Basic Exercises for Learning the Communication
of the Holy Spirit
Wallace Stevens and William Shakespeare:
The Holy Spirit, Poetry, and the Training of the Imagination
Poets Wallace Stevens and William Shakespeare have the same accents (stresses) on their names, and the same initials. Their names are double trochees, with the accent on the first syllable of all four first and last names: WOLL-iss STE-venz and WILL-yam SHAKE-spear. Of these four word-names, ‘Shakespeare’ is drawn out to a greater length, and occupies more airtime, and takes more time to pronounce, when we say it aloud. There is also a longer pause between the two syllables in the name, Shake—Speare
Stevens, no doubt, gave some thought to this reality, as the poetry of Shakespeare is a large inspiration and source to the poetry of Stevens.
These two poets are among a series of poets who secretly discuss mystical realities of the Bible in their poetry. Some of the important contributors to this tradition include Petrarch (who may have originated it among the poets), Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, Lady Mary Wroth, Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Owen Dodson, and Maya Angelou. This list is not at all conclusive: other poets know, and perhaps many others know. Personally, I do not know how they kept all this a secret for so long. The Holy Spirit can be a stern taskmaster, however, and that may be the answer to this part of the puzzle.
This series of essays will show the working relationship between two of these poets, Shakespeare and Stevens. A separate book is being prepared, discussing Shakespeare, whose Sonnets may be the most complex reflection on the Psalms and the Mystical Psalm Structures that has been made by humanity. At this point of my research, if there is an author who comes the closest to Shakespeare in depth of commentary on these mystical realities, it is Stevens.
This essay will start the series slowly. It will show how several of Stevens’ poems are clearly about vital topics and episodes of the Bible.
But this is only part of the story. The poetry of Shakespeare and Stevens is a poetry that has overly many levels of meaning and reference. The poems often have many levels, and are very deep.
A purpose of their poetry is to train us.
What is their poetry intended to train us for?
It is intended to train us to learn the languages of the Holy Spirit. Then, when we are more familiar with the various methods of the Holy Spirit’s communication with us, we are more free to live and move and have our being in the world with more and better conduits of input and inspiration for our actions, words, and thoughts.
The imagination, the somewhat regulated use of the imagination, is a central part of the training that we undergo to learn the Spirit’s languages. Making up a potential tremendous storehouse chock full of references that are the content of the languages of the Spirit, for each one of us individuals, is the Bible. And the Qur’an. (Shakespeare and Stevens both have references to the Qur’an.) And there are other storehouses of language content too.
The training conducted by the Spirit, especially if we want to learn Her ways deeply, can have difficult learning times, a bit like boot camp. However, the younger a person starts in learning the languages of the Spirit, and in learning the Bible, the better. (In the future, if we help build the way for the future generations, the most difficult thing that they will experience in their youth and education will be the study of human history.)
Poetry and the Spirit
A phrase, even a word, can activate acts of connection-making in the psyche, involving consulting our memory. And the context in which a phrase or a word appears can also help the phrase to tap a particular memory. Or a number of memories. The context that a poem creates can help steer a word to its mark.
Shakespeare and Stevens are masters of referring to one or multiple other realities by the use of a word or small group of words. In their huge range of art, they can make these allusions in many different ways. The Holy Spirit likes this versatility, flexibility, and precision these two poets have used to make these allusions. And the Holy Spirit wants us to develop our own versatility, flexibility, and precision in reading these allusions by these great makers of poetry.
This activity takes us to greater meaning. And to a greater density of meanings. This accessing of greater meaning, and of greater densities of meaning, helps develop our soul.
All of this helps our relationship with the Holy Spirit. We understand Her and Her languages better. Also, the more our faculties get practiced and happily resolved to working with Her, the less energy it takes to follow Her gentle guidance.
A final caveat before we begin: Every so often, in reading the poetry of Stevens, there are terms that seem to be racist. Stevens, however, was not a racist. He is making commentary on the culture of his time, and on the culture of earlier times. We shall discuss this in greater detail in future essays. It is good to know that he wants the human soul and mind to be utterly as free as possible. Any sort of prejudice would clutter the human mind. In The Man with the Blue Guitar, for example, Stevens wants to jangle and peel all prejudices out of the human person’s psyche.
