Wallace Stevens is one of the most anthologized poets of the early XX century. The major concern of his poetry is contemplation on the most disputable issue of humanity, i.e. belief and its role in human life. Stevens also stipulated the exclusive role of poetry and art, juxtaposing them with religion, defining these two notions as two facets of belief; this idea is explicitly revealed in his two poems ”A High-Toned Old Christian Women” and “Of Modern Poetry”.
In the poem ”A High-Toned Old Christian Women” Stevens depicts his belief that poetry and religion are the same fictional creation of human brain, which represent some spiritual and moral values of humanity, at least they should represent it.
These principles Sevens expresses in his well-known poem “Of Modern Poetry” where he stresses that art “has to be living”, “has to find what will suffice”, “has to construct a new stage” (Stevens 239). Stevens points out that poetry should evoke people’s thoughts and feelings, poetry should make people become active spectators, forming their own ideas and beautiful creations in their imagination.
This is Stevens postulate and his seeing of an ideal poetry. This poet is sometimes called a philosopher since he contemplates on the major philosophical dilemmas and gives his own vision on the issues. Critchley points out that his poetry allows “to recast what is arguably the fundamental concern of philosophy”, which, according to Critchley is “the relation between thought and things or mind and world” (Critchley 4).
“Of Modern Poetry” can be regarded as a philosophic work which defines the role of poetry for humanity, and reveals that poetry is a reflection of our real world, creation which tries to make the real world better (Critchley 36). Via his poetic writings Stevens reveals the idea that poetry should form the necessary directions to develop human mind, morality and spirit.
It is the way of poetry which is mentioned in his ”A High-Toned Old Christian Women”, poetry which is “supreme fiction” made of “the moral law” (Stevens 59). This poem reflects the poet’s philosophic vision of religion, which is quite progressive and even daring for that time.
Stevens shows that religion is a creation of human mind; he even explains the process how it was created and can be created again. Stevens suggest a simple recipe of building “haunted heaven” depicting its main ingredients. This poem sustains the central principles of Stevens’ modern poetry and reflects the main points of human belief and religion.
Stevens builds up unadorned but quite logic process of religion creation and its manifestation. In this poem he points out that people do not concentrate on the belief itself, but rather on their belief manifestation, where “disaffected flagellants” are “proud of such novelties of the sublime” (Stevens 59).
He stresses that this kind of creation affects people greatly, but still it is fiction: “fictive things” which “make widows wink”. Stevens underlines that people create some very positive, perfect belief of “the moral law” and get affected by it, maintain its morality but still spoil it by their imperfect nature. It is remarkable that “conscience” is the main ingredient in religion creation and it is “converted into palms”.
The poem ”A High-Toned Old Christian Women” can be regarded as the manifestation of the poet’s vision of the purpose of the poetry revealed in “Of Modern Poetry”, since the former really evokes readers’ imagination. Stevens builds up the whole universe where “the peristyle” can “project a masque beyond the planets”, he sets “the planetary scene” where people chant “among the spheres” (Stevens 59).
This poem makes the reader see these worlds somehow, in this case it is not the poet who depicts the scenery, it is the reader who builds it and walks in his own imaginary world. In this connection ”A High-Toned Old Christian Women” can be called “the poem of the act of the mind” (Stevens 239).
Thus, reading the poem the reader sees the picture of two people talking, Stevens and High-Toned Old Christian Woman, and then reader’s imagination is captured by new worlds which emerge from poet’s magic ball. This poem makes the reader co-creator of that particular fiction.
Another point of poet’s vision of modern poetry is its purpose to improve the real world. Thus, to my mind, ”A High-Toned Old Christian Women” is quite didactic in character. Stevens depicts the drawbacks of human behavior, making the reader want to change. I’d like to repeat and stress the point mentioned above, that Stevens stipulates that religion is fiction of human mind, but still this very mind fails to maintain its own principles. I believe that Stevens wants people to understand that if they create such moral laws they should live according to them.
I would like to conclude with mentioning one of the most important themes of Stevens’s poetry, namely the essence of belief. The poem under consideration proves that people need it badly, and if it is not given by some outer forces, humanity will create something to believe in.
Critchley, S. Things merely are: philosophy in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. London: Routledge, 2005.
Stevens, W. Collected poems. New York: Knopf, 1954.