The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens
by Paul Mariani
Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Hardcover, 483 pages, $30.

When Wallace Stevens was seventy-two, he received the Robert Frost Gold Medal from the Poetry Society of America. In his remarks, he gave an ethical view of poetry: “Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience.” This was in 1951; Stevens would be dead four years later, August 2, 1955, conscience his final austere and last ethical companion.

During his life, he found numerous opportunities to apologize. At parties he was given over to drink and obnoxious behavior, shyness his daemon. And then the apologies, conscience his companion.

I once asked Paul Mariani whether he wished to be remembered for his biographies, his poetry, or his essays, his own spiritual exercises, an austere and ethical question. I had forgotten his hearing is gone in one ear and so moved to his other side and asked the question again. He gave me a sidelong whimsical pickerel grin and said “poetry.” The poetry is a grand achievement but there’s another world he’s tackled: Mariani’s “Lives of the Poets,” masterful biographies of William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and now Wallace Stevens.

His life of Wallace Stevens is titled The Whole Harmonium but it’s a title that could be applied to Mariani’s own lifetime achievement, a whole harmonium for the lives of the poets, his poems, his spiritual works on God and the imagination. Much like the biographies of this pantheon of American poets, all of Mariani’s works are testament to conscience, his own austere and ethical companion, and a sublime Catholic piety.

In 1900 Stevens was at Harvard; his English instructor, Pierre de Chaignon la Rose introduced the young Stevens to George Santayana. Stevens, then editor of the Advocate, had written a “number of fine sonnets to Santayana. One of those sonnets so intrigued Santayana that he composed a sonnet of his own in response.” The two then had dinner one evening, Santayana stroking his Van Dyke beard while making the argument that he could see the “beauty of Catholic thought as something superior to American Evangelical Protestantism without assenting to the Church’s spiritual claims.” The conversation continued at Santayana’s apartment late into the night.

It is a formative moment and scene in The Whole Harmonium; Santayana explained to the young Wallace Stevens that the beauty of Catholic Christianity, fiction or not, was that it “had forged nature’s clay into something of a higher order … gesturing toward some greater reality … lifting mankind beyond anything it had previously imagined for itself.…”

Stevens is still in his early twenties and without a career. Harmonium will not be published until 1923 and then thirteen years until Ideas of Order in 1936. Sandwiched between is brief work as a journalist, law school, marriage to Elsie, the birth of a daughter, and in 1916 legal work for the home office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, Stevens the insurance executive. These are not years of creative promise, nothing to suggest Stevens would become one of the best and most representative poets of modern times. The majority of his canonical works will be written during his middle age.

But for the time, there is Wallace Stevens from Reading, Pennsylvania, a reality, Dutch and a dried-up Presbyterian; there is Wallace Stevens educated at Harvard, another reality, journalist, graduate of New York Law School, lawyer, insurance executive, husband, father, all realities, and if one owns an interest in his political views, a Taft conservative, and another reality, and another way of looking at Wallace Stevens.

With these realities in mind there’s little to suggest Stevens as a man deeply interested in philosophically questioning how we shape and understand ourselves, the interior imaginative life of the man about whom Mariani writes deeply and movingly. Yet Santayana hovers in the background.

The world acts upon us, daily influencing our more normal activities. How then do we conceptualize or make sense of that world unless it’s through an active exercise of the imagination which suggests by way of experiment placing a jar on a rounded hill in Tennessee and watching how an idea of order is imposed on the landscape. The poet’s urge to make order, the truth that lives in the concepts of the imagination, is much like the Maker’s passionate and sublime engagement with his own Creation: “After all,” Mariani writes, “the ultimate Plato is the visionary, the dreamer, the poet for whom the evening star is enough to soothe the buzzing torment of our workaday lives.”

Stevens’s jar, though, is not Duchamp’s urinal taking dominion, which does not tame the slovenly wilderness and thus fails as a self-conscious meditation on the relation between reality and the imagination which for Stevens became an encounter important as life’s redemption.

Can the poet, though, through the use of imagination find a fiction to replace the lost gods, the dead God? As Mariani makes clear, over time Stevens concluded that imaginative contact with reality cannot lead to an absolute apprehension of the world, but it can lead to an idea of God that may be apprehended anew. To say that God and the imagination are thus one is not contradictory but necessary. For Mariani, Stevens’s attitudes may have been formative in those early years since at age seventy-two he sends five poems to the Hudson Review, among them “To an Old Philosopher in Rome.” The poem is an homage to his “mentor, Santayana, now eighty-eight and hovering between two worlds, tended to by an English order of Roman Catholic nuns.” Stevens, too, is hovering between two worlds, one which would own the poverty of the agnostic’s speech and the other that “more merciful Rome / Beyond.”

Stevens imagines for Santayana a “kind of total grandeur at the end” as he is imagining something similar for himself. With Santayana’s death, Mariani writes that for Stevens it “was Santayana’s noble example which had shaped him all these years.”

Stevens is a short time away from his own deathbed. As that time approached and following, the question that has emerged these past six decades is whether or not Stevens was in fact the supreme poet of modern agnostics and atheists. “Sunday Morning” would seem to offer proof, as would his arguments that after belief in God has been abandoned, poetry becomes the essence of that belief. The artist takes the place of God.

Thus the controversy attached to Stevens at his life’s end, when some contend he found religious faith of a more traditional kind. For many, of course, to believe that Stevens had converted to Catholicism at life’s end is one more anathema, a far remove from what some believe is the poet’s “professed” atheism. The controversy discounts the testimony by others.

Mariani’s concluding chapters resonate with something different, something about that austere and ethical conscience: “… the figures in the street,” Stevens had written in his homage to Santayana, “Become the figures in heaven, the majestic movement / Of men growing small in the distances of space, / Singing, with smaller and still smaller sound, / Unintelligible absolution and an end.” There’s a celestial possibility being limned here, “happiness in the shape of Rome,” prefigures a soul waiting to be released. Meditating on Santayana, Stevens is reading his own mind near the end of his own life, and a peaceful and tranquil Catholic even in his own mind.

Throughout The Whole Harmonium, Mariani suggests that such an aptitude for theism, and especially for Catholicism, had always been in place but was only later ventured into with profound confidence. Thus the poet, and not the insurance executive, would create for us the Supreme Fiction in which we might believe. Father Arthur Hanley was the chaplain at St. Francis Hospital where Stevens was recovering from surgery, a large cancer of the stomach. Stevens was dying but as Mariani writes, “He wanted to talk,” and with Hanley he wanted to talk about God, or at least the one uncreated concept that was God in Stevens’s thinking.

There are those who discount Father Hanley’s testimony that Stevens converted before his death. Mariani is not one of those, and he writes movingly of Stevens’s last days, noting that the poet’s language had always been moving toward the language of conversion and a more final reality. To quote another poet familiar to Mariani, The Whole Harmonium is fine work with pitch and copper. All one needs to do is run one’s eye along it.… 

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.