SUNDAY MORNING: SUMMARY (MASTERPIECES OF AMERICAN LITERATURE)
“Sunday Morning” is an exploration of the position that religious piety should be replaced by a fully lived life. Part of the poem was published in 1915, but the whole was not printed until Harmonium came out. In its final form, “Sunday Morning” is a series of ten fifteen-line stanzas of blank verse. The argument of the poem is just that: an argument between a woman, who feels guilty about not going to church and enjoying “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” instead, and another voice, presumably that of the poet, which tries to persuade her to give up her attachment to dead things and dead ideas. The focus alternates from what is happening in her mind—her objections and preoccupations—and his answers to her.
The woman is interrupted in her enjoyment of the “complacencies of the peignoir” by reflections on death and religion that remind her that the pleasant particulars of the moment are only transitory. Then the other voice asks, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?” No divinity is worthwhile if it comes “only in silent shadows and dreams.” One should worship where one lives: within and as part of nature. The woman should accept her own divinity as part and reflection of nature.
The woman’s interlocutor then thinks about the development of godhood, from Jove, who was fully inhuman, through Christ, who was partly human, to the new god appropriate to the present, who would be wholly human. With a fully human god, heaven and earth would merge. The woman thinks about this before asking, more or less, how this system can explain away death. He responds that life is more eternal than anything promises of immortality could provide:
There is not any haunt of prophecy,. . . . . . . . . . . . .Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palmRemote on heaven’s hill, that has enduredAs April’s green endures; or will endureLike her remembrance of awakened birdsOr her desire for June and evening.
The woman, though, is interested in personal immortality, which the speaker claims would not even be desirable, because, in the poem’s most famous line, “Death is the mother of beauty.” There is no ripeness without rot, and change, not stasis, brings fulfillment. The speaker imagines a static Paradise and the boredom that it would bring.
He then considers a possible symbol for the new perspective that life in the world would bring; it would not be a religion exactly but a religion substitute. A sun-worship image presents itself, the sun being the symbol of the real, of natural force. The people would dance naked to the sun, an image of energetic life-expending and celebrating. The woman finally accepts the speaker’s proposition hearing
A voice that cries, “The tomb in PalestineIs not the porch of spirits lingering,It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
Accepting the “unsponsored” and isolated (“island”) human situation, she recovers her freedom to live as part of the natural world, described in the conclusion in terms reminiscent of Romantic poet William Wordsworth:
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quailWhistle about us their spontaneous cries;Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness.
Human beings are like the pigeons of the closing lines, whose lives are indecipherable but beautiful in their vulnerability:
casual flocks of pigeons makeAmbiguous undulations as they sink,Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The woman has progressed from an exaggerated seizing of experience to submission to it, and the change shows a growth in understanding. Stevens returns to the theme of this poem again and again throughout his poetic career.
SUNDAY MORNING: SUMMARY
In the first stanza, a complacent woman lounges in her dressing gown late into a Sunday morning, eating a leisurely breakfast and enjoying the vivid, vibrant beauty of the natural world around her. She takes great pleasure in her coffee and oranges, her mood reflected by the “sunny” chair and the cockatoo that has been released onto the rug. She is spending a morning at home instead of going to church. The reference to the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice” suggests that the day is Easter Sunday. Initially, the pull of the natural world dissipates the traditional power this day has over the woman, as she has chosen not to take part in Christian rituals. However, as she dreams, the pleasure she experiences this morning is soon extinguished by “the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe,” a reference to the crucifixion of Christ. She recognizes that the secular beauty she appreciates is not eternal, and so the colorful oranges and parrot, earlier appearing so full of life, now “seem things in some procession of the dead.”
She becomes caught up in Christian dogma as “her dreaming feet” transport her to the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” symbolic of the ritualistic ceremony in celebration of the Last Supper and Christ’s interment. The blood refers to the wine and the sepulchre to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that contained the tomb where Christ’s body was laid on Good Friday. Thus, the sensual pleasure of the late morning coffee and oranges has been replaced by the spiritual satisfaction of the bread and wine communion.
The voice of the poet questions the woman’s decision to turn her back on the beauty of the natural world and devote herself to her religion. He insists that she could find divinity through a connection to the splendor of the earth. Her earthly pleasures, which he enumerates in this stanza through images of the seasons, should be as cherished as “the thought of heaven.” The poet exhorts her to appreciate the very transience of her world since it encompasses the pleasures and pains of living. These passions, not the superstitions that live in “silent shadows and in dreams,” are “the measures destined for her soul.”
