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Our Cousin, Mr. Stevens

Spring 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 2


This essay appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Late in the fall of 1949, after reading Wallace Stevens’s “Things of August” in Poetry, Allen Tate wrote a letter to the older poet. At issue, unlikely as it may seem for two emblematic figures of twentieth century American poetry, was the nature of angels, or more specifically whether human beings can appropriate the qualities of the angelic mind. Why were angels the quarrel, and why did Tate feel so incensed by what he read in Stevens’s poem? Tate saw in Stevens symptoms of the angelisme—the attempt to arrogate angelic powers to the human intellect—that Jacques Maritain had recognized in Descartes at the beginning of modernity. Tate modified the term to include the poetic refusal to recognize the limits of the human intellect and called it “the angelic imagination,” which he saw as a threat to the very nature of poetry as a mode of knowledge. Poetry ought to work by means of the imagination’s transformation of the experience of the senses, but the “angelic imagination” sought to seize directly upon essences. He saw the angelic imagination exemplified in Edgar Allan Poe. He also saw it in Wallace Stevens, who had attacked him, in Tate’s view, for lacking it.

Tate had known Stevens for a decade. He first wrote to him in 1939 about the possibility of publishing some of his poems in a series published at Chapel Hill. Two years later, at Tate’s invitation, Stevens composed his most famous essay, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” for a lecture series at Princeton. Several times during the 1940s, Tate felt comfortable enough about their friendship to try to engage Stevens’s help on various literary matters, and on a number of occasions they had lunch or drinks in New York City, sometimes with their mutual friend Henry Church, who before the war had been editor of Mesures, to whom Stevens dedicated Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. By 1947 Stevens—Tate’s elder by twenty years—had convinced the younger man to relax his formality, and they were addressing each other in their letters as Allen and Wallace. But in their last letters, when Tate wrote to Stevens about allusions to his own works that he saw in “Things of August,” the response incensed him, and the correspondence ceased.

Ever since his work with John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren on the Fugitive in the 1920s, Tate had always been much more engaged with the cultural place of poetry than Stevens had. He had succeeded in drawing Stevens out into the public sphere by getting him to lecture; and, having established his goodwill, he repeatedly attempted to get some kind of commitment from him, not on overtly political issues, but on matters that he saw as having importance for literature. Instead, he received a series of urbane refusals. Tate’s first effort was in 1945 when he got wind of a negative and unfair review of John Crowe Ransom’s poems that the émigré philosopher and poet Jean Wahl planned to publish in the New Republic. Tate exchanged letters with Henry Church about the matter, and Church, who knew Wahl well as former editor of Mesures, wrote Tate on August 26, 1945:

Your letters came this morning. I saw Jean Wahl some weeks ago. He spoke to me about the matter, I told him he was mistaken and should not publish his criticism of Ransom, that he was in the wrong. I tried to explain how we felt about such matters over here but he wouldn’t listen to me. I should have been firmer but I had not followed the matter from the beginning—Will you tell me how it started? Did the “Kenyon” refuse a poem of Wahl’s?

Were they on bad terms? I think we should do something; perhaps with Stevens. If you like I’ll write him about it. Or you could write Stevens, having more authority.
It’s very disagreeable anyway. Love to you all.
                                                                                                  H. Church

Written upside down on the same sheet as his signature is the addendum: “I think we should do something about it. Perhaps Stevens will act with us. Tell me how you feel about it.”

Tate, Stevens, and Church did in fact meet in New York at the Ritz Carlton that September, but nothing came of it, at least in terms of Church’s hope to get Stevens to “do something” about Wahl’s review. The invitation must have come from Tate, who did write to Stevens, since Stevens replied on September 6 in a way that anticipates in tone and technique his last letter to Tate four years later. After excusing himself for not reading the New Republic and protesting that he was sick of controversy, Stevens closed with what almost feels like a parable:

We had a long weekend last week and I spent three afternoons sitting in the garden at home. Everyone seemed to be away. I had lunch there three times in succession, mostly white Burgundy. Someone in the neighborhood keeps pigeons and they come at noon and pick up things from the grass. There is one of them, a black and white, an old friend of mine whom I call Marble Cake. Sitting there, with a little of Kraft’s Limburger Spread and a glass or two of a really decent wine, with not a voice in the universe and with those big, fat pigeons moving round, keeping an eye on me and doing queer things to keep me awake, all of these things make The New Republic and its contents (most of the time) of no account.

