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Critical Review by Anthony Hecht
SOURCE: "Master of Metaphor," in The New Republic, Vol. 3, No. 826, May 16, 1988, pp. 23-32.
Hecht is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet whose works include A Summoning of Stones (1954) and The Hard Hours (1968). In the following review, he offers an overview of major themes and techniques in Wilbur's work and praises his New and Collected Poems.
"The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis," observed Wittgenstein. And since today there are critics who maintain that art and criticism are indistinguishable from one another, it ought to follow that the critical work itself is seen from the same August perspective. Yet our experience of the history of criticism and the morphology of aesthetic theory fails conspicuously to support this view. Nothing is more familiar to us than the changes in the mode of taste that time itself seems to bring round in its course. Bach endured an eclipse of 200 years, and Richard Ellmann has recently told us that for the undergraduate Oscar Wilde, Keats and Swinburne (whom modern readers would only reluctantly identify with one another) were akin in the "effeminacy and languor and voluptuousness which are the characteristics of that 'passionate humanity' which is the background of true poetry." In the comparatively brief course of my lifetime, John Donne's reputation was virtually disinterred, and the Romantics are now enjoying a revival. And I suppose I should add that it must take a very curious and cultivated taste to enjoy reading criticism of Wordsworth as much as reading Wordsworth himself, though I have known such creatures. (They are desperate graduate students, and no less desperate professors.)
These ruminations are brought on by the publication of Richard Wilbur's New and Collected Poems, and by a wistful desire to arrive at a large and serene view of his accomplishment, the crowning of a long and distinguished career. (Just how distinguished is hard to assess, but apart from his many honors, awards, and appointments, I can note here that the 14th edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains 107 lines of his work.) I am already on record as a somewhat defensive admirer of his, having reviewed his last book of poems, The Mind-Reader (1976). And while that review attempted to offer a view of his entire poetic career up to that point (apart from his translations of French drama), I have no desire now to serve up warmed-over views, or to engage again in the parochial and tribal battles that are often waged between rival schools and camps of current poetic taste. Wilbur's distinctions do not need to be set off by the infelicities of others, and his work is by now so well known, and so widely honored, that I can spare the reader a repetition of the formulaic terms of praise that have become the logos and labels of critical approval of his work.
The new book presents all of his previous volumes in reverse order, concluding with his first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947)—the same order in which his poems were arranged in the, by now, familiar assemblage, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, which brought together everything from the first book to Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems (1961). The present volume reprints everything heretofore collected and adds to it the contents of two subsequent volumes, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969) and The Mind-Reader, and adds to them a volume of new poems with which this rich and impressive collection begins. This new work bears all the hallmarks of excellence that have stamped Wilbur's previous work: a kinetic imagination that is rare among poets, as well as an unusually rich and fertile gift for metaphor. I share with Aristotle a view of the importance of this gift, and cite him accordingly as follows:
It is a great thing, indeed, to make a proper use of these poetical forms, as also of compound and strange words. But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.
When I try to make a mental list of the major English and American poets from, say, the turn of the century on, I find myself unable to come up with a single one who can match Wilbur in this regard. Each good poet, of course, has his own unique merits, his own vision, style, and idiom. And good poets do not cancel one another out; if we like Blake we are not thereby forbidden to like Marvell as well. But I can think of no other poet who could do what Wilbur does metaphorically in the following poem, "An Event," from Things of This World:
As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled on.
What is an individual thing? They roll
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!
Or so I give their image to my soul
Until, as if refusing to be caught
In any singular vision of my eye
Or in the nets and cages of my thought,
They tower up, shatter, and madden space
With their divergences, are each alone
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place
Shaping these images to make them stay:
Meanwhile, in some formation of their own,
They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away.
Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
There is a great deal that might be said about this poem, but I will confine myself to two observations. In its ingenious, philosophic course it plays with the pre-Socratic puzzle of "the One" and "the Many," a playfulness that is carefully carried out in such words as "their image" (which is both singular and plural), "singular vision" (s.), "divergences" (pl.), "alone" (s.), "images" (pl.), and "formation" (both s. and pl.). And then in the course of our progress we come to that matchless simile in answer to the question, "What is an individual thing?" "They roll / Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!" There isn't a poet I can think of who would not have been overjoyed by a trouvé of that sort. It is breath-takingly vivid, accurate, and most astonishingly, in motion.
But Wilbur then proceeds to do what virtually no other poet would have the courage to do: he, in effect, throws it away. Or in any case declares that this is only one, and perhaps an imperfect, way to formulate what may in the end defy formulation. He allows the seriousness of his epistemological or metaphysical puzzle to take precedence over any incidental felicities that might be encountered along the way. This sprezzatura would be reckless in another poet. But Wilbur's government of his enormous resources is what makes this poem (as well as many others) a triumph over its local details, and an amalgamation that is wonderfully greater than the sum of its parts. The Eleatic auditors of Zeno would have been delighted.
