Study Guide

Sunday Morning Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Wallace Stevens

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

The Sun

The title of the poem is "Sunday Morning," so it isn’t surprising that the "sun" is mentioned so often in the poem. Over the course of the poem, the sun goes from being a source of comfort to the woman sitting in the chair, to a symbol of the ultimate source of life and of the chaos in the natural world.

  • Line 2: An image of a sunny chair lets us know that it’s a warm, beautiful day. It sets up more symbolic uses of the sun later in the poem.
  • Line 19: The sun is used as a synecdoche to represent other qualities or "comforts," like warmth, light, and growth. It also forms the beginning of a rhetorical question. The woman thinks that the comforts of the sun are just as good as the thought of heaven.
  • Line 70: The shivering of the willow in the sun is an image of natural beauty, as well as a symbol for how death makes up for the loss of old things by bringing about new and different things.
  • Lines 93-95: In this simile, the sun is compared to how a god "might be." The sun is not actually a god; it is "like" a "savage source," or a wild, divine force that creates things. The sun’s heat and light is the source of all life, so the image is accurate. The sun is also personified as a "naked" being who dances with the men.
  • Line 110: The sun is a symbol of chaos, because it can be wild and unpredictable. Sometimes, it grows crops; sometimes, it burns them. Also, as the source of life, the sun is responsible for the chaos of the nature world, where things happen for no rhyme or reason.

The Sky

For many religions, the sky represents heaven, where God or the gods live. The protagonist of the poem often turns the sky into a symbol of heaven. By the last stanza, though, the sky becomes just another part of nature.

  • Lines 42-45: The poet imagines what the sky would look like if the earth becomes like paradise. He divides the sky into "a part of labor" and "a part of pain."
  • Line 78: The poet calls the sky in heaven "perfect," which is a use of metonymy, because the perfection of the sky stands for the perfection of heaven as a whole.
  • Line 97: The pagan men chant in a circle. It’s as if they are transferring the life from their blood to the sky. They are responsible for turning the sky into a paradise.
  • Line 117: At the end of the poem, the sky becomes a symbol of isolation, much like the image of the island earlier in the stanza. It’s big, dark, and blue, and it surrounds us on all sides.

Birds

Birds are a big deal in the poem. Seriously, they’re all over the place. The first bird mentioned is the cockatoo, which is a kind of ridiculous-looking tropical bird. But, the cockatoo makes the protagonist feel happy and safe. It makes her think of the majestic birds she sees in nature. Birds are a symbol of paradise and freedom – they can go wherever they want. At the end of the poem, however, she starts thinking more realistically. Let’s face it: a lot of the birds we see every day are not so majestic. The pigeon, for example. But, the pigeons in the final image have their own strange sense of majesty.

  • Line 3: For the woman, the green cockatoo is a symbol of freedom – but, not exactly the freedom to go anywhere, because it’s a pet bird and its wings are probably clipped. It’s more a sign of luxury and leisure. She’s free to enjoy this exotic little pleasure because she’s not in church.
  • Line 9: In these lines, the "bright, green wings" of the cockatoo seem more serious than they did before. Using simile, the poet compares the bird to a funeral gift that ancient people bring along on a procession to visit an important tomb – in this case, the tomb of Christ. The bird is like a gift that someone brings to place on the tomb as a sacrifice to the dead.
  • Line 20: The phrase "bright, green wings" is repeated to refer to the cockatoo. But, now, the colorful bird is listed as one of the "beauties" of the earth. It is a source of comfort that competes with "the thought of heaven" for her attention.
  • Line 46: The woman thinks about other birds that make her happy. Unlike the cockatoo, these birds are not pets and live in nature. The imagery of the birds in the "misty fields" is a metaphor for paradise. For her, this beautiful sight represents an almost perfect happiness.
  • Lines 58-60: The woman thinks her memory of birds waking up in the field, mentioned again at the end of stanza IV, is more "enduring" than any religious images of paradise. She thinks the same thing about her "desire" to see the swallow, another kind of bird with very distinctive wings, flying in the summertime. Notice that it’s not the birds themselves that last or "endure," but her feelings about them.
  • Lines 114-115: Unlike the birds earlier in the poem, the imagery of the quail whistling "spontaneous cries" is not compared to paradise: it’s just a part of nature that lives outside the control of people.
  • Lines 118-120: The poem ends on the powerful image of pigeons flying "at evening." The motions of their flight are described as "ambiguous," which means that we don’t know how to interpret them. The same could be said about the whole image, especially the beautiful and mysterious last line: "Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

