James Longenbach: On "A Postcard from the Volcano"

"A Postcard from the Volcano" offers its readers a few simple words delivered after the apocalypse; but the language survives from a past that is only apparently destroyed, and the historical continuities of the language that forms the poem itself undermine the poem's evocative sense of an ending. Stevens begins by recognizing a new generation's inevitable sense of its distance from its heritage. Yet he speaks with the voice of the dead.

[. . . .]

"You ought to understand the pasts destroyed," said Stevens apropos of the conclusion of "Sombre Figuration," but in "A Postcard" he points out that the effect of a past destroyed will linger whether it is understood or not; the children "least will guess that with our bones / We left much more."

We knew for long the mansion's look

And what we said of it became

 

A part of what it is . . . Children,

Still weaving budded aureoles,

Will speak our speech and never know.

Marx described this paradox in the famous opening paragraphs of the "Eighteenth Brumaire": "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." In Stevens's "Postcard" the sky cries out "literate despair" to the new generation, literate because the children themselves have given it words and the words themselves were spoken by the dead. Like the apocalypse of "Sombre Figuration," this is a "wished-for ruin"; the image of modern society as a decayed casino in "Academic Discourse at Havana," the children's vision of the past as a shuttered mansion-house is an "infinite incantation of our selves." Stevens does not want to condemn the children for being seduced by such an incantation--he understood how difficult it is to separate "fatalism" from "indifferentism" in a time of social unrest; rather, he hopes the new generation will see that its swan song is also a prelude to a great new poem. "A dirty house in a gutted world" is also "tatter of shadows peaked to white, / Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun."

From Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title James Longenbach: On "A Postcard from the Volcano" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Longenbach Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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