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.
First things first: what’s a "peignoir?" Well, you can check a picture of one in our "Photos and Pics" section, but, basically, it’s like a pair of fancy pajamas – a long, comfy nightgown for women.
OK, now we can begin.
"Complacencies of the peignoir, and late" – stop right there. You’ve just reached one of the craftiest line breaks in all of English poetry.
Stevens chops the sentence off right in the middle, at one of the most awkward points possible, yet the line sounds like exactly what it’s supposed to mean. The line break comes "late" because you would normally expect it after the pause of "peignoir," but instead we get part of the next phrase. It’s a lazy morning, and everything is running behind – even the poetry.
Then, the next line begins "coffee and oranges," and we’re wondering what on earth "late coffee and oranges" could be. We look back at the title and remember how people often don’t eat breakfast until 10 or 11 o’clock on Sundays, and we think, "Ah, it must be late in the morning."
Indeed, it’s late in the morning, and a woman is enjoying a leisurely, late breakfast in a chair out in the sunshine.
The morning is full of happy things, or "complacencies," like coffee, oranges, and the warm sun.
How do we know it’s a woman? Because she’s wearing the "peignoir" we described above.
But, what’s up with this "cockatoo," and why is it referred to as a "green freedom?" This is a poem where a lot of lines don’t make sense until you read past them, and the cockatoo line is a good example.
A cockatoo is an exotic pet bird, like a parrot. This one happens to be green. But, is it a real bird, or is it just a pattern woven "upon the rug?" We think it’s a real pet bird hopping around on the rug, but there’s no way to be sure.
In general, though, she feels a sense of "freedom" at being able to do whatever she wants this morning and not having to, say, go to church. It’s as if she’s saying to herself, "I don’t care what day it is – if I want to sit here and think about the cockatoo on my rug, I’m gonna do just that."
So, let’s put this all together. The woman is having a late breakfast and thinking about all the nice things around her. When all these things combine together, or "mingle," in her mind, they help weaken, or "dissipate," the sense of obligation she might otherwise feel.
What kind of obligation? "The holy hush of ancient sacrifice."
Hm. The title of the poem is "Sunday Morning," so what kind of "holy" sacrifice could she be thinking of? Ah, yes, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in Christianity.
If it weren’t for all the small pleasures around her, she might be weighed down by thoughts about Christianity. Everyone else is at church, and here she is, relaxing outside in the sun.
The word "sacrifice" hints that it might even be Easter morning, when people would be most likely to think about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s important to get a handle on how the poem begins, because these five lines are the key to understanding the 115 lines that follow. They include four of the key images that will occur over and over again in the poem – fruit, birds, the sun, and the death of Jesus Christ.
It also sets up a fundamental conflict between nature and religion.
Finally, although the entire poem takes place inside the woman’s head, in her thoughts, the first five lines are the closest we get to a vision of the "outside" world. From here, we’re about to move "inside" to her imagination.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark Encroachment of that old catastrophe, As a calm darkens among water-lights.
Well, it was nice there for about five seconds, but here things start to go a little wrong.
She starts to daydream. Bad move. Now that she’s no longer focused on the happy things around her, she feels the approach, or "encroachment," of oppressive thoughts about "that old catastrophe," the crucifixion of Christ.
Basically, the "calm" of her morning routine gives way to serious thoughts about religion, the way a peaceful sunset on the ocean gives way to darkness and the reflection of strange lights on the water ("water-lights").
Stevens was a big fan of Florida, so you might imagine that we’re someplace like Fort Lauderdale or Key West.
Water will turn out to be one of the most powerful and mysterious symbols in the poem. But, don’t pay too much attention to the business about water just yet.
Line 8 is extremely vague, and you can imagine it as a "fade out" in the movies, or a transition from one scene to another.
Focus on the beauty of the language, which is thick with description and has a slow, seductive rhythm, like a palm tree swaying in the breeze. Stevens is trying to lull us into a trance at the moment when the woman begins to enter a trance-like state. Enjoy the ride.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings Seem things in some procession of the dead, Winding across wide water, without sound.
We’re back to thinking about the oranges with their strong, "pungent" scent and the cockatoo with its "bright, green wings." But, they suddenly seem different.
They are more serious, and they strike the senses more intensely.
They "seem things in some procession of the dead." This "procession" could mean either a group of dead spirits walking, or a group of people walking to a funeral. It seems more like "dead spirits," because they are walking across a large, "wide" body of water.
It’s a serious occasion, and the spirits are walking silently, "without sound."
On the other hand, the procession must be bright and colorful, like a parade, because the woman seems to think that exotic fruit and birds would fit right in.
She’s had Christ on her mind in the lines above, so we can assume that the spirits are either being led by Christ or they are traveling toward him.
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.
She connects her dream back to the sunny day, which now also seems more serious.
She imagines herself as part of the procession of spirits.
She’s still dreaming, but, in her dream, she is "passing" silently "over the seas." So, "wide water" must refer to the ocean.
Stevens really wants you to get the impression that her thoughts have become serious, so he repeats the same phrase from line 11, "wide water, without sound." The repetition of these lines is like the repetitive motion of religious ritual. If you were suddenly transported inside the poem at this point, you would be afraid to cough: it’s as quiet as an empty church.
She’s taking a mental trip to Palestine, which is where Jesus was crucified. She’s in America now, so, to get there, she would have to cross the ocean.
Fortunately, the rough ocean is "stilled," or calmed, so she can pass over it. Isn’t that convenient?
When she arrives, she’ll be in the "dominion of the blood and sepulcher." Since her thoughts of Christ have pretty much taken over this part of the stanza, we’re talking about the "blood" Christ spilled when he died and the "sepulchre," or tomb, where he was buried.