In the third stanza, the speaker expands his focus on religion to the Greek god Jove who had no traditional family to nurture him and no natural connections to the “sweet land.” The speaker links this ancient myth to the birth of Christ through the reference to the star that guided the shepherds and wise men to Bethlehem. Both myths, he suggests, are disconnected from human reality. As humanity finds the divine in the natural world, the sky will appear “friendlier,” no longer marking the division between heaven and earth.
The woman’s voice returns at the beginning of the next two stanzas as she questions the poet’s argument that earthly pleasures will provide spiritual fulfillment. While nature fills her with contentment, she wonders whether she can find paradise there. Here, the poet reasserts and clarifies his position. In his response, he acknowledges the impermanence of the world but argues that the bliss she experiences observing the beauty of nature is everlasting through immediate observance of the spring and through the vividness of her memory. Christian theology, with its “chimera of the grave” (its dark dreams of the crucifixion of Christ) or even its “melodious isles” will not endure as will the magnificence of nature for her.
She complains that even while experiencing contentment in her relationship to the natural world, she feels “the need of some imperishable bliss,” which Christianity insists can be found only in complete devotion to the church. The poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” asserting that she can only experience true satisfaction through the appreciation of that which is impermanent. To prove his point, he describes the passions of youth, symbolized by the ripening of plums and pears. When death “strews the leaves of sure obliteration on our paths,” lovers’ desires will be heightened as they realize the importance of the moment.
In stanza six, the poet continues his argument that death is the mother of beauty, juxtaposing it with a counter vision of the stasis of heaven, with its ripe fruit that never falls, hanging heavy in “that perfect sky.” The rivers there never pour out into the seas or touch the shores. In contrast, “our perishing earth” of beginnings and endings is colored with “inarticulate” pangs and delicious tastes and odors of pear and plum, where she lounges during “silken weavings” of afternoons.
The next stanza suggests an alternative to traditional worship. The poet describes a pagan, almost savage, celebration of the earth, as a ring of men chant sensuous songs praising the beauty of a summer morning. They do not worship a specific god, but the earth for them has the same intense power that had previously been associated with the Christian God, and thus they are devoted to it. As they strip naked in an act of merging their energies with those of nature, they experience paradise. Their chant encompasses all the elements of nature, “the windy lake” and angelic trees as their songs echo off the hills long after they leave. The poet symbolizes this “heavenly fellowship” between nature and the men by noting the “dew upon their feet” as they dance and chant.
The voice of the poet and that of the woman come together in acceptance of an alternate form of worship in the final stanza of the poem. The single voice here notes the inevitability of decay and death and understands that an appreciation of that mutability enriches present experience. The woman acknowledges that Jesus’ tomb was not endowed with mystical spirits, that it only contained his grave. She now turns to the natural world, with its “old chaos of the sun” and its understanding of days and nights, beginning and ends.
This realignment with the pagan world of earthly pleasures releases her from the bonds of her religion so that she is now “unsponsored” and free. The natural world is full of the “spontaneous cries” of its creatures in their beautiful surroundings. The final line reinforces the statement that death is the mother of beauty, as the free flying pigeons, “on extended wings” rise and fall following no prescribed course but eventually descend into darkness at the close of day.
SUNDAY MORNING: THEMES AND MEANINGS (CRITICAL GUIDE TO POETRY FOR STUDENTS)
Stevens’s lifelong conviction that poetry and poets must take the place of religion and priests to provide form and meaning for human life is implicit in “Sunday Morning,” not explicit, as it would become in his later poetry. “Sunday Morning,” however, does clear the way for those poems, and it establishes basic themes that Stevens would employ in all of his subsequent work.
The most important of these themes is the idea that human perception of beauty requires the recognition that everything earthly is temporary. Everyone will die, everything will change; permanence must be recognized as an illusion. Christianity, Judaism, or any religion promising permanence is false because it envisions a paradise that is something like our earth but without the inherent changes in earth’s life and circumstance.
This does not mean that religious emotion must be stifled, only that it must find a more appropriate outlet. This new form is presented in the seventh strophe, and it amounts to the worship of nature and the integral connection between humans and the rest of the natural world. The men in this image, dancing in an orgy, celebrate the sun as the natural source of life, present with them, and the tune they chant is composed of the objects in the world around them.
At the time he wrote “Sunday Morning,” Stevens had not yet developed fully the idea that all systems of order are necessarily fictions, fulfilling a need all humans have for fictions that will make life seem comprehensible. Since religion, in his view, had failed to provide a meaningful order, poetry would have to do so. This idea would receive extended treatment in works such as Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942). While celebrating “chaos,” “Sunday Morning” also anticipates the later theme by suggesting that aspects of religion, such as worship and ritual, are important to human existence.
