Sunday Morning

"Sunday Morning" first appeared in an abridged form (five stanzas long) in Poetry magazine in 1915 and later in its final form (eight stanzas long) in Wallace Stevens' first book of collected poems, Harmonium, in 1923.1 

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    Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens Meaning

    The publication of "Sunday Morning" established Stevens as a major poet of the Modernist era. The poem centers on an unnamed woman contemplating religion and the meaning of life in her apartment on a Sunday morning. Rich in religious and philosophical themes and full of complicated symbolism, the poem explores the possibility of a meaningful life in the absence of God and religion.

    Modernism: an artistic movement (including literature, poetry, music, painting, and architecture) that began in the late 19th century and reached its high point in the 1910s through the 1930s. Modernist works can be characterized by their experimentality as they broke established rules and abandoned forms in an attempt to create something new and different. Key modernist artists include the poet T. S. Eliot, the novelist James Joyce, and the painter Pablo Picasso.

    Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens Summary

    "Sunday Morning" is concerned with the question of how life can be meaningful in the absence of religious belief. The poem does not focus on proving or disproving the existence of God but rather suggests that traditional (particularly Christian) religious beliefs no longer provide meaning or even inspiration.

    The poem is about how life can be meaningful even without God or religion. It proposes that meaning can be found in the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us and in paying attention to how we feel when we experience it. The inevitability and permanence of death, which lets us know that this experience is limited and can't be repeated, is key to experiencing the world as meaningful.

    Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens Analysis

    The final form of "Sunday Morning" contains eight stanzas, with each stanza comprising 15 lines. In this section, we will take a detailed look at each one.

    Stanza I

    "Sunday Morning" is more a poem of ideas than a narrative or story. This means that nothing really happens in terms of a plot or progression of events. Instead, the poem focuses on the ideas going through a woman's head as she sits in her apartment, strewn with little luxuries such as "Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair / And the freedom of a green cockatoo" (lines 2–3).2 The unnamed woman, still in her "peignoir" or dressing gown, seems to be simply relaxing at home in a contemplative mood.

    Sunday Morning, A cup of Coffee and slices of tried oranges on a crocheted white blanket, StudySmarterCoffee and oranges in the woman's apartment prompt her comparison of worldly pleasures and religious duty, Pixabay.

    The poem's title draws attention to the fact that she is at home and not attending church on a Sunday morning. While this may strike many of us as unremarkable today, in Stevens' time, the decision not to attend church would have sent a clear message about someone's religious skepticism or unbelief.

    The woman in Stevens' poem is aware of this and clearly feels a kind of guilt about her failure to attend church. As she daydreams in her apartment, her thoughts wander to "that old catastrophe" (line 7) in "silent Palestine" (line 14). The "catastrophe" refers to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

    Stevens often makes use of free indirect speech, and it is not always clear whether the speaker of the poem is presenting the woman's thoughts or the speaker's own. The first stanza tells us that "She dreams a little" and that "she feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe" when thinking of Christianity (lines 6-7).

    Free indirect speech: a narrative technique where the thoughts or speech of a character are presented through a narrator or speaker without direct speech or quotation. This blurs the line between first and third person narration, making it unclear from whose perspective the narration is being told.

    Stanza II

    The second stanza begins with the question: "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" (line 16) and then proceeds to describe a world of natural beauty seemingly more deserving of her time.

    The poem often follows this question-answer format, giving us the impression of a dialogue between two people. It is unclear whether this represents the speaker of the poem interacting with the woman or a kind of internal monologue that the poem's speaker has special access to.

    Sunday Morning, A  Stained Glass window with the scene of Jesus Crucifixion, StudySmarterThe story of Jesus' death and crucifixion does not help the woman in the poem give meaning to her life, Pixabay.

    The woman seems to decide that her time and energy should not be spent on an event that happened more than a thousand years ago and which exists now only in "silent shadows and in dreams?" (line 3). Why not enjoy "the comforts of the sun, / In pungent fruit and bright, green wings" of her apartment on this beautiful Sunday morning (lines 4–5)?