Fruit

The poem begins with the woman eating an orange as part of her breakfast, but, soon, just like the cockatoo, the orange becomes a symbol of sacrifice, then comfort. Most of the images of fruit in the poem involve enjoying the seasons and cycles of nature.

  • Line 2: The woman is eating a late breakfast of coffee and oranges outside on a Sunday morning.
  • Line 9: The smell of the orange is described as "pungent," or very strong. Using simile, the poet compares the orange to a gift that ancient people bring along on a procession to visit an important tomb – in this case, the tomb of Christ. The fruit is like a gift that someone brings to place on the tomb as a sacrifice to the dead.
  • Line 20: At the end of the first stanza, the oranges are part of the procession to Christ’s tomb. In this stanza, they are considered a part of nature – the "balm or beauty of the earth" – and a source of comfort that’s just as powerful as thinking about heaven.
  • Lines 73-75: As part of the extended metaphor comparing death to a mother (specifically, the mother of beauty), the poet says that death "causes boys to pile new plums and pears" on an old, forgotten plate. The delicious fruit causes beautiful young women to forget about all the things that death has taken away.
  • Lines 77-78: The ripe fruit which never falls from the tree is a symbol of the slightly sad perfection of heaven. It’s almost too perfect, because the fruit wants to reach the ground. The poem seems to personify the fruit by giving it desires.
  • Lines 83-84: We’re back to the image of boys piling fruit on a plate, like bait for the beautiful young women. But, in heaven, there would be no point in "spicing the shores," because the scent wouldn’t go anywhere, and the joy of the maidens depends on the existence of change.
  • Line 116: So far, we see oranges, pears, and plums. Now, we get imagery of – ta-da! – "sweet berries." The difference between the berries and the other fruit is that they grow on their own "in the wilderness," rather than being used as food by humans. Their "sweetness" makes it that much more surprising that the berries are out of reach. "You mean, there are delicious, sweet berries growing out there where no one can pick and eat them?! What a waste!" But, obviously, those berries aren’t just meant for our pleasure.

Water

The images of water are some of the most mysterious images in the poem. At one point, the protagonist dreams that she walks across the ocean to get to Palestine, but, by the end of the poem, she recognizes that she is like a person on an island, surrounded by all the strangeness of the natural world.

  • Line 8: It’s hard to catch, but there’s a simile in lines 7 and 8. When the woman starts thinking about the death of Christ, it is likened to the way "a calm darkens among water-lights." Huh? Your guess is as good as ours, but we take this to mean the way that day turns into evening along the coast of a big body of water, like the ocean. So, the first mention of water occurs just at the moment – when the poem is getting "darker." If we had a beard, we’d stroke it suggestively right now.
  • Lines 11-12: The procession is described as "winding across wide water" to get to Palestine. If we assume that the poem takes place somewhere on the east coast of America, then "wide water" might refer to the Atlantic Ocean, which is what you would have to cross to get to the Middle East. In line 12, the day is compared to the "wide water" using simile. This could mean that the passage of moments in the day brings her closer to the mystery of Christ’s death.
  • Lines 80-82: The rivers in heaven never reach the ocean, because there is no change in heaven – the water is there, but it’s not moving. Also, the poet personifies the opposite shores of the river by suggesting that they feel a "pang," or sharp pain, because they don’t touch each other. The shores are a symbol of separation.
  • Line 106: The poet does something very sneaky here. In line 12, he compares the day to "wide water" using simile. "The day is like wide water. . . ." Now, he goes one step further and turns the image of the day as water into a metaphor. The woman hears a voice that comes "from" the day, as if out of nowhere – but, because Stevens has already likened the day and water, he can write, "hears upon that water without sound." The fact that both the day and the water are silent creates suspense: we want to know what is going to break the silence, and, in the next few lines, we find out.
  • Lines 112-113: The poet ties all the water imagery together in these lines. The "wide water" becomes an image of water around an island, a metaphor for the freedom and solitude of humanity. The water stands for everything foreign to us in nature – the things we can’t understand because we’re limited by our human perspective.

