On "A Postcard from the Volcano"

Merle E. Brown

What might seem at first a very simple poem is in truth extremely complex as a result of the feelings evoked from the presence in the poem of three actual presents: the present of the thinking poet, trembling as in another ether, supratemporal and supraspatial; the present of the scene on the postcard, the future imagined as present, with its children weaving budded aureoles and picking up bones and saying things about one’s mansion and himself; and the present of one’s bodily self which is the past of the future as present.

What are the feelings evoked by this temporal complex? Despair, of course, is the most obvious feeling, the despair of one's actual bodily self, of "A spirit storming in blank walls," a spirit so sensitive to the fact that its living reality is boxed in the immediate present, with no sense of a rich tradition in its own past and no hope that it will be part of a rich tradition in the future. Its world is a gutted world because it has no future to hope for. Its despair, curiously enough, is produced by its very sureness that children, though they will speak of it and its dwelling with its own speech, will never know that their speech is the speech of him on whom they comment. The quality of objects is determined by the way they are felt and observed by those who live along them. The children observing the mansion of the bodily self of the "I" will see it and speak of it as they do because the "I" saw it and spoke of it as he did. But he saw it and spoke of it as he did because of his certainty that the children, in their innocent unawareness of the continuity of history, would treat the past as if it were not a living part of their present, would treat the bodily self’s present a if it were utterly dead in their present.

Thus, the second obvious feeling of the poem, the children’s innocent wonder as they sit weaving wreaths of flowers and commenting on the ghostliness of the mansion and its dead owner, is saturated with its opposite, the guiltiness of their innocence, of their ignorance that they owe their very eyes and speech to the dead man, that their vitality is in many ways a perpetuation of his vitality, which was a despairing vitality because he was sure in his very bones that they would wonder about him with their innocent ignorance of history and its efficacy.

The dominant feeling of the poem, then, that of the living present of the poet’s immediate thinking, may be summed up in the phrase, "The gaiety of language." The poet shares the despair, the aching desolation, of his bodily self but, as experienced by this man as poet, the despair become "a literate despair" that cries out in all three presents, but mainly in the supratemporal present, as above and "Beyond our gate and the windy sky." From that other ether, the poet experiences the jubilance of knowing the intricate relationships between past and present and future within the time series. As a result of such knowing, the whole of the world of the poem, the dirty mansion, the children, the bones left behind, the way things are seen and felt, and speech itself are all "Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun," with that supratemporal source of light and awareness that is the very moving of the poet’s thought in the present of his poem as living, imaginative experience. The despair of what will become mere bones to be picked up by children, the guilty innocence of the children, these remain the anguish and the ignorance of this desolate world. While the words continue to tremble and echo from the volcano, however, while this supratemporal linguistic awareness continues to smear the dirt and poverty of the scene with the gold of its opulence, the despair felt cries out as "a literate despair" and "The gaiety of language is our seignior." The gold is merely smeared on the dirt; the dirt remains what it is, covered with the gold, but as real as if exposed. Despair, guilt, ignorant wonder, jubilance and gaiety, all survive and contribute vitally to this richly historical and desolately unhistorical affirmation of an imaginative truth.

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act (Detroit, Wayne State U P, 1970), 167-169.

James Longenbach

"A Postcard from the Volcano" offers its readers a few simple words delivered after the apocalypse; but the language survives from a past that is only apparently destroyed, and the historical continuities of the language that forms the poem itself undermine the poem's evocative sense of an ending. Stevens begins by recognizing a new generation's inevitable sense of its distance from its heritage. Yet he speaks with the voice of the dead.

[. . . .]

"You ought to understand the pasts destroyed," said Stevens apropos of the conclusion of "Sombre Figuration," but in "A Postcard" he points out that the effect of a past destroyed will linger whether it is understood or not; the children "least will guess that with our bones / We left much more."

We knew for long the mansion's look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know.

Marx described this paradox in the famous opening paragraphs of the "Eighteenth Brumaire": "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." In Stevens's "Postcard" the sky cries out "literate despair" to the new generation, literate because the children themselves have given it words and the words themselves were spoken by the dead. Like the apocalypse of "Sombre Figuration," this is a "wished-for ruin"; the image of modern society as a decayed casino in "Academic Discourse at Havana," the children's vision of the past as a shuttered mansion-house is an "infinite incantation of our selves." Stevens does not want to condemn the children for being seduced by such an incantation--he understood how difficult it is to separate "fatalism" from "indifferentism" in a time of social unrest; rather, he hopes the new generation will see that its swan song is also a prelude to a great new poem. "A dirty house in a gutted world" is also "tatter of shadows peaked to white, / Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun."

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright 1991 by Oxford University Press.

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