Wallace Stevens is too fine and strange a poet to be put to the work of serving simply as one of the great critics (in his verse) of High Romantic poetry. Yet, if one accepts George Steiner’s dictum that ‘All serious art, music and literature is a critical act’ and that ‘The best readings of art are art’, it seems right to explore Stevens’s deep if oblique response to the achievement and dilemmas bequeathed by the Romantics. 1 My main text here is his poem ‘Esthétique du Mal’, first published in the Kenyon Review in 1944 and catalysed into being by a letter that Stevens read in the spring issue of the same periodical: a letter, in Stevens’s words, ‘about the relation between poetry and what he called pain’ (the correspondent had found ‘the poetry in the Kenyon Review lamentable in many ways because it is cut off from pain’). 2 Stevens goes on, ‘Whatever he might mean, it might be interesting to try to do an esthétique du mal.’ 3