Skipping Church on Sunday Morning: An Examination of the Rejection of Systems of Truth in Wallace Stevens’ Poem “Sunday Morning”

May 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

Wallace Stevens, it seems, never spoke a great deal about his poem “Sunday Morning.” Because Stevens gives us very little insight into his own thoughts, it is important to examine the thoughts of other critics before analyzing a poem such as “Sunday Morning.” In an essay titled “Pound/Sevens: Whose Era?” Marjorie Perloff brings together criticism from herself and other critics to paint a picture of Stevens’ views on religion. She references Lucky Beckett, who says that modernist poets such as Stevens are characterized by the study of “belief and value in a world without established systems of truth” (Perloff 3). Another critic, Walton Litz, is more specific in his characterization of Stevens:Steven’s final mundo is neither eccentric nor private. It is built upon the central reality of our age, the death of the gods and of the great coordinating mythologies, and in their place it offers the austere satisfactions of a ‘self’ dependent on the pure poetry of the physical world, a ‘self’ whose terrifying lack of belief is turned into a source of freedom. (Perloff 3)This idea that Stevens believed that the old systems of truth, such as Christianity, had failed in the modern world and that people should find freedom and peace in the natural world outside of any of the old systems is the underlying theme to his poem “Sunday Morning.” The poem begins with a woman lounging outside on a sunny Sunday morning, instead of being in church, where she should be. She is enjoying small material delights: the delicate feel of her dressing gown, her breakfast of coffee and oranges, and the presence of the “green freedom of a cockatoo / Upon a rug” (4). But aside from providing simple material pleasures, all of these things work to “dissipate / The holy hush of ancient sacrifice” (4-5). This can be interpreted several ways, but I believe that these simple material pleasures are working to diminish the solemnity of remembering the tragic sacrifice of Jesus; in the presence of such simple, natural joy, this woman is unable to experience the mourning that Christianity provokes its followers to feel every Sunday morning in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus.Yet despite the little pleasures she is feeling, she is unable to avoid thinking on the subject. As she reclines in the sun, “She dreams a little, and she feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe” (6-7). She is thinking of death and her inevitable appointment to meet with Him. In the absence of religious faith, how is she supposed to face such an inevitable catastrophe? With this worry on her mind, “a calm darkens among water-lights. / The pungent oranges and bright, green wings / Seem things in some procession of the dead, / Winding across wide water, without sound” (8-12). Suddenly, in the face of death, she is unable to feel the same joy she felt earlier. The day takes on an overwhelmingly solemn feeling, threatening to drown her. Yet her thoughts persist and progress as her dreams move “to Silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre” (14-15). This is a reference to Jesus Christ and his death in Judaea, Palestine. It seems here that it is not the thoughts of the woman, but rather the voice of the narrator, that names the death site of Jesus Christ as the “Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.” This line, I believe, reveals Stevens’ opinion of Christianity and other religions; though Palestine and the sepulchre are specific references to Christianity, this part of the world holds great significance for many other religions. Therefore, this line can be interpreted as being directed at religion in its entirety. But instead of being the realm of eternal life, which is the belief that all who follow Christianity and most religions hold, it is the dominion of the grave; faith in religion will not bring one to eternal life. To say that there is a grave for Jesus goes against Christian teachings, which claim that he was reincarnated and then ascended to heaven. It also seems to be playing on the Last Supper sacrament of taking the blood and body of Christ in the form of wine and bread. By replacing the body of Christ with the grave, Stevens is recognizing Jesus not as an immortal god-figure, but as a man who lived and died like any other.The second stanza is the thought process of the woman working through the question of religion. She opens by wondering why she should worship a figure such as Jesus when she knows that he is dead. Simply by posing this question, she has acknowledged the fact that she does not believe that he is the Son of God, for she knows that he was mortal. She then questions the value of “divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams” (17-18). The teachings of Christianity and the faith one is required to have in order to achieve divinity, she believes, are not real and tangible things, but rather false illusions formed from the mind of man. Instead of the shadows and dreams of religion, she will find comfort and pleasure in nature, and cherish these things with the same reverence with which those that follow religion cherish “the thought of heaven” (19-22). She then decides that “Divinity must live within herself” (23). Yet it seems that her essence is somehow tied to nature. The second half of this stanza aligns her moods and experiences with different aspects of the natural world, finally coming to the conclusion that “All pleasures and all pains, remembering / The bough of summer and the winter branch. / These are the measures destined for her soul” (28-30). This last line is a very important one, because by mentioning the woman’s soul, we discern that this is not an argument