‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of fifteen lines. Unlike the majority of Stevens’ poems, this piece is fairly well organized and written in blank verse. This means that the lines do not have a rhyme scheme but maintain the pattern of iambic pentameter. Each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. It is unusual for a poem of this length to stick to a rhythmic pattern so strictly, rarely would Stevens venture into this territory again.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a woman spending her Sunday morning sitting outside rather than going to church. She falls into a dream that makes her feel guilty about the death of Christ. The dream includes a journey to Palestine and Christ’s tomb. Although she feels something, she is still skeptical about religion. She isn’t ready to give up her life and all its pleasures to the Christian god.
In the next stanza, the speaker compares Christ to the Greek and Roman god Jove. Jove is different because he only represents the sun, rather than actually being it. The speaker wonders over the desire of humans to create religion and whether or not paradise can exist.
The next section returns to the perspective of the woman who is described as finding peace in the sight of birds waking, walking around, and taking off for a day of the flight. She believes that beauty is something to be loved and Death to be feared. The speaker pushes back against this opinion stating that beauty cannot exist without Death.
In an effort to illustrate his point he describes the actions of pagan men who worship the sun because of its influence on the land rather than what powers it might wield as a god. The men are not burdened by the expectations of the Christian god, or any all-seeing, commanding power. They simply exist in the world, similar to how nature will exist in the final stanza.
The last stanza contains another portion of the woman’s dream of Christ’s tomb. This time the vision is speaking to her and describing the tomb as nothing more than a burial place. It is not home to spirits. In conclusion, the speaker goes over everything he previously stated and ends with a wish to know nature without looking through a human lens.
Symbols and Images
The most impotent images of this piece are self-evident and the most prevalent of these is the sun. It is included as part of the narrative from the beginning. It shines on the woman on her Sunday morning and represents comfort and peace. The sun is later used as a symbol for beauty and for the Christian god. Towards the end of the poem, a contrast is presented between Christianity and paganism with a preference is given towards the sun acting like a god rather than being one. Finally, the sun appears again as a symbol of the chaos that makes up nature.
A reader should also take note of the prevalence of birds in ‘Sunday Morning.’ A cockatoo appears in the first stanza and is part of the reason the dreaming woman’s thoughts go in the direction they do. Birds stand-in for freedom, then later come to represent beauty, happiness, peace, and paradise. They also feature in the final lines of the poem, perhaps flying onwards to their deaths.
Throughout ‘Sunday Morning’ the speaker discusses the interactions between nature and humanity. To humankind nature symbolizes both paradise and death. The speaker brings up images of nature associated with religion and finally, nature’s independence and disregard for human affairs.
Additionally, there is the overwhelming theme of happiness. The poem begins with the woman thinking over her own happiness on Sunday morning and considering whether or not she should feel guilty. It is a state of being she does not want to end and the reason the speaker delves into discussions of paradise and its similarities and differences to life on earth.
Analysis of Sunday Morning
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.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing the emotions of a woman who is sitting outside on a Sunday morning. She is wearing a “peignoir,” or a lace nightgown, and eating a late breakfast. Down at her feet, there is a cockatoo. It is described as being green and free. She looks down on the animal and feels at peace. She is tasting a little bit of the freedom the bird knows so well.
Because she is so deeply involved in the peace of the moment she is able to forget about the “ancient sacrifice. “ This is a clear reference, when taken into consideration along with the title, to the death of Christ. Her guilt at doing nothing on this Sunday but enjoying the world is lightened.
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.
The woman seems to doze off for a moment. At first, she is simply dreaming but things take a dark turn. An undefined, yet familiar darkness is coming closer. This is again another reference to Christ and his crucifixion. Her calm attitude toward life is slipping away and she is reverting to religious tendencies. Here, Stevens introduces the image of water, something that appears throughout his works.
Stevens describes the woman as looking out towards the water and seeing a “procession of the dead.” They appear as colors, resembling the bright greens and oranges of the first few lines. This time they’re different though. They are foreboding as they move across “wide water, without sound.”
