First Stevens Lecture

We spent just about the whole class on "Sunday Morning." It's not absolutely representative of WS's work, because in it the imagination doesn't play the central role. But it's my favorite 20th century American poem. I could pretend to come up with a better reason to spend a class on it, but it would probably just be a masked variant of that one.

As one could guess from the title, "Sunday Morning" is about religion. And as students of "Am Lit Since 1865" should expect from the dates of the poem's publication -- 1915, 1923 -- "Sunday Morning" is about the issue that pervades American Modernism: the death of God, the failure of Christianity. The last section of The Waste Land (1922) begins with an account of the arrest & execution of Jesus, but cannot narrate the resurrection of Christ ("He who was living is now dead") -- the last section of "Sunday Morning" begins with the voice that announces that there are no "spirits lingering" around "the tomb," the "grave of Jesus." But unlike Eliot's poem, WS doesn't see this absence as a fatal loss, but instead as an opportunity -- for mankind to celebrate a new faith -- or, as he calls it in many other places, a "supreme fiction" -- which is the distinction he makes at the end of "Sunday Morning" when he writes "not as a god, but as a god might be."

I spent the first part of the lecture trying to paraphrase the larger structure & thematic movement of the poem, then in the second part I spent as much time as I could with its beautiful blank verse, section by section. I'll only sum up the first part here.

The occasion for the poem is a Sunday morning in the spring. An obviously well-to-to woman is sitting in a sunny room, leisurely eating a late breakfast. She hasn't been, & she isn't planning on going to church -- even though she's been raised as a Christian and it's almost certainly Easter Sunday ("the holy hush of ancient sacrifice"). In the middle of her pleasure in the day, the food she's eating & the world, the thought of death occurs to her ("she feels the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe"), & this "dark" thought is the conflict that drives the rest of the poem. Suddenly all the things she's been enjoying "seem things in some procession of the dead," because like her they're not immortal, they're perishable. By a logic that's easy to follow, she starts thinking about the faith she was raised in, Christianity, with its promise of eternal life. Maybe she should go to church....

The poem that follows is a meditation on God & her humanity, belief & doubt, death & life, cadenced like a conversation or philosophical dialogue, in which she struggles with & resolves the anxiety she feels, by thinking about 2 paradises: the Christian one, which has never seemed as real to her as this world, and the "paradise" she decides one can make of this world, if she can first accept the "inescapable" fact of her perishability. The poem's brilliant response to the fact of death is that striking line: "Death is the mother of beauty." It is time & change, growth & decay, loss & desire that create beauty. In the sixth section the poem does what it had to do: suggest how emotionally & aesthetically empty would be a heaven where nothing can change. Throughout, in its patterns of references to snow & spring rain, to morning & evening, summer & winter, memory & desire, the poem enacts that point -- makes us continually feel how time & change, and even the losses that they bring, are what create passions & fulfillments, make beauty & significance.

Once the "she" that the poem uses as its occasion sees that, she realizes that she can cherish life, "the heavenly fellowship of men that perish and of summer morn," not just as things in some procession of the dead, but as a kind of paradise -- not as heaven, but "like the thought of heaven." This is where the poem gives the imagination a role to play. The men chanting echo Whitman's poetry (just as the woman in some sense recalls the 29th bather in section 11 of "Song of Myself") -- but Whitman would say such men are divine & imperishable, and associate his "worship new" with the body. For WS, it's the mind, the imagination, that matters most. In a kind of alternative to the Easter church service she's missing, those men "chant" (assert as an act of creative will) "the idea of" their divinity. But they perish: they are as ultimately impermanent as the dew which the sun evaporates. But first the sun makes it shine.

That's essentially all we can hope to do, but for the woman (and WS) (and me) it's enough. After considering in her mind & through her emotions what she can & cannot believe in, does & does not desire, she decides not to go to church. So like Eliot's poems, "Sunday Morning" is about what doesn't happen. But here what doesn't happen is an affirmation. By not going to church the woman asserts her own & the poem's embrace of the world we live in, where we must go down to darkness, but where we can also choose to go "on extended wings."

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