Sunday Morning

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Sunday Morning

Wallace Stevens 1923

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

“Sunday Morning,” one of the collected pieces in Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923), has been singled out as one of his most eloquent and thematically resonant poems. Stevens wrote the first version of the poem in 1914, which was published by Poetry the next year. Harriet Monroe, the editor of the journal, omitted three stanzas of the poem for its publication and significantly rearranged the remaining five stanzas. Stevens made considerable changes, especially to the ending, by the time he collected it in Harmonium.

J. Hillis Miller in “William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens,” writes that Stevens’s poetry is “a prolonged exploration, both in theoretical speculation within the poetry itself and in poetic practice, of the power of language not so much to name reality as to uncover it.” This uncovering of reality becomes the focus of “Sunday Morning” as it chronicles one woman’s search for spiritual fulfillment in a philosophical dialogue between her and Stevens’s poetic persona. Throughout the poem, the two examine two contrasting ideologies: that of Christianity and of paganism. The woman must decide which will help her find the spiritual satisfaction she is seeking.

The poet presents compelling arguments through a series of eloquent images centering on the beauty of the natural world. When the woman notes that this beauty is transitory, the poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” insisting that the fact of death enhances beauty. After careful consideration of the poet’s line of reasoning, by the end of the poem, the woman determines that a devotion to earthly pleasures and not the dead religion of the past will provide her with divine bliss.

Author Biography

Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, to Garrett (a lawyer) and Margaretha (a schoolteacher) Stevens. Stevens’s father had a great impact on his education and career choices. He established an extensive library in their home, which he encouraged his son to take advantage of, and promoted the value of education. Stevens prospered in school, and by the time he finished high school, he had been recognized for his fine writing and oratory skills.

In 1897, Stevens entered Harvard, where he studied for three years. During this period, he had articles and poems pubalished in the Harvard Advocate. After his third year, Stevens left Harvard due to depleted funds. He soon landed a position as a reporter at the New York Tribune, which afforded him the time and the opportunity to record his observations of the city as subject matter for his poetry.

After Stevens grew bored with reporting, his father convinced him to pursue a degree in law rather than devote himself to writing. In 1903, he graduated from the New York School of Law, and in 1904, he was admitted to the New York Bar. After working in various law firms, he accepted a position with American Bonding Company, an insurance firm in 1908.

At the beginning of his long career as an insurance lawyer, which extended until the end of his life, Stevens began a fruitful association with several prominent writers and painters in New York’s Greenwich Village, including Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Alfred Kreymborg, and e. e. cummings. By 1913, he resumed writing poetry, and in 1914, he began to publish his work in literary magazines. In 1915, he wrote his first major poems, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” and “Sunday Morning.” The next year, he tried his hand at play writing, which resulted in his prize-winning play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise.

Harmonium, his first collection of poetry, which included “Sunday Morning,” was published in 1923. After the publication of his next collection, Ideas of Order, Stevens cemented his reputation among a small but influential group of writers

and critics as one of America’s most important poets. His work would eventually earn him overwhelming critical acclaim and several awards including the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1950, the National Book Award for best poetry in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn, and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and another National Book Award in 1955 for The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which includes “Sunday Morning.”

During the early 1950s, Stevens suffered from cancer and was repeatedly hospitalized. He died of the disease on August 2, 1955, in Hartford, Connecticut.

Poem Text

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate                         5
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkness among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,            10
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.                    15


Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else       20
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued                   25
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.           30


Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,                 35
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth               40
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.                  45


She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”                50
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm                      55
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evenings, tipped
By the consummation of the                                 60


She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves             65
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun                      70
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.              75


Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas                 80
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,               85
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.                   90


Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.                     95
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,                 100
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.                     105


She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay,”
We live in an old chaos of the sun,                         110
Or an old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;                   115
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.                    120

Poem Summary

In the first stanza, a complacent woman lounges in her dressing gown late into a Sunday morning, eating a leisurely breakfast and enjoying the vivid, vibrant beauty of the natural world around her. She takes great pleasure in her coffee and oranges, her mood reflected by the “sunny” chair and the cockatoo that has been released onto the rug. She is spending a morning at home instead of going to church. The reference to the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice” suggests that the day is Easter Sunday. Initially, the pull of the natural world dissipates the traditional power this day has over the woman, as she has chosen not to take part in Christian rituals. However, as she dreams, the pleasure she experiences this morning is soon extinguished by “the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe,” a reference to the crucifixion of Christ. She recognizes that the secular beauty she appreciates is not eternal, and so the colorful oranges and parrot, earlier appearing so full of life, now “seem things in some procession of the dead.”

She becomes caught up in Christian dogma as “her dreaming feet” transport her to the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” symbolic of the ritualistic ceremony in celebration of the Last Supper and Christ’s interment. The blood refers to the wine and the sepulchre to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that contained the tomb where Christ’s body was laid on Good Friday. Thus, the sensual pleasure of the late morning coffee and oranges has been replaced by the spiritual satisfaction of the bread and wine communion.

The voice of the poet questions the woman’s decision to turn her back on the beauty of the natural world and devote herself to her religion. He insists that she could find divinity through a connection to the splendor of the earth. Her earthly pleasures, which he enumerates in this stanza through images of the seasons, should be as cherished as “the thought of heaven.” The poet exhorts her to appreciate the very transience of her world since it encompasses the pleasures and pains of living. These passions, not the superstitions that live in “silent shadows and in dreams,” are “the measures destined for her soul.”

In the third stanza, the speaker expands his focus on religion to the Greek god Jove who had no traditional family to nurture him and no natural connections to the “sweet land.” The speaker links this ancient myth to the birth of Christ through the reference to the star that guided the shepherds and

Media Adaptations

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

wise men to Bethlehem. Both myths, he suggests, are disconnected from human reality. As humanity finds the divine in the natural world, the sky will appear “friendlier,” no longer marking the division between heaven and earth.

The woman’s voice returns at the beginning of the next two stanzas as she questions the poet’s argument that earthly pleasures will provide spiritual fulfillment. While nature fills her with contentment, she wonders whether she can find paradise there. Here, the poet reasserts and clarifies his position. In his response, he acknowledges the impermanence of the world but argues that the bliss she experiences observing the beauty of nature is everlasting through immediate observance of the spring and through the vividness of her memory. Christian theology, with its “chimera of the grave” (its dark dreams of the crucifixion of Christ) or even its “melodious isles” will not endure as will the magnificence of nature for her.

