Sunday Morning: A Modernist’s Perspective
*Published in The Fogdog Review Fall 2008
After World War II, the United States entered into an age of confusion, reformation, and reluctance to conform. Gertrude Stein, a patron of this time of conversion to modernity, called this era the “lost generation.” This modernist perspective even branched out to fiction writers who began experimentation with new literary techniques and concepts. “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens, first published in 1915 by Poetry, introduced a new perspective on religion, specifically Christianity, by launching the new literary technique, imagery. Harriet Monroe, editor of the journal in which it was first published, made considerable changes to the draft before publishing it, as she omitted three of the poem’s eight stanzas and rearranged the remaining five. When Wallace Stevens republished his collection of works entitled Harmonium, he reinserted the three missing stanzas to give the poem back its true feeling of making religious worship “new.” Through his use of imagery, Wallace Stevens diverges from the traditional views in religious poetry by presenting ideas of worshipping those things that are impermanent instead of an iconic God.
Prior to the twentieth century, writers constructed their work to reflect the virtue of human stability and to characterize intelligible experiences. Most stories and novels had a clear and well defined conclusion or closure as plot conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and the world around them. Religious poetry held true to Christian virtue and suggested conventional worship of Jesus Christ. “Sunday Morning” brought an audacious concept to light: reject traditional Christian worship and make a “heavenly fellowship” with nature (Stevens 102).
The poem itself seems to have two speakers presenting ideas that are at odds with one another. Stevens first presents this new idea of humanity unifying with nature in the first stanza as a contented woman sits at her breakfast table on a Sunday morning. She is enjoying her own company and the vividity of the nature around her instead of joining in the religious worship at church. Her complacent mood is characterized by the sunny chair and the freedom of the cockatoo that has been freed. However, the woman becomes somber as she realizes that this secular beauty of nature is not endless, and she now sees the once bright colors of the fruit and freedom of the parrot as “procession[s] of the dead” (Stevens 10).
The poem’s speaker then begins to talk, in some sense, to the woman as he questions her decision to leave behind the beauty of nature to find divinity in “shadows and in dreams” (Stevens 18). Stevens builds tension by giving the speaker a voice with a strikingly different opinion of religious worship than the woman. The speaker’s rejection of traditional worship gives the reader a real sense of whether worshipping the questioned existence of the Christian God is the best way to find peace on earth. The speaker believes it possible to find divinity in those things that are mortal and can decay. His use of imagery of the seasons shows the splendor of those things that change, which he believes should be just as worshipped as the Christian God. The speaker advises the woman to appreciate the transcendence of earth because it envelopes both the pleasures and pains of living. He believes that these will be “the measures destined for her soul” (Stevens 30).
The speaker continues by explaining how the ancient myths of religion are not allegories that human beings can comprehend because they are not conceivable in human reality. He connects the story of the Greek God Jove to Christ and exhorts that humans should find divinity in what is tangible and real, nature. The woman then refutes the speaker’s claim that nature can give her spiritual fulfillment. Though she experiences contentment when observing nature, she questions its ability to make her eternally happy when she says, “But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields/ Return no more, where, then, is paradise?” (Stevens 49-50). The speaker acknowledges that the nature is not permanent, but the woman can be forever happy with her immediate observance of the vividity of nature by accessing her memory. He compares this observance with the remarkably dark myths of Christianity, namely Christ’s crucifixion, and wonders how this image could possibly make her eternally happy. The woman again refutes his claims by stating the need for “some imperishable bliss” (Stevens 62). The speaker reasserts that she can only find bliss in what is impermanent. By saying that “Death is the mother of beauty,” the speaker is asserting that she can only have true satisfaction by appreciating the impermanent. The connection of death to human reality is not necessarily a pessimistic one because he means that divinity is only found in those things that are forever changing. The speaker draws upon youth to exemplify his point as he uses the image of nature as “new [ripening] plums and pears” and a young maiden growing older with love (Stevens 73). He continues his argument that death is the mother of beauty by describing heaven as having ripe fruit that never falls. He describes how the rivers never end by flowing into the sea. In contrast, “our perishing earth” is full of beginnings and endings that are painted with the rich tastes of plums and pears.
In Stanza VII, the speaker gives an alternative to conventional worship as he describes a pagan worship of the earth. Their chanting intends to be almost barbaric, as if they are returning to the original way of worship and devotion of nature. They are not worshiping a symbolic God, but nature in its entirety and everything impermanent. The woman, admitting that Jesus’ tomb had no correlation with mystical spirits, and only contained his body, frees herself of the restraints of her religion and seeks divinity in herself through nature.
The lost generation in a sense introduced poetry to imagery and allegories. Wallace Stevens uses two main clusters of imagery to illustrate his theme. He connects the natural world to the sun and its warmth which the woman enjoys at the beginning of the poem. He then uses the image of the sun in the pagan ritual to refer to the divinity of the natural world that the pagans seek as he describes their “boisterous devotion to the sun” (Stevens 93). He associates the vivid colors, the sweet smell of fruit, and the sounds of the pagans’ chant becoming unified with nature. Stevens then connects the absences of sound to Christianity, and its bereaved shadows are contrasted with the bright and vivid colors of the natural world. He reinforces the image of absence when the voice tells the woman that Jesus’ tomb contained only a body, suggesting Christianity to be a dead religion that cannot give eternal happiness.
This extensive use of imagery greatly reiterates Wallace Steven’s thematic point: Divinity can only be found in those things that are impermeable. Also, by putting the two imagery clusters against each other in contrasting light, he emphasizes a type of argument that creates tension. This religious context introduces a strikingly new viewpoint of traditional worship. The imagery makes the poem one of the most thematically sonorous poems of its time.
Stevens, Wallace. “Sunday Morning.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume D. 7th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton & Company, 2007. 1443-6.