between these two great 20th century poets.

Lisa Goldfarb brings Valéry’s and Stevens’ poetics and poetry into conversation, and focuses on the resonance of Valéry’s musical ideas in Stevens’ poetic theory and practice. Early chapters focus on the interlacing of their work poetically and philosophically, while the later ones increasingly focus on readings of Stevens through the lens of Valéryan musical-poetic theory. Stevens’ letters, essays and poems are examined alongside Valéry’s Cahiers [Notebooks], essays, and poems to amplify the Valéryan echo throughout Stevens’ work. The Figure Concealed makes an important contribution to studies of modern poetry and to Stevens scholarship in particular. It offers a new and transformative comparative study and proposes a musical poetics which will be important for scholars of modern poetry, of Stevens and Valéry, and will appeal to all those interested in the relationship between music and poetry, the arts more broadly, as well as aesthetics and philosophy.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-437-6
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $69.95
Release Date: January 2011
Page Extent / Format: 240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No



Introduction: The Figure Concealed

Chapter I
Contours and Transformations: The Musical Poetics of Stevens and Valéry

Chapter II
Resonant Ideas: Philosophy and Music in Valéry’s Prose and Poetry

Chapter III
Philosophical Parallels and the Poetics of Variation

Chapter IV
On the Vocal Chord: Poetics of Voice in Stevens and Valéry

Chapter V Words of the Exquisite Appositeness: “Credences of Summer”

Chapter VI
The Poetic Promise of Unreadable Moments: “Things of August”

Chapter VII Eros and the Play of Sound in Wallace Stevens



Lisa Goldfarb has opened our ears and our minds to new dimensions of Wallace Stevens’ poetry, and to its formal and its philosophical aims. Her attention to Valéryan echoes takes us to that place where meaning and form, sensation and feeling, imagination and reason, meet to express the process of being. The Figure Concealed offers an excellent introduction to Valéry’s ideas about the affinities between poetry and music and the special kind of open, transformative thought that poetry can achieve when it puts aside the fixed positions and resolutions of traditional discursive philosophy. Even for those familiar with Valéry's ideas, the analyses of less familiar poems, such as ‘Un Feu distinct,’ refresh our experience of the French master. For readers of Stevens, this book offers the best study yet of how he understood poetic thought through an analogy with music – not just as patterned sound, but as a way of believing and becoming. Goldfarb puts the mystery back into Stevens’ poetry, not by mystification, but by rigorous comparison of poets and of media, and clear analysis of words freed of their verbality. Key ideas of variation, sonata form, abstraction and voice gain significance through brilliant close readings, not only of classics such as ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ but also of under-discussed poems of the Stevens canon, such as ‘Variations on a Summer’s Day,’ ‘Credences of Summer,’ and ’Things of August.’
Bonnie Costello, Professor of English, Boston University, author of Shifting Ground: Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry and Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life and the Turning World

Readers of Wallace Stevens have long recognized the important relationship between poetry and music in his work and, invariably, nods to the role of the French Symbolists have been offered in passing. But, until now, we have lacked an exhaustive treatment of the ‘musical Stevens.’ Lisa Goldfarb’s The Figure Concealed closes a major gap in Stevens studies, for this is our first full-length account of Stevens’ connection to the Symbolists in almost forty years and our first full treatment of the pervasive presence of Valéry’s poetics, consciously and unconsciously absorbed by Stevens. The Figure Concealed is not so much a study of ‘influence’ as a thorough-going disclosure of how Valéry’s complex system of sonic and musical images is evidenced over and over in Stevens’ poetic practice. This study, as perhaps no other work on either Stevens or Valéry, weaves together the threads of the philosophy of a world in flux, the musical modulations of language and the writing of poetry. For Stevens, Valéry was the poet ‘living at the center of the world.’ The book moves from direct ‘interlacings’ between the two poets and theorists to later treatment of major poems by Stevens through the lens of Valéryan musical and poetic theory. No one will read poems again by Stevens like ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds,’ ‘Credences of Summer,’ the often neglected ‘Things of August,’ and other poems without a new awareness of how musical variation and tonal modulation acting upon a dominant theme perform a Valéryan harmonic with remarkable fidelity.
George S. Lensing, Mann Family Distinguished Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth and Wallace Stevens and the Seasons

In 2004, The Wallace Stevens Journal published an article on Valéry and Stevens . . . that became Professor Lisa Goldfarb’s book on the two poets, one that taught me much about Valéry’s poetics in theory and practice, expressed abstractly in many prose essays, letters, and notebook entries, and embodied in his own poetry. . . . Every time an ardent and competent reader offers her sense of a famous poem, it provokes thought in the rest of us, and Stevensians will be glad to have Goldfarb’s view of the Stevensian efforts she discusses. It is wonderful to have so much of Valéry’s poetics available for application to Stevens’ lectures, essays, and ‘Adagia,’ and to know that Valéry, like Stevens, thought of variants and variations as a form of intelligence.
Helen Vendler, The Wallace Stevens Journal (review, Fall 2011)

Lisa Goldfarb breaks new critical ground in her study of Wallace Stevens and Paul Valéry, The Figure Concealed: Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echos. While Stevens’s interest in Valéry and the Symbolists has been well known in scholarship, Goldfarb is unique in bridging the two through their shared attempts to mirror musical aesthetics. She is adept at pointing to the limitations of previous scholarship, in particular metaphysical and ontological approaches to Stevens through William James, George Santayana, and Martin Heidegger, which overlook the musical poetics he employs and its parallels to Valéry and their mutual readings in Mallarmé. Goldfarb would have benefited here from reference to Louis Marvick’s Waking the Face that No One Is: A Study in the Musical Context of Symbolist Poetics (Rodopi [2004]), which discusses the Symbolists through their musical interests and attempts to attain a musical aesthetic in language. Marvick’s particular interest is in Valéry, and given the numerous overlapping discussions in his work and Goldfarb’s, having them together enriches both. Of interest is Goldfarb’s discussion of poetic voice as described through musical terminology, such as modulation and key, and Valéry’s ‘mots-musique’ or ‘music words’. By linking such a voice and discourse to the active role of reader and author, the philosophical interest in ontology becomes bound to the sounds and performance of poetry. Much of the argument’s aims, though not its detailed exploration, can be summarized in Goldfarb’s contention that by ‘looking at Stevens’ and Valéry’s thought side by side’ the reader will notice that ‘their shared vocal poetics leads them to practice poetry with performance in mind’ (p. 119). As with Marvick’s earlier work, this demonstrates the essentially allegorical nature of the musical allusions and borrowings of terminology, and an imprecise allegory in several instances. Nonetheless, Goldfarb’s work seems certain to become a key critical resource for any future work on this element of Stevens’s poetry and performance.
American Literature: The Twentieth Century Years Work English Studies first published online May 15, 2013 doi:10.1093/ywes/mat017 (28 pages)

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