The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In its final form, “Sunday Morning” consists of eight self-contained, fifteen-line strophes, written in Wallace Stevens’s customary version of blank verse. The speaker’s meditation on life, death, and change is presented through a description of a woman who prefers the world of the senses to “The holy hush of ancient sacrifice” associated with religious practice, but who is not really sure that she can be satisfied with temporary delights.

The stage is set with a description of the woman’s Sunday morning, when the effects of vibrant colors and relaxation are dissipated by the call of religious services. The poet, however, questions why the woman should be distracted from her enjoyment of life by a religion that is available “Only in silent shadows and in dreams.” Rejecting the pallid consolations of spiritual belief, the speaker says that she must find divinity “within herself.”

In the third strophe, Stevens evokes Jove as a representative of the inhuman gods of ancient religious belief. Jesus, because he was partly human, was a step forward but not the final stage in the evolution of divinity. Humans should recognize that their own divinity should be enough, since it is the only thing upon which they can finally rely. If they accept that there is nothing beyond this world, they will be able to enjoy the world for what it is: “The sky will be much friendlier then than now// Not this dividing and indifferent blue.”

The woman speaks in the fourth and fifth strophes, saying that although she finds contentment in earthly beauty, she still needs “some imperishable bliss.” The poet responds that permanence is not only impossible, it is also unnatural and undesirable. The fifth and sixth strophes use vivid imagery to present the major theme that “Death is the mother of beauty” and that impermanence is essential to the human ability to perceive beauty.

The final sections of “Sunday Morning” present images conveying what the poet regards as proper celebrations of the bonds between humans and the natural world. In the last strophe, the woman hears a voice that denies the divinity of Jesus, and the poem ends with the poet’s final evocation of the transitory beauties of the world.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Sunday Morning” is composed of self-contained strophes, all of the same length; the order of the final version is different from that of the poem’s original form. The basic line in all Stevens’s longer poems is a solemn and somewhat heavy blank verse, employing iambic pentameter and making use of echoing sounds rather than end rhyme. In the second strophe, for example, successive lines begin with the words “Passions,” “Grievings,” “Elations,” and “Emotions.” At several points in the poem, the verse has a majestic quality and an intensity that are used to emphasize the strength of the poem’s message. This is especially the case in the final seven lines of the poem, where deer, the whistling cry of quail, and the sweetness of ripening berries represent the attractions of the natural world.

“Sunday Morning” makes much use of assertions and rhetorical questions that are designed to cast doubt on the validity of traditional religious belief. The poem, however, presents its message primarily through imagery, much of it evoking bright colors, movement, and vivid tastes and smells to provide a contrast to the dimness and insubstantiality of spiritual appeals. Death, as it brings “sure obliteration,” is an active and positive force, imaged through verbs such as “strews,” “shiver,” and “stray impassioned.” Passion and other strong emotions are possible only because one knows that life is only temporary. The description...

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

This term, associated with an important artistic movement during the first few decades of the twentieth century, was...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

The poem takes the form of a conversation or philosophical dialogue between the central character, a woman who is...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1920s: The modernist writers during this period reflect Americans’ growing sense of disillusionment with the tenets of Christianity....

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Draw an illustration of the opening scene of the poem, as the woman is contentedly lounging at home.

T. S. Eliot’s famous poem...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Wallace Stevens: Voice of a Poet, released by Random House in March 2002, features poetry read by Stevens himself.

(The entire section is 18 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1925) offers another poetic examination of loss of faith in Christianity. The poem is considered to be...

(The entire section is 123 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, “The Rock and Final Lyrics,” in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Cornell University...

(The entire section is 468 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.