By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Sunday morning is a great time to sit back, relax, and read a bit of poetry. And below we’ve gathered together six of the finest poems about Sunday: you might consider this poetry’s ‘Sunday best’. From meditations on prayer and church to staying at home and pondering the bigger questions of life, these six classic Sunday poems are ideal Sunday reading.
George Herbert, ‘Prayer (I)’.
Herbert (1593-1633) sent his poems to a friend Nicholas Ferrar with the instruction that his friend should publish them or destroy them, depending on whether he thought they were any good, is now revered as one of the greatest poets of the Early Modern period.
In ‘Prayer’, an example of a sonnet, Herbert finds numerous ways of describing prayer, including ‘man well drest’, i.e. all done up in his Sunday best ready for church. What better way to kick off a selection of the best Sunday poems than with a poem about dressing for church?
Emily Dickinson, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church’.
This poem turns the idea of ‘going to church’ on a Sunday right on its head: Dickinson recreates the ‘church’ within her own home, with a ‘Bobolink’ (a bird) as the chorister, and God as the ultimate ‘Clergyman’ leading the service.
Truly Emily Dickinson – who lived as a hermit at her father’s home throughout her life – knew what it was to have a personal Jesus…
Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’.
This longer poem first appeared in 1915 in the magazine Poetry, although the fuller version was only published in Harmonium in 1923. Yvor Winters, an influential critic of modernist poetry and a minor modernist in his own right, pronounced ‘Sunday Morning’ to be ‘the greatest American poem of the twentieth century’.
The poem, which is a meditation on not being a Christian, offers a different view of Sunday from George Herbert’s Sunday poem above, and is more in keeping with Dickinson’s poem. ‘Sunday Morning’ centres on a woman who stays at home, lounging around, on a Sunday morning, when virtually everyone else is at church. The poem includes the statement that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Piano’.
An exercise in nostalgia in long couplets, ‘Piano’ sees Lawrence (pictured right) recalling his childhood when he listened to his mother playing the piano, while sitting under it and holding his mother’s feet as she played. This memory opens up a ‘vista’ into the past which includes longing for the Sunday evenings of the speaker’s childhood.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’.
It’s a bold poet who uses, as the single-word opening line for a poem, the word ‘Polyphiloprogenitive’ (meaning, more or less, ‘fond of producing offspring’).
In this challenging quatrain poem, Eliot explores religious ideas as we go from ‘sapient sutlers’ (wise merchants) to Sweeney, Eliot’s modern knuckle-dragging man, who’s swilling waters in his bath. Baffling but utterly beguiling.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Sunday Morning’.
The form of this poem, describing a Sunday morning with its church bells, a man tinkering with his car, and someone practising scales on a piano, is curious: it’s written in rhyming couplets but has fourteen lines, suggesting the sonnet form – and, indeed, MacNeice even describes Sunday morning as being ‘a sonnet self-encased in rhyme’. This is another poem focusing on a moment, described as ‘this Now’.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.