Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Wallace Stevens and a Summary of Sunday Morning
Sunday Morning is an enigmatic poem that is part metaphysical and part romantic. It explores the idea 'of the origin and end of eras of human belief' by first introducing the reader to a woman who, on a Sunday morning, relaxes in her dressing gown (peignoir) instead of presumably going to church.
The woman is going through a minor crisis or loss of faith—she represents Christianity—and the speaker is there to reassure her that a new approach to the natural world—paganism or humanism—will be enough to sustain her spiritually.
Wallace Stevens himself wrote:
'This is not essentially a woman's meditation on religion and the meaning of life. It is anybody's meditation...The poem is simply an expression of paganism.'
The poem delves into the subject of belief—how humans express their faith and sustain their relationship with the divine—and how symbols and language change over time.
- Roughly speaking, it looks at the history of religious gods and the human relationship with them.
- Firstly, gods are beyond the human sphere. (Jove, Jehovah)
- Secondly, the gods incarnate in human form. (Christ)
- Thirdly, the gods are within each individual human.
Belief in the supernatural (gods, eternity, myths) is breaking down, so humans have to reinvent fresh modes of belief, based on reality. The Christian emphasis on fear, guilt, sacrifice and future rewards in heaven needs to be balanced by sensual experience in the real, emotional world.
Stevens felt that it was the job of poetry to fill the void left by the meltdown of religious faith. The world was changing fast. He was a young man at the time of the first world war. Chaos and artistic revolution seemed the orders of the day.
Stevens was well aware of the shifts in society; he followed the arts avidly and was especially keen on French painting and new modes of expression. He was also a decent French speaker (using French in many of his poems) and knew people like Marcel Duchamps, recent arrival in New York, declaring America the new axis of modern art and abstraction.
Through use of the imagination a new reality might be born which would help replace the old supernatural beliefs.
In his own words:
'The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.'
Adagia I from the Notebooks.
His later major poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction sets out the detail of this philosophical approach to belief. Stevens split this poem into three separate titled sections: It Must Be Abstract/It Must Change/It Must Give Pleasure.
Many of Wallace Stevens's poems deal with this abstraction of belief and use nature, death and religion as well as art and philosophy to explore profound themes.
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He loves to play with language, experiment with rhyme and rhythm, and is not afraid to create difficult poems. Sunday Morning is one such, written in blank verse (no rhymes) with loose iambic pentameter lines.
It is full of vivid imagery, biblical allusion and challenging syntax.
- As the poem progresses through eight stanzas, the speaker's perspective shifts. Initially it is an objective voice but soon moves into the mind of the woman where it becomes a questioning conscience before reverting back to the original.
- Basically there are two voices, one that is uncertain, questioning, and a second that is reassuring and encourages or rather insists on, change. Within the stanzas, a series of highly visual, painterly blank verse paragraphs, these two voices interact.
This poem was first published in Poetry magazine in 1915 (slightly rearranged by the editor Harriet Munroe) with a full version appearing in Stevens's first book Harmonium in 1923.
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
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?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall 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.
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
Supple and turbulent, 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.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
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.
Analysis of Sunday Morning Stanza by Stanza 1 - 4
An unusual opening for an unusual poem. That first word sets the initial tone for what is a simply titled yet multi-layered poem. It's the sabbath day, day of rest, and there's something in the air.
Someone is dressed in a light morning gown (peignoir, a French word), enjoying coffee and oranges in the sun, in the company of a cockatoo. A scene painted so vividly by Stevens.
But what could the holy hush of ancient sacrifice be? And that old catastrophe, what does that mean? These are references to Christianity and the death of Christ on the cross.
Here we have the speaker setting up the tension between the woman who begins to doze off into dream, and the (her) religion which she still has an interest in, despite her lapsed condition.
There is a subtle allusion to Christ walking on water in the latter part of this first stanza, as she dreams, her mind going off to Palestine, the Holy Lands, where Christ was crucified and buried in a tomb (sepulchre).
The stanza is made up of four sentences, each one containing language either of a natural or religious kind....coffee, oranges, cockatoo, water....sacrifice, procession of the dead, blood and sepulchre.
And the overall tone is that of quiet - hush, calm, without sound, Stilled, silent. The woman is affected by her feelings as the religious impulses gather strength.
But fundamental questions start to arise within. That word bounty means generosity or lots given willingly - the old religion is demanding, of her life. But why should she sacrifice that for a shady sense of divinity?
There is doubt sown in the shadows and dreams, the intangible, the supernatural. Is it not possible that the real world she is a part of holds Things to be cherished pertaining to the divine?
Nature elicits the deepest feelings in humans; why not become one with the natural world, accept the highs and lows of emotional life, the mundane beauty that has to be experienced if we're to live full lives.
The speaker is acting in the manner of the woman's conscience, suggesting to her that divinity lies within her own psyche; she is an individual living on earth and has a tangible connection to it.
But the last line of this stanza is a little puzzling because it implies that all of the pleasures and pains she'll have to go through will affect her soul. Soul. But just what is the soul in the context of this poem?
Looking at the language of this stanza gives us a clue: bounty, Passions, moods, Grievings, Elations, Emotions, pleasures, pains....
Soul is the collective emotional nature of who we are as humans. Faith, hope and belief stem from this irrational side.
This stanza outlines a history of the religious god, beginning with Jove, the Roman god of the sky (aka Jupiter) who controlled thunder and lightning and was vital to the orderly running of society at all levels.
Crucially, Jove had no human birth, unlike Jesus who was born of a virgin into a society (at that time in Bethlehem) ruled by the invading Romans. That birth was of course witnessed by the three kings following a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn - the star.
