"Ancient Wisdom" to "Supreme Fiction": Ideas of God in the Poetry of H.D. and Wallace Stevens

By Thomas, Heather Harrison | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

"Ancient Wisdom" to "Supreme Fiction": Ideas of God in the Poetry of H.D. and Wallace Stevens


Thomas, Heather Harrison, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

As searchers in a 20th century of world war and social upheaval, the American modernist poets H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Wallace Stevens revised poetry's visionary tradition for a skeptical era by re-imagining the idea of God. The visionary poetics of H.D. and Stevens extends a tradition that includes William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. H.D. and Stevens neither embrace conventional religion, as T.S. Eliot eventually does, nor reject abstractions of the spirit, as William Carlos Williams does in calling the poem "a machine made out of words." (1) Instead, they evolve new poetries of the secular-sacred, inscribing themselves not as prophets of "transcendent forms" but as self-conscious artists whose "actual" words blaze with an art, or artifice, that can redeem the human spirit. (2) H.D. looks back to ancient myths, reclaiming but also revising female divinity in transgressive terms. Stevens re-conceptualizes poetry itself as a modern form of redemption. In bodies of work created through the mid-century (Stevens died in 1955; H.D., in 1961), they demonstrate poetry's capacity to redeem the human spirit singed by historical disasters and existential alienation. Their distinctive inward quests lead to discoveries of the other within themselves; then to something larger beyond themselves, an encompassing being or sense of being that may be considered an idea of god. (3) In the 21st century search for global accord amid perpetual war and ecological crisis, the work of H.D. and Stevens confirms the power of visionary poetry as a spiritual force for creating common ground. It demonstrates poetry's effectiveness as a catalyst for compassionate dialogue across religious divides that are used to fuel global conflict.

When Stevens says, "God is in me or else is not at all (does not exist)," (4) he proclaims the divinity within, not a transcendent God separate and other from the human. "[T]his is the new heresy; /" H.D. writes in Trilogy:

   ... yet the ancient rubrics reveal that
   we are back at the beginning:

   you have a long way to go,
   walk carefully, speak politely

   to those who have done their worm cycle,
   for gods have been smashed before

   and idols and their secret is stored
   in man's very speech, (5)

History has failed us, or we have failed it, and we must begin again in the present, informed by ancient wisdom and prepared to undergo a complete metamorphosis, or "worm cycle." Such a process has outlived gods as they have been defined and represented through time and various cultures. It is in language, "man's very speech," not in the idols of a religion, where ancient wisdom sets its store through the cyclical discourses of history.

The "heresy" of H.D. and Stevens resulted from scientific, philosophical, and social change, along with massive world war. Nietzsche declared that God was dead and religion had lost its power long before World War I made poets face the brutal reality of large-scale modern warfare at odds with Romantic notions of heroism and honor. Darwin's theory of evolution was taking hold as the 20th century began, along with Freud's idea that unconscious motives control human behavior. When Stevens wrote, "The mind is the most powerful thing in the world," it followed that the idea of God was a human invention. (6) H.D. considered mind and body in her declaration that "the brain and the womb are both centres of consciousness, equally important." (7)

H.D. was reared in the Moravian Christian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, by a seminary-teacher mother and astronomer father. The Moravians believe in simple living, a communal spirit of unity, mission, and in mysticism, including the gift of "vision" manifesting as holy wisdom, insight, or talent. H.D., who titled her childhood memoir The Gift, wondered if "the gift" had passed to her, but was told that it had gone to her musical uncle. Her mother had musical talent but had stopped singing after criticism from her own father. …

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