Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Wallace Stevens's poem A High-Toned Old Christian Woman


  1. Rajesh poudel says:

    The diction of the poem is too difficult for me to understand. I dont get the meaning of the poem except the first three lines.

  2. Andy says:

    Key to poem is first line and closing lines. Since poetry is the supreme fiction, the “fictive things” of the ending are poems (or poets). They wink as they will meaning they mock what they wish despite people’s sensitivities to criticism of thier holy icons or whatever is holy or unquestionable to them. The poet’s job is to crack these petrified codes and institutions. Thus they wink as they will and wink most when widows wince, meaning yes, the poet’s subversive attitude will upset the ultra conservative. As for the middle of the poem, its not all clear but its definitely anti-religious, suggests that any moral code is relative, and makes fun of the flagellants who whipped themselves out of religious passion and a desire to mortify this world and its pleasures, something stevens could never approve.

  3. juniper says:

    I think this poem does have a meaning — even Stevens’ silliest poems have meanings. “Poetry is the supreme fiction” seems weird, especially in relation with what “Anecdote of the Jar” and “The Snow Man” say — unless he is talking about the other poetry that he was trying to get away from. But he says that even poetry is more real than these religions built on moral law or its opposite. When the moral law (embodied in the Christian woman) is gone, poetry can be the truth — with no constraints — and may become a religion of itself. Poetry will wink when religion is gone. Sad point of view, that he can never be “free” in his poetic expression if he has moral constraints.

  4. Sara Zimerman says:

    i dont understand this poem…i think that it does not clearly represent anything

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