These are not the pigeons at the end of “Sunday Morning” that descend to darkness “on extended wings,” but neighborly creatures sure of their income and not given to controversy.

Tate tried Stevens again in 1947 to try to convince him to make a voice recording of his poems for the Library of Congress. Robert Penn Warren and Karl Shapiro had followed Tate as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now Poet Laureate), and both had failed to convince Stevens. Tate, drawing on his friendship with Stevens (perhaps at Shapiro’s urging), wrote on March 4, 1947, arguing that making the recording would not be difficult: “Arrangements have been made at the recording laboratory of NBC here in New York to record you at your convenience, but it ought to be as soon as possible. Could you not come down someday soon and have lunch with me and go to the NBC laboratory? I assure you it isn’t bad at all. I took Eliot there last summer and he didn’t complain even once.” Despite the exemplary Eliot, Stevens refused on March 6 but took the trouble to defend himself:

Mr. Shapiro wrote to me only the other day. I refused to do this up in Cambridge. This is probably because I am voice-shy. But I had previously refused to do it for Mr. Warren and also for someone at Columbia. Several years ago they put in a Dictaphone system here at the office. In using this system you dictated your letters down a pipe, so to speak, and when you turned the machine so that it read back what you had dictated it sounded very much like a leak somewhere in the house in the middle of the night. Of course, you will say that NBC will fix that all up and that I won’t be able to tell myself from Frank Sinatra, but you are going to have a tough time talking me into it. And, besides, my contract with Knopf makes it necessary for me to procure his permission. You could leave a blank space and at the end of it say that Stevens has just completed reading Sunday Morning in deaf and dumb.

Tate made another attempt on March 18, this time revealing a little more of his personal stake in the matter: “I don’t know what general or specific arguments I can bring to bear upon you that will persuade you to do this, for no proper man is willing to believe that he is as valuable as other people think he is. I might even ask you to do this as a favor to me, but I have no right to ask it. Perhaps in the long run that is as good an argument as any other.” On April 1 Stevens replied, telling Tate that he had invited his friend José Rodriguez-Feo to have lunch with them at the Ritz—a meeting that Tate had probably set up as an occasion to persuade Stevens in person, with “the NBC laboratory” nearby. “I have definitely made up my mind not to read for the book of records,” wrote Stevens, “and I think that I ought to say so now so that you can devote yourself to the life and letters of Havana and Hartford.”

In 1948, after a different Tate entreaty, Stevens wrote, “There isn’t a chance of my taking part in a poetry festival.” He goes on to give an account of feeling like an elephant as he walked down the aisle to give a paper and arousing the laughter of the audience when he had to have the podium raised “to a decent height.”1 A year later, Tate apparently prompted him to get engaged in the controversy that erupted when Ezra Pound, convicted of treason and hospitalized for insanity, was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry by a committee that Tate chaired. Stevens wanted no part of it. His letters to others make it clear that he considered Pound a traitor to his country whose genius did not excuse him. Tate was incensed because Robert Hillyer had written a vicious two-part condemnation in the Saturday Review of the Bollingen committee (on which Stevens himself would later serve). Hillyer excoriated the New Critics in general and T. S. Eliot in particular, accusing them all of fascist intentions. Stevens wrote to Tate on October 20, 1949, in a letter that Holly Stevens omitted from her volume:

Dear Allen:

I don’t see the Saturday Review and, even if I did, I should skip anything it might contain by Benet and/or Hillyer. So that 1. I know nothing about this; 2. care less; 3. do not believe that the Saturday Review or Benet or Hillyer jointly or severally, or both, could possibly determine or harm the cause of letters; 4. prefer to keep out of this; and 5. intend to do just that.

In spite of all this, I am happy to hear from you and particularly to hear from you in Princeton, which I believe that you like.

