This Imagined Life: Faith & Romance in a Modern America

Richard Friswell
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“Into the mystery of this heart which beats / So wild, so deep in us—to know/ Whence our lives come and where they go.” ~ Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life (1852)

“Of the last two lines, it is probably the last that is obscure to you. Life is as fugitive as dew upon the feet of men dancing in dew. Men do not either come from any direction or disappear in any direction. Life is as meaningless as dew.
Now these ideas are not bad in a poem. But they are a frightful bore when converted as above.”
~Letter to L. W. Payne, March 31, 1928 [Stevens, H.: 250]

Édouard Manet, Young Woman in 1866 (1866). Met Museum, NY

It was not until the age of thirty-five that Wallace Stevens published his first body of poetry. The collection was entitled Harmonium (1923), and the inclusion of the poem ‘Sunday Morning’ (1915) by an otherwise cerebral, contemplative young Connecticut poet was, in retrospect, a watershed event. While initially panned by critics, it has gained traction over decades as a particularly luminous example of a nascent, itinerant poet’s work, and is often considered a classic example of the early modernist American genre. But, by undertaking an analysis of an early effort like Sunday Morning, the opportunity to benefit from a more comprehensive understanding of Stevens’s later, more mature poetical aesthetic is missed. In exchange, however, this exemplary work stands on the cusp of an emerging avant-garde style in American poetry—stripped down and clear-eyed in its narrative intent—and prepared, at least in spirit, to leave European literary traditions far behind.

By the time Sunday Morning was published, Stevens had been admitted to the bar (1904), was married (1909) and in the employ as an executive of a Hartford –based insurance company (1916). He had been writing poetry since his teenage years, but there was little indication in his social reclusiveness and contentious relationships with nearly everyone he came into contact with, that a deep philosophical core ran just beneath the surface of this contemplative man; and by accessing his own thwarted desires and profound isolation, he could manage to speak to our own vast and inarticulate interior world. He was later to observe, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the word right”—and in doing so elucidates the unique, personal and tangled inner life of the figures in his poems.

This document is not intended to be a hermeneutic analysis of Stevens’s Sunday Morning. That task has been accomplished many time before, and by those more adept than I at dissecting the work of a poet known for his oblique symbolism, complex philosophical gambits, syntactical hurdles and word-play. Instead, the goal is to tease out evidence of three principle themes relevant to understanding the relationship between Stevens’s piece and the some of the cogent intellectual issues of that period:

What makes this poem uniquely American?
• What does it say about the place that faith holds in a new, modern century?
• Is this truly a modern poem, or is the Romantic tradition alive-and-well, residing in this early Stevens work?

Stevens’s style invokes more than a mere exploration of the interiority of the central figure in Sunday Morning. From its languorous opening lines, the reader is spirited into an elegant mise en scène and the private consternations of a woman surrounded by trappings of leisure: “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/ coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,/ And the green freedom of a cockatoo/ Upon a rug mingle to dissipate/ The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” Like increasing numbers of a newly-privileged social class during the early twentieth century, she is deciding that she does not want to go to church on this particular Sunday morning. She allows herself to “dream a little,” imagining that the “pungent oranges and bright green wings”—then suddenly turning gaudy in her eyes—“seem things in some procession of the dead…passing across wide water…to silent Palestine/ Dominion of the blood and sepulcher.”

Stevens poses a moral dilemma in the very first stanza of the poem, asking: If we don’t go to church, what would we do? He begins to explore the alternatives through the ordinary sensual pleasures of the woman. Emblematic of Stevens’s generation and time, she appears disenchanted with the dogma and orthodoxy of traditional religion. Stevens, too, described himself as a “dried up Presbyterian,” and in a period which he called “a skeptical age”, he argued that “the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point-of-view, but for what they validate and invalidate, for the support that they give” [Morris: 3]. There is, of course, no heuristic line in the sand beyond which Stevens’s rhetoric can take us with any certainty, to insure the authenticity of the ‘mind’s own creations.’ But, he doubles-down on his blasphemous claim, stating that, ”The imagination is the next greatest power to faith.” However, his thematic underpinnings in Sunday Morning belie the opposite view: That imagination can trump faith for those willing to step away from a traditional notion that embracing a belief in eternal life as the centerpiece of Christianity can, a priori, be redemptive.

Consistent with this latter view, the woman in the poem asks in Cantos II, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/ What is divinity if it can come/ Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” To that rhetorical question, she replies, “Divinity must live within herself,” then lists a host of sensory and earthly pleasures that “…are the measures destined for her soul” as she seeks “comforts of the sun.” Stevens speaks rhetorically to his reader here, reflecting his own conviction that there needs to be a system of beliefs, based on the natural world, that can serve as an alternative to Christianity. She (he) wants a vital religion of the earth, not of the supernatural…”to live within herself,” not in the exterior world [Serio: 29]. For Stevens to describe this revelation as her ‘destiny’ reflects a deeply American perspective and a poetic impulse to lift the entire archaic European landscape (“…the European frontier—a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.” [Turner: 1854]), and drop it into the untamed American wilderness (“…at the hither edge of free land.” [1854]), with its emblematic conjuring of self-determination.