Some Poems of Stevens,
And Their Referents
In this main part of the essay, we’ll present some poems of Stevens. Questions will be asked, like, “What is this poem referring to in the Bible?” Already, that question is a bit too advanced and complex. It is better to start with questions like, “What does that word connect to?” and “What mood do you feel in the way Stevens has set this scene?” Then, it is easier to ask, “What is this poem referring to in the Bible?”
(Shakespeare and Stevens both knew the Bible incredibly deeply. Although both are credited in dealing in exciting new ways with secular topics, which is true, they know and refer to the Bible so very often. Shakespeare may have helped translate the King James Bible, and had the Psalms memorized. And he may have placed his own name in the KJV of Psalm 46. He was practically personal friends with David, Uriah, Bathsheba, Paul, and Jesus Christ. They all dance in and out of so many verses of his writing. Stevens knew this about Shakespeare, and he himself learned the Bible well as a child. Learning this, then, about Shakespeare, he would have redoubled his study of the Bible. His first volume of poetry was published when he was 44 years old, after he had studied the Bible for decades.)
The first volume of poetry he published is Harmonium, which has 85 poems in it, according to the version of Harmonium given in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. The 7th poem of Harmonium is Domination of Black.
DOMINATION OF BLACK
At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks. v. 10
The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry—the peacocks. v. 18
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks? v. 28
Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks. v. 36
Questions for Domination of Black:
What does the first verse remind you of?
Hint: What does it remind you of in the Bible? In the New Testament? What does it remind you of that is repeated in all four Gospels? What difficult night? For whom?
In the Bible, Moses and David dealt with guilt for actions they committed. So did Peter and Paul in the New Testament. There are repetitions. The first four verses of the poem seem to be outside. Then, the fifth verse tells us that we are in a ‘room’. Why this switch, or transition, or unexplained movement, or double reality?
What are the hemlocks?
What are the peacocks?
The last verse of the poem has an act of memory that is caused by an emotional state. When Peter, later in his life, recalled thousands and thousands of times his mild (compared to Judas) betrayal of Jesus, is it possible that the event itself, which in the hours after Jesus’ suffering and death caused him such shame and grief—is it possible that after the Great Turn, after the Resurrection, that the cry of the rooster could for him be a source of joy and encouragement?
Could the cry of the rooster each morning be for him a healthy dose of humility (self-knowledge) and a gentle, humorous greeting from Jesus? A reminder and a prod to start the day well, on fire as Peter was with the Holy Spirit?
The Biblical Psalms that are numbered in the 50’s have several references, in the Biblical superscriptions of those Psalms, to the life of David.
In your copy of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, it is useful to take a pen in hand and number the poems of each collection in the book. At the first poem of each volume in the book, write “1” or “1st” by the title of the poem, and so on.
If night and darkness were themes that vied to hide the tremendous colors of the peacock in Domination of Black, this following poem immediately bursts not quite with color but with outrageous play of language, and wildness, as if of sportive behavior in a wild springtime:
BANTAMS IN PINE-WOODS
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am your world.
You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,
Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.
Questions for Bantams in Pine-Woods:
This is the 51st poem of the book.
Psalm 51 is about David’s big sin with Bathsheba. And then, with Uriah.
What things in this poem remind you of David?
What things here remind you of the famous springtime of 2 Samuel 11?
Are there connections between this poem and Psalm 51?
In the title of the poem, why is ‘Bantams’ plural?
What is going on in this poem?
‘Purgation’, ‘Purgatory’, and ‘Karma’ are areas where there is a tremendous amount of overlap between Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (including Zen). This area has already been explored in interreligious dialogue, and promises exciting new venues of sharing in the future. Now, in this poem, the number 10 appears. And there are 10 verses in the poem.
Could this be related to David and Absalom? Recall that when David picked up and fled from Jerusalem because of the approach of rebellious Absalom, Absalom was advised to rape David’s 10 concubines on the roof of David’s palace, in the sight of the sun. Absalom followed through on that advice, committing that sin(s). A short time later, when Absalom is hanging in the oak tree by his hair, stuck and immobile, Joab is told of his presence there, and wanders over, surrounded by a group from his army. Joab picks some brutal brutes from his troops to torture Absalom for a while. How many torturers does he choose? 10.
So Absalom performs a purgative/karmic time when he’s hanging in the oak tree, which is also an image of Christ hanging on the cross.
But this episode of purgation-karma of Absalom is told within a wider episode of David’s own purgation-karma. Recall that on the same roof of the palace, he either seduced or raped Bathsheba. And then killed Uriah. His own purgation-karma for this was the death of his son Absalom at the hand of Joab. David wept and grieved.
