Merle E. Brown

Merle E. Brown: On "A Postcard from the Volcano"

What might seem at first a very simple poem is in truth extremely complex as a result of the feelings evoked from the presence in the poem of three actual presents: the present of the thinking poet, trembling as in another ether, supratemporal and supraspatial; the present of the scene on the postcard, the future imagined as present, with its children weaving budded aureoles and picking up bones and saying things about one’s mansion and himself; and the present of one’s bodily self which is the past of the future as present.

What are the feelings evoked by this temporal complex? Despair, of course, is the most obvious feeling, the despair of one's actual bodily self, of "A spirit storming in blank walls," a spirit so sensitive to the fact that its living reality is boxed in the immediate present, with no sense of a rich tradition in its own past and no hope that it will be part of a rich tradition in the future. Its world is a gutted world because it has no future to hope for. Its despair, curiously enough, is produced by its very sureness that children, though they will speak of it and its dwelling with its own speech, will never know that their speech is the speech of him on whom they comment. The quality of objects is determined by the way they are felt and observed by those who live along them. The children observing the mansion of the bodily self of the "I" will see it and speak of it as they do because the "I" saw it and spoke of it as he did. But he saw it and spoke of it as he did because of his certainty that the children, in their innocent unawareness of the continuity of history, would treat the past as if it were not a living part of their present, would treat the bodily self’s present a if it were utterly dead in their present.

Thus, the second obvious feeling of the poem, the children’s innocent wonder as they sit weaving wreaths of flowers and commenting on the ghostliness of the mansion and its dead owner, is saturated with its opposite, the guiltiness of their innocence, of their ignorance that they owe their very eyes and speech to the dead man, that their vitality is in many ways a perpetuation of his vitality, which was a despairing vitality because he was sure in his very bones that they would wonder about him with their innocent ignorance of history and its efficacy.

The dominant feeling of the poem, then, that of the living present of the poet’s immediate thinking, may be summed up in the phrase, "The gaiety of language." The poet shares the despair, the aching desolation, of his bodily self but, as experienced by this man as poet, the despair become "a literate despair" that cries out in all three presents, but mainly in the supratemporal present, as above and "Beyond our gate and the windy sky." From that other ether, the poet experiences the jubilance of knowing the intricate relationships between past and present and future within the time series. As a result of such knowing, the whole of the world of the poem, the dirty mansion, the children, the bones left behind, the way things are seen and felt, and speech itself are all "Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun," with that supratemporal source of light and awareness that is the very moving of the poet’s thought in the present of his poem as living, imaginative experience. The despair of what will become mere bones to be picked up by children, the guilty innocence of the children, these remain the anguish and the ignorance of this desolate world. While the words continue to tremble and echo from the volcano, however, while this supratemporal linguistic awareness continues to smear the dirt and poverty of the scene with the gold of its opulence, the despair felt cries out as "a literate despair" and "The gaiety of language is our seignior." The gold is merely smeared on the dirt; the dirt remains what it is, covered with the gold, but as real as if exposed. Despair, guilt, ignorant wonder, jubilance and gaiety, all survive and contribute vitally to this richly historical and desolately unhistorical affirmation of an imaginative truth.

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1970), 167-169.

Merle E. Brown: On "Sunday Morning"

"This final movement of the poem, in contrast to the stasis of its beginning, is bridged by a passage at the very middle of the poem:

    nor cloudy palm

Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured

As April’s green endured; or will endure

Like her remembrance of wakened birds,

Or her desire for June and evening, tipped

By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

Taken it itself, the passage is truly beautiful. In autumn, when the swallows are sweeping through the air, gathering for their flight away from "their warm fields," the woman experiences a desire "for June and evening," for the time when she could take for granted the presence of "awakened birds" the next morning. Thus the joy of "June and evening" which she desires and the joy of "April’s green" are torn by the poignancy of her sense that what she desires is absent and that the birds in autumn are about to be gone. The fixed spread of the cockatoo’s wings upon a rug has been transformed to a true consummation, the spread of the swallow’s wing as it reaches the peak of its upward movement. Implicit in this consummation is her recollection of birds that were just beginning to fly, wakened birds, testing "the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings"; and ominous in this consummation is her sense that it will be followed by the movement at the end of the poem, a movement "Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

Every passage in the poem, for that matter, is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence. It is Death that

    makes the willow shiver in the sun

For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze

Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

These maidens have been caught up in the dreamy daze of the immediate present, very like the woman who was taking her "late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair." They sat upon the grass, their arms about their knees, gazing at the grass at their feet, relinquished after they had gathered it or simply because they are forgetting it in their dreaminess. The shiver of the willow, willow, willow, however, brings the chill death into their presence and even the sun turns cold with the imminence of death. Unlike the woman in her sunny chair, they are ripe for love, they will taste not late oranges but new plums and pears offered them by their lovers, and they will "stray impassioned in the littering leaves," loving and loveable because feeling their oneness with "the leaves of sure obliteration."

Even the chant of the ring of supple and turbulent men, expressing their boisterous devotion to the sun, is quite different from any primitivism or barbarism based upon a mere acceptance of sensual indulgence as an ultimate good. Their devotion to the sun, unlike the comforts of the sun cherished by the woman in her sunny chair, is dependent on their mutual sense of frailty, on their constant sense that they will perish, on their feeling that their strength is as fragile, as delicate, as transient, as the dew upon their feet. They chant in orgy, it is true; but a part of their chant is the echoing hills "That choir among themselves long afterward." And those choirs of dying echoes establish a oneness between the men with their chant and the pigeons in their descent "Downward to darkness on extended wings."

From Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act (Detroit: Wayne S U P, 1970), 160-162.