Poem Guide

Wallace Stevens: “Sunday Morning”

The first great flight of a Modernist legend.

Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (1915) is a lofty poetic meditation—almost a philosophical discourse—rooted in a few basic questions: what happens to us when we die? Can we believe seriously in an afterlife? If we can’t, what comfort can we take in the only life we get? As World War I intensified and Stevens neared middle age, he broached these subjects with quiet urgency in a poem as beautiful as it is difficult. 

Although “Sunday Morning” is considered Stevens’s breakthrough poem, it wasn’t published until he was 36. It debuted in Poetry magazine during a year that brought several other Modernist milestones, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Marianne Moore’s first professionally published poems, and a major Imagist anthology coedited by the poets Richard Aldington and H.D. Compared with these experiments by younger writers—and with many of the poems later collected in Stevens’s first book, Harmonium (1923)—“Sunday Morning” innovates in a mellower and statelier mode. 

The first stanza ushers us into a pleasant domestic setting, where a nameless woman lingers over breakfast:

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 …

This sensuous scene—with its vibrant colors, casual coffee, and oddball cockatoo—retains a bold modern flavor; some critics have compared it to paintings by Matisse. The title situates the poem on Sunday morning, suggesting that this woman is flouting the norms of her era by skipping church. Her nonconformity, however, is solidly in the mold of Emily Dickinson, who wrote in the 1860s of “keep[ing] the Sabbath” by “staying at Home” and listening to birds. An even closer model is Edna Pontellier, heroine of Kate Chopin’s revolutionary novel The Awakening (1899), who attempts to retreat from her suffocating society into a liberating solitude. (Pontellier, too, owns a chatty parrot and often wears a peignoir, or dressing gown.) More subtly, as a solitary figure contemplating beauty, death, and nature, Stevens’s character recalls some of the brooding loners in William Wordsworth’s poems from a century before.

In fact, once we’ve processed its opening jolt, “Sunday Morning” starts to look texturally and thematically grounded in the 1800s. It employs a sonorous pentameter and a lush Romantic diction: maidens, Alas, silken weavings, odors of the plum. Its atmosphere of imaginative reverie evokes the fantasy and “vision” poems of John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake. Even its rejection of religion recalls the worldly naturalism of the Romantics.

In many ways, that naturalism—a secular spirituality that the critic T.E. Hulme dubbed “spilt religion”—provides the crucial backdrop for “Sunday Morning.” Stevens’s second stanza poses three heavy 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? 

The woman’s “bounty” is the gift of herself: body, heart, and mind. Why, she wonders, should she pledge these to “dead” gods and beliefs—to the kind of “divinity” that manifests itself briefly and ambiguously, if at all? Why not dedicate them to the “comforts of the sun” and the “beauty of the earth” around her? She (or the poem’s speaker, whose voice melds with hers) concludes that “Divinity must live within herself,” assimilating all the “pleasures” and “pains” of earthly experience. The next stanza repeats this idea in a mythic register, tracing the development of Jove—the supreme Roman deity—from “inhuman” spirit to humanlike presence “commingling” his blood with ours, as in ancient tales of gods seducing humans. Stevens asks whether this process will end in humans deposing and discarding their gods: “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / The blood of paradise?” If so, the result will be a profound reunion with nature: “The sky will be much friendlier then than now … Not this dividing and indifferent blue.”

In the poem’s account, this prospect, though uncertain, is borne out by the death of numerous myths. Stanza IV presents a catalog of imaginary afterlives—fictions of immortality—that have lost out to earthly reality: 

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 …

As the critic M.H. Abrams has shown, this passage resembles Wordsworth’s bid (in The Recluse) to salvage Paradise—otherwise doomed to be a “fiction of what never was”—by locating it in “the common day.” Stevens affirms this idea and fleshes it out with rich Keatsian imagery. The depiction of earthly sensuality in stanza V, in which “boys … pile new plums and pears” at girls’ feet, mirrors the cornucopia in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.” By contrast, the sterile, “unchanging” heaven in stanza VI evokes the frozen scene on Keats’s famous urn. Even one of the signature lines of “Sunday Morning”—“Death is the mother of beauty,” from stanzas V and VI—recalls Keats’s rapture in “Ode to a Nightingale”: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die …” (It may also be in dialogue with the opening of Endymion: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”) Like the terminally ill Keats, Stevens recognizes that the foreknowledge of mortality and loss fosters our most intense sensations—the mingled pleasure and pain we experience as “beauty.”

“Sunday Morning” is so marked by the accents and attitudes of Romanticism that it can seem 200 years old, not 100. Still, it wouldn’t have remained a Modernist icon if it were only an imitation of long-dead poets. Something in its effect sets it apart from Thomas Hardy’s ballads, Yeats’s mystic visions, and other classics of the same era. One way to pinpoint what made it new is to ask what made it unsettling.

