Waking, Sunday morning

Dante_Inferno_XV

(Gustav Doré, illustration for Dante, Inferno, Canto XV)

Waking on Sunday morning, I listen to the headlines, just to be sure that the 45th President of the United States has not brought about the incineration of a large part of the world because someone called him names in the playground. Then downstairs, to resume my book over coffee, hoping that there’s no significance in the title of the long story I’m finishing: ‘The Nemesis of Fire’.[1]

Sunday seems to preoccupy poets, with its unsettling conjunction of religion and war, of prophecy and delusion.

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.

An attractive setting in which to consider questions of religious belief, the possibility of paradise on earth and the acceptance of inevitable endings. There are unsettling moments, to be sure:

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.[2]

More direct, perhaps, is Robert Lowell in ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, the poem which opens Near the Ocean. Politics and religion in the era of the Vietnam War and, of course, the Six-Day War,[3] bled profusely into one another:

O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shovelled out foursquare—
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.

Lowell

(Via The Poetry Foundation: www.poetryfoundation.org/)

The last three stanzas move from an imagined glimpse of the President (Lyndon B. Johnson on his Sunday morning) to end thus:

No weekends for the gods now. Wars
flicker, earth licks its open sores,
fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance
assassinations, no advance.
only man thinning out his kind
sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind
swipe of the pruner and his knife
busy about the tree of life . . .

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.[4]

On a Sunday in September 1819, John Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’. The Odes, of which this is one of the most famous, were written, Robert Gittings notes, ‘in what Keats had now come to regard as a fever, a beating at the bars of life.’ Less than five months later, on the night of Thursday 3 February 1820, came the first showing of arterial blood, followed by a second, massive haemorrhage.[5]

Gittings_Keats

There are less portentous Sundays, some offering simple (or complex) pleasure. ‘This is the day that Robert Burns delighted in,’ the Reverend Francis Kilvert remarked in his diary, ‘the first fine Sunday in May.’[6] Fifty years later, D. H. Lawrence was in receptive mood: ‘This Sunday morning, seeing the frost among the tangled, still savage bushes of Sardinia, my soul thrilled again. This was not all known. This was not all worked out. Life was not only a process of rediscovering backwards. It is that, also: and it is that intensely. Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal.’[7]

There was a time, not that long ago, when Sunday in this country was either a huge relief, peaceful and relaxing; or stupendously boring, enough to drive you up the wall, depending on your age, character and predilections. Norman Lewis remembered that ‘England, this April [1946], was an everlasting Sunday morning, lying under a spell of emptiness and silence.’[8]

And in the United States? Charles Reznikoff remembered ‘Sunday Walks in the Suburbs’, hardly an Edenic setting:

On stones mossed with hot dust, no shade but the thin, useless shadows of roadside grasses;
into the wood’s gloom, staring back at the blue flowers on stalks thin as threads.

He details rubbish, rats, scared dogs, old women, old men and remarks that:

This is where I walked night after night;
this is where I walked away many years.[9]

Henry Thoreau, though, sought to reach back to something precisely Edenic, before the religious disagreements that complicated the life of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘It was a quiet Sunday morning, with more of the auroral rosy and white than of the yellow in it, as if it dated from earlier than the fall of man, and still preserved a heathenish integrity’.[10]

SundayBloodySunday

We could certainly do with a large infusion of integrity in public life. But heathenish? No, probably not. Always these complications. Sunday bloody Sunday, as they say. (U2, yes, but John Schlesinger first.)

 

References

[1] ‘Nemesis of Fire’, in The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), 440-513. The story is about a ‘fire-elemental’, enraged by the desecration of a tomb and the theft of a ‘scarabaeus’, a gem in the form of the dung-beetle, sacred to the ancient Egyptians.

[2] Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 66-67, 69.

[3] See Lowell’s comments on the poem in The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 485-486, 487.

[4] Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 384, 385-386. See 933-936 for the magazine version of the poem, which included two more stanzas between the last two quoted here.

[5] Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 507, 508.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 329: entry for Sunday 7 May 1871.

[7] Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia (1921), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 123.

[8] Lewis, The World, the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), 18.

[9] Charles Reznikoff, Poems 1918-1936: Volume I of The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney, two volumes (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978), 41.

[10] A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: Library of America, 1985), 36.

 

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