The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

“Waking Early Sunday Morning” uses a relatively strict and demanding metrical form: the iambic tetrameter or four-beat couplet. Each of its fourteen stanzas contains four couplets or eight lines. Though the form and meter echo Marvell’s “The Garden,” Lowell’s poem is modern in its diction and subject matter, and the regularity of form is varied by Lowell’s use of off-rhyme. In stanza 3, for example, Lowell rhymes “night” with “foot” and “sun’s” with “dawns.” These slight irregularities, together with Lowell’s use of three seven-syllable lines in the last stanza, give the poem an edge that keeps the reader from being lulled by its musicality.

The word pairs Lowell chooses for rhymes, and even his line breaks, often challenge the reader’s expectations. “Waking Early Sunday Morning” does not actually break poetic rules, but it defies poetic conventions, as when the speaker, in the midst of a visionary exhortation (“O to break loose”), suddenly breaks in with “Stop, back off.” The voice abruptly becomes more casual, more intimate. There are similar shifts in diction throughout the poem. Sometimes the speaker is musing, personal, and introspective; sometimes he is almost biblically oratorical; and sometimes he is almost comradely or Whitman-like, addressing readers and pulling them into the “we” of the poem. These shifts in rhetorical style reflect the speaker’s shifts in perception from dream state to...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

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