Although it is becoming more acceptable to be openly atheist, there is still a fair amount of prejudice directed at this population. In at least certain parts of the world there isn’t any Inquisition-like persecution, but atheists still get a lot of hate dumped on them for various reasons. One such complaint is that atheism is immensely depressing: life is all there is and then that’s it. There is no heaven or nirvana to imagine, there is no opportunity to continue on the wheel of samsara, you are simply finished. And apparently for some atheists the best way to spend the only life you get is to post on forums making fun of religious fundamentalists and compiling an expansive fedora collection that will clash nicely with their short-sleeved button down Hawaiian and/or flame patterned shirts. But for others the idea that this is the only life you get is incredibly exciting! Much of what we find beautiful is temporary, think for example of the brief, happy life of the Monarch butterflies. We are drawn to their fragility. Just because there is nothing beyond the eighty-odd years you get on the planet does not discount the richness of experiences you can potentially have here.
The exaltation of life as both beautiful and temporary is explored within a Wallace Stevens poem I recently read. My contemplations of the poem’s message made me inevitably think of atheism and the idea that there can be an extreme amount of joy in the celebration of earth alone, rather than the hope of something better in another world. I am not assessing whether this view is right or wrong, nor am I taking this opportunity to share my own biases. Personally, I believe that your spirituality should be kept immensely private. Because I believe in this privacy, I am not offering a commentary on whether I think the Stevens poem is “correct” or “incorrect”. I will say though that I think the poem is gorgeous and Stevens is certainly a talented poet, probably one of the best out of America. This post is an analysis of the message and language within the poem for interested parties. I will share the poem first so we are all on the same page, and then launch into a more detailed breakdown of elements of the poem that add up to the idea of a joyful atheism:
There is a great river this side of Stygia
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.
In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,
No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.
It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.
It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, one more, a river, an unnamed flowing,
Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.
Wallace Stevens’s “The River of Rivers in Connecticut” rejects the idea of an afterlife in favour of the celebration of earth and mortality. The speaker contrasts the vitality of the river of rivers with the otherworldly River Styx, indicating that the river of life provides sufficient beauty and that there is no need to mythologise an alternate plane of existence from earth. The speaker notes that there are similarities between the Stygia and the river of the poem because both are “fateful” (7) in the sense that they both lead to death, but celebrates the energy of the living river nonetheless. Despite the fact the river “flows nowhere, like the sea” (24), while it is full of motion, the river is also full of splendor, communicating a message that life is worth celebrating, however transitory.
The speaker describes the river as a “local abstraction” (20) because the river is a more general symbol of life and mortality as well as being grounded in a specific geographic location. The care taken to geographically place the river in the poem indicates a focus on the earthly realm. Even in the title there is a placing of the river (within Connecticut) and from the first stanza the speaker is careful to situate the river on “this side of Stygia” (1), a phrase the speaker repeats within the first and second stanza. The poem immediately presents the river as both a place with a fixed location; but that the location is distanced literally from Stygia and the river is oppositional to what the River Styx represents i.e. the threshold between life and death. There is further specificity as “the steeple at Farmington/Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways” (11-12) within reflections from the river. Although the river is a symbol of life and mortality, the grounding of the river in an actual earthly setting draws attention to a mundane, as opposed to ethereal, nature. For the speaker of the poem, the fact that the river is a physical entity, full of movement and vigour, is preferable to the dour, albeit eternal, Stygia.
The “propelling force” (9) of the water makes the need for the ferryman, Charon, impossible and unnecessary. A person riding along the river of life would not need the ferryman guide because a person ages regardless of their actions and will ultimately die, with or without being lead in any specific direction. Even as the river flows through Connecticut, there is a sense of its expansiveness as the final line of the poem likens the river to the sea through a simile. The river is sea-like in that there is a tremendous amount of water moving around, but there is no specific destination for the “space-filled” (22) waters but by saying it is sea-like and not actually a sea continues to emphasise that there is direction and form in the river, however chaotic. Not only is the river expansive spatially, but also temporally because it is “reflecting the seasons” (22) and “the folk-lore/Of each of the senses” (22-23). The river may flow through Connecticut and through many other regions as well because according to the cosmology of the poem, this river is the only river there can be because there is no afterlife.
“The River of Rivers in Connecticut” rejects the need for an afterlife because the beauty of mortality is enough. Within the river of life, “the mere flowing of the water is a gayety” (5) and “no shadow walks” (7) because it is separated from the banks of the underworld on the Styx. Although the river is “fateful/Like the last one” (7-8), as finally the river will lead us all to death, the speaker suggests that there is joy within the earthly experience and it is unnecessary to imagine anything beyond. It can appear frightening that the ferryman has no power in this river and you are without a guide, but there is also comfort in there being no objective judgement of your journey or set path you must follow. Stevens presents a celebration of earth unbound by a need for further transcendence because according to the poem, this is the only space there is, and thus, the only space you would need for a fulfilling life.