So, has God deserted Stevens’s world? The loss of religious faith was a common concern among poets of his generation. It may be sufficient to conclude (somewhat artificially on the basis of this poem, alone, perhaps) that Stevens was in a questioning mode about the role of gods, in general, reflecting on the contrast between nature and revealed religion in the context of human experience. Running the logical gauntlet from ancient “Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth…” to Jesus—half-human, half God—“…Until our blood, commingling, virginal,/ With heaven, bought such requital to desire./ The very hinds discerned it, in a star…”, Stevens delivers the coup de grâce by then positing that salvation can be found in the corpus of human experience in the natural world: “Shall our blood fail? Or shall the earth/ Seem all of paradise that we shall know?/ The sky will be much friendlier then than now […] Not this dividing and indifferent blue.” Here, Stevens actively asserts a naturalistic religion as a substitute for supernaturalism [Stevens, H.: 464] .

For Stevens, then, the idea of divinity does not disappear, but is transformed into direct experience with nature and the ‘humanization’ of the Christ figure. For the woman, in considering the world without a conventional God, she reminds herself that evidence of nature surrounds her—“when wakened birds…test the reality of misty fields, by their sweet questionings…” and that prophecies and promises of the Christian paradigm don’t endure in her imagination as certainly as “April’s green…or her desire for June and evening, tipped/ By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.” In spite of the woman’s need for “some imperishable bliss”/ Death is the mother of beauty. Hence from her,/ Alone shall come fulfillment of our dreams” [Cantos VI], her realization of the finality of death stirs intense feelings about how precious our earthly life is—as represented by pagan ritual, chanted “…in orgy on a summer morn […] they shall know well the heavenly fellowship,/ And whence they came and whither they shall go/ The dew upon their feet shall manifest” [Cantos VII].

Stevens compels the narrative forward with an eye toward establishing his central character as uniquely American, animating her imagination with a set of aesthetic principles, relayed through allegories underscoring the verisimilitude between the natural world and human nature. “The concern in Harmonium for the sensual beauties of a temporal world is less a reflection of pagan sensuality than of the prevailing philosophical spirit of the period. Intellectual New England had already heard from William James that the triumph of pragmatism meant a revolution comparable, as James put it, to the protestant reformation. It meant a rejection of intellectual complacency of religious idealism. It promised a shift of interest from the idealist’s vision of God, to the more vital preoccupation of the temporal world” [Peterson: 94]. For Stevens, therefore, the task of dislodging his American poetry from his European counterparts was to establish a set of New World aesthetic principles, offering a perpetual source of sensual pleasure in the context of natural laws, set in a landscape with limitless horizons.

Another way to position the argument from Stevens’s secular perspective would be to ask: Whether, after a repudiation of orthodox Christianity, the natural world can suffice to sustain a belief system? Many ‘Stevens’ experts note that the poet remained ambivalent about religion throughout his life (ultimately converting to Catholicism on his deathbed at Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital, a Catholic institution, in 1955 [Serio: xv]). But, as a youthful—and perhaps more rebellious poet in 1915 than in later years—he portrayed his character being at odds in her struggle to understand religion’s relevance in her ‘modern’ life. A partial reprieve came from his youthful embrace of Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy of the previous century. “Nature could retain its religious significance, according to Emerson, if viewed, devoid of all its ugly particulars. Emerson felt he could continue to celebrate Holy Communion but, tellingly, without bread and wine. It’s the thought that counts. For Stevens—who eventually ridiculed Emerson as ‘the man of irritating ideas – no, irritating minor ideas’—came to realize that the fantasia of life was too big for man-made [Emerson’s] myths…putting all of nature under a human glass [as he had], aswarm with things as far as they can go.” [Murphy: 39-40].

