Study Guide

Sunday Morning Man and the Natural World

By Wallace Stevens

Man and the Natural World

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)

The poem opens with joyful images of nature – oranges, birds, and sun – but these things are also domesticated. They are images of nature so far as it is useful for humans. The oranges were probably bought in a store, the bird is a pet, and the sun is shining on a chair, rather than, say, a field. But, watch for the images of nature to become more and more wild throughout the poem. The small things around her lead the woman to think of other natural beauties she had seen.

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
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?
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 19-30)

The woman thinks that her experiences in nature are just as comforting, and bring just as much joy as "the thought of heaven." Her most intense emotions, like passion, grieving, and elation, occur when she is in some spectacular natural setting. She carries these emotions with her in memory. She decides to judge or "measure" her soul based on these feelings and not, for example, on whether she follows the rules of a particular religion.

She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. (lines 70-74)

"She" is death, from the metaphor comparing death to the "mother of beauty." The poet has just finished admitting that death causes a lot of good and powerful experiences to end. But, he says, there’s a consolation prize. Death, the mother, also "gives birth" to new life and beauty. For example, when the willow loses its leaves in the winter, it allows for the beautiful sight of the tree "shivering" in the sunlight. And, death allows new fruit to grow. As the force behind sex and reproduction, she makes boys put the fruit on the plate to lure young ladies who might be passing by. The cycles of nature all owe their existence to nature.

And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward. (lines 98-101)

Nature and man seem to unite as the trees, lake, and hills all add to the music of the pagan men’s chant. In fact, nature is always in "choir," even after the men stop singing. But, the chant allows the men to notice the natural symphony that is there all along. Although nature isn’t domesticated in this image, natural events almost seem to cooperate with human goals.

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.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings. (lines 110-120)

This final image presents nature at its most wild and "chaotic." Ironically, we can see examples of chaotic nature even close to home – the pigeons in the street, for example, which suddenly look very strange in this poem as they fly into darkness. None of the natural events in this stanza occur with the permission, help, or knowledge of humans. Nature continues to go about its business, even when no one is around. Amid such beautiful but mysterious things, humans are like an island surrounded by "inescapable" water.