“An Old Chaos of the Sun: Wallace Stevens’ Cosmos”

by Sam Buntz

“Divinity must live within herself, / Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow…”

“Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens is a poem that seeks to answer the “Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized,” earlier expressed by William Wordsworth.  It is not exactly what some scholars have described it as being, a work advocating hedonism and a total surrender to sensory pleasure—although it certainly doesn’t shy away from the senses.  Stevens always believed that it was better—in a sense, more spiritual—to live in a world comprised of the senses and the intellect brought to total life, together, than in one made up entirely of cramped thought.  His argument has more subtlety than it would if he actually were advocating a “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” philosophy—as reasonable, if shallow, as such a philosophy might seem to be.  On the surface, Stevens seems to advocate a sort of agnostic Neo-Paganism, but, in reality, when one digs into the precise nature of the metaphors and images of the poem, one sees that he is not giving into quite so fashionable a form of despair: he is merely scouting out the territory.  His trumpet-blast for the imagination’s spiritual victory over the uncertainties of time and chance would resound most fully in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” but in “Sunday Morning” all the notes that will be played later are present.  They are written on the staff, so to speak, but are not actually articulated, as they eventually would be.  In this poem, it is Stevens’ sense of a difficult, chaotic, yet ultimately worthwhile natural world that serves as the matter of central concern.

“Sunday Morning” begins with a woman skipping church, opting instead to enjoy coffee and oranges, while a green cockatoo fools around nearby on a rug.  Harold Bloom states, quite correctly, that this female figure is one whom Stevens will later come to call his “interior paramour,” the muse-in-the-mind that forms the addressee of so many of his later poems.  After the first verse, the woman poses scattered questions and Stevens answers them.  His voice speaks everything that isn’t in quotes, and also possesses direct access to the woman’s thoughts, as it were, being able to answer her doubts and fears without her directly stating them—since she is, of course, a creature dwelling in his imagination.  But, to begin interpretation in earnest: while attempting to lose herself in the comforts of a nice breakfast, the woman is suddenly overtaken by a spell of religious anxiety—the things she’s enjoying become part of “some procession of the dead / Winding across wide water without sound… / Over the seas, to silent Palestine / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.”  In other words, overcome by her lingering religious consciousness, she feels guilty about missing church, and the secular world around her consequently loses its joy, sapped of its native life-force.  The claims of suffering and blood—grim realities, represented by the Crucifixion—make it impossible to continue with breakfast in good conscience, before all of this can be sorted out.  Thus, the second verse begins with the anti-religious retort, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead? /  What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?”  “Her bounty” is simply what Wordsworth (the English poet with perhaps the most affinities to Stevens) would call “the produce of the common day”: it is that set of consolations with which the natural world, in collusion with the human imagination, provides us.  The speaker is asking why the woman should cease to find joy in these simple and blameless delights, if God—principally, the orthodox version of God as a giant old man in the clouds or, in a more refined sense, as a benign yet distant spirit—only visits her in those vague, interstitial spaces where thought seems to slip towards a hazy world slightly outside of the physical.

But Stevens doesn’t reject the idea of divinity, and doesn’t admit that divinity, in any meaningful sense, actually can only come in shadows and dreams (in hallucinations, basically).  Rather, he only rejects the idea of a “pie in the sky” heaven and the external deity whom Blake called “Nobodaddy.”  Stevens returns the sublime answer: “Divinity must live within herself,” and then catalogs those experiences of natural reality—the “gusty emotions / On wet roads on autumn nights”—which speak to this internal divinity, and its capacity both for being surprised by and for generating wonder and joy.  It is not just the odd dreamy moments when divinity visits the human mind: rather, it is every experience strung between the entire cyclic order of nature, from “the bough of summer” to “the winter branch.”  Every moment speaks to the internal divinity, which creates and recreates life and joy from the surrounding chaos.

The woman, here, is facing and winning a contest against the figure Blake identified as “The Accuser who is the God of this world.”  This is the part of the human mind that constantly attempts to pick apart reality with negative judgments, and divide every aspect of life into somber and empty duties—a part of the mind that expands into the deity enshrined by too much of Western Monotheism as a perpetually angry and jealous law-giver god.  But she wins by attaining to “innocence,” that state where the world seems charged with life, provided by the real divinity, ensconced within the innermost chamber of the self, the imagination.  It is not participation in a blood rite that characterizes Christianity for Stevens, but a mode of enlightened human perception, one that he proceeds to detail in the next stanza.

