About this poem Stevens wrote that it was "simply an expression of paganism." A woman enjoying the comforts of staying home on Sunday morning begins to think about the requirements and the spiritual rewards of Christian belief. The main speaking voice in the poem describes the woman sinking deeper into meditation and expresses for her her own questioning of the sacrifices required by devout Christian belief. But, after doubting the myths of various religions, by the third section the speaker is asking the antagonistic rhetorical question, "And shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?" The implied answer is that when the human race puts away its belief in "mythy" gods, the earth will become paradise. But then the woman begins to object: she wants an "imperishable bliss," like Christianity promises its Elect. The main speaking voice replies with the shocking main theme of the poem: "Death is the mother of beauty." This statement of theme is a hyperbolic way of saying that everything humans experience and value exists in time and that fleetingness makes everything more valuable than it would be if it lasted unchanging forever. In the last three sections, the poet describes the beauties of earth as paradise. The final image of section eight is of pigeons descending "Downward to darkness, on extended wings," a peaceful acceptance of darkness and death, which it symbolizes. The critic Robert Buttel sees the poem as establishing the French painter Matisse as "a kindred spirit" to Stevens, in that both artists "transform a pagan joy of life into highly civilized terms."
“Sunday Morning” has rich patterns of imagery, but, unlike “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Stevens’ poem does not eschew theme words. Let’s look at two image patterns and their associated themes. No image pattern is more prevalent in Western literature than that of light and darkness, and “Sunday Morning” develops that one fully and associates it with living and dying. Stevens’ handling of the light-dark pattern, however, does not simplistically affirm life and shun death; in fact, accepting death as a natural part of life is the speaker’s main theme. What would light be without darkness? The other pattern is that of “paradisal” images of eternal bliss and contrasting images associated with “earthly pleasures and pains.”; “Paradisal happiness” and “Earthly happiness and suffering” work as fruitful theme words shaping these two strands of imagery.
The title “SUNday Morning” introduces the images of light, especially sunlight, and, through the Christian designation of Sunday morning as the time for weekly worship, the association between sun, light, and paradisal happiness. The title also introduces in an almost subliminal way the all-important theme of time. For naturalists like Stevens, the inseparability of pleasure and pain from mutability and the accepting of that inseparability replaces the ancient imagined commandments to conform one’s own will to God’s will regardless of the pain involved or be tortured forever in Hell.
After the title, the words in Section I that introduce the contrasting sets of images are sunny and dark Encroachment. The comfortable setting transforms the woman protagonist’s complacency into an exploration of the geography of spiritual imaginings, “As a calm darkens among water-lights.” Visualize that image. Looking across a body of choppy water toward a light on the other shore, you see each wavelet capped by light. But as the surface quietens, the myriad reflections of light smooth into a narrow shaft and the surrounding water darkens. The reader sees that stasis interinanimates darkens and movement does the same for water lights. This property of the imagery, light with motion, darkness with stillness, continues through the poem. As the woman begins thinking about the demands of Christianity, her mind wends its vicarious way across the dark, silent ocean to the Holy Land.
Section II begins by associating the theme of “divinity” with an image of shadows and contrasting these with the theme of “comforts” with its accompanying images of sun and bright green wings. As in stanza I, a transition occurs after the first eight lines. The speaker offers a mini-Whitman catalogue of “the measures of her soul”: “elations when the forest blooms” (Thank you, Emerson) and “the winter branch.” The catalogue includes some generalized images, “wet roads on autumn nights,” and some themes, “Grievings in loneliness.” (Clearly, Stevens did not subscribe unthinkingly to Ezra Pound’s advice to “go in fear of abstractions.”)