for atheism. It becomes somewhat paradoxical, because though Stevens has no faith in Christianity (a system of truth that has failed in the modern world), it appears he still believes in some supernatural human essence. Does he believe that there is a part of us that goes on after death? Or is he simply referring to the woman as she exists in life? Perhaps this will be revealed by the end of the poem.The third stanza seems to leave the thoughts of the woman and enter into the mind of the narrator. He chronicles for us the process of religious myth creating a closer relationship with god(s) and man. He begins with Jove, believed by the Romans to be King of the Gods; according to myth, Jove was born completely detached from man (31). This is referring to the time in which man believed the gods to be entities entirely separate from humankind. Over time, religion progressed to a point in which the gods “moved among us, as a muttering king, / Magnificent, would move among his hinds” (34-35). As religious belief evolved through the centuries, the gods started to have a closer relationship with man; this specific line is referring to myths about the gods mating with humans. Finally, Christianity was created, and “our blood, commingling, virginal, / With heaven, brought such a requital to desire / The very hinds discerned it, in a star” (36-38). The most popular form of Western religion, Christianity, is the greatest extent to which religion has combined man and god; the worship of Jesus Christ as God in the form of man is the greatest commingling of the blood of man and the blood of God that we have achieved. The path of religious progression, as demonstrated by the history above, has one rational ending: the complete unity of God and man. It is with this thought in mind that Stevens asks us, “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / The blood of paradise? And shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?” (39-41). Religion has continued to fail man to the point that it has had to be changed over and over again, but each time it changes, man plays a greater role. Stevens seems to believe that mankind will succeed when we have eliminated God, or fully merged with God, in our religious practices – when we come to view the earth, instead of some other realm, as paradise. Any other such ending would be a failure on the part of man. He believes that when this happens, “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” (42-45). By taking God out of the sky, the sky and all of the earth will be far more beautiful than it is now.The fourth stanza returns to the woman from the beginning of the poem. As in the first stanza of the poem, the woman takes pleasure from the presence of nature. She describes a beautiful summer morning scene in which the chirping of birds can be heard through the morning mists of a field. She wonders, however, “when the birds are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?” (49-50). Lines 51-56 reveal that paradise is not found anywhere else outside of nature; Stevens lists for us several supernatural places that have been believed to be the location of paradise, yet all of these beliefs have faded into the past; there are none that have “endured / As April’s green endures” (56-57). He then personalizes the natural spiritual experience for the woman; April’s green is a paradise that all can visit, but for her, paradise is “her remembrance of awakened birds, / Or her desire for June and evening, tipped / By the consummation of the swallow’s wings” (58-60). I believe that Stevens is showing us the vast appeal that nature has, and how every individual person can find their own piece of paradise in its domain.But despite the pleasure and contentment she feels from nature, she still feels “The need of some imperishable bliss” (62). Then follows what is perhaps the most famous passage in the poem, in which Stevens declares that “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires” (63-65). From death comes our fulfillment for imperishable bliss. Because of death, we can appreciate what is beautiful in the world; if nothing were to ever die, it would become the norm, and be boring and unfulfilling. Because we know a person or a moment will eventually be gone, we are able to appreciate them to their fullest while we have them. The poem continues on the subject of death, saying that though death will inevitably take us all, it is death that “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 / And stray impassioned on the littering leaves” (70-75). It is hard to decipher, but I believe these lines claim death to be not only the mother of beauty, but the mother love; because of death men and women seek to love one another; without our own mortality, we would not seek the comfort of another human being. Perhaps, then, Stevens is saying that love, derived from the knowledge of death, is the answer to this woman’s desire for “some imperishable bliss.”The sixth stanza presents an image of paradise as it is most often viewed by religion. The common opinion of religious paradise is a place one goes to after death in which there is no longer any death. But, according to Stevens, there can be no beauty without death, so a place without death would not be paradise. He presents to us a view of nature, yet an unchanging and un-nourishing view of nature that such a “paradise” would hold, a place where ripe fruit would never fall to the hungry mouths of man and where the land would always look the same, the shorelines unchanging (77-82). He asks, “Why set the pear upon those river-banks / Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?” (83-84). This is a reference to the lovemaking scene described in the previous stanza. In a place like this, we would never die, therefore we would never seek the “imperishable bliss” of love. It also gives new meaning