G“reat geniuses have the shortest biographies,” Emerson wrote. “Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their house and street life was trivial and commonplace.” This may not always be true—there is, after all, a genius of action as well as a genius of contemplation—but for poets in particular, it is a good rule of thumb. As Keats put it, “A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence.” The recipe for poetry involves taking an ounce of experience and subjecting it to a lifetime of distillation; think of the cosmos Emily Dickinson spun out of no more life than would fit in an upstairs bedroom. It is a mistake to think that a person becomes a poet because she undergoes exceptional experiences—because she lives more wildly, intensely, or colorfully than other people. The poet doesn’t feel unique emotions any more than the painter sees unique colors; it is what she does with ordinary emotions that turns them into poetry.

For the modernist poets who revolutionized American literature in the early 20th century, impersonality was a kind of mania—and a sign of how seriously they took their artistic project. The 1910s and ’20s were the palmy days of Greenwich Village, an era of free love and radical politics. But the greatest poets of that era, the ones who actually created modernism, kept this kind of bohemian playacting at arm’s length. Indeed, for most of the modernists, the more revolutionary their poetics, the more carefully they concealed themselves behind the manners and professions of the bourgeoisie. T. S. Eliot was a banker when he wrote “The Waste Land”; William Carlos Williams was a family doctor; Marianne Moore, an editor, was a devout churchgoer who lived with her mother.

And then there was Wallace Stevens. In writing The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani, who has given us lives of Williams, Hart Crane, and Robert Lowell, set himself his most difficult challenge yet, for if ever there was a genius with a short biography, it was Stevens. The story that Mariani tells in 400 pages could be reduced, in its essentials, to 400 words. Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879 to a family of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. He went to Harvard, where he took literature classes and became the president of the literary magazine, The Advocate. But the need for a more substantial career than writing poetry led him to New York Law School. He married his first sweetheart, Elsie, and grew to dislike her; they had one child. In time they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked in the insurance business and rose to become the vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity. He never left North America. He was casually racist and anti-Semitic. A Hoover Republican, he distrusted labor unions. He drank too much at parties, to overcome his natural shyness, and later had to apologize for his boorishness. In the depths of the Depression, he made $20,000 a year, the equivalent of $350,000 today. Each detail feels more interest-repelling than the last. If such a man were the subject of a novel, it would be Babbitt.

“Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming,” Marianne Moore wrote, comparing him to a person with “a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose.” But the secret would out, and in his poems Stevens revealed it: The bluff American executive had a soul as baroque and fantastical as an aesthete’s, as profound and brooding as a philosopher’s. Imagine the surprise of Carl Van Vechten, the writer and literary impresario, who met Stevens for the first time in 1914, when this “big, blond, and burly” insurance man handed over the manuscript of “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same 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.

This scene is not nearly as famous as the scene of T. S. Eliot showing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Ezra Pound, but the reader’s surprise must have been even greater: Stevens, like Eliot, had modernized himself. His first book, Harmonium, published in 1923, established Stevens as the patron saint of the inner life held captive by the outer life—a peculiarly American condition. His daily existence offered no scope for self-expression, but on his walks to and from work, in the evenings up in his study, he was confronting the ultimate questions of art and life. How can humanity live without God? Can religion be replaced with another kind of myth? How does art reflect and transcend reality? And he was answering in a language at once voluptuous and intellectual, elegant and eccentric—a language such as no one had spoken before:

Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

These lines, from “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” represent Stevens at his most antic—the faux-exotic names and nonsense syllables, the fine excess of assonance in the opening lines. This is the poet who fills his verses with sound effects like Tum-ti-tum and hoo-hoo-hoo, who revels in recherché words like silentious and pendentives. His is a ponderous kind of humor—exactly the kind of self-delighting language that would be invented by a man who had no one to talk to but himself. The critic Randall Jarrell was right to compare Stevens to “that rational, magnanimous, voluminous animal, the elephant.” But he is a dancing elephant.

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At the same time, even in “Bantams,” it’s possible to see that Stevens’s language is not surreal or free-associative, but rather the embroidered garment of a serious theme. The poem’s rooster, which Stevens compares to a proud chieftain, comes to represent the sovereign ego. The interdependence of the world and the self, and the way the self creates the world it experiences, were matters that Stevens never tired of revolving in his work. A product of the Harvard of the late 1890s, where philosophical debates about idealism and realism were inexhaustible, Stevens carried into the 20th century some of the spiritual burdens of the 19th.

Above all, for him the death of God was not an abstraction or a truism, but a perpetual challenge, whose implications for art and ethics he never ceased to think about. Has there ever been a statelier elegy for Christianity than “Sunday Morning,” a poem about a woman staying home from church?

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

How to live a life “unsponsored” by a deity, in which we are responsible for inventing our own meanings, was the great subject of Stevens’s poetry from beginning to end. His answer, as developed in the long, ruminative poems he wrote from the 1930s onward—in volumes like Ideas of Order (1936) and The Auroras of Autumn (1950)—was the same one Matthew Arnold had proposed in the Victorian age: The role that was once played by religion must now be filled by poetry, or more broadly by the imagination. The “supreme fiction” of art, as Stevens called it, would return us to a reality cleansed of myth, yet heightened by language: “How clean the sun when seen in its idea, / Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven / That has expelled us and our images,” he writes in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”

This vision of art as an independent source of meaning was what made Stevens an authentic modernist, even as his poetry kept faith with traditions of English verse, such as the iambic-pentameter line, which other poets were throwing overboard. The problem with Stevens as a biographical subject is that, unlike many other modernists, he did not publicize either his religious or his artistic struggles. (On his deathbed, it’s worth noting, he took Communion from a Catholic priest.) If he had lived a more literary existence—if he had written essays, taken part in controversies, joined and quit movements, the way poets like Eliot and Pound so publicly did—then his life would have reflected his thought. But Stevens preferred to keep life and thought basically separate, and until he was elderly—when the honorary degrees and prizes started to roll in—he avoided most of the obligations and occupations of the professional writer. Meanwhile, he never missed the Harvard-Yale game.

As if that weren’t obstacle enough, Mariani had to cope with the inevitable difficulties of writing about a man who died in 1955. It has been almost 30 years since Joan Richardson’s two-volume biography of Stevens; there are no living witnesses to Stevens’s early life, no friends or relatives to interview. He usually didn’t even keep drafts of his poems. (An early version of a major poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C,” survives only because his landlady rescued it from the trash can.) What remains are the finished poems and a body of correspondence, and so The Whole Harmonium tends to dissolve into a summary of Stevens’s letters and an expansive running commentary on his poetry. As a critic, Mariani is less penetrating than predecessors such as Helen Vendler, and he might have delved more deeply into the background of Stevens’s intellectual life. Hefty though the biography is, the office work Stevens engaged in every day for more than four decades goes largely undescribed.

The result is a portrait of a man floating, detached—which may, in fact, be an accurate impression of how it felt to be Stevens. Certainly he was what we would now call depressed: “If only one could look in at the window when they found one’s body—one’s blood and brains all over the pillow,” he mused in 1906, when he was a young man just starting out in New York City. At the age of 71, he looked back at his life and wondered whether he could “ever find a figure of speech adequate to size up the little that I have done compared to that which I had once hoped to do.” But then, such passages from Stevens’s diaries and letters tell us nothing that we can’t already glean from the poems. This is, after all, the poet who wrote “The Snow Man,” with its vision of the man who, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Reading Mariani only confirms that Stevens was a magician, or perhaps a god: Out of what seemed like nothing, he created a universe.