Everything goes well up here. I have recently decided to live to be a hundred. One of the ways of doing that is not to jump into bonfires.    

                                                                                                           Yours sincerely,                           
                                                                                                              Wallace Stevens

This matter of the Bollingen Prize may have been the last straw for both men. The asperity of his first paragraph perhaps contributed to the tone of Tate’s letter on December 7, 1949. This time the letter was occasioned by what Tate saw as Stevens’ attitude toward his poetry:

Dear Wallace:

I have been reading your ten new poems in POETRY, and I am very much moved by two of them. This is a letter to myself which you have picked up from the floor and read because it is about your poems. I take these two poems very much to myself as the occasion of stating certain differences from the work of an older contemporary which I admire and have learned from. The poems are numbers 2 and 3. To attempt to formulate differences is to try to keep on learning.

When I was young I admired “Sunday Morning” more than any other poem of our time; and I still do, for what it taught me, and for its own magnificence. But I knew then that what you were doing was not for me: I could never reach it. The angelisme of the intelligence which defines “horizons that neither love nor hate” I could believe in as a human possibility but I could not possess it, or live inside it. It is perhaps a little presumptuous of me to take these two poems of yours as a profound insight, accidentally reached, into my own special limitations; if so, you will accept my apology. The “air within a grave or down a well” is almost the inevitable air for the man of our time who cannot be, like the woman in “Sunday Morning,” alone in the world with the “thought of heaven.”

That is my message to myself. The man who breathes the air of the well cannot breathe purer air unless it be the air of revelation: the angelic intellect is not within his reach. What I have learned, then, from these two poems is a new way of putting a dilemma of our time—and it may be the dilemma: either the revealed access to the world or the angelic mind looking down upon it.

                    Ever yours,

Tate’s tone could hardly be called angry, at least on the surface; on the other hand, the word “moved” allows a range of interpretations. Tate included a carbon copy of his letter in his papers at Princeton, where it precedes the reply from Stevens (with its revealing salutation) two days later:

Dear Mr. Tate:

When I got back from New York yesterday after spending several days there, I found your most welcome letter. As it happens, we had spoken of you and someone told me that you had apparently settled down in Princeton and had found a home there, which must mean a great deal to you. I know that when I come back from even a day or two in New York home regales me. To crawl into my own bed with all the windows open and to be able to lie there in the really sharp cold of this time of year is an experience that means far more than sleeping in one of the nickel-plated ovens that they give you in New York, even though it has ten lamps.

This trip was for the purpose of attending a dinner and, in addition, for doing a certain amount of Christmas shopping. This last has become highly mechanized. For instance, I went to Schwartz’s and ordered four or five numbers from a catalogue. They telephoned the warehouse to make sure they had everything and that is how one buys toys for a grandson nowadays.

I saw some people you know and quite a lot of pictures but principally I had a very considerable part of two days in the open which, after months and months at the office, was almost like being cured of the palsy and, to top it all off, I had my hair cut at the Pierre.

Since I shall probably not be writing to you again between now and Christmas—greetings!

                    Very sincerely yours,
                                     Wallace Stevens

Read without Tate’s letter to accompany it, Stevens appears to be writing cordially. In Tate’s correspondence with Holly Stevens in the 1960s when she was compiling her father’s letters, there is no hint of any discord. Ms. Stevens exhibits, if anything, a growing affection for Tate. In her Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), there is no footnote suggesting controversy. Radcliffe Squires quotes Tate’s letter in his 1971 biography of Tate, but he does not delve into the context of it, and he omits any mention of the note in Tate’s handwriting on the bottom of Stevens’s December 9 response.

Yet the note could not be more explosive: “This is like a letter from an advertising man who doesn’t want to lose good will but who can’t bring himself to discuss the point at issue. If Stevens has ever done a generous thing, I never heard of it.”

