Ecstasies of Emptiness: Astronomical Perspectives in Wallace Stevens’ “Auroras of Autumn”

This recent paper is too long to post, so to read the whole thing, you’ll have to download the Word file.

Here’s a little excerpt:

The fifth and sixth tercets return us to “The theatre,” explicitly situating the earth in the universe:

The theatre is filled with flying birds,
Wild wedges, as of a volcano’s smoke, palm-eyed
And vanishing, a web in a corridor

Or massive portico. A capitol,
It may be, is emerging or has just
Collapsed. The denouement has to be postponed …

(Collected Poems, 416.)

Map of the entire sky, based on 95,851,173 stars. Courtesy NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The earth may be as “a web” in a universe that may be a “corridor” or a “massive portico.” The simplicity yet sophistication of these architectural metaphors for the universe is stunning. Two, possibly more, competing and equally valid conceptions of astronomical time and space are summed up in a mere five words. Stevens would return and expand upon the subject in canto vi (coincidentally) of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” – a poem on similar themes, if absent the apotheosis of the “supernatural” setting of “Auroras” – and its Alphas and Omegas representing the two competing theories of astronomical time (where “alpha” is the portico that “continues to begin” and “omega” the corridor that is “refreshed at every end” (469)), but nowhere else would he capture this concept whole with the same poetic intensity and economy. And what is this physical universe, this reality here – for that matter, what is the world or the galaxy? A capitol? May be. Emerging or just collapsed? Astronomical theories support both. “The denouement has to be postponed …” because we just don’t know, and because we must at all costs postpone our mortality. And our knowledge of the physical universe ends, not with a bang but with a whimper, as the canto drifts into that beautiful closing ellipsis, silenced by its own ecstasy of emptiness.

Read the whole paper here:

For a wonderful introduction to Wallace Stevens, see Professor Langdon Hammer — the chairman of the Yale English Department — introduce Stevens and his poetry on Yale’s Open Yale Courses channel here:

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