Friday, November 20, 2009

Sunday Morning

This past Sunday, convalescing after the flu, I sat in a patch of weak November sunlight coming in through the picture window that has a spot of blood and feathers on it and reread one of my favorite poems, Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning.

It's a long poem, but if you pick out a few lines to admire, it has lovely images. I'm going to comment on how I interpret the lines (at least how I interpret them this week) as I go along.

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.

--Someone is not going to church, but enjoying the sensual pleasures of sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast.

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.

--The sensual pleasures of reality dim in the light of her thoughts about the crucifixion. I think it must be spring, almost Easter.

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.

--There's a gap between how she feels and how she thinks she should feel on this fine morning.

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

--Why should she have gotten up early, crammed herself into her good clothes, and gone off to a hard pew in a cold church lit mostly by the dimness of the early spring sunlight as it makes its feeble way through the thickness of stained glass? Why should she believe in anything except what she can feel?

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?

--Can't ordinary things lift her up the way she's been taught that faith in a mythical Heaven can?

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 measures destined for her soul.

--She resolves to value what she can experience with her senses, rather than try to cultivate faith in anything she can't experience.

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,

--Jove (or Zeus) had intercourse with humans.

Until our blood, commmingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.

--The desire for intercourse with God results in the Virgin birth and the Nativity story of Jesus.

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?

--Is any part of us more than mortal?

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

--We'll understand more if we become more than mortal.

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;

--I like to hear birdsong in the morning

But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"

--Is there anything more in life than transitory, sensual pleasure?

There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden undergrounds, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured

--These stories don't have the same power for me as anything sensual and real.

As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.

--This is what moves me, these are the things that make me feel that life has meaning. (Especially at this time of year, the "desire for June and evening" seems a thought of something impossibly lovely.)

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."

--I still feel the need to believe that something of me will live on once I'm gone from the earth.

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

--Only in death can we know if anything survives death

Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
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. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

--The fact that life ends gives urgency and meaning to the everyday events of our lives.

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,

--Could we love the sensual pleasures of the earth as much if they were always available?

With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?

--It's the ephemeral qualities of life that keep us going, looking for more.

Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!

--What use would these pleasures be if they were eternal and unchanging? How can a song be beautiful without any conflict?

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

--It's the possibility of loss that makes our mortal mothers want to cherish every minute with their children, even the painful (burning) ones.

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.

--Rituals are what we use to try to understand that which is beyond our understanding.

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
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.

--Rituals are also how we try to make the ephemeral pleasures of the earth immortal--through making music, for example, music that will outlast its makers.

They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.

--They consciously experience ephemeral pleasure so they can express the full glory of its potential.

And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

--Perhaps the footsteps they leave on our memory will be as transient as morning dew, and as briefly beautiful.

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."

--She is brought back from her daydreaming by a recollection of what she's been taught in church.

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.

--Her daydreams are more satisfying to her longing for something beyond transitory sensual pleasure, even though she can't get past the barrier of imagining what could be beyond this world.

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.

--the beauty of the world must be enough to take her out of herself. It is now evening, and she doesn't know any more than when she started. She can't read anything into the pattern the pigeons are making. She is left with beauty and uncertainty, and with the abundant consolation that ephemeral beauty offers to the alert observer.

After Sunday, we go into the week with purpose, trying to avoid the deer (and around here, the quail) on the highways, washing and eating the berries that are ripe, and flying down to the eventual darkness of the winter solstice on the extended wings of our busy schedules. It happens so fast that sometimes it is good to stop what you're doing, sit in a sunny chair, and daydream. Do you ever have time for that?


FreshHell said...

I do, actually, just not as often as I'd like. The nice thing about this area is that we often get a few warm days around about now and if it's not raining, I like to sit on the deck with a book (that often sits unread) and take in the seasonal changes - the naked trees, the birds busy with their winter plans, the clouds moving overhead. If I'm not innundated with the sound of guns going off (hunting season has begun) and the baying of ignorant hounds, I can listen to a lot of nothingness.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that!

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I like to listen to a lot of nothingness, too.

Readersguide, glad you liked it. I thought it would be something different, for such a long poem.