Heard on High: The Religious Imagination of Wallace Stevens

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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? …