Sunday Morning

I was reminded of this poem when looking out ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ for a slightly whimsical piece of analysis by my students.  This steals my heart and my breath away every time I read it.  It is the aching cry of the modernist for God.  Not daring, or capable, of finding Him in Christ’s sacrifice, the echoes are everywhere in the world.  Okay, it’s a statement of atheism and of the failure of faith.  But it echoes Keats’ ecstasy with living, and also Tennyson’s faith in grief of ‘In Memoriam’.  Wallace Stevens is American with an intensely rich heritage of English poetry – and a stunning individual output that became very spare, cryptic and crystalline, perhaps closer to music than poetry proper.

A ‘peignoir’ is a lacy overgarment worn around the house (so I understand!).

Sunday Morning

ONE
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.

 
TWO
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.

 
THREE
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.

 
FOUR
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.

 
FIVE
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.

 
SIX
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.

 
SEVEN
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.

 
EIGHT
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.

Wallace Stevens
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2 Responses to Sunday Morning

  1. Rereading this again makes my heart ache for all those who see so much, yet cannot or will not join up the last remaining dot that leads to Christ and Father. Amazing powers of observation and description – another testament to His abundant gifts – poured out on us all, like rain. It is good to read the following and ponder on Hopkins’ inscapes – implying a Creator, hoping to be lifted to a closer contemplation of God:

    As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
    As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
    Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
    Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
    Í say móre: the just man justices;
    Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
    Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins – As Kingfishers Catch Fire

    • benleney says:

      Thanks Lynette – my response too. An achingly deep sadness that the nourishment that is in Christ is not nourishing the speaker of this poem. Hopkins is one of the undiscovered secrets of the English poetic tradition – thanks for quoting such a luminous and glorious piece of writing! This urges me on to post some more great poetry on this blog….

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