PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER
~ by Wallace Stevens
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
In the green water, clear and warm,
The touch of springs,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
Here rendered in metaphysical poetry is the story of Susanna from the Book Of Daniel, Chapter 13, in Apocrypha.
Beauteous Susanna is plotted against by corrupt Hebrew elders. They have spied on her bathing in her gated, walled garden. They each try to seduce and molest her. As they are influential at court, they coerce and threaten her: they might make invidious accusations against her wifely virtue if she does not succumb. She cries out against them, bringing servants rushing to her aid — the elders then falsely accuse her of lewd and adulterous conduct.
Eventually, Daniel saves her reputation, demonstrating in court that the elders are lying. The elders are put to death by the court, at which they had been councilors. (Stevens relies on our having awareness of the Biblical literature. I, for one, certainly had to look it up.)
Susanna’s beauty is an immortal memory for her husband, who knew her in the flesh. For the spying elders, it was a fleeting conception, followed by death.