Zooming back from the close look on this woman’s life, the speaker compares the entire day to the same “wide water, without sound.” The woman is dreaming that she is passing over the now still water towards Palestine where Christ was crucified. It is home to the “sepulchre” or tomb where Christ was placed.
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.
In contrast to the absolute silence of the scene at the end of the first stanza, the second picks up with a bit of renitence on the woman’s part. She is not going to passively “give her bounty to the dead.” Her “bounty” likely refers to her life on earth and therefore her faith. She is not completely convinced of her Christianity.
The next lines contain her concern about giving up the pleasures of the sun and “pungent fruit.” She wants to keep her possessions around her rather than give them up to the Church. Her doubt is furthered by the fact that Christ only comes to her in her dreams and is gone before she can get any answers.
Rather than seeking divinity with faith, she states that she needs to find it within herself. It is seen through her own passions and moods. Her grief and elation, as well as pleasures and pains, form it. In these lines, she is relating her internal divinity to nature. Her passion is like the rain and her moods, “falling snow.” She feels elation “when the forests bloom” and great emotions on “autumn nights.” These are the experiences around which she needs to “measure…her soul.” Her life will be judged by what she feels and does.
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,
The third stanza begins with a reference to Jove, the Roman equivalent to Zeus. This new religious ideology is introduced in order to make a comparison with Christianity. In the poem, he is described as being “inhuman,” unlike Christ. He had no mother to take care of him nor a “sweet land” to call home. Jove’s mind is “mythy” or filled with myths. This likely is a reference to all myths emerging from Jove, the central figurehead.
The next lines are more obscure and confusing. Stevens is speaking about Jove as a god who moved through his “hinds,” or among the common people. He would grow frustrated by the fact that no one say his magnificence and recognized him for who he was. In this example, Jove represents humanity’s ability to form myth. The “hinds” took their inspiration from “a star.” Suddenly that star was recognized as Jupiter, or Jove, as if it had been him all along. Humanity gave birth to the myth of Jove, they gave their life and “blood to it.” This image will appear again in the seventh stanza.
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.
The speaker goes on to ask if the “blood” they used to create, what should be, a comforting myth, will fail. Or more simply, will the myth stand the test of time. Alternatively, the speaker asks if instead, the “earth” will be all the paradise “we shall know.” The speaker is concerned this might not be enough for humanity.
In the future when the world becomes a paradise, the only paradise, the sky will be “much friendlier.” It will be closer to nature than a divine being. Rather than worry more about a god’s expectations when looking at the sky, humanity will feel connected to nature.
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?”
In the fourth stanza, the speaker returns to the narrative within the woman’s mind. There is a change in the narrative perspective, meaning that the reader gets a first-person account of how she feels. She says first that she feels “content” to look at the birds when they have first woken up. The speaker thinks about their rest, their preparations to fly and the journeys they will undertake that day. She describes their “questionings.” This is a reference to the way birds move along the ground before they take off as if searching for something.
At some point, the birds take off and the “warm fields” they came from are never the same. It is important to remember that all of these images are coming from the emotions associated with Sunday morning. She is looking at her carpet, and at the cockatoo, and letting her imagination run wild. This was customary within Stevens’ works. He maintains a reputation for exploring the edges of what the imagination could do.
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.
The quotation marks end at this point and the poem revert back to the third person speaker. These lines are quite complex and outline the speaker’s understanding that the woman hopes for similar peace again in the future. He explores a number of versions of the future, the afterlife, and ideal paradises. These include the “golden underground” and the “visionary south,” a place no one has explored.
At the end of this action, the speaker returns to the real world and notes that these fantasies may or may not exist, but nature is real. This includes “April’s green” and the woman’s own memory of the birds.
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.
The fifth stanza returns to the female speaker’s thoughts. She is responding to the previous stanza in which the other speaker, perhaps Stevens himself, presents his thoughts on the future. Although she accepts the speaker’s argument that there are always going to be beautiful things in nature, she wants something more. She needs “bliss” to be truly happy and the need for it will not go away.