Sections III through VI continue following the protagonist’s spiritual explorations but without the light-and-darkness pattern. Instead the woman’s mind encounters images of unchanging paradisal bliss and ones of always-changing earthly pleasures and pains. Still in keeping with the sonnet structure, Section III shifts after the octet to questioning a future without religion’s promises of eternal joy. The poet’s voice inquires about a time when human beings will no longer dream of or imagine an otherworldly realm, timeless and perfect, separated from earth. The protagonist shares Stevens’ own naturalistic preference for the only world she know—earth. Human beings in that future time will realize that the sky and earth are inescapably joined. The sky will no longer be seen as “this dividing and indifferent blue” (III) that religions insist separates earth from heaven.
The focus of that contrast lies with the theme of time—the difference between “that perfect sky / Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth” (Section VI). The thematic announcement of this pattern appeared in Section III when the poet’s voice (not the dreaming woman) asked, “shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?” The implied answer is, of course, “Yes.” In that day, Be will become the “finale of seem” and the only emperor then will be “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”
An active reader has no difficulty seeing how proffered descriptions of paradise merely imitate earthly pleasures (IV- VI), but one can easily miss a major statement of the mutability theme. The protagonist’s meditation mentor states provocatively, for a second time:
“Death is the mother of beauty.” Seeing how this shocking statement pulls together and interinanimates affirmatively the images of earth and negatively the images of paradise challenges a reader.
Clearly, if beauty exists in this world—the only world—it is not universal, permanent, and eternal, but ineluctably temporal and therefore “to death devote,” as Adam says of Eve in Paradise Lost IX, 901. Why, though, does the voice continue by saying death (not beauty) is “mystical,”
Death is “mystical” in that our naturalistic ideas of it are poverty stricken; consequently, our imaginations devise in death’s bosom myths and images that explain our origin and sustenance. As we come deeply and honestly to understand our earthly mothers and their nurturing attention, we also come to understand their impermanence and imperfections. (Again, Milton’s Adam to Eve, the “Mother of us all”: “Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote”).
Why have a “burning bosom”? The words echo a strange, mystical passage in W. B. Yeats’ “Shadowy Waters”:
Those lines of course refer to immortal souls, which Stevens’ poem rejects, but the image of “the burnished mirror of the world,” in which fleeting dreams come and go, is analogous to the “burning bosom . . . / [Of] Our earthly mothers” in which we devise our fleeting images and religious myths.
Reading attentively, one might sense that the meditation mentor, actually the woman’s seeking and questioning mind, now addresses herself as a person who has learned to live without god or gods. Section VII is in the future tense, describing this earth as the paradise it will become when human beings are devoted to it and to each other instead of to their self-aggrandizing, religious fantasies, telling them how to win eternal life somewhere else.
The imagery of light returns, with a circle of obviously “pagan” men chanting “Their boisterous devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be. . . .” And those men will “know well the heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn.” But then a third voice, similar to the one that spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, tells the mental traveler to Palestine that the tomb she sought is the grave of Jesus, not a portal to a supernatural world. Two images reach back to interinanimate the “wide water, without sound” in the opening Section:
This is the wide water, without sound that was stilled for her dreaming feet as she began her meditation on Christian asceticism and death. Her many questions are now answered. The additional mention of “that water” raises it to a metaphoric and even symbolic level:
Religions, such as those of the Egyptian and Greeks, imagined stories of the sun as the god Amon Ra and Apollo. Compared to those myths, the naturalist’s description of the sun as a raging nuclear furnace that is a mass of storms and unpredictable coronas is chaotic. All life on earth depends for its existence on the cycles of day and night as it orbits this raging near-chaos. Our planet is an island in the universe of perhaps infinite space, and no “sponsor” is going to save us from destroying our planet and ourselves. We are free to do that. If the infinite reaches of space-time are the wide water in which Earth is a minuscule island, that “water” is inescapable because there is no place else to go.
The dark side of the opening pattern of light and darkness returns to conclude the poem with a musical coda:
The imagery clearly suggests acceptance of death as part of life. The emotional effects of this passage are enhanced by the rhythm and vowel-consonant music. “Pigeons” and “undulations” are a nice near rhyme, as are “make,” “sink,” and “wings.” The alliteration of “Downward” and “darkness” brings “Sunday Morning” to a peaceful close.