On "Sunday Morning"

J. Hillis Miller

If the natural activity of the mind is to make unreal representations, these are still representations of the material world. "The clouds preceded us / There was a muddy centre before we breathed"; matter is prior to mind and in some sense determines it. So, in "Sunday Morning," the lady's experience of the dissolution of the gods leaves her living in a world of exquisite particulars, the physical realities of the new world: "Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; / Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness." This physical world, an endless round of birth, death, and the seasons, is more lasting than any interpretation of it. Religions, myths, philosophies, and cultures are all fictions and pass away, but "April's green endures." "Sunday Morning" is Stevens' most eloquent description of the moment when the gods dissolve. Bereft of the supernatural, man does not lie down paralyzed in despair. He sings the creative hymns of a new culture, the culture of those who are "wholly human" and know themselves. This humanism is based on man's knowledge that "the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly." There is "nothing else"--the alternatives are to be nothing or to accept a fiction. To discover that there never has been any celestial world is a joyful liberation, and man says of himself: "This happy creature--It is he that invented the Gods. It is he that put into their mouths the only words they have ever spoken!"

From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Copyright © 1966 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Merle E. Brown

"This final movement of the poem, in contrast to the stasis of its beginning, is bridged by a passage at the very middle of the poem:

    nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endured; or will endure
Like her remembrance of wakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

Taken it itself, the passage is truly beautiful. In autumn, when the swallows are sweeping through the air, gathering for their flight away from "their warm fields," the woman experiences a desire "for June and evening," for the time when she could take for granted the presence of "awakened birds" the next morning. Thus the joy of "June and evening" which she desires and the joy of "April’s green" are torn by the poignancy of her sense that what she desires is absent and that the birds in autumn are about to be gone. The fixed spread of the cockatoo’s wings upon a rug has been transformed to a true consummation, the spread of the swallow’s wing as it reaches the peak of its upward movement. Implicit in this consummation is her recollection of birds that were just beginning to fly, wakened birds, testing "the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings"; and ominous in this consummation is her sense that it will be followed by the movement at the end of the poem, a movement "Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

Every passage in the poem, for that matter, is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence. It is Death that

    makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

These maidens have been caught up in the dreamy daze of the immediate present, very like the woman who was taking her "late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair." They sat upon the grass, their arms about their knees, gazing at the grass at their feet, relinquished after they had gathered it or simply because they are forgetting it in their dreaminess. The shiver of the willow, willow, willow, however, brings the chill death into their presence and even the sun turns cold with the imminence of death. Unlike the woman in her sunny chair, they are ripe for love, they will taste not late oranges but new plums and pears offered them by their lovers, and they will "stray impassioned in the littering leaves," loving and loveable because feeling their oneness with "the leaves of sure obliteration."

Even the chant of the ring of supple and turbulent men, expressing their boisterous devotion to the sun, is quite different from any primitivism or barbarism based upon a mere acceptance of sensual indulgence as an ultimate good. Their devotion to the sun, unlike the comforts of the sun cherished by the woman in her sunny chair, is dependent on their mutual sense of frailty, on their constant sense that they will perish, on their feeling that their strength is as fragile, as delicate, as transient, as the dew upon their feet. They chant in orgy, it is true; but a part of their chant is the echoing hills "That choir among themselves long afterward." And those choirs of dying echoes establish a oneness between the men with their chant and the pigeons in their descent "Downward to darkness on extended wings."

