A Catholic Poet?

By Wilson, James Matthew | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August/September 2016 | Go to article overview

A Catholic Poet?


Wilson, James Matthew, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


A Catholic Poet? The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens BY PAUL MARIANI SIMON & SCHUSTER, 496 PAGES, $30

It was the first great American poem of modern atheism. Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" (1915) opens with a woman in a peignoir, relaxing in the morning sun with her coffee and oranges. Her conscience hears the "dark encroachment of that old catastrophe," the thought of Jesus floating across the waters from "silent Palestine," summoning her to church. But then the poet addresses her, an invisible voice from above, removing all shame for her impiety- and all dreams of eternal bliss, too. "The tomb in Palestine," he says, is no porch leading to an eternal world, but just "the grave of Jesus, where he lay." All we may know of bliss is what that "savage source," the sun, makes possible, the fruits of the earth.

Thus did Stevens (1879-1955) argue early in his career. More than twenty years later, he had not much changed. In "The Man with the Blue Guitar" (1937), he tells us that "Poetry/Exceeding music must take the place/Of empty heaven and its hymns." The delightful surfaces of the world-which Stevens wrote about the way modern painters daubed them, in "Blue, gold, pink, and green"-were the proper subject of poetry, and our delight in them was all we could possess of heaven.

When Stevens's first book of poems, Harmonium, appeared in 1923, the tepid reviews interpreted him as an aesthete, whose obscure poetic language and odd verse rhythms might be modern, but whose principles belonged to the dandy days of Oscar Wilde. Even the rare admirer of Stevens, the critic Yvor Winters, judged him a hedonist.

The critics may have been right, or almost. Dying of stomach cancer in 1955, Stevens saturated even his last poem, "Of Mere Being," with an image of "gaiety" and "ultimate elegance": a "palm at the end of the mind" in which a "gold-feathered bird sings." He concludes,

The palm stands on the edge of space.

The wind moves slowly in the branches.

The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

The momentary ecstasies of a colorful world, our "old chaos of the sun," it seems, are all there is. But what do the appearances of things give to us? What-as his long poem Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) asks-is the true name for, the true meaning of, the sun?

Paul Mariani's new biography of the poet provides the raw details for a rather surprising answer. To Mariani, Stevens's poetic career was a long journey from coffee and oranges in early twentieth-century America to the porch of heaven in Palestine. The Whole Harmonium tells the story of a man descended from the withering traditions of mainline Protestantism and seeking a replacement for lost belief. While much of his life and poetry find an adequate substitute in sensuous splendor, whether in "fire-fangled" lines of poetry or in the weather at Key West, these pleasures of the secular hedonist were, strangely enough, part of his gradual coming into the fold of the Catholic Church.

Scholars have always known that Stevens lived the life of a "veritable monk." They have reported his ascetic habits, his practice of visiting churches wherever he went, and other miscellaneous details of Stevens's spiritual life. Mariani is one of America's distinguished Catholic poets and has written the standard biographies of many moderns, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Like most of these works, The Whole Harmonium offers a restrained narrative that cleaves closely to documentary evidence and ventures little by way of either critical interpretation or unifying assessment. Mariani's insights are incidental and signaled sometimes by no more than the repetition of a phrase from Stevens's own writings. His accounts of Stevens's poems often take the form of choice quotations strung together by the biographer's conjunctions. Mariani does, however, give us much matter for speculation.

Stevens was an intensely private man. …

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