The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Cleghorn, Angus J. Wallace Stevens’ Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Critchley, Simon. Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Ford, Sara J. Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens: The Performance of Modern Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Leggett, B. J. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Morse, Samuel F. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Sharpe, Tony. Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.