Wallace Stevens And Religion Essay, Research Paper
Wallace Stevens and Religion
This essay offers an explication of Wallace Stevens’ poem “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.”
Addressing A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, the speaker proposes poetry as the supreme fiction (line 1) rather than God or religion. Stevens considered religion as fictions, imaginative creations that made it possible for people to feel at home in a world that is not naturally homelike and hospitable. Thus the speaker s statement suggests that religious fictions have no greater status than fictions of the imagination that include sensuality and play. Yet in his announcement that poetry is the supreme fiction, the speaker proclaims the supremacy of the human creative imagination.
Religion ( the moral law [line 2]) has built churches populated with the bodied souls of worshippers, and from that built a haunted heaven (line 3) populated with disembodied souls. Religion plays on people s moral sensibilities as their deliberations and actions involving right and wrong are decided and resolved through ceremony and ritual ( converted into palms [line 11]), leaving them hankering for hymns [line 5]).
In line 6, the speaker is saying that he and the old woman agree that indeed there is a fundamental human need for receiving guidance for living and an elemental human desire for giving thankful praise through worship. He comically proposes an alternative to religion ( The opposing law [line 7]), to the prayers and hymns (and poems) that takes the form of a parade or festival no doubt a mocking hint of the festivities that celebrated Christ s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The speaker surmises that even our most immoral acts can also be glorified and made purposeful through ceremony and ritual ( converted into palms [line 11]) by staging them in an appropriate carnival-like setting. With respect to his fictive universe and hers, he tells the old woman he has matched human need for human need, ritual for ritual ( palm for palm [line 12]), bringing them both back to where they started.
In lines 13-20, the speaker concludes his argument by asking the old woman to suppose people with her religious sensibilities (those who uphold the moral law [line 2] and are upheld by it) suddenly found themselves in the alternative fictive universe he has just described. What might become of them? That other universe, and those living in it, cannot be controlled as it takes on its own carnivalesque, ribald character. As the speakers tells her, those people like her May, merely may (line 19) discover their own happiness in a carnival they create for themselves ( whip from themselves / A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres [line 20]). Note the sensuality inherent in the wonderfully jazzy line Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk (line 18) in which the pleasure principle born out of the creative imagination moves beyond religion.
As the speaker has argued in the poem, the more one would deny the life s fanciful pleasures, the more they seem to assert themselves. Such is part of what it means to be human. Therefore, if the base and ignoble passions associated with lewdness is human, why not project a heaven on this basis rather than the lofty and sublime moral sentiment? This is the more conceivable inasmuch as the imagination is itself irreverent and protean: fictive things / Wink as they will (lines 21,22). The poem is calculated to elicit from the old woman and those readers who share her outlook the wince (line 22) that concludes the poem.