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Short poem

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

A High-Toned Old Christian Woman

              1Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
              2Take the moral law and make a nave of it
              3And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
              4The conscience is converted into palms,
              5Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
              6We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
              7The opposing law and make a peristyle,
              8And from the peristyle project a masque
              9Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
            10Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
            11Is equally converted into palms,
            12Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
            13Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
            14Therefore, that in the planetary scene
            15Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
            16Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
            17Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
            18Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
            19May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
            20A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
            21This will make widows wince. But fictive things
            22Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.


1] Stevens borrowed the title phrase from his friend Judge Arthur Powell (Brazeau, 100).

2] nave: main part of the church, holding the congregation; punning on `knave'?

5] citherns: citterns, Renaissance guitars.

7] peristyle: a colonnade that surrounds a courtyard or building.

15] flagellants: self-scourgers, named after a 13th-century sect that humbled lust by whipping.

16] muzzy: liquor-numbed.

18] tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk: onomatopoeic terms, imitating the sound of metal on different kinds of objects.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Harmonium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, [September 7], 1923): 89. York University Library Special Collections 734
First publication date: July 1922
Publication date note: The Dial 73 (July 1922): 59
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 2000.
Recent editing: 2:2002/2/14

Composition date: 1922
Composition date note: (Richardson, I, 301)
Form: unrhyming pentameter

Other poems by Wallace Stevens