She complains that even while experiencing contentment in her relationship to the natural world, she feels “the need of some imperishable bliss,” which Christianity insists can be found only in complete devotion to the church. The poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” asserting that she can only experience true satisfaction through the appreciation of that which is impermanent. To prove his point, he describes the passions of youth, symbolized by the ripening of plums and pears. When death “strews the leaves of sure obliteration on our paths,” lovers’ desires will be heightened as they realize the importance of the moment.

In stanza six, the poet continues his argument that death is the mother of beauty, juxtaposing it with a counter vision of the stasis of heaven, with its ripe fruit that never falls, hanging heavy in “that perfect sky.” The rivers there never pour out into the seas or touch the shores. In contrast, “our perishing earth” of beginnings and endings is colored with “inarticulate” pangs and delicious tastes and odors of pear and plum, where she lounges during “silken weavings” of afternoons.

The next stanza suggests an alternative to traditional worship. The poet describes a pagan, almost savage, celebration of the earth, as a ring of men chant sensuous songs praising the beauty of a summer morning. They do not worship a specific god, but the earth for them has the same intense power that had previously been associated with the Christian God, and thus they are devoted to it. As they strip naked in an act of merging their energies with those of nature, they experience paradise. Their chant encompasses all the elements of nature, “the windy lake” and angelic trees as their songs echo off the hills long after they leave. The poet symbolizes this “heavenly fellowship” between nature and the men by noting the “dew upon their feet” as they dance and chant.

The voice of the poet and that of the woman come together in acceptance of an alternate form of worship in the final stanza of the poem. The single voice here notes the inevitability of decay and death and understands that an appreciation of that mutability enriches present experience. The woman acknowledges that Jesus’ tomb was not endowed with mystical spirits, that it only contained his grave. She now turns to the natural world, with its “old chaos of the sun” and its understanding of days and nights, beginning and ends.

This realignment with the pagan world of earthly pleasures releases her from the bonds of her religion so that she is now “unsponsored” and free. The natural world is full of the “spontaneous cries” of its creatures in their beautiful surroundings. The final line reinforces the statement that death is the mother of beauty, as the free flying pigeons, “on extended wings” rise and fall following no prescribed course but eventually descend into darkness at the close of day.


Belief and Doubt

The woman in the poem moves back and forth between belief and doubt as she enters into a dialogue with the poet about spiritual fulfillment. At the beginning of the poem, she appears to be content in her newfound appreciation of the earthly pleasures of the natural world. This world with its vivid colors and leisurely breakfasts offers her a sense of freedom in the time she allows herself to appreciate the bounty of nature. Soon, however, doubt over the choice she has made this Sunday morning ruins her serenity. As she appreciates the sensuality of nature, she experiences a growing awareness and dread of its transitory nature. As a result, she becomes filled with spiritual anxiety to the point that she begins to believe that a reversion to Christian rituals and dogma will lead to salvation.

As the speaker tries to convince her to return to her world of earthly delights, she struggles to maintain her belief in traditional theology through a series of questions on the nature of that theology. She wonders whether earth will “seem all of paradise that we shall know” especially given its impermanence. Nature fills her with contentment, yet she asks, “when the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more, where, then, is paradise?” She continually resists the poet’s promotion of a spiritual connection to nature, insisting, “I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss,” which she had found in a Christian vision of eternity.

The speaker’s voice, however, never wavers from his assertion that she must find divinity within herself, and that this can only be accomplished through a communion with nature. By meeting each question with an imaginative yet logical response, the speaker slowly convinces her to doubt her old beliefs in the divinity of traditional religion. By the end of the poem, she has returned to the position she held at the beginning, again aligning herself with the freedom of birds, “unsponsored” in her attachment to her natural world.

Death and Life

The speaker’s strongest argument for the woman to devote herself to an intense relationship with nature comes in the form of an examination of death and life. He continually associates Christianity and the religions of the past with death. In the first stanza, he notes the darkness of “that old catastrophe,” the crucifixion of Christ, and of the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” the important Christian ritual of communion where believers drink the blood and eat the body of Christ. He also finds death in the static nature of heaven where ripe fruit never falls and the “boughs hang always heavy in that perfect sky.” In this immutable world, with its “dividing and indifferent blue,” she will never, he insists, be able to make an emotional connection.

The speaker points out that a celebration of nature, by contrast, is a celebration of life, even as he acknowledges its cyclical patterns of death and rebirth. He argues that the very fact of inevitable change fills the present with a stronger sense of vibrancy and poignancy. Thus, this form of “death is the mother of beauty” and so should be accepted as a crucial part of an appreciation of the moment.


In his “Adagia,” a set of musings on poetry and the imagination collected in Opus Posthumous (1957), Stevens wrote about the importance of the relation of art to life, since with our modern age’s lack of faith in God, “the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, for what they validate and invalidate, for what they reveal, for the support they give.” This search for an imaginative connection to the real world becomes another dominant theme in the poem.

The speaker continually engages his imagination to convince the woman that fulfillment lies in her connection with nature. The vivid colors of the oranges and the parrot, the “pungent fruit,” reflect the “passions of rain, or moods in falling snow.” Birds “test[ing] the reality of misty fields, by their sweet questionings” and the “trees, like serafin” illustrate as no philosophizing could manage the limitless, transcendent beauty and bounty of the natural world and call the woman to a communion with it. Faith in the possibilities of spiritual contentment is thus sustained through the power of the imagination.



The poem takes the form of a conversation or philosophical dialogue between the central character, a woman who is on a quest to find spiritual fulfillment, and the voice of the poet, who attempts to aid her during her journey. The poem could also be regarded as a conversation between self and soul, between the social self that feels pressured to conform to traditional religious doctrines and the internal self that desires a more natural connection with the world.

Its fifteen-line stanzas of blank-verse begins with the woman’s precarious situation: initially she feels contentment spending Sunday morning at home, surrounded by the comfort and beauty of her

Topics for Further Study

  • 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 Waste Land also deals with the subject of Christianity. Compare and contrast Eliot’s view on this subject with that of Stevens in “Sunday Morning.”
  • Construct an argument that a Christian would use that would counter that offered in the poem. You could begin by insisting that the imperishable bliss the woman is seeking could only come from a devotion to Christian dogma and ceremonies.
  • Define and research the practices of ancient Greek religions. How are these ancient religions used in the poem?

physical environment. But soon, guilt over her dismissal of traditional Christian rituals on Easter Sunday undermines her pleasure, and she becomes filled with spiritual anxiety, conflicted about which path she should take to spiritual fulfillment. After this first stanza, the poem becomes a dialogue between her voice and that of the poet, between the woman’s philosophical questionings and his assertion that she can find satisfaction only through a personal, intense communion with the natural world.

