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Sunday Morning

Rating: 4.3


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
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Gary Witt 26 September 2006

Well, yes. This is certainly a great and enduring poem. But what makes it great? What causes it to endure? I don't pretend to have the Final Truth here, but let me offer the following as a starting point for further discussion. IMHO, this particular poem has (at least) three great characteristics: it uses language and imagery carefully to create what I'll call 'density' (i.e., the words and images are packed with meaning): it deals with an important subject (the relationship between God and humankind): and it evokes a panoply of responses, whether intellectually or emotionally. (This last characteristic could be a result of the first-the fact that the words and images are packed with meaning.) I particularly like to see the point at which this poem starts, where it ends, and how it gets there. It starts on a Sunday morning in room that appears well-appointed, perhaps even opulent. A woman lounges in a peignoir (not a house coat) as her cockatoo wanders across the rug, presumably out of its cage. The 'holy hush of ancient sacrifice' is dissipated by sensuality-the complacencies that surround her. The poem ends with a voice that cries (in the wilderness?) a message concerning 'the tomb in Palestine, ' while 'casual flocks of pigeons make ambiguous undulations.' On the way from Point A to Point B, almost every line brings a new and powerful image. The first thing I noticed was the birds. Wild birds, birds kept as exotic pets, evoking but not mentioning the concept of Holy Spirit as dove? The woman questions the nature of divinity. Can God live among us? (Jove? Jesus? The woman's 'dreaming feet' walk across 'wide water.' Does she aspire to divinity?) Can eternal heaven be changeless and still be filled with beauty? (Note here that 'April's green endures.' So while the beauty of an eternal, changeless heaven is questioned, temporal beauty 'endures.') And in this context, there is a line that Stevens finds important enough to repeat: Death is the mother of beauty. In the end, 'The tomb in Palestine is not the porch of spirits lingering. It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.' If death is the mother of beauty, then what are we to conclude about Jesus' death? Do these lines affirm his resurrection? (Perhaps.) Do they question his divinity? (Again, perhaps.) And what are we to think of this in the context of a natural, chaotic, and quite beautiful world? I don't believe that Stevens is being ambiguous here. But he certainly is tackling or confronting ambiguity. In the end, perhaps the 'ambiguous undulations' are our own, as we sink downward to darkness on extended wings.

16 3 Reply
Daithi De Paore 11 January 2010

Maureen, you do realise that the main characters in the Poem are Mary and Jesus? Also Wallace Stevens is said to have converted to Catholicism before he died.That said, it is a teasing poem and a beaut.It is a wonderful meditation on the worth of sensuality while there is the divine.The pondering Lady who has divinity living inside herself, who feels god in a silent shadow and in dreams.This is a masterpiece of reflection on the Incarnation for my money

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Maureen Fox 10 April 2009

This unsurpassed atheist's hymn is proof that atheism, like religion, can inspire great art.

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Raymond Farrell 02 May 2015

Stevens was not an atheist.

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David-sarah Hopwood 25 February 2012

The Green Cockatoo is the name of a play written around 1899 by Arthur Schnitzler, about the French Revolution: http: //www.archive.org/details/3486621 (in translation) . Coincidence? It's an interesting play and I wouldn't be at all surprised at Stevens referencing it in this particular poem (whatever else the green cockatoo refers to) . Daithi, I quite disagree that the main characters in the Poem are Mary and Jesus; Jesus is referenced rather indirectly and Mary not at all. It's an atheist poem for sure - verse 6 is about the implausibility of an eternal heaven, for example. But if religious folks like the poem as well, s'all good: -)

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Michael Walker 30 July 2019

Wallace Stevens himself said that 'Sunday Morning' is about paganism.' Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth'. There is implied conflict with Christianity also, in the mind of the female central character: 'The tomb in Palestine/ Is not the porch of spirits lingering/ It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay'. It is a long, enigmatic poem, but I have read and appreciated it many times.

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ellen 22 April 2018

When I read this poem in a Contemporary American poetry class in 1968 the last line in our text read But the tip that tips the tree still stands, a phallic reference to how the woman in the poem was a trophy wife - what happened to that line in my college text- you boys cleaned it up or what?

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Aftab Alam Khursheed 01 March 2015

nice indeed with a touch.....

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Thomas Harris 05 February 2014

This poem was included in a text of required readings for my Freshman year in college. I have been able to recite it from memory, more or less, ever since.

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David-sarah Hopwood 25 February 2012

Imagine quotation marks around (The Green Cockatoo) and (the main characters in the Poem are Mary and Jesus) in my previous comment; the site software seems to dislike double quote characters.

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