In a sense, the health and probity seem to be on Stevens’s side in this quarrel and the touchy self-absorption on Tate’s. The truth is far more complex. Why, for example, should Stevens address his letter to “Mr. Tate” for the first time since 1946? As recently as October 20, 1949, in his letter about the Ezra Pound controversy, he had written his habitual “Dear Allen.” Stevens unquestionably knew that Tate expected a response, and he gave him one that ended their friendship. Tate perhaps misunderstood Stevens’s reply as avoidance of his question, because Stevens did not answer—at least, not in kind—a question that went to the center of Tate’s life, but Tate did not misunderstand the tone of dismissal.

It is impossible to say when exactly Tate added his comment. He had apparently forgotten that Stevens was in the insurance business, not in advertising. The fact that Holly Stevens makes no mention of the comment (and seems well-disposed toward Tate in her correspondence with him) suggests that Tate added it after Stevens’s letters were compiled in the mid-1960s but before he sold his papers to Princeton. If he added it so long after receiving Stevens’s reply, its very presence bespeaks a sense of enduring offense. More in the note than in the letter that occasioned Stevens’s account of his sleeping arrangements and his Christmas shopping, Tate seems offended that he could never get Stevens to do anything that would put him out in the least. The whole point of awarding the prize to Pound, to his mind, was to honor the excellence of the Pisan Cantos despite the anti-Semitism and political treason of the poet himself. Surely Stevens, whose apolitical leanings could not have been more marked, would want to defend poetry for its own sake, and for Tate to find that the man would not put himself forward even in these circumstances must have irritated him, especially if he thought he could draw on something of a personal friendship with Stevens.

From his perspective, it would have been generous on Stevens’s part to add his voice in support of the committee’s decision. Not to do so struck him as selfish. Here was Stevens—a man who had a steady income from the Hartford Insurance Company, a connoisseur of Kraft’s Limburger Spread with white burgundy amid the pigeons, an epicurean as deeply familiar with complacencies as the woman in “Sunday Morning,” an emperor of ice cream whose preference for his private pleasures trumped the causes that occupied others—and here was Tate, always scrambling to earn enough to pay his bills, full of “amours and phobias,” as Stevens later described him, yet always, too, in the thick of anything that might advance the cause of literature.

* * *

Tate was entirely in earnest when he described his differences from Stevens as defining “the dilemma” of their time. Whether or not Stevens understood the exact force of it, Tate’s letter directly accused Stevens himself of possessing an angelic intellect, a charge that Stevens seemed to avoid in his response. In fact, he did not avoid it, but it is unlikely that he investigated what Tate might have meant by angelisme, and his rejoinder to Tate consisted of showing himself to be altogether human, not an angel looking down on the world. He presented himself as a man whose home regaled him, who liked sleeping in his own bed in the sharp New England cold, and who worried over presents for his grandson. Without entering the conversation Tate had wanted to provoke, he nevertheless made a point. Why was “revealed access” to the world necessary to get a haircut at the Pierre?

Accommodation to the ordinary was Stevens’s metaphysics, but such an accommodation was indistinguishable from the attempt to “fix it”—both to determine it and to repair it. As he wrote to Barbara Church in 1948 in a discussion of the letters of Camille Pissarro and the paintings of Bonnard, “these men attach one to real things: closely, actually, without the interventions or excitements of metaphor. One wonders sometimes whether this is not exactly what the whole effort of modern art has been about: the attachment to real things.” Paradoxically, this attachment depends on abstraction. The Cubist painters, he tells Mrs. Church, were attempting to get at the visible, not the invisible:

They assumed that back of the peculiar reality that we see, there lay a more prismatic one of many facets. Apparently deviating from reality, they were trying to fix it. . . . While one thinks about poetry as one thinks about painting, the momentum toward abstraction exerts a greater force on the poet than on the painter. I imagine that the tendency of all thinking is toward the abstract and perhaps I am merely saying that the abstractions of the poet are abstracter than the abstractions of the painter. Anyhow, that does not have to be settled this morning. It is enough right now to say that after a month of rain my wife’s roses look piercingly bright. I went out alone last evening to look at them and while piercing was the word, it was, after all, a very slight sensation on which to make so much depend.2

