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The Negative Other: A Third Presence in “Sunday Morning”

by James Ward 

Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” is structured, ostensibly, around an interaction between a woman and a poet, with the woman serving as a poetic object in the classic role of a muse. However, a closer reading reveals a far more complex dynamic within “Sunday Morning” with the existence of another presence, mostly unheard but strongly implied. While the poetic voice presents itself as a source of wisdom and instruction for the woman, Stevens laces it with tones of doubt and protestation, suggesting that the voice’s true object of address is not the woman at all. Furthermore, the relationship of woman and poet is at times supplanted by a collective “we,” which itself addresses something unique and distinct. This “something” constitutes a third presence which defines “Sunday Morning,” changing the poem’s central dialectic from the woman and the poet to those two combined alongside an implacable, negative Other. With subtleties of emotional tone and an ambiguous, shifting perspective, Stevens implies the existence of this Other, which stands for his essential preoccupation with the empty existential space which was once filled by religious faith. It is this threatening presence that moves “Sunday Morning” beyond a treatise of poetic wisdom to a narrative of existential defiance and beautiful, elegiac defeat.

A typical reading of “Sunday Morning” focuses on the dialectic of woman and poetic voice, in which the poet attempts to affirm, reassure and instruct the woman, thereby answering the existential questions she faces on this godless Sunday. The poet’s forces are introduced early: “…the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, / And the green freedom of a cockatoo” (Harmonium 80-84, i. 1-3). As of yet, these are “complacencies” and are inadequate to prevent “…the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe” (i. 8). The poet’s presumed intent is to build from these elements — the freedom of birds, the sun, the sensual pleasure of fruits — something capable of replacing the religious divine and thereby informing a meaningful existence in Stevens’ Nietzschean world. While the woman and the poetic voice are grammatically distinct, set off from each other by quotation marks and the indicator “she says,” they are close enough in tone that some critics have been able to read the poetic voice as the woman’s internal monologue (Rehder 28-9). I prefer Harold Bloom’s understanding of their relationship, in which he analyzes the woman and the poetic voice as two elements of Stevens’ internal psyche, and the poem therefore as a depiction of Stevens’ internal debate. Regardless, while the woman and the poetic voice are distinct, they are not isolated from each other. As Bloom argues, their relationship is deeply reciprocal, with the woman acting as an internal muse whose questions and doubts provoke the poetic voice to greater reflection and understanding, even as that voice assumes to instruct the woman (Bloom 28-9).

I diverge from Bloom in my detection of another presence in the poem, which I consider to be the true object of Stevens’ various speakers. This presence is first implied in the second stanza, wherein the poet states their thesis:

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

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? (ii)

To whom is this voice speaking? It is not apostrophizing the woman; she is referred to in the third person. It may be fully rhetorical, intended only for the reader, but there is a sense of the continuation of a prior argument, in which concepts of “bounty” and “heaven” have been previously defined. The poetic voice mobilizes the figure of the woman — with her oranges and cockatoo — as rhetoric in its debate with this unknown figure, but it does not seem very comfortable with its own argument. The tone here, heard in the short, sharp “Why” question in the first line, is one of indignant protestation against an opponent who has the upper hand. This tone continues with the desperate listing of sensual pleasures and the rather hollow claim, again phrased hesitantly as a question, that these pleasures may “be cherished like the thought of heaven?” (ii. 1,7). This is not the voice of poetic wisdom, but rather that of one faced with something greater and wiser than themselves, against whom they are desperately trying to hold ground.

I do not mean to suggest that “Sunday Morning” is an expression of existential despair. In fact, the poet recovers in the later part of the second stanza, where there is a powerful affirmation of the Sublime in nature and in human life. The “passions of rain, or moods in falling snow,” and the “unsubdued / Elations when the forest blooms; gusty / Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights” (ii. 9) are first-class expressions of poetic emotion, and their claim to divinity is far more convincing than the woman’s oranges and cockatoo. Yet there is a tone of resignation even here. To quote Helen Vendler, “The apparently non-elegiac phrases of the poem are inevitably embedded in an autumnal text, as the bough of summer is reduced to the winter branch, and as elations are surrounded by sadder motions of the soul” (56). While Stevens may summon the poetic Sublime, it is not enough to fill the void opened by the loss of religious faith. That loss, the nothing where something was, is the presence implicitly addressed throughout the poem: the negative Other. While the woman and the poet ultimately synthesize to form a greater self, this Other is external and cannot be assimilated into their understanding. It remains external, presenting an implacable existential threat.

If one accepts this third presence within the poem, a structure then emerges with which to view stanzas three through seven. The fourth and fifth stanza follow the dialectical structure of muse and poet. The woman expresses a doubt about her ability to find meaning and contentment within a Nietzschean reality, and the poetic voice reassures her from a position of confidence and superiority by asserting the beauty inherent in a changing, mortal world. However, in the third, sixth and seventh stanzas, that dialectic collapses. The woman and poet merge into a single voice, with “she” and “her” replaced by “we” and “our,” and if we extend Bloom’s analysis, this new “we” is the voice of the full, synthetic self. This Self, containing both the poet and the woman, then addresses the Other from a far weaker position than that of the poet addressing the woman.  

In the third and sixth stanzas, the dynamic of Self and Other is evident in the defiant questions with which the Self defends its position. As in the second stanza, Stevens uses these rhetorical questions to suggest the defensiveness of the Self as it searches for divinity in a godless world. The opening question of the sixth stanza — which is also its premise — asks: “Is there no change of death in paradise?” (vi. 1), indicating the futility of this endeavor. With this question, the Self-voice attacks Christian and pre-Christian paradise for lacking death, change, and therefore beauty. This rhetoric may seem convincing, but it is only a negation of the past, not an affirmation of the present. In Stevens’ poetics, God is already dead, while the threatening Other is his empty silhouette.

