A Postcard from the Volcano

by Wallace Stevens

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The Poem

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“A Postcard from the Volcano” is a short elegy written in three-line verses of unrhymed tetrameter. The title image captures the theme and perspective of the poem. It suggests a small or compressed message from something big and violent, conveying a loss that is too huge for the tiny means chosen for the communication.

The poem is written from a first-person plural viewpoint. The speaker projects into the future, referring to another generation (“children”) looking back at the present one. There appears to be a significant gap between what they will see and what currently exists. One senses the inadequacy of the small “postcard” to express proper feelings of loss, or death.

The first half of the elegy, assuming the perspective of a future generation, expands on what they are missing—it is a loss that comes with the absence of first-hand experience. Hence, the poet employs images that betray action (“foxes”), sensual involvement (“smell” of grapes ripening), and feeling as a way of seeing. Yet all imply death (“breathing frost”), since they will be lost in the future.

At the center of the message there is a significant shift of tense—a transitional sentence connects yet separates the two generations. Now the poet uses images of distance (“spring clouds” beyond a “mansion-house”) to illustrate a “literate despair.” In abstract terms, he seems to make a judgment on language itself as a “limited” vehicle to convey meaning across time and space. It may be a comment on poetry itself as subject of the elegy.

In the last half, the poem picks up again the subject of the future children. The focus continues to be on language, spoken and written, as a means of knowing (“Children,/Will speak our speech . . ./ will say”). The present generation appears symbolically as “the mansion” that the children can never completely know or understand any more than people can understand an erupting volcano from afar.

The conclusion of the poem adds another dimension. The children not only see (that is, know, understand, and appreciate) the mansion (the past) in a limited way, but also actually change it in the process of knowing. Here the poet introduces colors (white and gold) associated with the imagination—or, as in Wallace Stevens’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” the imagination’s action on the external world. The mansion is “peaked” and “smeared”—in a way, destroyed—indicating a new or double sense of loss.

The final note of “A Postcard from the Volcano,” however, indicates more than loss. The poem is also a tribute to the power of the imagination to change things creatively. In the end, the reader sees three worlds. One is the current generation’s—“what we felt/ At what we saw.” This world, however, is “A tatter of shadows” (an outworn scarecrow) to the second world—the children’s. The third is a brighter, “opulent” world that the children have redone in their own image.

Forms and Devices

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This poem is in itself a kind of “postcard from a volcano.” Stevens uses a short piece of writing (the poem) to convey a wealth of feeling and thought (the volcano) to the reader. As a poet, he senses all the limitations of such an effort, yet he attempts it. He uses the language of poetry—such as colorful images, different kinds of rhythms, repetition, and finally alliteration—to send his message.

The key image used to convey loss is the rural Southern setting—the “mansion-house” over which hang “spring clouds” “Beyondthe windy sky.” The poet connects two generations, separate and removed. The house is a mansion, suggesting a bygone aristocracy, and...

(This entire section contains 486 words.)

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it is “shuttered”—protective of its mysterious, inner sanctum. Indeed, it becomes symbolic of a prior tradition, or old ways of thinking and acting—what “we felt/ At what we saw” and “said of it.”

Children are active in their way, yet within the rural scene connecting them to tradition. If the older order sees itself as “quick as foxes” (referring to an old Southern sport), the children are now “weaving budded aureoles,” not recognizing the foxes whose “bones” they are “picking up.” Indeed, there are “walls” between the “look of things” and “what we felt/ At what we saw”—between appearance and reality.

Into the rural scene the poet then injects the changing seasons—images and rhythms which capture the loss that comes with time and are natural to the country. Children pick up the bones in the spring, but what they do not reflect upon is the autumn. That is when the grapes are most ripe, alive, and pungent, although they are also “breathing frost.” Life and death are coextensive in the country, something that may be lost on the children, but not on the poet—or on “us,” the readers.

To enhance further his rural changing scene, with its traditional ways, the poet employs changing rhythms. The poem starts out briskly, emphasizing vivacious country life, as the enjambment (run-on lines) of the first stanza captures the action of the foxes. Then the pace slows; the sentences are shorter and broken with clauses, as the poet becomes more reflective, even approaching “despair.” The fragmentation of the lines also matches the sense of loss—both between generations and in the poet’s inability to communicate fully.

As the poem moves toward a conclusion, the tempo again changes, this time reaching a steady but mounting crescendo. The rhythm underpins the new theme of confidence (will) as the children take the words of the older generation (tradition) and re-create them (“speak our speech”). The word “will” is repeated twice, giving new and definite direction to their action. Now “never know” and “seems as if” disappear as the poet generates new hope and confidence with a steadily mounting pace, forceful repetition of key words, and the bright, colorful images—“white” and “gold”—of the last lines.


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