Oct. 2, 2013

A Postcard from the Volcano

by Wallace Stevens

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is ... Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

"A Postcard From the Volcano" by Wallace Stevens, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 1954. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Graham Greene (books by this author), born in Berkhamsted, England (1904). He came from a well-off family, but he had an unhappy childhood — he was frequently depressed and even went to psychoanalysis when he was 16, a rare thing at the time. He graduated from Oxford, then began his career writing essays and reviews. Greene was an avowed atheist, but he had been questioning his faith since his days at boarding school. He wrote about one particularly miserable episode of bullying: "So faith came to one — shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell I could picture with a certain intimacy."

When he was 21 years old, he wrote an essay referring to Catholics as people who "worship" the Virgin Mary. He received an indignant reply from a young woman named Vivien Dayrell-Browning, explaining that Catholics did not worship the Virgin Mary, they venerated her. He wrote her back, they met, and Greene was smitten. Unfortunately, Dayrell-Browning was a very devout Catholic, and she had several more eligible men courting her. But Greene was stubborn. He wrote her no less than 2,000 letters and postcards, sometimes three a day. And he converted to Catholicism. How much of his conversion was influenced by his future wife, and how much by other spiritual motives, no one knows for sure. But he became a Catholic, married Vivien, and went on to write novels about characters struggling to reconcile their faith with the rest of their lives. He published his first novel, The Man Within (1929), when he was just 25 years old, and it was successful enough that he was able to work as a full-time novelist.

About 10 years into his marriage, Greene began the first of a series of affairs that would continue for the rest of his life. Although he and his wife eventually separated, they never divorced.

The Power and the Glory (1940) is a novel about an old Mexican priest. He calls himself a "whisky priest" and looks back on his life of excess — drinking, adultery, even fathering a child with one of his parishioners. At the end of his life, he is living on the run, practicing his faith even though the new revolutionary government has outlawed Catholic sacraments. The Power and the Glory was so popular that it attracted the attention of the Vatican, which appointed two different people to review it and decide whether the Church should take an official position. The two readers had similar reactions to the novel. One wrote: "Odd and paradoxical, a true product of the disturbed, confused, and audacious character of today's civilization. For me, the book is sad." They thought it should never have been written, but they also knew it would look bad for the Church to officially condemn it, since Greene was the most famous Catholic writer in England. Instead, they recommended that Greene's bishop privately scold him for it and direct Greene "to write other books in a different tone, attempting to correct the defects of this one." Greene did nothing of the sort, and continued to write about characters struggling with their own moral failings and their Catholicism in novels like The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), which he dedicated to his mistress.

Greene's other novels include Brighton Rock (1938), The Third Man (1949), The Quiet American (1955), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973).

It's the birthday of Wallace Stevens (books by this author), born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879). His father, a successful lawyer with puritanical leanings, wanted his son Wallace to also grow up to be a lawyer and thereby "make something of himself."

Stevens went to Harvard and wanted to be a journalist, but after a couple of years of writing for a New York paper, he decided that he would fulfill his father's desires and go to law school. Afterward, he took a job with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he was in charge of inspecting surety claims; he eventually became vice president, and he remained at the job for the rest of his life. He was well-liked by his co-workers, and although considered somewhat eccentric, he was exceptionally good at is job. His colleague Manning W. Heard said: "He was a very imaginative claims man [...] he was never satisfied to handle cases entirely according to routine. One of the things in the old days was, if you had a contractor that defaulted, don't try to finish the contract; you'll lose your pants. Well, Stevens often violated that principle, and he finished contracts, and he was pretty successful. He was at the time and for many years before his death, the dean of surety-claims men in the whole country."

And Charles O'Dowd, an underwriter at the company, said, "His [business] letters were as clear as his poetry was obtuse."

Each day, he walked the two miles between his home and his office, and during these walks to and from work, he composed poetry. He said: "I just write poetry when I feel like it. I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking. Any number of poems have been written on the way from the house to the office. I carry slips of paper in my pocket and put down ideas and notes. Then I hand the notes to Miss Flynn [his secretary], and she types them out. They're pretty indecipherable when she gets them. When they're typed out, they go in the folder."

Some people thought it was odd for an insurance executor to write poetry. Stevens did not. He said, "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job." And he said: "Poetry and surety claims aren't as unlikely a combination as they may seem. There's nothing perfunctory about them for each case is different."

His first collection of poems, Harmonium, was published when he was 43 years old. In 1955, just months before he died, he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his volume Collected Poems. Stevens said, "After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption."

He wrote:

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.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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