- “We Keep Coming Back and Coming Back to the Real”: Stevens’ Theology
WALLACE STEVENS is a religious poet who enacts a developing theology in the body of his poetic work: such is the fundamental claim of this essay, and one that I imagine many devoted readers of Stevens will want to resist. Most readers have little or no problem in accepting Stevens as a philosophical poet, but this claim is somehow more radical and disturbing.1 Part of the problem may have to do with the understanding of what “religious” means. The term need not be limited to a narrowly defined set of beliefs, dogmas, and practices that are seen as more or less stable, rigid, perhaps even permanent. If that’s what it means to be religious, then Stevens is not a religious poet and can even be read as vehemently antireligious. I’d read him that way myself.
Stevens is far too subtle a thinker and refined a poet to warrant such a narrow frame. So for my argument, the conventional meaning of “religious” needs to be critiqued and expanded, as do the terms “theology” and “God.” Even critics who want to see a religious dimension to Stevens’ poetry have a hard time with terminology. For example, Robert Rehder claims that “Stevens understands that religion is a denial of reality and an act of wish-fulfillment and that we never escape from our experience.” That sounds as if Stevens is in no way a religious poet; yet a couple of pages later, we read a more nuanced claim: “‘Sunday Morning’ expresses not skepticism, but the impossibility of believing in Christianity or any established religion and, at the same time, the desire to believe in something” (30, 32). While going further than I would, that is closer to my position: traditional forms of religion have lost their vitality and need to be reformed and renewed, and that act of re-formation and renewal is best accomplished by poetry.
Contemporary theologians, especially those pluralist theologians who pursue interreligious dialogue, have been engaged in a critique of traditional forms of religion and static notions of “God” for quite some time, and have been especially prominent since Vatican II. Even David R. Jarraway, a sympathetic reader who very much wants a “religious” Stevens, does not quite grasp that “theology” is not a set of rigid beliefs and dogmas. For him, “post-theological knowledge suggests that belief could [End Page 199] never be static and that, like poetry, must constantly be de-forming and later re-forming itself . . .” (197). I agree with that statement, except that such de-forming and re-forming isn’t intrinsically “post-theological.” The process is at the heart of the theology Stevens develops within his poetry.
In A Christian Theology of Religions, John Hick makes a case for religious pluralism based upon a distinction between what is true and what is valid, or between what he calls the Truth and the Real. “Truth” is a category implying that the ultimate reality can be comprehended (not just understood but contained) by the human mind and within its conceptual framework. The “Real,” on the other hand, is ineffable, lying beyond our human conceptual systems; as a category it is not meant to sound as something empty or vague but as being greater than we can conceive and contain in the mind. For Hick as for religious pluralists in general, all the great world religions are valid responses to the Real, but not more than one of them can be true.2 A pluralist in theology does not seek to discredit any of the world religions but to understand them as equally valid responses to the transcendent, the ultimate reality, the divine, the absolute, or—to use the term Hick prefers—the Real.
While I do not intend to argue that Wallace Stevens is a religious pluralist, this distinction between the Truth and the Real may prove a useful way to approach him as a poet of deep religious sensibility responding not to the truth of any particular religion but to something that lies beyond the human conceptual framework—“at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought...