How and why is Christianity relevant to the meanings of Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Christianity is an enormously important theme in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning," as the very title of the poem implies. Christianity was the dominant religion of the culture in which Stevens wrote, and so Stevens' poem, which is an extended meditation on religion, inevitably discusses Christianity.

As the poem opens, a complacent woman, instead of being in church on Sunday morning, is relaxing at home, consuming "Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" (2). Yet it isn't long before she begins to think about

silent Palestine,

Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. (14-15)

It was in Palestine that Christianity was born when Christ was crucified on the cross.

In stanza II of the poem, the woman ponders the attractions of natural beauty as an alternative to the demands of an ancient religion that seems to have no strong connections to the palpable beauties of this present earthly life:

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams? (16-18)

By the end of stanza II, she seems to have arrived at an alternative to Christianity that anticpates some recent "new age" beliefs: "Divinity must live within herself" (23). She also seems to have imagined a natural alternative to traditional Christianity -- an alternative that can embrace both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of nature:

All pleasures and all pains, . . . [both]

The bough of summer and the winter branch. (28-29)

Stanza III briefly (and somewhat mockingly) discusses the pagan religion of the Greeks, but then it suggests that the Christian religion sought to unite the previously separate divine and the human realms by inventing the god-man known as Christ:

. . . our blood, commingling, virginal,

With heaven, brought such requital to desire

The very hinds [that is, the Biblical shepherds] discerned it, in a star. (36-38)

In stanza IV, the speaker rejects a variety of different religious myths, including the Judeo-Christian myth of paradise associated with "heaven's hill" (56). In place of these figments of the human imagination, the speaker celebrates humanity's appreciation of the beauties of nature, including the woman's

. . . remembrance of awakened birds,

Or her desire for June and evening, tipped

By the consummation of the swallow's wings. (58-60)

In stanza V, however, the woman expresses the need of "some imperishable bliss" (62) -- some happiness that will transcend mutability. In this stanza, however, the speaker suggests that an awareness of death and mutability is precisely what causes humans to perceive beauty and also create it.

In stanza VI, the speaker contrasts this realistic perception of death with the fantasies of immutability offered by religions such as Christianity: "Is there no change of death in paradise?" (76).

Stanza VII celebrates "the heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn" (102-03).

Finally, stanza VIII returns to the heavy, explicit emphasis on Christianity found in stanza I and offers this response to the woman's earlier concerns:

. . . "The tomb in Palestine

Is not the porch of spirits lingering.

It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay." (107-09)

In other words, Jesus was not a god; he was a human being, and, like all human beings, he died. However, his death did not diminish the value of his life. Death, after all, is "the mother of beauty" (88), just as it is also the mother of any and all meanings, as this poem has sought to show.


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