Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Stevens’s lifelong conviction that poetry and poets must take the place of religion and priests to provide form and meaning for human life is implicit in “Sunday Morning,” not explicit, as it would become in his later poetry. “Sunday Morning,” however, does clear the way for those poems, and it establishes basic themes that Stevens would employ in all of his subsequent work.
The most important of these themes is the idea that human perception of beauty requires the recognition that everything earthly is temporary. Everyone will die, everything will change; permanence must be recognized as an illusion. Christianity, Judaism, or any religion promising permanence is false because it envisions a paradise that is something like our earth but without the inherent changes in earth’s life and circumstance.
This does not mean that religious emotion must be stifled, only that it must find a more appropriate outlet. This new form is presented in the seventh strophe, and it amounts to the worship of nature and the integral connection between humans and the rest of the natural world. The men in this image, dancing in an orgy, celebrate the sun as the natural source of life, present with them, and the tune they chant is composed of the objects in the world around them.
At the time he wrote “Sunday Morning,” Stevens had not yet developed fully the idea that all systems of order are necessarily fictions, fulfilling a need all humans have for fictions that will make life seem comprehensible. Since religion, in his view, had failed to provide a meaningful order, poetry would have to do so. This idea would receive extended treatment in works such as Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942). While celebrating “chaos,” “Sunday Morning” also anticipates the later theme by suggesting that aspects of religion, such as worship and ritual, are important to human existence.
“Sunday Morning” has remained one of Stevens’s best-known poems. Written at the beginning of his career as a poet, this poem introduces the themes that would dominate his verse, and it establishes a unique poetic manner. It is most memorable, finally, for its vivid use of color and action imagery and for its romantic evocation of the natural world.