Most stanzas begin with a question posed by the woman that is answered by the authoritative voice of the poet, reaffirming his position that sensual pleasures supersede any contentment gained from the dead religions of the past. He presents his argument through association and juxtaposition, continually finding alternate ways to present the same point of view. The cumulative effect of the repeated images results in a convincing argument against a devotion to the tenets of Christianity and for a dedication to an appreciation of and communion with the beauty of nature.


Stevens employs two dominant image clusters, which he continually juxtaposes against each other to illustrate his thematic points. He associates the natural world with the warmth of the sun, which the woman enjoys at the beginning of the poem during her leisurely morning at home on this particular Sunday morning. The sun returns in stanza seven, as the speaker personifies his pagan vision in his description of a ring of men chanting “in orgy on a summer morn.” The life-giving properties of the sun are echoed in the vibrant colors associated with the natural world. Initially, the woman lounges complacently on this Sunday morning surrounded by the vivid colors of the oranges she is eating and the “green freedom” of her parrot that has been released onto her rug. Stevens evokes the pleasures of other senses in this setting through the odors of plum and pear. Sound ultimately unifies humans with nature when the men’s boisterous chant echoes off the hills long after they have stopped.

Stevens links an absence of sound to Christianity, suggesting that those mythological voices do not carry into present realities. He reinforces this sense of absence when the woman hears a voice that tells her that no spirits linger in Jesus’ tomb. The vibrant colors of nature are juxtaposed with dark ancient sacrifices, ceremonies of blood. This cluster of images reinforces the speaker’s premise that Christianity is a dead religion that can no longer offer contentment and salvation.

Historical Context


This term, associated with an important artistic movement during the first few decades of the twentieth century, was reflected in Western literature, painting, music, and architecture. The modernist period in America reached its height in the mid 1910s and extended until the early 1930s. Modernist American literature reflected the growing sense of disillusionment with traditional social, political, and religious doctrines felt by Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century but especially after World War I. Gertrude Stein, an important writer and patron during this period, dubbed the group of writers that expressed the zeitgeist of this age the “lost generation,” an epithet Ernest Hemingway immortalized in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, has become a penetrating portrait of this lost generation.

This age of confusion, redefinition, and experimentation produced one of the most fruitful periods in American letters. These writers helped create a new form of literature that repudiated traditional literary conventions. Prior to the twentieth century, writers structured their works to reflect their belief in the stability of character and the intelligibility of experience. Traditionally, novels, stories, and poetry ended with a clear sense of closure as conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and their world. The authors of the Lost Generation challenged these assumptions as they expanded the genre’s traditional form to accommodate their characters’ questions about the individual’s place in the world.

Modernist Poetry

Modernist poetry contained the same thematic import as its counterparts in fiction. One of the most important poems of this period, or it can be argued of the entire century, is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which echoed the disillusionment and anxiety expressed by the lost generation writers.

Poetry in this movement, as with other works of modernism, experimented with new ideas in psychology, anthropology, and philosophy that had become popular in the early part of the century. Freudianism, for example, began to be studied by these writers as they explored the psyche of their characters and recorded their often subjective points of view of themselves and their world.


Modernist poetry experiments with new forms and styles in its concern with the verisimilitude of language. A group of poets that were prominent in the second decade of the twentieth century, the imagists had an important effect on modernist poetry in this sense. This group of writers rejected traditional cliched poetic diction and regulated meter in favor of more natural expressions of language written in free verse. One of the leading proponents of this movement, Ezra Pound published his anthology Des Imagistes in 1913, with examples of what he considered to be imagist verse by James Joyce, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), William Carlos Williams, F. S. Flint, Ford Madox Ford, and Amy Lowell among others. Pound included in the work his imagist Doctrine, which insisted on a “direct treatment of the thing”—the essence of what the poet is expressing, the discarding of any language that did not “contribute to the presentation” of this essence, and the emphasis on a sequence of musical phrases rather than of a metronome. In his article on Stevens for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Joseph Miller argues that this movement

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: The modernist writers during this period reflect Americans’ growing sense of disillusionment with the tenets of Christianity. Many begin to question whether humanity is being protected by the presence and power of a benevolent God.

    Today: After decades of focus on more secular activities, many Americans are returning to the Church, due to the devastating terrorist attacks in September 2001, which inspire a return to traditional values. A number of conservative Christian groups, usually referred to as the “religious right,” are lobbying for a return of Christian ethics in schools, including a return to prayers in the classroom and the promotion of sexual abstinence in sex education classes.
  • 1920s: The flapper, who presents a new, freer female image, becomes the model for young American women as they begin to express themselves more freely in terms of dress and behavior.

    Today: Women make major gains in their fight for equality. Most American women feel free to express their individuality within and outside of the domestic sphere without bowing to the pressure of social strictures.
  • 1920s: American poetry during this period often presents an austerely pessimistic view of contemporary society as a reaction to industrialization, urbanization, and technological innovations. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922, becomes one of the most important poetic expressions of this theme.

    Today: While often less obscure and allusive than the modernists, contemporary poets often continue what has come to be considered the pessimistic zeitgeist of the twentieth century. Their poetry frequently presents this theme in a stripped down form, reflecting the rhythms and diction of contemporary language.

had a profound influence on Stevens’s work, but “it did not take long for him to recognize the banality of mere images and to see the possibilities of such images as symbols of larger things.”

Critical Overview

Harriet Monroe, in her review of Harmonium for Poetry (the journal she founded), proclaims that readers breathe “delight... like a perfume” in response to the “natural effluence of [Stevens’s] own clear and untroubled and humorously philosophical delight in the beauty of things as they are.” All critics, however, were not as impressed by this volume. Joseph Miller, in his article on Stevens for Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that the few critics who paid attention to the collection dismissed it “as a product of mere dilettantism.”

After the publication of succeeding volumes of poetry, Stevens established a reputation as one of America’s finest poets that has been maintained to this day. The growing regard for his poetry was due in large part to major critical works written by Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom. Bloom wrote in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate that the poet is “a vital part of the American mythology” and “the best and most representative American poet of our time.”

Today, Harmonium is considered to be one of his finest collections. Miller comments that the poems in this volume “reveal Stevens as a poet of delicate, but determined, sensibility, one whose perspective is precise without being precious, and whose wit is subtle but not subdued.” He writes that Stevens reveals an “extraordinary vocabulary, a flair for memorable phrasing, an accomplished sense of imagery, and the ability to both lampoon and philosophize.”