to the mirrored lines in the previous stanza, because now death has become the mother of art as well. In the same way that we would not love without death, man would feel no desire to create new art if there were no death. Men would no longer “pile new plums and pears / On disregarded plate” — men would no longer renew the same old artistic mediums with the creation of new art. The stanza ends with the restatement that “death is the mother of beauty, mystical, / Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly” (88-90). I believe that the beliefs mentioned here, of a mystical death and of our earthly mothers waiting in it afterwards, are in relation to the same belief in the traditional religious paradise presented in this stanza; common religious belief, that which has been “devised” by man, lends death a mystical element and makes us believe that those we once knew are waiting for us on the other side. This, Stevens believes, is not the case.The seventh stanza opens with the image of what seems to be a pagan ritual. This image seems to be the ideal form of religion that Stevens has been working to describe throughout the entire poem. It is important to note, however, that this is not a reversion back to man’s primitive beliefs; the men celebrate “their devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be, / Naked among them, like a savage source” (93-95). They do not believe that the sun is some powerful, supernatural being; they simply recognize it as the source for the natural world in which they live and love. These men have come to recognize that the natural world around them is paradise (96). And they have achieved the final stage of religious progression detailed in stanza three; the blood of god has been fully merged with them, for they chant “out of their blood, returning to the sky” (97); the traditional religious hierarchy of god(s) being in the sky speaking to man has been completely reversed and man now sends his voice into the sky. The next lines follow the voices of the chanting men as they flow through the countryside, washing over the land. There is no more need for heaven because their “lord,” the sun, is reflected in the lake, and the trees are their angels now, “that choir among themselves long afterward,” singing the song of paradise long after the people have left (99-101). This is the heavenly fellowship of man, nature, and death described in the following two lines. The final lines of the stanza say that no matter what these men do, they will always be reminded of their new “heavenly fellowship” by the “dew upon their feet,” or by the constant presence of nature.We are finally returned to the woman of the beginning of the poem in the final stanza. We are reminded of her deep contemplation, walking upon the wide water of her thoughts that threaten to drown her. In her thoughts she hears a voice, saying “The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay” (107-109). As mentioned previously, this is contrary to Christian belief, which says that Jesus does not lie in a grave, but that he ascended to heaven after he was reincarnated. This final voice in the woman’s thoughts solidifies her rejection of Christianity.The following four lines are hard to interpret. We leave the thoughts of the woman yet again, and are given a new description of the life in which we currently live (110-113). I cannot tell if these lines are speaking positively or negatively about the current way in which we live. Does he say we live in an “old chaos of the sun” because we are torn over religious ideals? Or does he mean the universe itself is chaos, and therefore is impossible for us to explain or comprehend? How can we be free of the wide water if it is inescapable? If the wide water represents death, are we creating a sort of negative solitude for ourselves in not accepting it, in imagining that we live free of it by putting faith in these religions? That is the only thing I can think to make sense of it, but it is simply too ambiguous and vague to tell. The poem ends with more visions of nature, though this nature seems to reflect the “chaos of the sun” mentioned a few lines back; the cries of the quail are spontaneous, life bursts into bloom in the wilderness, and the birds in the sky soar with no discernible pattern (115-120).Narrowing down Stevens’ entire belief structure is a difficult task when viewing this one poem. It is clear that he desires to reject religion as it has so far existed in the history of man. He wants to take man’s faith out of religious ideals and place them into the world in which we live. It does not seem, however, that he rejects the idea of a god; this poem does not come across as atheistic, but I do not know if calling it agnostic is accurate either. I would not declare it to be advocating for paganism either, as paganism usually refers to a religion of multiple gods. One could say that he is promoting a Naturalist religion, but it does not seem that he is encouraging the worship of nature as a god. It might be safe to say that Stevens is promoting a naturalistic philosophy in which one abandons existing religious practices and celebrates the beauty of the natural world.In the end, whether or not his exact beliefs can be established does not stop us from seeing how Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” embodied the sense of the time that the old belief structures and systems of truth had failed. Stevens uses his poem to reject those structures and invite a new understanding of death which, when comprehended, grants an individual freedom from the fear of letting go of those old structures.Works CitedPerloff, Marjorie. “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” The Dance of the Intellect. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1996. 1-32. Print.

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