Last Farewell and First Fruits: The Story of a Modern Poet

MARIA J. CIRURGIAO

Then I baptized him, and the next day I brought him Communion. It was just a few days later that he died. He seemed very much at peace, and he would say, `Now I'm in the fold.'

While making hospital rounds in April 1955, Fr. Arthur Hanley, chaplain of St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, was asked by a doctor to stop by the bed of a non-Catholic man dying of cancer.

The chaplain did so, and upon hearing the patient plead, “Be sure and come back, Father, be sure and come back,” he paid frequent visits.

“We talked about a lot of things,” recalled Fr. Hanley during an interview two decades later. “He was very fond of Pope Pius X. He thought he was a very great man. He said that someday he was going to write a poem about the Pope. So I said, ‘Oh, what are you going to call the poem?’ He said, ‘I was going to call it The Tailor, or The Love of Poverty, or The Poor Tailor.’”

But it was already too late for such a poem. The poet, Wallace Stevens, was briefly released from the hospital, was readmitted, and died on August 2, 1955. Fr. Hanley continued to visit him until the end.

“One day he had a bit of a spell,” the priest recalled. “He called for me, and he said, ‘I’d better get in the fold now.’ And then I baptized him, and the next day I brought him Communion. It was just a few days later that he died. He seemed very much at peace, and he would say, ‘Now I’m in the fold.’

“Now during that time Archbishop O’Brien told me not to let it be known. Sr. Philomena, who was on the floor, knew; she came in for the Baptism. I told his daughter, Holly [Stevens].”

That one of the 20th-century’s major poets — understood and hailed by many as a clarion voice of modernism — asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church on his deathbed has long since ceased to be a secret. Fr. Hanley’s interview, tape-recorded in Cheshire, Connecticut, in January 1976, is transcribed in Peter Brazeau’s book, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, published in 1977. Brazeau spent five years interviewing everyone he could find who had personal knowledge of Stevens. There are other recollections in his book that lend support to Fr. Hanley’s account.

It is not uncommon, however, to hear the great poet’s conversion dismissed as a bit of lore, of late and uncertain origin. Wallace Stevens did not have a church funeral and, in light of the Archbishop’s injunction, one may wonder if such a funeral was even suggested to the immediate family — widow and daughter. The authority of the Gospel of St. Luke informs us that there was rejoicing among the angels of God over what happened in that private room at St. Francis Hospital 45 years ago. Tragically, among men such rejoicing can be deemed incorrect.

In the words of Chaplain Hanley, the Archbishop imposed secrecy lest it be said “that we got people into the hospital to drag them into the Church at the last minute.”

Had word of Wallace Stevens’s Catholic Baptism spread at the time, it would likely have stupefied and drawn comment from the readers of his verse who had, between 1950 and 1955, conferred upon him every major poetry award short of the Nobel Prize. Only seven months before his death he had been honored with the National Book Award for Poetry to mark the 1954 publication of his Collected Poems. It was the second time his verse was distinguished with the National Book Award. Other major recognitions included a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the 1950 Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America, and numerous honorary degrees.

But no one got Wallace Stevens into St. Francis Hospital except himself. There were two other hospitals in Hartford, and his sound financial situation permitted him a choice. He chose St. Francis — the outer door, so to speak, that would ease his admittance into “the fold.” It would be the last and ultimate act of his free will, a stepping out of the “evening rain” he had endured, “Place-bound and time-bound” in “Rain without change within or from / Without,” as his poetry confesses. Knowledge of his conversion is an indispensable key to his verse.

Wallace Stevens’s poetry has gained steadily in readership in the years since his death, and is on the graduate curriculum at colleges and universities with strong Humanities departments. “It will soon be 40 years since Wallace Stevens died,” Yale’s Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom wrote in 1994, “yet his presence continues to haunt contemporary American poetry.” That this is so underscores the acuity of Stevens’s own perception of his verse as “commingled souvenirs and prophecies.” Poetically speaking, he kept a vacillating foothold on each side of the abyss between Christianity and the paganization of the Christian conscience — modernism. Stevens’s poetic voice is a voice of ambivalence. In the ambivalence, though, he made room for grace, and his poetry can truly be said to be a poetry of conversion.