“Sunday Morning” has remained one of Stevens’s best-known poems. Written at the beginning of his career as a poet, this poem introduces the themes that would dominate his verse, and it establishes a unique poetic manner. It is most memorable, finally, for its vivid use of color and action imagery and for its romantic evocation of the natural world.
SUNDAY MORNING: THEMES
Belief and Doubt
The woman in the poem moves back and forth between belief and doubt as she enters into a dialogue with the poet about spiritual fulfillment. At the beginning of the poem, she appears to be content in her newfound appreciation of the earthly pleasures of the natural world. This world with its vivid colors and leisurely breakfasts offers her a sense of freedom in the time she allows herself to appreciate the bounty of nature. Soon, however, doubt over the choice she has made this Sunday morning ruins her serenity. As she appreciates the sensuality of nature, she experiences a growing awareness and dread of its transitory nature. As a result, she becomes filled with spiritual anxiety to the point that she begins to believe that a reversion to Christian rituals and dogma will lead to salvation.
As the speaker tries to convince her to return to her world of earthly delights, she struggles to maintain her belief in traditional theology through a series of questions on the nature of that theology. She wonders whether earth will “seem all of paradise that we shall know” especially given its impermanence. Nature fills her with contentment, yet she asks, “when the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more, where, then, is paradise?” She continually resists the poet’s promotion of a spiritual connection to nature, insisting, “I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss,” which she had found in a Christian vision of eternity.
The speaker’s voice, however, never wavers from his assertion that she must find divinity within herself, and that this can only be accomplished through a communion with nature. By meeting each question with an imaginative yet logical response, the speaker slowly convinces her to doubt her old beliefs in the divinity of traditional religion. By the end of the poem, she has returned to the position she held at the beginning, again aligning herself with the freedom of birds, “unsponsored” in her attachment to her natural world.
Death and Life
The speaker’s strongest argument for the woman to devote herself to an intense relationship with nature comes in the form of an examination of death and life. He continually associates Christianity and the religions of the past with death. In the first stanza, he notes the darkness of “that old catastrophe,” the crucifixion of Christ, and of the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” the important Christian ritual of communion where believers drink the blood and eat the body of Christ. He also finds death in the static nature of heaven where ripe fruit never falls and the “boughs hang always heavy in that perfect sky.” In this immutable world, with its “dividing and indifferent blue,” she will never, he insists, be able to make an emotional connection.
The speaker points out that a celebration of nature, by contrast, is a celebration of life, even as he acknowledges its cyclical patterns of death and rebirth. He argues that the very fact of inevitable change fills the present with a stronger sense of vibrancy and poignancy. Thus, this form of “death is the mother of beauty” and so should be accepted as a crucial part of an appreciation of the moment.
In his “Adagia,” a set of musings on poetry and the imagination collected in Opus Posthumous (1957), Stevens wrote about the importance of the relation of art to life, since with our modern age’s lack of faith in God, “the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, for what they validate and invalidate, for what they reveal, for the support they give.” This search for an imaginative connection to the real world becomes another dominant theme in the poem.
The speaker continually engages his imagination to convince the woman that fulfillment lies in her connection with nature. The vivid colors of the oranges and the parrot, the “pungent fruit,” reflect the “passions of rain, or moods in falling snow.” Birds “test[ing] the reality of misty fields, by their sweet questionings” and the “trees, like serafin” illustrate as no philosophizing could manage the limitless, transcendent beauty and bounty of the natural world and call the woman to a communion with it. Faith in the possibilities of spiritual contentment is thus sustained through the power of the imagination.
SUNDAY MORNING: CARPE DIEM
carpe diem, a Latin phrase from Horace’s Odes, translates into “seize the day.” The phrase became a common literary motif, especially in lyric poetry and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English love poetry. The most famous poems that incorporate this motif include Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress,” Edward Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Modern writers have also employed the motif, most notably Henry James in The Ambassadors and “the Beast in the Jungle,” and obviously Saul Bellow in Seize the Day.
Typically the speaker in a poem that uses carpe diem as its theme proposes that since death is inevitable and time is fleeting, the listener, often a reluctant virgin, should take advantage of the sensual pleasures the speaker reveals to her.
Wallace Stevens puts a modern spin on this traditional carpe diem theme in his celebrated poem, “Sunday Morning.” Like his poetic predecessors, he directs his speaker to advise a woman to experience sensual pleasures but not as a prerequisite to losing her virginity. Stevens’s speaker urges the woman in the poem to turn from a devotion to Christian doctrines to a spiritual connection with the natural world. Stevens combines the traditional and modern in poem’s presentation of the carpe diem theme to suggest that a celebration of earthly pleasures can result in freedom from the strict confines of Christianity.
