In Wallace Steven’s poem, “Sunday Morning” the idea of religion as it relates to reality is explored through the mind of the older lady. It is not through the older lady’s religious voice, but the voice of Atheism, in her mind, that the poem is narrated. The poem is a discussion, a debate within her head, between the older lady’s atheist voice and her religious voice on the perception of divinity. Her atheist voice questions religion, in which a problem of faith in the world is shown. It is shown through the older lady’s atheist thoughts that those who believe in creeds that are not from an immediate perception of the visible world are living in illusion, and this illusion can make them unhappy. Through this atheistic ideal, religion is a form of illusion based on what is not visible and real. Death is shown as an absolute of human existence, and that the knowledge that death ends all finally, stimulating the awareness of beauty. Shown through the older lady’s atheist thoughts, the answer to this question is shown. In her meditation, it is shown that human’s should accept this condition and shed the illusion of religion and in this acceptance man will free them to love the world around them, and find paradise her on earth.
By giving the atheist voice the duty narration and the religious voice a duty of question tradition roles are switched. Formally, it is the religious voice, as like the bible, of which the atheist questions. Stevens uses this traditional switch as to show the atheist doctrine as superior, of which man should follow instead of religion. This conversation, the mediation within the old lady’s head, is where atheism is shown as having concrete merit and worthy of praise.
Through the older lady’s atheist voice, the poem shows the older lady, who is well off, almost pampered, with a sensuous streak, young but not past her prime, “she feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe” (Stevens, 5) It is the advancing of her age that motivates her thoughts about death and motivates her thoughts of divinity. Her absence from Sunday’s religious activities suggests that she has drifted away from the religious traditions in which she was born. The older lady has not, however, shaken the hold of those religious doctrines in which she is familiar with.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulcher
The image of the older lady becomes transposed with the image of Christ walking on the water as passes through her thoughts onto the subjects of religion. Through her atheist voice, the older lady examines her relation to religion and uses it as an example for those who live by such religious doctrines. Through this dreamlike journey to Palestine, the examination of her relationship to religion will serves as a lesson.
In the beginning of the poem, it is Sunday morning and the older lady, through whose awareness the question of religious faith is to be examined, is not at church. Instead she is sitting in her dressing room, dressed in a negligee, with oranges and coffee on the table. The weather is sunny and her pet cockatoo is out of its cage and flying about the room. All this helps to put aside the religious significance of the day. This helps to put aside the duty she feels under the Christian doctrine to go to church and celebrate the Christ’s death and man’s salvation. Symbolically, her dreams of the “old catastrophe” represent Christ’s death, and the thoughts of her own death motivate her to think about her religious beliefs. In her imagination she crosses the seas to Palestine, the location of Christ’s life, to symbolically show the journey of her mind to explore religious doctrine.
Within the atheist voice’s language, the question of allegiance towards a dead man is posed. While trying to make sense of an allegiance with a dead icon, this atheist voice questions why can’t she find salvation in the world itself.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun
Through the descriptions of divinity as “Silent shadows and dreams,” they are shown as insubstantial and unable to convey any sense of relief from death’s approach. As shown through the fruit on the table, the atheist voice shows an example of relief through representation of beauty in nature, objects of delight and comfort as good as the doctrine offered by Christ. In the atheist voice, she furthers this line of thought by questioning why divinity cannot be represented in an earthly form, why one’s existence can’t be found in one’s physicality, earthly bonds.
The atheist voice pursues this thought through an example of the ancients. They had Jove, whom they imagined, and who filled their lives with meaning, “Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth” (Stevens, 6). Then, the sky was an embodiment of heaven and which give it meaning. Through the atheist voice, the question is posed as to wither or not the old lady lacks of imagination sufficient to fill the sky with heaven, “And shall the earth / Seem all the paradise that we shall know” (Stevens, 6). The atheist voice ask, is earth to be the only “paradise” we know. The sky and hence the world, as shown explained through this atheist doctrine is much “friendlier then than now.” Through this representation of the embodiment of Jove into the sky, the sky is shown as involved in man’s life with a consideration of both sorrow and joy, and now it is only “indifferent.”
In the religious voice, a questioned is posed towards the atheist doctrine.
‘I am conent when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questiongs;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields,
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’
There are moments, the religious voice questions, as when in early morning the birds sing in their flight over misty fields that she feels content with earthly atheism. The religious voice cannot believe in this joy because it is momentary, symbolically shown through their migration. The atheist responds through an example of the religious doctrines, beginning to take an active voice within its narration. The atheist voice says there is nothing that the products of the classic imagination, “haunt of prophecy, / chimera if the grave,” can offer that is concrete. The adjectives used, “haunt” and “chimera” show the classic ideas as unreal and only a figment of reality and cannot compare to the atheist’s offering which is a concrete example of the incredibly beautiful offerings of the earth itself.
The religious voice questions the atheist doctrine again, “But in contentment I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss” (Steven’s 6). Through this question, the fault of religious doctrine is shown. In this “imperishable bliss”, the religious voice denies death, which is what creates beauty within human’s view of the world. The atheist voice answers that the religious view of imperishability within a beautiful paradise it is not to be.
“Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths
The atheist voice persist, that it is in our transitory nature of existence, the imminence of death, which thrills us with the beauty of existence. Without the knowledge that all things are to be obliterated, man would not see the beauty of life. In the very fact that all things are mortality, life is shown as wonderful, but this in itself denies “imperishable bliss.”
In the religious doctrine, paradise is used to lore its followers into following, but in paradise “Does fruit never fall?” The atheist voice questions the very nature of a paradise as an after life. In Paradise, everything is like earth, but static, and unchanging. There can be no beauty, shown through the atheist voice, in paradise because death is the precondition for the knowledge of beauty.
The atheist voice offers a romantic vision, a picture of how the rite of the religion of the earth could on earth.
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a good, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source
Men dance and hymn the existence of themselves under and in unison with the sun, the source of life, but without defying the sun, nor expecting a life for themselves beyond this one. Part of the earth, they accept joyfully the fact of their life as well as the fact of their death.
The atheist voice, after telling of an atheist version of worship, explains through a mysterious voice, that “The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay” (Stevens, 8). Using Christ salvation as an entrance into heaven is explained as false, as it is plainly told that the only thing offer through his death is a tomb, “where he lay.” Then the atheist voice summed up his thoughts. Humans live on earth and are of the earth; about us earth offers its majesty and beauty and power. It is pigeons, in the evening, that slide from the sky, not angels or gods, and day ends as life ends, in darkness.
Through the discussion in the mind of an old lady, the two voices within her debated on the merits of religion and atheism. It was through a romantic ideal of atheism that death is shown as the mother of beauty and that beauty and bliss can only be represented on earth because of our human condition of death. Through the narrative form, this debate between the two sides of the older lady’s mind shows the cerebral merits of atheism. This poem serves as an example of the romantic atheist doctrine being questioned through a traditional religious debate. In this debate the atheist ideals are questioned, switching the traditional roles, and is shown through the symbolic expression of atheist ideals of heaven on earth.