Stevens' baptism before his death was expunged from biographical details to satisfy Hartford, his wife, daughter, humanism and poetry. The luminous indica of it were not expunged from his poems. We dig it up.
Poets live in the future not the past, speak things unuttered, unbelieved by themselves. Stevens got baptized at 75. This afterthought, what else could it be, was always and only speaking of this existence all his life, saying "more than it is possible to say" (The Necessary Angel, 62). He was born at his death. You wouldn't know him now. He farms corn in the nimbus. It's a beginning. The Angel administered a "luminous body, the nimbus and heraldic stigmata" (74). It happened to Rimbaud too, I guess. Old Stevens joked in his hospital bed, "what a ghastly situation it would be if the world of the dead was actually different from the world of the living. . . to say farewell to our generation and to look forward to a continuation in a Jerusalem of pure surrealism would account for the taste for oblivion" (76-77). New Stevens knows better.
Nepenthe and Lethe change their appearance when the structure of "poetry and reality are one" (The Necessary Angel, 81). In "arpeggios [of] opening wings" (80) Coleridge might one night feel "intimations of immortality in an object on the mantelpiece" (75). There Stevens climbed up to the cross in death. A chorus appeared round his bed. Hopkins was the priest, administered to one who didn't even believe in the muse. That's a lot to bear. Not believe in the muse! Stevens said: "I am myself a part of what is real, and it is my own speech, and the strength of it, this only, that I hear or ever shall" (60). Then one came to nudge his side who divined Milton and Blake and showed Hopkins the oil that if such words transform we should all tread. So Eliot and Tolkien, if not Traherene and Donne, strive with Stevens's friends. As Blake told Trusler: "I really am sorry that you are fallen out with the spiritual World." Who buys Stevens' "visible. . . equivalent of the invisible" (61)? Dearest sea and ivory fresh dreams the first man bare. Who dares be invisible when a "sense of reality keen enough to be in excess of the normal sense of reality creates a reality of its own" (79)?
He was converted when that flood hit the last lights west, "as if it were possible to look into the sea as into glass. . . and suddenly behold there some extraordinary transfiguration of ourselves" (80). This is the numinous breaking Catharine and Blake knelt to in the insistent Holy Ghost, that Milton perceived with all of Paradise Lost, and Blake: "be with me wholly one in Jesus our Lord who is the God and Lord to whom the Ancients looked and saw his day afar off with trembling & amazement" (Jerusalem, iii). A light the darkness comprehended not, that priest collared to the modernist's bed. Stevens was asked if by beauty he meant a wonder great enough to still the heart. Even Muir, translating Kafka, with every devotion to Nietzsche, the terror analyst, from his fundamentalist upbringing-forced religion of 14 said, "I realized, that quite without knowing it, I was a Christian." (An Autobiography, 168, 247).
A twinkling bright essence poured over his head that a "poet will accomplish by reason and force of imagination the effortless and inescapable process of his own individuality" (46). Then, we shall all be changed in a moment's flash. "Say to women more that it is possible to say!" The dead world is actually different from the living, ourselves immortal. Not to oblivion, but to life in Jesus our Lord it says "when we look at the blue sky for the first time. . . not merely see it, but look at it and experience it and for the first time have a sense that we live in the center of a physical poetry: few people realize that they are looking at the world of their own thoughts and the world of their own feelings" (65-66). Arpeggios of human chord! One name named in the irreverence of poem! Go through his poems before the Daystar rises to call by sun and moon a worship in the same speech which their voice has heard. Things "never quite expressed" (Transport to Summer, 6) are current of the swale, "motive of metaphor" revealed, poured over his head in burial. The ABC (6) transported "life that never would end. . . made single, made one" ("Gigantomachia," 7), His early poems of Transport, of the good verbal tree, saw "God is Good," and that the "brown moon" would lead to his "celestial rendezvous" (3). It was so. He could have been baptized three days after birth instead of just before death, but what matter, for he declared that the "song of the great space" ("God Is Good") open in the name in his heart made a"voice taller than redwoods" ("Certain Phenomena of Sound," II) compass the still verse. He saw "Gold-shined by sun" ("Certain Phenomena," III) that flesh all light gathered to bathe in this word where "there is no life except in the word" (III). It was the secret being he mused unseeing.
He wrote that question "he is reflecting as he sits in the radiant and productive atmosphere, which is his life, surrounded not only by double characters and metaphysicians, but by many men and many kinds of men, by many women and many children and many kinds of women and children" (Necessary Angel, 62). As at the resurrection "men scatter through clouds" ("Dutch Graves in Bucks County") he wrote of the graves as his own, took a chair to see in them, they in him, he in me, I in him all rise! Semblance of the "doubly killed" (line 20), the "crusts that lie in the shriveling[s]" (27-8) tenements of earth and sky. Testify, even in blindness! Armies who kill themselves at birth and mobs that wait to walk the steeps, that temple of the heart, are all hidden, all revealed. The awareness grows it cannot be killed. Rise up sun, star, being. "He is not there, the old" ("No Possum, No Sop, No Taters") man, whose "broken stalk" (line 5) led away the "fallen" (11). Syllables flutter his head. "Behold the extraordinary transfiguration of ourselves" (Necessary Angel, 80).
Edwin Muir. An Autobiography. Seabury, 1968.
Wallace Stevens. Transport to Summer. New York: Knopf, 1947.
-- The Necessary Angel. New York: Knopf, 1951.