It is a letter of extraordinary candor, perhaps the kind of letter that Tate wished to receive from Stevens, and in it Stevens very nearly admits to a terror before the slenderness of his attachment to “real things.” He goes on a few sentences later:

Gide, in his Journal, speaks of redemption of the spirit by work, in this present time of skepticism. Only to work is nonsense in a period of nihilism. Why work? Keeping a journal, however dense the nihilism may be, helps one. And thinking about the nature of our relation to what one sees out of the window, for example, without any effort to see to the bottom of things, may someday disclose a force capable of destroying nihilism.3

Unless he had discussed the term with Tate or read the work of Jacques Maritain, which seems unlikely, Stevens would have found Tate’s use of angelisme unfamiliar, and in any case Stevens seems to be talking about “the attachment to real things” in his letter to Tate about his bed and his haircut. Maritain, who sponsored Tate’s entrance into the Roman Catholic Church at Princeton in 1950, had criticized Descartes, most recently in The Dream of Descartes (1944), for his attempt to circumvent the human mode of knowing through sense experience and achieve the “angelic intellect,” whereas Stevens was talking about trying to recover sense experience—the precise point at which his angelism emerged, in Tate’s analysis. Tate used the concept extensively during this period. He already had it in mind in his essay on Edgar Allan Poe, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” twice presented as a lecture in the fall of 1949 shortly before his letter to Stevens, but he would not formulate it explicitly until he wrote about Poe and contrasted him to Dante in “The Angelic Imagination” and “The Symbolic Imagination” early in 1951.

Tate had reason to suspect Stevens of angelism. In “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” (1942), Stevens’s speaker claims, “I can do all that angels can.” In “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” published in 1949—the same year as “Things of August”—Stevens writes of the “necessary angel of earth” in whose sight “you see the earth again, / Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set.” For Stevens, the angel is necessary as a threshold figure, a poetic coalescence of difference that strips away obscuring tropes and defamiliarizes the world. But his angel is a figure of the mind. Tate, by contrast, is influenced by Maritain, who first wrote about Descartes’s usurpation of the angelic intellect in Three Reformers (1929):

They raise above our heads a canopy of immensity, an abundance of stability and strength which, in comparison with us, is infinite. Transparent each to his own glance; each with full perception of his own substance by that substance, and at a single leap naturally knowing God also—by analogy, no doubt, but in what a mirror of splendor: their intellect, always in act with regard to its intelligible objects, does not derive its ideas from things, as does ours, but has them direct from God, Who infuses them into it when He creates it. And by these innate ideas, which are in it as a derivation from the divine Ideas, their intellect knows created things in the creative light itself, rule and measure of all that is.4

Maritain writes as though one might still encounter angels; their reality as beings, not as figures of the imagination, gives the contrast with human knowing its force. Men derive ideas from things, from sense experience in a physical world, whereas Descartes rejects the evidence of the senses and builds his project on the attempt to achieve the immediate intuitive certainty that angels have by nature, but that men do not.

Tate saw in modern poetry an attempt to create the world from a floating subjectivity, to descend to “real things.” In his second essay on Poe, he linked Stevens to Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas as a poet engaged in “that idolatrous dissolution of language from the grammar of a possible world, which results from the belief that language itself can be reality, or by incantation create a reality.”5 Although angels have no power to create or, even, technically speaking, to imagine anything, the “angelic imagination” is the poetic version of Cartesian angelism. Tate describes “the ‘esemplastic power’ of the Primary Imagination,” for example, as “a Teutonic angel inhabiting a Cartesian machine named Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”6 For Tate, genuine imagination works toward higher syntheses through the things of the world by means of analogy. One can never, without succumbing to angelism, reject the given world and try to invent a more amenable reality with the higher powers of language, because to do so is to sever intellect, will, and moral feeling from their discipline in “the laws of the natural order, a discipline of submission to a permanent limitation of man.”7

Tate clearly understood section 2 of “Things of August” as an address to him about the second section, “Autumn,” of his complex, four-part poem “Seasons of the Soul” (1944), which he knew that Stevens had read more than once. Stevens wrote in a letter of February 10, 1945, that he did not particularly like the poem on first reading it in the Kenyon Review, but that he liked it better printed in The Winter Sea, which Tate had sent him. Although Tate could not have known it, Stevens commented to Henry Church that, after reading the poem in the Kenyon Review, he wondered, oddly, whether Tate had enough of the “peasant” in him8—as though Tate were the one in need of more physical grounding. In any case, Tate had reasons for reading “Things of August” with his own poem in mind.

