ONE OF THE WORDS frequently heard in discussions of modern poetry is "impersonality." Poets in general, but especially those poets we think of as difficult--Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Stevens, and their many semblables and frères--are acknowledged by most critics to have converted poetry from a personal communication into an impersonal creation. The modern poem is often cold and hard, according to the prescription of T. E. Hulme; not warm and intimate in the manner of most nine teenth-centuryverse. To be sure, many poets still writing today compose works that seem no less personal than those of Wordsworth and Keats. But the most influential and prominent poets of the early twentieth century have gone another way, into what we call, without too well knowing what it is, impersonality.
Perhaps the extreme of impersonality is reached in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. "Peter Quince at the Clavier," for example, is a series of exquisitely modeled tableaux in which the feelings of Susanna and the elders are successively immobilized in a sort of verbal sculpture, and the ancient story serves to illustrate the nature of music. The people are of an importance subordinate to that of their gestures and to that of the color, the tone, the "idea" of their action; and the action in turn enforces the generalization about human feeling, not merely the feeling of the poet, which the poem expounds.