By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ is one of Wallace Stevens’s most famous poems. It is also one of his more accessible. The poem was published in Stevens’s 1936 collection Ideas of Order. You can read ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ here before proceeding to our analysis below, which homes in on the poem’s form, language, imagery, and themes. Although it is more straightforward than many of Stevens’s other poems, there is still much to discuss and unpick.
‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ is about the interplay between the present and the future, and about what will last – what we will leave behind, and how future generations will interpret it. Stevens begins ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ by declaring that children of the future, picking up the bones of those of us who are alive today, will never know that they were once part of a human who moved as quickly as foxes running over a hill.
Stevens then moves to consider non-human life, imagining a future world (post-apocalypse) where grapes, growing on the vines during the frost, are a distant memory. Still, at least the children of tomorrow will be able to see our bones. What they won’t have is any knowledge of the art and culture we made in response to the world we saw around us.
The meaning that places and things hold for us is created by ourselves, as well as by the things themselves. So, an old mansion means something to those who live in it and admire it because it has associations for them – and it holds significance for all of humanity because it symbolises our ability to build a home on a grand scale. This is why ‘what we said of it’ became a ‘part of what it is’.
Even the sky beyond (as in, beyond the house where Stevens (or his poem’s speaker) sits and thinks these glum thoughts) seems to sense the sadness that no human endeavour will last, long-term. This seems odd: how can the ‘windy sky’ cry out in ‘literate despair’?
But of course, its despair is ‘literate’ in the most literal sense: Stevens is attributing this (human) quality to the inanimate wind, in a version of pathetic fallacy. And what could be more human, or more ‘literate’, than pathetic fallacy?
Next, Stevens returns to his future vision: children will use the same language we use, and will wonder about the man who lived in the mansion, and the ‘spirit’ he seems to have left behind. But the mansion will be ‘blank walls’ to them, rather than a building packed with meaning, as it is for Stevens, who currently occupies it.
The mansion will be a ‘dirty house’ in a ‘gutted world’: a world that has been scorched and destroyed (although ‘gutted’ also suggests hollowing out, like ‘gutting’ a fish). The house will become a ‘tatter of shadows’. Meanwhile, the sun will go on shining, bathing the house in its gold glow.
For Lucy Beckett in her book on Wallace Stevens, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ is Stevens’s ‘Afterwards’: that is, it treats the same subject as Thomas Hardy did in his poem of that name. When we have died and left the world, will anyone remember that we’ve been here? Hardy frames it like this, as a question; but Stevens is more unrelentingly bleak (and to outdo Hardy for unrelenting bleakness is no small feat). Hardy writes:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
‘To him this must have been a familiar sight.’
Another poem, though, which we might also productively compare ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ to is T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, written in 1919 after the end of the First World War. Eliot’s poem, like Stevens’s, uses the image of the decayed house as a symbol for the demise of the world.
Gerontion’s house, like Stevens’s, is loaded with meaning; both poems are modernist poems haunted by the fear of the end of the world. But one crucial difference is that Eliot casts his poem firmly in the here-and-now, whereas Stevens – as in Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ – shuttles between present reality and future speculation.
And yet note that Stevens does not frame his prophecy as speculation, but in definite terms: children will never know the true meaning of our bones, or of the houses we inhabit, and what they mean to us. There’s no judgment here, though, not is the poem merely a poem of apocalypse: Stevens seems to suggest that such generational forgetting is hardwired into us as humans. You cannot have the same experience of a house as me, even though you’re alive at the same time.
All of our experiences are shaped in part by who we are and what our attitudes are. Someone living in an old Victorian terraced house in 2020 is unlikely to be able to feel the same way about it as its original occupants in the 1880s, however hard he might try to empathise. There is a limit to empathy: we can never truly step into someone else’s shoes.
For this reason, Stevens’s poem is sketchy, imagistic: it’s a postcard from the volcano, filled with a few observations and nothing more. But it’s from the volcano: from the depths of the earth to which we must return when we die.
‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ is written in tercets (unrhymed three-line stanzas) with a fairly regular iambic tetrameter rhythm. There are, however, two notable departures from this metre, in the form of two trochaic substitutions at the beginning of two lines of the poem: ‘Children picking up our bones’ and ‘Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun’. Fittingly, these two lines are the first and last lines of the poem, book-ending Stevens’s ‘postcard’ with strong, forceful statements.