Treasure Island

Wallace Stevens

(October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955 / Pennsylvania / United States)

A High-Toned Old Christian Woman


Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
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. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in 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.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

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  • Barry Middleton (11/17/2013 10:15:00 AM)

    This poem is meant to amuse and to make a statement about Stevens' philosophy. Man can build a church and worship an idea of heaven or a stage and worship realty as fiction but it comes down to the same fictive sort of joke. Stevens states in the first line that poetry is the supreme fiction. The imagination is worth celebrating, in fact it is the only thing we might celebrate which is really in tune with the universe. I love the jovial hulabaloo because to me it is like Jove (god, Universe) laughing uproariously at man's pomposity and foolishness. Stevens ends the poem with winking and taking pleasure at shocking the high toned old Christian woman. (Report) Reply

  • Anthony Le Vere Sage (4/27/2011 11:31:00 PM)

    Here's Wiki:

    Supreme fiction

    The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.[31]

    Throughout his poetic career, Stevens was concerned with the question of what to think about the world now that our old notions of religion no longer suffice. His solution might be summarized by the notion of a “Supreme Fiction, ” an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed.[32] In this example from the satirical 'A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, ' Stevens plays with the notions of immediately accessible, but ultimately unsatisfying, notions of reality:

    Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
    Take the moral law and make a nave of it
    And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
    The conscience is converted into palms
    Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
    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. And palm for palm,
    Madame, we are where we began.[33]

    The saxophones squiggle because, as J. Hillis Miller says of Stevens in his book, Poets of Reality, the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: 'A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement.”[34] In the end, reality remains.

    The supreme fiction is that conceptualization of reality that seems to resonate in its rightness, so much so that it seems to have captured, if only for a moment, something actual and real.

    I am the angel of reality,
    seen for a moment standing in the door.

    ...

    I am the necessary angel of earth,
    Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

    Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,
    And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone

    Rise liquidly in liquid lingerings,
    Like watery words awash;

    ...

    an apparition appareled in

    Apparels of such lightest look that a turn
    Of my shoulder and quickly, too quickly, I am gone? [35]

    Uh huh. Squiggle, squiggle, squiggle, eh, Mr Stevens? ! (Report) Reply

  • Anthony Le Vere Sage (4/27/2011 11:11:00 PM)

    Gary, thanks for your explanation. But it is still odd that you exclaim Damn but I love this poem. Where is the thing expressed by this poem that is not only well expressed but also meaningful in a less than trite way? It seems that you don't even fully understand it, since you are guessing at some of the meaning. One has the impression that you automatically love anything that Wallace Stevens comes out with, and assume that the meaning is enlightening and unexpected, and you describe the sense you make of it very well. But where is the poetic value? Sending people to the dictionary is not automatically a recommendation. In some minds, it might be a defect. Once informed as to what the words mean, however, there remains the meaning of the lines. Where is the meaning that you admire so much? Stevens has curtained it with floridly obscure language which fails to add anything by concealing its banal message, or that which can be discerned with your excellent help. Is the assumption here that any thought expressed in a more esoteric vocabulary therefore gains significance and satisfies poetry hunters such as yourself? Many people don't immediately understand Shakespeare's language, but it gains nothing from that. When they do decipher it, they find perceptive ideas about life and human nature expressed in brilliant metaphors and similes, yet never departing from immediate and direct meaning. By comparison Stevens seems to be a complicator to no avail, with no penetrating perception or rich means of expressing his uncertain ideas. Name one idea in this poem which is memorable and I shall stand corrected. That little old ladies are averse to too much funkiness in their poetry readings? Actually they are not. Most are delighted by recalling their own adventures, however sparse. A Christian widow is no different, if Wallace only knew. Hightoned sniffing is just a curtain over real feelings. A poet above all should know that. (Report) Reply

  • Beverly Scofield (1/15/2008 5:27:00 PM)

    There's hardly anything left to say, except that Gary Witt has captured the essence of Stevens' poem. I'm slowly working my way through his poems. So far 'Sunday Morning' is on the top of my list of favorites, but this one is a keeper. Anyway, thanks, Gary, for such a great review. (Report) Reply

  • Gary Witt (11/18/2006 12:52:00 PM)

    Damn but I love this poem. The voice starts out imperious and high-brow, and then degenerates into a burlesque of squiggling saxophones and disaffected flagellants in parade. It seems to travel from logic to emotion and back again, almost becoming a rant. I can see the woman who is being subjected to this monologue become more and more agitated. And then the last two sentences (“But fictive things/Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.”) show the mind behind the voice. She’s either got to walk away in a huff, or smile at the wink.

    I also love the fact that this poem will send people straight to their dictionaries. So, let’s begin with a few definitions. A cithern is a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin. A peristyle is the interior courtyard or garden area of an ancient Grecian home. A masque is a stylized form of theater popular with European nobility in the 15th and 16th centuries. Flagellants were a Christian sect who believed they could purge themselves of sin through mortification of the flesh, by whipping themselves with various instruments. However, there are also some Shiite sects that practice flagellation. So, while in Stevens’ time the primary definition of muzzy was “hazy, clouded, or out of focus, ” it could also be a slang and derogatory expression referring to Muslims. While the latter brings a new dimension to the poem, and seems to be consistent with Stevens’ burlesque tone, I don’t know whether that definition was around at the time Stevens’ wrote the poem. One odd thing about this definition, though, is that is seems to be regional to Connecticut and New England, which is exactly where the vice president of the Hartford spent most of his later years.

    On the one hand we have the Christian view of the cosmos, constructed from the “moral law” or ethos and ultimately converting the conscience into “palms, ” meaning (IMHO) something earth-bound but stretching toward “heaven.”

    On the other hand we have a view of the cosmos (perhaps a Muslim view) constructed from the “opposing law, ” (perhaps the “natural law? ”) which converts our bawdiness, “unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last, ” into “palms.” Again, something earth-bound but stretching toward “heaven.”

    Two different views of heaven, but palm for palm we are where we began.

    So, allow, madame, that either view or both may be correct. Even though (or perhaps especially because) it makes you wince. (Report) Reply

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