“These Immeasurable Mysteries”: Rites of Passage in Stevens and Cummings
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“These Immeasurable Mysteries”:
Rites of Passage in Stevens and Cummings

IN HIS STUDY of religious beliefs and practices among Americans, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, Wade Clark Roof observes that “whether churchgoer or not, the subjective world of the American [is] a space open and spiritually revisable. To be American [is] to allow for cognitive and experiential shifts, to make and remake religious worlds” (153). Roof uses terms such as “lived religion” (157) and “quest culture” (Roof and Caron 119) to describe his countrymen’s preference for a personal sense of spiritual meaning. If Roof’s assessment is correct, then America provides an unusually open space where spiritual ideas and faiths may be freely negotiated and combined according to individual preferences. This has a bearing on the solitary and contemplative tendency that George Lensing has identified in several of the country’s greatest writers. As Lensing proposes, “The great isolation of Hawthorne, Dickinson, Robinson, and Stevens suggests a peculiar disposition of many American writers: their self-consciousness, their distrust of the world beyond an immediate circle, and, above all, the great inward probing that their art variously discloses” (Poet’s Growth 48). In her own reflections on American religious poetry, “That Highest Candle” (a title paying homage to Wallace Stevens), the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson speculates, furthermore, that “If there is a single subject upon which the gaze of the major Americans has been fixed since Whitman and Dickinson, it is surely human mortality, consciousness thrown into sharp relief by the fact that consciousness as we know it will cease” (138).

In this essay, I will use as a starting point the idea that many American poets are interested in a solitary contemplation of death, and that this confrontation with the end of consciousness is informed by their ever-adapting belief systems. I would like to push the image of a privately questing artist one step further by proposing a specific hypothesis: the engagement with mortality can trigger a kind of mystical experience that harkens back much farther than the faith and practices of America’s Protestant settlers— an experience that is more akin to those undergone by Eleusinian initiates. My focus on Greek mysteries has an affinity with Edward Clarke’s recent comparative study of Yeats and Stevens, in which he sets out to uncover [End Page 40] and situate the anagogic elements in these two poets’ later writings. Instead of contrasting Stevens with his Irish peer, however, I have chosen to juxtapose two mainstays from American anthologies, Stevens and E. E. Cummings, and read them as modern mystagogues of an unsuspected kind.1 My use of an ancient occult tradition as a means of comparison is meant merely as a framing device to help us conceive of the two poets’ spiritual inclinations and gestures in their late work. It should not be confused with the assertion that Stevens and Cummings were active occultists like Yeats, Ezra Pound, or T. S. Eliot. Leon Surette has already covered the influence of theosophists and orientalists, such as Madame Blavatsky and Allen Upward, on modernist poets. Yet his definition of occultism as “metaphysical speculation . . . about the nature of ultimate reality and of our relation to it” (Birth 13) is sufficiently abstract and capacious to be relevant also for my attempted reading.

“I have always thought of you as a kind of neighbor2:American Affinities

At first glance, it may seem like a strange exercise to discuss Stevens side by side with Cummings. The two poets’ writings and lifestyles were very different, as they both insisted. Cummings reportedly “despised Stevens as ‘a business man’: how could he be an artist?” (Kennedy 452). Stevens, in turn, condemned Cummings’ stylistic habits during a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 when he dismissed poetry “in which the exploitation of form involves nothing more than the use of small letters for capitals, eccentric line-endings, too little or too much punctuation and similar aberrations. These have nothing to do with being alive” (CPP 746, qtd. in MacLeod 44). Cummings, a self-proclaimed “poetandpainter” (qtd. in MacLeod 37), would likely have defended his poems...