Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens
by paul mariani
simon & schuster, 496 pages, $30

It was the first great American poem of modern atheism. Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (1915) opens with a woman in a peignoir, relaxing in the morning sun with her coffee and oranges. Her conscience hears the “dark encroachment of that old catastrophe,” the thought of Jesus floating across the waters from “silent Palestine,” summoning her to church. But then the poet addresses her, an invisible voice from above, removing all shame for her impiety—and all dreams of eternal bliss, too. “The tomb in Palestine,” he says, is no porch leading to an eternal world, but just “the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” All we may know of bliss is what that “savage source,” the sun, makes possible, the fruits of the earth.

Thus did Stevens (1879–1955) argue early in his career. More than twenty years later, he had not much changed. In “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (1937), he tells us that “Poetry/Exceeding music must take the place/Of empty heaven and its hymns.” The delightful surfaces of the world—which Stevens wrote about the way modern painters daubed them, in “Blue, gold, pink, and green”—were the proper subject of poetry, and our delight in them was all we could possess of heaven.

When Stevens’s first book of ­poems, Harmonium, appeared in 1923, the tepid reviews interpreted him as an aesthete, whose obscure ­poetic language and odd verse rhythms might be modern, but whose principles belonged to the dandy days of Oscar Wilde. Even the rare ­admirer of Stevens, the critic Yvor Winters, judged him a hedonist.

The critics may have been right, or almost. Dying of stomach cancer in 1955, Stevens saturated even his last poem, “Of Mere Being,” with an image of “gaiety” and “ultimate elegance”: a “palm at the end of the mind” in which a “gold-feathered bird sings.” He concludes,

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

The momentary ecstasies of a colorful world, our “old chaos of the sun,” it seems, are all there is. But what do the appearances of things give to us? What—as his long poem Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) asks—is the true name for, the true meaning of, the sun?

Paul Mariani’s new biography of the poet provides the raw details for a rather surprising answer. To Mariani, Stevens’s poetic career was a long journey from coffee and oranges in early twentieth-century America to the porch of heaven in ­Palestine. The Whole Harmonium tells the story of a man descended from the withering traditions of mainline Protestantism and seeking a replacement for lost belief. While much of his life and poetry find an adequate substitute in sensuous splendor, whether in “fire-fangled” lines of poetry or in the weather at Key West, these pleasures of the secular hedonist were, strangely enough, part of his gradual coming into the fold of the Catholic Church.

Scholars have always known that Stevens lived the life of a “veritable monk.” They have reported his ascetic habits, his practice of visiting churches wherever he went, and other miscellaneous details of Stevens’s spiritual life. Mariani is one of America’s distinguished Catholic poets and has written the standard biographies of many moderns, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Like most of these works, The Whole Harmonium offers a restrained narrative that cleaves closely to documentary evidence and ventures little by way of either critical interpretation or unifying assessment. Mariani’s insights are incidental and signaled sometimes by no more than the repetition of a phrase from Stevens’s own writings. His accounts of Stevens’s poems often take the form of choice quotations strung together by the biographer’s conjunctions. Mariani does, however, give us much matter for speculation.

Stevens was an intensely private man. He was cold, reserved, and soft-spoken when sober, though brusque, aggressive, and prone to violence when drunk (he once assaulted ­Ernest Hemingway, who flattened him). It must have been difficult for those who knew him to get beyond talk of business and cocktails with the “large red man,” as Stevens calls himself in a late poem. The president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company, where ­Stevens served as an executive for four decades, would report: “Unless they told me he had a heart attack, I never would have known he had a heart.” In his poems and his public demeanor, it seemed the surface was all there was. Only when his growing fame as a poet made secrecy impossible did many of his colleagues at Hartford learn that he had been a critically respected author for decades.

Stevens first discovered the delights of the senses and the “sensuous abstractions” of arcane words at Harvard, where he studied from 1897 to 1900. He had been sent there to succeed in the world—in his father’s words, to win at “the campaign of life” and to learn to “paddle his own canoe without help from home.” Stevens would struggle for years, skipping from job to job, first as a journalist and then as a lawyer. He met with frequent disappointment, including a falling-out with his father over his engagement to Elsie Kachel. That breach would never be repaired, and his father would die soon after the wedding. The marriage was not a success, though the pair would have one daughter, Holly, and find a way to live together in tense peace for decades. Elsie was a young beauty whose face was featured on the Mercury dime, but she was also shy, awkward, and almost certainly mentally ill. Mariani notes that Stevens had a withdrawn manner at home and an unpleasant one in the office, but none of this stopped him from becoming rich and successful and, eventually, joining affluent society after the family settled in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1916.

One night, during his final year at Harvard, Stevens was invited to dine with George ­Santayana, the Spanish-American poet, critic, and philosopher. After a long evening of discussion of Santayana’s recent verse play, Lucifer: A Theological Tragedy, the young poet was asked to read a sonnet of his own. Stevens’s “Cathedrals are not built along the sea” meditated on the rejection of his childhood Lutheranism. Santayana would reply in a sonnet of his own, arguing, as Mariani reports, that the “beauty of Christianity, fiction or not . . . had forged nature’s clay into something of a higher order.” Although Stevens never took a course from him, Santayana’s influence would shape the development of his thought and poetry for decades to come.

Santayana was known, in ­Mariani’s words, “as a Catholic atheist or, better, aesthetic Catholic.” He could not accept the truths of the Catholic faith, but he saw its doctrines and beliefs as brilliant works of the “creative reason” of the imagination. Catholicism provided an ideal “cosmic landscape” that, while literally false, was truer to the possibilities of the spirit than any alternative. According to Santayana, matter alone was real, but matter somehow had evolved a “spirit,” by which he meant the imaginative life of the human mind. He would admonish his audiences that true life lay in the mind alone, but what did that entail?

In Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), Santayana claimed that religion was the highest form of poetry, one that interprets, deepens, and guides our lives. Retaining the sensuous tastes of Latin Catholicism, he imagined every visible surface to be a sacrament, a material sign giving form to an ideal truth. Although he denied belief in God, he considered Dante’s Divine Comedy to provide just such a landscape and ideal in which the mind could dwell. He celebrated Michelangelo’s Christian-Platonist poetry of spiritual ascent and deprecated the “absence of religion” in Shakespeare. He referred to the secularized Protestant writing of Walt Whitman and Robert Browning as the “poetry of barbarism.” Unbelief, it seemed, was no obstacle to becoming a pilgrim journeying through a sacramental world on the way to a nonexistent divine ideal. This is what it meant to live in the mind alone.

Santayana spent the last years of his life in Rome, in a nursing home located in a convent where a religious sister tended him. There, on “the threshold of heaven,” as the English critic Lucy Beckett has suggested, the old philosopher may at last have identified poetic beauty not as a creative substitute for divine revelation, but as an instance of “our participation in truth.”

Mariani shows that Stevens found in Santayana an attractive opposition to the religious sensibility of his youth. His family’s Lutheran faith was sincere but plain. It had more in common with the liberal, utilitarian spirit of turn-of-the-century Harvard—of which Santayana was a witty and piercing critic—than with the beauty of imagination. After visiting a Lutheran church in New York in 1908, Stevens would complain, after the fashion of Santayana, at how “impoverished” its interior seemed in comparison “with the wealth of symbols, of remembrances” the Catholic Church has created to give material expression to its spirit.

Stevens’s outward life would remain bourgeois in taste, Protestant in morality, and thoroughly practical in ambition. The solitary, indeed, secret life of poetry he led during his postprandial evenings, alone in his attic, however, was closely modeled on the example of Santayana. In these moments, while composing his poetry, Stevens moved from being a disenchanted Protestant admirer of Santayana’s attenuated aesthetic Catholicism toward a genuine assent to faith. This movement would prove to be the shaping undercurrent of the respectable, hedonistic “sea surface” of his life.

In an early journal entry, one of many expertly picked out by Mariani, Stevens admits to feeling torn between the priest and the poet in himself: “The priest worshipped Mercy and Love; the poet worshipped Beauty and Might.” The poet would win out for most of his life, Mariani says, but never completely. Stevens continued saying prayers before bed out of habit, not belief. During his years in New York, Stevens would sit meditating in the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and in other churches as well when his frequent travel allowed. On visits to Key West and Cuba, he identified the tropical color of life with the Latin churches he visited. Though he seemed barely capable of affection for his family (his occasional devotions to Holly were not fully reciprocated), in late middle age he began an impassioned study of his genealogy, and the bare Pennsylvania church yards where his ancestors lay buried became sites of pilgrimage for him. He saw himself as a pious Aeneas, bearing the faith of his fathers on his back. He commissioned a bookplate that bore the motto of his ancestors: “Who trusts in God has built well.” The hedonist in him relished such details in themselves, but the mature Stevens came to see them as part of a calling to some greater duty—to restore the “religious” imagination to an age of unbelief.

Among his correspondents were nuns who moonlighted as literary critics and the devout Irish Catholic poet and art historian Thomas ­MacGreevy. Stevens envied their natural, familiar faith. To MacGreevy he confided, “it would be nice . . . to make up my mind about God, say, before it is too late, or at least before he makes up his mind about me.”

Hospitalized and in his last illness, Stevens visited regularly with the chaplain, Fr. Arthur Hanley. After weeks of disputation, he confessed to believing that, if God and the imagination were one, then God was the one uncreated idea. Stevens’s most celebrated poems explore the role of the imagination within the bare and meaningless world of material reality. He now saw that that reality was the expression of God’s own imagination. Believing that a lost soul had been won by the Church, Hanley baptized him. A colleague who had always taken Stevens for religiously indifferent found himself, to his surprise, serving as the godfather. Though Stevens remained discreet about his conversion, he was buried with a crucifix and St. Christopher medal.

Mariani treads cautiously here. Stevens was buried in a cemetery for “rich Protestants,” the archbishop of the Diocese of Hartford insisted that his conversion be kept quiet, and his daughter seems to have denied it ever happened. The biographer mostly restricts himself to gathering these and other details together in a final montage. Mariani speculates on the reasons for Stevens’s conversion only in passing, hedging with “perhaps” and humorous figures of speech about an insurance lawyer opting to “sign on the dotted line” of the Church’s creed. It is almost as if Mariani aims to be as slippery as Stevens himself, emphasizing the “sheer pleasure of his lines” and not allowing Stevens’s two Catholic conversions—the first, in communing with Santayana, the second, in receiving the Sacrament on his deathbed—to define the whole of his life.

We needn’t be so circumspect. The material Mariani assembles gives us leave, at the last, to call Stevens a Catholic poet. In Harmonium his apparent hedonism might be best understood as an aesthete’s attraction to the beauty of the sacraments. The meditative poems published later are not merely reflections on the interweaving of reality and the imagination, but reflections on the dependence of the superficial beauty of the real on something beyond itself. The baptism in the “final seriousness” of his life stands out like the “fire-fangled feathers” of the bird in his last poem. At last, the gorgeous surface of things comes to appear as a true mystery, a sacrament destined to transform our imaginations, leading us to reread the world as a poem produced by the one idea, the one who imagines things into being, the sun who is also and always the Son of God.

James Matthew Wilson is associate professor of religion and literature at Villanova University.