Notes from “Shades of Bliss: Imagining Heaven in Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur”

By William Tate

In “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” Wallace Stevens summarizes two different pictures of heaven which he (or his speaker) reduces to projections of human desire. (You can read the poem here.) One of these summaries caricatures the Christian woman’s beliefs. This summary explains heaven as the projection of an uncharitable moralism in which “the conscience is converted into palms” (4) In other words, the speaker implies that Christians have imagined heaven for themselves as a kind of permanent beach vacation, complete with palm trees, which they will earn by means of their stringent morality. The second summary represents classical paganism as merely a projection of sensuality. In the pagan paradise “our bawdiness…indulged at last” is also “converted into palms” (9-11). The result is that “palm for palm” (12) the two summaries end in the same delights and amount to the same thing. As projections, they reveal something about human beings, but nothing about an afterlife. (There isn’t space here to develop the idea, but the poem incorporates a sort of popularized Freudianism in its idea of projection.)

In several ways, Richard Wilbur’s “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” serves as an answer and antidote to “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.” Near the end of the poem (which you can read here), Wilbur suggests that Saint Francis of Assisi might have recognized, in the fountain of Wilbur’s title, a “shade of bliss” (line 56). Shade here means something like picture or prefiguration, and the poem presents two different pictures of bliss—that is, blessedness. In Wilbur’s reflective poem bliss refers on one level to an anticipated afterlife. On another (but related) level it refers to moral life in this present age, a life well lived. Over the course of the poem, Wilbur considers two versions of the moral life as these are expressed by two styles of fountains. (Stevens similarly associates his two versions of the moral life and two versions of heaven with two different architectural styles: his “nave” evokes the architecture of a Christian cathedral, and his “peristyle” evokes the architecture of a classical pagan temple.)

The wall-fountain of Wilbur’s title depicts a family of fauns who seem refreshed by the falling water of the fountain. The details in the section of the poem which describes this fountain imply a conventionally negative evaluation of its paganism (an evaluation like Stevens’s Christian woman might make). The description of the fountain begins at the top and moves downward by means of diction which frequently suggests failure, and perhaps blame: the water “breaks” and “spills” over the edges of the fountain’s basins; the water is “ragged” and “loose” and “collapse[s]” (the term embeds lapse); and so on. The fountain’s figures are also described with ambivalent terms: the young fauns are “goatish” (though in their “innocence”); the smile of the “fauness” is “blinded,” apparently because she is experiencing “a saecular ecstacy.” The speaker recognizes that the fountain depicts a particular fleshly style of human participation in the world and concludes the section by asking “since this all / Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall, / Must it not be too simple?” (26-8). In other words, doesn’t this fountain’s perspective on the good life reduce it to transient, sensual pleasure?

Wilbur contrasts the wall-fountain with two “plain fountains” in St. Peter’s Square (see here). Countering the downward orientation in the description of the wall-fountain, the description of these fountains focuses on upward movement: “the main jet / [Struggles] aloft… / In the act of rising” (31-2); the water is “borne up” (35) and “Delays” (38) its falling. The speaker recognizes these fountains as “water-saints” which evidently “display / The pattern of our areté” (42-3). These fountains figure “what men are / Or should be” (41-2; we would expect Stevens’s Christian woman to approve). 

Despite recognizing the intended and conventional symbolism of the St. Peter’s Square fountains, however, the speaker’s thoughts return to the joyfully sensuous fauns of the wall-fountain. The fauns have managed to reconcile their desire with apparent peace of mind: “They are at rest in fullness of desire” (46) so that they actually reprove “our disgust and our ennui” (50) with their “humble insatiety” (51). In other words, the fauns also become models of virtue, especially the virtue of humility. In the imagination of the speaker, their desire makes them aware of their incompleteness, their need for something more than they have.

The disgust and ennui which the fauns tacitly rebuke strikes me as akin to the high tone taken by the old Christian woman in Stevens’s poem; if Stevens (or his speaker) means to rebuke Christian hypocrisy, Wilbur would apparently agree that self-righteous condescension ought to be reproved. But “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” empties out the meaning of “sinner” as well as of “saint.” Wilbur’s conclusion is more nuanced; his poem allows that holiness and sin mingle in all kinds of people—in this life—and that the categories still matter. Given this mingling, charity is in order, and the apparent saint may learn something from the apparent sinner. God’s appropriation of it may “baptize” even sinful desire.

C. S. Lewis once said, “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else” (The Problem of Pain, 145). The point is that God may use, even that God regularly uses, human desire (including wrongly directed desire) to draw needy human beings. In Lewis such desire occurs as romantic Sehnsucht. In “Christianity and Culture” Lewis admits that “the dangers of romantic Sehnsucht are very great” and says “my early experiences” of it “were occasions to much that I…repent,” but adds that “the experiences themselves contained…a wholly good element.” Wilbur suggests the same understanding in the final line of the poem when he concludes that “all hungers leap” and “all pleasures pass” toward heaven.

Stevens’s old Christian woman apparently disdains the body and the natural; the poem associates her with ascetic self-flagellants. In his poem Christianity has nothing to offer. But neither has paganism. Wilbur similarly juxtaposes two understandings of the world which at first seem to be in conflict, but his charitable optimism recognizes in them a potential for alliance. He is of the school of St. Francis. As Cornelius Plantinga explains, “St. Francis of Assisi and his kin show us how to love the natural world without worshipping it. In their eyes, material reality is a good thing. God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it” (Engaging God’s World, 37). Francis’s humble love of God’s creation explains his readiness, in Wilbur’s poem, to see in the sensuality of the fauns “a shade of bliss,” a picture of God’s purposes.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking Like a Christian?,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (March 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.