Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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."
- The poem returns to the woman’s perspective, sitting in her chair and thinking of a beautiful Sunday morning. She imagines that the day is actually speaking to her.
- The "water without sound" refers back to line 11 from stanza I: "The day is like wide water, without sound."
- In stanza I, she imagines that she will cross the ocean to join the spirits at the tomb of Christ. But, now, she hears a voice that says, essentially: there are no spirits. Christ’s tomb in Palestine is not some supernatural place; it’s just a grave where a dead person named Jesus was put to rest.
- It’s important to note that the poem is not trying to make fun of Jesus. Instead, the woman tries to think about what the tomb of Jesus represents at the present moment, without reference to heaven or the afterlife.
- This is her "Eureka!" moment. She realizes that a tomb is just a place of burial – and nothing more.
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
- For the rest of the poem, the poet speaks to us and tells us what amounts to the moral of the story. He’s going to sum things up.
- First, from the perspective of paganism or a religion of nature, the world is just a really old and chaotic place that depends on the sun as the source of all life.
- Nature is chaotic because it doesn’t have any ultimate goal or purpose. This could be either a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
- On the one hand, it makes us "free" of the claims from any particular religion or gods. We’re free to be our own boss.
- On the other hand, we are alone in the world. We’re like islands in the middle of the ocean, looking around at the "wide water" which represents everything in the natural world that isn’t us – including death. The water is "inescapable," and there’s no way off the island.
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.
- So far, the poem treats nature as something great and beautiful.
- For the woman, the natural setting of her morning breakfast makes her happy and gives her comfort.
- For the poet, people glorify nature with myths or songs which they invent.
- But, what if we take people out of the equation and try to think about what nature means on its own terms? These final lines try to just that, and the result is very mysterious.
- Basically, nature is totally indifferent to people. It doesn’t care about us. It just exists.
- The ocean is a classic example. People were never meant to live on the ocean, but it fills up most of the world; so, we can’t escape looking at it, thinking about it, and trying to figure out what it means. The ocean, or "wide water," is a symbol for everything mysterious and impersonal in the world: things that are part of the "chaos of the sun."
- In these lines, the poet gives more examples of the chaotic things all around us, including the "deer" that "walk upon our mountains," the birds that cry out for no reason, and the berries that grow wild, away from farms and gardens.
- The final image of pigeons in the sky ties everything together.
- The woman thinks about birds since the beginning of the poem. First, she thinks about her green cockatoo, then she thinks about a flock of birds about to take off in the morning, and then she thinks about the swallow flying in the summer. All of these images seem very beautiful or majestic, in some way. They could be images out of National Geographic, or some other nature magazine.
- But, the final image presents something completely different: "casual flocks of pigeons."
- Now, pigeons are not birds you would usually find in a nature magazine. They are plain and not very attractive. They are "ambiguous," which means they are difficult for us to understand. These pigeons are especially ambiguous because they are flying into the night, which the poet describes (amazingly) as "sinking, downward to darkness, on extended wings."
- There are lots of ways to interpret the end of this poem, but we think the pigeons have a lot in common with the woman enjoying her breakfast. Both are fairly average creatures, but they both seem kind of brave at the end of the poem.
- The woman is brave because she has accepted the chaos of the world, and the pigeons seem brave because they are flying full-steam-ahead ("on extended wings") to meet the dark and mysterious night.