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Comparison: “Sunday Morning” by W. Stevens and “To Elsie” by W. C. Williams Essay

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Updated: Mar 19th, 2020

Modernism manifested itself in the late 19th century and early 20th century when human nature underwent a fundamental change. The field of art was not an exception to this change. Artists around this time found themselves striving to depart from the ancient conventions of art. In poetry, this transition compelled poets to make brazen efforts in the quest to isolate their works from the conventional Victorian and Romantic approaches employed by their predecessors.

The transition allowed poets to transcend the rather restrictive conventions that prescribed how far they could delve in their literary endeavors. This essay compares the poetic styles employed by Wallace Stevens on Sunday Morning and William Carlos Williams in To Elsie with a focus on how each represents a different approach to modernist expression.

The literary style as employed in each poem shall be considered separately before conducting a comparison of the findings to give ample room to systematically handle each poem independently in depth and outline its approach to modernist expressions in a non-biased manner.

Williams is an acclaimed poet who produced numerous poems, which attracted both positive and negative criticisms. This aspect implies that he had both proponents as well as adversaries as far as his poetic life is concerned. In To Elsie, Williams addresses three matters of serious concern to him at the time, viz. “a despoiled America, the alienated and self-alienating human condition, and the ravished Eden of imagination” (Thompson 31).

Right from the introduction of the poem to the end, Williams cuts out an image of a reckless person moving dangerously in an undesired direction. People do not have time to take even a single moment of their life to reflect on the importance of their surroundings to find out just how much a change could come from the surroundings.

This description typically embodies the modernist poetry in the sense that it departs from an organized and luscious setting that would be appealing to the audience or forge an atmosphere of peace in the mind of a reader.

In To Elsie, the author successfully creates an air of futility concerning the pursuits of the folks described within it. The mere reason why people resort to these pursuits is in itself futile as evidenced in the statement, “Devil-may-care men who have taken to railroading out of sheer lust of adventure” (Williams 218).

A plethora of motives drive people to take up occupation of some sort. However, to posit that the anticipation of adventure causes one to seek employment somewhere is a demonstration of lack of focus in life, which amounts to futility. Additionally, Williams’ choice of language here is notable. He uses the word ‘lust’ instead of desire or some other palatable word to describe these people’s drive to indulge in an adventure to create an atmosphere of anarchy in the poem.

Besides the clear depiction of chaos and futility in the poem, there is also an indication of almost a total collapse of moral values in society. In the statement, “sheer-rags succumbing without emotion save numbed terror under some chokecherry or viburnum, which they cannot express” Williams (219), the poet gives an image of women who give in to sexual advances from men without having second thoughts about it, and they do so under some hedges or viburnum. This observation is a clear depiction of the moral decay in this society, which is a characteristic of modernist poetry.

The stylistic devices employed by Williams will thus be evaluated in the light of their being able to compound the chaotic and reckless atmosphere already developed in the poem. The diction in the poem is such that the intended effect is to some extent, vulgarities or simply dirty language.

The author’s use of “ribbed north end” is not exactly vulgar, but it causes the reader to visualize a naked or bare-chested human being whose health has deteriorated — the decision to use this choice of words to describe topography points to modern poetry. The use of the word “lust” to refer to love for adventure is to a given extent vulgar, but it gives the intended effect, thus showing the author’s freedom in modernist poetry.

The imagery used seems to be too sexually oriented. The phrase “voluptuous water” is used when describing Elsie, the only character named in the poem. It can easily be taken that even the “young slatterns” were also of this very description, which would mean that this choice of words is the author’s idea of women in the poem.

At the end of the poem, the author talks of a car without one to drive it, and it gives a picture of loss of direction, which is still linked to the chaotic scene that the United States has become to the poet. This effect seems to have been achieved when John Lowney notes, “The poem’s final stanza expresses the despair of modernity in the figure of a driverless car” (Thompson 32).

The poem Sunday Morning on its part employs several styles, which are typical of modernist poetry. Although the language is kind of nostalgic (Bates 42), this aspect does not mean that it fails to depart from the conventions of pre-modern poetry. The author, Wallace Stevens, employs numerous literary techniques to deliver this poem.

Notably, right from the first stanza of the poem, a picture of a woman who has refused to go to church on a Sunday morning is created. Her pursuits at that point are intended to achieve pleasure, which gives both an element of rebellion from the norms and a course of action whose results are likely to be futile.

