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Sunday Morning (A poem about a life of meaning even in the absence of religious faith)

Do you sometimes feel frustrated with poetry, as if it hates you and there’s no point in even trying? How about this question, does your life feel like it has little purpose? Are you caught between trying to eek out a purpose within a religious structure? Or maybe, you are filling spiritual holes in your life with temporal things and that seems good enough?

These are all good questions. I can understand the sentiment of wondering “what’s the point” when a poem or hey, a religion, doesn’t seem to make immediate sense or any sense at all. Poetry can definitely and does require more investment and effort to fully appreciate. Even with best efforts, some poems just don’t speak to us. Some religions don’t speak to us like they used to. And some non-religious pursuits don’t speak as well.

That is why I think a poem like “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens can be worthwhile to explore, even if the meaning isn’t immediately clear. This story, which one critic called the greatest of the 20th century, tackles some profound themes about finding meaning in life beyond traditional religious faith.

It is about a Sunday Morning. Not the Sunday morning as described by Benson Boone in his song “In the Stars”. But it actually holds similar themes (Sunday mornings can indeed be our favorite, even in the absence of a traditional religious framework).

The poem “Sunday Morning” explores the pursuit of finding meaning in life without relying on religious convictions. Instead of engaging in a debate over the existence of a divine entity, the poem suggests that traditional religious frameworks, especially within Christianity, no longer offer the profound significance they once did. So, even though a God may exist and even though religion may be true and correct, the practice of religion doesn’t satisfy like it used to. At least not in the life of the woman who is the subject of the poem.

The poem creates ideas of a life that possesses meaning even in the absence of religious faith. It suggests that meaning can be derived from appreciating the simple natural wonders around us and being attuned to our emotional responses to these encounters. Central to this interpretation is the acknowledgment of death’s inevitability and permanence, reminding us of life’s finite nature and the significance of each moment. Our lives point to our deaths, which gives us ultimate meaning. Without death there lacks meaning to life. As the poem says in Stanza five:

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical.

Now, Let’s start with an introduction to the poem, the main character and the first stanza.

The first line reads:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late.

Now. That’s the first line. Complacencies of the peignoir, and late. There have been times in life when I would have read the first line and shut the book. It makes no sense and has no meaning to me. But, let’s just open a dictionary and find out what it means.

Hey Google, What is a pregnoir? A pregnoir is a light dressing gown that a woman would have worn while sitting doing nothing on a Sunday morning. It represents a freedom from stuffiness. A comfort. So, now we understand the first line. A woman in her pajamas, wakes up late on a Sunday morning.

Great. We see the emotion of the poem and can guess where it’s going to take us.

Next line please:

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,

Done. Not going to translate that one for you. She’s in her pajamas sitting on her sun chair rocker, drinking coffee and peeling an orange.

Now the next three lines have some complexity to them. So, let’s examine them together:

And the green freedom of a cockatoo

Upon a rug mingle to dissipate

The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

A cockatoo is a parrot known for its striking appearance and distinctive crest on top of its head. Google one. See what it looks like. Pretty bird that lives in New Guinea and nearby islands.

These three lines describe a scene where the lively presence of a cockatoo, moving freely on a rug, contrasts with the solemn atmosphere associated with ancient religious rituals. Those found in churches. The image suggests a disruption of traditional sacredness by the colorful and unrestricted nature of the bird’s presence. A bird hopping around on a rug brings her much more delight than the solemn vows made in the pews.

A woman on an island sitting on a sun chair and enjoying the presence of a bird, contrasting that in her mind with the years she spent going to church. And she smiles with contentment.

Moving on.

Let’s go back into the mind, the world of this woman in her sun chair.

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

The “old catastrophe” she is referring to is the crucifixion of Jesus in Palestine, her memories of lessons being taught in church about Jesus, blood, atonement, sin, corruption and she feels the weight of these religious concepts, symbolized by the encroaching darkness and procession of the dead. She feels the shame she endured, the guilt of imperfection, the weight of patriarchy. However, amidst these thoughts, she experiences a sense of calm and stillness as she sits watching the birds and the wide waters.

With this context and setting in mind, let’s now finish the poem in its complete form:

I.

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
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
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,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

II.

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?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
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.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

III.

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,
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
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.

IV.

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?”
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
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
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

V.

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
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,
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
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

VI.

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
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,
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.

VII.

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.
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,
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.

VIII.

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,
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
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,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

The End of the Poem

The beauty of a poem like “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens is that it can be interpreted and experienced in profoundly personal ways by each individual reader. People come from such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and this poem has the power to resonate with a wide range of lived experiences.

For some, the poem may evoke a sense of freedom and liberation – perhaps those who, like the woman depicted, grew up in strict, religiously orthodox households. The poem’s exploration of finding meaning outside of traditional religious frameworks could speak deeply to their personal journeys.

On the other hand, there will be readers who have had deeply meaningful, even transformative experiences through their faith. Whether it’s with a specific deity, spiritual figure, or religious community, they may find great significance in the poem’s treatment of the divine and the transcendent.

And let’s not forget those who have found salvation and purpose through religion, perhaps after struggling with addiction or other profound challenges. For them, the poem’s complexities may even have the power to “re-convert” those who have turned away from faith, reminding them of the profound role religion can play in one’s life.

Ultimately, the strength of this poem lies in its ability to connect with such a diverse array of human experiences and perspectives. Rather than prescribing a single interpretation, it invites each reader to engage with it on their own terms, drawing from their unique backgrounds and worldviews. This openness to multiple, even contradictory readings is what makes “Sunday Morning” such a rich and powerful work of art.

Good love to all. Bye.