The Search for Immortality in On the Beach at Night and Sunday Morning
The 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...