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
“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 of a human ritual in the seventh section makes use of energetic images: “Supple and turbulent,” “boisterous,” “savage.”
On the other hand, in an imagined paradise, there is “no change of death,” but only rivers that never reach the sea, ripe fruit that never falls...
(The entire section is 2,804 words.)