‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ by Robert Lowell is a twelve stanza poem that is divided into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Lowell has chosen to structure the rhyming pattern of each stanza in a consistent manner. The verses conform to the rhyme scheme of aabbccdd, alternating end sounds from stanza to stanzas as Lowell saw fit.
A reader should also take note of the fact that almost every stanza is one complete, if somewhat drawn out, phrase. Almost every end mark which occurs throughout the text, save for a few moments, are at the end of the eighth line of each stanza.
Summary of Waking Early Sunday Morning
The poem begins with the speaker describing a monumental effort that is rewarded by only death. These thoughts are followed by a downward spiral that starts with memories of boyhood. He remembers when there was no reason to worry about waking up in the morning or what life would bring.
The fact that he can recall what that pure emotion felt like makes his current state of being all the harder to contend with. The next sections move through the ways in which the earth has been degraded. The speaker’s main problem is with the godless way in which humankind is living. There is a no longer true passion in, or dedication to, worship.
The poem concludes with the speaker stating that if things continue the way they are, which he thinks they will, the future generations will suffer. The earth will become a planet aimlessly floating through space with a population that doesn’t take the time to consider the bigger questions of life.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Waking Early Sunday Morning
Oh to break loose, like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back,
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.
In the first stanza of ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ the speaker begins by describing an experience, or set of emotions, he wishes he could have. He is seeking out a moment in which he doesn’t feel as a “chinook / salmon does.” This fish is described as “jumping and falling” as it attempts to make its way up…
Stone and bone-crushing waterfall—
It tries to “nose” it’s way up through the water a number of times. There are moments in which it becomes “weak-fleshed” and “raw-jawed,” exhausted with the attempts. Eventually though, it “clear[s] the top on the last try.” These efforts have taken the salmon to the brink of death. It is still, as the speaker says, “alive enough to spawn and die.”
For all its exhausting efforts and close calls with death, it is rewarded with participating in the life cycle of its species. The fish “spawn[s],” or breeds, and then “die[s].” The speaker sees this progression of events as disappointing. He wants there to be more to life than a simple process. This view is expanded on in the next stanza.
Stop, back off. The salmon breaks
water, and now my body wakes
here squatting like a dragon on
time’s hoard before the day’s begun!
In the second stanza, the speaker begins his description of emotions he wishes he could experience. In these lines, the speaker is breaking from his first short narrative concerning the salmon and moving toward speaking on his own feelings. Just as the salmon “breaks / water” now the speaker is jolted awake.
He remembers feeling as he did when he was a boy. His body used to be filled with…
…the unpolluted joy
And criminal leisure of a boy—
The next two lines use images from childhood to express the purity of the speaker’s desired feelings. All he wants to emotionally experience is a new freedom. He is as a rainbow or like a…
Time’s hoard before the day’s begun!
The speaker is waiting for something to happen, just like the dragon. A reader can assume that these emotions are those which inspired the title, ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning.’
Time to grub up and junk the year’s
output, a dead wood of dry verse:
and willing to read anyone
things done before and better done.
The speaker begins this section by stating that he wants to feel “Fierce” in his mind. He has left his home, at least in spirit if not the body, and traveled down to the docks. It is here, in a setting that is mundane in the extreme to the narrator, that he sees “business as usual.”
At first, a reader will see these images through the re-energized mind of the speaker, focused on the experiences of childhood, but as he enters further into the scene his enthusiasm decreases.
The speaker looks around and it is as if everything is happening “in eclipse.” There is a specialness to the world which is not normally present. He can observe the ships going out and filling up the harbour. There is also “refuse,” or trash, and “dacron rope,” a commonly used brand of polyester rope.
All of these items, ships included, are…
Bound for Bermuda or Good Hope
This is reference to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The “yawl and ketch” two different types of sailing crafts, are “bright before the morning.” Their “wine-dark” hulls stand out against the rising sun.
Fierce, fireless mind, running down hill.
Look up and see the harbor fill:
all bright before the morning watch,
the wine dark hulls of yawl and ketch.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, the happy image of the world the speaker has been observing starts to fade.
The reader may come to the conclusion in this section that perhaps the speaker has not left his home at all. He is now describing a glass of water that is covered with condensation. It is “silvery” in color and “touched the sky.” This strange position could refer to the speaker’s own line of sight. Perhaps he is standing or sitting so that when he looks at the cup it lines up with the sky.
The speaker continues in this vein, speaking of how when he “shifts” or moves from where he is looking, the “serene” nature of the world he sees through the glass changes. The change in sight also brings about a change in his mood.
From a different perspective, all he can see is…
…some object made of wood
background behind it of brown grain,
These are likely the walls of his home or some other residence at which he is spending his morning. The speaker’s memories of childhood happiness are cut short by the realization that he cannot leave his present situation and must contend with the banality of the moment.
I watch a glass of water wet
with a fine fuzz of icy sweat,
background behind it of brown grain,
to darken it, but not to stain.
