A new book says the idea that Stevens became a Catholic would be hard to digest. But that misunderstands his poetry

Did the poet Wallace Stevens convert to Catholicism on his deathbed? The intruguing question is raised by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book Deaths of the Poets (Jonathan Cape). The book is a fascinating if slightly ghoulish examination of poets’ deathbeds, and sometimes their last words, such as Philip Larkin’s bleak remark, “I am going to the inevitable”.

Farley and Symmons Roberts describe Stevens as a “Modernist hero” and a “lyric mystic, a philosopher-poet”, but also as an atheist. And yet there are rumours of his deathbed conversion – centring on a letter seemingly written by Fr Arthur Hanley, who was “the Roman Catholic priest assigned to St Francis Hospital in Hartford, where Stevens was admitted with stomach cancer in 1955.” Written in 1977 in response to an academic questioner, the letter-writer referred to many meetings with the poet in which they talked about theology and in particular the doctrine of hell. Declaring that Stevens was “baptised absolutely”, Fr Hanley went on to explain that it was felt “that this conversion should not be made public, as it might ’cause a scene’”. Even Stevens’ family were not told.

Farley and Symmons Roberts ask why “the truth or otherwise” of this letter should be of such concern. The answer lies close to the heart of their book: “The deaths of poets matter because they become a lens through which we look at the poems. If we read Stevens’ work as a project built on the absence of God, trying to forge a metaphysics for a new age, then what do we do with an alleged deathbed conversion?”

In other words, if Stevens was received into the Church at the end of his life, it would contradict his essentially post-Christian poetry. But was Stevens’ writing really “built on the absence of God”? Lucy Beckett’s fine book In the Light of Christ makes a convincing case that Stevens’ poetry is shot through with elements of Christian belief

Moreover, she argues, there can be no contradiction between the poet’s creativity and his Christianity – because the creative impulse itself reflects the “absolute truth, beauty and goodness that are one in God and that are definitively revealed to the world in Christ.”

Beckett relates that Stevens did convert as he lay dying, but that it was not made public or entered into the diocesan records, as the Archbishop of Hartford wanted to avoid “the impression that anyone who came to the hospital would be urged to become a Catholic.” She adds that the poet’s final decision “was of long preparation”, analysing several poems and significant friendships that point to this conclusion.

Deaths of the Poets is highly readable, informative and resonating with a literary hinterland. Yet the discussion about Wallace Stevens’ last days is a reminder that questions of religious faith, meaningful and reasonable to pre-Enlightenment society, are awkward subjects to handle in a more secular age.