A Tatter of Shadows

A Tatter of Shadows

This week’s choice is “A Postcard from the Volcano” by Wallace Stevens, which I chose because it reminds me of a visit to Pompeii.

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

Poem 278. A Postcard from the Volcano

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow  
Above the shuttered mansion-house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
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,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

This poem by Wallace Stevens begins with the thought that children picking up bones from the ground have no conception of the life that once was associated with these remains—“as quick as foxes on the hill”—the word quick here implying both the liveliness of the bones’ owner and that they once were children too, lithe and swift.

We see the person breathing out a cloud of steam in the frosty air of autumn, when the grapes have ripened fully just as older people have ripened fully, and this also is something the children will never suspect.

Most of all, children don’t understand that their surroundings have been shaped and built by the generations before them—“We left much more, left what still is/The look of things”

We see these children playing amongst the bones in the springtime (the season most associated with childhood and youth) uncaring and ignorant of the history behind “the shuttered mansion-house” which the previous generations understood.

Even though the children may chatter in the same language as their forebears as they weave garlands of flowers, they will think of the deserted mansion perhaps as a haunted or derelict house, with its shabby walls standing in a ruined city, and the upper parapets shining brightly in the “opulent sun”—this suggests to me the warmth and brightness of the sun.

This poem is like a picture postcard, a snapshot of a moment with its clear description of the deserted mansion house standing behind its gate under the sun and the children playing outside while the wind laments and blows the clouds across the sky. The language is really appealing—”the grapes/Made sharp air sharper by their smell”, “the windy sky/Cries out a literate despair” and the passage I quoted at the top.

Since the title refers to a volcano, I imagine that the postcard is from Naples and shows an area of Pompeii, with the bones emerging from the ashes of centuries ago while the excavated buildings bear mute witness to the achievements of the previous generations while the local children play amongst the ruins, indifferent and ignorant of their history.

I also think of children playing on the site of battles that played out in the past: it could be a scene from the American Civil War or the future of Ukraine once the guns fall silent; the ghost towns standing as reminders of lost civilisation in the midst of destruction.

The key theme of the poem seems to be the indifference and ignorance of younger generations to the suffering and achievements of those gone before—it is almost as if these ancient forebears’ plaintive cries are carried by the wind, but the children play on regardless of the pleas of their ancestors.

The poem is referenced in the Dramatists Play Service published version of the play “The Rules of Charity” which also focuses on the indifference of younger generations to the suffering of their parents and ancestors.


  • Read about The Rules of Charity at Wikipedia.
  • Watch Neil Lukatch’s performance (under the “exponent” channel) on YouTube.