Poet Wallace Stevens’ quest for meaning


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 ….

So begins “Sunday Morning,”

the best known of the early

poems of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955).

Stevens’ groundbreaking poem, first published in November 1915, focuses upon the musings, the daydreaming, of a well-to-do American woman who, instead of joining her family, friends and neighbors at church, has chosen to spend this particular Sunday morning luxuriating in her nightgown while enjoying a late cup of coffee along with fresh oranges.

The woman seems to feel at least a little guilty as she wonders, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?/What is divinity if it can come/Only in silent shadows and in dreams?/Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,/In pungent fruit and bright, green wings…/Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?”

She struggles to convince herself that the source of personal bliss does not come from some God “out there,” but rather from the God within, from her human capacity to drink deeply, even reverently, from the joyfulness and profound beauty of our world.

And in the blur of her wandering thoughts, the woman hears a voice that denies the central proclamation of Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ: “The tomb in Palestine/Is not the porch of spirits lingering./It is the grave of Jesus/Where he lay.”

On the basis of this poem, many readers of Stevens have concluded that he is a “post-Christian poet,” but it seems to me that it is foolish to give Stevens this label on the basis of a single poem that overflows with ambivalence and ambiguity.

During the course of his on-and-off writing career, Stevens composed 400 or so published poems – some less than 10 lines, although his seven longest contain several hundred lines each.  While it cannot be denied that “Sunday Morning” is one of Stevens’ most studied poems, it needs to be evaluated within the entirety of his writing.

To get a sense of the trajectory of Stevens’ poetry, we need to know something about his life, which turns out to have been neither an easy nor a happy one.  Yes, he was financially successful as a lawyer for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was employed from 1916 until his death in 1955 – working his way up to the position of vice president.  On the other hand, he was burdened throughout his life by poor physical health and relentless depression.  His marriage to Elsie Kachel in 1909 turned out to be deeply painful and unsatisfying to both of them.

During his lifetime, Stevens penned scores of aphorisms; one of them reads, “Loss of faith is growth.”  It is comments like this that lead some readers to misread him as being anti-religious.

To the contrary, Stevens is a seeker of the kinds of spiritual growth offered by many of the world’s religions.  What he is rejecting is the rigid “my way or the highway” religious views that he absorbed during his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania.

As he wrote toward the end of his life to the literary critic Sister Mary Benetta Quinn, “I am not an atheist, although I do not believe in the same God in whom I believed when I was a boy.”

To which I feel compelled to comment: Thank God!  Who of us in midlife or beyond has maintained the innocence and naivety of our childhood notions of God?

I would suggest that much of Stevens’ poetry reflects – to echo the words of the Israeli scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz – a strife of the spirit.  Stevens struggled throughout his life with the death of the God of his childhood. He is forever looking for a replacement for the religion he has abandoned; his new religion lives in the audacious imagination and the verbal majesty of his poetry.

Stevens’ spiritual inventiveness is embodied in such early poems as “The Snowman,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” through such late poems as “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside.” The differing and often conflicting perspectives among Stevens’ many poems serve to celebrate his strife of the spirit.

It is not clear whether the chaplain/priest at St. Francis Hospital, in Hartford, actually baptized Stevens and gave him communion on his deathbed.  But from all that I have read on the subject and from my close reading of many of his poems, I find no reason to doubt Stevens’ conversion to Catholicism.

The noted academic Mary Ann Glendon remarked in a 2019 essay, “It seems that if there is anything about Stevens that annoys the high priests and priestesses of the literary establishment more than his having been a successful businessman and a Republican, it is the suggestion that he might have become a Catholic.”

Wallace Stevens died on Aug. 2, 1955, two months before his 76th birthday. May his words continue to inspire and to challenge his many readers – from generation to generation.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.