ch At Night And Stevens’ Sunday MorningThe search for immortality is not an uncommon one in literature. Many authors and poets find contentment within the ideals of faith and divinity; others, such as Whitman and Stevens, achieve satisfaction with the concept of the immortality of mortality. This understanding of the cycle of death and rebirth dominates both Walt Whitman’s “On the Beach at Night” and Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” and demonstrates the poets’ philosophies of worldly immortality.
Both poets present readers with characters questioning the apparent transience of nature. Whitman’s young girl weeps to see the black “burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,” (line 12) just as Stevens’ young woman is saddened “when the birds are gone, and their warm fields/Return no more” (lines 49-50). These characters, unable to grasp the entirely of the cycle of mortality, are dismayed by earthly loss they continually observe.
Whitman and Stevens similarly structured “On the Beach at Night” and “Sunday Morning,” in that their narrators answer to their characters’ concerns by explaining, or at least hinting at, the beauty of the perpetual cycle of mortality. “Something there is more immortal even than the stars,/(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)” (lines 28-29) whispers Whitman’s narrator. “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,/Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams/And our desires,” (lines 63-65) echoes Stevens. Through their suggestions of this death-rebirth cycle, Whitman’s and Stevens’ narrators assuage their characters misgivings. Further, both poets utilize Jove/Jupiter as a metaphor for seeming immortality, and perhaps more familiar to the characters than the cycle of death and rebirth. While Whitman depends upon the planet named after the god to serve as the foundation for his analogy, Stevens utilizes Jove’s incarnation myth. Similar to the story of Christ’s birth, Jove’s tale of birth, death and return to the heavens mirrors, in more familiar terms, the natural cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The poems’ similarities end, however, at the narrators’ confidence in the immortality of the cycle. While Stevens’ narrator confidently explicates the bounty of this repetition, Whitman only allows his narrator to subtly suggest its potential. He refers to the cycle only as “something”: “Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter” (emphasis added; line 30). The narrator further whispers this intimation, as though its implications are too damning to be stated aloud. Yet, the reader is able to discern the subtext of these statements. As the narrator describes the passing of the days and nights, the certainty that the moon will shine again, the reader understands his celebration of the cyclical nature of time, of death and rebirth. Thus, the hope the narrator attempts to convey resonates within the reader’s ken.
Where Whitman is hesitant, Stevens is bold. Stevens’ narrator does not hint, hedge or whisper; he proclaims. The narrator states unequivocally that “Death is the mother of beauty” (line 63), and expands the assertion by describing the many ways in which people have come to unknowingly depend upon the rebirth cycle, such as the ripening of fruit. Moreover, Stevens employs his discussion of the cycle as a direct refutation of traditional religious practices. He eschews his characters concerns about missing a Sunday morning church service with his dismissal of a religion based upon things that no longer exist:
Whey should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams? (lines 16-18)
Stevens prefers the worship of nature and its eternal rotation of life and death to the worship of man. He is bold in this choice, whereas Whitman makes no reference to religion, and thus absolves himself of the controversy which Stevens addresses head on.
Whitman does allude to a divinity, however, which Stevens discounts. Whitman’s narrator, in his discussion of things immortal, alights upon Jupiter as a lord figure. Jupiter, the narrator assures the young weeping girl, will return once the clouds disperse. Yet, even Whitman takes note of the cycle of loss and gain as perhaps more immortal than Jupiter: “Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter” (line 30). As such, Whitman tackles a point which Stevens avoids: Whitman’s narrator sees even the divine as subject to the cycle of immortality, while Stevens does not make such a connection. Stevens, instead, focuses on the human aspects of theist religion, specifically Christianity. In doing so, he eludes a theological argument by focusing instead on the sociological issue of religion.
The resulting poems, “On the Beach at Night” and “Sunday Morning,” express similar beliefs about the cyclical nature of life. Their similar structures, of a doubting character and persuasively responding narrator, allow the poets to profess their beliefs about the character of mortal life. And although Stevens focuses on refuting his contemporary religious practices and Whitman centers on acknowledging his personal theology, the poems equally address the search for immortality in the human world.