Study Guide

Sunday Morning Happiness

By Wallace Stevens

Happiness

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)

"Complacency" is a kind of happiness. It’s less like you’re ecstatic and jumping up and down with joy, and more like you’re satisfied and content. At the beginning of the poem, the woman feels complacent. She’s sitting in her pajamas eating a late breakfast, and her pet cockatoo hops around on a rug. She doesn’t want this peaceful moment to end. But, behind all these happy thoughts, she feels the pull of Christian duty. The happy morning just holds "the holy hush of ancient sacrifice" at bay.

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven? (lines 20-22)

Can her orange and cockatoo, or any other natural comfort, promise as much happiness as "the thought of heaven?" The world is filled with things that make us forget about pain ("balm") and give us pleasure ("beauty"), but heaven is supposed to another kind of happiness entirely – a place where there is no loss or pain to begin with. The problem with heaven, of course, is that it’s just a "thought," as long as she is still on earth.

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?" (lines 46-50)

"Contentment" is a lot like "complacency" – it’s not the most powerful form of happiness, but it basically means that things are good enough where you feel at peace and have nothing to complain about. The woman remembers a time when she felt this way while looking at birds in "misty fields." Unfortunately, it seems to her that this happiness depends on things outside her control – the birds, the fields, the time of day. She worries that, when these things are gone, her happiness will be gone, too. These lines imply that she also worries about the end of her pleasant Sunday morning breakfast.

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need for some imperishable bliss." (lines 61-62)

The advantage of heaven is that it provides "imperishable bliss," a happiness that lasts and lasts – it’s the Energizer bunny of happiness. "Bliss" is also a more powerful feeling. Bliss is like a big fat piece of chocolate cake; contentment is a nice, healthy dinner. The big question in this quote, though, is whether she actually believes in heaven, or whether it just fills a "need" that she has.

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang? (lines 76-82)

The poet chips away at the protagonist’s idea of "imperishable bliss." He thinks the phrase is an oxymoron: there is no happiness without "perishing" or death. He compares the Christian idea of permanent happiness to a tree where the fruit is always ripe and never falls. The whole point of fruit is to fall: that’s how we get new trees. If the fruit never falls, it’s a bit sad, like two people who want to be close but can "never touch."

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Our of their blood, returning to the sky; (lines 96-97)

The pagan men who chant to the sun seem really happy. They’re more than just "content" or "complacent." They carry "paradise" in their blood, instead of needing to look to the sky. In fact, it’s their chanting that makes the sky seem like a paradise. The one problem with this vision of happiness is that it’s a hopeful vision of the future, not a present reality. The protagonist would like to feel like the pagan men, but she doesn’t yet.

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