Literary Hub

The Nun Who Wrote Letters to the Greatest Poets of Her Generation

In April 1948, Wallace Stevens received a letter from a nun. Her name was Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn, and she was completing her PhD at the University of Wisconsin. It was their first correspondence, and she’d enclosed some notes on his poetry, for which he was thankful: “It is a relief to have a letter from someone that is interested in understanding.” His short response to her includes a curious personal admission: “I do seek a centre and expect to go on seeking it.”

In 1951, after a literary critic detected a sense of spiritual “nothingness” in his poetry, Stevens wrote Sister Bernetta with a clarification: “I am not an atheist although I do not believe to-day in the same God in whom I believed when I was a boy.” Considering the debate over Stevens’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism, his heartfelt letters to Sister Bernetta are tantalizing. What made the poet comfortable sending such honest thoughts from Hartford, Connecticut to Winona, Minnesota?

On Good Friday, 1934, 18-year-old Viola Roselyn Quinn felt inspired by the Chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, a grand church on the campus of the College of St. Teresa. Later that year she entered the Franciscan Sister of the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes, and took the name Mary Bernetta. She would go on to teach at several colleges until her retirement in 1983, and published books of scholarship on Modernist poets.

She also wrote letters. In addition to her correspondence with Stevens, Sister Bernetta exchanged letters with Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Robert Penn Warren, James Wright, Seamus Heaney, and others. She read their work with skilled attention, and they responded to her with sincerity and gratitude.

In September 1948, Stevens again wrote Sister Bernetta with a note of appreciation, saying “I cannot tell you how happy it made me to think that my poems have given any pleasure to a woman of your intelligence and goodwill.” In 1949, she sent him an Easter card that included a reference to the lion of Judah (a symbolic figure for Christ from the Book of Revelation)—which he then included in his poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

She would continue to send Stevens letters at Easter and Christmas. His December response in 1951 is lyric. Hartford was “covered with snow and ice . . . But we have been having the most saintly moonlight nights.” Tired of the “roaring” of the Christmas season, he envied the “loneliness” of Sister Bernetta’s empty college campus, where “one can collect one’s self and no doubt, in your case, collect a great deal more.” In other letters, he expressed gratitude that Sister Bernetta’s “notes bring me into contact with something that I should not have otherwise except for them.” Her letters “seem to come from something fundamental, something isolated from this ruthless present.”

Even Flannery O’Connor praised Sister Bernetta’s verse, telling a Jesuit priest about “the Sister at Minneapolis that writes such good poetry.”

Some critics use Stevens’s conversion as the flashlight to uncover the religious themes in his poetry. Such an approach can be taken too far, but Stevens did regularly thank Sister Bernetta for the attention she paid to the “smaller things” in his verse—which often included religious allusions and concepts. She never thought him a devotional poet; he never even thought himself a philosophical one (in May 1952, he told her: “If I felt the obligation to pursue the philosophy of my poems, I should be writing philosophy, not poetry; and it is poetry that I want to write”).

Sister Bernetta’s keen critical eye also earned the praise of William Carlos Williams, who called her reading of Paterson “something of second sight.” Like Stevens, who bemoaned “the endless common-place” of most letters from scholars and readers, Williams thought Sister Bernetta unique: “Certainly it frightens me to see, rather than how obscure it is to others’ minds, how clear it is to you. It shows me that since someone has looked discerningly into its motivations then others may see as much.”

In that letter from August 1951, Williams jokes that “You realize, of course, being a Catholic, that I am not a Catholic.” Yet he thinks it a “great virtue” of Sister Bernetta that she not “lay imputations” against his agnosticism: “You and I share something bigger than ourselves when we are tolerant—each of the other—as I have seen you to be.” He would again praise her religious sense upon the publication of her first book, The Metamorphic Tradition in Modern Poetry (1955), noting that a generosity illuminated her critical work.

She had also begun to publish her own poetry. Dancing in Stillness (1983), her only book, collects work from those years. Even Flannery O’Connor praised Sister Bernetta’s verse, telling a Jesuit priest about “the Sister at Minneapolis that writes such good poetry.”

“You have brought me here to show me a secret thing,” she begins her poem “In Branches of Spruce.” The narrator sits on a garden bench, and is thinking how no one else but her can see “a trembling square / of cobweb” in the spruce tree. Although the gift is temporary—“this cloth of silver and pearl the sun will sever, / this veil of Veronica the wind will tear”—it feels like a divine gift: “You have given me this cobweb strung with rain / like a father’s whispered word to silence pain.”

Sister Bernetta wrote in the aesthetic tradition of Catholic poets of religious orders—from Gerard Manley Hopkins on to her own contemporaries, the nuns Maura Eichner and Jessica Powers—and the critical sensibility with which she considered Modernist work applied to her own. Channeling Hopkins, she described the idea of poetic metamorphosis as when “the author’s imagination transforms what is into a vision of what might be, an ideal thing somehow truer than the earthly, the soul behind the skull.”

Whether she was writing of a cobweb in a spruce, or of how a “leaf-green frog / Stiffens in hope its camouflage will work,” that awareness of transcendent grace comes with a healthy strain of melancholy. “I too have combated disaster thus, / used impassivity to win the day. / Behold the proof in livid cicatrice / That footsteps to do not always go away.”

Sister Bernetta lived in a space where faith and melancholy reside—but she was more interested in conversation and consolation than conversion. After James Wright gave a reading at the College of St. Teresa, she sent him comforting words: “When you first walked down the platform I was struck by what I recognized later was sadness . . . [don’t let] gentle seriousness . . . sink into solemnity, lest the ghost of Theodore Roethke haunt you.” Wright loved her presence in his life, and tried to explain her importance in a letter: “Always when I hear of you, or read your writings, or when I am in the presence of some grandeur, as in Italy or in the mountains of New York, or even when I am feeling sad about something—the last because I know that you would understand the sadness, even if no one else on earth did.”

She died in 2003, leaving unfinished the draft of a prose version of Dante’s Divine Comedy for children, titled Pilgrimage to the Stars. That might sound like an odd choice, but Sister Bernetta seemed to have particular gifts of transformation—literary or otherwise. In one of his final letters to her, Stevens wrote of how there was a calming rhythm to her seasonal notes to him. Those epistles “Somehow or other, take me back to a much simpler world of home which, while it is gone for good, is still a good deal more permanent than the present world can ever be.”

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