The “Autumn” section of “Seasons of the Soul” opens with a scene reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland:

It had an autumn smell
And that was how I knew
That I was down a well
I was no longer young;
My lips were numb and blue,
The air was like fine sand
In a butcher’s stall
Or pumice to the tongue:
And when I raised my hand
I stood in the empty hall.

The round ceiling was high
And the gray light like shale
Then, crumbling, and dry:
No rug on the bare floor
Nor any carved detail
To which the eye could glide;
I counted along the wall
Door after closed door
Through which a shade might slide
To the cold and empty hall.

Later stanzas in the section are about encounters with the speaker’s family, ominously couched in allusions to Dante’s meeting with Brunetto Latini in canto 15 of Inferno. As Robert S. Dupree writes in his commentary on “Seasons of the Soul,”

Tate’s family, discovered at the bottom of the dry well, stands for paternal emptiness that is a kind of violence in itself. It is not simply a literal allusion to an unhappy childhood; the nightmarish world of “Autumn” shows that violence and alienation have touched the very heart of the family, the foundation of all society. Dante’s horror at seeing his esteemed teacher among the damned is paralleled by the terrified vision of a man whose memory discloses the spiritual slaughter (the air reminds the speaker of a “butcher’s stall”) of his entire childhood household in a self-imposed, hellish family imprisonment. The fall into the dry well is a visit to the underworld and a descent into the grave.9

If “Things of August” does in fact respond to Tate’s poem, then Stevens must have read this section with a feeling of suffocation or constriction, which became a metaphor—the egg—with its familial associations. The second section of “Things of August” adopts the imperative mood:

Spread sail, we say spread white, spread way.
The shell is a shore. The egg of the sea

And the egg of the sky are in shells, in walls, in skins
And the egg of the earth lies deep within an egg.

Spread outward. Crack the round dome. Break through.
Have liberty not as the air within a grave

Or down a well. Breathe freedom, oh, my native,
In the space of horizons that neither love nor hate.

Tate plainly takes the references to “the air within a grave / Or down a well” personally, as he might also do with the “round dome,” which echoes the “round ceiling” of his poem. He quotes the last line of the section in his letter to Stevens: “The angelisme of the intelligence which defines ‘horizons that neither love nor hate’ I could believe in as a human possibility but I could not possess it, or live inside it.”

Stevens’s imagery of eggs within eggs suggests the Ptolemaic universe with its concentric spheres, and Tate repeatedly invokes Dante in “Seasons of the Soul.” In his advice to “crack the round dome,” Stevens in effect urges Tate to leave behind the outmoded synthesis of the Middle Ages (not to mention the dome of the church). His lines also evoke Tate’s poem “The Mediterranean,” in which Tate laments, “We’ve cracked the hemispheres with careless hand!” In section 3 of “Things of August”—a section about “high poetry and low”—Stevens invokes “the Mediterranean / Of the quiet of the middle of the night / With the broken statues standing on the shore.” To “spread white, spread way” means to be a Columbus, to break the cultural shell, to bring about a reconfiguration of modern consciousness. In Tate’s reading of the poem, Stevens means that the function of imagination is essentially liberating: one should not let the limits of the given world hamper him; one should “break through” and “breathe freedom.”

Tate could not have known how personally intense a matter this effort was for Stevens himself. In a letter to José Rodriguez Feo in 1948, Stevens had described the mangoes on his dining room table at home in contrast to the description of postwar Munich in a letter from a friend, and his imagery almost exactly echoed the lines that Tate finds echoing his own poem: “It is like changing records on a gramophone to speak of the red and the almost artificial green of mango skins and then speak of blue and white Munich. But unless we do these things to reality, the damned thing closes in us, walls us up and buries us alive.”10 Did he mean “closes in on us”? Or is “closes in us” accurate? If Stevens did actually intend the latter, then reality is already an interior phenomenon; if the former, it is an inimical external force, as in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” In either case, it is the “damned thing” that will turn one into a Poe character unless one does things to it in advance.

