W Wallace Stevens

A Postcard from a Volcano by Wallace Stevens

‘A Postcard from a Volcano’ by Wallace Stevens is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, or tercets. Wallace has not chosen to give this piece a specific pattern of rhyme but the lines are structure in iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats or syllables. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. 

The poem is generally considered to be an elegy. These types of text are usually short, as ‘A Postcard from a Volcano’ is, and are concerned with mourning for the dead. In this case, the “dead” in question includes the speaker and the reader. He is speaking from a first-person plural perspective that encompasses the opinions and losses of a larger population. He speaks of “our bones” and of what “We left.” 

A Postcard from a Volcano by Wallace Stevens


Summary of A Postcard from a Volcano 

A Postcard from a Volcano’ by Wallace Stevens is a mournful depiction of a future world that has been ravaged by a natural disaster.

The poem begins with the speaker describing a place in the future in which the new children of the world will see bones and be unaware of who they belonged to. These children will not even be sure if the “he” who owned the bones was as they are, and in a sense, he wasn’t.

The speaker sees the future and the loss of cultural information as a dark, but at the end somewhat optimistic, turn. He describes how they speak but do not know they should credit their language to a whole race of men and women who came before them. 

The speaker also describes a mansion-house. This is something that is seen as being opulent and important in his world, but to the future generation, who has lost all thought connected with the place, it is meaningless. The children will remake the world through their new imaginings. They have an innocence that is striking against the backdrop of implied destruction the speaker has hinted at. It is also seen in the rising of the sun that casts a golden glow over the world as if hope still exists. 

You can read the poem here and more poetry by Wallace Stevens here.


Analysis of A Postcard from a Volcano 

Stanza One

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating that an unknown group of “Children” were picking up “our bones.” This is the first reference he makes to himself as part of a group that includes the reader. It is also a very interesting first line that pulls a reader deeper into the narrative of the poem.

 Also important to consider is the format of the poem itself especially when the title is considered. One must assume these words are meant as a short note or “postcard” from the site of a volcanic disaster. All that is left of those who once lived there are the bones. 

The speaker is able to look from the present into the future and describe the loss “We” feel over the terrible disaster that befell “us.” The first thing he notes is that the children are never going to know what the bones are they are holding. They were once like “foxes on the hill,” moving sporadically and efficiently, creating, living, and then, unfortunately, dying.  


Stanza Two

And that in autumn, when the grapes
These had a being, breathing frost;

In the second stanza, the speaker looks back again to a time in “autumn” when he and the all encompassing “We” of the narrative were alive. Stevens then presents an image of autumn that is poignant and quite visible. He speaks of the “sharp air” and the “smell” of grapes. These are very human ways of understanding the world and they contrast with the darkness of what happened to the population. It also says something about the new “Children.” They are never going to be able to understand their past from another perspective.  

The speaker specifically states that the children are never going to know the bones they are holding are as alive as they are. They once breathed “frost” on the mountainside and lived full and productive lives. 


Stanza Three 

The speaker does give the children some imaginative ability in the third stanza. Here he hopes that they will “guess” about the past. Perhaps they will know that, 

We left much more, left what still is

The look of things 

The children might be able to look around them, know the bones were once alive, and realize the remnants of the world were created by this now dead being. The things that were left behind after the disaster have no names in the new world. They would only be seen as what “still is.” The significant works that are left behind have a “look,” or so the speaker believes, that conveys who they were. Their feelings are left behind in the physical remnants of their lives. 


Stanza Four

The fourth stanza begins by finishing off the third. The left behind items are reference points for what the past generations made, how they felt, and what they saw to make them feel that way. 

The stanza continues with a shift in the time period the speaker is describing. He moves back to his present and states that, 

 […] spring clouds blow 

Above the shuttered mansion-house, 

This is a temporary moment that speaks to the future temporary moments the “children” will experience. He is looking out over the world and seeing that the “sky” is just beyond the gate. This is likely a reference to the future and how open and unclear it is. This is emphasized by the next stanza.


Stanza Five 

Cries out a literate despair.
And what we said of it became

He begins by stating that the sky is the opposite of what it will be in the future. It is “literate.” In this context, the word “literate” relates to a larger capacity to understand the world, something the children of the future will not have. It is “despair” due to the fact that the speaker is in full understanding that what he (and the rest of the “We” he has been speaking for) believes defines what is and what isn’t. The mansion is only a mansion because that is what “We” have come to think of it as. When that knowledge is lost what was meaningful will seem like nothing more than materials. 