Most poems present a classical point of view in their expression of the carpe diem theme, reflecting the pagan spirit in nature as the speakers try to convince their listeners to give themselves up to sensual experience. For example, in Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress,” the speaker’s goal is to convince a young woman to join him and become like “amorous birds of prey” and “tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life.”
“Sunday Morning” reverses the order of this classical tradition. The woman begins the poem effectively “seizing the day” by not going to church on Easter Sunday, as is traditionally expected of practicing Christians. She instead spends a leisurely morning lounging in her peignoir, contentedly indulging in the sensual pleasures of breakfast in a “sunny chair.” Stevens introduces his main theme in this first stanza through his depiction of the “green” freedom of a cockatoo that she has released from its cage. Throughout the poem, Stevens will assert his point that one should seize the day through a celebration of the natural world, not of traditional Christian theology, to experience true freedom and fulfillment.
The title becomes an apt thematic pun. On this Sunday, a traditional Christian day set aside to worship the son of God, a woman is enjoying a day of nature’s sun. Yet, when she recognizes the mutability of the natural world, she experiences a spiritual dread, compounded by her turning away from the rituals of Christianity. As a result, she allows the “encroachment of that old catastrophe” and finds herself passing “over the seas, to silent Palestine,” with its promise of eternal life. By the end of the stanza, the woman has exchanged an earthly ritual for a religious one. She turns from her breakfast of oranges and coffee to thoughts of the bread and wine communion.
For the rest of the poem, Stevens turns to the traditional carpe diem structure, with the speaker trying to convince the young woman to seize the day; the methods he suggests to accomplish this, however, reflect a modern loss of faith in traditional religion and an impetus toward individual freedom.
Throughout the poem, Stevens presents images of a fearful, death-obsessed Christianity. He juxtaposes the natural world associated with light with the Christian world of darkness, another ironic reversal of Christian symbolism. Thoughts of the death of Christ on this Easter Sunday come in only in darkness (stanza 1) and in shadows (stanza 2), silent like the grave. Christianity’s focus on death is illustrated by its “ancient sacrifice” and “dominion of the blood and sepulchre.” In stark contrast, the natural world, filled with sunlight is composed of “pungent oranges and bright, green wings.”
After introducing these symbolic contrasts between the natural and Christian worlds in the first stanza, Stevens introduces his speaker in the second. Throughout the rest of the poem, the poet’s persona engages in a dialogue with the woman, trying to imbue her with a vision of nature that can satisfy her deepest impulses for spiritual and emotional fulfillment.
He first questions her devotion to Christianity by pointing out its association with “silent shadows” in contrast to the natural “comforts of the sun” and the vivid sights and smells that reveal the beauty of the earth, “things to be cherished like the thought of heaven.” She can find a more fulfilling divinity within herself, he insists, through a consummation with nature.
He addresses her focus on the impermanence of the natural world, again providing an ironic reversal of Christian doctrine, which promotes eternal life. A large part of his argument is that Christianity is a dead religion, offering its followers nothing but darkness and silence. In contrast, a celebration of the natural world, through an acceptance of its cyclical nature, provides her with spiritual as well as physical satisfaction. Thus, the woman should spend her day not in church, but in contact with nature. He directs her to welcome the very transience of her world since it evokes sadness as well as joy, the pleasures and pains reflecting the wide spectrum of life. These passions, not the superstitions that live in “silent shadows and in dreams,” are “the measures destined for her soul.”
In the third stanza, the speaker compresses time into a narrative of the evolution of religion to suggest that no natural connections exist between religious myths and the world. The pre-Christian gods had “inhuman” births and did not travel on sweet lands that gave “[l]arge-mannered motions to [their] mythy mind[s].” The speaker links Jove’s inhuman birth to Christ’s virgin birth, symbolized by the star. He then reinforces the sense of separation between the gods and nature when he points out that religions set up a hierarchical system of heaven and earth, as reflected in the image of a king moving among his hinds, or workers, and a “dividing and indifferent blue.” Humans can never hope to establish a true harmony with the object of their devotion given the strict hierarchical nature of traditional religious practices.
The remainder of this stanza illustrates Stevens’s statement in his “Adagia” that “The death of one god is the death of all.” The speaker tells the woman that after discarding the dead religions of the past, she can experience a communion between her natural self and the world. As a result of this shattering of hierarchies, the earth will become a paradise. By accepting that life contains “a part of labor and a part of pain,” the “sky will be much friendlier” than it was when it divided her from her spiritual fathers.
As Stevens explains in his essay “Two or Three Ideas,” in a time when we have lost faith in the old gods, when they have become “the aesthetic projections of a time that has passed, men turn to a fundamental glory of their own and from that create a style of bearing themselves in reality.” J. Hillis Miller in his critical work, From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, suggests that the poem is Stevens’s “most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve.” Miller argues that the poem suggests that “bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture, the culture of those who are ‘wholly human’ and know themselves.”
