A look at the conceptions of history in In W.H. Auden’s “Archaeology” and Wallace Stevens’s “A Postcard from the Volcano”
Voices of the Past
In W.H. Auden’s “Archaeology” and Wallace Stevens’s “A Postcard from the Volcano,” history is cast not as a narrative of events and actions but as a collective of lives and experiences. The ways in which people lived and derived meaning from their existence are central to both poems and their attendant conceptions of history. An important effect of this notion, however, is that it creates a disconnect between those living in the present and those who lived in the past. Despite this disconnect, both poems argue that history continues to inform the lives of those in the present. In Auden’s poem, the speaker shows how the myths and spiritual beliefs of our ancestors are still present in our lives and still shape our existence. Similarly, Stevens demonstrates how the past informs children’s use of language as well as shapes how they perceive the physical objects that surround them. The purpose of this paper will be to explore the ways in which these two poems address history and analyze how each poem sees history’s role in the present. Through this analysis, I will also show the importance of the speaker’s point of view. In doing so, I will examine how the speaker in “Archaeology” is situated in the present and is looking back on the past, while the speakers in “Volcano” represent the past looking onto the present. Lastly, this paper will address how these poems address faith and spirituality and analyze the role that these have in history. Here, I will analyze the uses of verbs such as “to know,” “to guess,” and other expressions of cognition in the two poems and show how their usage connects to what the poems see as the origins of our spiritual beliefs.
The speaker in “Archaeology,” unlike the speakers in Stevens’s poem, who represent the past itself, lacks a surety regarding the past and is often only able to make guesses throughout the poem. The speaker here is representative of the present and, again like those in “Volcano,” his thoughts remain concerned with history as it relates to the present for much of the poem. This lack of surety is first apparent in the line where the speaker, referring to the archaeologist, says, “concerning which he has not much / to say that he can prove: / the lucky man!” (7-9). Since the speaker spends the following lines conjecturing on archaeological discoveries, this line refers not only to the poem’s subject, but also to the authority of the speaker and the nature of the poem itself. Two stanzas later, however, the poem switches to the first-person plural and uses the phrase “we know” for the first and only time. The use of the first-personal plural is important to this poem as it relates to a stanza that comes much later: “Only in rites / can we renounce our oddities / and be truly entired” (52-54). These lines, which possess a worldview far different from the solipsism of Auden’s earliest work, emphasize the importance of the “we” and show that only through acts and social customs can a person achieve a sense of fulfillment.
Using the verb “know” in this context is also important because it shows the speaker’s belief that all we can know about the past comes on an emotional and human level. Later in the poem, when the speaker discusses “grain-pits” (28) or “coin-series,” (30), physical historical artifacts, the speaker is only able to guess about history. But when it comes to understanding the customs of previous generations, we are able to understand them more fully because of the timeless emotions that transcend history. This belief in the timelessness of emotions is most clearly shown when the speaker’s musings move away from the physical world and toward the spiritual. A major turn in the poem comes after the eleventh stanza’s discussion of artifacts, which the speaker concludes with, “should we infer / some major catastrophe? / Maybe. Maybe” (31-33). The repetition of “maybe” shows the speaker’s recognition that meditating on such “evidence” will only lead to a continual cycle of uncertainty.
The twelfth stanza marks the shift where the speaker’s mind turns toward spiritual objects. Despite this, the twelfth and thirteenth stanzas discuss only “murals and statues” (34), other physical objects, and the speaker is once again unable to reach any answers. Auden writes,
From murals and statues
we get a glimpse of what
the old ones bowed down to,
but cannot conceit
in what situations they blushed
or shrugged their shoulders (34-39).
If the “grain-pits” and “coin-series” only provided insight into the hardships faced by those in the past, all that the speaker can glean from spiritual objects such as monuments and statues is what our ancestors worshipped during those times of hardship. For Auden, the study of the past has been misguided because too much of it has been devoted to examining its major events and catastrophes and judging people’s responses to them. These events, however, have nothing to do with the banal mundanity of people’s everyday lives that Auden believes is the true essence of history. This mistake of focusing too intently on major events is why Auden writes later on in the poem, “our school text-books lie” (64).
It is only when the speaker begins analyzing the myths of the past, in the fourteenth stanza, that he is able to reach any conclusions. After musing on the “monuments” and “statues,” the speaker turns toward the “Tall Stories” (48) that have been handed down from our predecessors. At first, he finds himself baffled about the original responses to these myths. “Poets have learned us their myths, / but just how did They take them? / That’s a stumper” (40-42). Unable to determine how his forebearers interpreted these myths, the speaker then realizes that mythology’s true meaning lies in why myths were created and not how they were received.
No, I’d say: I’d swear
that men have always lounged in myths
as Tall Stories
that their real earnest
has been to grant excuses
for ritual actions (46-51).