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act (Detroit: Wayne S U P, 1970), 160-162.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing

Stevens's search for a rhetoric more than fiction and a nature less than an external fate begins with "Sunday Morning" and its realignment of the Emersonian and romantic dualities. The poem mourns at once the loss of Christian and romantic mythologies, which offer versions of the same fusion of temporal and eternal realities. "Sunday Morning" does not judge religion to be a fiction and Christ to be but a man in order to exhort us to a species of nature worship. For Stevens portrays the world of sense impressions as a fantastic play of surfaces. The painterly interior, the various trees and fruits, "April's green," and the cockatoo, swallows, and pigeons—birds represented, literary, or "observed"—all become equally phantasmal, passing like "things in some procession of the dead." In these terms, the sun-worshippers of stanza 7 reduce to mere "personae of summer" (CP, 377 ), their bookish status reinforced by Biblical imagery, for pantheism would be as foreign as the religion of Palestine when the sky itself is "isolated" and appears as alien as the "icy Elysee" (CP, 56) seems to a temporal speaker. The poem proceeds by contrasting the surfaces and the depths of things: the surfaces of nature—its false flicks and forms, its rhetoric—contrast with its depths, which turn out to be internal to the subject. A "wide water" silently flows below the welter of visible and audible phenomena, and, in contrast to the sensory experience of surfaces, this archetypal river of the unconscious carries the truth of "blood." The river of meditation courses to death—the "dominion of the blood and sepulchre"—and to erotic reveries of "supple and turbulent" men; Christian and romantic mythologies only code its natural course.

Thus Stevens dislocates the Emersonian alignment of nature with fate and the mind with freedom. The imagistic contrast of light and dark in the first stanza corresponds to the thematic contrast of freedom and fate, life and death, rhetoric and truth, the claims of the life of the senses and the life of the mind. It is nature and its sensuous attractions that are free, and their extravagant, ornamental "rhetoric" cannot satisfy the mind. For the mind and its course of meditation give us access to the truth of Eros and Thanatos. In Stevens's realignment, the mind alone knows nature: an undomesticated nature that is more than "a widow's bird" (CP, 18) is accessible only in the meditation of the "virile" poet. When Stevens announces, "Death is the mother of beauty," he is talking not only about the changes in nature that constitute its rhetorical appeal to the senses—senses equipped to register and take pleasure in change—but about the truth of the mind. For the seasonal repetitions of nature are temporal changes and intimate death only to the human consciousness, and these temporal changes open up the mental space of remembrance and anticipation, of memory and desire (stanza 4), of poetry and its measures. Death is the mother of the imagination—of the mind and memory, the "muttering" that engenders "myths" in the "burning bosom" of a destructive mother. The final stanza reaffirms this alignment:

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. [CP, 70]

Our dependence on the "chaos" of natural processes, our "freedom" from sponsoring deities, and our being constituted "of that wide water" are grammatical appositives and substantive equivalents. The "wide water" is the "wide water" of stanza 1—the inseparable and inescapable concourse of Eros, death, and meditation that constitutes us and our freedom. In linking the mind with death, Stevens is able to displace the terms of the Emersonian debate: freedom and fate are no longer aligned with the subject and object. Stevens's existential project is to show that our freedom is our fate, our discourse is our nature, our imagination is our destruction.

"Sunday Morning" also marks the beginning of Stevens's stylistic development beyond the reductive dichotomy of rhetoric and meters that arrested Emerson's growth as a poet. In Stevens, the discursive and the Orphic modes are not polar opposites but inflections of the same conventional, exoteric, poetic voice. The range and flexibility of Stevens's diction and blank verse enable him to incorporate the course of nature and the discourse of the mind in the same internal monologue. In the first stanza of "Sunday Morning," for example, he signals the shift from observation to meditation with a switch in diction from polysyllabic, Latinate words to one- or two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words; with vocalic modulations from front or "light" vowels to back or "dark" vowels; with metrical variations like the increased use of trochees and spondees; and with an insistence on alliteration, assonance, and repetition:

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. [CP, 66-67]

The fatal truth has been internalized as an inflection of a poetic language that traces the course of an explicitly eccentric and inherently rhetorical meditation.

