Sunday Morning Essays and Criticism
by Wallace Stevens

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Carpe Diem

(Poetry for Students)

carpe diem, a Latin phrase from Horace’s Odes, translates into “seize the day.” The phrase became a common literary motif, especially in lyric poetry and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English love poetry. The most famous poems that incorporate this motif include Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress,” Edward Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Modern writers have also employed the motif, most notably Henry James in The Ambassadors and “the Beast in the Jungle,” and obviously Saul Bellow in Seize the Day.

Typically the speaker in a poem that uses carpe diem as its theme proposes that since death is inevitable and time is fleeting, the listener, often a reluctant virgin, should take advantage of the sensual pleasures the speaker reveals to her.

Wallace Stevens puts a modern spin on this traditional carpe diem theme in his celebrated poem, “Sunday Morning.” Like his poetic predecessors, he directs his speaker to advise a woman to experience sensual pleasures but not as a prerequisite to losing her virginity. Stevens’s speaker urges the woman in the poem to turn from a devotion to Christian doctrines to a spiritual connection with the natural world. Stevens combines the traditional and modern in poem’s presentation of the carpe diem theme to suggest that a celebration of earthly pleasures can result in freedom from the strict confines of Christianity.

Most poems present a classical point of view in their expression of the carpe diem theme, reflecting the pagan spirit in nature as the speakers try to convince their listeners to give themselves up to sensual experience. For example, in Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress,” the speaker’s goal is to convince a young woman to join him and become like “amorous birds of prey” and “tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life.”

“Sunday Morning” reverses the order of this classical tradition. The woman begins the poem effectively “seizing the day” by not going to church on Easter Sunday, as is traditionally expected of practicing Christians. She instead spends a leisurely morning lounging in her peignoir, contentedly indulging in the sensual pleasures of breakfast in a “sunny chair.” Stevens introduces his main theme in this first stanza through his depiction of the “green” freedom of a cockatoo that she has released from its cage. Throughout the poem, Stevens will assert his point that one should seize the day through a celebration of the natural world, not of traditional Christian theology, to experience true freedom and fulfillment.

The title becomes an apt thematic pun. On this Sunday, a traditional Christian day set aside to worship the son of God, a woman is enjoying a day of nature’s sun. Yet, when she recognizes the mutability of the natural world, she experiences a spiritual dread, compounded by her turning away from the rituals of Christianity. As a result, she allows the “encroachment of that old catastrophe” and finds herself passing “over the seas, to silent Palestine,” with its promise of eternal life. By the end of the stanza, the woman has exchanged an earthly ritual for a religious one. She turns from her breakfast of oranges and coffee to thoughts of the bread and wine communion.

For the rest of the poem, Stevens turns to the traditional carpe diem structure, with the speaker trying to convince the young woman to seize the day; the methods he suggests to accomplish this, however, reflect a modern loss of faith in traditional religion and an impetus toward individual freedom.

Throughout the poem, Stevens presents images of a fearful, death-obsessed Christianity. He juxtaposes the natural world associated with light with the Christian world of darkness, another ironic reversal of Christian symbolism. Thoughts of the death of Christ on this Easter Sunday come in only in darkness (stanza 1) and...

(The entire section is 11,781 words.)