It seems worth adding that the theme of this poem—the delicate and necessarily imperfect attempt at an equation between the exterior world and the human faculties that apprehend and try to "render" it—is one that has preoccupied Wilbur almost from the first and figures beautifully in such an early stanza as this one:
Sycamore, trawled by the tilt sun,
Still scrawl your trunk with tattered lights, and keep
The spotted toad upon your patchy bark,
Baffle the sight to sleep,
Be such a deep
Rapids of lacing light and dark,
My eye will never know the dry disease
Of thinking things no more than what he sees.
It's a theme that recurs in "A Fire Truck," "The Mill," "Digging for China," "The Beacon," "A Plain Song for Comadre," and "Altitudes." In an era when a lot of supremely pompous things have been claimed for the omnipotence of language, it is refreshing in the work of so accomplished a poet to encounter an acknowledgment of "the defeat of words" in the face of the richness and multiplicity of an external reality that will always supersede and evade the limitations of our vocabulary, however well deployed. So there is to such poems a salutary and characteristic humility that is in itself attractive, and in turn points to something else about Wilbur's poetry that is worth remarking on, though I approach it with a certain tentativeness.
It has to do with the character of the man within or behind the poems; with how and to what degree that man gets expressed, if at all. This is a matter both delicate and controversial. There is an impressive body of modern thought that maintains there is no necessary connection between the work of art and the artist's nature, character, or history. Wilde, for one, maintained this view, and it seems implicit in Eliot's theory of the "impersonality" of art. It is a view Auden adopted in the stanzas he later deleted from his elegy to Yeats—the lines in which he declares:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.
The same view is expressed by Shaw in his preface to The Doctor's Dilemma in these words:
No man who is occupied in doing a very difficult thing, and doing it very well, ever loses his self-respect…. The common man may have to found his self-respect on sobriety, honesty, and industry; but … an artist needs no such props for his sense of dignity … The truth is, hardly any of us have ethical energy enough for more than one really inflexible point of honor…. An actor, a painter, a composer, an author, may be as selfish as he likes without reproach from the public if only his art is superb; and he cannot fulfill this condition without sufficient effort and sacrifice to make him feel noble and martyred in spite of his selfishness.
It is quite wonderful to think how widespread is this doctrine among some artists of very doubtful merit; and we are likely to find it so familiar that it will seem a curiously modern attitude, but it isn't. Plutarch reports in his Life of Pericles: "Antisthenes … when he was told that Ismenias played excellently on the flute, answered very properly, 'Then he is good for nothing else; otherwise he would not have played so well.'"
Yet this view is by no means universally shared, and it is generally felt that though precision in the matter is impossible, the work of art bears some important imprint of the spirit and inmost life of its maker. And so, by way of facing a puzzle that I have never comfortably resolved, I present two Wilbur poems, the first of them, "Still, Citizen Sparrow," from a volume of 1950:
Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call
Unnatural, let him but lumber again to air
Over the rotten office, let him bear
The carrion ballast up, and at the tall
Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you'll see
That no more beautiful bird is in heaven's height,
No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;
He shoulders nature there, the frightfully free,
The naked-headed one. Pardon him, you
Who dart in orchard aisles, for it is he
Devours death, mocks mutability,
Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.
Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset
The people's ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah's sons.
And now, in juxtaposition, a poem called "A Wood," published in a volume nearly 20 years later:
Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,
Proud heads conversant with the power and glory
Of heaven's rays or heaven's thunder-strokes,
And adumbrators to the understory,
Where, in their shade, small trees of modest leanings
Contend for light and are content with gleanings.
And yet here's dogwood: overshadowed, small,
But not inclined to droop and count its losses,
It cranes its way to sunlight after all,
And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.
And here's witch hazel, that from underneath
Great vacant boughs will bloom in winter's teeth.
Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.
These poems probably were not composed to be matched and mated, and yet they do form a pair by dint of theme and contrast. They are both symbolic poems in which some aspect of nature takes part in a little allegorical pageant, exhibiting human attitudes in a manner that we've become familiar with from poems like Robert Frost's "Spring Pools." And even though there was a long interval between their appearances, it is possible to think of them as a sort of diptych, as poems that face each other and quarrel in a friendly way, as do Milton's "L' Allegro" and "II Penseroso"; though here we are prompted to wonder if the alternative postures presented by the two Wilbur poems are the consequence of a change of attitude on the part of the poet, or simply an attempt, as in Milton's case, to set up an antiphonal or dialogic relationship.