Having already recognized that the past is not a series of facts that can be learned, the speaker realizes that, in order to understand both history and our spiritual beliefs, one must see the timelessness of human emotions and the human desire to make sense of one’s life and the world around them. This is why the speaker goes on to classify myths as, “excuses / for ritual actions” (50-51). For Auden, we create myths so that we can connect with the community around us, and the fact that this desire exists across history is why myths have always been so important in our lives. So, when the speaker reaches the poem’s coda, he claims that “one moral, at least, can be drawn” (62) from the study of history. Note that he doesn’t use a term like “known” or “learned” to describe what can be “drawn” from the past but, like a myth or story, says that a moral can be gained from it. This moral is that “goodness is timeless” (69). The goodness here being that those in the past have always tried to be “entired” (54), while always performing actions that will connect them to the world around them. The use of the verb “drawn” also indicates the active role the student of history has in finding this moral. Auden suggests that engaging with history is another method of providing meaning to our lives. In this way, the past is very much still present in our lives.
This idea that the past is still present is also vividly demonstrated in “A Postcard from the Volcano.” Like “Archaeology,” “Volcano” is structured in simple, lucid, tercets. In this poem, the past is quite literally present, as the omniscient speakers are the deceased themselves looking onto the present. The voice of this poem is particularly engaging because, like “Archaeology,” it frequently uses the first-person plural. This choice, in both poems, creates an associative effect between the reader, the speaker, and the speakers’ subjects that causes the reader to see themselves as a part of the collective history the speakers are examining. Yet, in Auden’s poem, the voice comes from a single speaker who sees himself as part of a larger collective; in Stevens’s poem, the speaker is a multitude of voices, all those who have lived and died before us, combining into one single voice. Similar to Auden’s poem, “Volcano” is interested in how we often fail to make sense of the past. The very first stanza creates this disconnect as it describes how children will never learn about the lives lead by those in the past. What is unusual here is Stevens’s decision to personify both the present generation and generations to come as “children.” Since the children in the poem carry out their daily lives in complete ignorance of the past that surrounds them, the comparison suggests that people are constantly being informed and shaped by the past and by their surroundings, despite being unaware of it.
From here, the poem moves on to describe even further how the children will fail to recognize the past as being made up of the experiences that shaped the speakers’ everyday lives. A moment that marks an important contrast between Auden’s and Stevens’s poems comes at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth stanza. When speaking about the past’s relationship with the physical world, Stevens writes, “We left much more, left what still is / The look of things, left what we felt // At what we saw” (8-10). For Stevens, unlike Auden, the past and the experiences of previous people’s lives can still be found in physical objects. Following this line, Stevens then focuses on “the shuttered mansion-house” (11) which, since it is the only physical object that inhabits this poem other than the speakers’ bones, makes it representative of the physical world.
…The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair. (10-13).
The two phrases here that seem most important are “beyond our gate” and “literate despair.” By using the possessive pronoun “our” when describing the gate, Stevens draws upon Judeo-Christian imagery associated with heaven. This imagery, combined with the description of the wind’s cry as “literate,” suggests that the wind is the voices of the deceased crying out to the living. In doing so, Stevens argues that history is not only contained within the natural world but that the natural world itself also acts as an historical document. He also imbues the natural world with a spiritual aspect that is present in his other poems.
After this comparison, Stevens shifts to show how history is still alive in our language. When speaking of the mansion-house, he says, “And what we said of it became // A part of what it is” (15-16). Our experiences are shaped by the language we use to describe it, and this, as these lines show, is something that we inherit from our ancestors. From here, the poem goes on to say that the children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls, (17-21).
The use of the word “still” demonstrates how the spiritual act of creating aureoles is something that the children have acquired from their predecessors, the speakers of the poem. But in the lines that follow, speech converges with spiritual belief, as the children use the language they have inherited from the past in order to create a mythology out of the mansion-house. Since the mansion-house is the only physical object other than the speakers’ bones that inhabits this poem, it seems to represent the physical world. The children’s actions in these two stanzas, therefore, seem to be a microcosm for the creation of all spiritual belief, as the children use their inherited language to create a mythology for the mansion-house and make sense of the physical world they live in. An idea that is further proven by the final stanza, which extends outward from the image of the house to the wider world and draws similarities between the two. The children’s desire to make sense of the past and the physical world, therefore, creates a link between the present and the past. In this regard, Auden and Stevens agree on our ability to relate to the past through mythology and our spiritual acts.
In each of these poems the past is seen as a collection of the lives lived by those in previous generations. Additionally, in both poems, the past is still present in our lives. While both are interested in how the past informs our lives the main difference exists in their perspectives. Stevens’s poem takes the past’s perspective and shows how the past sees itself existing in the present, while Auden takes the present’s perspective and examines how the past is informing the present. Furthermore, in Auden’s poem, the mythologies which have been handed down from generation to generation are where we should look to draw information about the past. Stevens agrees that mythology and other spiritual aspects of our lives that are given to us are a place where we can learn from the past. Yet, Stevens also sees our language, the natural world, and physical objects as having their own relationship with the past. Through these relationships, both poems assert that by analyzing these connections, we can learn more about how the past informs our daily lives and better understand how we ourselves fit into history.
Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson, 1st ed., Vintage International, 1991.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems: The Corrected Edition. Edited by John N. Serio & Chris Beyers, 2nd ed., Vintage International, 2015.