The Auroras of Autumn

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

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While the light and wind imagery in “The Auroras of Autumn” may allude to poetry by Wordsworth, Shelley, and others (such as Walt Whitman), the more interesting indebtedness of the poem is to some of Stevens’s own earlier poems. In particular, the refrain “Farewell to an idea” opening sections 2, 3, and 4 alludes to the poems Stevens published under the title Ideas of Order (1935), which included “Farewell to Florida” and “The Idea of Order at Key West.” “Farewell to an idea,” then, evokes an attitude of transformation in the poet’s own life, poetic style and theme, or philosophical orientation. This marks Stevens’s poem as a “hail and farewell” experience, in which he meets an object (or person) in passing on his way elsewhere. “The Auroras of Autumn” is a greeting to the spectacle of the northern lights at a time of transition (autumn) for the poet, who is looking for death (winter) in the flash of illumination provided by the auroras as his (innocent) imagination.

This theme of farewell allows the poem to be a vehicle for some private experiences from Stevens’s life, such as those associated with his mother (her necklace and her hands in section 3, her singing in section 8) and his father (his eyes in section 4, his poems in section 5). Perhaps he refers to his brothers in section 5, as well as in section 9, where he may also refer to his wife as one whose “coming became a freedom” for himself and her. These personal, family “ideas” are sources of warmth but also obstacles to imaginative freedom; to them he must also bid farewell. Everything dissolves and disappears, everything is transformed, as both the light of the auroras and the wind of autumn signal.

The meaning of the poem is that everything changes, including the poet and his imagination. The power of change may be innocent or malicious, grimly benevolent, both just and unjust. The auroras of autumn are nothing in themselves without the innocent imagination; they are the inscriptions on a heavenly tablet, and they are the occasion for insight—not the insight itself. They do, however, as imagination’s own power, illuminate ever so briefly the nature of a reality usually concealed by darkness, and what they reveal is a “harridan” world haggled “by wind and weather.” This revelation, however frightening, is welcomed in the “nick” of time because it comes before winter and death overtake the poet or overwhelm “unhappy people” who think they exist in “a happy world.”

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