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Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”, as many of his poems, combines almost austerely complex intellectual puzzles and abstract tone with sensuous and striking imagery. Written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, it uses a mixture of strong concrete words with polysyllabic abstractions, to give theological conundrums, as it were, a local habitation and a name. As the title suggests, a Sunday Morning is normally associated with church-going, but the female protagonist of the poem is observing nature rather than participating in a religious ceremony. She meditates about the relationship of God to nature, and the poem concludes on the double note of the tomb in Palestine being Jesus’ grave and the pigeons descending into darkness; neither are eventually the eternal and constant ideal she seeks.
One way of helpfully analysing this poem is thinking about how it exemplifies the conflict between belief and doubt. The woman featured in this poem is clearly oscillating in terms of belief and doubt as she has a dialogue with the speaker about spiritual matters. At the start of this text, lines such as "the green freedom of a cockatoo" suggest that the woman is enjoying the natural world and receptive to its wonder. However, after this moment of reverie, doubt seems to creep in about the choice she has made, and, whilst simultaneously enjoying nature she becomes ever more aware of how temporary these joys are. This instills a doubt that leads her to believe that salvation can be attained through a reversion to Christian traditions.
As the poem continues, the speaker makes every attempt to make her rejoice once more in nature whilst this woman battles to continue believing in her traditional theology through debating a series of Christian issues such as the nature of earth and the natural order and how their glories will compare to the heavenly glories of the afterlife. Interestingly, she eschews the poet's idea of a visceral, spiritual connection to nature, saying "I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss," which she believes Christianity offered her.
In contrast to such specious arguments, however, the speaker maintains that divinity is something that we must look for internally, and that the only way this can be achieved is through a communion with the natural world. Slowly but surely, the speaker manages to steer her towards doubt in her traditional religious beliefs. She returns once more to her belief in the freedom of nature by the end of the poem:
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The woman's connection with the freedom and belief in the beauty that is to be found in the natural world is cemented through this picture of pigeons on "extended wings."
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