Daniel R. Schwarz: On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"

" … [I]n "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" (1922), a poem that indicates the symmetry of Stevens’s imagination, the speaker is both jester and trickster, troubador and picaro. Stevens proposes that religious fictions have no greater status than fictions of the imagination that include sensuality and play. Addressing the High Toned Old Christian Woman, the speaker comically proposes an alternative to Christianity in the form of a mummer’s parade or a Mardi Gras festivity. He proposes "poetry" as the supreme fiction rather than God. He develops an alternative to the prayers and hymns – and poems – that celebrated Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. ("And palm for palm, / Madame, we are where we began.") Cast in the form of a brief Socratic dialogue, the argument with the widow is another version of an argument with himself. The poem moves toward an appreciation of paganism – perhaps evoking the late Roman empire – and sensuality in the wonderfully jazzy line "Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk" in which the pleasure principle moves beyond Christianity; note how tunk transforms "well-stuffed," "muzzy," and "sublime" by means of a symphony of "us":

Allow,

Therefore, that in the planetary scene

Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,

Smacking their muzzy bellies on parade,

Proud of such novelties of the sublime,

Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,

May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves

A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.

It is not merely that Stevens argues for the necessary angel of the human, but that he enacts it with all its ambiguity, energy, misunderstanding and hopefulness. It is the alternative fictive universe to that proposed by those Christians – including the widow – upholding the "moral law" and upheld by it. That other universe cannot be controlled and takes on its own carnivalesque, ribald masks; the "hullabaloo among the spheres" is a kind of carnival, a release, a pleasure principle. And, as he has enacted in the poem, the more we would deny that aspect of life, the more it asserts itself: "But fictive things / Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince."’

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Criticism Overview
Title Daniel R. Schwarz: On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Daniel R. Schwarz Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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