Stanza Six

A part of what it is … Children,
Will speak our speech and never know,

The poem continues with the speaker once again concluding the previous stanza’s statement in the current. The first part of the first line reaffirms the speaker’s understanding that thoughts and beliefs control the world they take place in. 

After a brief ellipse, taking the reader back to the future, the speaker resumes his narration about the “Children.” They are now described as “weaving budded aureoles,” or halos. They have an innocence that is not of their choosing. To them their lack of knowledge about the world means nothing, they do not know what they’re missing. On the other hand, the speaker is moved by it. He feels mournful over the fact that they will “speak our speech” and never know how it came it be. 


Stanza Seven

Will say of the mansion that it seems
A spirit storming in blank walls,

The seventh stanza presents what the speaker believes will be the thoughts of the wandering children of the future. They will see the mansion house, not as a grand abode, but as a place that plays host to a storming “spirit.” 

The walls are blank and tell the children nothing about what the building was used for or who built it. They are only able to project their own limited knowledge onto it. The mansion-house is redefined by another population’s thoughts. 


Stanza Eight

A dirty house in a gutted world,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

In the final stanza of ‘A Postcard from a Volcano,’ the mansion is presented as only a “dirty house” in one corner of a “gutted world.” It is a “tatter” of what it used to be, in both its structure and the place it holds in the mind of those who acknowledge it. The image of the “aureole” comes up again in the final line, lending the conclusion hope. 

This future world is embodied through a dirty house behind which the sun rises “opulent[ly]” or luxuriously. It casts a “gold” light onto the top of an otherwise dirty house. 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Kevin Maynard says:

    This seems a bit too narrowly literal in its reading to me. Although Stevens had never visited Pompeii, he was, of course, well aware of its significance. Yes, he uses the image of a volcanic eruption which buries the gone world in lava; but I believe it’s just that: a metaphor for what every future does to its past. Stevens lived metaphor in every fibre of his being. It’s hard to think of even the most concrete of the images in any of his poems as anything other than figurative. Don’t forget he came out of the Symbolist movement, and never really left it wholly behind. The past, for him, in this poem, is just whatever’s been swallowed up or buried by Time. Even the ‘bones’ are, to a degree, metaphorical. They stand (I’d tentatively suggest) for whatever it is we leave behind in the way of physical remains. Whatever they are, they remain inscrutable to posterity. Nevertheless, Stevens tells us, what we did to subtly change the language we spoke back then, mysteriously lives on. How we responded to the world around us (the “shuttered mansion”, according to this reading, is also metaphorical, in that it existed ‘beyond our gate’ i.e. outside us, everything we looked at and ‘felt’ and then wrote about—a house that’s ‘shuttered’ because aftercomers can’t see into it—perhaps neither could we, but at least we tried)—how we responded back then affects the way our descendants perceive things in their turn. However arresting the opening three lines (and they are quite stunning in this respect), the strangest, most puzzling and at the same time most moving part of the poem comes at the end. Those last four lines seem (to me) to be describing not something constructed out of words this time, but rather a painting (very reminiscent of one of those beautifully suggestive semi-abstract ones by Jean Fautrier, though whether Stevens, a keen collector of contemporary French art, actually knew his work, I can’t say). Whatever slender and largely metaphorical narrative thread runs through this poem here suddenly thins to near invisibility, and we get instead this magnificent explosion of images: “A tatter of shadows peaked to white, / Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun”. The walls of his world his spirit haunts are now ‘blank’ (earlier on the mansion had merely been ‘shuttered’), but although the [dark] shadows seem tattered and shredded, they’ve somehow been “peaked” (by the painter’s brush?) to “white” (which collocates with another meaning of “blank”), and then (once again by the same brush) “smeared” with gold. The life-giving and “opulent” sun has crowned whatever fragmentary evidence remains of our irrevocably gone lives with this most precious of metals.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Wow. This is an incredibly thoughtful analysis of the poem. Your knowledge of the poet and your grasp of the context is incredible. Your writing is so succinct and engaging that I just thoroughly enjoyed reading your input. If you ever fancy working for the site please drop us an email. We could use a writer with your talent. Thank you.

  • >

    Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

    Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

    Ad blocker detected

    To create the home of poetry, we fund this through advertising

    Please help us help you by disabling your ad blocker


    We appreciate your support

    The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

    Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

    Share via
    Copy link
    Powered by Social Snap