This is the circumcision of David’s heart, and the strengthening of the human heart and conscience for our evolution forward.
The circumcision of David’s heart is reflected in Absalom his son’s death. The Hebrew text mentions the word ‘heart’ twice in one verse: Absalom, awkwardly hanging by his hair, is in the ‘heart’ of the oak. After Joab’s 10 soldiers do their work on Absalom, Joab strolls over and rams 3 javelins through Absalom’s ‘heart’. A sort of union happens here, as this is also the circumcision/maturing of David’s heart.
This next poem has to do with geography, and with the relationship between nature and artifice, constructed realities that people make.
ANECDOTE OF THE JAR
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Questions for Anecdote of the Jar:
How many verses is this poem?
Regarding this poem, is it a coincidence that Tennessee and Israel have the same number of syllables? Additionally, is it a coincidence that TEN-nes-SEE and IS-ra-EL have stresses on the first and third syllables of both words?
David was the subject of the previous poem. Soon after David was his son Solomon.
This is the 52nd poem of the book, immediately following Bantams in Pine-Woods. What was Solomon allowed to build that David was not allowed to build?
How many verses are in this poem?
What is Stevens saying about the old stone temple?
Tennessee is far from Palestine. But have Christianity and Islam reached Tennessee?
PALACE OF THE BABIES
The disbeliever walked the moonlit place,
Outside of gates of hammered serafin,
Observing the moon-blotches on the walls.
The yellow rocked across the still façades,
Or else sat spinning on the pinnacles,
While he imagined humming sounds and sleep.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And each blank window of the building balked
His loneliness and what was in his mind:
If in a shimmering room the babies came,
Drawn close by dreams of fledgling wing,
It was because night nursed them in its fold.
Night nursed not him in whose dark mind
The clambering wings of birds of black revolved,
Making harsh torment of the solitude.
The walker in the moonlight walked alone,
And in his heart his disbelief lay cold.
His broad-brimmed hat came close upon his eyes.
Questions for Palace of the Babies:
Psalm 84 celebrates the temple in Jerusalem. In Psalm 84 a mother bird raises baby birds in the temple of Solomon, or, more likely, in the second temple of Jerusalem. How does this poem remind you of that?
What later baby was presented in that temple on the 8th day of his life? (see Luke 2)
If Wallace Stevens is making a direct interpretation of Psalm 84 and the temple children/baby birds as referring to Jesus, how could the plural baby birds become the 1 Jesus? Could Stevens be referring to the Body of Christ? Is the Body of Christ the new temple?
Also: The new temple is the human heart. This is already in the Old Testament. In various books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as Solomon receives instruction about the temple-building from David or from God, and as Solomon makes prayers and prepares the people for the building of the temple, the word “heart” appears frequently, receiving great emphasis. The entire purpose of the stone temples in Jerusalem was to prepare humanity to receive the Holy Spirit.
In fact, it would be perverse of humanity to return to that type of temple, with its blood sacrifices. Actually, The Man with the Blue Guitar, mentions “the sewers in Jerusalem” (v.187); this refers to the blood sewers of the two ancient temples of Jerusalem; blood sewers were needed to take away the blood of the sacrifices. Stevens, like the New Testament, is showing how we have evolved beyond this. Stevens’ Sunday Morning mentions “The holy hush of sacrifice” (v.5); he is again referring to the ancient Israelite temples, as “silent Palestine” is mentioned a few verses later (v.14) and the “dominion of blood” (v.15).
It is disturbing that there are fundamentalist Jews today who want to destroy the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque and build a third temple. They want to have sacrifices there, so, yes, there would be blood sewers there once again.
Paul says “You are the temple of God.” He also says, “You are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.” The entire thrust of the evolution of humanity is about how the human person is intended to grow in intelligence, goodness, and strength as we evolve, with the guiding help of the Holy Spirit.
The “palace of the babies” is also the woman, and the womb. The Mystical Psalms Ladder also represents the womb. A forthcoming book on the Mystical Psalm Structures shall take this up at greater length.
LIFE IS MOTION
Bonnie and Josie,
Dressed in calico,
Danced around a stump.
Ohoo” . . .
Celebrating the marriage
Of flesh and air.