The language of "Sunday Morning" remains nostalgic, however, and Stevens has difficulty in developing a form that does not rely on the "magnificent measure" (CP, 13) of the English romantics yet can register the truth of rhetoric, the centrality of an explicitly eccentric poetic language. His development of a language both exoteric and central leads through an excessively rhetorical style that remains merely exoteric and thus is ironic about its decorative excesses. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," for example, engages this issue. Isabel G. MacCaffrey writes that the methodology of the poem, as well as its subject, addresses the "relationship between opaque, visceral depths and dazzling verbal surfaces," and she suggests that the poem rejects its own rhetoric as "inadequate, bombastic, bland, or self-deceiving," so that another, counter "meaning" can be apprehended "behind the words," which is the "wordless world" of Eros and Thanatos. Stevens's rejection of his own rhetoricity comes in the lines,

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords. [CP, 17 ]

which pass judgment, in Harold Bloom's words, on "all amorous diction." Nevertheless, however inadequate it may be to Eros, rhetoric remains the necessary substitution by which love becomes love, for even the chords of the frog's mating call are natural substitutions for the "foremost law":

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth

The "foremost law" is itself apprehended in and as substitution. If we are fated, we are fated to substitute one thing for another, to remain at the edge, and to play with words—"le monocle de mon oncle"—stringing together metaphoric or phonetic substitutions. For the poem demonstrates that no one language is more natural or less rhetorical than another.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

John Timberman Newcomb

Harmonium offered readers a very different version of "Sunday Morning" from the one they had seen in Poetry in 1915. In Poetry, the fifth and final stanza, now recognized as the seventh stanza, had expressed the exalted paganism of "a ring of men" chanting "Their boisterous devotion to the sun." This ecstasy of human physical feeling, the only divinity of humankind, would then be recreated and sustained by echo throughout the environment. In Harmonium, however, this ringing affirmation of human and natural coexistence was no longer the poem's final emphasis. It was followed by an eighth stanza in which Stevens's persona massively qualified his own construction and brought his divine concept of death down to earth with a resounding thud. Just as the tomb of Jesus was only a cave "where he lay" in physical death, the earth was merely a place where humans live and then die, "an old chaos of the sun" in which the processes of life, embodied by deer and "casual flocks of pigeons," went on oblivious to the echoing chants of human meaning. The imposing position of "Sunday Morning" within Stevens's oeuvre made this subversive ending more than simply another assertion of the world's chaotic meaninglessness. The poem's subject matter, formal precision, and glorious blank-verse line all fostered the expectation of a strong affirmation of man's existence and artistry. The last stanza then functioned to do just the opposite, implying that such an affirmation was no more than an invention of the human mind which tended to vanish once the field of vision was broadened to include the inhuman realities of the earth.

To confront the poem's last stanza thus is to understand better why the eight-stanza version of "Sunday Morning," submitted to Poetry in 1915 as it would appear in Harmonium, had disturbed Monroe into editorial butchery. It must have been incomprehensible to her that the poet would have meant to end on such an anticlimactic note. At that time, Stevens's extreme newness on the scene (and his personal unfamiliarity to her) no doubt enabled her to see his arrangement as the odd fruit of artistic inexperience. Following her own muse, which counseled ending with those triumphantly echoing human chants, she placed Stevens's seventh stanza last. [. . . .] The disturbing effects of ‘Sunday Morning" also produced Arthur Davison Ficke’s bizarre and often quoted remark: "‘Sunday morning’ tantalized me with the sense that perhaps it’s the most beautiful poem ever written, or perhaps just an incompetent obscurity." The total incommensurability of these two alternatives indicated Ficke’s sense of the extent to which the poem challenged readers’ conventional dualisms of form and meaning. Whatever else he meant by it, Ficke certainly implied, as Fletcher and Kreymborg later openly acknowledged, that "Sunday morning" eluded the understanding--which a poem of spectacular affirmation should not do.

From Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons. Copyright © 1992 by the University Press of Mississippi.

