The Auroras of Autumn

by Wallace Stevens

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

“The Auroras of Autumn” contains 240 lines, divided into ten sections with 24 lines each. The title refers to the northern lights in autumn. The speaker first sees them as a serpent winding upwards, hungry to find a form for itself. The scene changes in the next section to a deserted, white beach cabin. Its whiteness is a memory, like clouds in winter. Autumn is a time for change, warning of winter. A man “turns blankly” as the sky makes change seem larger. The speaker feels utterly alone.

Section 3 begins, like section 2, with a farewell. Memory is focused on “mother’s face,” filling a room at evening. The aurora’s lights are reflected from the windows, and the wind knocks at the door, “like a rifle-butt.” The “farewell” continues, now focusing on the father, who is agreeable to everything. He enjoys change. He hears things that are not there, and he sees drama everywhere.

Section 5 examines the father’s talent for imagining: He could fetch “pageants out of air”; and he made poems, though they were works “of barbarous tongue.” These poems were the work of a man like Chatillon, an obscure sixteenth century writer who also said “yes” to everything. In the real world, the speaker objects, there is “no play” apart from mere existence.

In the next section, the poet, like his father, imagines nature’s lights as a “theatre floating through the clouds”: They become birds, volcanic smoke, floating in the sky’s corridor. The “denouement” of this theatrical spectacle, however, cannot be completed because it has no inherent solution. The poet is defiant: Natural phenomena do not mean anything, or they mean whatever human beings allow them to mean. He boldly opens his door, but he is frightened. He is a puny “scholar” who sees by “one candle,” when nature flashes out to overwhelm him, threatening “everything he is.”

Section 7 reacts to this fear. The poet identifies the auroras with imagination, which leaps into the north, where it reigns supreme over all reality, displaying its energies in a proud burst of beauty. This imagination gets its energies from devouring reality: It is “the white creator of black,” absorbing the planets to turn matter into energy. The speaker asserts that the aurora does not control its own destiny. It is an inscription on the blank of the heavens (“stele”), written there by the force that can both make and unmake it.

There is, the poet says in section 8, an innocence of time. Its existence is visible, as in “these lights” of the auroras in autumn. The poet reclines beneath them, “like children” secure “in the quiet of sleep,” while mother sings. The next section continues this mood: The poet and his brothers lived each day as an adventure in the “outlandish.” Each slept easily, fed on the honey of experience. In that innocent time, “fate” brought “freedom.” Now, grown up and recalling innocence, the poet reconsiders the auroras: They are his mother soothing him for his fate. The autumn winds are sharp with the imminence of disaster. The auroras, however, are a shelter for imagination, cloaking darkness with a “flash” of innocence, so that the poet accepts death, which “may come tomorrow.”

The concluding section is a tailpiece. The serpentlike auroras of autumn have been transformed into an imagination of “innocent earth.” The auroras had been described in Section 7 as a regal figure crowned by a “diamond cabala.” The conclusion asks a rabbi to explicate that text of gnostic wisdom. The poet imagines himself in “all lives” so he can know the world is noisy and...

(This entire section contains 624 words.)

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hag-ridden, not a quiet Eden. The auroras join the winds of autumn to announce destruction; they are the “blaze of summer straw” seen “in winter’s nick.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400

“The Auroras of Autumn” follows the rhythm of the meditation, from landscape observation, to focused detail from the natural scene, to personal associations from memory, to interpretation, and finally to a form of imaginative transcendence, signaled in the concluding section as “fulfilling his meditations.”

This rhythm is made through eight (mainly) unrhymed tercets (three-line stanzas) in each of the poem’s ten sections. While there is no standard rhyme scheme to the tercets, occasionally rhymes will occur to emphasize images and themes, as in the transition from the sixth to the seventh tercets of section 2: “fall” yields to “wall.” More often, the sections contain “identical” rhymes (repetitions of the same word), as in “white” (section 2), “innocence” (section 8), and “world” (section 10). A form of rhyming occurs between sections, as certain words are repeated to form motifs of the theme throughout the poem as a whole: These include “wind,” “changes,” and “innocence.”

The poem creates uncertainty and tentativeness with its interrogative mode of questioning the significance of what the senses report. It also makes difficult a certain identification of referents for pronouns (both demonstrative and personal). The title itself, however, hovers over all to suggest that the auroras of autumn will often serve as referents.

Images of light and wind, derived from the situation described by the title, dominate the figurative devices of “The Auroras of Autumn.” While these images allude, sometimes subtly and sometimes obviously, to other poems by other poets (such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc and “Ode to the West Wind,” as well as to William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”), light as a figure for imagination and wind as a figure for communication do not need larger contexts to function clearly in Wallace Stevens’s poem. The light of the auroras is transformed, though, to create a complication of its meaning: It is a “bodiless form” in section 1, “frigid brilliances” of color at the conclusion of section 2, “Boreal night” in section 3, an “ever-brightening origin” in section 4, an “Arctic effulgence flaring” in section 6, and a “blaze of summer straw” at the end of section 10. Similarly, the wind of autumn goes through several transformations: from the “cold wind” that “chills the beach” in section 2, to “windy grandeurs” knocking “like a rifle-butt against the door” of section 3, “the naked wind” that ends section 4, “a wind as sharp as salt” in section 9, and finally the “haggling wind” of section 10.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

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