Educated at Harvard College and New York Law School, Wallace Stevens lived in Hartford, Connecticut, most of his adult life, working at an insurance company. He wrote poems in the evenings, and on his way to and from work. Harmonium is an unusual first book—partially because it didn’t appear until Stevens was 44 years old, representing the cumulative poetic works of his life up until that point. Because of the compressed intensity of this first effort, the range and variety of the poems are bewildering and beautiful.
Now considered one of the great contributions to Modernism, Harmonium was not fully recognized until the last years of Stevens’s life when a volume of his collected poems was published. Harmonium is also unusual in being entirely lyric rather than narrative, a mix of pure, rational, philosophical thought, and imaginary nonsense-verse.
Harmonium’s great strength is in its diversity. Some of its famous short lyric poems, full of imaginative detail and attention to sound, include "Bantams in Pine-Woods," "Anecdote of the Jar," and "The Emperor of Ice Cream," which are notable for their imagistic intensity and unusual turns of phrase and logic. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" and "Sunday Morning" are longer, more philosophical, and perhaps autobiographical poems that carry the weight and importance of epic poetry without leaving lyric territory. Perhaps the most famous poem in the collection is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which takes cues from the haiku tradition.
Although many of the poems he wrote throughout his lifetime reflect the Connecticut landscape, including "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" and "Of Hartford in a Purple Light," his poems occur perhaps more truly inside an imaginative poetic landscape, as he wrote in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon": "there I found myself more truly and more strange."