Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Sunday Morning"

Stevens's search for a rhetoric more than fiction and a nature less than an external fate begins with "Sunday Morning" and its realignment of the Emersonian and romantic dualities. The poem mourns at once the loss of Christian and romantic mythologies, which offer versions of the same fusion of temporal and eternal realities. "Sunday Morning" does not judge religion to be a fiction and Christ to be but a man in order to exhort us to a species of nature worship. For Stevens portrays the world of sense impressions as a fantastic play of surfaces. The painterly interior, the various trees and fruits, "April's green," and the cockatoo, swallows, and pigeons—birds represented, literary, or "observed"—all become equally phantasmal, passing like "things in some procession of the dead." In these terms, the sun-worshippers of stanza 7 reduce to mere "personae of summer" (CP, 377 ), their bookish status reinforced by Biblical imagery, for pantheism would be as foreign as the religion of Palestine when the sky itself is "isolated" and appears as alien as the "icy Elysee" (CP, 56) seems to a temporal speaker. The poem proceeds by contrasting the surfaces and the depths of things: the surfaces of nature—its false flicks and forms, its rhetoric—contrast with its depths, which turn out to be internal to the subject. A "wide water" silently flows below the welter of visible and audible phenomena, and, in contrast to the sensory experience of surfaces, this archetypal river of the unconscious carries the truth of "blood." The river of meditation courses to death—the "dominion of the blood and sepulchre"—and to erotic reveries of "supple and turbulent" men; Christian and romantic mythologies only code its natural course.

Thus Stevens dislocates the Emersonian alignment of nature with fate and the mind with freedom. The imagistic contrast of light and dark in the first stanza corresponds to the thematic contrast of freedom and fate, life and death, rhetoric and truth, the claims of the life of the senses and the life of the mind. It is nature and its sensuous attractions that are free, and their extravagant, ornamental "rhetoric" cannot satisfy the mind. For the mind and its course of meditation give us access to the truth of Eros and Thanatos. In Stevens's realignment, the mind alone knows nature: an undomesticated nature that is more than "a widow's bird" (CP, 18) is accessible only in the meditation of the "virile" poet. When Stevens announces, "Death is the mother of beauty," he is talking not only about the changes in nature that constitute its rhetorical appeal to the senses—senses equipped to register and take pleasure in change—but about the truth of the mind. For the seasonal repetitions of nature are temporal changes and intimate death only to the human consciousness, and these temporal changes open up the mental space of remembrance and anticipation, of memory and desire (stanza 4), of poetry and its measures. Death is the mother of the imagination—of the mind and memory, the "muttering" that engenders "myths" in the "burning bosom" of a destructive mother. The final stanza reaffirms this alignment:

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. [CP, 70]

Our dependence on the "chaos" of natural processes, our "freedom" from sponsoring deities, and our being constituted "of that wide water" are grammatical appositives and substantive equivalents. The "wide water" is the "wide water" of stanza 1—the inseparable and inescapable concourse of Eros, death, and meditation that constitutes us and our freedom. In linking the mind with death, Stevens is able to displace the terms of the Emersonian debate: freedom and fate are no longer aligned with the subject and object. Stevens's existential project is to show that our freedom is our fate, our discourse is our nature, our imagination is our destruction.

"Sunday Morning" also marks the beginning of Stevens's stylistic development beyond the reductive dichotomy of rhetoric and meters that arrested Emerson's growth as a poet. In Stevens, the discursive and the Orphic modes are not polar opposites but inflections of the same conventional, exoteric, poetic voice. The range and flexibility of Stevens's diction and blank verse enable him to incorporate the course of nature and the discourse of the mind in the same internal monologue. In the first stanza of "Sunday Morning," for example, he signals the shift from observation to meditation with a switch in diction from polysyllabic, Latinate words to one- or two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words; with vocalic modulations from front or "light" vowels to back or "dark" vowels; with metrical variations like the increased use of trochees and spondees; and with an insistence on alliteration, assonance, and repetition:

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. [CP, 66-67]

The fatal truth has been internalized as an inflection of a poetic language that traces the course of an explicitly eccentric and inherently rhetorical meditation.

The language of "Sunday Morning" remains nostalgic, however, and Stevens has difficulty in developing a form that does not rely on the "magnificent measure" (CP, 13) of the English romantics yet can register the truth of rhetoric, the centrality of an explicitly eccentric poetic language. His development of a language both exoteric and central leads through an excessively rhetorical style that remains merely exoteric and thus is ironic about its decorative excesses. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," for example, engages this issue. Isabel G. MacCaffrey writes that the methodology of the poem, as well as its subject, addresses the "relationship between opaque, visceral depths and dazzling verbal surfaces," and she suggests that the poem rejects its own rhetoric as "inadequate, bombastic, bland, or self-deceiving," so that another, counter "meaning" can be apprehended "behind the words," which is the "wordless world" of Eros and Thanatos. Stevens's rejection of his own rhetoricity comes in the lines,

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,

Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,

Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog

Boomed from his very belly odious chords. [CP, 17 ]

which pass judgment, in Harold Bloom's words, on "all amorous diction." Nevertheless, however inadequate it may be to Eros, rhetoric remains the necessary substitution by which love becomes love, for even the chords of the frog's mating call are natural substitutions for the "foremost law":

If sex were all, then every trembling hand

Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.

But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,

That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout

Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth

The "foremost law" is itself apprehended in and as substitution. If we are fated, we are fated to substitute one thing for another, to remain at the edge, and to play with words—"le monocle de mon oncle"—stringing together metaphoric or phonetic substitutions. For the poem demonstrates that no one language is more natural or less rhetorical than another.

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

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Criticism Overview
Title Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Sunday Morning" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mutlu Konuk Blasing Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms
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