Heard on High

The Religious Imagination of Wallace Stevens

Did Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest twentieth-century poets, convert to Roman Catholicism as he lay dying in the summer of 1955? This question has provoked more controversy than one might expect. In Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (1987), Joseph Carroll provided a synopsis of the debate, offering the testimony of the Catholic priest who claimed to have initiated Stevens into the faith—and of the poet’s daughter, Holly, who strenuously denied the priest’s claim. Whatever the truth of the matter, careful readers of Stevens’s poetry would not be surprised if he did in fact convert on his deathbed, since much of his later poetry reflects, and is shaped by, what we may call a “Catholic imagination.”   

Born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens grew up influenced by his father’s very American kind of Christianity, one that put great emphasis on self-reliance and the rewards of hard work. His mother was pious in the more traditional sense, and the young Stevens was familiar with the Bible, especially the New Testament; significantly, he was also drawn to quiet places where meditation was fostered, and would remain so all his life. But Stevens was his father’s son to the end, and so put the advancement of his legal career before his poetry. By the time he wrote the poems I want to discuss here, he had become a successful insurance lawyer and...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Stephen Sicari is chair of the English department at St. John's University in New York. His most recent book is Modernist Humanism and the Men of 1914 (University of South Carolina Press).