"Secular Mystery", by Robert Pack
Wallace Stevens: An Approach to his Poetry and Thought, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1958: 21-34
Reviewed by Jessica Ozimek
The modernists used art to fill a spiritual void because, as Robert Pack's explains, "[a]rt is the product of that human faculty, the imagination, which enables man to enjoy his own absurdity and suffering, enables him to dramatize it and, as it were, make something of it external to himself, something apart of its own independence". (21) In his chapter titled "Secular Mystery" from Wallace Stevens: An Approach to his Poetry and Thought, Pack explains that imagination is what Stevens' hopes will create a modern myth to unite heaven and earth in "Sunday Morning." It is man's desire to believe in an infinite reality and to some how feel connected to it that drives Stevens to create a modern myth that allows for the union of heaven and earth. (Pack, 26) Pack explains that Stevens' accomplishes this by proposing that earth is heaven. (26) Pack goes on to say that although Stevens talks about Divinity, first by trumping faith in divinity and then by explaining that "Divinity must live within herself," he only uses the word as a metaphor to describe, "what is exalted in human feeling"(25). It is the idea that what man experiences in his ordinary life is the most blissful paradise possible that is so appealing claims Pack. If ordinary life is paradise, than paradise must house both the "winter branch" and the "summer bough". (Pack, 25) Bliss and evil are partners in Stevens' earthly paradise myth, and this paradox rests on the idea that "Death is the mother of beauty". (Pack, 28) As Pack explains, without death, there would be no necessity or compulsion to possess what never changes. (28) Stevens considers the foolish idea of a heaven where death does not exist when he asks: "Does ripe fruit never fall?" The importance of change is central to Stevens' argument, as Pack states, "The very idea of ripeness is inseparable from change". (29) Change is infinite in reality, and the infinite possibilities for experience is what makes earth a paradise. Pack cites the "ambiguous undulations" of the pigeon's wings at the end of "Sunday Morning" as a demonstration of Stevens' notion of the infinite, spontaneous nature of reality. (34)
Pack questions the meaning of part VII and concludes that "Supple and turbulent, a ring of men/ Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn," is Stevens' way of commenting on the absurdity of rituals of any belief one does not subscribe too. (31) Pack feels Stevens realizes the struggle for modern society to truly commit to something deeply, and so he offers readers something to believe in passionately, "Reality". (31) Stevens touts the benefits of this belief: "Or island solitude, unsponsored, free." Pack recognizes the genius in this line, and explains that on an earthly paradise man in control, and man is free because he makes his own decisions. (32)
Pack calls Stevens' earthly paradise a "comic vision" because of the "infinitude of reality" that man is presented with, and of which he plays an insignificant part. (22) I concur with Pack because considering all of the ambiguities and uncertainties of life, I think Stevens feels that it would be absurd to believe in anything but a secular faith. The only aspect of reality that can be guaranteed is death, and so, as Stevens asks, "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?"
Pack's review serves as a valuable supplement to Professor Railton's interpretation of "Sunday Morning." Pack and Professor Railton agree on the importance of change in Stevens' paradise myth. As we heard in lecture, continuous change and the loss it brings "make beauty and significance." The notion of self-efficacy that Pack reports is a hallmark of Stevens' "paradise" resounds in Professor Railton's claim that by the end of "Sunday Morning," the women in the poem asserts her own will and does not go to church. In lecture, Professor Railton juxtaposed T.S. Eliot's view of God's absence as a loss against Stevens' view of this absence as an opportunity for a new faith. What appeals to Pack and to myself is that where T.S. Eliot leaves modern readers with a sense of loss, Stevens invites readers to see that loss as a reason to celebrate themselves and their world.
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