The most confident, least elegiac part of “Sunday Morning” is the seventh stanza, in which Stevens abandons his various dialectics to present a scene of the Bacchanalian Sublime. The ring of men is “supple and turbulent,” indicating a powerful capacity for change, and their “chant in orgy” (vii. 1-2) suggests fulfillment of the repressed, abstracted eroticism expressed previously in the “desire for June and evening, tipped / by the consummation of the swallow’s wings” (iv. 14). The sun is “as a god might be,” (vii. 4) which, considering Stevens’ greater poetics and his call to “let be be finale of seem” in “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (Harmonium 75), is almost tantamount to the explicit affirmation of a god. Yet the scene is suspect. Vendler goes so far as to call it “delusory” (Vendler 55).  This is a ring of men, yet the Whitmanian self that Stevens constructs explicitly includes the feminine figure. Stevens, later careful to distinguish between the “men of the time” and the “women of the time” in “Of Modern Poetry,” (CPP 218, 8-9) would not have used “men” as a generalization, and the omission suggests an inability to fulfill the feminine erotic. Moreover, the primitivism here stands in contrast to the bourgeois modernity of the “peignoir, and late / coffee” in which the poem is located from those first lines. This dream is of an imagined past, not an answer to the question posed by that insistent presence: “How can you exist now?” As if in response to this ultimately shallow dream, that presence exerts itself in its most defined form directly after, in the beginning of the eighth and final stanza.

The voices of “She” and “We” are contained together for the first time in the eighth stanza, and Stevens finally vocalizes his Other as well. Stevens positions that voice in the place of God, speaking to the woman in Palestine who walks “upon that water without sound” (viii. 1). Yet this is the voice of the negative God, the nothing that proclaims it is nothing. In its words, “The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay” (viii. 2-4), it delivers a message of God’s death. As Robert Rehder points out, this is Jesus the man, not Jesus Christ (Rehder, 30) — and the Holy Spirit (or pagan spirits) have departed.  Confronted with the voice of the Other, the woman and poet again collapse into “We” for the poem’s final lines, which acknowledge the impossibility of finding a true replacement for the religious divine, as in “We live in an old chaos of the sun,” (viii. 5), rather than under a sun “as a god might be.” In Vendler’s words, “The poet decides to prolong his posthumous life, to bide his time in the twilight of the gods” (Vendler 57). Those last gorgeous lines are lines of elegiac defeat; the flocks of pigeons are “casual,” meaning unordered and meaningless, and the reader is left to drift with their “ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings” (viii. 14-15). Neither the poet nor the woman — nor even their synthesis — manages to assert true divinity against the negative Other. They are thus left with beauty amongst ambiguity, which may sustain for a time but will not stop the descent.

The Other that forces “Sunday Morning” to its ambiguous conclusion can be found elsewhere in Harmonium. It is that which is beheld in “The Snow Man,” the “nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is” (Harmonium 11). “The Snow Man” concludes in a similar way to “Sunday Morning,” with the reader forced to face the presence of nothing. While that nothing will not bring a divine Spring, if one has a “mind of winter,” they may look upon it without misery. This Other is also, perhaps, the speaker in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” The voice of that poem addresses its audience from a similar position of superiority, asserting itself early by sending a person of social prominence, the “roller of big cigars, / The muscular one,” off on the absurd and slightly dirty-sounding task of whipping “in kitchen cups concupiscent curds” (Harmonium 75, 1-3). The men and women are addressed as “boys” and “wenches” respectively, and the tone in general seems intended to denigrate (4-5). The carnivalesque quality of the poem is unsettling, as is the repeated conclusion that “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The reader is placed in a situation similar to the protesting poetic voice of “Sunday Morning”: facing an uncomfortable and superior Other, which forces a realization (“Let the lamp affix its beam”) that they may be reluctant to accept (15-16).

This paper has gone beyond the discussion of literary mechanism and wandered deep into Stevens’ poetic metaphysics. This deviation might be inappropriate for the work of a different poet, but the abstract complexity of Stevens’ work encourages this sort of investigation and rewards it. Furthermore, as I have shown, the poetics of Stevens’ work are not isolated from their philosophical structure; rather, each informs the other. The threatening presence of the negative Other infuses the affirmations of life and beauty throughout “Sunday Morning” with a defiant energy, as they mount a defense against the “encroachment of that old catastrophe” (i. 7). This Other also gives the poem its elegiac beauty, as we watch that defense ultimately fail. Stevens does not leave the Self and the reader in total defeat, as the negative Other does not bring annihilation, only realization, as it does elsewhere in Stevens’ work. In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens’ project is not to provide a replacement for the divine faith that has gone for good. It is to demonstrate the futility of that endeavor, while also showing that even in that futility, enough beauty may be found to sustain us in the “island solitude, unsponsored, free, / of that wide water, inescapable” (viii. 7-8).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Cornell University Press, 1976.

Rehder, Robert. “Stevens and Harmonium” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio. Cambridge University Press, 2007. pp. 23-36.

Stevens, Wallace. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” in Harmonium, 1923. Faber and Faber, 2001. pp. 75.

—. “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” 1947, in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. Library of America, 1997. pp. 329-352.

—. “Of Modern Poetry,” 1942, in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. Library of America, 1997. pp 218-219.

—. “The Snow Man” in Harmonium, 1923. Faber and Faber, 2001. pp. 11.

—. “Sunday Morning” in Harmonium, 1923. Faber and Faber, 2001. pp. 80-84.

Vendler, Helen. On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems. Harvard University Press, 1969.

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