    By contrasting the beauty and sensual pleasures of the apartment with the cold, dark silence of Christian belief, the speaker of the poem suggests that the answer is obvious and that the pleasure we take in our ordinary experience of the world and the emotions we feel as a response to them should be "cherished like the thought of heaven" (line 8).

    Stanza III

    In the third stanza, the speaker of the poem goes on to compare the belief that there is something sacred or divine in the world as we experience it to ancient Greek polytheism. The speaker describes "Jove," better known as Zeus," in the clouds" who "moved among us, as a muttering king," even "commingling" with humanity and fathering demigod children (lines 1–5).

    The speaker informs us that humans learned to see themselves or their "blood" in the stars from such mythology (lines 68). The speaker of the poem wonders whether "our blood" is also up to this task of becoming "the blood of paradise" or of the gods' (lines 910).

    In ancient Greek mythology, the gods simply lived on the top of a very high mountain, Olympus, and often came down to and interacted with the world and with humanity. The speaker of the poem is not suggesting we go back to believing in the gods of ancient Greece. The suggestion is rather that we see the earth itself as an enchanted place with spiritual significance. If we see the earth as "all of paradise that we shall know," we can give new meaning to our lives and the world that surrounds us (lines 1011).

    Polytheism: the belief, common in the ancient world, that more than one God exists. In the Greek tradition, the gods were human-like, often coming to the earth and meddling in human affairs. Polytheism can be contrasted with the monotheism of religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These religions believe in a single god who is typically abstract and distinct from human beings.

    Stanzas IV and V

    The poem then returns to the unnamed woman, who decides that she is "content" with the "sweet questionings" of birds chirping and singing before they fly away (Stanza IV, lines 14). But when these birds do fly away, there seems to be nothing in their absence to tide us over no prophecy, no resurrection, no heaven or hell that can console us once they're gone (Stanza IV, lines 611). We still remember certain beautiful experiences and desire to have them again. We want, as the woman puts it, "some imperishable bliss" that we can always return to (Stanza V, line 2). The poem's speaker assures us that "death is the mother of beauty" and that our contentment with the world depends in an important way on our knowledge that it will end someday.

    Stanza VI

    The speaker contrasts this with the traditional ideas of paradise or heaven, where "ripe fruit never fall" and where there are "rivers like our own that seek for seas / They never find" (lines 2, 56). There would be nothing special or exciting about a fruit that was forever available, and a river that never finds an outlet into the sea is literally aimless, meandering to no destination at all. Everything would feel pointless and boring in a world without death.

    Stanza VII

    The speaker then gives a haunting image of a "ring of men" chanting in the forest on a summer morning, their natural surroundings taking on a spiritual significance as they show a "boisterous devotion to the sun, / not as a god, but as a god might be," their voices entering a "windy lake" as the "trees, like serafin, and echoing hills" surround them (lines 110). They seem to represent what a religion of the earth might look like, where human "blood" is seen as a part of the sky and the landscape, and where there is a "heavenly fellowship" between "men that perish and of summer morn" (lines 1213).

    Stanza VIII

    Returning once more to the woman in her room, we find her thoughts have again returned to Christianity and the "tomb in Palestine," which is now described as the "grave of Jesus" rather than a place where any "spirits" inhabit (lines 24). As the poem opens with an image of the morning sun shining into the woman's apartment, it closes with an image of the sun setting in the wilderness.

    The setting sun not only highlights the beauty of the scenery but suggests that the woman's thoughts about religion, like the day, have reached their conclusion. The woman has decided that the world in all its splendor is enough and that religion is not necessary for her to live a meaningful life. The poem closes with images of deer, quail, and berries in a forested mountain, as "casual flocks of pigeons" fly into the evening darkness, making "Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness on extended wings" (lines 515).

    Sunday Morning, Photo of pigeons in the sunset, StudySmarterThe poem closes with an image of pigeons flying into the evening sunset suggesting closure and peacefulness, Pixabay.

    Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens Symbolism

    Symbolism is when something represents or stands for something else. Since "Sunday Morning" is about how we can find meaning in the world, it is, in a sense, a poem about the possibility of symbolism. The poem contains many symbols, the most significant of which are repeated throughout the poem: the sun, silence, birds, and fruit.

    Symbolism: when an object, person, or action, stands for or represents something other than itself, often something larger and more general. Common examples are a dove representing peace, a rose representing beauty, or a cross representing Christianity.

    The Sun

    From the first stanza on (or perhaps even from the Sunday in the poem's title), the sun is what illuminates and gives comfort to and bathes in light the woman, cockatoo, coffee, and oranges in the apartment, reflecting the possibility of a "balm or beauty of the earth" (Stanza 1, line 6).

    The mysterious ring of men from Stanza VI performs a kind of sun worship as they "chant in orgy on a summer morn / Their boisterous devotion to the sun" (Stanza VI, lines 5-6).

    The poem concludes with the realization that "We live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night" as birds fly into the evening darkness (Stanza VIII, lines 5-6).

    The sun symbolizes not just comfort and beauty but also the possibility of meaning itself. The sun illuminates and gives life, but we know that the night, like death, will always come, and this is what makes the transcendent beauty that gives the world meaning possible. It is the anticipation of death, Stevens tells us, that "makes the willow shiver in the sun," communicating fear, excitement, and beauty all at once (Stanza V, line 10).


    Silence is repeatedly used to symbolize the ineffectiveness of traditional Christian religious beliefs.

    As the woman thinks about the church, she is reminded of "the holy hush of ancient sacrifice" and of the crucifixion as a "procession of the dead, / Winding across wide water, without sound" in "silent Palestine" (Stanza I, lines 5, 1011, 14). Religion no longer speaks to her, and it is incapable of giving her life meaning.


    Birds are heavily loaded with potential symbolic meaning ranging from love and expressiveness to freedom and eternity. For Stevens, birds symbolize the transient beauty of the natural world.

    This is evident in the "green freedom" and "bright, green wings" of the cockatoo that help spark the woman's reflections on meaning and religion (Stanza I, lines 3, 9). It recurs mid-way through the poem when the woman tells us in her own words that the world as it exists is enough to make her happy, that she is "content when wakened birds, / Before they fly, test the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings" (Stanza IV, lines 13).

    When these birds fly away, it is their absence that provokes thoughts of death and absence, leading her to question where, once they "are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?" (Stanza IV, lines 45).

    The poem also concludes with an image of "casual flocks of pigeons" flying into the darkness, their absence and the disappearance of the sun taking on new beauty and significance (Stanza VIII, lines 1315).

    Sunday Morning A green parrot, StudySmarterThe green cockatoo is an important symbol of worldly beauty in the poem, Pixabay.


    Fruit is traditionally a symbol of wealth and abundance but also (especially in the Christian context) of temptation and sin. Stevens plays off of this symbolism, making fruit a complex symbol in this poem.

    Oranges, along with coffee and the green cockatoo, are one of the items that initially cause the woman in the poem to start reflecting on the inadequacy of religious belief. It is the knowledge of the inevitability of death that "causes boys to pile new plums and pears / On disregarded plate," or in other words, engages us with the things of this world (Stanza V, lines 13-14).

    In contrast, the constant presence of fruit in paradise renders the world boring and meaningless. We would no longer bother to decorate the endlessly flowing river banks in paradise with pear trees or "spice the shores with odors of the plum" if we took for granted that it would always be there (Stanza VI, lines 89).

    The "sweet berries" that "ripen in the wilderness" are also an important part of the poem's concluding image (Stanza VIII, line 11).

    Sunday Morning, A close up of Berries like raspberries, blackberries and blueberries StudySmarterBerries appear in the final stanza as a symbol of the pleasures that the earth can offer us, Pixabay.

