Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
Insurance salesman (snooze) by day, poet (whoa!) by night.
That's Wallace Stevens in a nutshell, folks, and you couldn't get a stranger story.
Growing up, Stevens lived a pretty privileged life, as the son of a well-to-do lawyer. He went to Harvard. He went to law school. Then he wound up working for an insurance firm called Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he eventually became vice president. He was a go-getter, a company man, a stock and standard white collar worker.
So how did a man that lived such a straight, narrow, and—dare we say?—boring life write such bizarre and imaginative poetry? Who knows for sure? Stevens' coworkers at the good old Hartford Co. didn't even know that ol' Wally even wrote poetry. They thought he was a number-crunching pencil pusher like the rest of 'em.
But we here at Shmoop have a theory. We think it has to do with how much this guy valued imagination in the first place. In fact, that's exactly what "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" is all about. First published in 1915, in the second issue of Rogue, a little literary magazine with a short life, the poem eventually ended up in Stevens's first collection of poetry, Harmonium (1923).
"Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" describes the typical bedtime scene in houses in an atypical way. The speaker describes how the people living in the houses wear boring, bland pajamas, which means they'll have boring, bland dreams. Elsewhere, folks in more interesting outfits will have way more awesome dreams.
See, it's all about imagination (and a little style never hurt). You either have it, or you don't. And in Wally's case, he had it in spades, despite his rather middle-of-the-road surroundings.
Why Should I Care?
You know those days when you just can't muster the energy to get up and do something worthwhile? You just feel bogged down and uncreative. Instead of jumpstarting your creative brain, you probably watch some TV, eat out of boredom, organize your sock drawer… you know the drill.
Well, like your friends at Shmoop, Wallace Stevens believed deep down in his crazy soul that poetry, and literature in general, could make one's life better by giving you that jumpstart. The right kind of poem at the right time could stir up your imagination to the point of seeing the many possibilities of our world.
Why wear a white nightgown to bed, when you could wear a green one with yellow polka dots? Okay, so it's not 1915, and no one wears nightgowns, except the big bad wolf in cartoons. But what if we started wearing multicolored nightgowns? Or, you know, boots? Imagine the dreams we would have!
Behind poems like "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" lies an imagination tearing at its reins, just waiting to work its strange magic on the world. Stevens thought that people didn't understand how they saw the world. For Stevens, the average Joe saw the world in black and white, because the man on the street didn't realize that his experiences of the world came through the filter of the five senses and a fantastic maze called the brain.
But the mind, for Stevens, is a world of infinite possibilities that is only limited by a person's weak imagination. So if you want to go about dreaming of baboons or world peace, go do it, man. The world is your oyster.