A Postcard from the Volcano

by Wallace Stevens

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Themes and Meanings

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If in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” Stevens examines the relation between the poet and the present world, in “A Postcard from the Volcano” he adds the dimension of time—the relation between future and present generations. In the former poem, he speaks of a “nothingness” that results when a person imagines the world, as if smell and taste are lost in imagining a baked pie. The latter adds the further gap of time, and therefore a double loss, when children try to experience, or imagine, the life of past generations.

At the center of this poem is a “literate despair”—the inability of words (written or oral) to convey the total (contextual) meaning of another time or place. This gives one cause to mourn, and for this reason the poet, along with the children looking back at the present, “Cries out” in frustration. Yet there is more to this elegy than loss.

The poem is rooted in irony. Death and life are closely connected in this piece. The “bones” of the foxes are juxtaposed with foxes that are “quick” (alive). The dying of the grapes (“breathing frost”) is directly associated with life at its height, having made “sharp air sharper by their smell.” Autumn can only give birth to spring.

It is the spring that most excites or “springs anew” for Stevens. For the older generation (the “we” of the poem), the “mansion’s look,” once articulated, “became/ A part of what it is.” These people, too, are imaginative. The mansion got its being from their view, perspective, and feelings, not necessarily from any essential being apart from them. Though this will be lost on their children, that loss will generate new life or imaginings. Death and life are coextensive, part of the natural flow of things. Stevens is above all a poet of the present, not of romantic or theistic systems.

The last part of the elegy, therefore, is ironically a celebration of life. The children may “never know” what “we,” their forebears, meant when they “speak our speech”; tradition is never fully understood, and that is tragic. Yet, all things considered, it does not really matter. The house may seem “dirty,” bathed in “shadows,” its walls “blank” (meaningless), the whole thing “gutted.” These things imply death, but they also represent a point of view that is necessary to regeneration. Out of this dark, empty shell, the children make the most of their old house (their ancestors) by re-creating it imaginatively.

The poem’s final phrases, like “spirit storming,” are important, for they suggest vivacious internal action, an ironic contrast to the “gutted” and “blank” house. “Smeared” is also double-edged; it may mean disfigured, but here it suggests something totally covered with life—“the gold of the opulent sun.” This is Stevens’s final message, that life follows death and that the best instrument for creating the highest type of life is the human mind, as full of potential (“opulent”) as the sun itself.

The “volcano,” therefore, need not be limited to the past, and this is the final irony. The poem becomes a tribute to the future generations that the poet initially seems to criticize. Ultimately, it is the children who are not afraid to imagine—to feel deeply, explode verbally, and spew emotion in controlled blasts. That is also the job of the poet in all generations, and to fulfill that end Wallace Stevens sends his postcard.

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