The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)


(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.