Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
- We might summarize the woman’s response to the poet in these lines as follows: "Okay, I admit that there will always be a lot of amazing things in nature to give me comfort and make me happy, but is that really enough? I don’t just want to be happy; I want to be ‘blissful’ – and I want to feel that way all the time. To maintain that feeling, wouldn’t I need to believe in a place where things don’t change or end?"
- She gives a reason why it might make sense to believe in the Christian heaven – because it’s eternal.
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires.
- The poet’s response could be summarized: "But, how could have you have beauty if things didn’t die or change?" Thus, we get the famous statement: "Death is the mother of beauty."
- It’s a pretty strange thing to say, as it compares death, the ultimate force of destruction, to a life-giving mother who creates and nurtures things.
- He’s trying to argue that death makes way for new things, and, also, maybe, that we wouldn’t think things are beautiful unless we are afraid of losing them. So, really, we should be thanking death.
- Thanks, death!
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,
- The poet admits that, yes, death does cause things to end.
- The "leaves of sure obliteration" are a symbol of loss. When leaves get strewn over a path, you can’t see it or follow it anymore, even if you want to. It’s gone, finito, caput. You have to find a new one.
- Death covers up the paths that lead to all of our most intense experiences, especially "sorrow," "triumph," and "love." Death makes these experiences temporary.
- By the way, it’s interesting that death is portrayed as a woman – a "mother," in fact.
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.
- The preceding lines essentially say, "Although death causes us to experience loss . . ." and, now, these lines say, " . . . it also causes us to experience beauty!"
- Out with the old, in with the new: that’s the message here.
- Although the maidens like ("were wont") to sit and look at the fresh, green grass, the grass can’t grow in the wintertime, so they lose this experience. But, death gives them a consolation prize: the beauty of a willow tree "shivering" in the sun in the wintertime, without its leaves.
- The "disregarded plate" is another example of loss. This is a tricky image, and even the editor of Poetry magazine needed to have it explained to her by Stevens (source)!
- Stevens says that the plate is a family heirloom that has been "disregarded," or forgotten about.
- Fortunately, the cycle of death brings something new to take its place: boys can use the plate to pile up fresh fruit for beautiful maidens to eat.
- Finally, can we just say that the following sentence is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever heard: "The maidens taste and stray impassioned in the littering leaves." It’s like the fruit is so good that it makes them forget about all the paths that the leaves cover up, and, so, they just wander around, enjoying the moment.