The woman responds in the next two stanzas that she is still troubled by the impermanence of nature, when “the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more.” As the poet answers her questions in each, he reasserts and clarifies his position. She notes that observing living nature fills her with contentment. However, when the inevitable cycle of nature turns to winter and encroaching death, she wonders “where, then, is paradise?” The speaker answers by reasserting that the old myths with their “chimera of the grave” or even their “melodious isles” cannot endure “as April’s green endures, or will endure.” When she desires warm June evenings in the cold of winter, he insists that her memories of “the consummation of the swallow’s wings” in the spring will offer her the spiritual satisfaction she is seeking. The reality and the memory of the beauty of the earth create substance not myth. He assures her of the cyclical nature of the world, which will continually replenish itself.
When the woman claims “the need of some imperishable bliss,” as in the Christian vision of eternal life, the poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” asserting that she can only experience true satisfaction through the appreciation of that which is impermanent. The transitory nature of her world infuses it with poignancy and thus divinity. Death enhances beauty as it heightens the experience of the present, acknowledging the inevitable changes that will occur.
The poet illustrates his point in his descriptions of the maidens sitting and gazing at the grass and tasting new plums and pears, as aware of their surroundings as the woman had been at the beginning of the poem, before thoughts of her old religion encroached upon her sunny freedom. The inevitability of death appears in the wind that “makes the willow shiver in the sun.” Yet even as the leaves swirl about them, suggesting the impending decay of winter, the maidens stray through them impassioned, fully alive in the moment made more poignant by the knowledge that it will soon fade.
The poet reinforces his vision in his presentation of the stagnancy of heaven, with its ripe fruit that never falls hanging heavy in “that perfect sky” and its rivers that never pour out into the seas or touch the shores. Alternately, “our perishing earth” with its inevitable cycle of change and renewal comes alive with delicious tastes and odors of pear and plum and “silken weavings.”
He envisions his new, natural religion in the seventh stanza as a ring of “supple and turbulent” men sing “their boisterous devotion to the sun, not as a god, but as a god might be.” Nature does not establish hierarchies that separate her from humanity. The god of nature appears naked among the men “like a savage source” commingling with their blood until the men experience a complete communion with their world, as their chants become a choir, echoing from the hills “long afterward.” They know full well of the inevitability of death and rebirth and so celebrate the present beauty and bounty of nature. The poet links the woman’s experience to that of the men through the warmth of the sun that all of them experience, suggesting that she too can feel such imperishable bliss.
The voice of the poet and that of the woman merge in the acceptance of a call to live in the moment at the end of the poem. The single voice here no longer turns to the grave of Jesus for spiritual fulfillment, since it understands that there are no “spirits lingering” around His tomb. Christianity has lost its power over the woman who now has become “unsponsored” and free to celebrate a new faith in the sensual beauty that surrounds her. Her more profound contact with nature has become a substitute for the restrictive sacraments of her religion. Through the acknowledgement of the mutability of the natural world, she becomes like the free flying pigeons, “on extended wings” rising and falling in “ambiguous undulations as they sink.”
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “Sunday Morning,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
SUNDAY MORNING: HISTORY AND TECHNIQUE
Wallace Stevens gives hope to late-bloomers everywhere. His first collection of poetry, Harmonium, was published in 1923, when he was fortyfour years old. His second collection, Ideas of Order, did not appear until eleven years later, in 1934. Yet by the time of his death in 1955, Stevens had received virtually every major award and honor the literary community could bestow and was widely acknowledged not only as one of the great poets of the century, but, in the words of critic Harold Bloom in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, “a vital part of American mythology.”
Not bad for a man who spent his entire adult life laboring as a lawyer for insurance companies! It seems paradoxical that the same man could devote himself with equal diligence if not ardor to poetry and the law, let alone insurance, as if some inevitable clash between imagination and reality, like matter and anti-matter, should render such a harmony impossible. Yet Stevens saw no necessary conflict between imagination and reality; indeed, despite the admitted difficulty of his poetry, its concern with philosophical and metaphysical questions that at times become frustratingly abstract, Stevens wrote in the belief, or in the desire to believe, that imagination and reality should be complementary. By awakening the imagination to its participation in the concrete specificity of the real world, Stevens could achieve for himself and his readers, through a “supreme fiction” of poetry, a kind of transcendent, timeless awareness of creative human involvement in an all-encompassing natural order that would replace the traditional faith in God and divine providence which, at least to certain classes of people in Western civilization, no longer seemed sustainable. For Stevens, the poet’s role was not to provide answers but rather to question deeply and persistently in order that readers might construct their own continually evolving answers. Those answers, like the questions that spawned them, would necessarily be grounded in the real or, as Stevens sometimes called it, the “normal.” In his essay “Imagination as Value,” collected in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Stevens wrote: “The chief problems of any artist, as of any man, are the problems of the normal and . . . he needs, in order to solve them, everything that the imagination has to give.”
