Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
“Sunday Morning” is an exploration of the position that religious piety should be replaced by a fully lived life. Part of the poem was published in 1915, but the whole was not printed until Harmonium came out. In its final form, “Sunday Morning” is a series of ten fifteen-line stanzas of blank verse. The argument of the poem is just that: an argument between a woman, who feels guilty about not going to church and enjoying “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” instead, and another voice, presumably that of the poet, which tries to persuade her to give up her attachment to dead things and dead ideas. The focus alternates from what is happening in her mind—her objections and preoccupations—and his answers to her.
The woman is interrupted in her enjoyment of the “complacencies of the peignoir” by reflections on death and religion that remind her that the pleasant particulars of the moment are only transitory. Then the other voice asks, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead?” No divinity is worthwhile if it comes “only in silent shadows and dreams.” One should worship where one lives: within and as part of nature. The woman should accept her own divinity as part and reflection of nature.
The woman’s interlocutor then thinks about the development of godhood, from Jove, who was fully inhuman, through Christ, who was partly human, to the new god appropriate to the present, who would be wholly human. With a fully human god, heaven and earth would merge. The woman thinks about this before asking, more or less, how this system can explain away death. He responds that life is more eternal than anything promises of immortality could provide:
There is not any haunt of prophecy,. . . . . . . . . . . . .Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palmRemote on heaven’s hill, that has enduredAs April’s green endures; or will endureLike her remembrance of awakened birdsOr her desire for June and evening.
The woman, though, is interested in personal immortality, which the speaker claims would not even be desirable, because, in the poem’s most famous line, “Death is the mother of beauty.” There is no ripeness without rot, and change, not stasis, brings fulfillment. The speaker imagines a static Paradise and the boredom that it would bring.
He then considers a possible symbol for the new perspective that life in the world would bring; it would not be a religion exactly but a religion substitute. A sun-worship image presents itself, the sun being the symbol of the real, of natural force. The people would dance naked to the sun, an image of energetic life-expending and celebrating. The woman finally accepts the speaker’s proposition hearing
A voice that cries, “The tomb in PalestineIs not the porch of spirits lingering,It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
Accepting the “unsponsored” and isolated (“island”) human situation, she recovers her freedom to live as part of the natural world, described in the conclusion in terms reminiscent of Romantic poet William Wordsworth:
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quailWhistle about us their spontaneous cries;Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness.
Human beings are like the pigeons of the closing lines, whose lives are indecipherable but beautiful in their vulnerability:
casual flocks of pigeons makeAmbiguous undulations as they sink,Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The woman has progressed from an exaggerated seizing of experience to submission to it, and the change shows a growth in understanding. Stevens returns to the theme of this poem again and again throughout his poetic career.
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