‘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.”
Summary of A Postcard from a Volcano
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
Children picking up our bonesWill never know that these were onceAs 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.