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5 Famous Poets Who Converted to Catholicism

10/14/2013 Comments (23)

It doesn't matter if they were atheists, modernists, or satirists, each found a home in the Catholic Church. Here's their stories.

1) Wallace Stevens

The poet Wallace Stevens is considered by many to be one of America’s greatest poets. He is the champion of many atheists as well. He once wrote in his book Opus Posthumous, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption."

So you might see why so many are so opposed to a priest who said that Stevens was a deathbed convert to Catholicism.

To get an idea of Stevens, he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955. He was an executive with an insurance company and a Republican. Stevens once argued with Robert Frost and lost a fight after breaking his hand on Hemingway’s jaw.

His poetry seems to put the artist in the place of God in some instances.

But according to Father Arthur Hanley, Stevens converted to the Catholic faith on his deathbed. In a letter to Professor Janet McCann, dated July 24, 1977, he wrote:

Dear Janet:

The First time he came to the hospital, he expressed a certain emptiness in his life. His stay then was two weeks. Two weeks later, he was in, and he asked the sister to send for me. We sat and talked a long time.

During his visit this time, I saw him 9 or 10 times. He was fascinated by the life of Pope Pius X,. He spoke about a poem for this pope whose family name was Sartori--- ( Meaning tailor) At least 3 times, he talked about getting into the fold--meaning the Catholic Church. The doctrine of hell was an objection which we later got thru that alright.

He often remarked about the peace and tranquility that he experienced in going into a Catholic Church and spending some time. He spoke about St. Patrick's Cathedral in N.Y.. I can't give you the date of his baptism. I think it might be recorded at the hospital. He said he had never been baptized. He was baptized absolutely.

Wallace and his wife had not been on speaking terms for several years. So we thought it better not to tell her. She might cause a scene in the hospital.

Archbishop at the time told me not to make his (Wallace's) conversion public, but the sister and the nurses on the floor were all aware of it and were praying for him. At the time--I did get a copy of his poems and also a record that he did of some of his poems. We talked about some of the poems. I quoted some of the lines of one of them and he was pleased. He said if he got well, we would talk a lot more and if not--he would see me in heaven.

That's about all I can give you now.

God's Blessing

Father Hanley

To this day, some discount Fr. Hanley’s testimony. Others simply say that if it happened at all it was a moment of weakness of a dying man. But I prefer to look at the totality of his life. I prefer to see his life as a spiritual journey.

This conversion should not come as a complete surprise as he wrote in his diary in 1902, that he would often go St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “I go [there] now and then in my more lonely moods,” he wrote.

Another entry, dated August 1, 1899, reads, “I would sacrifice a great deal to be a St. Augustine.”

While his poetry was atheistic in many ways, he returned with frequency to spiritual themes. After becoming very sick, he reportedly told Fr. Hanley, “I’d better get in the fold now.” After being baptized and receiving Communion he said, “Now I’m in the fold.” He died a few days later.

 

2) Claude McKay

Claude McKay, was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Born in Jamaica, his first work was written in the Jamaican vernacular and was received with great praise.

Later he published angry militant poems against white people, even calling them “monsters.” McKay also publicly stated that Christianity was a tool of oppressive white capitalists. He was heavily involved with the Communist party, abandoned the United States for Europe, North Africa, and even the USSR. But something in his soul stirred.

It’s difficult to know what did it. Some say it was the care given to him at a Catholic hospital. Others say it was the majesty of beautiful cathedrals. Some say it was The Catholic Worker movement. But for some reason or many of them, in 1946 McKay wrote in Ebony Magazine a piece entitled "Why I Became a Catholic."

In a letter around the same time he wrote that because of his conversion he was able to get past all the anger and had become able "to think of people with wonder and love as I did as a boy in Jamaica, and the Catholic church with its discipline and traditions and understanding of human nature is helping me a lot."

In the Ebony Magazine piece he wrote, "In joining the Roman Catholic church, I feel proud of belonging to that vast universal body of Christians, which is the greatest stabilizing force in the world today--standing as a bulwark against all the wild and purely materialistic 'isms' that are sweeping the world." Smart guy, huh?

 

3) Oscar Wilde

Wilde is known today for his wit and celebrated for a homosexual lifestyle. I think there’s a Broadway show celebrating this aspect of the writer’s life. In fact,Wilde is probably more well known for his flamboyancy and his homosexual relations than he is for his literary achievements which often had a strong moral lesson.

The fact that Wilde seemed to have a lifelong on-again off-again fascination with the Church and was a deathbed convert to Catholicism is just about completely ignored. It doesn’t really fit into the caricature of Wilde.

 

4) Sally Read

A psychiatric nurse and poet, Sally Read is currently seen as one of the bright stars of poetry in England. Winner of an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2001, Read intended to write a risqué book about a certain female body part and wanted to interview a nun. So she contacted a priest to see if she could recommend a rather open-minded nun.

Showing that the Holy Spirit cetainly works in mysterious ways, it was those conversations that kicked off her journey to Catholicism.

“I was brought up an atheist,” she wrote in The Tablet last year. “The creed of non-creed was in my blood: Christianity was a symptom of bigotry or feeble-mindedness.”

After lengthy, laborious, and sometimes even heated discussions with the local priest, in 2010, Read officially entered the Church.

“As a poet from a most secular culture, I have come to know the Church as the ultimate poem,” she wrote. “An intricate composition of allegory and reality, that tries to give image to God’s presence on earth.”

 

5) Roy Campbell

Roy Campbell was a South African poet who was considered by many to have been one of the best of the early 20th century. The Flaming Terrapin established his reputation and was favorably compared to T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land.

After moving to Spain, Roy and his wife, Mary Campbell, together with their daughters, were so moved by Catholic villagers in Altea and impressed by their faithfulness; they were inspired to seek reception into the Catholic Church in 1935.

It was a terrible time to be Catholic in Spain. In the following year, Spain’s bloody civil war saw thousands of priests, monks and nuns murdered. On at least one occasion, Campbell actually hid a number of disguised Carmelite monks in his home. Months later, the monks came to the Campbells and asked for refuge not for themselves but for a large trunk which included the personal papers of St John of the Cross. Campbell kept the trunk in his home even when the town was under siege and his home searched by republican forces. Reportedly, as the search was carried out Campbell prayed to St. John of the Cross and vowed that if his family’s lives were spared he would translate the saint’s poems into English –a vow he carried out.

In a BBC interview in 1952, Campbell credited the success of his translations not to his own talents but to St. John of the Cross. “Were I superstitious I should say that St John brought me luck,” he said. “Not being superstitious, I say that he wrought a miracle.”

And how cool is this? Campbell later became a friend of JRR Tolkien and it seems that Campbell may very well have been the inspiration for the character of Aragorn.

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About Matthew Archbold

Matthew Archbold
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Matt Archbold graduated from Saint Joseph's University in 1995. He is a former journalist who left the newspaper business to raise his five children. He writes for the Creative Minority Report.