“Sunday Morning,” one of the collected pieces in Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923), has been singled out as one of his most eloquent and thematically resonant poems. Stevens wrote the first version of the poem in 1914, which was published by Poetry the next year. Harriet Monroe, the editor of the journal, omitted three stanzas of the poem for its publication and significantly rearranged the remaining five stanzas. Stevens made considerable changes, especially to the ending, by the time he collected it in Harmonium.
J. Hillis Miller in “William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens,” writes that Stevens’s poetry is “a prolonged exploration, both in theoretical speculation within the poetry itself and in poetic practice, of the power of language not so much to name reality as to uncover it.” This uncovering of reality becomes the focus of “Sunday Morning” as it chronicles one woman’s search for spiritual fulfillment in a philosophical dialogue between her and Stevens’s poetic persona. Throughout the poem, the two examine two contrasting ideologies: that of Christianity and of paganism. The woman must decide which will help her find the spiritual satisfaction she is seeking.
The poet presents compelling arguments through a series of eloquent images centering on the beauty of the natural world. When the woman notes that this beauty is transitory, the poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” insisting that the fact of death enhances beauty. After careful consideration of the poet’s line of reasoning, by the end of the poem, the woman determines that a devotion to earthly pleasures and not the dead religion of the past will provide her with divine bliss.