Just how much Stevens’s imagination had to give in this cause was apparent from the start of his career. Harmonium is an extraordinarily accomplished debut, a dazzling display of high ambition wedded to prodigious talent. Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, in his essay “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” reprinted in the collection No Other Book, wrote that “there are in Harmonium six or eight of the most beautiful poems an American has written.” “Sunday Morning,” first published in a somewhat different form in Poetry magazine in 1915, must be ranked among that select number; in the estimation of critic Robert Rehder, writing in The Poetry of Wallace Stevens, it is “the first great poem that Stevens wrote. . . . Here, all at once, the poet is in full possession of his powers.”
In the essay “Imagination as Value,” Stevens states that “the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.” “Sunday Morning” is Stevens’s first mature attempt to write this “great poem of the earth,” a project that would occupy him for the rest of his life; that Stevens originally planned to title his collected poems “The Whole of Harmonium” shows the extent to which he viewed his life’s work as a coherent enterprise, a single long poem.
“Sunday Morning” consists of eight fifteenline stanzas composed in beautiful, seemingly effortless blank verse—blank verse being a kind of poetry that is unrhymed but, in contrast to free verse, written in lines of regular length and me- ter, generally, as here, iambic pentameter. In tone and style, “Sunday Morning” harkens back to romantic poets like Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge. Stevens alludes to the poetry of these and other predecessors throughout his poem; the final stanza, for example, is closely patterned on the last stanza of Keats’ “On Autumn.” Stevens evokes the romantics to establish a connection of subject and sensibility, yet the consolations that were available to nineteenth-century romantic poets are not, or should not be, available to a twentieth- century American poet. History, if nothing else, demonstrates that the way back is not the way forward.
What marks the poem as modern despite its purposeful romantic echoes is that it takes as a given the loss or futility of religious faith that has come to be recognized as a central theme of modernism. Stevens’s focus is on Christianity, but he more than implies that the crisis of belief has extended beyond any one religious system to encompass all religions past and present. The phrase “crisis of belief” is no exaggeration in describing the Western world of 1915, with the carnage of World War I fast eroding traditional notions of faith and patriotism. In 1914, with German troops advancing on Paris, Stevens had contributed four poems to a special “war” issue of Poetry magazine, and “Sunday Morning” itself was composed in a year that saw the beginnings of trench warfare and the senseless slaughter it would entail. As critic James Longenbach points out in his essay on Stevens in American Writers, “Stevens was not much of a topical poet, but his poetry always emerged in dialogue with the events of his time.” This is certainly true of “Sunday Morning,” where events on distant battlefields, while not determinative, contribute to the “dark encroachment” that drifts in to disturb the poem’s initially peaceful and civilized setting of an upper class woman’s boudoir on a lazy Sunday morning. The pun implicit in the title is more than justified by the deeply elegiac mood that will come to dominate the poem.
“Sunday Morning” takes the form of a dramatic dialogue between this nameless young woman and an equally nameless narrator who is probably older, and certainly more experienced. Critic Helen Vendler, in On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, advances the intriguing notion that the narrator “is a voice from the sepulcher”; that is, a dead man, a ghost, for whom “all sorrow, triumph, and love are infinitely distanced in some remote and remembered pathos of the past.” Both voices, that of the young woman and the older narrator can be thought of as aspects of the poet, of Stevens himself. The poem is a meditation, the record of a mind in dialogue with itself. This is a quality shared by many of Stevens’s poems, as Rehder notes: “The poems do not merely represent the mind’s mulling and churning; they are doing what they are describing—like all art, they are thinking.” In terms of physical action and setting, the poem is static, unchanging from the first stanza to the last, although immense distances are traversed in time and space through the evolving thoughts and fantasies of the poet and his personas. The poem does not advance in the machine-like manner of logical argument, marching step by step toward an inevitable conclusion, but unfolds according to the same mysteriously organic patterning of unconscious thought and emotion that produce fantasies and dreams. Which is not to say that the poem is purely imagistic, with nothing to communicate beyond the artifact of itself; “Sunday Morning” eloquently and suggestively addresses a condition of human existence that readers are presumed—and, to judge by the poem’s continuing popularity, presumed correctly— to share.
