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.
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 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.
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?
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.
there are the measures destined for her soul.
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,
until our blood, commingling, virginal,
with heaven, brought such requital to desire
the very hinds discerned it, in a star.
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?
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.
she says, 'i am content when wakened birds,
before they fly, test the reality
of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
but when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
return no more, where, then, is paradise?'
there is not any haunt of prophesy,
nor any old chimera of the grave,
neither the golden underground, nor isle
melodious, where spirits gat them home,
nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
remote on heaven's hill, that endured
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.
she says, 'but in contentment i still feel
the need of some imperishable bliss.'
death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
and our desires. 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.
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,
with rivers like our own that seek for seas
they never find, the same receding shores
that never touch with inarticulate pang?
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!
death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
within whose burning bosom we devise
our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
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.
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.
they shall know well the heavenly fellowship
of men that perish and of summer morn.
and whence they came and whither they shall go
the dew upon their feet shall manifest.
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.'
we live in an old chaos of the sun,
or old despondency of day and night,
or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
of that wide water, inescapable.
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.
(from, Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose, pp.53-56)
* * * * *
This is a beautiful poem, with many small gems: 'pungent oranges and bright, green wings,' 'we live in an old chaos of the sun,' 'large-mannered motions to his mythy mind,' and more.
He paints the picture of the beauty and emotion of earth, and how, even in our story of heaven, the earth will still be there, as per the christian doctrine of the 'new heaven and the new earth,' and he asks the question that was often asked: won't it be rather a static condition? Is that really our idea of 'paradise?' Stevens seems to suggest that 'death' is necessary to beauty and to pleasure. He isn't the first or only person to suggest this. 'Death' is a part of nature. I just read a children's book that made this point: 'Tuck Everlasting.' And there are religious systems that seem able to reconcile nature/death with eternal life, eg those that believe in reincarnation for example.
The kind of christianity that is culturally popular right now, or that gets the most media-coverage anyway does not remind me much at all of the christianity of tradition. The old christianity - not 'ol'-time religion' but really old-time, like centuries old - was a religion of death. I mean, the focus was on death: the death of jesus, the death of the martyrs. the most important moment of life for a christian was the moment of death, because at that moment one's whole future was decided, once and for all. Hence, the preponderance of funerary symbolism in many churches, urns, wreaths, etc. 'Winding across wide water, without sound' suggests the winding-sheet of the shroud, 'silent palestine, / dominion of the blood and sepulchre.' This kind of christian religion seems to be all but forgotten today. Yet it has a very long history, all the way back at least to the fourth century.
I believe this is what stevens was rejecting of the religion, and he was, at the same time, trying in his own way to salvage the religion. In a very different way, so many christian denominations today are trying to salvage the religion by focusing on its significance for our current lives, not just what it means for the after-life. In Stevens case, and given the intellectual climate of his time, he was appreciating nature, but perhaps never felt entirely comfortable with the 'godless' story of science's nature. "At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / ambiguous undulations as they sink, / downward to darkness, on extended wings.'
One of my goals in researching stevens is to find out just how he resolved his need or desire or 'wanting' of something like 'God' with the scientific-predominant worldview he lived with, and the various evolutions of religious thought that were contemporaneous with his life, and that continue to develop now. How did he settle this 'ambiguity'? Or did he?