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?
The poet continues in his praise of death, which really amounts to praise of change and the cycle of generations.
He asks what paradise would be like if there is no "change of death," which is how Christian heaven is supposed to be.
For example, if everything stays perfect all the time, then "ripe fruit" will "never fall" to the ground.
The poet thinks that there’s something a little sad about fruit that never falls. He imagines that the heavy fruit tries to reach toward the ground, but can never touch it.
In fact, everything in heaven would be divided from its goal, just as so many things on the earth seem to be. Rivers will never reach the ocean, and the two banks ("receding shores") of any river will not ever join up.
Things are permanently divided, which means that maybe heaven wouldn’t be better than earth, after all. At best, it would be the same.
Why set pear upon those river-banks Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Here’s another confusing image involving with fruit.
We’re back to talking about the plums and pears that boys pile onto plates at the end of stanza V. The boys hope to attract some nice maidens to the area, and they succeed.
But, in these lines, the poet says that, if someone were to set out pears and "spicy" plums on the riverbanks in heaven, there would be no point, because no maidens would come.
Why not? It’s the problem that nothing ever changes or reaches its goal in heaven, so the sight and scent of the fruit would never travel anywhere. And, if the maidens were on the other side of the river, they wouldn’t be able to come across.
If this all seems ridiculous, you’re on to something. Rather than give a realistic description of heaven, the poet demonstrates how hard it would be to imagine a world without change.
Alas, that they should wear our colors there, The silken weavings of our afternoons, And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
The poet doesn’t think we can imagine what heaven is like, because we can only talk about heaven using the words we have for things on Earth. That’s the problem of trying to describe a place that no one now living has seen before.
But, when we insist on describing life in heaven by comparison to things from the earth (You can eat all the ice-cream you want and not get fat!), we end up making heaven seem less cool.
If the people in heaven do the same things we now do to entertain themselves, like wearing "colorful" clothes and playing musical instruments, they would probably get sick of these things pretty fast. It’s like when you listen to your favorite song too many times – until it finally becomes annoying.
If you imagine poetry as a kind of song (the "lute" is an old-fashioned symbol of poetry), then even poetry would become boring or "insipid" if there weren’t some kind of change to spice things up.
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, Within whose burning bosom we devise Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
The poet sticks to his guns by repeating the line about death being the mother, or creator, of beauty. He doesn’t know why things must be this way – it’s "mystical" or mysterious – but they are.
The poet doesn’t stop there, though. Increasing the weirdness factor, he says that we imagine death as a mother who is pregnant with our real, "earthly" mothers.
We take this to mean something like: people need beauty in the same way that they used to need mothers as little kids. Beauty is like a mother for people who outgrew their real mothers.
Stevens might be drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud in these lines, a psychoanalyst who was really popular among artistic types around the time this poem was published. Freud basically says that everyone wants to return to his or her mother’s womb, which is warm and safe and comfortable.