For the fourth installment of Daylight Atheism’s Poetry Sunday, I’m presenting selections from the poem “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens. In this work, Stevens’ nameless narrator finds happiness and comfort in a humanist philosophy, expressing the view that the only good we can expect to receive is from our fellow human beings, and that this world provides all the beauty we could ever wish or ask for.
Wallace Stevens was born in Pennsylvania in 1879 and attended Harvard University, and after his graduation worked as a lawyer and insurance agent. Unlike many famous 20th century poets, Stevens led a relatively quiet and uneventful life, often composing poems during his commute to and from the office. Despite this, and despite the late flowering of his artistic genius (he did not begin publishing until the age of 35, and many of his greatest works were published after he was 50), he is today recognized as one of the major modernist poets of the 20th century. He also held a firmly non-religious and humanist viewpoint; in his book Opus Posthumous, he wrote, “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” His published works include Harmonium (1923), The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937), The Auroras of Autumn (1950), and The Palm at the End of the Mind (1972). His Collected Poems (1954) won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and late in life he turned down an offer of a professorship from Harvard to remain at his insurance job.
From “Sunday Morning”
What is divinity if it can come…Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
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.
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.
…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.
…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!
Other posts in this series: