John Timberman Newcomb: On "Sunday Morning"

Harmonium offered readers a very different version of "Sunday Morning" from the one they had seen in Poetry in 1915. In Poetry, the fifth and final stanza, now recognized as the seventh stanza, had expressed the exalted paganism of "a ring of men" chanting "Their boisterous devotion to the sun." This ecstasy of human physical feeling, the only divinity of humankind, would then be recreated and sustained by echo throughout the environment. In Harmonium, however, this ringing affirmation of human and natural coexistence was no longer the poem's final emphasis. It was followed by an eighth stanza in which Stevens's persona massively qualified his own construction and brought his divine concept of death down to earth with a resounding thud. Just as the tomb of Jesus was only a cave "where he lay" in physical death, the earth was merely a place where humans live and then die, "an old chaos of the sun" in which the processes of life, embodied by deer and "casual flocks of pigeons," went on oblivious to the echoing chants of human meaning. The imposing position of "Sunday Morning" within Stevens's oeuvre made this subversive ending more than simply another assertion of the world's chaotic meaninglessness. The poem's subject matter, formal precision, and glorious blank-verse line all fostered the expectation of a strong affirmation of man's existence and artistry. The last stanza then functioned to do just the opposite, implying that such an affirmation was no more than an invention of the human mind which tended to vanish once the field of vision was broadened to include the inhuman realities of the earth.

To confront the poem's last stanza thus is to understand better why the eight-stanza version of "Sunday Morning," submitted to Poetry in 1915 as it would appear in Harmonium, had disturbed Monroe into editorial butchery. It must have been incomprehensible to her that the poet would have meant to end on such an anticlimactic note. At that time, Stevens's extreme newness on the scene (and his personal unfamiliarity to her) no doubt enabled her to see his arrangement as the odd fruit of artistic inexperience. Following her own muse, which counseled ending with those triumphantly echoing human chants, she placed Stevens's seventh stanza last. [. . . .] The disturbing effects of ‘Sunday Morning" also produced Arthur Davison Ficke’s bizarre and often quoted remark: "‘Sunday morning’ tantalized me with the sense that perhaps it’s the most beautiful poem ever written, or perhaps just an incompetent obscurity." The total incommensurability of these two alternatives indicated Ficke’s sense of the extent to which the poem challenged readers’ conventional dualisms of form and meaning. Whatever else he meant by it, Ficke certainly implied, as Fletcher and Kreymborg later openly acknowledged, that "Sunday morning" eluded the understanding--which a poem of spectacular affirmation should not do.

From Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons. Copyright © 1992 by the University Press of Mississippi.


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