Stanza 1 opens with an obviously well-to-do young woman savoring a late, lazy breakfast of oranges and coffee on a Sunday morning. Instead of attending church, she is still dressed in her peignoir, or nightgown, drowsing “in a sunny chair” while her pet cockatoo, released from its cage, enjoys its “green freedom.” The first sentence employs a number of words that are bursting with life, color, and vitality, words associated with nature: “oranges,” “green,” “freedom,” “sunny,” “cockatoo.” The same sentence also features words and phrases, some explicitly linked to religion, that conjure opposing thoughts of stasis and death: “complacencies,” “dissipate,” “holy hush,” “ancient sacrifice.” Here, in simple and stark outline, Stevens sets out the argument about to unfold in the mind of the poet, an argument between life, associated with nature, and death, associated with religion.
The woman may not be in church, but thoughts of church, or at any rate religion, are not far from her mind. The phrases “holy hush” and “ancient sacrifice” in line 5 herald what Stevens beautifully calls, in lines 6–7, “the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe.” By “old catastrophe,” he means both the crucifixion of Jesus and the establishment of the Catholic church. Influenced by these pious and guilty thoughts, in lines 9–11, the woman’s dreamy reverie darkens: “The pungent oranges and bright, green wings / Seem things in some proces- sion of the dead / Winding across wide water, without sound.” In these lines, one can see the allusion to World War I, “the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe” suggesting oppressive thoughts of the war in Europe—that this war was being fought between self-avowedly Christian powers only underscores Stevens’s point of the deadening effect of traditional religion. But in the poem itself, Stevens has another destination than Europe in mind; in a striking allusion to one of Jesus’ miracles, he sends the woman on “dreaming feet” all the way back to the source: “silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulcher.” Here “blood” refers to the blood of Christ; far from being associated with the triumph of life over death, as in Christian theology, it is reversed, now serving as a symbol of death’s dominion over life. Stevens’s poetry can be densely layered with symbol and allusion; a single word or phrase or line often contains multiple embedded meanings. It is a measure of his genius that these constellations of tightly compacted symbols and allusions do not weigh down his poems or turn them into beautiful but lifeless artifacts (like sepulchers) but instead, by unpacking themselves in the minds of readers, actually achieve the opposite, bringing the poems to life.
In stanza 2, lines 16–22, the poem’s narrator departs from his passive description of physical and psychological setting to actively enter the poem for the first time by asking and then answering a series of rhetorical questions:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Note the reappearance of key words from the first stanza; this is a structural technique Stevens uses throughout the poem, repeating words either verbatim or in a slightly altered fashion to get at the words and the associations behind them, from new angles. The word “sunny” in line 2, for example, reappears as “sun” in line 19 and in various guises thereafter. Other important words that echo throughout the poem are “blood,” “wings,” and “sky.” It should also be noted how frequently the appearance of one word calls forth the appearance of an answering word that contains opposing qualities, as again, “sunny” in line 2 is followed in line 6 by “dark.” Thus, as Longenbach notes, “the poem moves by association and juxtaposition.” Readers experience the poem as the drifting of thoughts almost at random, one image calling up a related or opposite image, yet Stevens is in control, carefully building a network of intricately linked associations that will pull tight and then unravel to astonishing effect in the poem’s final stanza.
But to return to stanza 2, a divinity that comes in shadows and dreams is a ghost. Rather than look to a ghost, or to the dead son of God, for comfort in her awareness of death and mortality, the narrator advises the woman in lines 19 and 21 to look to the sun and to the “balm and beauty of the earth.” She herself must be the residence of divinity; in place of a lifeless tomb or bodiless spirit, a living body of flesh and blood. And not only that; she must recognize that this divinity is present in the rest of the natural world, of which she is a part: “The bough of summer and the winter branch. / These are the measures destined for her soul.” Here Stevens expresses the idea of a kind of natural immortality opposed to the unnatural immortality of Christianity. This natural immortality is one of change and cyclical recurrence, and Stevens evokes it beautifully in the image of a branch changing with the seasons. While the span from the leafy green branch of summer to the bare branch of winter is one “measure” of mortality, it is also, and more accurately, seen as a “measure” in a musical sense, part of an orchestrated order in which themes recur just as the seasons pass and recur, the branch that is bare in winter sprouting fresh leaves in the spring.
