Sunday Morning Poem by Wallace Stevens

Sunday Morning

Rating: 4.4


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.


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 measure destined for her soul.


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.


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.


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 fulfillment 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.


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 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.


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.


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.

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

5 12 Reply
Maureen Fox 10 April 2009

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

12 4 Reply
Raymond Farrell 02 May 2015

Stevens was not an atheist.

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Lamont Palmer 28 January 2006

One of the most imaginative poems of the 20th century. Stevens was a master of the music of the mind.

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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.

2 6 Reply
Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Pennsylvania / United States
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