Special praise has been reserved for “Sunday Morning,” considered to be one of Stevens’ finest poems. Critics note that its importance lies in its thematic import and its expression. George and Barbara Perkins in their overview of the poem for The American Tradition in Literature applaud Stevens’ portrayal of “the perturbation and consequent seeking of ‘everyman’ who “feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe”—the traditions of Christianity. They note that Stevens appropriately leaves the questions he raises in the poem “beyond the reach of reason.”


Wendy Perkins

Perkins teaches American literature and film and has published several essays on American and British authors. In the following essay, Perkins examines Stevens’s unique employment of the literary motif carpe diem in this poem.

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 in shadows (stanza 2), silent like the grave. Christianity’s focus on death is illustrated by its “ancient sacrifice” and “dominion of the blood and sepulchre.” In stark contrast, the natural world, filled with sunlight is composed of “pungent oranges and bright, green wings.”

After introducing these symbolic contrasts between the natural and Christian worlds in the first stanza, Stevens introduces his speaker in the second. Throughout the rest of the poem, the poet’s persona engages in a dialogue with the woman, trying to imbue her with a vision of nature that can satisfy her deepest impulses for spiritual and emotional fulfillment.

He first questions her devotion to Christianity by pointing out its association with “silent shadows” in contrast to the natural “comforts of the sun” and the vivid sights and smells that reveal the beauty of the earth, “things to be cherished like the thought of heaven.” She can find a more fulfilling divinity within herself, he insists, through a consummation with nature.

He addresses her focus on the impermanence of the natural world, again providing an ironic reversal of Christian doctrine, which promotes eternal life. A large part of his argument is that Christianity is a dead religion, offering its followers nothing but darkness and silence. In contrast, a celebration of the natural world, through an acceptance of its cyclical nature, provides her with spiritual as well as physical satisfaction. Thus, the woman should spend her day not in church, but in contact with nature. He directs her to welcome the very transience of her world since it evokes sadness as well as joy, the pleasures and pains reflecting the wide spectrum of life. These passions, not the superstitions that live in “silent shadows and in dreams,” are “the measures destined for her soul.”

In the third stanza, the speaker compresses time into a narrative of the evolution of religion to suggest that no natural connections exist between religious myths and the world. The pre-Christian gods had “inhuman” births and did not travel on sweet lands that gave “[l]arge-mannered motions to [their] mythy mind[s].” The speaker links Jove’s inhuman birth to Christ’s virgin birth, symbolized by the star. He then reinforces the sense of separation between the gods and nature when he points out that religions set up a hierarchical system of heaven and earth, as reflected in the image of a king moving among his hinds, or workers, and a “dividing and indifferent blue.” Humans can never

“The poet links the woman’s experience to that of the men through the warmth of the sun that all of them experience, suggesting that she too can feel such imperishable bliss.”

hope to establish a true harmony with the object of their devotion given the strict hierarchical nature of traditional religious practices.

The remainder of this stanza illustrates Stevens’s statement in his “Adagia” that “The death of one god is the death of all.” The speaker tells the woman that after discarding the dead religions of the past, she can experience a communion between her natural self and the world. As a result of this shattering of hierarchies, the earth will become a paradise. By accepting that life contains “a part of labor and a part of pain,” the “sky will be much friendlier” than it was when it divided her from her spiritual fathers.

As Stevens explains in his essay “Two or Three Ideas,” in a time when we have lost faith in the old gods, when they have become “the aesthetic projections of a time that has passed, men turn to a fundamental glory of their own and from that create a style of bearing themselves in reality.” J. Hillis Miller in his critical work, From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, suggests that the poem is Stevens’s “most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve.” Miller argues that the poem suggests that “bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture, the culture of those who are ‘wholly human’ and know themselves.”

The woman responds in the next two stanzas that she is still troubled by the impermanence of nature, when “the birds are gone, and their warm fields return no more.” As the poet answers her questions in each, he reasserts and clarifies his position. She notes that observing living nature fills her with contentment. However, when the inevitable

What Do I Read Next?

  • T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1925) offers another poetic examination of loss of faith in Christianity. The poem is considered to be one of the finest examples of poetic modernism.
  • Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1936) presents a different view of reality through the consciousness of a woman.
  • The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway, one of the “lost generation” writers, focuses on a group of disillusioned Americans living in Paris after World War I. Critics consider this novel to be the voice of its generation.
  • Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s (The American Moment) (1989), by David J. Goldberg, presents an overview of this fascinating decade and focuses specifically on how World War I affected American society.

cycle of nature turns to winter and encroaching death, she wonders “where, then, is paradise?” The speaker answers by reasserting that the old myths with their “chimera of the grave” or even their “melodious isles” cannot endure “as April’s green endures, or will endure.” When she desires warm June evenings in the cold of winter, he insists that her memories of “the consummation of the swallow’s wings” in the spring will offer her the spiritual satisfaction she is seeking. The reality and the memory of the beauty of the earth create substance not myth. He assures her of the cyclical nature of the world, which will continually replenish itself.

When the woman claims “the need of some imperishable bliss,” as in the Christian vision of eternal life, the poet counters, “death is the mother of beauty,” asserting that she can only experience true satisfaction through the appreciation of that which is impermanent. The transitory nature of her world infuses it with poignancy and thus divinity. Death enhances beauty as it heightens the experience of the present, acknowledging the inevitable changes that will occur.

The poet illustrates his point in his descriptions of the maidens sitting and gazing at the grass and tasting new plums and pears, as aware of their surroundings as the woman had been at the beginning of the poem, before thoughts of her old religion encroached upon her sunny freedom. The inevitability of death appears in the wind that “makes the willow shiver in the sun.” Yet even as the leaves swirl about them, suggesting the impending decay of winter, the maidens stray through them impassioned, fully alive in the moment made more poignant by the knowledge that it will soon fade.

The poet reinforces his vision in his presentation of the stagnancy of heaven, with its ripe fruit that never falls hanging heavy in “that perfect sky” and its rivers that never pour out into the seas or touch the shores. Alternately, “our perishing earth” with its inevitable cycle of change and renewal comes alive with delicious tastes and odors of pear and plum and “silken weavings.”

He envisions his new, natural religion in the seventh stanza as a ring of “supple and turbulent” men sing “their boisterous devotion to the sun, not as a god, but as a god might be.” Nature does not establish hierarchies that separate her from humanity. The god of nature appears naked among the men “like a savage source” commingling with their blood until the men experience a complete communion with their world, as their chants become a choir, echoing from the hills “long afterward.” They know full well of the inevitability of death and rebirth and so celebrate the present beauty and bounty of nature. The poet links the woman’s experience to that of the men through the warmth of the sun that all of them experience, suggesting that she too can feel such imperishable bliss.

The voice of the poet and that of the woman merge in the acceptance of a call to live in the moment at the end of the poem. The single voice here no longer turns to the grave of Jesus for spiritual fulfillment, since it understands that there are no “spirits lingering” around His tomb. Christianity has lost its power over the woman who now has become “unsponsored” and free to celebrate a new faith in the sensual beauty that surrounds her. Her more profound contact with nature has become a substitute for the restrictive sacraments of her religion. Through the acknowledgement of the mutability of the natural world, she becomes like the free flying pigeons, “on extended wings” rising and falling in “ambiguous undulations as they sink.”

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “Sunday Morning,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Paul Witcover

Witcover is an editor and writer whose fiction, book reviews, and critical essays appear regularly in magazines and online. In the following essay, Witcover discusses history and technique in this poem.

Wallace Stevens gives hope to late-bloomers everywhere. His first collection of poetry, Harmonium, was published in 1923, when he was forty-four years old. His second collection, Ideas of Order, did not appear until eleven years later, in 1934. Yet by the time of his death in 1955, Stevens had received virtually every major award and honor the literary community could bestow and was widely acknowledged not only as one of the great poets of the century, but, in the words of critic Harold Bloom in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, “a vital part of American mythology.”

Not bad for a man who spent his entire adult life laboring as a lawyer for insurance companies! It seems paradoxical that the same man could devote himself with equal diligence if not ardor to poetry and the law, let alone insurance, as if some inevitable clash between imagination and reality, like matter and anti-matter, should render such a harmony impossible. Yet Stevens saw no necessary conflict between imagination and reality; indeed, despite the admitted difficulty of his poetry, its concern with philosophical and metaphysical questions that at times become frustratingly abstract, Stevens wrote in the belief, or in the desire to believe, that imagination and reality should be complementary. By awakening the imagination to its participation in the concrete specificity of the real world, Stevens could achieve for himself and his readers, through a “supreme fiction” of poetry, a kind of transcendent, timeless awareness of creative human involvement in an all-encompassing natural order that would replace the traditional faith in God and divine providence which, at least to certain classes of people in Western civilization, no longer seemed sustainable. For Stevens, the poet’s role was not to provide answers but rather to question deeply and persistently in order that readers might construct their own continually evolving answers. Those answers, like the questions that spawned them, would necessarily be grounded in the real or, as Stevens sometimes called it, the “normal.” In his essay “Imagination as Value,” collected in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Stevens wrote: “The chief problems of any artist, as of any man, are the problems of the normal and

“For Stevens, the poet’s role was not to provide answers but rather to question deeply and persistently in order that readers might construct their own continually evolving answers.”

...he needs, in order to solve them, everything that the imagination has to give.”

Just how much Stevens’s imagination had to give in this cause was apparent from the start of his career. Harmonium is an extraordinarily accomplished debut, a dazzling display of high ambition wedded to prodigious talent. Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, in his essay “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” reprinted in the collection No Other Book, wrote that “there are in Harmonium six or eight of the most beautiful poems an American has written.” “Sunday Morning,” first published in a somewhat different form in Poetry magazine in 1915, must be ranked among that select number; in the estimation of critic Robert Rehder, writing in The Poetry of Wallace Stevens, it is “the first great poem that Stevens wrote.... Here, all at once, the poet is in full possession of his powers.”

In the essay “Imagination as Value,” Stevens states that “the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.” “Sunday Morning” is Stevens’s first mature attempt to write this “great poem of the earth,” a project that would occupy him for the rest of his life; that Stevens originally planned to title his collected poems “The Whole of Harmonium” shows the extent to which he viewed his life’s work as a coherent enterprise, a single long poem.

“Sunday Morning” consists of eight fifteen-line stanzas composed in beautiful, seemingly effortless blank verse—blank verse being a kind of poetry that is unrhymed but, in contrast to free verse, written in lines of regular length and meter, generally, as here, iambic pentameter. In tone and style, “Sunday Morning” harkens back to romantic poets like Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge. Stevens alludes to the poetry of these and other predecessors throughout his poem; the final stanza, for example, is closely patterned on the last stanza of Keats’ “On Autumn.” Stevens evokes the romantics to establish a connection of subject and sensibility, yet the consolations that were available to nineteenth-century romantic poets are not, or should not be, available to a twentieth-century American poet. History, if nothing else, demonstrates that the way back is not the way forward.

What marks the poem as modern despite its purposeful romantic echoes is that it takes as a given the loss or futility of religious faith that has come to be recognized as a central theme of modernism. Stevens’s focus is on Christianity, but he more than implies that the crisis of belief has extended beyond any one religious system to encompass all religions past and present. The phrase “crisis of belief” is no exaggeration in describing the Western world of 1915, with the carnage of World War I fast eroding traditional notions of faith and patriotism. In 1914, with German troops advancing on Paris, Stevens had contributed four poems to a special “war” issue of Poetry magazine, and “Sunday Morning” itself was composed in a year that saw the beginnings of trench warfare and the senseless slaughter it would entail. As critic James Longenbach points out in his essay on Stevens in American Writers, “Stevens was not much of a topical poet, but his poetry always emerged in dialogue with the events of his time.” This is certainly true of “Sunday Morning,” where events on distant battlefields, while not determinative, contribute to the “dark encroachment” that drifts in to disturb the poem’s initially peaceful and civilized setting of an upper class woman’s boudoir on a lazy Sunday morning. The pun implicit in the title is more than justified by the deeply elegiac mood that will come to dominate the poem.