The speaker then asks three vital questions concerning the blood (the human life force) and its future state of being. Will humanity fizzle out or could it envision a paradise on earth, an existence free of supernatural aspiration?
The speaker goes on to imply that this new paradise will enable humankind to come together in a shared world through love. The dividing and indifferent blue that is, the sky, the divine idea, the divine order, will change because the gods will no longer live separately there.
As if listening to the speaker's argument, the woman makes a kind of reply which morphs into a question, there to be answered by the speaker again. This stanza becomes a dialogue, similar to Yeats's dialogues of the soul, that carries on for the remainder of the poem.
She describes how content she is watching and listening to birds in a field but once they're gone she questions whether observation is enough to restore that ideal. Can human senses, experiencing nature, ever replace or compensate for a disappearing concept of paradise?
The speaker's answer essentially pits the whole of mythology, ideas about the afterlife, the Elysian fields et al against nature as reality (April's green) and says that the latter is more enduring.
There's a romantic feel to some of these lines - the last two for example - whilst the lines:
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
are ironic in tone, the speaker insisting that her remembered experiences will prevail over any that are supernatural.
Analysis of Sunday Morning Stanza by Stanza 5 - 8
The dialogue continues, with the woman expressing the need for an immortal reward in heaven. To live forever is a longing hard to nullify.
To counteract this the speaker describes the natural cycles of change that exist within life, starting with a famous poetic phrase that some think makes this poem a great one.
Death is the mother of beauty is a basic truth of nature according to the speaker. The seed lives, the seed dies and from it springs new growth and new life. From willow trees to plums and pears and humans, change is the beauty and it refreshes all.
The mention of maidens and boys harks back to the romantic scenery of pastoral and countryside landscapes, idyllic pictures of yore.
This stanza asks if change occurs in paradise, does death occur in paradise? The speaker suggests that there is stasis; that the supernatural brings stagnation for humans because it is set. There is deception and false hope because there is no sea for the rivers to flow into.
With the idea that beauty comes from (an acceptance of a final) death there is some mystery retained in this natural flux because there are imperfections which make us wonder.
Now the speaker outlines a vision of what could be, an alternative to the rituals of supernatural religion, a new faith in effect.
This new faith shall be natural - this stanza is full of natural imagery: the sun, sky, windy lake, trees, hills, dew...and within this imagined landscape stands a ring of men, chanting. William Wordsworth might well have joined the same group.
When you think about a ring of men, a circle, the obvious connection is to a ring of stones, a stone circle, as used by the ancients, the pagans, in their worship of the sun and stars.
But Stevens tempers this with religious/biblical language, as if to suggest that the change will come only gradually as the old faith in the Christian gods dies out.
There will be an intimate knowledge of each death and each birth - everything will be renewed, fresh.
- The word seraphin (often written seraphim but Stevens used the French version) comes from seraph, a Hebrew word which in the old testament refers to six winged angel-like creatures that surround the throne of God.
And the line That choir among themselves long afterward is a little bit odd because Stevens uses choir as a verb. Typical of him to experiment with language.
The woman hears a voice - a biblical voice perhaps, like the voice of John the Baptist who cried out in the wilderness Make straight the way of the Lord.....only here in this final stanza the prophecy means something entirely different.
Here endeth the supernatural, where no spirits linger. Here is the tomb of the one they called Jesus.
The speaker concludes - we're still influenced by the old religions and their gods; they bring chaos, they isolate, we cannot yet escape them.
Note the final seven lines, which paint an idyllic shifting landscape full of animals and birds. Are they symbols or are we to take them literally? Are they part of the fictional fabric that Stevens suggested should take the place of the old belief in the supernatural?
'….the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.'
Ambiguity reigns to some degree with this poem, which is an advantage for such a mammoth subject. The woman perhaps remains torn between a need for pleasure and a need to know that the imperishable bliss is still attainable.
What Are The Literary/Poetic Devices In Sunday Morning?
When two or more words are close together and start with the same consonant they are said to alliterate. For the reader this brings added texture and interest. There are several examples occurring throughout this poem.
holy hush/winding across wide water/balm or beauty/part of pain/Downward to darkness.
When two or more words in close alliance have the same sounding vowels. For example:
green freedom/calm darkens/rang its brassy
When a line runs on into the next with no punctuation but maintaining sense it is said to be enjambed. The reader is encouraged to flow on into the next line taking hardly a pause.
There are many enjambed lines in this poem. For example:
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
The trees, like seraphin
The day is like wide water
Sunday Morning and Blank Verse - Analysis of Meter (Metre in British English)
Sunday Morning is written in blank verse, which traditionally has lines of iambic pentameter and does not rhyme. Shakespeare used it quite often in his plays, and Milton chose this form for his long epic poem Paradise Lost.
Stevens split his poem into eight stanzas, each with fifteen lines. The syntax, that is the way clauses and grammar work together, is often demanding, so the rhythms tend to vary throughout.
Let's take a close-up look at some lines which are of particular interest rhythmically:
Compla / cencies / of the / peignoir, / and late
Coffee / and or / anges / in a sun / ny chair,
This is not orthodox blank verse! The steady rhythmic iambs are subdued initially in that first line by a double pyrrhic (no stress on the syllables) reflecting the relaxed nature of the woman.
The second line, with its extra syllable/beat (11 syllables) starts off with a trochee which is an inverted iamb. Note the pyrrhic and the anapaest - softening, rising.
Here we have a mix of feet which makes for varied rhythm. These two opening lines set the scene for the rest of the poem which rarely delivers a purely iambic pentameter line:
Why should / she give / her boun / ty to / the dead?
Sources Used for Sunday Morning
The Library of America, Collected Poetry and Prose, 1997
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2019 Andrew Spacey