The struggle between the sacred and the profane is evidenced throughout the poem, as the woman struggles to connect with the “divinity [that] must live within herself.” In Cantos VIII, “She hears […] a voice that cries, ‘The tomb in Palestine/ Is not the porch of spirits lingering./ It is the grave of Jesus where he lay.” The reader should note the reference to the secular ‘Jesus,’ not a divine Christ, and the evocation of Darwin and his determinist code of survival in the next line, where she extols, “We live in an old chaos of the sun,/ Or old dependency of day and night,/ Or island solitude, unsponsored, free…” and alone in the end, as she observes in the “isolation of the sky” (the one deserted by a compassionate God, that “divided and indifferent blue”), a flock of pigeons, with their “…undulations as they sink downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

This last stanza is redolent with meaning when assigning intention to Stevens, the poet, and more particularly, to Stevens as a secular voice in an early-modernist theological wilderness—even then in the process of being defined. But, as his contemporary, W.H. Auden asked (quoting Kierkegaard): Is Stevens “unhappily in love with God” [Sharpe: 66]? The key phrase in the poem’s last stanza, shedding light on this query is “ambiguous undulations,” as the well-known Stevens interpreter, Helen Vendler, points out. “These are pigeons, not doves of the Holy Spirit—casual and familiar creatures, naturalized and not foreordained or providential. They are sinking, moving ‘downward to darkness’ and undulating, as does our faith in times of strife or doubt. We, like the pigeons, are ambiguous—not unreservedly happy or pessimistic. And, too, cycles of the natural world, like human nature can be seen to undulate and shift with the seasons and through the course of history” [Vendler: WGBH]. But, unlike Arnold’s Dover Beach, with its ominously foreboding, “Sea of Faith…[Which] once…lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled./ But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar/ Retreating to the breath/ Of the night wind…where the sea recedes, never to return, and we are here on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night,” Stevens allows for the redemption and reclamation of the human spirit through the power of introspection. Drawing on this same point, related to Cantos VIII, Murphy notes that, “The pigeons that go downward instead of upward express the fervent desire of the poet that the traditional Christian faith he was brought up in might become more connected to life as we know it and have lived it” [Murphy: 44]. Both experts appear to agree on the essential point that Stevens is writing in a tradition evoking Keats and Wordsworth (represented in a Vendler paraphrase, summarizing Sunday Morning): “Happiness here, or not at all.”

In her search for a paradigm for faith in which she could believe, Stevens’s Sunday Morning woman found wonder in the familiar. In this sense, according to Vendler, “the poem should not be read as being about ‘The Modern,’ or is it fundamentally about constructing a modernist style. In the abstract, the place of the woman in the work should be understood with an eye toward her American-ness, and as an allegory for self-determination and domestication among a new, American leisure class. Sunday Morning establishes a set of aesthetic principles concerning the challenge of creating authentic American poetry, by displacing it from its European origins’ [Vendler: Stamford]. In addressing this, Stevens’s 20th century exploration of the relationship between reality and imagination drew from the poetic traditions of another era. These origins can be traced back to Coleridge who, “expounded his views of the mind as creative in perception, […] and capable of a poetic recreation of the world of sense by the fusing and formative power of the ‘secondary imagination.’” From this notion, shared by other Romantic poets in the 1830s, like William Wordsworth, Mills, Blake, Shelly, Emerson and Whitman, there arose a new aesthetic of imagination as a “supreme cognitive faculty” [Norton: 286].

“For the Romantics, then, the imagination served an integrating function in a world of increasingly divided philosophical, religious and moral assumptions. “The individual became the inspired locus for an intuitive perception of the spiritual forms and energies that invested the otherwise fragmented phenomenal world with an exalted coherence, a significance at once both immediate and ultimate” [Gelpi: 5]. Thus, in Romanticism, the unifying motifs would have been the evocative power of nature, the creativity of the human mind and the power of poetic imagination. In spite of recurring themes of solitude, melancholy and even despair in the face of nature’s power to set the soul adrift from a familiar world, the Romantic narrative created a deep longing for a unity with nature’s realm seen as lost to ‘progress’. An important and compelling underlying theme was the potential for emancipation from the traditional restrictions of religion and societal constraints, in exchange for the opportunity to plumb the depths of the human soul [Schneider: 92]. “Stevens saw as the chief challenge of the Modernist poet to once again redefine the function of the imagination, reclaiming it from its Romantic and Victorian past” [Gelpi: 5], thereby recasting it in 20th century terms. “The evolution Stevens traces in Sunday Morning is man’s progressive assumption of his full humanity. The woman is poised between the age of the gods, definitely passed, and the age of fully-human heroes, tantalizing in its potentiality” [Morris: 49].

This nostalgia for the Romanticism of an earlier time is evidenced in early 20th century neo-romanticism. Stated simplistically, it was a literary reaction to the harsh realities of urbanization, industrialization and alienation of the self from the natural world, evidenced anew in the years leading up to World War I. At its foundation was a displaced anxiety about the emergence of a more potent and threatening version of evil in the world. With its resurgence came an emphasis on feeling and internal observation, intuition and idealized nature. I believe that, for Stevens—the quintessential Modernist in every poetic sense of the word—his choice to write Sunday Morning in a pre-modern form was a deliberate choice to recognize his debt to those who came before. He would also be serving notice to his European counterparts, with works soon-to-follow like, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, that things would be different from here on. Some of his most obscure and enigmatic work was written “[even as he] actively disavowed a ‘modern’ right on the part of cultists to create an incomprehensible art, closed to public understanding”[Baird: xxv]. Paradoxically, the choice to compose Sunday Morning in a neo-romantic style, placed Stevens at the heart of the modern world—a world constructed, ironically, to address Arnold’s “mystery of this heart, so deep in us,” as an American and in a native vernacular and syntax of his own invention.

