Sunday Morning

From The Wall Street Journal:

Sundays aren’t what they used to be, but then again when were they? The Christian sabbath was already losing primacy a century ago when an insurance lawyer by the name of Wallace Stevens published “Harmonium,” his first book of poems, and thereby unleashed on the world a set of eight extravagant stanzas titled “Sunday Morning.”

It’s hard to believe that anybody reading them in 1923 could ever look at Sunday mornings in the same light afterward. Stevens’s gorgeous meditation on the nature of divinity—and the human longing for “some imperishable bliss” in the face of mortality—is, among other things, a worldly rejection of the stringent Protestant sabbath of the poet’s youth.

Against the voluptuous sonorities and tropical paganism of Stevens’s iambs, the hard pews and tedious Sunday dinners of the 19th century never stood a chance. And the passage of time has done nothing to even out an unfair fight, or to blunt the unequivocal judgment of poet and critic Yvor Winters. “Sunday Morning,” he declared in 1943, “is probably the greatest American poem of the twentieth century and is certainly one of the greatest contemplative poems in English.”

By the time Stevens first published some of the stanzas, in 1915, it wasn’t altogether news that God was dead, for so Nietzsche had said. Born in 1879 and raised a Protestant, the poet himself shed his faith early. “I am not in the least religious,” he wrote in 1907. But the loss left him feeling “dispossessed,” and though he rarely attended services, he persisted in visiting churches, assuring a correspondent that “no one believes in the church as an institution more than I do.”

Like its author, “Sunday Morning” is suffused with paganism yet rooted in familiar Christian traditions—starting with the title, which describes a time when most Americans were presumed to be in church. But the poem’s nameless female protagonist, in the opening lines, greets the sabbath more in the manner of sybarite than supplicant:

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.

The long-ago sacrifice is the crucifixion, and “that old catastrophe” darkens her dreams and raises discomfiting questions in one so full of vitality and awake to life’s pleasures.

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

On this Sunday morning, the old-time religion will no longer cut it. “Divinity,” she realizes, “must live within herself,” manifest in the passions of her nature, and of the nature of which she is a part. In the rest of the poem she and her creator—the poet, himself a kind of god in this respect—explore what shape our powerful spiritual yearnings can take in the absence of traditional faith and the persistence of human finitude.

Content with her life in the here and now, our heroine nonetheless longs for the lost sense of permanence once offered by the reassuring notion of an afterlife. The problem is that the beauty and passion of divinity depend on our evanescence for their force.

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

Although permeated with Christian imagery, “Sunday Morning” is riotously sensuous, and Stevens himself said flatly that it was about paganism, as in the penultimate stanza, which opens with a scene of ecstatic veneration:

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

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG hadn’t thought of Wallace Stevens for quite a long time. He thought highly of him when he was in college and afterwards.

Stevens was not a typical poet. A Harvard and New York Law School graduate, his day job was as a vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, now just The Hartford, a very large insurance company.

For those who believe that a successful poet must follow a particular career path that has little to do with business affairs and numbers, Stevens demonstrates that an atypical day job has little to do with artistic talent.