Tate writes that “everything in Poe is dead: the houses, the rooms, the furniture, to say nothing of nature and of human beings.”11 Stevens escapes premature burial by juxtaposing unlike things—red and green mangoes, for example, and “blue and white Munich”; these are “real” in the sense that they open reality in us by not having been anticipated, not already having been subsumed by habit. The advent of a real sensation for Stevens, however slight, whether of mangoes, pigeons, or white roses, constitutes the experience of reality for him, and it always threatens to close unless it is kept vital by some contrast or trope—that is, by poetry. Needless to say, these moments occur within “horizons that neither love nor hate.” The reality that Stevens seeks has no moral element and in effect no meaning; it is perhaps a way toward the “profound superficiality” of the Greeks, as Nietzsche understood it, a way of being content with surfaces in the hope that nihilism, which threatens to overwhelm the thinking subject, stems from a desire for meaning, and attention to surfaces might eventually make the threat go away.

Tate argues in the letter that he cannot “breathe freedom” in this way, and one feels his strong underlying doubt about Stevens’s capacity actually to do so: “The ‘air within a grave or down a well’ is almost the inevitable air for the man of our time who cannot be, like the woman in ‘Sunday Morning,’ alone in the world with the ‘thought of heaven.’” Tate cannot convince himself that the role of imagination is to break through the givenness of the world to remake it for ourselves—the essential modern gesture, both of technology and of poetic angelism. He does not think, as Stevens does in “On Modern Poetry,” that when the theatre of the world was changed (after Copernicus and Descartes, perhaps, if not Darwin and Freud), “Its past was a souvenir.” He finds himself caught by the familial and historical past: “The man who breathes the air of the well cannot breathe purer air unless it be the air of revelation: the angelic intellect is not within his reach.” In other words, the conditioned mind cannot stand outside its own given, historical condition except through some genuine encounter with what transcends history. The poet who believes he can break through the shell of the egg manifests the illusion that he has to—and can—remake his own reality. Such a poet hopes, at the same time, that his attachment to real things will be “without the interventions or excitements of metaphor,” as Stevens wrote to Barbara Church. The angelic poet engages in constructing reality anew and then deconstructing his constructs in the hope of flushing out moments of unmediated sensation. He feeds on the look of roses or mangoes, a little ashamed of his need for the “real things” that stir him, if only for a moment, with something outside himself and thus stave off despair.

* * *

Tate’s either/or: either find the world through revelation or assume the position of the angelic mind looking down on it. He refused the angelic alternative that severed man from his own nature. But what did he mean by the “air of revelation”? In effect, he meant that ordinary air cannot be comprehended as what it is without revelation—an opinion with which Stevens might agree, if revelation were something like Heidegger’s “unconcealment,” a matter for poetry. But Tate obviously means revelation in the sense customarily opposed to “reason”; revelation would have to mean those truths that man cannot reach by unaided intellect. That is, God discloses the nature of his creation, and the purer “air of revelation” that Tate might breathe is ruach, pneuma, spiritus—that breath moving above the waters in Genesis, the breath breathed into Adam, the Holy Spirit of the New Testament. This air is the air men breathe: the simplest, most pervasive reality also bears the highest symbolism. Negatively experienced, as in the “Autumn” section of “Seasons of the Soul,” the air down a well seems to draw on Revelation 9: “And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.” For Tate, “the air within a grave/Or down a well” is in itself already a sign, or rather part of a vast system of signification, and the poet does not do things to reality so much as he discovers the meanings that action gives to things, as Dante did. The poet finds himself not free, almost incapable of access to the movement of spirit, trapped in the modern mind as though in the hallway of an oppressive school, or an underground shelter in the midst of a great world war, or Plato’s cave, an allusion that occurs in the “Spring” section of Tate’s poem.