By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor

Listen to Wallace Stevens read Sunday Morning:

Author’s Postscript:
• Wallace Stevens composed his piece, Sunday Morning, after viewing a Manet painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work, entitled, Young Lady in 1866, by Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883), was painted in 1866. It is oil on canvas and nearly life-sized with dimensions of 72 7/8 x 50 5/8”. Manet’s model, Victorine Meurent, had recently posed as the brazen nudes in Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass (both Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Here, appearing relatively demure, she flaunts an intimate silk dressing gown. Critics eyed the painting as a rejoinder to Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot, 1866 (right), and as indicative of Manet’s “current vice” of failing to “value a head more than a slipper.” Recent scholars have interpreted it as an allegory of the five senses: the nosegay (smell), the orange (taste), the parrot-confidant (hearing), and the man’s monocle she fingers (sight and touch).

• In 1913, the Stevenses rented a New York City apartment from sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, who made a bust of wife, Elsie. Her striking profile was later used on Weinman’s 1916–1945 Mercury dime design and possibly for the head of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar.

• From 1922 to 1940, Stevens made numerous visits to Key West, Florida, where he generally lodged at the Casa Marina, a hotel on the Atlantic Ocean. In February 1935, Stevens encountered the poet Robert Frost at the Casa Marina. The two men argued, and Frost reported that Stevens had been drunk and acted inappropriately. According to his biographer Paul Mariani, Stevens often visited speakeasy establishments during the prohibition with both lawyer friends and poetry acquaintances. In 1940, Stevens made his final trip to Key West. Frost was at the Casa Marina again, and again the two men argued. As related by Paul Mariani in his biography of Stevens the exchange in Key West in February 1940 included the following comments: Stevens: “Your poems are too academic,” Frost: “Your poems are too executive.” Stevens: “The trouble with you Robert, is that you write about subjects.” Frost: “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

• In 1936, Stevens was in an altercation with Ernest Hemingway at a party at the Waddell Avenue home of a mutual acquaintance in Key West. Stevens broke his hand, apparently from hitting Hemingway’s jaw, and was repeatedly knocked to the street by Hemingway. Stevens later apologized. Paul Mariani, a biographer of Stevens, relates this as,
“… directly in front of Stevens was the very nemesis of his Imagination– the antipoet poet (Hemingway), the poet of extraordinary reality, as Stevens would later call him, which put him in the same category as that other antipoet, William Carlos Williams, except that Hemingway was fifteen years younger and much faster than Williams, and far less friendly. So it began, with Stevens swinging at the bespectacled Hemingway, who seemed to weave like a shark, and Papa hitting him one-two and Stevens going down ‘spectacularly,’ as Hemingway would remember it, into a puddle of fresh rainwater.”

Works Cited:
Abrams, M.H., General Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 3rd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1962.

Baird, James. The Dome and the Rock: Structure in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1968.

Gelpi, Albert. Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Morris, Adalaide Kirby. Wallace Stevens: Imagination and Faith. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Murphy, Charles. Wallace Stevens: A Spiritual Poet in a Secular Age. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.

Peterson, Margaret. Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition. In, Studies in Modern literature, No. 24. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983.

Schneider, Helmut J. Nature. In, The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Romanticism, Vol. 5., Marshall Brown, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Serio, John N., Ed. Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006.
Sharpe, Tony. Final Beliefs: Stevens and Auden. In, Literature & Theology, Vol.1, March 2011, pp. 64-78.

Stevens, Holly, Letters of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893). In, Baym, Nina, General Ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979.

Vendler, Helen, Wallace Stevens as an American Poet. Stamford Humanities Center, President’s Lectures in the Humanities and Arts, January 17, 2012.

___, Whose Words are These?: Vendler’s Stevens. WGBH, Radio Open Source, with Christopher Lydon, October 1, 2009.

Works Reviewed:
Kraskin, Sandra and Glen MacLeod. Painting in Poetry, Poetry in Painting: Wallace Stevens and Modern Art. New York: Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, 1995.

MacLeod, Glen. Wallace Stevens and Modern Art: From the Armory Show to Abstract Expressionism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Olson, Liesl. Stevens and Auden: Antimythological Meetings. In, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 27, No.1, Spring, 2003, pp. 240-254.

Schmidt, Michael, Ed. The Great Modern Poets. London: Quercus, 2004.

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