by Wallace Stevens
Sunday Morning Summary
It’s a Sunday morning, and while many people are at church, a woman is sitting outside in her nightgown, eating a late breakfast and enjoying the morning. If not for all the beauty around her, including a pet tropical bird, she’d feel guilty about not being in church. But, when she starts to daydream, she has very serious thoughts about the death of Christ. She imagines herself traveling with a bunch of ghosts to Christ’s tomb in Palestine.
After this vision, she entertains skepticism about Christianity. She wonders why she only has thoughts about Christ when she is not thinking about other things. She likes the idea of heaven, but she believes that the natural world provides just as much comfort. She decides there is nothing divine apart from the emotions she experiences in nature.
The poem compares Jesus Christ with Jove, the most powerful god in Greek and Roman mythology. Because Jove represented the sun and the sky, the poet thinks the worship of Jove is an expression of love for these and other natural beauties. Also, he thinks that the mythological gods fill a secret desire of the human imagination to praise nature. The poet wonders if the gods created by men will lead to paradise, or if earth is the only paradise.
The woman thinks about how happy it makes her feel to see birds about to take off from a field, but she worries that, once the birds have left, the field won’t feel like "paradise" anymore. The poet responds that the beauties of nature have lasted longer than any specific religious idea of paradise.
The woman thinks that she needs to believe in a beauty and happiness that lasts forever. The poet responds that nothing beautiful could exist without change. Death causes change. But, even when death causes one thing to end, it brings about something new to take its place.
The poet imagines a paradise without death or change, and he decides that it would be booo-ring – and maybe even a bit sad. It also wouldn’t be that different from Earth, except more pointless.
As luck would have it, some pagan guys show up. They’re dancing in a circle and waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care. The men are chanting to the sun, and the sounds of nature around them seem to add to the music. The men live in the present moment, and do not worry about the past or future.
The woman hears a voice that tells her there are no spirits clustered around Christ’s tomb, which is just a grave where a person is buried. The poet sums up the poem to the reader. Without real gods or the idea of a heaven, the world seems like chaos. We are alone, but we have freedom. Humanity is like an island surrounded by "wide water" on every side. We are surrounded by natural beings that live independently of us, and it is impossible to know their purpose or meaning.