Through “Seasons of the Soul,” Tate feels his way toward a new recovery of an old understanding in which the world exists both in itself and as a system of signs awakened by their sequence in time. In this traditional view, which was being revived in part by Maritain, each thing is already in act; it “goes itself,” as Hopkins puts it, and in its very act of existence—the realization in act of the state of being—it already points through its particularity to existence in itself, not back into the subject perceiving it. But each thing is also part of an action. For example, Stevens’s mangoes take on a symbolic importance in this essay, not by being isolated and perceived “aesthetically,” as it were, but by being part of a narrative of countering nihilism and solipsistic entombment. By the time Tate wrote “The Symbolic Imagination” in 1951, he had articulated the principle of analogy as an antidote to angelism, and he had found in action, already identified by Aristotle as the most crucial element of poetry, the key to analogy:

To bring together various meanings at a single moment of action is to exercise what I shall speak of here as the symbolic imagination; but the line of action must be unmistakable, we must never be in doubt about what is happening; for at a given stage of his progress the hero does one simple thing, and one only. The symbolic imagination conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the natural to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity.12

Ironically, Stevens’s answer to Tate in his last letter to Tate takes on its full significance only in the symbolic imagination. He does not ignore what Tate says about air; rather, he juxtaposes to the “air of revelation” an entirely earthly one: “To crawl into my own bed with all the windows open and to be able to lie there in the really sharp cold of this time of year is an experience that means far more than sleeping in one of the nickel-plated ovens that they give you in New York, even though it has ten lamps.” In this cold, natural New England air, the poet accused of angelism refuses—and means to refute—the air of revelation (and the fiery furnace), but even in the act of doing so, he inadvertently reveals that his private sensation has meaning only in the action of his exchange with Tate. It symbolizes a certain kind of freedom through what it invokes with its negations of tradition or revelation, and the image of Stevens in his warm bed with the cold surrounding him, “like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal,” as Melville’s Ishmael puts it, is a highly charged image of the isolated Cartesian subject.

Angered by the apparent irrelevance of Stevens’s letter, Tate did not respond, and no letter of inquiry or apology (apology for what? recounting his return from New York?) followed from Stevens. Yet Stevens continued to write to Barbara Church, Henry Church’s widow, with news about Tate and his family after the correspondence broke off. As late as 1954, he reported the news of Nancy Tate Wood’s mental illness, for which he must have had some sympathy, given his problems with his own wife. He and Mrs. Church shared a knowledge of Tate’s personal failings, and he mentioned Tate’s move to Minnesota with a passing reference to Tate’s “amours and phobias.” The most telling fruit of the Tate-Stevens exchange, however, might have revealed itself when Stevens asked Mrs. Church on March 27, 1953: “Is the Maritain that you are reading the collection of his Mellon lectures in Creative Intuition? I have it and have looked at it but have not been able to start to read it yet. Maritain is an extraordinary person, who fascinates me.”13 Perhaps Maritain would have fascinated him in any case, but it is difficult not to think that Allen Tate’s letter about angelism provoked him. If there is any truth to the much-disputed story about Stevens’s deathbed conversion, it might be found in a certain half-rhyme between being in his own bed with all the windows open and lying in a St. Francis Hospital bed with the prospect of death before him. If Stevens did ask for baptism, he did it to be “in the fold,” as he told Fr. Arthur Hanley. But true to form, he took out his insurance so privately that neither his wife nor his daughter knew it. Nor, needless to say, did the troublesome Allen Tate. ♦


Glenn C. Arbery, author of Why Literature Matters (ISI Books, 2001) and editor of The Southern Critics (ISI Books, 2011), is associate professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.

1.       Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens, foreword by Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 583.
2.       Ibid. 601–2.
3.       Ibid., 602.
4.       Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970), 55–56.
5.       “The Angelic Imagination,” in Essays of Four Decades (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999), 406.
6.       Ibid., 413.
7.       Ibid., 411.
8.       Letters, 461.
9.       Robert S. Dupree, Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination: A Study of the Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 183.
10.     Letters, 599.
11.     Essays, 398.
12.     Ibid., 427.
13.     Letters, 772.