A High Toned Old Christian Woman by Wallace Stevens: Summary and Critical Analysis

The poem High Toned Old Christian Woman is a humorous and playful poem. It is mainly a defense of poetry. The speaker is a writer of love poems and he is talking to a devout Christian woman who seems to have repudiated poetry. He argues that poetry is a supreme fiction or art.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

It can be the medium of expressing moral and religious themes. Moreover, it can perform amazing feats of imagination, and it can please the religious people, serious widow and everyone alike.

The poem is difficult to paraphrase because the poet deliberately uses unusual metaphors and expressions. Many of the ideas can only be guessed out from the basic situation. The poet first claims the supremacy of poetry, adding that the religious woman can take it and make a platform of the church: he probably means that she can make it religious in subject and theme if she likes. Poetry need not be vulgar or be only about love and sex. Poetry can be transformed into an object of spiritual importance. So, in principle, poetry can be spiritual and therefore there need not be any disagreement between a poet and a nun.

After justifying that poetry can be moral. The poet begins to talk to the nun in a more kidding manner. He says that his metaphysical and imaginative poetry can be 'amoral'. It can create a decoration outside the church and devise funny dramas even in heaven. The poet's vulgarity may not be purified by verses on the tomb. But that joy will be real and concrete. The entertainment of such poetry accepts physical forms and twisted themes. It can convert the abstract into concrete.

At the end of the poem, the speaker addresses the old Christian woman again and says that in the real world even her orthodox priest and people may enjoy poetry. They may ring their bells and sing in poetry if they wish. Even those who go to penance and torture themselves do enjoy the pleasure of poetry. Those people may be proud of the spiritual, but they also have big bellies as they are physical beings. Not only they, but even widows are aroused by poetry. Poetry is imaginative and free to express. Poetry provokes pleasure in anyone including priests, nuns and widows. Poetry will wink and make widows show expressions of pain. But Stevens's philosophy was that "poetry rescues human beings from the tragic situation of life by the use of imagination".

The main idea of supremacy of poetic imagination is something like Keats's ideas of imagination. For Stevens, imagination can discover the beauty and joy in the face of suffering and death. The poem is disorderly as life is, but one idea is certain: the supreme imagination of poetry makes life more bearable.

Like a typical modern American poem, this poem is in a colloquial type of language. It is in free verse. It is like a metaphysical poem in its unusual metaphors, far-fetched ideas and dramatic situation. But the logic is unusually obscure. The speaker is excited as he talks about the powers of poetry. His ideas are like lovers' fantasy.

The theme of the poem, then, is the supremacy of poetry as a means of expression and pleasure, and even as a means of sublime experience. There is no wrong with poetry itself. Rather, poetry is something that the religious as well as the atheistic have been using to gain their own kinds of heaven: one will gain the heaven of faith and the other will create the heaven of imagination.

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Sharma, K.N. "A High Toned Old Christian Woman by Wallace Stevens: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 24 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/a-high-toned-old-christian-woman.html.