Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens: Summary and Critical Analysis

Sunday Morning is a meditative poem in which Stevens presents a woman who is frightened by the thought of death when she hears the church bells. The poet initially appreciates the woman's rational thoughts as she refuses to accept the romantic fancies of the Christian afterlife and wants to make her life on this earth itself meaningful.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

But when the woman, however, seeks some kind of "imperishable bliss", the poet turns against her and begins to criticize her complacency. In the criticism of the woman, we are also criticized because most of us are like her in that we fail to live up to our reasonable thoughts and philosophies and fall back to fail to live up to our reasonable thoughts and philosophies and fall back to the same traps of fantastic ideas given by our religions or myths. In the first four stanzas, we see the woman rejoicing life, nature and its beauty: she explicitly rejects the dogmas of religion, and embraces the concrete reality and beauty of the world and life.

The poet suddenly interrupts this strain of the woman's meditation and begins to expound an opposite philosophy about the "beauty of death"! Stevens has shown what place death has in being. In one sense, the poem is an argument with a woman who, on one Sunday Morning, is prompted to think of Christ's sacrificial death and of the heaven, which Christ opened to man by dying for him... The poet mocks heaven and the attempt to abstract life from being and leave death behind. Because life is such a good thing, death, upon which life depends, must also be a good thing for Stevens.

The poem begins with an almost vague description of an aristocratic woman sitting in her garden on a Sunday morning and being happy for all the luxuries and happiness of life. In the first stanza, we see that the complacencies of the rich life and the natural beauty of her surrounding dissipate "the holy hush of ancient sacrifice". She dreams a little and she feels the interference of death in the process of life; but she finds the bright colors of beautiful things draw her attention again. Though they all look, as if they are in a procession of death, there are overtones of rejoice for the beauty of life and nature. The poet's mediation on life, death, and change is presented through this description of the woman who prefers the world of the senses to "The holy hush of ancient sacrifice" associated with religious practice, but who is found later that she is not really sure that these can be satisfied with temporary delights.

 In an imagined paradise, there is "no change of death", but only rivers that never reach the sea, ripe fruit never falls from trees; the images associated with religion and dreams of an afterlife are sinister and lifeless. In some places, he deliberately uses archaic words and phrases to suggest that religious belief is out of date. Stevens's life- long conviction is that "poetry and poets must take the place of religion and priests to provide form and meaning for human life" which is implicit in the poem Sunday Morning. The most important of the major theme of Stevens is the idea that human perception of beauty requires the realization that everything on earth is temporary. Everyone will die and everything will change; so we must recognize permanence as an illusion. What is permanent is the changing cycle of life and death. Christianity, Hinduism, or any religion promising permanence, is false because it envisions a paradise that is something like our earth but without the inherent changes in earth's life and circumstance. They are wish-words created without properly thinking whether they would be possible or even desirable! In fact, this physical world, an endless round of birth, death and the seasons, is more lasting than any interpretation of it. Religion, myths, philosophies, and cultures are all fictions and pass away. To discover that there never has been any celestial world is a joyful liberation and the man says himself: "this happy creature-it is he that invented the Gods". Every passage in the poem is charged with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is inevitable, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence.

The third stanza contrasts the pagan religions of the Greco-Roman world (represented by Jove) with the more democratic Christian religion. The fourth stanza is a sweet but sad farewell to both the old pagan religions and Christianity; these are gone forever. In the fifth stanza, the thought of death again intrudes. She is now afraid of it; she is tempted by an everlasting 'bliss' for her individual self. At this point, the woman is suddenly revealed as the common type of individual after all! She says that she needs an everlasting bliss. The poet reacts to her 'common falling back into the same trap' by saying that "Death is the mother of beauty!" The desire of beauty is quickened by the sense of death. Beauty and Death were looked upon as sisters by the Romantics. Here too, death is personified as a mother who gives life to everything in the nature, and even to the understanding of life and reality.

In the sixth stanza, the poet begins to meditate about the nature of the place called heaven: "Is there no change of death in paradise? Does ripe fruit never fall?" If rivers flow but never reach the ocean, if fruits become ripe but never fall, if things are born but never die, if there is only 'bliss' and no contrary to give it any meaning, then such a heaven is not a desirable place. It must be impossible, and even if it actually existed, it would not be desirable, interesting or worthwhile to seek for it. Religions have construed a vision of a paradise similar to the earthly paradise but unchanging and eternal. Such a paradise would become tiresome and produce the greatest sin of all, ennui/boredom!

The seventh stanza describes the religion of the future, a new paganism in which men will worship the physical universe. They will believe in the brotherhood of man and they will be aware that the lives of all men are temporary. The final stanza states that Jesus (God) is dead and that man must live alone, on a transitory but lovely planet. The woman's recognition that Jesus is a historical figure and that she is alone, only as a part of "unsponsored" nature, frees her from the prison in which her traditional beliefs had locked her. The conclusion, which is a merging of the woman's perception with that of the other voice, is a picture of the sweet earth and a statement of the Everyman's need to recognize it and come to terms with the inevitable reality of death, that gives real meaning of life.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, K.N. "Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 24 Nov. 2013,