Lisa M. Steinman: On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"

Stevens's remarks as well as the style he adopted suggest that his early poems continued his insistence that poetry was part of the world. The reality he claims for poetry is twofold. There is, first, the process by which the world is known, including both imaginative projection and the human urge for truths and closure--the "blessed rage for order." There is also an implicit appeal to the flux that characterizes the self and the natural world. Life is rapid, as Stevens says; he adds that "the self consists of endless images." Insofar as human observation and that which is observed are both characterized as processes, Stevens's early identification of poets as observers is not brought into question by the poetics informing his first two volumes of poetry. His early celebration of commonplace, specific details, however, is difficult to reconcile with the poetry and poetics of 1915-1936.

The early poems, of course, do maintain that poetry celebrates the imagination, which in turn gives us our sense of connection with the physical world; the woman in "Sunday Morning" is told that the earth--the "bough of summer and the winter branch"--must replace the gods, just as seven years later Stevens told "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman":

We agree in principle. That's clear. But take

The opposing law and make a peristyle,

And from the peristyle project a masque

Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness.

Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,

Is equally converted into palms,

Squiggling like saxophones.

Earthy or imaginative desire, in constant motion, without epitaphs, becomes one of Stevens's articles of faith. The early poems, however, never confuse the reality that they claim imagination can reveal with naturalism.

From Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets. Copyright © 1987 by Yale University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Lisa M. Steinman: On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lisa M. Steinman Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets
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