The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Waking Early Sunday Morning” is a long lyric poem, a meditation on mortality in fourteen eight-line stanzas. The title invites comparison with Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” and indeed the poem may be read as Robert Lowell’s pessimistic, Puritan-tinged reply to Stevens’s celebration of an earthly paradise. Stevens evokes a lushly fertile world in which the “balm and beauty of the earth” is heaven enough, but, in Lowell’s vision, the earth is no longer a garden but an exhausted volcano, its violence all but spent, “a ghost/ orbiting forever lost” in a universe empty of meaning. The poem is written in the first person, both singular and plural, so that the speaker is sometimes “I” and sometimes “we.” The speaker, implicitly Lowell himself, moves from the personal to the prophetic, expressing first a desire for freedom, then a wistful longing for lost religious faith, and finally regret for the doomed planet and its children fated to fall “in small war on the heels of small/ war.”

“Waking Early Sunday Morning” is an internal journey through the thoughts of the speaker as he awakens. The poem begins with a dreaming image of freedom and escape, the wish to “break loose” like a salmon swimming against the current, leaping and finally clearing the waterfall to reach its native stream. Yet the image carries its own darkness: The salmon braves the current only to “spawn and die.” The second stanza finds...

(The entire section is 506 words.)