• Print

Did Wallace Stevens Convert?

In response to:

Wallace Stevens: The Real and the Made-Up from the July 14, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

One thing a biographer is obligated to do is try to evaluate the reliability of the sources one has at hand, both textual and oral. And in her review of The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens [NYR, July 14], Helen Vendler rightly demands this of my biography as well. In a footnote, Vendler asserts that

Mariani offers no published or unpublished source for his assertion that Stevens had “read and admired Hopkins years earlier [than 1952].” It is true that the aged Stevens rejected “Amber Umber” as a title because the words “sounded like Hopkins. But, as I have not read Hopkins, that was not a difficulty.”

But in his central essay delivered at the Entretiens de Pontigny conference held at Mount Holyoke in August 1943, an essay included in The Necessary Angel, Stevens, describing what a life devoted to the poetic imagination can produce, quotes two examples, one from Mallarmé, and the other a line from Hopkins’s “Henry Purcell”:

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple of thunder.

That Stevens should find the phrase “amber umber” too Hopkinsian years later and reject it because, as he stated then, he had not read Hopkins, tells us that Stevens was not always his own most reliable witness. He also said late in life that he had not read Frost, though there are wonderfully comic exchanges with Frost at Key West in 1940 and earlier. Nor, he said, was he thinking of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist when he composed “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” Nor had he read Williams’s Paterson, he said, though its fingerprints are all over that other city poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” which, by the way, uses Hopkins’s “heaven-haven” as a counter to New Haven.

Vendler disputes Stevens’s late conversion to the Catholic faith. After much study, I have come to accept what those who knew Stevens as a colleague and friend say when they speak of a change in Stevens’s mood in his last months, after he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and decided at last to receive the sacraments. Ever since the publication of Peter Brazeau’s Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, Vendler has given various and conflicting reasons why the chaplain at Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital, Father Arthur Hanley, had to be lying or doddering or misremembering the time he spent with Stevens in those last months. And if in fact Stevens did come into the Church, what matter, finally, as Vendler has insisted, since Stevens had already written his poems? But what of those who visited Stevens and saw the tiny crucifix on his hospital pillow, the Bible on the table, and who trusted the reliability of Hanley’s testimony?

And what about the poetry itself? Is there any evidence there that Stevens treated these theological questions when time was running out and he had to finally make up his mind about God before—as he quipped—God made up his mind about Stevens? Again and again I detail the numerous times and places where serious theological issues keep surfacing. There are the poems that reexamine the earlier assertions of “Sunday Morning,” like “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” and “St. Armourer’s Church from the Outside.” Stevens often hovered on the threshold between two worlds, questioning himself, holding back, and yet desiring something more.

Finally, there is Vendler’s suggestion that people looking for a biography of Stevens would do well to read Joan Richardson’s biography published thirty years ago. And I certainly agree that there is much of value in Richardson’s study. But Vendler criticized Richardson when the biography was first published. So, has Vendler come to see the value of what Richardson accomplished? Or does she mean to imply that there are now two awful biographies of her hero, and that the only one who can be trusted to tell “the real” from “the made-up” is Helen Vendler herself?

Paul Mariani
University Professor of English
Boston College
Montague, Massachusetts

Helen Vendler replies:

Stevens’s casual mentions of other poets don’t, to my mind, imply any thorough acquaintance with their work.

Stevens’s putative baptism will become credible only if it can be shown that it was registered, as canon law demands, in the record of a parish. Till then, lacking such documentary evidence, I take the testimony of the poet’s daughter, denying any such “conversion,” to be more reliable.