The Strange Conversion of Wallace Stevens
things slow for summer, I’ve been back at writing the sequel to my book A Deeper Vision. That work dealt with the modern Catholic intellectual tradition, mostly outside of America. I’ve already written several hundred pages of the second volume, which will survey Americanphilosophers, theologians, historians, writers, and artists with a Catholic connection. Besides the obvious names, there are famous figures little-known for their Catholicism (often because they were late converts or had lover’s quarrels with the Church): Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, etc. I’ve been trying to understand how what I would call a failure of creativity and imagination has hindered the American reception of otherwise strong theological and philosophical arguments, and thereby contributed to our apostasies.
Relevant to all that is the strange conversion story of Wallace Stevens. Stevens was born in Pennsylvania, attended Harvard, became a lawyer, and then an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. He’s probably the greatest American poet of the twentieth century, maybe ever (Pulitzer 1955, when it still meant something.)
I’m from Connecticut, but you don’t have to be in order to appreciate the sheer brilliance of “The River of Rivers in Connecticut”:
There is a great river this side of Stygia
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.
In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,
No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.
It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.
It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction. . .
Call it, one more, a river, an unnamed flowing,
Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.
It’s uncanny how Stevens can take a natural feature – here the Connecticut River – and link it to fresh metaphysical insights.