Wallace Stevens is now firmly regarded by the community of poets, professional critics, and—I think—the poetry reading public (sadly dwindling every day to not much more than poets and critics) as the greatest American poet of the last century. I will say right now that I share this opinion: indeed I will go further and say that, considered on merely poetic grounds, I believe that Stevens is the greatest poet America has produced—and, unlike his contemporaries such as Aiken, Eliot, and Pound, who emigrated to Europe to seek richer artistic environments, all of Stevens’ poetry was written in America. His competition for this place of prominence can only be challenged, I think, by Dickinson or Whitman: both lack the range of formal ingenuity, though Dickinson is more guilty on this charge, that Stevens possessed, as well as the breadth of raw material to work with—although, in their defense, this is largely a failure of their age rather than of themselves. Atheists should be proud, then, to count Stevens as a senior fellow.
Stevens’ atheism is, it seems to me, not discussed much: it is, as it should be,—at least amongst poets and critics,—overshadowed by the range and depth of his poetic skill and, of course, the sheer beauty of his music (which, though not the overt subject of this essay, will not, indeed, cannot, be ignored by me either). But it is very important that we assert him as one of the greatest of our forefathers, and, as my title suggests, perhaps the most eloquent: here he vies for footing with Lucretius. His atheism is perhaps not much discussed because he did not discuss it: most that assert his atheism do so on account of his poetry—as I will do. I think it justified to do so if we seek the aid of William James. James argued famously that agnosticism is simply a non sequitur: ones beliefs are contained in their actions, in how they live rather than in what they say (Bill Maher makes a very Jamesian argument, which, incidentally, I agree with, when he says that Americans, en masse, aren’t really religious). Hence, one lives in accordance with the belief in a religious system or one doesn’t—the middle ground of agnosticism doesn’t exist in this realm. I tend to agree with James on this point, being something of a pragmatist, and have often used it to argue with agnostics (to lead them into the light of atheism!) if I’m feeling particularly like proselytizing at the moment. Now, to come back to our subject, if one is of Jamesian persuasion on this, one can rightfully assert Stevens’ atheism without a doubt: anyone who has read even a portion of Stevens’ oeuvre will realize immediately that this man’s life—his actions, beliefs, arguments, skepticisms, loves and loathings, his most intimate thoughts and emotions—are recorded here in a remarkable, and remarkably honest, fashion. And this account is, it is beyond doubt, the account of an atheist—indeed, I would argue, that of an anti-theist.
To demonstrate this I will use Stevens’ most famous and, I think, his greatest poem: “Sunday Morning.” The title reveals immediately—to one who lives in a predominantly “Christian” country—that the mise-en-scène of the poem is religious. As indeed it is: for the true mise-en-scène of “Sunday Morning” is not the one of two individual bodies, a man and a woman, sitting together on a lazy sunny morning having coffee and oranges together, presumably engaged in separate enterprises (he reading, say, Poetry magazine, and she the Sunday paper) while enjoying the simple omnipresent, if elliptical, proximity of their bodies:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
The true setting of this poem is in the thought-realm, however:
She dreams a little, and feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The woman has a religious daydream in which she muses upon matters of faith, God, and paradise, and occasionally gives utterance to her musings. The rest of the poem is the man’s response, presumably after the fact, and gives to us Stevens’ brilliant statement of his atheism.
After her daydreams carry her “Over the seas to silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre” Stevens responds with a stanza that I simply must quote in full:
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,
Or else in any balm or beauty of the earth
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
What better statement have we in the English language of the absolute futility, indeed criminality, of wasting our time, and our thought, on religion? Jesus is straightforwardly referred to as one of “the dead” who is not worth the thought of a living being in a world filled with such beauty and wonder as the sun, fruit, birds—a world that leaves no room for any possibility of heaven. Divinity as a concept has no extension other than that of conscious animals, such as human beings, as In-der-Welt-Sein. And did Heidegger ever present his notion of being-in-the-world as satisfactorily and convincingly as Stevens does here—twelve years before the publication of Sein und Zeit? Passions are not caused by rain, nor moods caused by falling snow: the “internal” and “external” phenomena are one, obviating the terms themselves. The emotions felt on a stormy night in autumn are not other to the autumn night nor caused by it: the night and the emotions are coextensive. And the extent of one’s being-in-the-world is the only measure of the divinity of oneself: there will be no tabulation of sins, no judgment other than this—and it is a judgment that one can bring only upon oneself in how one lives.
The opening of the third stanza makes what seems a complete change of subject:
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
The use of the Roman god Jove, however, is quite deliberate: there has been no change of subject, but rather a placing of the same subject within a much larger historical context than that in which it is typically considered. God is Jove, is Zeus, is Mithra, is Horus, is Allah, et cetera: by using Jove rather than God he shakes his readers from complacently slipping into thinking of the Christian God, typically considered timelessly, ignoring the fact that Christianity is a collage of previous religious myths—Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman—and secular sources—Plato, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Porphyry. Indeed, the inhumanity of God is here painted in different shades than those in which it is typically considered. God is a “muttering king,” who seeks our flesh and blood (virgin flesh and blood) as a “requital to desire.” Then follow the questions that have been asked, but unanswered, since the death of Jesus of Nazareth:
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
Then Stevens again answers the daydreamers—here with a glimpse of a prophetic future—one without religious myths, without hinterweltlich beliefs:
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
These four lines are, I need not tell the conscious reader, Stevens at his finest: he cuts straight through the edifice of mythology to the phenomenon—religion is the ouranian desires of man run amuck; let us return it to what it is: the sky, the sun, the stars, and their relation to the earth. Religion reduces these phenomena to belief systems that produce division and indifference: it need not be so, and, indeed, should not be so. There is—in Stevens’ prophetic future—no offer of a fictional salvation from labor and pain, but accompaniment and solace therein.
The fourth stanza moves from the generality of religious wish-thinking, as presented in the third stanza, to the more particular daydreaming of the actual woman present with Stevens on this sunny Sunday morning, who breaks the continuity of her daydream by speaking finally:
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
In response to this question,—which certainly must not be foreign to many—, Stevens again restores a necessary contextuality: nothing of the major world religions, “not any haunt of prophecy, / Nor any old chimera of the grave,” not Jesus, or Moses, or Mohammad, “Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm / Remote on heaven’s hill,”—none of these have endured “As April’s green endures; or will endure,” indeed they have not even endured as long as humanity has experienced the “remembrance of awakened birds,” or the “desire for June and evening, tipped / By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.” To think, then, that religion—man-made and finite as it is—offers us some sort of immortality, some sort of constancy that this world does not have is, considered in proper historical perspective, ludicrous. How obvious does it become, then, that religion was created by men without knowledge of the past and without any thought for the future other than an overwhelming fear of their own finitude?