The Spiritual Journey of Wallace Stevens: How an Atheist Professor Nudged a Post-Christian Poet toward Catholicism

By Glendon, Mary Ann | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

The Spiritual Journey of Wallace Stevens: How an Atheist Professor Nudged a Post-Christian Poet toward Catholicism


Glendon, Mary Ann, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


WHEN THE NEWS SPREAD through literary circles that Wallace Stevens had been baptized a Catholic in the last weeks of his life, many were dismissive of its significance. (1) There was, after all, a strong consensus among critics that the major theme in the poet's work was life after the death of God. (2) Stevens himself had done much to reinforce that consensus, both in his famous poem "Sunday Morning" where Jesus is dead and buried somewhere in Palestine, and in statements at certain points in his life to the effect that, "After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." (3)

And yet, there was always something in Stevens's poetry that spoke powerfully to many believing Christians. For Orthodox writer Rod Dreher, "The best of his poems are so mysterious and beautiful that they quietly overwhelm me. They make me feel like I'm staring at an icon, or a mandala, and intuiting depth even though I don't fully comprehend." (4) Catholic theologian David Tracy borrowed the title of his best-known book, The Blessed Rage for Order, from one of Stevens's most famous poems. And the biography by Paul Mariani, a distinguished poet in his own right, contains a host of intriguing details about Wallace Stevens's longstanding interest in things Catholic. (5)

In this article, I suggest that the notion of Stevens as the post-Christian poet par excellence ignores the abundant evidence from his best biographers, as well as from his own poems, letters, and lectures, that he was a man who was preoccupied with religion throughout his life in a more than trivial way. Though he rejected the pious Christianity of his youth in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, he seems to have spent much of his life on that "plain of doubt" where, as Joseph Ratzinger once pointed out, believer and nonbe-liever often meet as they contemplate the human condition. (6) Toward the end, his love of beauty seems to have led to a kind of epiphany, thanks in no small part to the role played in his life by George Santayana, a stubbornly self-described "Catholic atheist."

There were five major stages in Stevens's spiritual journey after his early rejection of the faith of his ancestors: his encounter at Harvard with Santayana who awakened him to the richness of the cultural inheritance of Christianity; a long period of searching for something that could take the place of religion in his life; a period when he seems to have decided that poetry and the imagination would have to "suffice" (to use his word) for that purpose; then a period in which he reexamined some of his earlier ideas; and finally his entry "into the fold" (as he put it) shortly before his death in 1955 at the age of seventy-five.

1. Putting Away Childish Things

Imagine a young man born in 1879 in southeastern Pennsylvania, a young man who grew up in a household where his mother read the Bible to the children every night, whose family attended church services on Sunday mornings and sang hymns together afterwards at home, a young man whose valedictory address to his high school classmates urged them to be true to their Christian values, and to follow the cross and defend it forever. (7)

Now, picture that young man entering Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Protestant churches have weather vanes instead of crosses on their steeples. George Santayana, then teaching in the philosophy department, has left us a memorable description of the university in those days: "Harvard College had been founded to rear Protestant divines, and as Calvinism gradually dissolved, it left a void... it became first Unitarian and afterwards neutral." (8) The Spanish-born philosophy professor likened his fellow faculty members to "clergymen without a church [who] not only had no common philosophic doctrine to transmit, but were expected not to have one." (9) As for the students, most of them struck him as leading "an idyllic, haphazard, humoristic existence, without any familiar infusion of scholarship, without articulate religion: a flutter of intelligence in a void, flying into trivial play, in order to drop back, as soon as college days were over, into the drudgery of affairs. …

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