Janet McCann

"Sunday Morning" offers one of Stevens's first substitutes for Christianity: natural religion, or paganism. Stevens said very little about this poem after writing it, other than to note in 1928 that "the poem is simply an expression of paganism" (LWS, 250) and later, in 1944, to indicate that Hi Simons was correct in assuming that the poem suggests "a naturalistic religion as a substitute for supernaturalism" (LWS, 464). Stevens tended to dismiss questions about or interpretations of this poem. His offhandedness about what remains perhaps his most anthologized work may suggest that he thought the poem's interpretation to be clear and obvious. His dismissiveness may also have implied that the poem's propositions did not preoccupy him further or later. And yet they clearly did: the "Sunday Morning" questions recur in various guises on through the writing of his last work.

One of the more traditional in form of Stevens's poems, "Sunday Morning" consists of blank-verse sections of varying lengths. The poem develops as an argument between two voices: the tentative, questioning tones of the woman, whose enjoyment of the pleasures of this world is cut by the awareness of death, and another, more authoritative voice that seeks to reassure her that the world is enough to satisfy, that in fact it is all the satisfaction there is. . . .

In the first section, the woman is enjoying "complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" (CP, 66), but the very enjoyment of life leads her to realize its transience, to remember her church--which she is nor attending at the time--and to allow fear and guilt to disturb her pleasure. The second section picks up the argument with the other voice, which asks, "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" Should not this world provide compensation for the lost heaven? She should embrace her own divinity, the other voice suggests, and let herself be a mirror of the nature that engendered her and of which she is a part. . . .

One with nature, she should not try to separate herself from it and redefine herself as something unnatural or supernatural.

The third section takes up the hiistory of divinity, tracing godhead from the totally inhuman Jove through the partly human Jesus to the fully human god suggested by the poem. To invest the human with the divine would make earth into paradise, the sky becoming fully our own rather than a division between earth and heaven. The fourth section returns to the woman's perspective. She is not entirely willing to accept the argument because she realizes that the paradise offered is not permanent. The other voice then assures her that there is a permanence, a permanence of the human, although not of the individual. To her claim in part 5 that she needs individual continuity, the other voice offers the consolation that "Death is the mother of beauty" (CP, 69): the cycle of ripening, fruition, and decay causes desire, which would not exist without the realization of transience. The sixth section hypothesizes a static heaven in which the ripe fruit never falls; such a place would be boring, not beautiful. Only change causes beauty, and change entails beginnings and endings; hence, "Death is the mother of beauty."

The alternative to Christianity is suggested in part 7--"a ring of men" chanting "their boisterous devotion to the sun" (CP, 70). Human energy should recognize the source of nature's energy as kin; this recognition would reestablish the participation of humans in nature, which is not so much mystical as actual. This argument is presented as a conclusive one, and the woman accepts it. Her recognition that Jesus is a historical figure and that she is alone, a part of "unsponsored" nature, frees her from the prison in which her traditional beliefs had locked her, The conclusion, a merging of the woman's perception with that of the other voice, is a Wordsworth-like picture of the sweet earth, with overtones of an elegy for the notion of personal immortality. The joined voices proclaim that we are no different from the "casual flocks of pigeons" (CP, 70) whose flight is not patterned but casual, and whose indecipherable movements or "ambiguous undulations" (CP, 70) are nevertheless a form of untranslatable language, a kind of inscription or self-definition that is natural rather than superimposed. Stevens's later work is preoccupied with the notion that true order must be found in nature rather than forced on it, but he later finds orders different from the simple natural rhythms.

This poem uses the figure of the woman to work through the objections to the discarding of Christianity. Stevens himself is both the woman and her opponent. "Sunday Morning" is the first full presentation of Stevens's lifelong central motif, the search for a sustaining fiction. But the answers he provides are clearly problematic to him as well as to the reader. Parts 7 and 8 both seem to be conclusions, but they do not cohere. "Boisterous devotion" characterizes part 7: the reborn pagan males seek to merge with the life source, yielding their individuality to its larger identity. Part 8, however, is muted. The lushness of nature affords no participation mystique but rather suggests isolation and separation. The freedom the woman has won by relinquishing her Christian faith provides no real compensation except a sense of the vulnerability of all nature. Stevens allowed Harriet Monroe to publish the poem with part 7 last, embedding part 8 earlier in the narrative (LWS, 183-84). It would seem that be did not know exactly where he wanted the poem to go or how seriously he wanted the paganism to be taken. Paganism does offer a form of transcendence, whereas simple identification with the natural cycles does not. His choice of elegy over energy seems to negate the scene of the sun worshipers, which then appears artificial and contrived in contrast with the poem's ending.