Taken together, Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems unfold the story of a soul, not a story reconstructed in retrospect, but rather, constructed of interior states as they were experienced. Stevens appears to have had no patience with contrived poetry, not being inclined to treat “subjects” or to cultivate poetic forms. “The trouble with you, Robert,” he once charged at Robert Frost in a quarrel that became famous, “is that you write about . . . subjects!” Stevens practiced poetry all his life as a meditative language. And because his verse is a meditative process, not a poetic product, it loses none of its power to arrest the reader even as the poet ages. Nor has it lost the power to “haunt” postmodern readers, as Professor Bloom admits.

Paul Weiss, once-editor of the Review of Metaphysics and acquainted with both the poet and his poems, said many years after Wallace Stevens’s death: “I think it’s right to say that he’s a man of metaphysical insight . . . that his ultimate passion was to try to get to the clean, clear ultimate reality. . . . What I’m not clear about is what he found when he got there.

Fr. Arthur Hanley has provided the answer: Wallace Stevens found grace, God’s saving grace.

Born in 1879 to Pennsylvania Dutch parents established in the Puritan community of Reading, Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens attended Sunday services at the town’s First Presbyterian Church as a boy. He went to one of the area’s best parochial schools at the time: the school attached to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. But neither his absorption of the Calvinist doctrine that forms the core of the Presbyterianism of his roots, nor what he may have picked up of Lutheranism as a schoolboy, survived unquestioned his student years at Harvard — the last three years preceding the 20th century.

He found himself “at sea” and became “an introspective voyager” during the days of his young manhood spent in the stimulating environment of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Darwinism was still new enough to disorient, to give a sense of imbalance. If the faith of past generations does not avail in modern times, what does? The question was a burning one, and the anxiety it provoked among the brightest and most sensitive of Stevens’s generation — and of the generation that educated them — had its list of casualties. References to “our neurasthenic epidemic” abounded in the established press of the early 20th century.

“On every street, at every corner, we meet the neurasthenics,” a North American Review writer observed in 1908. Such eminent cultural figures of the time as Charles Eliot Norton and William James were diagnosed as exhibiting “neurasthenic symptoms.”

Stevens published his first experiments in poetry in the Harvard Advocate, under a variety of pseudonyms. One such was “John Fiske Towne,” signaling an identification with the late 19th-century author and sometime Harvard instructor John Fiske, whose life’s work purported to “tame the idea of evolution.” Fiske’s major treatise, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy Based on the Doctrine of Evolution, is all but forgotten. But young Stevens must have read it and, in momentarily taking the author’s name, he paid homage to Fiske’s proposition that “though science must destroy mythology, it can never destroy religion; and to the astronomers of the future, as well as to the psalmist of old, the heavens will declare the glory of God.”

In his mature poetry, Stevens registered by a memorable image his rebellion at too radical an acceptance of the unproved theory of evolution: “The lion roars at the enraging desert, / Reddens the sand with his red-colored noise, / Defies red emptiness to evolve his match[.]” If the poet’s “lion” brings to mind John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness, the thought is not out of place; Stevens is known to have read the Gospel of St. John assiduously, in English and in other languages. He never made peace with a godless earth “alive with creeping men, / Mechanical beetles never quite warm,” “a world without heaven to follow” where “the stops / Would be endings,” and “Just to stand still . . . would be saying farewell.”

A more intimate glimpse at Stevens’s early preoccupation with the crisis of faith is provided by his diaries, long since published. One entry, dated August 1, 1899, is most peculiar for a young man not quite 20-years-old and raised with a mixture of Calvinist and Lutheran teachings. It reads: “I would sacrifice a great deal to be a St. Augustine.” It was no passing fancy, but the beginning of a lifelong companionship of the mind and heart. Not only are Augustinian writings and teachings echoed throughout Stevens’s Collected Poems, but the acute reader cannot miss the importance of the great Church Father as the moral compass by which the poet measured the integrity of his verse. In one of his major poems there rises a “Canon,” one of the poet’s personas, to inform him that his “words” are sham, merely “voices” that he heard. Upon hearing the Canon’s speech the poet looked at his poems “and saw them as they were,” and what he felt “fought off the barest phrase.” He became speechless — accounting for the fact that for the better part of a decade, in his late 40s and early 50s, Wallace Stevens published no poetry.