The first audience for “Sunday Morning” was Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine. Though she had the foresight to publish it, she also made major changes to it. According to Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young’s introduction to The Poetry Anthology 1912–2002, 

In 1915, [Monroe] eagerly accepted “Sunday Morning”—provided [that Stevens] drop three of the original eight sections and allow her to rearrange the order of the sequence. Unlike several prima donnas the Editor dealt with, Stevens was exceedingly modest of his work, and he complied. (When he reprinted the poem in Harmonium, in 1923, he quietly restored his original text.)

Monroe’s edits sacrifice many of the poem’s best effects in the name of concision and an orderly “flow.” In her version, for example, the reference to Palestine that closes the first stanza segues into the one that, in Stevens’s version, opens the final stanza; the two stanzas that end with the word wings occur in succession; and so on. This heavy-handed arrangement reduces Stevens’s delicate echoes and dialectical structure (silent questions answered by an unidentified, perhaps interior, voice) to a distorted muddle.

To her credit, Monroe does not soften the poem’s religious skepticism. However, by cutting stanzas II, III, and VI, in which Stevens explores the contrast between earth and paradise—between our beautiful, “perishing” reality and the static fantasy land we struggle to imagine—she undermines much of the basis for that stance. As a result, the poem’s skeptical claims (that there was no Resurrection, for example, and that we can never believe in heaven as we do in earth) feel unearned and preachy. Meanwhile, it loses much of its optimism: gone are the notions of an inner divinity and of a “much friendlier” sky purged of gods.

Finally, Monroe’s edited version ends with the stanza that Stevens had placed next to last. This is the vision of a ring of dancing men celebrating their “devotion to the sun,” which shines “Naked among them, like a savage source.” To paraphrase Walt Whitman’s romanticized image of the “savage” in “Song of Myself” (section 39), these men are not waiting for civilization but already past it. They represent humanity stripped of pretensions and illusions, worshipping the sun “not as a god, but as a god might be.” The final lines of their stanza—“And whence they came and whither they shall go / The dew upon their feet shall manifest”—suggest a kind of redemption by way of reabsorption into nature. They will pass away like dew, their chants “returning to the sky” but “echoing … among [the hills] long afterward.”

By ending on this stanza, Monroe’s version gives us, if not transcendence, then at least a confident prophecy. It makes an assertion—not of belief but of a future direction for humanity. It bears out Stevens’s 1928 claim that “the poem is simply an expression of paganism.”

But Stevens’s greatest poems are never “simply” anything. They are questionings, testings, worryings of the poet’s major themes. And “Sunday Morning” in particular is the beginning of an inquiry, rather than the end. It launches Stevens’s career-long project of finding a poetry that (as he later put it) “will suffice” in the absence of consoling myths. His World War II–era poem “The Well-Dressed Man With a Beard” begins: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” By rejecting Jove and Jesus alike, “Sunday Morning” gives us the first great no in Stevens’s poetry, but its affirming yes is more tentative than Monroe may have wanted to believe.

Critic Janet McCann has argued that the last two stanzas of “Sunday Morning,” in Stevens’s version, “do not cohere.” She believes that Stevens permitted Monroe’s tampering because “he did not know exactly where he wanted the poem to go or how seriously he wanted the paganism to be taken.” This interpretation risks underestimating him all over again, but McCann is surely right to identify the ending as the heart of the poem’s conflict. The blissful sun-worship of stanza VII yields to something darker and stranger in stanza VIII:

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.

This is our nameless woman’s epiphany after her final rejection of Christian belief. The sun here is no longer a godlike presence but part of an “old chaos,” reminiscent of John Milton’s “Chaos and old Night” in Book 1 of Paradise Lost. This troubling phrase introduces a litany of forlorn, even fatalistic words: dependency, solitude, inescapable, isolation, downward, darkness. Yet an intertwining series of adjectives emphasizes liberation: unsponsored, free, wide, spontaneous, sweet, casual, extended

The celebration of freedom, space, and spontaneity is quintessentially American. So is the landscape, though Stevens doesn’t name a particular location. Earlier in the poem, we learned that the woman sits “over the seas” from Palestine, hinting at an Old World–New World divide. Now we hear a touch of pride in the references to “our mountains” and the bountiful “wilderness.” Here, then, is Stevens’s earthly paradise: both the wide-open country of Whitman and the chaos of a godless universe. The word ambiguous, emphasized through enjambment, holds the two visions in permanent tension. 

Whether or not we find this tension satisfying, it is vital to Stevens’s design. The last two stanzas debate each other just as the language of the last stanza debates itself. Humankind might someday achieve an ecstatic union with nature, but for now, the randomness and beauty of the world elude us.

More than disbelief, it is this irresolution that marks the poem as modern. “Sunday Morning” is the first of many Stevensian sequences that circle around philosophical questions without ever landing on a definitive perch. At this early date Stevens was still half-wedded to the outlook of the Romantics, but in the disillusionment of his era, as well as the sprawl of the American landscape, he found a new ambiguity and freedom.

 
Originally Published: November 17th, 2015

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

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