Stevens discusses the evolution of Christianity out of older conceptions of deity.  He sees the older, classical gods of the Greek and Roman traditions as being personified natural forces, and thus of “inhuman birth.”  Divinity at this stage is perceived, fearfully, as something inherently “other” than humanity, until “our blood, commingling, virginal, / With heaven, brought such requital to desire / The very hinds discerned it, in a star.”  Finally, God becomes human, incarnates as Christ, ceases to be a dreadful presence, and is instead a brother and a friend.  Yet Stevens asks whether the dream that our blood is truly divine in origin will ultimately prove correct: “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / The blood of paradise?”  I think too many scholars see Stevens as readily dismissing the possibility of immortality.  He certainly questions it, and would sometimes like to dismiss it, and often does imagine death as being the absolute end.  But this is by no means a final position.  He constantly crosses his affirmations with negations and then performs the reverse.  After asking this question, he seems to suggest that paradise is a state of mind, brought about by the enlightened or innocent vision, earlier mentioned: “The sky will be much friendlier then than now… / Not this dividing and indifferent blue.”  I take this statement to mean that the sky of paradise is the “same” sky as that which we perceive everyday, except charged with imaginative life—it is not something alien to the imagination, but something that participates in it.  Paradise is not so much a “different” world, but the real world re-imagined, purified by a new way of seeing it.  This alteration of reality through poetic perception, may, in fact, be a radical one, akin to Blake’s.  One cannot assume that Stevens thinks this imaginative recreation of the world into a “poet’s paradise” is altogether mundane.  He doesn’t know precisely what it is, but he’s beginning to get an idea—and he’ll have a very good idea by the time he pens “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

Yet, the imaginary woman continues to ask sharp questions.  She wonders whether perceiving this world in a more immediate and lively fashion is enough: “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?”  In this lovely and haunting metaphor, we are the birds, who search for an answer to the implacable question of what place it is that we have come to call our home, momentarily.  Stevens responds by saying that no religious and mythological conception of an afterlife “has endured as April’s green endures.”  This is, indeed, a significantly skeptical response, but it highlights something admirable in Stevens—he is confident that his own imagination’s interchange with reality, with “April’s green,” is enough to show the way.  To rely on the past and its traditions as an authority instead of as a source of individual poetic inspiration is to fall into that “procession of the dead,” mentioned earlier.  Like Emerson or Whitman, he believes that any person alive today can be, possibly, more of a spiritual authority than St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas were.  There is no need to appeal to an idea outside of experience to get at “paradise.”  This may seem to many to be, in and of itself, far too skeptical and naturalistic of a perspective.  But it is not utterly cut-and-dried, even though it is here spoken in tones of definite authority—whether life will prove to be completely eaten up by death or not, in the end, is not something Stevens has yet addressed directly—though he will do that, immediately.

In response to this statement about “April’s green” being more enduring than any “golden underground” or “isle melodious,” the interior paramour says, “But in contentment I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss.”  This provokes Stevens majestic response, “Death is the mother of beauty.”  This seems to be a straightforward denial of immortality: it may be that, but it might be something else, though not exclusively.  Stevens means, first of all, something akin to Thomas Mann’s, “Life grows from the soil of time”: it is impermanence that lends things their beauty and splendor.  Stevens rejects the definition of “imperishable bliss,” and hence of paradise, as a static world, frozen in space and time, where everything is trapped in an ageless amber—like our own world but permanent—with “the same receding shores / That never touch with inarticulate pang.”  He laments the fact that people imagine heaven as a place where they will “pick the strings” of the same “insipid lutes,” that we now play on earth.  Slightly earlier, he states that death “strews the leaves of sure obliteration in our paths,” but still renders up plates of fruit that maidens might taste and “stray impassioned in the littering leaves.”  That does seem to be no more than the usual “gather ye rosebuds” kind of spiel, though in order to see it that way, one may need to read it out of context somewhat.

Yet, in the final part of this stanza (we’re now at stanza VI), he provides a curious summation: “Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, / Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.”  The “earthly mothers” we imagine waiting for us are representations of the illusion that heaven will be but an improved version of earth.  Yet there is something mysterious about death—the sure obliteration it leaves us with may very well have something on the other side of it, or it may not.  The earthly mother is not only an illusion but a figure for something else, potentially–though she may be a figure for the “comfort” of pure oblivion.  Death is “mystical” because it is so unknowable and difficult.  It’s “burning bosom” may eat up everything, sending all to eternal rest—or the imagination may prove to be made of the same, unquenchable and consuming fire as that fiery bosom, as in Blake.  Stevens doesn’t know—though I admit that, in “Sunday Morning” at least, he seems generally quite skeptical, though not skeptical in the unimaginative fashion of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett.  This is the skepticism of a poet, which is usually much more refined and comprehensive than the skepticism of a philosopher or a scientist.