    Fruit helps to tempt the woman away from traditional religious beliefs analogous to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. However, unlike in the story of Adam and Eve, the woman ends up affirming life and the world, regaining a lost paradise instead of being expelled from it.

    The seasonality of fruit, along with the fact that it spoils quickly, also serves as a reminder that we must take pleasure in the world while we have the opportunity to. Fruit symbolizes the beauty and pleasure of the natural world in all its transience.

    Sunday Morning Poem Themes

    "Sunday Morning" deals with philosophical and religious themes such as the place of belief in the modern world and the meaning of human life, beauty, and death.

    Religion and Belief

    The poem begins by describing a person for whom religious belief no longer provides meaning and inspiration and suggests (though never directly states) that this is a situation that we will all find ourselves in at some point.

    Neither the speaker of the poem nor the unnamed woman whose thoughts the poem describes directly deny the existence of God or argue for the truth or falsity of any specific religious belief. Christianity simply does not speak to the woman and leaves her world dark and quiet. It is only in the richness of our experiences, of pleasure and pain, warmth and beauty, the flux of days and seasons, and our awareness that these are limited and transient, that life can take on meaning. This belief has more affinity with polytheism or pantheism than with Christianity, though it is distinct from both.

    Pantheism: the belief that everything in the universe is a manifestation of divinity or God.

    Beauty and the meaning of life

    While rejecting God, eternity, and other traditional religious beliefs as a source of meaning, "Sunday Morning" locates the meaning of life squarely in our individual experiences of the world. By being open to the beauty of the world as we experience it and realizing that we, too, are a part of nature and that our time on the planet is limited, we can come to understand how meaningful our lives are and the urgency of engaging with the present.


    Death is what allows our experiences to be beautiful and, ultimately, meaningful. While we naturally wish that happiness could go on forever, beauty and pleasure, in fact, lose their significance when they are not limited by time or extent. The religious promise of eternal life and heaven, then, actually prevents us from fully experiencing the beauty of the world we inhabit. "Death," as the poem's speaker puts it, "is the mother of beauty" (Stanza VI, line 3).

    Sunday Morning - Key Takeaways

    • First published in a shortened form in 1915 with an expanded version in 1923, "Sunday Morning" established Wallace Stevens as a major poet of American Modernism.
    • "Sunday Morning" explores the thoughts of an unnamed woman lounging at home on a Sunday on religion and the meaning of life.
    • The woman and the poem's speaker (it is unclear whether they are the same voice or not) reject traditional religious beliefs and affirm the experience of beauty as the only real source of a meaningful life.
    • The speaker concludes that death plays a central role in our experience of beauty and meaning.
    • The poem is rich in symbolism, with the sun being a particularly important symbol of beauty, life, and meaning.

    1. Serio, J. The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. Cambridge University Press. 2007.

    2. Stevens, W. The Palm at the End of the Mind. Vintage. 1971.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Sunday Morning

    What is the central idea of the poem "Sunday Morning"?

    The central idea of the poem is that a meaningful life is possible in the absence of religious belief. For life to be meaningful, we have to accept the permanence and inevitability of death and experience the beauty of the world we live in.

    What are the significant themes in Wallace Stevens' poem, "Sunday Morning"?

    "Sunday Morning" takes up philosophical and religious themes such as the place of belief in the modern world, the meaning of life, death, and beauty.

    What is Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" about?

    "Sunday Morning" is about a woman at home alone on, as the title suggests, a Sunday morning. While enjoying her coffee and oranges, her thoughts wander to religion and the meaning of life. The poem explores her thoughts about how life can be meaningful without religion.

    What is the woman in Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" contemplating?

    The woman is contemplating how her life can be meaningful in the absence of God or an afterlife.

    When did Wallace Stevens write "Sunday Morning"?

    "Sunday Morning" was first published in a shortened form in 1915, and later in its full form in 1923. It was written at some point before 1915.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who is the author of "Sunday Morning"?

    What literary movement is "Sunday Morning" most closely associated with?

    When was "Sunday Morning" first published?


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