Ambition and energy keep a man young

Wallace Stevens by Sylvia Salmi, 1948

Wallace Stevens was an American modernist poet, born in 1879, who balanced an unassuming life in insurance with an illustrious literary career. While best known for his intricate and imaginative poems, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, Stevens also kept a journal during pivotal years of his life. He started it while at Harvard, and it served as a reflective space during his early years in law and his marriage to Elsie Kachel. Its final entries were written in 1912 after the death of his mother. The entry below came in October 1903, at a time when Stevens, still only twenty-four, was establishing himself both personally and professionally.

The Diary Entry

October 20. [1903]

It is a pleasant life enough that I lead. After the day’s work I climb up these stairs into the distant company of strange yet friendly windows burning over the roofs. I read a few hours, catch glimpses of my neighbors in their nightgowns, watch their lights disappear and then am swallowed up in the huge velvet October night. On Sunday I stretched my cramped legs-doing my twenty-five miles with immense good cheer. Fetched home a peck of apples in my green bag. The wind pounded through the trees all the day long. At twilight I picked my way to the edge of the Palisades + stretched out on my belly on one of the dizzy bosses. Overhead in the clair de crépuscule lay a bright star. I’ve grown such a hearty Puritan + revel in such coarse good health that I felt scarcely the slightest twinge of sentiment. But to-night I’ve been polite to a friend—have guzzled vin ordinaire + puffed a Villar y Villar and opened my dusty tobacco-jar—and my nerves, as a consequence, are a bit uneasy; so that the thought of that soft star comes on me most benignly. To-morrow, however, I shall reassume the scrutiny of things as they are. [Henry] Fielding, in “Amelia,” rightly observes that our wants are largely those of education and habit, not of nature. My poverty keeps me down to the natural ones; and it is astonishing how the tongue loses a taste for tobacco; how the paunch accommodates itself to the lack of fire-water. Indeed, sound shoes, a pair of breeches, a clean shirt and a coat, with an occasional stout meal, sees one along quite well enough. Only, at the same time, one must have ambition and energy or one grows melancholy. Ambition and energy keep a man young. Oh, treasure! Philosophy, non-resistance, “sweetness and light” leave a man pitiably crippled and aged, though pure withal.

Further Reading

Wallace Stevens kept a journal from 1898 until the death of his mother in 1912, and they now live at the The Huntington Library in California with the rest of his papers. In 1966 just over a hundred of those journal entries were included in the book, Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by his daughter, Holly Stevens.


Journal entry excerpted from The Letters of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens, edited by Holly Stevens, copyright © 1966 by Holly Stevens. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Extract from The Letters of Wallace Stevens reproduced by permission of Pollinger Limited on behalf of the Estate of Wallace Stevens.

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