Stevens then imagines a kind of religious ceremony that might take the place of institutional Christianity, in what is probably the most widely criticized part of the poem.  Yet, it is also a part that offers one of the most interesting hints about death in it.  A group of men all gather together to “chant… / 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 the chant of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky.”  Now, obviously, this is a pretty piece of Neo-Paganism—and there’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily.  It inaugurates the weird sun-worship that continues throughout Stevens’ poetry: he will later say that he has no spirit except that it comes from the sun, for instance, and he sees the rising sun in early spring as signaling a “new knowledge of reality.”  It’s strange that “paradise” is made present in this bizarre hymn of sun-worship—a meditation on the destiny of the spirits of the chanting men is contained in the lines “And whence they came and whither they shall go / The dew upon their feet shall manifest.”  Does this mean that they’re utterly annihilated at death?  Ambivalence seems to be the dominant note: dew when it evaporates before midday doesn’t, strictly speaking, cease to exist—it is transmuted to a higher clime.  The fact that Stevens has denied the existence of melodious isles of the blessed and so forth, earlier in the poem, may suggest that this is another motto of annihilation—but I believe he aims for a tone of joyous agnosticism, healthy and honest in its ambiguity.  The images the sun spits out (which comprise all that we see and are) are dissolved back into the sun–and Stevens is seemingly content to not know what this means or might represent, figuratively.

In the final stanza of the poem, the woman hears “a voice that cries, ‘The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”  I used to read this primarily as a denial of the resurrection—now, I realize that that isn’t Stevens’ primary aim.  The resurrection of Jesus, after all, was not a matter of reviving a number of plural, disembodied spirits, who would then all hang around the front of the cave.  Those spirits are, I think, that same “procession of the dead,” the things of the world made phantasmal by the accusing, judging side of the mind, identified with conventional religion.  But the voice affirms that the cave is simply the place where Jesus was laid to rest—it doesn’t really say that he didn’t attain a kind of spiritual resurrection or enlightenment, in however qualified or earthly a sense.  Yet Stevens does give the vagaries of Nature the last words in the poem, beginning with the great lines, “We live in an old chaos of the sun / Or an old dependency of night and day…” Chaos is what precedes creation—it is the void of the external world in which the imagination then creates what we call reality.  The poem ends with the famous image of “casual flocks of pigeons” making “ambiguous undulations as they sink / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”  Considering that birds earlier served as a trope for humans, this is not a very hopeful last line, and it does seem to imply that our final destination lies in a return to the dust from which that “colossal sun” somehow managed to call us up.  If we have a spirit, it returns to the creative power of the sun that somehow zapped it into the world–or to what the sun’s creative power signifies.

All of this serves to show that “Sunday Morning,” while at first affirming the divinity within (with however many grains of salt thrown in), is really more of a poem about Nature—about the environment into which we are thrown, albeit as filtered through the lenses of the self.  Stevens sees Nature as being quite beautiful and powerful, though, often enough, the sky is “dividing and indifferent,” rather than charged with imaginative power.  The poem focuses more on Nature as a foreign quantity, un-tempered by the human presence within it, “a place that is not our own / And what is more, not ourselves,” as he would come to write later.  Despite his skeptical tendencies, Stevens can’t shake the feeling that Nature isn’t our home.  William Blake thought that Nature was just the imagination on a bad day, frozen at a low level—it could be raised up to Paradise (or “burned up”) as soon as an enlightened vision fell upon it.  Stevens, on his better days, seems capable of believing this—and his somewhat shaky faith in the imagination’s power was to receive a permanent and not-at-all shaky monument in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and in some shorter poems like “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.”   He always believed that life without imagination, without an active human contribution, was numb and void, occasioning such reflections as “The world is ugly / And the people are sad.”  But he also believed that Nature provided us with the material on which the imagination built—the imagination could never have arrived at a blue jay on its own, without the prior existence of the avian world to first furnish inspiration.  Thus, “Sunday Morning” is the poem of both the chaos and the consolations offered up by Nature.   But “Key West”—which I hope to address in another essay and close-reading, very soon—is the poem about what you really can do with that base-level of natural material, describing how the divinity dwelling within the self manages to manipulate it into a form more beautiful and human than that which the material possesses in its basic state.  Yet the earlier poem remains a testament to those “misty fields” we call reality—the place where the birds stop to offer up some of Wordsworth’s “obstinate questionings,” before continuing on their irretrievable way.


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