“Form Gulping after Formlessness”: Petrarch’s Resistant Lauras in Stevens’s “Auroras of Autumn”

  • Barbara L. Estrin


Speculating that the horrors exposed in the aftermath of World War II “triggered” the 1947 “Auroras” Charles Berger reads it as a last gasp of civilization: “when the books are about to burn, the values they radiate are brightest.”1 But Berger projects a too optimistic Stevens. If Hiroshima and the Holocaust prompted the poem, Stevens seems to be saying that the cultural roots of books and bomb are the same. The values they radiate explode. The nihilism of the opening image—“this is where the serpent lives”—represents the long-seated cultural malaise Stevens reveals in “Three Academic Pieces.” James Longenbach calls the apocalypse in this poem “an unveiling of what we already know.”2 I would go one step further than Longenbach to argue that the poem in fact chronicles how what we know (the whole of Western culture) led into what we did. For the Stevens of “Auroras,” the war was a consequence of that culture, a serpentine evolution of its original violations.


Psychological Control Opal Element Inventive Capacity Happy People Snake Skin 
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  1. 1.
    Forms of Farewell, The Late Poetry of Wallace Stevens (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p. 35.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    “Three Academic Pieces,” The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1951), p. 79. For an analysis of the three parts of the essay that focuses on its “lesson of metamorphosis,” see David Galef, “Resemblance and Change in Wallace Stevens’s ‘Three Academic Pieces,’” American Literature 58.4 (1986): 589–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    For Stevens’s relationship to Duchamp, see Daniel R. Schwarz, “Reconfiguring Modernism: Exploring the Relationship between Modern Art and Modern Literature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 201–202. My connection of Stevens to Duchamp here is indebted to Rosalind E. Krauss’s reading of the rotorelief in The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), p. 95–104. For a sustained interpretation of the ties between Jackson Pollock and “Auroras” see Glen MacLeod, Wallace Stevens and Modern Art (New haven: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 175–97.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Charles Altieri’s phrase, Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 403.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    “White Mythology and the American Sublime: Stevens’s Auroral Fantasy,” The American Sublime, ed. Mary Arensberg (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 159.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Harold Bloom calls this moment a passage “that would have moved the author of Huck Finn.” Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 211. But Bloom’s “injuns” and garter snakes both misrepresent the novel and Stevens’s own lack of romance about the indians.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    The Postmodern Explained, tr. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 11.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Slavoj Žižjec, The Mestastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), p. 91.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Robert Lowell writes of a similar desolation in his anti-nuclear “Fall 1961”: “A father’s no shield / for his child,” For the Union Dead (New York: Farrar Strauss, 1964), p. 11.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    On Stevens and the Lyotardan “forgotten” or “unpresentable,” see David Jarraway, “‘Velocities of Change’: Exceeding Excess in ‘Credences of Summer’ and ‘The Auroras of Autumn,’” The Wallace Stevens Journal 15.1 (1991): 82.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 81.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 579.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Barbara L. Estrin 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara L. Estrin
    • 1
  1. 1.Stonehill CollegeUSA

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