Heard on High: The Religious Imagination of Wallace Stevens

By Sicari, Stephen | Commonweal, December 20, 2013 | Go to article overview

Heard on High: The Religious Imagination of Wallace Stevens


Sicari, Stephen, Commonweal


Did Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest twentieth-century poets, convert to Roman Catholicism as he lay dying in the summer of 1955? This question has provoked more controversy than one might expect. In Wallace Stevens Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (1987), Joseph Carroll provided a synopsis of the debate, offering the testimony of the Catholic priest who claimed to have initiated Stevens into the faith--and of the poets daughter, Holly, who strenuously denied the priest's claim. Whatever the truth of the matter, careful readers of Stevens's poetry would not be surprised if he did in fact convert on his deathbed, since much of his later poetry reflects, and is shaped by, what we may call a "Catholic imagination."

Born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens grew up influenced by his fathers very American kind of Christianity, one that put great emphasis on self-reliance and the rewards of hard work. His mother was pious in the more traditional sense, and the young Stevens was familiar with the Bible, especially the New Testament; significantly, he was also drawn to quiet places where meditation was fostered, and would remain so all his life. But Stevens was his father's son to the end, and so put the advancement of his legal career before his poetry. By the time he wrote the poems I want to discuss here, he had become a successful insurance lawyer and vice president of the Hartford Insurance Company, a married man with a daughter and a house in the suburbs. Safely ensconced in this bourgeois life, Stevens could take all the risks he wanted to in his poetry.

In a 1942 lecture Stevens spoke of the need for a space free for contemplation. That last word is crucial, since for Stevens, poetry grows out of contemplation. His second book, Ideas of Order (1935), is a collection of tightly interrelated poems written in response to certain philosophical problems involving transcendence and its relationship to belief. As Stevens was putting the book together in 1935, he described a group of its poems as "an abridgement of at least a temporary theory of poetry." (He was a poet for whom most things were "temporary," and theories especially.) In a letter to his editor describing what was originally the first poem in Ideas of Order; "Sailing After Lunch," Stevens provided a clue to this theory. "When people speak of the romantic," he wrote, "they do so in what the French commonly call a pejorative sense. But poetry is essentially romantic, only the romantic of poetry must be something constantly new and, therefore, just the opposite of what is spoken of as the romantic. Without this romantic, one gets nowhere; with it, the most casual things take on a transcendence, and the poet rushes brightly." Romance is the essential thing in poetry, in other words, but it continually risks becoming stale. Thus Stevens writes, in "Sailing After Lunch":

The romantic should be here.
The romantic should be there.
It ought to be everywhere. But the romantic must never remain,
Mon Dieu, and must never return again.

In a 1940 letter Stevens remarked that "what the world looks forward to is a new romanticism, a new belief"; and in "How to Live. What to Do."--a poem that "definitely represents my way of thinking," Stevens asserted--we see his reformulation of Wordsworth s romanticism, especially as it was presented in "Tintern Abbey" In Stevens's poem, a man and his companion leave "the flame-freaked sun / To seek a sun of fuller fire," but end up finding only "this tufted rock / Massively rising high and bare." There is nothing else there, "neither voice nor crested image, / Nor chorister, nor priest"; yet the poem ends with a triumph, as the cold wind makes a "heroic sound / Joyous and jubilant and sure." While Wordsworth and his companion look on the world and hear "the still sad music of humanity," Stevens and his companion hear the desolate but heroic wind. This is a new kind of romanticism.

But is it a Catholic kind? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Heard on High: The Religious Imagination of Wallace Stevens
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.