You know the story: a fresh-faced young writer has his or her first work published, the literary world takes notice of the next big talent, and the writer goes on to create some of the most famous and well-known works of his or her time. Now imagine that the "fresh-faced writer" is the middle-aged man who lives next to you and dutifully rides the train to his office job every morning wearing a shirt and a tie.
Meet Wallace Stevens in 1915, when "Sunday Morning," was published in Poetry one of America’s premiere literary magazines. This was the work that made the literary world sit up and ask, "Who’s the new guy?" Well, "the new guy" was an insurance executive and former lawyer in his late-thirties working as the vice president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Company. Not exactly the type you’d think would go on to become perhaps the most acclaimed American poet of the 20th century. In fact, it would be nearly another decade before he even published his first book of poems, Harmonium, in 1923.
"Sunday Morning" was published in two versions, and the version from Harmonium is the one that most people read today. With eight stanzas, it’s the longer version. The one published in 1915 only has five stanzas. When he sent the poem to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, she said (essentially), "Wallace, this poem is fabulous! I love it! The only thing is that – see these three stanzas? – they don’t work. We’ve got to cut them." And Stevens said (essentially), "You’re the expert. OK."
But, let’s not be too hasty in judging poor Harriet. After all, she was one of the first bigwig types to recognize the genius of a man whom a lot of people probably would have thought too old to launch a career as a poet. The biggest change is that in the 1915 version, the eighth stanza with its immortal last words – "downward to darkness, on extended wings" – becomes the second stanza. It’s still a great poem, just not as great as the version from Harmonium, so do make sure that you find the longer one.
Harmonium contained a bunch of classic poems like "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," "Disillusionment of 10 O’ Clock," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." After it was published, Stevens became truly famous, at least among literary folks. Still, he continued to live a double life from his humble home in sleepy Hartford, Connecticut: insurance man by day, modernist poet by night. And, it would take several more decades before his work was finally recognized with a big award, the Pulitzer Prize, in 1955. He died that same year.
This poem is about what it means to be happy, and who doesn’t want to be happy? It’s about "living in the moment," but unlike that expression, it doesn’t sound like an advertising slogan. It’s subtle. If you’ve read the poem, think of the pagan men who dance and celebrate the sun in stanza VII. They aren’t worried about whether they left the door unlocked when they left home that morning, and they aren’t anxious about some meeting or appointment they have next week. They’re only thinking about the joy and beauty of the present moment.
Does that kind of feeling exist anymore, or are we too bogged down in planning out every part of our lives? In the case of the poem’s protagonist, she is too concerned with what’s going to happen "after" her happy little breakfast for the joy of the moment to be complete. She knows that, eventually, the morning has to end, but she has a hard time letting go.
People experience this bittersweet feeling all the time, and not just when they’re out in nature. When kids are on summer break, for example, they sometimes worry so much about the return of school and homework that they can’t fully enjoy the time they have to just hang out.
In short, next time you have that slightly anxious feeling that good things must come to an end, you might take a cue from the naked guys in stanza VVII, throw up your hands, and belt out a song to the sun. Your friends might think you’re crazy, but, with any luck, you’ll be so happy it won’t even matter.