Study Guide

Sunday Morning Duty

By Wallace Stevens

Duty

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. (lines 1-5)

If the protagonist weren’t having such a nice breakfast in the sun, she might feel a duty or obligation to acknowledge the "ancient sacrifice" supposedly made by Jesus on behalf of mankind. We think that the "holy hush" makes it sound like she feels guilty for not being in church, but church is never explicitly mentioned in the poem, so you can draw your own conclusions. But, it’s clear that she has some kind of Christian duty in mind.

The day is like wide water, without sound.
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. (lines 12-15)

It’s almost as if the day has a special purpose in mind for her: to cross the ocean to get to Palestine, in the Middle East, where Christ is buried. She imagines herself joining up with a procession of dead spirits, but it’s not a festive occasion: everything is "silent" and "without sound." The silence makes things more intimidating and suspenseful. We think that she’s probably thinking of a symbolic journey – one that occurs in her head – rather than a real trip. It would be just about impossible to get to Palestine from America in a day – especially on foot!

Why should she give her bounty to the dead? (line 16)

The woman pushes back against the demand that she give up the pleasure of the sun, her coffee and oranges, and her bird. In most religions, the reason to give one’s "bounty" to the dead is that the dead live on somehow as ghosts or supernatural spirits. Although this verse is written in the third person, we can imagine it as being close to her thoughts.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable. (lines 110-113)

The poet gives us a little "moral of the story" pep talk here. He says that humans are alone on the earth and don’t have duties to anyone or anything but themselves. "Sponsor" is actually a Christian term for was someone who is re-SPONS-ible (see the connection?) for baptizing another person and making sure that he/she has a good religious education. So, when the poet says that we are "unsponsored," it means that there isn’t some adult authority figure in the universe (like, say, a God) to watch out for us and make sure that we do certain things. We are "free" of religious rules and duties.

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