Poetry Sunday: Evening Without Angels

In a comment on April’s Poetry Sunday, Eric suggested another post featuring Wallace Stevens. I wanted to reprint Wilfred Owen’s poem last month in honor of Memorial Day, but I’m always open to requests.

Today’s post, like my previous selection from Stevens, highlights the poet’s naturalistic, humanist views. According to Alan D. Perlis’ book Wallace Stevens: A World of Transforming Shapes, this poem “eliminates angels from this world only to elevate the human soul to an angelic height”.

Wallace Stevens was born in Pennsylvania in 1879 and attended Harvard University, and after his graduation worked as a lawyer and insurance agent. Unlike many famous 20th century poets, Stevens led a relatively quiet and uneventful life, often composing poems during his commute to and from the office. Despite this, and despite the late flowering of his artistic genius (he did not begin publishing until the age of 35, and many of his greatest works were published after he was 50), he is today recognized as one of the major modernist poets of the 20th century. He also held a firmly non-religious and humanist viewpoint; in his book Opus Posthumous, he wrote, “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” His published works include Harmonium (1923), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), and The Palm at the End of the Mind (1972). His Collected Poems (1954) won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and late in life he turned down an offer of a professorship from Harvard to remain at his insurance job.

Evening Without Angels

the great interests of man: air and light,
the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness
of looking.
—Mario Rossi

Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d’orchestre?

                                Air is air,
Its vacancy glitters round us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.

                                And light
That fosters seraphim and is to them
Coiffeur of haloes, fecund jeweller—
Was the sun concoct for angels or for men?
Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.

Let this be clear that we are men of sun
And men of day and never of pointed night,
Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.

Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings, as, desire for day
Accomplished in the immensely flashing East,
Desire for rest, in that descending sea
Of dark, which in its very darkening
Is rest and silence spreading into sleep.

…Evening, when the measure skips a beat
And then another, one by one, and all
To a seething minor swiftly modulate.
Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,
Except for our own houses, huddled low
Beneath the arches and their spangled air,
Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.

Other posts in this series:

I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
ISIS Is Bleeding Human History
Weekend Bonus Music: Hard Believer
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Karen

    Gorgeous! Thank you.