1 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 darkens among water-lights. The pungent oranges and bright, green wings 10 Seem things in some procession of the dead, 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, 15 Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
2 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, 20 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? Divinity must live within herself: Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; 25 Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued 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. 30 These are the measures destined for her soul.
3 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, 35 Magnificent, would move among his hinds, 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 40 The blood of paradise? And shall the earth 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, 45 Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
4 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 50 Return no more, where, then, is paradise?" 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, 55 Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm 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 evening, tipped 60 By the consummation of the swallow's wings.
5 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 fulfilment to our dreams 65 And our desires. Although she strews the leaves 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, 70 She makes the willow shiver in the sun 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 75 And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
6 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, 80 With rivers like our own that seek for seas 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? 85 Alas, that they should wear our colors there, 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 90 Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
7 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, 95 Naked among them, like a savage source. 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, 100 The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, 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 105 The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
8 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." 110 We live in an old chaos of the sun, Or old dependency of day and night, Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, Of that wide water, inescapable. Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 115 Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 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, 120 Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
"Sunday Morning" deals with the very old issue of how to reconcile the pleasures of a mortal world with the desire for something eternal. Several hundred sonnets must have been written on this topic alone, and often they're structured very logically around just the sort of questions this poem asks: "Why should she give her bounty to the dead," or "Is there no change of death in paradise?" But "Sunday Morning" has a great deal more space to work with than a sonnet does, and while these philosophical, or theological, questions are central to the poem, they don't really provide its structure, determine how the poem gets from point A to point B, so to speak.
A few lines into the poem we're told that "she dreams a little." And maybe that really is the key to how this poem moves. When she starts to dream, her mood changes, she feels a kind of foreboding. But instead of a statement such as that, we get an image -- when a calm passes over water that had been sparkling as the sun caught the tips of waves, the water seems to darken as it becomes smoother. This is not just a poem about the physical world, it's a poem that thinks by means of the physical world. There is a progression in the poem, and it makes sense, but it's not so much a movement driven by logic, as it is a movement of suggestion. What does it mean to experience divinity? "Unsubdued elations when the forest blooms, gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights." She imagines the era of classical gods, and the meaning of the language is no more important than how it sounds, how it becomes an image of something antique: "neither the golden underground, nor isle Melodious, where spirits gat them home." We move from April's green, to boys piling pears and plums on a plate, to maidens tasting them, to men dancing in a ring, to dew evaporating. This is a poem that thinks about important ideas by following a mind as it dreams, staying close to the earth, letting one image suggest another.
When "Sunday Morning" was first published in Poetry magazine in 1915, Harriet Monroe, the editor, deliberately omitted sections II, III, and VI. In consenting to her deletions, Stevens rearranged the remaining sections into the following order: I, VIII, IV, V, VII. Try reading the poem in this shortened and rearranged order. How is it a different poem? What is lost? Why do you think Monroe made the editorial decisions she did?
Click here to see Stevens's handwritten copy of the first section of "Sunday Morning."
Wallace Stevens lived the life of a businessman, holding himself aloof, for the most part, from the artistic circles of the time. Nevertheless, he was very well informed about the intellectual and aesthetic interests of his fellow artists. One such interest, which played a major role across all the arts of modernism, was that of primitivism. European fascination with what was imagined to be "primitive" had existed for centuries, but it was heightened in the second half of the nineteenth century, as colonialism entered a new phase of aggressive expansion. "Primitive" art began to be brought back to Europe, and was viewed with new seriousness by artists, who found in its forms the inspiration for radical innovation within the traditions of Western art. African masks began to appear on Cubist canvases, and for some artists, such as Paul Gauguin and D. H. Lawrence, primitivism was not just a source of new artistic form, but a redemptive alternative to European modernity.
Stevens was not about to follow Gauguin to Tahiti, but he was familiar with primitivist art, and he understood how its nostalgic yearning for wholeness could speak to men and women who felt that an urban, industrialized world of doubt and change left little place for wholeness. The ring of men in "Sunday Morning," who dance in devotion to the sun, are present to the speaker's imagination because they are a part of the artistic and intellectual life of the twentieth century.
Click here to see Henri Rousseau's "Merry Jesters." Stevens was familiar with this painting, which hung in the studio of his friend Walter Arensberg.
The Poet´s Life and Work
- Harold Bloom, from Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate.
- James Longenback, from Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things.
- Joseph N. Riddel, from The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens.