Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Waking Early Sunday Morning” is the first section in the long poem called “Near the Ocean”; it attempts to find some relief or escape from humanity’s disturbed, anxious, and apparently unnatural condition. It begins with that desire for an instinctual escape: “O to break loose, like the chinook/ salmon jumping and falling back.” This leads to a childhood memory of freedom, “the unpolluted joy/ and criminal leisure of a boy.” Such escapes are quickly closed, however, and the imagery shifts to the “sure of foot” and natural “vermin” in the walls of his house. In addition, dawn brings no renewal in this fallen world but only “business as usual in eclipse.” Everything is stained or tarnished, so the speaker turns to religion, to the congregation at Sunday worship; however, that is no solution. Each day God recedes and “shines through a darker glass.”
Having rejected the impossible instinctual life and the evasive spiritual one, he turns to another possibility: “O to break loose. All life’s grandeur/ is something with a girl in summer.” Love (or sex), however, has lost its power in a politically dominated world in which “earth licks its open sores” and man is “thinning out his kind.” The last stanza reduces the escape to a plea for mercy.
Pity the planet, all joy gonefrom this sweet volcanic cone;peace to our children when they fallin small war on the heels of smallwar—until the end of timeto police the earth, a ghostorbiting forever lostin our monotonous sublime.
The Vietnam War and American foreign policy in general do not bring peace, only war upon war. Noble aims have become illusory, ghostlike, and all joy is gone from the planet. The image of humankind “orbiting forever lost” is frightening and unrelieved. The universal desire to be free is frustrated not only by human nature but even more so by an environment of war and hostility.