21) “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside”

Not as popular as other poems by Stevens, “St. Armorer’s” has not received much critical attention. Joseph Riddel’s views are typical of the little commentary it has received: This poem about the ruins of a (fictional)¹ church, he argues, reflects Stevens’ preoccupation with issues of belief and the obsolescence of religion.²

Once the poem is matched up with its corresponding chapter in Scepticism and Animal Faith, however, it can be seen that the poem needn’t be viewed with such religiosity. In Chapter XXIII, Santayana wonders what can lead an individual to posit the existence of thought in other creatures besides himself.³ It might be argued, to rephrase Santayana’s ideas in terms of Stevens’ poem, that the ruins of a church suggest that people in the past did not just suffer life in an unconscious way but engaged in interior discourse and that the historical ruins of a church signal “the presence of the intelligible / In that which is created as its symbol.” But at the same time, we can say that Stonehenge or the prehistoric cave drawings at Altamira might be used to make the same case. In other words, Stevens’ choice of a church as the central symbol in the poem is somewhat arbitrary and should not necessarily skew understandings of the poem in a religious way.

This subject, incidentally, was not new for Stevens. In the much earlier poem “A Postcard from the Volcano” (CP 168–169), Stevens wonders whether “children picking up our bones” will ever know that we were once alive and had inner lives like theirs. Here too, like “St. Armorer’s from the Outside,” Stevens plays with “inside” and “outside”–with external and internal evidence of mental life — only in this case he does so in terms of a ruined house (rather than a ruined church) and with a ghost storming within its walls. At the end of “Postcard” we are left, in a reflexive way, to consider how the poem, itself, is evidence that we don’t just suffer life but can muse upon it.

Inspired by Santayana’s chapter, Stevens takes up these same issues in “St. Armorer’s” in three acts. In the first, Stevens considers “St. Armorer’s” from the outside and finds its ruins signal nothing about the evidence of spiritual life. In Act II, Stevens takes up the “inside” (his “chapel of breath”) and finds the evidence of internal life is not suggested by things but by a certain spontaneity within: the vivid activity of the spirit.⁴ Then in Act III (which begins “Final for him, the acceptance of such prose”), unable to offer any external proof of interior life, the “he” of the poem (and more about that later) throws in the towel and admits that there is still a propensity to believe that others, too, have a mental lives like our own and that they, too, carry on an interior dialogue about the world. So, while unprovable, this common belief in the consciousness of others might be accepted as an article of faith.

These same three acts appear in Santayana’s Chapter XXIII (“Evidences of Animation in Nature”) though it might be said that Stevens’ poem, besides particularizing the philosopher’s ideas, brings a little more coherence to Santayana’s organization.

Act I. No External Proof of Animation

As Santayana observes in the opening of his chapter — and as pet owners’ frequent comments about the thoughts of their animals suggest — the notion that other creatures think and feel is more likely to require examination than arguments for its acceptance. Not surprisingly, in examining “Evidences of Animation in Nature,” Santayana first brings his scepticism to this notion and find such evidence wanting.

Tacitly acknowledging behaviorism, Santayana argues that — from an objective point of view, considering only external phenomena, from the “outside” — the behavior of humans (like that of animals) offers no convincing proof that they have an inner lives or discourse about the world in the manner that we feel we do . . . unless, of course, we make the logical mistake of projecting our capabilities upon them. And once behavior has been eliminated as any kind of proof of internal life, even the existence of language and books cannot argue for presence of thought in others. In summary: “There is no direct evidence of animation anywhere in nature, but only a strong propensity in me to imagine nature discoursing as I discourse” (249).

So, in Stevens’ poem, if we subtract our projections and beliefs about the feelings and thoughts of others, we are left with a ruin, with an objectivist’s view of St. Armorer’s Church “from the Outside”:

St. Armorer’s was once an immense success.
It rose loftily and stood massively; and to lie
In its church-yard, in the province of St. Armorer’s,
Fixed one for good in geranium-colored day.

