Sunday Morning


      I

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.


       II

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.


       III

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.


       IV

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.


       V

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.


       VI

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.


       VII

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.


       VIII

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.
This is the later and more definitive version of “Sunday Morning.” To read the first published version of this poem, which appeared in Poetry magazine, click here. In 1915, editor Harriet Monroe asked Stevens to cut several stanzas for Poetry, and Stevens would later restore these cut stanzas when he published the poem in book form in 1923.
Source: The Collected Poems (1954)

Writing Ideas

  1. Austin Allen notes that the opening lines of “Sunday Morning” have often been compared to Matisse’s paintings. Track down some images of paintings by Matisse: how does the start to Stevens’s poem seem or feel like an ekphrasis? Choose a Matisse painting and write your own Stevens-inspired ekphrastic poem about it.
  2. This poem relies on a series of rhetorical questions. Find all the questions posed in the poem and make a cento (collage poem, or a poem made entirely from lines of other poems), arranging them and altering them as you wish. How does your cento extend or depart from Stevens’s original poem?

Discussion Questions

  1. Stevens’s poem begins with a description of a woman’s casual, secular “Sunday morning” routine. The first verbs—“mingles” and “dissipate”—occur in the fourth line. What is the effect gained by delaying verbs, and choosing these verbs, to the opening stanza?
  2. Stevens wrote many poetic sequences, and perhaps his most famous is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What is gained by numbering stanzas or sections in the way he often does? What effect does it have on “Sunday Morning”? That is, what would be different if the poem were simply stanzas after one another, or had no stanzas at all?
  3. Find all the adjectives and descriptive phrases connected with “our world” or the “real world” in Stevens’s poem; find all those associated with “paradise,” or worlds beyond this that the poem struggles to imagine. How do your lists compare? Is it difficult to determine when and how Stevens is descripting each place? Are there terms that cross categories? What do Stevens’s vocabulary choices—his diction—tell you about the kind of argument or question his poem is trying to answer?
  4. What role does the unnamed “her” play in this poem? What is the effect of using a character, or having a feminine pronoun, in a poem about religious uncertainty? 

Teaching Tips

  1. The linguistic textures and philosophical density of “Sunday Morning” may be challenging for students. Spend some time as a class discussing what’s difficult about this poem and why: let students air their grievances. Then, try to develop strategies for reading difficult poems together: grammatically complex statements might be understood better by translating them into prose; you could draw students’ attention to patterns of imagery, including colors, that Stevens utilizes; since the poem is in sections, groups could take a section and attempt to paraphrase it, bringing their results back to the group. You might have students do the second writing idea above, isolating the poems’ rhetorical questions and developing a collage poem that helps them understand the kinds of questions the poem uses—and why questions are important to it at all. You could ask students to think about the nameless character—the poem’s “she”—and have them track her thoughts visually, either through a comic strip or some other kind of visual representation. The goal will be to help students see that there are many ways to “get into” even a towering Modernist poem like “Sunday Morning.” At the end of class, reflect on what strategies you used to understand the poem (dividing up into smaller sections, paraphrasing, finding patterns, tracing repeated words or images, extracting repeated kinds of statements or questions, visual representation). Finally, make a “cheat-sheet” for how to read difficult poems, for when you and your students face difficult poems in the future.
  2. Austin Allen describes the fascinating publication history of “Sunday Morning.” Before students read his poem guide, have them do some textual analysis of their own. Distribute both versions of the poem—the one published in Poetry in 1915 and the restored version that Stevens preferred, reproduced below—to small groups and ask them to compare: what differences do they notice? What are the effects of those differences? Discuss the groups’ findings together as a class, and then read Allen’s poem guide. Did students’ come up with alternative readings for the versions’ differences? This is a good way to introduce your students to publication histories, and that sometimes poems are published in different versions throughout a poet's life, and even after.
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