Richard Wilbur | Critical Essay by Isabella Wai

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Wilbur.
This section contains 552 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Isabella Wai

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Ceremony'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter 1997, pp. 98-99.

In the following essay, Wai provides a brief explication of Wilbur's poem "Ceremony."

In his poem "Ceremony," Richard Wilbur treats the paradox that man and nature may seem to be in combat with each other yet are in some respects basically akin. The poem demonstrates his respect for ritualistic forms in both nature and society. "I think that a lot of one's feeling of union with natural things is unilateral," says Wilbur, "and yet I persist in feeling that nothing, right down to the stone, is irrelevant to us, is not part of a family."

"Ceremony" begins with Wilbur's response to a painting by Bazille, a nineteenth-century French-Impressionist painter:

      A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
      Is, you may say, patroness of boughs
      Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.

The reader immediately senses the poet's awareness of man's intrusion into nature and his perception of the contrast between civilization and wilderness.

Thus the girl in Wilbur's poem who seems to be "queenly kind," or supremely civil, must be alien to the wild, unruly life of the forest. But the second half of the first stanza contradicts this assumption. Although the formality of the girl's attire distinguishes her from the surrounding woods,

       … ceremony never did conceal
       Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
       How much we are the woods we wander in.

If the lady were without social mannerisms and formal dress and appeared instead as Sabrina the water nymph ("Let her be some Sabrina fresh from stream"), the nature-man distinction would be invisible in her. Without this contrast, Bazille's scene would have lost its meaning and form. "[F]resh from stream," closely associated with the sun and the fern beds, and having become "the flowers' cynosure." Sabrina is Nature herself, and Nature is she. The "nymph and wood" interpenetrate each other's being:

      Then nymph and wood must nod and strive to dream
      That she is airy earth, the trees, undone,
      Must ape her languor natural and pure.

Yet their mingling of identities results in an absence of contrast and, consequently, a loss of vigor. Words such as "slowed," "[b]edded," "dream," and "languor" create an atmosphere of sleepiness and oppressive stillness.

The poet yawns. "Ho-hum." The idyllic scene associated with Sabrina is too pure or uniform and harmonious to provoke any creative impulse. Then the poet dispels the drowsiness and praises the "wit and wakefulness"—imaginationand dynamic contrast—embodied in the lady. The concluding stanza demonstrates that beneath the ceremonious appearance of "curtsey and quadrille," man and nature are akin. The lady's "social smile and formal dress" only "lightly" hide her bond with the wild, unceremonious "tigers." Through the contrast between wild life and civilization, the presence of tigers and the lady's etiquette are more intensely felt. Wilbur shares Bazille's recognition of the interaction among objects in a certain environment and juxtaposes them with each other accordingly, to provide a surprising and revealing effect. Ironically, although the lady's social formality lends contrast to the forest, her stripes, resembling those of the tigers, reinforce the impression that she is part of "the woods" she "wander[s] in."

Like the lady, both Bazille and Wilbur feign. Bazille frames his response to reality in a painting, whereas Wilbur fables his interpretation of Bazille's impression in a poem, ceremoniously observant of restrictions of rhythm and rhyme.

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This section contains 552 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Isabella Wai
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