Richard Wilbur | Critical Essay by Isabella Wai

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Wilbur.
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Critical Essay by Isabella Wai

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra'," in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 4, Summer 1996, pp. 244-47.

In the following essay, Wai provides an analysis of Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra."

In his book of word games for children Opposites, Richard Wilbur speculates about the relativity between objects, or between ideas, and between objects and ideas. In his poems, he uses contrasts to explore the relatedness of two conflicting inclinations: spiritual aspirations and mundane commitments. Wilbur approaches the intangible dimension of a real object through its tangible appearance. He tends to juxtapose one character or object against another, balancing each against its "counterpoint." The opposed images show the inadequacy of one divorced from the other.

The rivalry between spiritual yearnings and a commitment to the imperfect world of objects inspires Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." The baroque fountain and its counterparts in St. Peter's Square represent two different views of happiness—participation in worldly pleasures and transcendence toward heavenly bliss. The poet favors a spirituality that is not world renouncing.

To comprehend His creation is to comprehend the Creator, Wilbur states:

I think a lot of my poems, instead of saying "isn't this a marvellous world permeated by divinity," say instead "come on, let's not be too spiritual, let's get down to earth." That of course implies the possibility of being spiritual. That kind of attack on a too-unworldly spirituality could be seen as a way of affirming the possibility of any kind of spirituality.

The structure of many of Wilbur's poems is dialectical, corresponding to the rival claims of the actual and the ideal. His dialectics usually take the form of a succession of examples through which the poet examines the complexities involved in the conflict. The arrangement of the arguments is usually a juxtaposition of the thesis against the antithesis. Sometimes this is followed by a synthesis, which may be a poetic resolution ("difficult balance" in the poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" [233-34]) or a paradoxical image ("light incarnate" in "A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" [283-84]). The religious allusion to St. Francis in "A Baroque Wall-Fountain" serves as a concluding argument.

The ornate Baroque wall fountain in a public garden of Rome, meticulously described in the first seven stanzas of the poem, is a scene of fallen Eden, of "saecular ecstasy." A stone cherub wears a bronze crown that is too big for its head. "A serpent has begun to eat" the cherub's feet. The water trickles down over the three shells in "effortless descent." The descent is "effortless," for it is in harmony with the natural law of gravity. Beneath the third scalloped shell live "a faun-ménage and their familiar goose." The presence of a serpent and the descent of water recall the Fall of Adam into the world of experience. The faun, expressing a possible view of happiness, accepts his condition with case.

The faun's "babes" are heirs to their parents' attitude toward life. The happiness of the faun-ménage consists in their total acceptance and enjoyment of what they are allowed. Sensuous delights are conveyed throughout the description of the wall fountain: the water is "Sweet," the flesh of the "fauness" is "sparkling," and the "ripple-shadows" are "More addling to the eye than wine."

Trickling down through the seven stanzas, the lengthy sentences imitate the downward movement of water from the stone cherub to the "trefoil pool," where "ripple-shadows come / And go in swift reticulum." Certain words are strategically placed at the beginning of a line to heighten the intensity of the fall or movement of the water. The word "Collapse," for example, sends the water, sustained by the adjective "loose" in the preceding line, plunging downward at full speed. And the phrase, "flatteries of spray" is a kinetic and graphic description of the water after "its effortless descent." The language suggests the dance of light and shadow associated with the music and patterns of splashing water.

Juxtaposed against the elaborate wall fountain are the plain Maderna fountains in St. Peter's Square. Compared with the wall fountain, they are less intricate in design, but more intricate in their expression of human ideals.

The Maderna fountains are depicted in one sentence, manifesting the effort that sustains the upward movement of the water in defiance of the natural law of gravity. Again Wilbur captures the kinetic motion of the water, "struggling" and balancing itself "aloft until it seems at rest / In the act of rising." Yet the world-renouncing struggle of the Maderna fountains toward spirituality seems to be indistinguishable from the desire for personal glamour. The words "cavorting" and "display" imply that the ascent itself is a showy performance, which is applauded by the descent of the water pattering "on the stones." The water of the main jet is only "at rest" after a glimpse of heaven and after self-glorification, whereas the fauns "are at rest in fulness of desire/For what is given."

The poet wonders whether men should model their lives on the "water-saints" who "display / The pattern of our areté" or on the "showered fauns" who "do not tire / Of the smart of the sun." It is through the example of St. Francis that the poet suggests a subtle, ambiguous resolution for the dilemma between the two human tendencies: restless spiritual yearning and "humble insatiety." Although St. Francis abstained from worldly pleasures, he might be enlightened by seeing the virtue of the fauns: their humbleness. The virtue of humility, according to the saint, can be the key to celestial riches. Yet this revelation that the saint may have experienced is only a possibility, and the "bliss" he "might have seen" only a "shade."

Unlike the fauns, who have fulfilled God's command to multiply, St. Francis at Sarteano scourged his recalcitrant body because of his desire for a family. But the saint differs from the water saints, whose struggle for spiritual bliss is tinted by a desire for secular applause. St. Francis believed that perfect joy consists in humility and acceptance.

St. Francis, who provides a contrasting parallel to both the water saints and the fauns, might have achieved a balance between the two sets of virtues: the fauns' humility and the water saints' aspiration toward transcendence. Yet the achievement of that balance would have been contingent upon his respect for and acceptance of "That land of tolerable flowers, that state / As near and far as grass/Where eyes become the sunlight…." The word "flowers" recalls the title of the book The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Flowers ordinarily are emblems of the short duration of existence, but these flowers are "tolerable" because they are perceived as enduring. In St. Francis's case, the flowers are his virtues and his worldly religious accomplishments. The "eyes" or lights of the soul "become the sunlight," the life-giving force. And the "hand," meaning physical labor in general and the flower tender in particular, "Is worthy of water," which is associated with both Baptism and irrigation. The "tolerable flowers" (immortal mortality) are nourished by the lights of the soul and the sun and by water from both spiritual and physical sources. In this "dreamt land / Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass," spirituality is world nourishing rather than world renouncing.

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This section contains 1,213 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Isabella Wai
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