Beverly Maeder: On "Sunday Morning"

. . . "Sunday Morning," . . . though it rings with memorable language and sober reflection, . . . ironically inverts heaven's reward and earth's satisfactions, the top and bottom of the hierarchy, rather than devising a new structuring principle. The poem's several subject positions all confront the divine and spiritual with the earthly and bodily. . . .

Section I illustrates the drift from an appreciation of the here and now to an eschatological-oriented belief. "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" first instigate a metonymical and spatial movement. The epicurean woman's whole being is drawn toward another realm, as her "dreaming feet" lead her to the "silent Palestine" of Christ's sacrifice. The final "Dominion of the blood and sepulchre," however, can also be seen as the transformation of the opening coffee and oranges and "sunny chair" induced by the resemblances of metaphor. The woman's sensuous comfort thus finds its analogue in a theological symbol that also has its origins in a bodily life—the wine-and-bread celebration of the Last Supper and the Son's interment.

Picking up the strand of Christ's "blood" and humanity, section III inserts Christ's birth into a double structure. On the one hand, it contains three implied narratives of each of the three divine engenderings. On the other hand, it is a condensed "history" of the evolution of religions: from Jove's motherless "inhuman birth," to the virgin birth of Christ and its "commingling" of our blood, to the possibility of a totally human version.

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. (III, 9-15)

On the surface one might say with Adelaide Kirby Morris that given this pattern, the woman "must then admit the possibility of evolution from 'the thought of heaven' to a divinity that 'must live within herself"' (CP 67) of section Il. Yet even Jove is measured by the "human" standard of the "king," the negation of "inhuman" and "no mother," and the pun in "Large-mannered" (reutilized in "The Man With the Blue Guitar" IV). The narrative of the evolution of religion depends on personification. In addition, the human "hinds" situate Jove hierarchically. They return to recognize the "commingling" (a seemingly nonhierarchical word) of human and divine that defines Christianity, and thus reinforce the hierarchy of earth and "virginal" blood below, and "star" and "heaven" above. The third stage projects an anthropomorphized paradise into the future, leaving "earth" and "sky" in an ambiguous relation.

The hierarchical bias of religious metaphors seems most confining, however, in the implied narrative of each divinity's engendering. These are clustered around the series of representations of human motherhood that ends by integrating "labor" and "pain" (of both working the land and giving birth) into the speaker's imagined "paradise." The vocabulary of this final vision is redolent with double registers that point to a metaphorical contamination of what Kirby calls the divine "within" by a concern with divine origin in the "sky" and "blue" (Mary's color) of heaven, and the "glory" of paradisal splendor. The semantic organization of the entire section keeps returning to the mutual imbrication of physical and divine, even as the section's statements tend to reject past versions of the birth of divine figures because of their vertical perspective. On the other hand, such verticality imbues the stanza's temporal logic. In the story of the expulsion from the earthly Garden of Eden, paradise is origin and first home, while in the promise of a return to God's presence, paradise is heaven but also end as purpose, not only Montaigne's bout but the but he disputed. The reverie of the eschatological "Dominion of blood and sacrifice" that closes section I foreshadows the absorption of the mothering metaphor of section III into a vision of end, in a final hope that the "sky will be much friendlier than now." The course of an individual human life, the fertile engendering by and of "our blood," is made subordinate to the eschatological "enduring love" to which it is compared but can no longer attain.

The palliative to "all our dreams / And our desires" is given by the adage "Death is the mother of beauty" in section V. This formulation is so hypnotizing that it imposes the "need for some imperishable bliss" even on maidens' love, the prelude to mothering. Death "makes the willow shiver in the sun," mingling the promise of death with the maidens' love here on earth. When the phrase "Death is the mother of beauty" is taken up again to close section VI, it introduces another conceptual difficulty: death is a "mystical" mother "Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." Thus, although the section's image of paradise is an image of earth frozen in a stilled moment, the transcendent, not the earthly, is what preconditions the focus of our desires on the sensuous lives embodied in "Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." If the personification of death as a mother is a "bosom"/matrix for actual ("earthly") mothers, it creates a vertical tautology equating death as mother of transformed versions of earth with the earth as the engenderer of stilled figurations of (death's) paradise. Each seems the superfluous mimesis of the other. Paradise is earth malformed just as "Malformed, the world was paradise malformed" ("The Pure Good of Theory" III, CP 332).

Neither do the dynamic relationships that follow in section VII seem to develop alternative metaphors or an alternative structure. Helen Vendler calls this section Stevens' "poem of the Gotterdammerung," a representation of "anachronistic primitivism" in which "prophecies of a new divinity are wistfully and even disbelievingly made."

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; (VII, 1-7)

The archaism of the scene brings us back to our ancestral source as well as to a possible archetypal image of sun worship (already latent in the "sunny chair" of section I). Although Harold Bloom praises this section for the "new order" created out of its "metaleptic reversals of the poem's prior figurations," an order in which followers of the Nietzschean god among man manifest both "origin and purpose," the "return" to the sky can also be read as a repetition of the impeding structure of hierarchicalness found in Stevens' other religious metaphors. The chant denotes idolatry, the submissive worship of a "lord." Its figures are derivative of ancient myth and Judeo-Christian successors of it insofar as they enact stories of "blood," the blood of sacrifice in the chant "of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky," and the blood of reproductive transmission. Blood seems to be the "natural" but male metonymy of the sensuality and sensuousness of maternal "desire/s" of sections II and VI. The section is an ingrown expression of the larger poem's central figures. But the chief impediment to creating a new structure, it seems to me, is the tautological end implied in this disguised eschatology. Indeed, "returning to the sky" closes the circle of the chant's being "of" paradise—a chant about but also from paradise. For the returning chant originates in paradise as well as in the men's blood; it originates, in sum, in the metaphors men have constructed to form paradise.

Thus not only in minor poems but in this major work in Harmonium we find Stevens mining the old theological metaphors even as he tries to debunk them. This metaphor-making depends on "using religious forms to deny religious forms." Stevens' figures rely on anthropomorphism since earth provides the analogues for the divine order. Attempts in "Sunday Morning" to give form to a human-centered vision of sensuous pleasure end up relating them to engendering and dying and to God-centered, transcendent value. The religious metaphors tend to merge the implicit life-narrative into a circle or tautology. Jove and paradise in section II and the return of "men that perish" in the sun's "summer morn" are products of our collective metaphor-making ability or our ability to create ensembles of resemblances. The earth's pleasures are imbricated in rhetorical substitutions that never form any independent pattern but can only deplete the divine by taking an ironic view of the earth as model, as in section VI, or by conceding domination to a metaphor of transcendent power that closes the trope in on itself, as in VII.

To sum up, the family of metaphors centering on motherhood and unfolding to include earth-birth and paradise-death itself illustrates the repeated linkage of questions of origin with questions of end. Sections III, V, and VI exploit metaphors of motherhood, but since the coherence is built on earthly and human figurations in relation to heavenly value, and since the poem's initial female dreamer desires yet doubts the adequacy of the earth, the value of the very concepts of earthly and heavenly paradise are contaminated. The euphoric section VII, on the other hand, turns the speaker's metaphors back around heaven and summer, as though bound to a "source." On the rhetorical level, the rivalry between two hierarchies locks the figuration of death into tableaux that leave the hierarchies intact.

From Wallace Stevens' Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.


Title Beverly Maeder: On "Sunday Morning" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Beverly Maeder Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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