This is the first Sunday in December and a poem beckons. I decide to read one of my favourites: ‘Sunday Morning’ by the American poet, Wallace Stevens. This poem was published in 1915 when the poet was 36.
It is a long romantic poetic meditation and begins with a pleasant domestic scene where a woman lingers over breakfast with coffee and oranges. Some critics have compared it to paintings by Matisse. As the solitary figure contemplates beauty, death, and nature, she reminds us of the brooding loners in poetry from the Romantic period.
Stevens begins by asking a few basic questions: what happens to us when we die? Can we believe seriously in an afterlife? If we can’t, what comfort can we take in the only life we get? He circles around these philosophical problems but finds no resolution. Humans might one day achieve an ecstatic union with nature, but for now the randomness and beauty of the world elude us.
Here are some extracts from this beautiful but unsettling poem:-
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
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?
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?”
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
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.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The final line is breathtaking. What an amazing poem!