From Wallace Stevens revisited: "The Celestial Possible." Copyright 1995 by Twayne Publishers.

Beverly Maeder

. . . "Sunday Morning," . . . though it rings with memorable language and sober reflection, . . . ironically inverts heaven's reward and earth's satisfactions, the top and bottom of the hierarchy, rather than devising a new structuring principle. The poem's several subject positions all confront the divine and spiritual with the earthly and bodily. . . .

Section I illustrates the drift from an appreciation of the here and now to an eschatological-oriented belief. "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" first instigate a metonymical and spatial movement. The epicurean woman's whole being is drawn toward another realm, as her "dreaming feet" lead her to the "silent Palestine" of Christ's sacrifice. The final "Dominion of the blood and sepulchre," however, can also be seen as the transformation of the opening coffee and oranges and "sunny chair" induced by the resemblances of metaphor. The woman's sensuous comfort thus finds its analogue in a theological symbol that also has its origins in a bodily life—the wine-and-bread celebration of the Last Supper and the Son's interment.

Picking up the strand of Christ's "blood" and humanity, section III inserts Christ's birth into a double structure. On the one hand, it contains three implied narratives of each of the three divine engenderings. On the other hand, it is a condensed "history" of the evolution of religions: from Jove's motherless "inhuman birth," to the virgin birth of Christ and its "commingling" of our blood, to the possibility of a totally human version.

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. (III, 9-15)

On the surface one might say with Adelaide Kirby Morris that given this pattern, the woman "must then admit the possibility of evolution from 'the thought of heaven' to a divinity that 'must live within herself"' (CP 67) of section Il. Yet even Jove is measured by the "human" standard of the "king," the negation of "inhuman" and "no mother," and the pun in "Large-mannered" (reutilized in "The Man With the Blue Guitar" IV). The narrative of the evolution of religion depends on personification. In addition, the human "hinds" situate Jove hierarchically. They return to recognize the "commingling" (a seemingly nonhierarchical word) of human and divine that defines Christianity, and thus reinforce the hierarchy of earth and "virginal" blood below, and "star" and "heaven" above. The third stage projects an anthropomorphized paradise into the future, leaving "earth" and "sky" in an ambiguous relation.

The hierarchical bias of religious metaphors seems most confining, however, in the implied narrative of each divinity's engendering. These are clustered around the series of representations of human motherhood that ends by integrating "labor" and "pain" (of both working the land and giving birth) into the speaker's imagined "paradise." The vocabulary of this final vision is redolent with double registers that point to a metaphorical contamination of what Kirby calls the divine "within" by a concern with divine origin in the "sky" and "blue" (Mary's color) of heaven, and the "glory" of paradisal splendor. The semantic organization of the entire section keeps returning to the mutual imbrication of physical and divine, even as the section's statements tend to reject past versions of the birth of divine figures because of their vertical perspective. On the other hand, such verticality imbues the stanza's temporal logic. In the story of the expulsion from the earthly Garden of Eden, paradise is origin and first home, while in the promise of a return to God's presence, paradise is heaven but also end as purpose, not only Montaigne's bout but the but he disputed. The reverie of the eschatological "Dominion of blood and sacrifice" that closes section I foreshadows the absorption of the mothering metaphor of section III into a vision of end, in a final hope that the "sky will be much friendlier than now." The course of an individual human life, the fertile engendering by and of "our blood," is made subordinate to the eschatological "enduring love" to which it is compared but can no longer attain.

