The Idea of Order in the Poetry of Stevens, Thomas and Eliot
Stevens uses images of the human voice and the sea in "Sunday Morning" to a different purpose in "Sunday Morning." The sea represents the emotional distance between a woman and past religious notions. Much physical distance lies between her parlor and Palestine. A greater emotional distance lies between her feelings and the grave of Christ. Stevens uses a dream-voyage to measure the distances and clarify the woman's feelings. This allows her to cover ground she could not otherwise readily reach. As she dreams, she passes "Over the seas, to silent Palestine, || Dominion of the blood and sepulchre." Yet she is not traveling to a Yeatsian Byzantium where all was beautiful certainty. Rather than accept "silent Palestine," she questions the usefulness of a divinity that comes only when she sleeps. Stevens deepens the dream and creates a pagan Eden, mixing classical and pastoral scenes. In this land of fruit, sun, and dancers, the woman's conception of the relationship between man and God is turned onto its side. At the point where all has been called into question, a voice of clarity cries, "The tomb in Palestine || Is not the porch of spirits lingering. || It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay." This voice goes on to restore order to the woman's mind as it describes a lush and beautiful land with a lyricism reminiscent of Sappho's invitation to Aphrodite.
In Thomas's "Fern Hill," the role of human voice and the sea are diminished in favor of the pagan Eden. This romantically naturalist landscape forms the backdrop for "Fern Hill" in much the way the sea forms the back drop for "Key West." It differs from the landscape of "Sunday Morning" in that it is a vision not of what life might be, but of what it has been for the poem's narrator, an Adam-like hunter/farmer. Fern Hill's farmer-hunter has lived the carefree life of a Robin of the Green Wood in which "the calves || Sang to [his] horn, the foxes on the hill barked clear and cold, || And the sabbath rang slowly || In the pebbles of the holy streams." Unlike the woman in "Key West," the narrator is a part of nature, not an external force acting to redefine the natural order of things. The naturalness and order of the narrator's life and destined death are seen throughout the poem's idyllic idealism, but especially in the poem's final two lines: "Time held me green and dying || Though I sang in my chains as the sea." In these two lines, the human voice is not one of evocation or advice, but the simple outpouring of a joyous spirit. The sea serves as a simile strengthening the natural order of the narrator's life and death. "Fern Hill" reveals a romantic view naturalism in which the hunter/farmer is "honoured among foxes and pheasants" and "happy as the heart is long." Conspicuously absent from the idyll are the wolves, droughts and blighted crops against which a real farmer-hunter would strive.
In Eliot's megalithic work, The Waste Land, the reader hears a cacophony of conflicting voices, and he is treated not only to a sea voyage, but to a journey through the desert as well. There is, however, no Eden, pagan or otherwise, in "The Waste Land." As in "Sunday Morning, the sea in this poem operates symbolically, representing the emotions. It also goes deeper to represent intimacy and emotional engagement. The voices, some of them inhuman, do not create as in "Order." They do exhort and advise at times. Sometimes their advice is faulty. One of these faulty voices is Madame Sosotris. She has advised Eliot to "fear a death by water." That is, to fear the dangers of emotional commitment. In the Unreal City of Eliot's London, this seems wise advice. The denizens of this city are bereft of any semblance of life emotionally and spiritually. Madame Sosotris, however, cannot see some things that are important. Significantly, she cannot see one of the cards of the Major Arcana, the Hanged Man, who is a Christ figure. She is blind to Christ and his message; she cannot advise responses based on empathy. Better to risk nothing than to risk everything. After all, "one must be so careful these days."
Eliot thoroughly explores the dangers of involvement as he likens the ultimate emotional commitment, sexual intimacy, to a game of chess. To Eliot, sex, intimacy and involvement are dangerous and destructive. The dangers of sexual pursuit are underscored by the evocation of Philomel and Tereus. The cries of the nightingale, Philomel echo through history as the hoopoe, Tereus pursues her through eternity. Eliot drives home the destructiveness of human sexuality in a heartrending scene in a pub. Two women discuss the impending return of one woman's husband from the army. Lil has borne several children, and her last pregnancy ended in an abortion. Her companion does not understand that the traditional sexual/intimacy role is destroying Lil. Lil's life and health are in decay; she's lost her teeth and appears aged and haggard. "She's had five [children] already and nearly died of young George." Much more intimacy could kill her. Despite all of this wreckage and Eliot's terror, total disengagement seems even worse to him. The danger of "a death by water" is as nothing compared with the emotional desert created by his fear of "water."
Standing in stark and cataclysmic contrast to Thomas's fertile Fern Hill is the sterile harshness of Eliot's Ganga valley. Eliot's sea has too much water; his desert has too little. This desert is devoid of feeling, emotional commitment or compassion. No one "[sings] like the sea," one only hears the "murmur of maternal lamentation." Those "who were living are now dying ||With a little patience." Suffering in this harshness finds no surcease: "If there were water we should stop and drink || Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think." Two travelers walk through this harshness. Though they walk beside the Christ, like Madame Sosotris, they do not see him or his message of love. They and the land thirst for Christ's commandment of empathy. Finally, the lightning falls from heaven, and the rain begins to fall. in a language older than Christ, the heretofore sterile thunder gives three commands: give, have compassion, be restrained. But the poem ends before Eliot can apply the lesson and "put his lands in order." He lacks the power to create a "Key West." He lacks the repose to find a "Fern Hill." He cannot survive in the desert or in the sea and remains trapped between two hells.