What is left has the foreign smell of plaster,
The closed-in smell of hay. A sumac grows
On the altar, growing toward the lights, inside.
Reverberations leak and lack among holes . . .

Act II. An Interior Vitality

While Santayana-playing-the-sceptic can point to no external evidence of an inner life in others, he notes that the awareness of consciousness is essentially an imperceptible and private experience. Proof that there is a spirit that animates the body is demonstrated, he suggests, every time we close our eyes or blush (242). But this spirit is most evident as a kind an interior vitality: In conversation, for example, freshness and spontaneity is demonstrated not so much in routine responses to questions, but when opinions are made up on-the-spot to unanticipated questions and when those views are adjusted or corrected in situ (248). This kind of liveliness points to the existence of the spirit and provides some rebuke to the sceptic who dismisses the notion of animation since he can find no external proof of it in the world at large. At the same time, the experience of this inner vitality seems to confirm the common and widely held belief that others have consciousness like we do.

In the middle part of his poem, Stevens points to this inner liveliness in a list of analogies for this vital spirit. Having looked at the ruins of St. Armorer’s from the outside, attention now turns to an interior chapel that rises from buried ground (“Terre Enselvie”). It is an inner “chapel of breath” since “inspiration” is the old-fashioned word for inner speech (SAF 244) and, for Stevens, “the poet who experiences what was once called inspiration experiences both aspiration and inspiration” (NA 50). Here, will be found an inner liveliness that Stevens describes as “an ember yes” because for man, as Santayana says, the spirit is a “spark in his embers” (SAF 286). Here is a robust spontaneity: a newness (like Matisse’s unprecedented chapel in Vence) and a freshness (“like the first car out of the tunnel”). Instead of looking externally for evidence of consciousness in others, the proof is in the looking: the recognition of an inner vitality that is “no sign of life, but life itself.”

Act III. “Final for him the acceptance of such prose”

As Stevens’ poem moves to a close, it appears to be ending with a clash between the obsolescent church and its belief system and an existentialism of the present —

St. Armorer’s has nothing of this present,
This vif, this dizzle-dazzle of being new
And of becoming, for which the chapel spreads out
Its arches in its vivid element,

In the air of newness of that element,
In an air of freshness, clearness, greenness, blueness,
That which is always beginning because it is part
Of that which is always beginning, over and over.

— but that last line signals how the poem begins to bend towards a growing tolerance as St. Armorer’s comes to be seen sub specie aeternitatis as part of something “which is always beginning, over and over.” It is a growing acceptance of what Stevens had earlier called as “peasant” wisdom, a growing acceptance of their “prose”:

Final for him, the acceptance of such prose,
Time’s given perfections made to seem like less
Than the need of each generation to be itself,
The need to be actual and as it is.

To understand these important lines by Stevens is to understand the purpose of Santayana’s chapter, but it is also to glimpse who that “he” might be who finally tenders such ecumenical acceptance.

First, the chapter. To review, Santayana’s ideas move to a dilemma: a) There is no external proof of animation. b) But there is an inner conviction of consciousness arising from the spirit’s vitality. c) This results in a logical dilemma that “renders disproof of animation anywhere as impossible as proof of it” (246). Nonetheless, d) There is a “strong propensity in me to imagine nature discoursing as I discourse,” and belief in the consciousness of others is a widely held belief (249).

Santayana’s characteristic response to this dilemma — seen, for example, in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion or in the transition from “Scepticism” to “Animal Faith”⁵ — is dual but ultimately lands on humility and acceptance:

There are two phases in the criticism of myth or dramatic fancy. . . . The first stage treats then angrily as superstitions, the second treats them smilingly as poetry. (247)

Even so, in this chapter, Santayana seems to go even farther in the direction of humility and acceptance. Now Santayana observes that the “smiling” acceptance of others’ superstitions (what Stevens in the poem refers to as “peasant” wisdom) by a sceptical mind reveals, he suggests, a patronizing attitude and “easy derision.” What about “the sin of egotism,” Santayana asks, that disallows the views of others and takes such a superior attitude towards them? Aren’t we likely to be insensitive to others’ views in our rush to condemn their beliefs in the animation of nature as anthropomorphism (247)?

