Two Types of Transfiguration: Stevens, Eliot, and the Saeculum
“After all, Eliot and I are dead opposites and I have been doing about everything that he would not be likely to do” — Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, 677
I have always thought it ludicrous to play the parlor-game of “X was a better Y than Z: discuss.” It is simply silly in its thick-headed simple-mindedness. Was Mickey Mantle a better baseball player than Ted Williams? Really? Was Raphael as a painter superior to Michelangelo as a sculptor? Was Hendrix a better guitarist than Clapton? (Well, in that case, I’d have to say ‘yes, hands down’, but you get the point).
The same holds true of poets: to rank ordinally Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot in terms of quality is, frankly, a fool’s errand. There is no single scale of excellence or talent with which to compare them. Still, the more I read, understand, and appreciate them both, I cannot help but judge that Stevens “gets it” better than Eliot does, the “it” being both the objective of poetic expression and disclosure, and the objects thus disclosed and the subjects thus expressed.
This is, I admit, strikes me as a bit odd. Eliot was a Christian convert who was received into the Anglican Church; like Eliot I moved through agnosticism to Christianity in the Episcopalian tradition. We clearly share that in common. While there are unconfirmed rumors that Stevens had a deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism, his poetics and poetry reflected a staunch atheism. For Eliot, like Jacques Maritain, art cannot replace religion as a means of transcendence — of escaping the empty anxieties of mundane existence and bringing back the gods that Hölderlin mourned as having fled the world. But art can serve as a kind of handmaiden to religion, a way of evoking and invoking a source that does not just redeem but transfigures the fallen world. But I am not sure that Eliot’s best attempt at poetically disclosing the Christian universe, his Four Quartets, succeeds in this effort. Its mode of transfiguring the world — of altering its form to something spiritual, beautiful, rich and strange — is hampered in its task by its very piety. When he says, quoting the English woman mystic Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”, I do not quite believe him. I do not see a struggle going in in “Little Gidding”, when that should be the first thing seen.
Stevens was every bit the poetic modernist that Eliot was, but unlike Eliot had to make every poem a sign of the struggle toward “transfiguring the commonplace”, as the philosopher Arthur Danto viewed all art. But for Stevens, art does not by itself “save us”. Rather it liberates the imagination to work on the beings in the secular world, to transfigure them and let them be phenomena. Stevens was a friend of the French phenomenologist Jean Wahl, and I do not think it’s too much of a stretch to see phenomenology at work in his poetry, early, middle, and late. But as Stevens matured as a poet, he began to raise doubts about imagination. He did not conclude that imagination fails to effect a transfiguration of the commonplace world of blackbirds, oranges, leaves, and ice cream. Rather, every effort at transfiguring the world, of letting it be phenomenon, letting it “show itself as itself from itself” in Heideggerese, is at best incomplete and unsatisfactory. Poetry discloses but also leaves much undisclosed. His later poetry exhibits what Heidegger thought of as the polarity of World and Earth, the former being a network of meaning and significance unleashed by our engagements and imaginative projections, the latter being the resistance or push-back that Being exerts on our efforts. The Earth-bound “supreme fiction” at which Stevens aimed late in life, a fiction that being supreme overcomes its own fictive-ness, is only an aim, never a fait accompli.
Stevens’s poetry and poetics is, I maintain, atheist through and through, though committed to transcendence in the saeculum, the immanent, much like the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Heidegger are. This is why I find my attunement with Stevens and my relative lack of attunement with Eliot puzzling: I share Eliot’s faith but not his expression of it in his Four Quartets. His transfiguration of the ordinary world and everyday life relies exclusively on “vertical” transcendence, a metaphysically “higher” realm, and has little if any “horizontal” transcendence, the redemption of the saeculum that lurks, immanently, with in it. Stevens’s project, despite its rejection of “vertical” transcendence, is far more successful at transfiguring the commonplace than Eliot’s. It discloses the spirit as it is enfleshed, embodied, stuck in present time.
Eliot begins “Burnt Norton”, the first of the Four Quartets, with the following, rather flat and prosaic assertions about time and redemption, very indebted to Augustine’s musings in Confessions, and then quickly shifts to mundane imagery:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
“If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.” Is this really the case? Was it the case for Augustine? It is from God’s vantage of the eternal present — which is gathered time, and not the same as the timeless Forms of Plato or essences of Aristotle — that the redemptive act originates, the act of the pre-existent yet incarnate logos of Christ. Perhaps what Eliot in insinuating her is that, from a human vantage, a vantage within the saeculum, time is lost if the only true time is the present, our present. Transcendence for Eliot, remember, is exclusively vertical: it descends from on high. And this is born out in the abrupt shift in style: after the Augustinian prose, Eliot trades in images, in things present-at-hand. And they are not redeemed.
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
When, in “Burnt Norton”, Eliot trades in natural imagery — trees, leaves, pigs, dogs — the phenomena disclosed in the imagery is not transfigured. In fact, it is not even transfigurable. Redemption and transfiguration go together, and make themselves manifest from above:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
“The still point of the turning world” — God does not move in time, God is transcendently still. Eliot’s imagery here is as much Buddhist as it is Christian: “There is only the dance”, the “neither this not that” trope, evoke both the God of negative, apophatic Christian theology and the Zen belief in a “suchness”, which is neither this nor that, beyond all saying. Yet Eliot neglects the truth that the Christian Trinitarian God has a complicated relationship to time, the saeculum.
God as creator creates ex nihilo, and is other than and unaffected by creation. But God the redeemer, the incarnate logos, Christ Jesus, is divine transcendence made immanent, made fleshly. And God the sanctifier is transcendence made historical. Eliot, it seems to me, is neglectful, as a poet-theologian, of the incarnation, hence inadequately Trinitarian. God as Father is the still-point, God as spirit makes an appearance in “Little Gidding”, the last of the Four Quartets, as “the dove descending” and the Pentecostal fire that is one with the symbol of divine love, the rose. But where is the incarnate Son? He is as mundane as he is heavenly. He is hard to detect in the Quartets.
Stevens, of course, will have none of this. The “dance” is in time, secular, earthly, concrete, if anything at all. If it is to be transfigured it will be only in the temporally-situated and finite work of human imagination. Compare, then, the following lines from “Sunday Morning”, included in Stevens’s first collection of poems, Harmonium:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
Whereas Eliot, in “Burnt Norton” employs imagery to place the reader at one remove from transcendence, Stevens’s imagery is in the service of a “horizontal” transcendence: the transfiguration of wife, coffee, oranges, and a cockatoo on a rug by the imagination into something of both infinite and timely beauty. Sunday morning pulls us into a saeculum that already is infused in and with meaning: it shows itself as itself. And Stevens juxtaposes it, negatively, against the “dominion of the blood and sepulcher”, the very vertical transcendence that is the only type that Eliot knows, the transcendence of a timeless still-point. There is salvation in coffee and citrus fruit, if one looks at it imaginatively. It is Sunday morning, true. The Stevenses should be in church. And they are, only the church is a sunny room, and the sacrament a transfigured, commonplace setting.
Eliot cut his teeth, philosophically, on the Oxford Idealism of F.H. Bradley and the intuitionist life-philosophy of Henri Bergson before he embraced Anglo-Catholicism. All three of these philosophical sources are fiercely metaphysical. Stevens did not wear his philosophical biography on his sleeve, except for his biographical sketch of his teacher at Harvard, George Santayana, in “For an Old Philosopher in Rome.” But I think it’s fair to say that the tone and structure of his poetry is, basically, phenomenological. And phenomenology, from Husserl through Heidegger to Merleau-Ponty, has had a bone to pick with metaphysics. Phenomenologists have consistently endorsed (in different ways to be sure) Husserl’s rallying cry “to the things themselves!” Not: “to the things in themselves”, as they are apart from our experience, imaginings, and involvements; not Kant’s Ding-an-sich, reality viewed from nowhere, from a God’s eye perspective, or, to employ John McDowell’s wonderful turn-of-phrase, “sideways-on.” Things disclose themselves, but disclose themselves to and for us, from within our involvement and engagement with them, in a way which we can use and assimilate. Stevens gives voice to this phenomenological sensibility in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, who changes things when he “plays” them, but thus makes them available or “ready-to-hand” for us. Poetic disclosure involves imagination and interpretation, but this does not turn imagination into a screen where our “fictions” are merely arbitrary projections of ourselves. Imagination not only liberates us: it liberates things in the world as well. As Stevens insists in his late poem “Credences of Summer”:
Postpone the anatomy of summer, as
The physical pine, the metaphysical pine.
Let’s see the very thing and nothing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.
Burn everything not part of it to ash.
Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single metaphor.
Yes, this is ironic, because metaphor abounds in Stevens, as it does in virtually all poetry. But tropes and schemes are employed by Stevens not as decoration or aesthetic baubles, but for the hard, laborious work of helping us “see the very thing and nothing else.” They exist as pathways for world-disclosure by imaginatively transfiguring the world. For Stevens the transfigured kingdom is not a future event, but at hand, ready-to-hand, always already here and now.
I suppose, in light of the above reflections, that I feel more at home with Stevens than with Eliot because Stevens, in spite of his atheism, evokes an embodied spirituality rather than the kind of resigned, otherworldly piety typical of Eliot. This is not to say that Christian theology would be wise to jettison all otherworldliness, all “vertical” transcendence. That would undermine the enterprise from within. But as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, we live in a “world come of age” where being a Christian is not the same thing as being religious, and certainly not indifferent to “unredeemed” time. The saeculum may not be our ultimate home: it remains a locale of pilgrimage and wandering. But Stevens, it seems to me, understands that this is not the whole story. Time is where we are, not just when, and where God makes God-self manifest to us, less in abstractions than in things, in coffee, oranges, parrots, and warm sunshine.