It is worthy of note that from the time he left Harvard and moved to New York City, where he attended law school and was admitted to the Bar in 1904, this meditative poet chose to meditate in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “I go [there] now and then in my more lonely moods,” he wrote in his diary in 1902. It was a habit he kept up even after leaving New York for Connecticut in 1916. He lived out the rest of his life in Hartford, where he worked as an insurance executive. But he made frequent trips to New York City and never outgrew his need for St. Patrick’s. The quiet hours in the pews left a stamp on his poetry that is hard to miss, in verses such as: “now both heaven and hell / Are one, and here, O terra infidel.”

He “could not be content with counterfeit, / With masquerade of thought, . . . Preferring text to gloss.” Likely, these verses give us all the insight we shall ever have into why it was St. Patrick’s Cathedral that beckoned irresistibly to Wallace Stevens; why he made St. Augustine the companion of his meditative hours; and why he chose St. Francis Hospital when terminally ill. Never a dabbler, he described himself in one poem as “Civil . . . but underneath / A tree.” It doesn’t appear that he ever discussed Catholicism with any person, but laid his case instead before the Blessed Sacrament. When he entered St. Francis Hospital he was ready, or nearly so.

Stevens’s poetry never was nor will ever be a bestseller. It demands work. At first contact, it strikes the reader as an unassailable fortress. It is abstract, cerebral, iconoclastic, confessional. Psychoanalytic critics have dissected Stevens’s intricate language and imagery to identify the poet’s repressions; orientalists have studied the Buddhist strain in his verse; one composer admitted to understanding none of it, yet, finding its sounds irresistibly beautiful, he set a number of poems to music. What is not heard of Stevens’s poetry is that it is the testament of a spiritual journey to God, a journey whose stages are clearly marked by the palinodes — the poems of retraction in which “the snake” sheds “its skin,” a change of course takes place, the old is left behind and farewells are emphatically spoken.

On receiving the National Book Award for the second time, in January of 1955, the poet addressed the audience assembled for the occasion. He stated then:

“At 75, as I look back on the little that I have done and as I turn the pages of my poems gathered together in a single volume, I have no choice except to paraphrase the old verse that says that it is not what I am, but what I aspired to be that comforts me. It is not what I have written but what I should like to have written that constitutes my true poems. . . . “

This public confession of insufficiency, an act of humility in fact, must have puzzled those who heard it. In similar addresses Stevens had invariably aggrandized the poet and the poet’s privileged imagination. “In an age of disbelief . . . it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief,” he had previously said. The poet “fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others.” Now, here was a radical departure and major qualification, if not actual retraction, as he went on to admit: “Humble as my actual contribution to poetry may be and however modest my experience of poetry has been, I have learned through that contribution and by the aid of that experience of the greatness that lay beyond. . . .”

Poetry had been mere apprenticeship after all, a path of self-discovery and of discovery of the greatness that lay beyond the poet’s imagination.

It had taken him a lifetime of “never-ending meditation,” as his poetry says, now propounding now retracting, “up and down between two elements,” inscribing “in the dust . . . ferocious alphabets,” now adjuring “Thou art not August unless I make thee so,” now imploring “Mon Dieu, hear the poet’s prayer,” a “beast of light, / Groaning in . . . the final need / Of final access to its element,” seeking “The perquisites of sanctity” yet beaten back, “Brushed up by brushy winds . . . without a roof, without / First fruits.”

Humility had certainly been wanting. Enough humility to fall prostrate and kiss the feet of Christ is the language St. Bernard of Clairvaux uses to explain “first fruits.” And we can be sure that, from his ceaseless reading of the Church thinkers, Wallace Stevens was familiar with the writings of St. Bernard.

It was not far from the poet’s public admission of self-insufficiency to the man’s plea from his last bed: “I’d better get in the fold now.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Cirurgião, Maria J. “Last Farewell and First Fruits: The Story of a Modern Poet.” Lay Witness (June 2000).

Reprinted by permission of Lay Witness.

THE AUTHOR

Maria J. Cirurgião writes from Endicott, NY.

Copyright © 2000 LayWitness