What if, Santayana proposes, in a humble and courteous way, we accept our parity with other creatures? There are, after all, good reasons to embrace the common belief that others besides ourselves have consciousness. The sense of animation I feel within, the inner conviction that my psyche is alive and incarnated in this body, might be applied by analogy to other creatures. And in this way, as the chapter concludes, Santayana argues himself into accepting a new article of “animal faith,” this new belief in the animation of nature.

Here, then, is a possible clue to the identity of the “he” in Stevens’ poem. As a sceptic, Santayana regarded superstitions as the “prose” beliefs of the deluded when, from the sceptic’s superior point of view, they are dismissed as simply myth and “poetry.” But that is Santayana’s rhetorical position at the start of the chapter. As the chapter concludes, Santayana questions the patronizing attitude of the sceptic and, with a certain humility, ultimately embraces the common views of others. As Stevens says in the poem’s conclusion: “Final for him, the acceptance of such prose.”

Notes.

  1. Paul Mariani’s essay “A Final Seriousness: Wallace Stevens’ ‘St. Armorer’s Seen from the Outside’” (Interfaces 35 [2013–2014], 183–192) provides background for the two chapels that appear in the poem: St. Armorer’s (a fictional elaboration of a possible church in Hartford) and Matisse’s chapel (an actual place in Vence, France: https://www.holycross.edu/sites/default/files/files/english/geracht/interfaces/paul_mariani.pdf
    As for the ruined character of St. Armorer’s, George Ohlson has pointed me to the following: “After the floods in the 1930s, the church’s foundations began to rot and the 150-foot steeple began to lean noticeably. The building presented a standing allegory for Hartford residents” (Eleanor Cook, A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens [Princeton U. Press, 2007], 294).
    See also Helen Vendler’s remarks on the poem and Matisse’s chapel in her 2005 Commencement remarks at Bard College: https://www.bard.edu/news/releases/pr/fstory.php?id=888
  2. Riddel, 245–246. Along these lines, Paul Newton has suggested in conversation that we might see St. Armorer’s as a cemetery (“Terre Enselvie”). It “was once an immense success” in an era when religion and Christianity held sway, “and to lie / In its churchyard . . . / Fixed one for good.” But, in the contrast suggested by the poem, this is a new era: one of fresh beginnings and secular pleasures. In this reading, the poem is an echo of the sentiments in Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning.”
  3. Like Santayana, Stevens, having addressed belief in substance in “The Rock,” turns to belief in nature in the next three poems but in a sequence different from that in Scepticism and Animal Faith: 21) “St. Armorer’s Church from the Outside” (“XXIII. Evidences of Animation in Nature”), 22) “Note on Moonlight” (“XXIV. Literary Psychology”), and 23) “The Planet on the Table” (“XXII. Belief in Nature”).
  4. Noting Stevens’ philosophical enthusiasms, one is tempted to use here Bergson’s term “elan vital.” Stevens’ enthusiasm for Bergson was not shared by Santayana: see the latter’s essay on Bergson in Winds of Doctrine.
  5. Readers familiar with Santayana’s thinking will recognize here a deep and recurring pattern in the development of his ideas: a systole and diastole. It is implied in the famous summary phrase of Interpretations of Poetry and Religion: “Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry.” And it is the movement from “Scepticism” to “Animal Faith” seen in both the book as a whole and in the development of this chapter.

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Jerry Griswold

Jerry Griswold

former literature professor (San Diego State, UCSD, UCLA, UConn, NUI Galway) and literary journalist (NYTimes, LATimes, & elsewhere)