By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Sunday Morning’ is one of Wallace Stevens’s most celebrated poems. It first appeared in 1915 in the magazine Poetry, although the fuller version was only published in Stevens’s landmark collection 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, can be read here before proceeding to our summary and analysis.
‘Sunday Morning’: a summary of the poem
‘Sunday Morning’ is divided into eight sections or stanzas, and focuses on a woman who stays at home, lounging around, on a Sunday morning, when virtually everyone else is at church.
In the first stanza, we find the woman lounging around in her ‘peignoir’ (a dressing gown), drinking coffee and eating oranges with her green cockatoo. Although she isn’t at church, the religious significance of Sunday morning keeps encroaching on her consciousness, with the ‘old catastrophe’ and ‘ancient sacrifice’ (i.e. the Crucifixion) in her thoughts. At the end, she half-dreams she is in Palestine, the site of Jesus’ sacrifice, and the ‘sepulchre’ (i.e. Jesus’ tomb).
The second stanza, although still spoken by Stevens (or an impersonal speaker roughly equating to the poet), channels the inner thoughts of this woman, allowing her thoughts to be relayed to use direct, in her own words (this is akin to what is called free indirect speech in fiction). Why, the woman wonders, slightly resentfully, should she give up her time to the dead, i.e. Jesus? Is religion worth anything if it can only be glimpsed through rather indirect, intangible means, like ‘shadows’ and ‘dreams’?
The rest of this second section sees the woman adopting a sort of pantheism whereby she finds divinity in the natural world around her, in her green cockatoo, and in the weather and the seasons.
The third stanza contrasts Jove, another name for the Roman king of the gods, Jupiter, with Jesus. The pagan god Jove is not honoured and revered the way Jesus is by Christians. Unlike Jesus, who assumed human form through the Virgin Mary (‘virginal’) and whose coming was heralded by a ‘star’, Jove did not assume human form and walk among mortals in the same way.
The woman wonders whether the sky is empty or whether it really does contain the ‘heavens’. Is earth the only paradise there is, or is there a paradise up there, in Heaven?
The fourth stanza actually sees the woman of ‘Sunday Morning’ speaking out loud, rather than the speaker relaying her inner (unspoken) thoughts. It shows that, whilst the wonders of the world endure (the ‘April green endures’ because every spring the trees and plants come into flower again), the revelations of divinity have not, in the modern world – not to people like the woman at the centre of ‘Sunday Morning’, anyway.
The fifth stanza sees the woman developing her line of thought from the previous stanza. Is the contentment of watching the birds taking off, of taking pleasure in the ‘paradise’ of earthly sights, really enough? Can we be ‘content’ with mere ‘contentment’?
Death, we are told in a famous quotation, is the ‘mother of beauty’: we find beauty in the knowledge that things do not last, that they are short-lived and will die.
The sixth stanza sees the speaker of the poem (almost certainly still ventriloquising the thoughts of the woman) wondering whether things die in ‘paradise’ or Heaven, if it exists. When the fruit grows ripe, does it not fall from the tree? Again, the speaker asserts that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’: anywhere that calls itself paradise must surely contain death, in order to be beautiful.
The seventh stanza returns to the alternative system of worship to Christianity – namely paganism – mentioned in the third stanza of ‘Sunday Morning’. Here, though, we’re not in the realm of Jove, but witnessing an (imagined) ‘orgy’ or ritual whereby naked men walk around in a ring, chanting their devotion to the sun, which they worship like a god.
The eighth and final stanza of ‘Sunday Morning’ returns to where it began: the woman sitting in her chair of a Sunday morning. She hears a voice talking about Palestine as the place of Jesus’ tomb, not the abode of spirits: it’s just a place where the body of a man (not a god) named Jesus was buried.
The speaker of the poem concludes that we are ‘unsponsored’ and ‘free’ – i.e. without supernatural supervision or punishment. The world of nature is all around us, and the sky doesn’t contain any heavenly deities, just flocks of pigeons flying in the evening.
‘Sunday Morning’: an analysis of the poem
Stevens writes ‘Sunday Morning’ in blank verse – also known as unrhymed iambic pentameter. This is the perfect choice for a longer, meditative poem which takes in some big themes (religion, the natural world, and the afterlife, not to mention what ‘bliss’ or happiness there is to be derived from life). It’s often said that iambic pentameter is the closest metre to natural human speech, so it allows Stevens to strike a confidential tone as he takes in these grand ideas.
But his verse is, like the vision of the world in that final stanza, ‘free’ in that it is unrhymed. (Note: the poem is not written in free verse, since its metre follows the rhythm of iambic pentameter, whereas free verse doesn’t have a set metre. We mean it’s ‘free’ just in the sense that it doesn’t rhyme.)
In many ways, Stevens’s poem can be viewed as part of a Romantic tradition in poetry, stretching back a century earlier to John Keats (who wrote, memorably, in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ that the bird ‘dwells with beauty – beauty that must die’), William Wordsworth, and others. Romanticism was often about poets finding a sort of divinity and awe in the natural world, rather than looking to the heavens and to God to provide this sense of mystical wonder. ‘Sunday Morning’, when analysed from this perspective, is a belated Romantic poem.
But Stevens is usually categorised as a modernist poet. How is ‘Sunday Morning’ modernist? How might be pinpoint and analyse its modernist features?
For one, modernist writing tends to be marked by indeterminacy and ambiguity: a modernist poem poses and inspires more questions than it answers. Some classic examples are H. D.’s ‘The Pool’ (which even begins and ends with a question) and T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (where the ‘overwhelming question’ itself isn’t even known).
And for all of its questioning and wondering about the nature of ‘paradise’, religion, and the natural world, ‘Sunday Morning’ is marked by Stevens’s reluctance to draw a clear line about whether the skies are empty (except for those pigeons) or whether the possibility remains open.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.