Study Guide

Sunday Morning Choices

By Wallace Stevens

Choices

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights. (lines 6-8)

The happiness that the woman feels while eating her breakfast doesn’t get rid of the pressure to think about the death of Christ, "that old catastrophe" – it just masks this pressure. When she starts to dream, though, the thought creeps up on her and "darkens" her pleasant day. These are the first lines to set up the choice that she has in the poem: between belief in a supernatural Christian heaven, or a devotion for the changing beauty of nature.

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
[. . .]
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measure destined for her soul. (lines 16, 23-30)

At the end of the first stanza, it seems like she will join the procession to Christ’s tomb, but, now, she strikes a defiant tone and chooses not to give up the pleasure of her oranges and cockatoo. Her first major decision in the poem is to declare that, "Divinity must live within herself" and her emotions. But, will she be happy with the consequences of this decision – specifically, the loss of the beautiful idea of Christian heaven?

There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; (lines 51-57)

Starting at stanza IV, the woman and the poet get into a sort of dialogue. In this quote, the poet responds to the woman’s concern that her vision of nature-as-paradise lasts only as long as the beautiful thing she experiences. The poet responds that "April’s green" has lasted longer than any religious ideas about heaven, because April comes back every year, but religions tend to fade away after however many hundreds of years. The poet is helping her to make a choice.

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. (lines 61-65)

The woman continues to go back and forth over whether she prefers the Christian or pagan perspective. The pagan perspective says that there can’t be beauty without change, and there can’t be change without death. Because we are a part of nature, we can only have "our dreams and our desires" fulfilled within the cycles of nature. By this point, the woman seems almost convinced, but she’s afraid to let go of Christianity’s promise of a never-ending heaven.

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay." (lines 106-109)

A voice seems to come out of nowhere to say that Christ’s tomb is not a place where supernatural spirits hang out – it’s just the grave of a man, Jesus. The voice breaks the silence of "the water without sound," and we should probably assume that it comes from inside the woman’s mind. Does this sudden cry amount to a decision to let go of the Christian idea of heaven?

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