In Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning," why is Palestine described as the "dominion of the blood and the sepulcher"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning,” Palestine is called “Dominion of the blood and sepulcher” (15) for a number of possible reasons.

  • The woman mentioned in the first stanza of the poem seems to be staying home on a Sunday morning, dressed in a nightgown and drinking coffee and eating oranges, rather than doing what is traditionally and conventionally done on Sunday mornings: going to church. Physical relaxation and pleasure seem to appeal to her more at the moment than traditional religious observances do. Thus the reference to Palestine as a place associated with blood and with a tomb starkly contrasts her pleasurable self-indulgence with the gruesome violence and sacrificial death associated with the story of the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • As she meditates about religion, the woman wonders why she should sacrifice her own current pleasure and happiness by giving “her bounty to the dead” (16). She seems to long for spiritual insights that can be associated with the pleasures and loveliness of nature, such as

. . . pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

. . . any balm or beauty of the earth . . . . (20-21)

Does spirituality need to be associated (she wonders?) with death and violent sacrifice (as it often has been, and as it certainly has been in Christianity)?  Can’t spiritual insights (she wonders) be prompted by “Passions of rain or moods in falling snow” (24)?  At this point, the woman might be accused of a kind of naïve Romanticism that emphasizes only the joys and beauties of nature.  However, part of the power of Stevens’ poem lies in the fact that the alternative he imagines to Christianity does not deny death or sorrow or suffering.  Instead, the poem mentions, as sources of spiritual inspiration, such phenomena as “Grievings in loneliness,  . . . All pleasures and all pains,” both “The bough of summer and the winter branch” (25, 28-29; emphasis added).

  • By the time the poem reaches its rich conclusion, then, the woman is able to imagine hearing

A voice that cries, “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 a human (not a god); Jesus died, as all humans die; and the value of Jesus’s life lies not in the supposed fact that he was god but in the simple fact that he was a human being, like other human beings, whose life was valuable in and of itself, not for any reason “higher” than that. He was part of

. . . the heavenly fellowship

Of men that perish, and of summer morn. 102-03)

This, at least, is what Stevens’ poem suggests about spirituality and religion in general, and about Christian spirituality and religion in particular.

 

 

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