Morning and Evening

Maybe you’re not a morning person, but at least you can understand the appeal: the sun keeps getting brighter, and you have the whole day in front of you. For the protagonist of the poem, morning is a time of hope and new beginnings. But, her joy is mixed with fear that the morning must end and give way to evening – and, not just any evening, but Sunday evening. For most people, Sunday evening is the last tasty morsel of the weekend, and then it’s back to work or school on Monday. Sunday morning is the protagonist’s last chance to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature.

  • Title: The poem is set on a Sunday morning, when many Christians are normally at church.
  • Line 1: Although it’s morning, it’s not the crack of dawn: the protagonist gets a slow start on the day, and it’s already "late." Ah, the beauty of Sundays.
  • Line 8: When the woman begins to think about the death of Christ, it’s like day turning into night. The comparison between these two events is a simile.
  • Line 46: The woman seems to associate mornings with happiness. She says that she is happy when she sees birds wandering in a field in the morning, before they take off for a hard day of flying.
  • Lines 59-60: She can also associate happiness with the evening. She looks forward to seeing a bird called the swallow flying around in the near-darkness. There will be only enough light to see the outline of the swallow’s distinctive wings.
  • Line 92: The pagan men chant in the morning to celebrate the rise of the sun. In her own way, the protagonist also celebrates the sun.
  • Lines 102-103: The morning is a symbol of promise and beginnings, but all beginnings must come to an end, just like morning eventually turns into evening. But, the men are united in a "heavenly fellowship" because they accept that the morning will end or "perish," and celebrate it anyway.
  • Line 111: Up until now, the woman sometimes seems anxious that the morning must end and turn into evening. Here, the poet recognizes that morning and evening "depend" on one another.
  • Lines 118-120: It’s kind of odd that the poem ends with the imagery of darkness and evening, considering that it’s called "Sunday Morning." The darkness is a symbol of death, change, and mystery, but the end of the poem doesn’t take a stand on whether these are good or bad things.

Blood

There are two basic viewpoints in the poem, Christian and pagan, and the symbolism of "blood" has different meanings for each. From the Christian perspective, the "blood" can be a very serious reminder of the sacrifice that Jesus makes at his crucifixion. From the pagan perspective, blood represents human energy, creativity, and joy.

  • Line 15: The blood referred to here is the blood that Christ spills at his crucifixion. It’s a symbol for the sacrifice he makes by dying for the sins of mankind.
  • Lines 36-40: From the pagan or nature-worshipping perspective, blood can also be a symbol of human life, energy, and imagination. The myth of Jove was created when our blood was "mingled" or mixed with "heaven." The poet wonders if the combination of human "blood" and heaven will lead to "paradise."
  • Line 97: Once again, "blood" refers to pagan life or vitality, which the men send out to the sky as they sing and dance. They contain "paradise" in their blood, which is a metaphor for the joy that they feel in the morning.

Christianity

Let’s face it: this poem isn’t really a fair representation of Christian ideas. The Christian perspective in the poem is serious and pretty joyless. It’s probably more accurate to say that the poem describes a certain kind of Christianity, which focuses on the ideas of guilt and sacrifice, and ignores the sunnier things in life.

