Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Poetry

“After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” (Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous) The year 1955 would close the account on Wallace Stevens, the gray-suited, gray-faced insurance executive who, after leaving his office each day, would rush home to write lush and lovely lines of poetry – some of the greatest verse written in the 20th Century.

His life ended in a Hartford hospital where, his family having withheld the fatal diagnosis, he died mistakenly thinking his condition wasn’t serious.

Evidently, however, he took with utmost seriousness the state of his soul, resolving in his final days to become a Roman Catholic. Later, the kind priest who received him into the Church, recalled hearing Stevens’ account of quiet hours spent in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a place to which he was strangely drawn. As one of his biographers recently put it, “being a surety lawyer – he opted to sign on the dotted line at the end.”

But the news was unwelcome to those who claimed to know him best, their worldliness assuring them that only the feebleminded find it necessary to turn to faith. In an age shaped by secularism, there are no arguments to justify belief in God, much less the Catholic Church as a means for making one’s way home to him.

And given the sort of poet Stevens was, why on earth would he want to disavow everything he’d already written? He had been, after all, the premier modernist poet, an artist whose work testified not to the transcendence of God, but to the autonomy of mind and imagination, the exercise of which was supposed to supplant the superstitions of divinity.

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” he insisted in one of many aphorisms culled from a collection of his called Adagia. And in a late poem entitled “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” we are told that, “The world imagined is the ultimate good.” Indeed, so great a good is it that it may be likened to God himself:

We say God and the imagination are one. . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Stevens had been busy keeping that candle going for forty some years, beginning with his first published poem, “Sunday Morning,” which burst like a meteor upon the literary world in 1915, with its gorgeous images of a life spent without the least intention of wasting it on God or the world to come.


Wallace Stevens

Imagining a woman awash in “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,” it goes on to ask if such “comforts of the sun,”

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,

are not to be preferred to thoughts of God and heaven. “Divinity,” we are sternly told, “must live within herself.”

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch
These are the measures destined for her soul.

Alas, intermediate measures as these will not ultimately fly. One has only to read the rest of the poem to learn why. It is because of death – “the mother of all beauty,” Stevens calls her – that poems get written in the first place: “Only the perishable can be beautiful,” he rightly insists, “which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.” And yet, he tells us, from her (i.e., death) alone, “shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires. Although she strews the leaves / Of sure obliteration on our paths…”

Stevens is right to say so. Who, after all, would bother telling stories, or even look for the right word to shape experience, if we never needed to die? And death, of course, remains the final, definitive cancellation of all that we had hoped to obtain from mind and nature. These things fall short in the end, they bequeath but betrayal and disappointment.

It is a bitter truth to which Stevens, in the final lines of the poem, gives beautiful, heart-rending expression. “And, in the isolation of the sky,” he tells us, we see how it is, when:

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

The lesson, even for non-pigeons, is sadly the same, which is that all undulations are bound sooner or later to sink, falling down into a darkness that not even the wings of art can rescue. That to sustain any sort of flight beyond the stars will necessarily require resources greater than anything mind or imagination can draw upon.

Surely this must have been the realization that eventually came to Stevens, quickened by those quiet times spent inside St. Patrick’s, where the splendor and sublimity of the gothic gave promise of an experience more ravishing than even the loveliest lines of poetry.

“Nothing can make man laugh,” writes Joseph Ratzinger in The Feast of Faith, “unless there is an answer to the question of death.” It is likewise true that the only poetry that matters, that truly satisfies, is one that, like the art of the gothic, aspires heavenward, the sheer verticality of its thrust reaching for the heart of God.

And while it was not given to the mind or imagination of Wallace Stevens to scale such heights, we may nevertheless hope that, as Mother Church makes provision for late conversions, in the end his life attained that on which his art had no purchase.

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.