Poem Guide

Gertrude Stein’s “The house was just twinkling in the moon light”

An intimate glimpse into one of the 20th century’s most fascinating marriages.

It was Gertrude Stein’s habit to write through the night, while her beloved Alice B. Toklas slept. Stein would leave notes for Toklas to find when she rose in the morning, ready to type the pages Stein had written out in longhand the night before. “The house was just twinkling in the moon light” is one of these love notes, which remained unpublished until 1999 when Kay Turner edited a selection of them and wrote a thorough and incisive introduction in Precious Baby Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The notes are not great works of literature. In fact, a wag might say that Stein wrote them after she was finished writing, so they’re not literature at all. But these short pieces are nevertheless indisputably charming, and, because they were written not as public art but as private gestures, they also afford us a uniquely intimate glimpse of the inner workings of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating marriages.

Stein and Toklas met in Paris in 1907. Stein was 33, Toklas three years younger. By 1910 they were living together, and they would remain inseparable until Stein’s death in 1946. The news today is full of the debate over whether gay marriage should be permitted; Stein and Toklas granted themselves that permission. They never got a piece of paper from the city hall, or gathered their friends for a ceremony, but throughout their relationship they spoke of themselves as married, and each referred to Stein as the “husband” and Toklas as the “wife” in their household.

When Toklas died in 1967, she was buried beside Stein in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, and her name and dates of birth and death were engraved on the back of Stein’s headstone, rendering them invisible from the cemetery path. It is possible to see in this detail a dispiriting metaphor, and indeed many people have suggested that while Stein was one of Modernism’s most thrilling artistic innovators, she enacted in her domestic life a fundamentally conventional scenario: the famous, powerful, creative, masculine husband faithfully aided and assisted by a forgotten, subservient, nurturing, feminine wife, who was, in death, literally relegated to the background. Love notes such as “The house was just twinkling in the moon light,” which can be read as infantilizing “wifey” Toklas by turning her into a “baby,” could certainly be seen as supporting this view of the women’s relationship.

By the end of the 20th century, though, feminist and lesbian critics had begun to argue that Stein and Toklas’s relationship was far more complex and nuanced, and far less conventional, than it may have appeared to be. These critics were particularly keen to suggest that the generic heterosexual language Stein and Toklas used to describe their relationship constituted not a recapitulation of traditional sex/gender roles, but rather an affectionate and subversive game of linguistic dress-up. Both women obviously knew full well that theirs was not a traditional heterosexual marriage. Their use of terms such as “hubby” and “wifey” was meant not to conceal that fact but to illuminate it. By using this language to remind each other of what their relationship wasn’t, Stein and Toklas created a space where they could toy with (potentially limitless) possibilities for what their relationship was. As Elizabeth Meese writes in her essay “Gertrude Stein and Me,” “Gertrude Stein devotes herself to evading questions and answers as she keeps the issue of lesbian identity open. Indeed, she avoids the very question itself. . . . [She] resists the very structure of question/answer. . . . When lesbian identity remains open, it remains interesting.”

Stein’s literary work was centrally concerned with the opening up of possibilities, with the celebration of the myriad ways that words can mean, and this sense of playful indetermination was central to Stein and Toklas’s marriage as well. But of course a marriage also depends on stability, predictability, and the comforts of repetition. Both poems and marriages require patterns and variations: without patterns, they risk chaos and dissolution; without variations, boredom and stagnation. Our delight in reading Stein and Toklas’s everyday love notes stems from our sense that in them the women’s relationship is portrayed as infinitely variable but at the same time reliable and constant. No matter their ostensible subjects, their twin implicit messages are always the same: “‘You’ might be anything. And I love you.”

Like a set of matryoshka dolls, “The house was just twinkling in the moon light” uses repetition and variation to celebrate both constancy and variability. In the poem’s first gesture—“The house was just twinkling in the moon light, / And inside it twinkling with delight, / Is my baby bright”—we move from outside the house to the inside, where we discover the beloved, like a treasure secure in its chest. Next we see that the “baby bright” is herself “twinkling,” just like the house that protects her, but of course very differently as well, since the house is literally twinkling (with moonlight), while the beloved baby twinkles metaphorically (with delight). In the exact center of the poem, we find a kind of fulcrum: “Bless my baby bless my baby bright, / Bless my baby twinkling with delight.” These two rhyming lines, each featuring the same trochaic meter, identical caesuras, and the same number of syllables, both bless and celebrate the baby beloved, each in a slightly different way. Following that couplet, we move back outside to again view the “house twinkling in the moon light,” and then back in, where this time we encounter “hubby dear,” who “loves to cheer when he thinks / and he always thinks when he knows and he always / knows that his blessed baby wifey is all here.”

The appearance of the word “here” is worth thinking about. Up to this point, it has seemed that the poem was describing some house somewhere with a “baby bright” and a “hubby dear” in it, a house that could belong to anyone and be anywhere. But through the process of writing that house into existence, Stein can claim the place as her own, as a “here,” where she and Toklas live. Having built a house of words and imagined herself and Toklas in it, Stein creates a sense of enclosure and cozy satisfaction, a satisfaction further emphasized by the tick-tock rhythms and phonic echoes of the poem’s final moments: “baby wifey is all here and he / is all hers, and sticks to her like burrs, blessed baby.” By the end of the note the discretely observed “hubby” and “baby” are united in the house of language Stein has built, much as the two sides of that headstone in Père Lachaise are both separated and inseparable.

Long after I visited that grave myself, I learned that it was in fact Toklas who had wanted her name on the back of Stein’s headstone. Upon reflection, it seems a gesture not only deeply loving but nearly literary. By stipulating such a condition in her will, Toklas created a text that both asserts and downplays her importance, unites her with Stein and enforces her difference from Stein. If you stand facing Alice B. Toklas’s headstone, after all, it’s Gertrude Stein that’s invisible. Thanks to Toklas, these two great lovers continue to play their beautiful games, being one and two and two in one and in love.

Originally Published: October 4th, 2010

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...