“Sunday Morning” takes the form of a dramatic dialogue between this nameless young woman and an equally nameless narrator who is probably older, and certainly more experienced. Critic Helen Vendler, in On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, advances the intriguing notion that the narrator “is a voice from the sepulcher”; that is, a dead man, a ghost, for whom “all sorrow, triumph, and love are infinitely distanced in some remote and remembered pathos of the past.” Both voices, that of the young woman and the older narrator can be thought of as aspects of the poet, of Stevens himself. The poem is a meditation, the record of a mind in dialogue with itself. This is a quality shared by many of Stevens’s poems, as Rehder notes: “The poems do not merely represent the mind’s mulling and churning; they are doing what they are describing—like all art, they are thinking.” In terms of physical action and setting, the poem is static, unchanging from the first stanza to the last, although immense distances are traversed in time and space through the evolving thoughts and fantasies of the poet and his personas. The poem does not advance in the machine-like manner of logical argument, marching step by step toward an inevitable conclusion, but unfolds according to the same mysteriously organic patterning of unconscious thought and emotion that produce fantasies and dreams. Which is not to say that the poem is purely imagistic, with nothing to communicate beyond the artifact of itself; “Sunday Morning” eloquently and suggestively addresses a condition of human existence that readers are presumed—and, to judge by the poem’s continuing popularity, presumed correctly—to share.

Stanza 1 opens with an obviously well-to-do young woman savoring a late, lazy breakfast of oranges and coffee on a Sunday morning. Instead of attending church, she is still dressed in her peignoir, or nightgown, drowsing “in a sunny chair” while her pet cockatoo, released from its cage, enjoys its “green freedom.” The first sentence employs a number of words that are bursting with life, color, and vitality, words associated with nature: “oranges,” “green,” “freedom,” “sunny,” “cockatoo.” The same sentence also features words and phrases, some explicitly linked to religion, that conjure opposing thoughts of stasis and death: “complacencies,” “dissipate,” “holy hush,” “ancient sacrifice.” Here, in simple and stark outline, Stevens sets out the argument about to unfold in the mind of the poet, an argument between life, associated with nature, and death, associated with religion.

The woman may not be in church, but thoughts of church, or at any rate religion, are not far from her mind. The phrases “holy hush” and “ancient sacrifice” in line 5 herald what Stevens beautifully calls, in lines 6–7, “the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe.” By “old catastrophe,” he means both the crucifixion of Jesus and the establishment of the Catholic church. Influenced by these pious and guilty thoughts, in lines 9–11, the woman’s dreamy reverie darkens: “The pungent oranges and bright, green wings / Seem things in some procession of the dead / Winding across wide water, without sound.” In these lines, one can see the allusion to World War I, “the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe” suggesting oppressive thoughts of the war in Europe—that this war was being fought between self-avowedly Christian powers only underscores Stevens’s point of the deadening effect of traditional religion. But in the poem itself, Stevens has another destination than Europe in mind; in a striking allusion to one of Jesus’ miracles, he sends the woman on “dreaming feet” all the way back to the source: “silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulcher.” Here “blood” refers to the blood of Christ; far from being associated with the triumph of life over death, as in Christian theology, it is reversed, now serving as a symbol of death’s dominion over life. Stevens’s poetry can be densely layered with symbol and allusion; a single word or phrase or line often contains multiple embedded meanings. It is a measure of his genius that these constellations of tightly compacted symbols and allusions do not weigh down his poems or turn them into beautiful but lifeless artifacts (like sepulchers) but instead, by unpacking themselves in the minds of readers, actually achieve the opposite, bringing the poems to life.

In stanza 2, lines 16–22, the poem’s narrator departs from his passive description of physical and psychological setting to actively enter the poem for the first time by asking and then answering a series of rhetorical questions:

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

Note the reappearance of key words from the first stanza; this is a structural technique Stevens uses throughout the poem, repeating words either verbatim or in a slightly altered fashion to get at the words and the associations behind them, from new angles. The word “sunny” in line 2, for example, reappears as “sun” in line 19 and in various guises thereafter. Other important words that echo throughout the poem are “blood,” “wings,” and “sky.” It should also be noted how frequently the appearance of one word calls forth the appearance of an answering word that contains opposing qualities, as again, “sunny” in line 2 is followed in line 6 by “dark.” Thus, as Longenbach notes, “the poem moves by association and juxtaposition.” Readers experience the poem as the drifting of thoughts almost at random, one image calling up a related or opposite image, yet Stevens is in control, carefully building a network of intricately linked associations that will pull tight and then unravel to astonishing effect in the poem’s final stanza.

But to return to stanza 2, a divinity that comes in shadows and dreams is a ghost. Rather than look to a ghost, or to the dead son of God, for comfort in her awareness of death and mortality, the narrator advises the woman in lines 19 and 21 to look to the sun and to the “balm and beauty of the earth.” She herself must be the residence of divinity; in place of a lifeless tomb or bodiless spirit, a living body of flesh and blood. And not only that; she must recognize that this divinity is present in the rest of the natural world, of which she is a part: “The bough of summer and the winter branch. / These are the measures destined for her soul.” Here Stevens expresses the idea of a kind of natural immortality opposed to the unnatural immortality of Christianity. This natural immortality is one of change and cyclical recurrence, and Stevens evokes it beautifully in the image of a branch changing with the seasons. While the span from the leafy green branch of summer to the bare branch of winter is one “measure” of mortality, it is also, and more accurately, seen as a “measure” in a musical sense, part of an orchestrated order in which themes recur just as the seasons pass and recur, the branch that is bare in winter sprouting fresh leaves in the spring.

Stanza 3 traces the history of religion from Jove to Jesus; from pagan beliefs to Christianity. Both systems are found wanting. The former because it had so little of humanity and the earth in it; the latter because it has alienated humanity from the earth and from nature. Instead of an aloof, inhuman god who walks among humans “as a muttering king, / Magnificent, would move among his hinds” (lines 34–35; “hinds” means “servants”), or a god who mingles with humanity only so that humanity might rise above itself, joining him in heaven, the narrator speaks (in lines 42–45) of a future time when the earth itself will be the only paradise humanity knows or can know:

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

The woman speaks for the first time in stanza 4, protesting that while nature in its plenty might confer a measure of contentment, “‘when the birds are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’” (lines 49–50.) The narrator answers her question as he did his own: paradise lies in the recurrence of the seasons, in the cycle of birth and death. But he goes a step further, stressing that it is the woman’s mind, her imagination, that imbues nature’s round with human significance. No heavenly paradise, he asserts in lines 56–57, “has endured / As April’s green endures; or will endure / Like her remembrance of awakened birds.”

The woman is not so easily convinced. In stanza V, line 62, she asserts “The need of some imperishable bliss.” The narrator answers in line 63 (in an allusion to the final stanza of Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy”) that “Death is the mother of beauty.” Stevens insists that it is the human consciousness of time and the inevitability of death within time that makes things beautiful; what’s more, that is the only beauty humans may know. The transitory yet recurring nature of life is then contrasted, in stanza VI, with a paradise of petrified beauty in which ripe fruit never falls and nothing ever changes. That heaven, the narrator suggests in lines 88–90, is an infantile projection against an equally infantile fear of death:

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

What, then, does the narrator offer the woman in place of the solace of Christianity? Stanza 7, lines 91–95, presents a glimpse of a future in which

a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.