The palliative to "all our dreams / And our desires" is given by the adage "Death is the mother of beauty" in section V. This formulation is so hypnotizing that it imposes the "need for some imperishable bliss" even on maidens' love, the prelude to mothering. Death "makes the willow shiver in the sun," mingling the promise of death with the maidens' love here on earth. When the phrase "Death is the mother of beauty" is taken up again to close section VI, it introduces another conceptual difficulty: death is a "mystical" mother "Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." Thus, although the section's image of paradise is an image of earth frozen in a stilled moment, the transcendent, not the earthly, is what preconditions the focus of our desires on the sensuous lives embodied in "Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." If the personification of death as a mother is a "bosom"/matrix for actual ("earthly") mothers, it creates a vertical tautology equating death as mother of transformed versions of earth with the earth as the engenderer of stilled figurations of (death's) paradise. Each seems the superfluous mimesis of the other. Paradise is earth malformed just as "Malformed, the world was paradise malformed" ("The Pure Good of Theory" III, CP 332).

Neither do the dynamic relationships that follow in section VII seem to develop alternative metaphors or an alternative structure. Helen Vendler calls this section Stevens' "poem of the Gotterdammerung," a representation of "anachronistic primitivism" in which "prophecies of a new divinity are wistfully and even disbelievingly made."

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; (VII, 1-7)

The archaism of the scene brings us back to our ancestral source as well as to a possible archetypal image of sun worship (already latent in the "sunny chair" of section I). Although Harold Bloom praises this section for the "new order" created out of its "metaleptic reversals of the poem's prior figurations," an order in which followers of the Nietzschean god among man manifest both "origin and purpose," the "return" to the sky can also be read as a repetition of the impeding structure of hierarchicalness found in Stevens' other religious metaphors. The chant denotes idolatry, the submissive worship of a "lord." Its figures are derivative of ancient myth and Judeo-Christian successors of it insofar as they enact stories of "blood," the blood of sacrifice in the chant "of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky," and the blood of reproductive transmission. Blood seems to be the "natural" but male metonymy of the sensuality and sensuousness of maternal "desire/s" of sections II and VI. The section is an ingrown expression of the larger poem's central figures. But the chief impediment to creating a new structure, it seems to me, is the tautological end implied in this disguised eschatology. Indeed, "returning to the sky" closes the circle of the chant's being "of" paradise—a chant about but also from paradise. For the returning chant originates in paradise as well as in the men's blood; it originates, in sum, in the metaphors men have constructed to form paradise.

Thus not only in minor poems but in this major work in Harmonium we find Stevens mining the old theological metaphors even as he tries to debunk them. This metaphor-making depends on "using religious forms to deny religious forms." Stevens' figures rely on anthropomorphism since earth provides the analogues for the divine order. Attempts in "Sunday Morning" to give form to a human-centered vision of sensuous pleasure end up relating them to engendering and dying and to God-centered, transcendent value. The religious metaphors tend to merge the implicit life-narrative into a circle or tautology. Jove and paradise in section II and the return of "men that perish" in the sun's "summer morn" are products of our collective metaphor-making ability or our ability to create ensembles of resemblances. The earth's pleasures are imbricated in rhetorical substitutions that never form any independent pattern but can only deplete the divine by taking an ironic view of the earth as model, as in section VI, or by conceding domination to a metaphor of transcendent power that closes the trope in on itself, as in VII.

To sum up, the family of metaphors centering on motherhood and unfolding to include earth-birth and paradise-death itself illustrates the repeated linkage of questions of origin with questions of end. Sections III, V, and VI exploit metaphors of motherhood, but since the coherence is built on earthly and human figurations in relation to heavenly value, and since the poem's initial female dreamer desires yet doubts the adequacy of the earth, the value of the very concepts of earthly and heavenly paradise are contaminated. The euphoric section VII, on the other hand, turns the speaker's metaphors back around heaven and summer, as though bound to a "source." On the rhetorical level, the rivalry between two hierarchies locks the figuration of death into tableaux that leave the hierarchies intact.

from Wallace Stevens' Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Beverly Maeder.

Return to Wallace Stevens