Janet McCann: On "Sunday Morning"

"Sunday Morning" offers one of Stevens's first substitutes for Christianity: natural religion, or paganism. Stevens said very little about this poem after writing it, other than to note in 1928 that "the poem is simply an expression of paganism" (LWS, 250) and later, in 1944, to indicate that Hi Simons was correct in assuming that the poem suggests "a naturalistic religion as a substitute for supernaturalism" (LWS, 464). Stevens tended to dismiss questions about or interpretations of this poem. His offhandedness about what remains perhaps his most anthologized work may suggest that he thought the poem's interpretation to be clear and obvious. His dismissiveness may also have implied that the poem's propositions did not preoccupy him further or later. And yet they clearly did: the "Sunday Morning" questions recur in various guises on through the writing of his last work.

One of the more traditional in form of Stevens's poems, "Sunday Morning" consists of blank-verse sections of varying lengths. The poem develops as an argument between two voices: the tentative, questioning tones of the woman, whose enjoyment of the pleasures of this world is cut by the awareness of death, and another, more authoritative voice that seeks to reassure her that the world is enough to satisfy, that in fact it is all the satisfaction there is. . . .

In the first section, the woman is enjoying "complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" (CP, 66), but the very enjoyment of life leads her to realize its transience, to remember her church--which she is nor attending at the time--and to allow fear and guilt to disturb her pleasure. The second section picks up the argument with the other voice, which asks, "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" Should not this world provide compensation for the lost heaven? She should embrace her own divinity, the other voice suggests, and let herself be a mirror of the nature that engendered her and of which she is a part. . . .

One with nature, she should not try to separate herself from it and redefine herself as something unnatural or supernatural.

The third section takes up the hiistory of divinity, tracing godhead from the totally inhuman Jove through the partly human Jesus to the fully human god suggested by the poem. To invest the human with the divine would make earth into paradise, the sky becoming fully our own rather than a division between earth and heaven. The fourth section returns to the woman's perspective. She is not entirely willing to accept the argument because she realizes that the paradise offered is not permanent. The other voice then assures her that there is a permanence, a permanence of the human, although not of the individual. To her claim in part 5 that she needs individual continuity, the other voice offers the consolation that "Death is the mother of beauty" (CP, 69): the cycle of ripening, fruition, and decay causes desire, which would not exist without the realization of transience. The sixth section hypothesizes a static heaven in which the ripe fruit never falls; such a place would be boring, not beautiful. Only change causes beauty, and change entails beginnings and endings; hence, "Death is the mother of beauty."

The alternative to Christianity is suggested in part 7--"a ring of men" chanting "their boisterous devotion to the sun" (CP, 70). Human energy should recognize the source of nature's energy as kin; this recognition would reestablish the participation of humans in nature, which is not so much mystical as actual. This argument is presented as a conclusive one, and the woman accepts it. Her recognition that Jesus is a historical figure and that she is alone, a part of "unsponsored" nature, frees her from the prison in which her traditional beliefs had locked her, The conclusion, a merging of the woman's perception with that of the other voice, is a Wordsworth-like picture of the sweet earth, with overtones of an elegy for the notion of personal immortality. The joined voices proclaim that we are no different from the "casual flocks of pigeons" (CP, 70) whose flight is not patterned but casual, and whose indecipherable movements or "ambiguous undulations" (CP, 70) are nevertheless a form of untranslatable language, a kind of inscription or self-definition that is natural rather than superimposed. Stevens's later work is preoccupied with the notion that true order must be found in nature rather than forced on it, but he later finds orders different from the simple natural rhythms.

This poem uses the figure of the woman to work through the objections to the discarding of Christianity. Stevens himself is both the woman and her opponent. "Sunday Morning" is the first full presentation of Stevens's lifelong central motif, the search for a sustaining fiction. But the answers he provides are clearly problematic to him as well as to the reader. Parts 7 and 8 both seem to be conclusions, but they do not cohere. "Boisterous devotion" characterizes part 7: the reborn pagan males seek to merge with the life source, yielding their individuality to its larger identity. Part 8, however, is muted. The lushness of nature affords no participation mystique but rather suggests isolation and separation. The freedom the woman has won by relinquishing her Christian faith provides no real compensation except a sense of the vulnerability of all nature. Stevens allowed Harriet Monroe to publish the poem with part 7 last, embedding part 8 earlier in the narrative (LWS,183-84). It would seem that be did not know exactly where he wanted the poem to go or how seriously he wanted the paganism to be taken. Paganism does offer a form of transcendence, whereas simple identification with the natural cycles does not. His choice of elegy over energy seems to negate the scene of the sun worshipers, which then appears artificial and contrived in contrast with the poem's ending.

From Wallace Stevens revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright 1995 by Twayne Publishers.


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