Wallace Stevens's "Mozart, 1935": A Close Reading     

Mozart, 1935

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-rac,
Its envious cachinnation.

If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.

That lucid souvenir of the past,
The divertimento;
That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto . . .
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

Be thou that wintry sound
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
Dismissed, absolved
In a starry placating.

We may return to Mozart.
He was young, and we, we are old.
The snow is falling
And the streets are full of cries.
Be seated, thou.

In the first strophe of the above poem, its unidentified speaker tells a poet, representing all artists, to "be seated at the piano" and play the present--that is, to express in art "things as they are," right now. The present, the text goes on to say, is trivial, flimsy, vulgar, & it laughs in envt of, probably, a richer past--and, perhaps, a past freer from the threat of war than 1935 was. the triviality, flimsiness & vulgarity of the present is implied by Stevens's neologisms, which sound slangy, almost stupid (why are two of them each a single syllable repeated 3 times if not for that reason?), and are, of course, nonsensical. Moreover, "ric-a-rac" sounds like "rickety" or flimsy, and "nick-knack," which suggests triviality.

In the second strophe the poet is assured that if "they," the community, complain of the poet's practicing "arpeggios," or breaking the past's unities into the present's pieces as arpeggios break unified chorads into sequences of individual notes, it is because they are too involved with the dead past--the "body in rags" they are carrying "down the stairs" (to burial, presumably)--to want the reality of things as they are now. But the poet is to play despite them.

At this point the speaker breaks off into a revery about the past which he characterizes as "lucid" and playful: a "divertimento," or suite of dances, adn about the imagined future, also lucid, or "unclouded," and structurally solid and impressive--a concerto rather than the "hoo-hoo-hoo" the poet is to play. But it is snowing--winter bleakness is here; hence, the poet is to forget past and future, divertimentos and concertos, and play the present. He is to lose his identity voicing that present's "angry fear" and "besieging pain." And he is to be a "Thou," or bardic/prophetic and highly personal voice rather than a small impersonal "you." In doing this, he is to become so universally & forcefully representative of sorrow that those hearing him will forget themselves and thier sorrow--they will experience, I would guess, a catharsis and the poet will, figuratively, blow their sorrow into the stars, or beyond earthly stress into peace. Once this has been accomplished, we might be able to return to the clarity & classical "rightness" and youthfulness unencumbered that Mozart's music represents. Meanwhile, however, we are old & suffering. Therefore, the poet must "be seated"--and play. Art will cure us of sorrow by expressing the objective now.

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