Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2007
The question of belief is arguably a major preoccupation throughout much of Wallace Stevens' work. To gain an initial foothold on this important theme, we might turn to a late essay entitled “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting,” for it is there that Stevens remarks that in the modern age “in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost” (748). Poetry, in particular, is an especial sort of compensation, since according to Stevens it is mystical and irrational together, and it prompts him to ruminate: “while it can lie in the temperament of very few of us to write poetry in order to find God, it is probably the purpose of each of us to write poetry to find the good which, in the Platonic sense, is synonymous with God” (786). In short, he declares in an important “Memorandum” to a letter from 1940, “The major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God” (L 378).
Such emphatic declarations about belief are hardly surprising for Stevens. From his early youth and on into an adulthood that bore witness to his own marriage within the Lutheran Church, the baptism of his only daughter by Episcopal rite, and a purported conversion to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, Stevens would be drawn to and sustained by a faith whose outward and visible signs mattered less - “I hate the look of a Bible” (L 102), he once declared - than the inward and spiritual grace they were intended to impart. In a moment of candor from his seventy-second year, therefore, Stevens could admit: “I am not an atheist although I do not believe to-day in the same God in whom I believed when I was a boy” (L 735).
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