I 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. II 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 measures destined for her soul. III 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. IV 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. V 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 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. VI 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 the 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. VII 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. VIII 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.
From Harmonium (Knopf, 1923). This poem is in the public domain.
Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate from 1897 to 1900. He planned to travel to Paris and work as a writer, but, after working briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Times, he decided to study law. Stevens graduated with a degree from New York Law School in 1903 and was admitted to the bar the following year. He practiced law in New York City until 1916.
Though Stevens was focused on his legal career, he was also part of New York’s literary community. He had several friends among the writers and painters in Greenwich Village, including William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings. In 1914, under the pseudonym “Peter Parasol,” he sent a group of poems under the title “Phases” to Harriet Monroe as entries for a war poem competition hosted by Poetry magazine. Stevens did not win the prize, but Monroe published his work in November of that year.
Stevens moved to Connecticut in 1916, having found employment at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., where he became vice president in 1934. He had also begun to establish an identity for himself outside the worlds of law and business. His first book of poems, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf), published in 1923, exhibited the influences of both the English Romantics and the French Symbolists, and demonstrated a wholly original style and sensibility: exotic, whimsical, and infused with the light and color of an Impressionist painting.
For the next several years, Stevens focused on his business career. He began to publish new poems in 1930, however. In the following year, Knopf released a second edition of Harmonium, which included fourteen new poems, but excluded three of the decidedly weaker ones.
More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens spent his days behind a desk at his office, and led a quiet, relatively uneventful life.
Though now considered one of the major American poets of the twentieth century, Stevens did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Knopf, 1954), just a year before his death. His other major works include The Necessary Angel (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), a collection of essays on poetry; Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (The Cummington Press, 1942); The Man With the Blue Guitar (Alfred A. Knopf, 1937); and Ideas of Order (The Alcestis Press, 1935).
Stevens died in Hartford, Connecticut, on August 2, 1955.
Date Published: 1923-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/sunday-morning