Poetry Sunday: Selections from "Sunday Morning"

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
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.

…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.

…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:

Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
Weekend Coffee: March 28
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Moody834

    Just wanted to delurk long enough to say that you, my atheist compatriot, rock. Thank you so much for your efforts and for posts like this one.

    Take care, and be well.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Oh, that’s gorgeous. Thank you. Best Poetry Sunday selection yet, in my opinion.

  • Jewel

    I’ve been reading the stuff on this site for a while now, but this is my first comment. You do an amazing job here and I love your writing.

    “Sunday Morning” has been my favorite poem ever since my freshman year in college when we studied several of Wallace Stevens’ poems. It is such a beautiful work.

    And coincidentally, yesterday morning when I was running my errands, I thought about this poem. And when I got home and read my usual blogs, I saw you posted it. I love coincidences like that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Thank you, all. :) I’m happy I came across Stevens – I found him in a book of major 20th-century poets I recently read, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them were freethinkers or otherwise non-religious. There was enough material in there for quite a few Poetry Sundays to come…

  • Eric

    Don’t forget the coolest Stevens poem of all; “The Emperor of Ice Cream”. It’s a much better funeral read than all that Auden crap.

    But what of atheist funerals? Seems once we’re dead it’s hard to advocate for any kind of atheist funeral. We can defend ourselves in life, but what comes after we are dead. I’m concerned about this because my own parents are nearing 70. I presume they have taken measures to avoid too many religious entanglements after their deaths, but we haven’t talked much about it other than that my mother wants to be creamated and her ashes scattered on some field off a backroad near Brenham TX so she can help the paintbrush flowers grow. My father’s family is hardcore fundie. How will his many siblings react to whatever his wishes might be? I should find this stuff out.

  • http://www.myspace.com/cookiefreak1988 steven

    i just wanna say this is an amazing piece of work.. i fell in love with it.. first time reading his poetry but it wont be the last one… thank you so much…