The other speaker responds immediately. He asks the woman how beauty is supposed to exist without death. It is the “mother” of everything wonderful. It causes the end of things that one loves, and leads one to lose as it “strews the leaves / Of sure obliteration.” Death forces one to change paths, and find a new one that is easier to see. In contrast to the loss caused by Death, there is still beauty. It instigates change and often changes is what brings about the parts of nature most loved.
Stevens’ speaker describes boys who use an old plate, that was perhaps once valuable, for a new purpose. They pile on “plums and pears. “ All the while the “maidens” wander through the scene, taking in the pure joy of a world changed.
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.
The speaker continues on to question a paradise that does not include death. If this existed there would never be any ripe fruit or rivers that reached the ocean. It is more than death the speaker is interested in, it is the idea and application of change and transformation. Eventually, the speaker gets to the main point of these assertions which is that Heaven is not necessarily better than earth.
The next lines return to the description of the plums and pears from the previous stanza. This time the speaker is placing them in Heaven and noting how the “maidens” do not come. The act of setting out the fruit is pointless.
He continues on to say that in heaven “they” are not going to be wearing “our colors.” Or more simply, paradise will not be recognizable to any human being. Humanity does not have the ability to accurately envision it before entering. This speaks to a restriction of one’s imagination. What the speaker does know is that in a “perfect” world where nothing changes, pleasures would soon turn to boredom.
In the final lines of the sixth stanza, he reiterates the same message about death. That it is only due to its presence that the world holds any appeal at all. Within the human mind beauty and death should be one in the same, they are both mothers to humanity.
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.
The speaker presents a contrast to Christian heaven in the seventh stanza. He turns to discuss paganism and an orgy. At this particular celebration, the men are worshipping the sun, and likely drinking and dancing. The pagans were devoted to the sun, not as a symbol for the Christian God, but as their benefactor. It is from the sun that all life stems. Rather than being a god, it is only “like” a god. It is clear the speaker sees this kind of worship and understands it. He too wants to see nature as the true God.
It is important to note here the reference back to the third stanza which spoke about Jove and the importance of imagination in religion. Even though paganism might make more sense to the speaker, it is still driven by humanity’s imagination. Without human thought and worship, the sun would be nothing but a star.
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.
While the pagan men chant, other elements enter into the conversation, “voice by voice.” There is the “Windy lake,” as well as the trees (which are like “serafin” or angels) and the “echoing hills” which add their sounds to the celebration.
Through their orgy, the pagans are able to grow closer to the natural world. They know a “heavenly fellowship” with the rest of the world. So much so that the dew which covers their feet seems to hold their future. Nature holds the essence of humanity, from birth, to beauty, to death. It does not matter to the men in this moment where they are going or what their lives will consist of.
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.
In the last stanza of the poem returns to the first stanzas in which the woman dreams of Palestine. The water she was originally seeing comes back. This time it is speaking to her. It states that there is not a “porch” or area in Palestine in which “spirits” are “lingering.” The “grave of Jesus” is nothing more but a place “where he lay.”
The final lines are told from the perspective of the original speaker as he goes back over everything he spoke about previously. He begins by saying that from one perspective, the pagan one, the world is just “day and night.” There is chaos and the way chaos acts on and within nature, and that’s it. Thinking of the world this way makes humanity “unsponsored” and “free.” No one is tied down to the demands of a selfish god.
The speaker concludes the poem by taking away all his previous philosophizing about nature. The opinions of the dreaming woman are disregarded and nature is seen on its own terms. It is made up of the progress of life. There are “Deer” in the mountains and “berries” growing, ripening, and dying in the “wilderness” where no one will ever see them. He also describes the “pigeons” in isolation in the sky, again, with no companions (especially not human) to comment on their progress. In the last lines, the image of the pigeons recedes into darkness, a final allusion to the power and importance of death.