On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"

Daniel R. Schwarz

" … [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":


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."’

Lisa M. Steinman

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.

Milton J. Bates

[In "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"] the poet attempts to ruffle the composure of this true believer by proposing a shocking version of Santayana's argument in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion--that poetry and religion are equally fictions of the human mind, reflecting the values of the human maker. If lewdness is human, why not project a heaven on this basis rather than the moral sentiment? This is the more conceivable inasmuch as the imagination is itself irreverent and protean: "fictive things / Wink as they will." "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" is calculated to elicit from the woman--and those readers who share her outlook--the "wince" that concludes the poem.

from Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Copyright 1985 by the University of California Press.

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