Stanza 3 traces the history of religion from Jove to Jesus; from pagan beliefs to Christianity. Both systems are found wanting. The former because it had so little of humanity and the earth in it; the latter because it has alienated humanity from the earth and from nature. Instead of an aloof, inhuman god who walks among humans “as a muttering king, / Magnificent, would move among his hinds” (lines 34–35; “hinds” means “servants”), or a god who mingles with humanity only so that humanity might rise above itself, joining him in heaven, the narrator speaks (in lines 42–45) of a future time when the earth itself will be the only paradise humanity knows or can know:
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
The woman speaks for the first time in stanza 4, protesting that while nature in its plenty might confer a measure of contentment, “‘when the birds are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’” (lines 49–50.) The narrator answers her question as he did his own: paradise lies in the recurrence of the seasons, in the cycle of birth and death. But he goes a step further, stressing that it is the woman’s mind, her imagination, that imbues nature’s round with human significance. No heavenly paradise, he asserts in lines 56–57, “has endured / As April’s green endures; or will endure / Like her remembrance of awakened birds.”
The woman is not so easily convinced. In stanza V, line 62, she asserts “The need of some imperishable bliss.” The narrator answers in line 63 (in an allusion to the final stanza of Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy”) that “Death is the mother of beauty.” Stevens insists that it is the human consciousness of time and the inevitability of death within time that makes things beautiful; what’s more, that is the only beauty humans may know. The transitory yet recurring nature of life is then contrasted, in stanza VI, with a paradise of petrified beauty in which ripe fruit never falls and nothing ever changes. That heaven, the narrator suggests in lines 88–90, is an infantile projection against an equally infantile fear of death:
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
What, then, does the narrator offer the woman in place of the solace of Christianity? Stanza 7, lines 91–95, presents a glimpse of a future in which
a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
As the narrator goes on to paint a picture of this future paradise, two things become evident. First, there are no women allowed; it is an earthly paradise made by men, for men, and, one fears, very much at the expense of women. Second, this vision of a future for manly men seems like a bizarre vision of an idealized primitive past. The contrast between the tone and content of this stanza (which, despite its placement, thematically follows immediately after stanza 3) is so striking that one wonders if this is not perhaps the woman’s ironic fantasy of what a future paradise will look like rather than the stolid narrator’s. There is something either ironic or almost obscene in the elevated language used in lines 102–103, for example, to speak of “the heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn” as though an all-too-earthly “fellowship of men that perish” was not adding to its ranks each day in the trenches and on the battlefields of Europe. But in fact, the jarring impact of this stanza on a contemporary reader—critic Janet McCann, in Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible, calls it “artificial and contrived”— is simply an illustration of the way in which history can intrude to alter forever the interpretation of a poet’s lines. Readers cannot blind themselves to the facts or ironies of history; to ignore them when reading a poem or looking at any piece of art is to relegate that art to the realm of the unliving. In view of Stevens’s preference as expressed in this poem and others for the living over the sepulchral dead, one can only conclude that he himself would disapprove of such an approach. Yet by the same token, it would be wrong to judge this or any poem solely on the basis of such knowledge, unavailable to the poet. Whatever Stevens’s intent in this obscure stanza, it is clear that the vision of a future paradise it puts forward is provisional, a possibility only. If this were not the case, the poem would end, unsatisfyingly, here. Instead, it concludes with the majestic ambiguities of stanza 8, which more than redeem the faults of stanza 7.
In stanza 8, lines 106–108, the woman hears a voice crying out that
“The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
With these lines, which begin in lofty poetic diction yet close in a phrase of simple human dignity, the poem comes full circle, returning to the setting of its first stanza; like the natural paradise of which it speaks, “Sunday Morning” is cyclical. Yet, within the fixed parameters of that cycle, there has been change; Jesus has become fully human, god made in man’s image rather than the other way around, subject to death and whatever natural paradise all humans participate in by virtue of living and dying. Jesus died; so did Wallace Stevens; so will all human beings; yet life will go on, the same yet different, and this is all of paradise that humans know or, by a continuing effort of sympathetic and creative imagination, can know. The lines in which Stevens sets forth the final, elegiac statement of his poem are profoundly moving, beginning with line 110, “We live in an old chaos of the sun,” and ending, in lines 117–120, with:
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The magnificence of these lines is due not only to the stirring poetry with which Stevens imbues them but also to the way in which images and symbols from the poem, which have been carefully repeated and varied throughout, expanding in meaning and gathering substance with each iteration, are here brought together in a masterful culmination that leads not to a resolution but instead to the somehow cathartic uncertainty of that unforgettable final image, which seems to express so well and with such nobility of spirit the paradoxical heart of human existence. One can do no better than to quote Randall Jarrell:
Here—in the last purity and refinement of the grand style, as perfect, in its calm transparency, as the best of Wordsworth—is the last wilderness, come upon so late in the history of mankind that it is no longer seen as the creation of God, but as the Nature out of which we evolve; man without myth, without God, without anything but the universe which has produced him, is given an extraordinarily pure and touching grandeur in these lines—lines as beautiful, perhaps, as any in American poetry.
Source: Paul Witcover, Critical Essay on “Sunday Morning” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.