The dialogue by the cross in John 19 is one of the culminations of everything in the Bible. The Beloved Disciple takes into his own self the mother of Jesus. This is an icon of human integration, and the possibility for all of us to do this in our own lives. A forthcoming book, The Red Line of Hope, discusses this in greater depth.
With this information, how can this poem be considered to be discussing the crucifixion of John 19, and the dialogue at the cross?
Here is Sonnet 53 from Shakespeare.
Why is this sonnet proof that the Bard of the Avon visited Florence?
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since everyone hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you.
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new.
Speak of the spring and foison of the year:
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear,
And you in every blessèd shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
What famous statue is in Florence?
Could the hair of Michelangelo’s David be being referenced in the second verse?
In the fourth poem above, Palace of the Babies, in the final line where the “hat” is pulled down, could Stevens be referencing a different Florentine statue, the David of Donatello?
How might this also be alluding to Peter? (The final line; also, Peter’s shadow in Acts of the Apostles)
This poem is the 29th poem from the second volume of Stevens, Ideas of Order, that is in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
How is this poem in dialogue with Sonnet 53 from Shakespeare?
ANGLAIS MORT À FLORENCE
A little less returned for him each spring.
Music began to fail him. Brahms, although
His dark familiar, often walked apart.
His spirit grew uncertain of delight,
Certain of its uncertainty, in which
That dark companion left him unconsoled
For a self returning mostly memory.
Only last year he said that the naked moon
Was not the moon he used to see, to feel
(In the pale coherences of moon and mood
When he was young), naked and alien,
More leanly shining from a lankier sky.
Its ruddy pallor had grown cadaverous.
He used his reason, exercised his will,
Turning in time to Brahms as alternate
In speech. He was that music and himself.
They were particles of order, a single majesty:
But he remembered the time when he stood alone.
He stood at last by God’s help and the police;
But he remembered the time when he stood alone.
He yielded himself to that single majesty;
But he remembered the time when he stood alone,
When to be and delight to be seemed to be one,
Before the colors deepened and grew small.
What things in this poem remind us of David? Of Shakespeare? Of Peter and the first poem above, Domination of Black? (especially the last line of Anglais…)
Stevens can be playful. If we exchange the word “Psalms” for “Brahms,” with which it rhymes, how does this make David appear more in this poem? How Peter?
“Anglais” and “police”; what might these words be alluding to?
When Paul was on the steps of the temple in Acts 21:35, could the “police,” the Roman soldiers who carried him on the steps, be in Stevens’ mind?
“Ruddy,” from verse 13, is a David word. What else in this poem could be describing the final years and death of David?
How is this poem related to Palace of the Babies, above?
In the penultimate line, there is the number “one.” How does this relate to Sonnet 53?
How is this poem proof that Shakespeare visited Rome?
How careful was I, when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unusèd stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust.
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou best of dearest, and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
Thee have I not locked up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.
What is shown in the Arch of Titus?
Shakespeare is not making fun of the Romans taking of the 7-branch menorah from the temple at the time when the temple was destroyed. He is celebrating the transition of humanity to something far greater. The Mystical Psalm Structures have, as one of the main mystical structures there, the Interwoven 9-Branch menorahs. These celebrate the human family around the globe, celebrating each person, and every human society. This is Sonnet 48. Psalm 48 celebrates Jerusalem. Sonnet 48 celebrates the entire globe becoming holy, and Humanity with it.
All, or nearly all, of the 154 Sonnets have similar hidden structural orderings in them. This architectural ordering, hidden, of nearly all the Sonnets emphasize the two interwoven 9-branch menorahs of the Interwoven Menorahs of the Mystical Psalm Structures. This file shows this pattern in the Sonnets:
These menorahs are about the evolution and bright future of humanity.
Back to Sonnet 48: The word “even,” which has within it “Eve,” is in verse 13:
This sonnet is celebrating:
-The transition from Adam to Eve; her “birth” from Adam; the new emerging Feminine
-The transition from Jerusalem to Rome, and to the entire globe
-The transition from the old stone temple to the living Body of Christ; all humanity is now the place of the Holy Spirit’s residence in our hearts.
The first five of these poems have shown how Wallace Stevens is able to refer to specific episodes from the Bible with the adroit use of words, tone, and context(s).
Our being able to recognize these is good practice for the kind of image-recognition and situation-recognition that the Spirit likes us to be able to perform. The more we can do this, the more productive work we can do with the Holy Spirit.
The last three poems show how the conversation and the references can become more complex, and how one poem can move through different eras of history.