  • Title: For many people, Sunday mornings carry an obligation to wake up bright and early for church. The title helps us make sense of the protagonist’s feelings of guilt in the first stanza.
  • Lines 5-15: Notice that many of the sections of the poem which deal with Christianity include words like "hush," "silent," and "without sound." The poet seems to think that the idea of Christian sacrifice calls for quiet, serious thoughts. The protagonist’s thoughts lead her to the extended simile that "the day is like wide water," which she is supposed to "cross" to get to Palestine, where Jesus was buried.
  • Lines 76-82: We can’t be sure what "paradise" refers to, but it’s a word that is most often used in connection with Christianity. The poet imagines paradise as a place where things never change, which he explains using the metaphor of fruit that never falls from a tree. He’s not too happy about this idea.
  • Lines 107-109: The woman has an epiphany, or a sudden burst of understanding, when she hears a voice from out of nowhere (which probably means from inside her head). She comes to realize that the Christ’s tomb in Palestine is not a supernatural place after all, but just a place of burial.

Paganism

"Paganism" was a term used by Christians to refer to the religion that Christianity replaced: the religion of Ancient Rome and Greece, with its many gods and goddesses. The Romans especially were known for secretive rituals called "orgies," where they went out into the forest and sang, danced, drank, and, um, "hooked up" until they passed out from exhaustion. Their gods were inspired by events in nature, like the winds, the ocean, and the sun and stars. For this reason, the worship of nature is often called "paganism." Throughout history, this term is often used as an insult, but this poem adopts it like a badge of pride.

  • Lines 31-35: Jove is the most powerful Roman god. He’s the god of, among other things, lightning, thunder, and light. The poet uses a simile to compare the creation of the myth to a king who walks among his followers, waiting to be recognized.
  • Lines 51-56: The poet lists a bunch of different mythical visions of paradise, including the "golden underground," which probably refers to the Greek heaven known as Elysium, which is actually under the earth.
  • Lines 91-105: Stanza VII describes a pagan ritual, complete with nakedness and dancing. The pagan men are a symbol of the worship of nature.

Death

Everybody is afraid of death, but Christian scriptures claim to have "defeated" death, because Christians will live in eternal paradise when they die. The poem calls this claim into question by arguing that a paradise without death does not make much sense. Death is thought to be necessary for change to occur.

  • Lines 63-74: The extended metaphor that death is the mother of beauty is one of the most important in the poem. Without death, there could be nothing fresh and new to take the place of dead things. The poem describes some of the things that death "gives birth" to.
  • Line 76: The poem seems to say that change and death are the same things. In Christianity, heaven or paradise is eternal, so there is no death.
  • Lines 88-90: The poem returns to the extended metaphor of death as a mother.
  • Line 107: "The tomb in Palestine" refers to the place where Christ was buried and from which he was resurrected, which is a symbol of his sacrifice and redemption of humankind.

Other Nature Imagery

There’s a lot of nature imagery in the poem. The protagonist comes to believe that nature, and not religion, gives meaning to her life. However, without any religious explanation, it’s not clear if she can read any rhyme or reason into the beauty of nature.

  • Lines 24-29: In her memory, the woman associates beautiful scenes like "falling snow," "forest blooms," and "wet roads on autumn nights" with specific and powerful emotions. She calls these emotions "divine."
  • Line 57: In this section, "April’s green" is a synecdoche: the poet is using one trait of healthy plants – their "green" color – to refer to the freshness and growth that one finds in the spring.
  • Lines 70-72: Trees don’t actually "shiver" – they are being personified.
  • Lines 99-101: In this subtle metaphor, the trees, hills, and lake are compared to a choir that joins the singing of the pagan men.
  • Lines 114-116: The "deer," "quail," and "sweet berries" differ from many of the other images of nature in the poem, because they exist outside the view and control of people.

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