The speaker is clearly upset by the revelation that he will never truly experience boyhood emotions again. He exclaims,
O that the spirit could remain
Tinged but untarnished by its strain!
The speaker is wishing there was a way to live in which he could experience everything he needs to without it tarnishing his life. He decries the realities of life which have changed him.
The next three lines take the reader through a number of different options the speaker sees for himself. His life could have involved him being “better dressed” or of greater means, or perhaps he could have been “lost with the Faithful at Church” on this Sunday morning. None of these things came to pass and he still the person he always was.
The final lines of this section describe the coming together of the Sunday morning congregation. They are not called by a church bell, but by an electric one. The world is changing in a way he is not comfortable with.
Oh that the spirit could remain
tinged but untarnished by its strain!
clearly chiming, “Faith of our fathers,”
and now the congregation gathers.
The speaker continues his negative depiction of modern life in the sixth stanza. It is here that he complains about the way in which religion is taught and practiced. He believes the Bible has been portioned off. It is “chopped and crucified.” The hymns are no longer read, instead, they are just sung. This keeps one from learning from God that which the speaker feels is truly important.
There are no “milder subtleties” which come out when one reads the text. Instead, they are just “stiff quatrains” which mean nothing. The people might sing of “peace” and “preach despair” but that has done nothing for the “darkness.” These new church practices have left humankind with a “loophole for the soul.”
Oh Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
yet they gave darkness their control,
and left a loophole for the soul.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker continues down the darker path of his thoughts. In the first lines, he asks when it will be that they, the human race, will be able to see “Him,” or God, “face to face.”
The speaker is worried about this fact as he knows humankind is slipping farther away from the correct path. He states that “Each day,” the speaker sees “His vanishing / emblems.” There are fewer and fewer instances in which he sees “His white spire and flag- / pole” and then even when he does they seem “sad” and “slight.”
The emblems of God have lost their relevance in this new world. They are now “useless things” which are unable to “calm the mad.”
No, put old clothes on, and explore
the corners of the woodshed for
cast from the kingdom, banned in Israel,
the wordless sign, the tinkling cymbal.
The next section describes what the earth is really like now. It is filled with “Hammering military splendor” and no “redemption in the mass.” There is only the moving “elephant and phalanx.”
These lines read as if the end of the world is closing in. The cacophony of phrases that come one after another in this section build up tension as the poem begins to edge toward a conclusion.
Empty, irresolute, ashamed,
when the sacred texts are named,
only old china doorknobs, sad,
slight, useless things to calm the mad.
In the ninth stanza of ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, the speaker decries the change humankind has gone through, seemingly, within his lifetime. He wonders if this new way of being will change anything. Will the “new / diminuendo bring” any “tenderness?” Or, will there only be “restlessness” and “the hunger for success?”
It is easy to interpret the speaker’s opinion about these topics. He believes, no, there will be no peace unless humankind finds its way back to how they were before. Just as he wishes he could change his predicament and find somewhere else to be, so to do those who are not paying attention to the changes in the world.
Oh to break loose now. All life’s grandeur
is something with a girl in summer…
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!
In the tenth stanza, the speaker turns to the yearning he has for a pure and unburdened experience. He wonders what it would be like to “break loose” and live in “All life’s grandeur.” These feelings are represented by time spent with a “girl in summer.”
He imagines himself feeling like “the President” when he is “girdled by his establishment” on “Sunday morning.” These hours would be “free.” There would be no restraint on his thoughts. It would resemble “swimming nude.”
The President would feel relieved to be away from his “ghostwritten rhetoric.” This is a reference to the speeches which are written for him and for which he gets the credit. He would no longer be made through other’s words.
No weekends for the gods now, Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life.
In the eleventh stanza, the speaker expands his thoughts to encompass the whole world and how there are no longer moments, hours, or days truly devoted to “the gods now.”
The earth is filled with “open sores” and “wars” which are followed by “no advance.” This is due to the fact that humankind is consumed with “fresh promotions” and “chance assassinations.”
He compares the general mindset of the population to a…
…man thinning out his kind
[with]…the blind /
Swipe of the pruner
These actions are culling the “tree of life.” The world the speaker loved is fading away and the speaker feels as if he can watch its slow erosion.
Oh hammering military splendor,
top-heavy Goliath in full armor—
when that kingdom hit the crash:
a million foreskins stacked like trash…
The speaker’s depression over the state of the planet is only deepening at the end of the poem. In the first lines of this section, he asks that the reader “Pity the planet” as “all joy” which used to exist within it is “gone.”
He asks that “peace” be with…
…our children when they fall
In small war on the heels of small
He sees the future generations spending their entire lives embroiled in conflict. There will be no way out for them, “until the end of time.” The earth will become like a “ghost / orbiting forever.”
All the people will be “lost / in our monotonous sublime.” The easy and meaningless lives which are lived on earth has sent humankind into passionless, meaningless state of existence.