As the narrator goes on to paint a picture of this future paradise, two things become evident. First, there are no women allowed; it is an earthly paradise made by men, for men, and, one fears, very much at the expense of women. Second, this vision of a future for manly men seems like a bizarre vision of an idealized primitive past. The contrast between the tone and content of this stanza (which, despite its placement, thematically follows immediately after stanza 3) is so striking that one wonders if this is not perhaps the woman’s ironic fantasy of what a future paradise will look like rather than the stolid narrator’s. There is something either ironic or almost obscene in the elevated language used in lines 102–103, for example, to speak of “the heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn” as though an all-too-earthly “fellowship of men that perish” was not adding to its ranks each day in the trenches and on the battlefields of Europe. But in fact, the jarring impact of this stanza on a contemporary reader—critic Janet McCann, in Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible, calls it “artificial and contrived”—is simply an illustration of the way in which history can intrude to alter forever the interpretation of a poet’s lines. Readers cannot blind themselves to the facts or ironies of history; to ignore them when reading a poem or looking at any piece of art is to relegate that art to the realm of the unliving. In view of Stevens’s preference as expressed in this poem and others for the living over the sepulchral dead, one can only conclude that he himself would disapprove of such an approach. Yet by the same token, it would be wrong to judge this or any poem solely on the basis of such knowledge, unavailable to the poet. Whatever Stevens’s intent in this obscure stanza, it is clear that the vision of a future paradise it puts forward is provisional, a possibility only. If this were not the case, the poem would end, unsatisfyingly, here. Instead, it concludes with the majestic ambiguities of stanza 8, which more than redeem the faults of stanza 7.

In stanza 8, lines 106–108, the woman hears a voice crying out that

“The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”

With these lines, which begin in lofty poetic diction yet close in a phrase of simple human dignity, the poem comes full circle, returning to the setting of its first stanza; like the natural paradise of which it speaks, “Sunday Morning” is cyclical. Yet, within the fixed parameters of that cycle, there has been change; Jesus has become fully human, god made in man’s image rather than the other way around, subject to death and whatever natural paradise all humans participate in by virtue of living and dying. Jesus died; so did Wallace Stevens; so will all human beings; yet life will go on, the same yet different, and this is all of paradise that humans know or, by a continuing effort of sympathetic and creative imagination, can know. The lines in which Stevens sets forth the final, elegiac statement of his poem are profoundly moving, beginning with line 110, “We live in an old chaos of the sun,” and ending, in lines 117–120, with:

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

The magnificence of these lines is due not only to the stirring poetry with which Stevens imbues them but also to the way in which images and symbols from the poem, which have been carefully repeated and varied throughout, expanding in meaning and gathering substance with each iteration, are here brought together in a masterful culmination that leads not to a resolution but instead to the somehow cathartic uncertainty of that unforgettable final image, which seems to express so well and with such nobility of spirit the paradoxical heart of human existence. One can do no better than to quote Randall Jarrell:

Here—in the last purity and refinement of the grand style, as perfect, in its calm transparency, as the best of Wordsworth—is the last wilderness, come upon so late in the history of mankind that it is no longer seen as the creation of God, but as the Nature out of which we evolve; man without myth, without God, without anything but the universe which has produced him, is given an extraordinarily pure and touching grandeur in these lines—lines as beautiful, perhaps, as any in American poetry.

Source: Paul Witcover, Critical Essay on “Sunday Morning” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Laura Kryhoski

Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. She has also taught English Literature in addition to English as a Second Language overseas. In this essay, Kryhoski considers how Stevens urges the reader to find peace in nature.

Wallace Stevens begins his poem “Sunday Morning” in a relaxed, exotic atmosphere, evoking sensual, colorful images of a female protagonist, casually lounging in the warmth of the sun. The vibrancy of the moment is immediately subdued by the mention of a dark “encroachment of that old catastrophe,” and the work shifts. In Stevens’s careful consideration of language, he has established a new “religion,” infused or filled with symbols of an old one. The poet urges the reader to find peace in the spirit of nature, of the present moment, by personifying nature as a nurturing presence. Stevens creates an interesting dichotomy within the work, employing a series of similar contrasts in an effort to come to terms with what many have described as a loss of Christian faith.

The poet relies on vivid images, images heavy with meaning, to establish a dark, serious tone. Towards the end of the first stanza, for example, the reader is transported “over the seas to silent Palestine / Dominion of blood and sepulchre.” The sepulchre, or burial vault, of Christ is located in Palestine. The mention of blood and of the grave, coupled with earlier clues, that is, “the holy hush of ancient sacrifice,” reinforce images of Christ’s crucifixion. Christ is a symbol of ultimate sacrifice in Christianity, a sacrifice of life to purge or wipe clean man’s behavioral slate in the world. Christ also surfaces again in stanza four when the poem’s female protagonist, in her discomfort, questions the permanence of a paradise on earth. Such imagery inspires assurances by the poet that neither is there a “haunt of prophecy” nor “chimera [imaginary monster] of the grave” that can rival or compete with “April’s green.” The line again recalls the death of Christ as it was prophesied, and his return as proven by his supernatural appearance.

Curious too is the choice of words the poet uses to describe these images related to Christ. They are not tangible or concrete concepts but are described rather as dreamy, haunting visions of ghosts and monsters. Stevens ponders the relevance of exercising the power of fancy or imagination to invoke the divine in stanza two, asking “What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” The query solidifies the poet’s objective—to present specific images in nature, exposing them as being more practical symbols as well as sources of spiritual comfort than those born of religious ideals. While Heaven is identified as being unrealistic, intangible or out of reach, a glimpse of divinity is easily manifested in nature, “In any balm or beauty of the earth” and made bountiful. In the same stanza, passions and moods described as natural acts reinforce the idea of nature as being a vital part of a total divine experience. The poet insists to his protagonist that “divinity must live within herself; passions of rain, or moods in falling snow.” Her passions and moods are described as events in nature, as natural acts. The primacy of her connection to the natural world reverberates or resounds in stanza seven. Its pagan imagery—men supple and turbulent chanting in orgy on a summer morning, dancing in the sun, devoted to it—constitutes a visual feast. Life is real; it is pulsing; Life is warm, loud, rhythmic, alive, and strong in the image of these men who dance in the warmth of the sun.