The futility in the line of thought that the woman decides to pursue further stands out when the poet suggests that to invest the human with the divine would make the earth a paradise (Bates 49). Although the woman is not willing to buy the idea, the fact that she does not go to church still qualifies her as a member of this naturalist religion.

The poem moves further to picture heaven, which has been touted to be a desirable place where the ripe fruits never fall thus making it look boring, which is a departure from what Christianity and Islam teach about religion and is thus typical of modernist poetry.

Stevens’ poem, Sunday morning, is a scathing attack on the Christian faith and its promises. The woman is led to relinquish her Christian faith with the hope of better compensation than what Christianity would offer. The statement “Death is the mother of beauty” (Stevens 82), compounds this assertion, which tends to propagate the idea that every dead thing is beautiful. This notion implies that beauty begins at death such that the ‘littering leaves’ and ‘pungent oranges’ is a manifestation of beauty.

The two poems are typical examples of modernist poetry. Even though they address different issues in life, they are quite similar in their modernist expressions, which are deductible from the scrutiny of the two. The authors apply different techniques over different aspects of life, but in the end, they invoke the same feelings in the audience. A poet’s job is to look for words that give the intended meaning (Placard 39), and the two poets achieved this goal.

In To Elsie, Williams uses different techniques to create an atmosphere of anarchy. The existence of this state is what seems to allow people to pursue their futile desires without stopping to care about the consequences of such pursuits. The women in the poem, save for Elsie, are sluts embroiled in filth all week long under the bushes. The men are not any different as they lack a sense of focus on their lives.

They take up jobs on the railroad, for example, to satisfy their desire for adventure and not to organize their lives, as it should be the case. In Sunday Morning, the same state of anarchy is portrayed although slightly different. Once there is a departure from the control of God, that is, moving away from Christianity or other forms of religion, which direct people to one divine being, there is a shift in the natural order.

It is not possible to deny God and pretend to believe in the order that is brought about by his being. A departure from the belief in God sets about a state of affairs in which there is no measure of immorality or wrong and right. Although these elements do not stand out conspicuously in the two poems, the ideas propagated by the poems, if pursued exclusively, would lead to such a state of affairs.

Modernist poetry is also characterized by a state of confusion in which the pursuits of the society in the poem are always futile. However, the society in the description does not realize that its pursuits are futile. In To Elsie, this state of futility is embodied in people’s inability to focus on meaningful pursuits of life and resort to chasing sluts all over the place to the extent of sleeping with them under bushes.

This futility is compounded by the fact that these people claim to be adventure-driven, which only means that the ventures that drive them to take up occupations include women. Sunday Morning on its part does not feature people directly engaged in such acts as mentioned, but their pursuits to are futile.

The futility of their pursuits is substantiated in their deliberate departure from their very source of life, viz. God, and start believing all sorts of ideas such as believing that death could bring about anything meaningful. Such a belief would make one accept to die for the wrong cause by thinking that s/he is doing the right thing, which is futile.


The two poets, though varying in their approaches coupled with tackling different issues, depict the main aspects of modernism in full splendor. They also show that it is still possible to borrow slightly from ancient poetry, but maintaining one’s work within the prescriptions of modern poetry. Stevens and Williams, thus demonstrate how stylistic devices can make unrelated pieces of work appear very similar.

Works Cited

Bates, Milton. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self, California: University of California Press, 1985. Print.

Placard, William. The Poet’s Dictionary: A Handbook of Prosody and Poetic Devices, New York: Collins Reference Publisher, 1994. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. “Sunday Morning.” The New Poetry: An Anthology. Eds. Harriet Monroe and Hendersen. New York: Macmillan, 1917. 1860–1936. Print.

Thompson, Christian. “A Science of subjectivity.” American Poetry Review 38.6 (2009): 31-32. Print.

Williams, Carlos. “To Elsie.” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1: 1909-1939. Eds. Christopher MacGowan and Walton Liz. New York: New Directions, 1986. 217-220. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Comparison: “Sunday Morning” by W. Stevens and “To Elsie” by W. C. Williams." March 19, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/comparison-sunday-morning-by-w-stevens-and-to-elsie-by-w-c-williams/.


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