The historical backdrop for Stevens’s work certainly dictated his interest in finding a spiritual connection amidst poetic scribblings. At the turn of the century, Stevens believed that the failings of religion could be overcome by the art of poetry. His published letters, as recounted in Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair’s Norton Anthology of Modern

“Its pagan imagery—men supple and turbulentchanting in orgy on asummer morning, dancingin the sun, devoted to it—constitutes a visual feast.”

Poetry, shed light on such sentiments. Stevens felt that “the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of earth remains to be written.” He also expressed great concerns that we had “terribly forsaken the earth,” ignoring the wonder of its enormity, of its vastness and diversity in favor of creating cityscapes. But ultimately, it was the power of the written word, the limitless potential for self-expression in poetry, that compelled Stevens to embrace it as “the supreme fiction” and “a freshening of life.” He pondered a life devoid or without Christian conviction, insisting on finding a suitable replacement. Stevens came to the ultimate conclusion that “I ought to believe in imagination,” and that the “imagination is the liberty of the mind.”

The true power of the work is indeed found in its ability to embrace death amidst a godless universe. In stanza five, death is described as “the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / and our desires.” There is no other way to explain what happens after death, states the poet, until you experience it for yourself. Death is the ultimate answer to the most perplexing of human questions inspiring the greatest of fears, namely, the existence of life after death. Death, according to Stevens, is not a fate inspiring terror, but should be seen as an act of intense liberation from fear and doubt. It is not only a point of discovery for the poet, but part of a great continuum.

An embrace of this ominous concept also serves as a springboard for Stevens. Death is not only a means to an end, but it is a part of an ongoing story reflected in nature. The same path of “sure obliteration” is also, reminds the poet, “where triumph rang its brassy phrase.” In a similar fashion, “sick sorrow” is paired with “love’s tender whisper.” These contradictory terms offset one another, the bad with the good, betraying a balance. One term is interdependent on the other to amplify its meaning—you cannot know one without the other, if you are to truly live. Such systematic pairings or wordplay serve to build a case for enjoying life on earth. Although life has its heartaches, it is also an occasion for great celebration. Throughout the poem, this concept of renewal, of infusing new life into old objects or ideas, is a repeated sentiment, literally as well as figuratively in the text. In one scene, boys pile “new plums and pears / on disregarded plate.” Said Stevens, as quoted by Ellman and O’Clair,

Plate is used in the sense of so-called family plate (that is, household silver.) Disregarded refers to the disuse into which things fall that have been possessed for a long time. I mean, therefore, that death releases and renews. What the old have come to disregard, the young inherit and make use of.

Life for the elderly is a worn path, it is withered, dead. In direct contrast, life for the young is a fresh experience, making even the old plate look new. As the “maidens taste / and stray impassioned in the littering leaves,” their participation in an innocent seduction is reminiscent of the Fall. Equally powerful are the images of pears and plums, symbols of a woman’s reproductive power. Couple these images and the maidens become part of the reproductive process, of the circle of life. Compare again the young of the maidens and the dead, “littering leaves,” or the newly-ripened fruit on “disregarded plate,” so old, used up—all participate in the life cycle, in the continuous process of death and of renewal.

Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning is no somber affair. During a time of great innovation and change, questions abound about the existence of God and religion. Whereas many found the attempt to embrace scientific progress while maintaining their Christian convictions wearing, Stevens had moved forward, found a solace in his poetry of the every day, inspired by his natural surroundings. He encourages the reader to celebrate a vision of heaven on earth, to look toward “our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly,” for our comfort and care.

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on “Sunday Morning,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Herbert J. Stern

In the following essay excerpt, Stern examines the “two conceptions of life” present in “Sunday Morning.”

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“It was Stevens’ conviction that although we can, if only because we must, learn to live without God, we cannot, if we are to remain human, live without the satisfactions that belief in God could formerly provide.”

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Source: Herbert J. Stern, “Adam’s Dream,” in Wallace Stevens: Art of Uncertainty, University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 87–104.


Bloom, Harold, “The Rock and Final Lyrics,” in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 374.

Ellman, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2d ed., Norton, 1995.

Jarrell, Randall, “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” in No Other Book: Selected Essays, edited by Brad Leithauser, HarperCollins, 1999, p. 116.

Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, William B. Eerdmans, 1992.

Longenbach, James, American Writers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998, pp. 295–315.

McCann, Janet, “‘The Marvelous Sophomore’: The Poems of Harmonium,” in Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible, Twayne Publishers, 1995, p. 10.

Miller, J. Hillis, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. 254–87.

______, “William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens,” in Columbia Literary History of the United States, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 973–92.

Miller, Joseph, “Wallace Stevens,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 54: American Poets, 1880–1945, Third Series, Gale, 1987.

Monroe, Harriet, Review of Harmonium, in Poetry, Vol. 7, November 1915.

Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, “Wallace Stevens,” in The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 2, McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 1058.

Rehder, Robert, “The Grand Poem: Preliminary Minutae,” in The Poetry of Wallace Stevens, St. Martin’s Press, 1988, pp. 65, 68.

Stevens, Wallace, “Adagia,” in Opus Posthumous, 1957.

______, “Imagination as Value,” in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, Vintage Books, 1951, pp. 142, 156.

______, “Sunday Morning,” in The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens, Vintage Books, 1990, pp. 5–8.

Vendler, Helen, “Fugal Requiems,” in On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, Harvard University Press, 1969, pp. 56–57.

Further Reading

Burney, William, “Wallace Stevens,” in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Burney compares the voice of the central female character in “Sunday Morning” to that of other works by Stevens.

Doggett, Frank, and Robert Buttel, eds., Wallace Stevens: A Celebration, Princeton University Press, 1980.

This collection of articles focuses on the poetic talents of Stevens. In the preface, the editors comment that Stevens’s themes and the “inescapable rhythms of his poems... are what give his work the important place it holds today and assure that it will be read long after the occasion of his centenary.”

Litz, A. Walton, Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens, Oxford University Press, 1972.

In his analysis of the poem, Litz argues that “by remaining skeptical and open [it] connects with the widest range of our personal and cultural experience.”

Maeder, Beverly, Wallace Stevens’ Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

This critique focuses on how the poem’s “several subject positions all confront the divine and spiritual with the earthly and bodily.”

Newcomb, John Timberman, Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

In his assessment of the poem, Newcomb asserts that its “subject matter, formal precision, and glorious blank-verse line all fostered the expectation of a strong affirmation of man’s existence and artistry.”