The question seems worth raising partly because there is something disturbing in the earlier, and in my view, the less successful, of these Wilbur poems. There is, for one thing, a curiously Jacobin flavor to the opening words and the title, suggesting the bloodthirsty resentment of some revolutionary leveler and vengeful egalitarian. The very first word, "Still," invites us to suppose that the speaker is now countering a long and detailed diatribe of condemnation with a word that means, "In spite of everything you say…." The citoyen is asked to admire his grotesque and more powerful rival and predator, whose ugliness, at a sufficiently great distance, will not be discernible. This powerful enemy "has heart to make an end" in that he finishes off his rivals, and in this way, it is claimed for him, "keeps nature new." I can't help feeling there is something frightful about this, and the more frightful in that we, and the citoyen, are being asked to admire and forgive it. In some way that is to me quite unpersuasive, this creature is identified as "the hero," and further identified with Noah, who, like the vulture, survives the hideous death of everyone else. Nothing is hinted about the merit of Noah and the wickedness of mankind to account for this introduction into the poem of a biblical story.
The poem seems to be about the elect who succeed and survive, in contrast to the masses who perish and are undeserving. Indeed, the biblical citation seems totally unexpected, and by no means easy to assimilate. There is a species of social Darwinism going on here "to which / The ripped mouse, safe in the owl's talon, cries / Concordance," in the words of Wilbur's poem "Beasts." I can't believe that this is a skewed or perverse reading of the poem, which seems to invite a sort of class distinction and exclusiveness. In any case, one cannot help feeling that the parable of the trees in "A Wood" is a great deal more charitable and generous than the parable of the birds in "Still, Citizen Sparrow."
This is the more striking in that, as opposed to the violence, insolence, and outright repulsiveness with which any number of poets now assault us, Wilbur's work has been characterized from the first by an admirable capacity to praise. "Obscurely yet most surely called to praise," begins one of his earliest poems. Long ago there used to be a commonplace belief that the end of art was precisely to delight ("Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not"). This did not mean, of course, that art was therefore purged of any taint of unpleasantness, presenting instead a dilute and sentimental version of existence, any more than Shakespeare's The Tempest is free from villainy. But, in Keats's formulation, "The excellency of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate"; by which, I assume, he means that even the most terrible matters could be redeemed by their assimilation into art.
Wilbur's poems have exhibited over the years an impressive capacity to confront the shocking, the appalling, the grotesque. Among his finest poems are the powerful dramatic monologues from which his last two books take their titles: Walking to Sleep and The Mind-Reader, each of which deals with terrors of different sorts. It is an index, in fact, of Wilbur's growth as an artist that his emotional range has become increasingly ample over the years. If there could be said to be any characteristic limitations to his early work, they might be described as a sort of runaway mellifluousness, a Hopkinsian/Swinburnian/Tennysonian drench of language:
A script of trees before the hill
Spells cold, with laden serifs; all the walls
Are battlemented still;
But winter spring's winnowing the air
Of chill, and crawls
Wet-sparkling on the gutters;
Walls wince, and there's a steal of waters.
Now all this proud royaume
Is Veniced. Through the drift's mined dome
One sees the rowdy rusted grass,
And we're amazed as windows striken bright.
This too-long spring will pass
Perhaps tonight …
I don't mean that there's anything "wrong" with this, though it is perhaps a little more "mannered" than the later poems, and the calligraphy of the trees is less convincing than the fingerprint of that flock of birds in flight. Even here there is in "spells" a pun of the sort that will continue to inhabit Wilbur's poems throughout his career. His puns are serious and serviceable, and only occasionally comic; they are a major feature of his work, as are Shakespeare's "quibbles," which are the despair of translators. It was this sort of ambiguity and multivalenced power of words that led Tolstoy to his impatient dismissal of King Lear and his assertion that Shakespeare was "only playing with words." But, in a deeply serious way, that is actually what all good poets do: words are their only instruments to convey what is not easily conveyed by words alone. To resort to abusive epithets such as "artifice" or "dandy" is merely to embrace one convention and use it to bludgeon another that is equally valid.
Those who in past years have been stinting in their approval of Wilbur have pointed to his universally admired translations of classic French drama and have gone on to declare that this dated, formalized sensibility perfectly accords with his own tendencies to precision and stateliness. But I remember as an undergraduate reading Molière done, or rather, done in, by Louis Untermeyer in a translation that the veriest lout would recognize as doggerel. And since Wilbur's versions have become available there is no self-respecting production that would resort to another.
The linguistic gifts that have made possible these superb translations from 17th-century French are also at work in the collections of lyric poems, which contain Wilbur's translations from French, Latin, Russian, Spanish, and Italian poems, dating from the fourth or fifth century to the work of his contemporaries. This latitude of sympathy for poets sometimes very idiosyncratic and different from one another (for example, Villon and Voltaire) is itself an expression of Wilbur's reach and suggests that like another American poet, he "contains multitudes."
The new poems that are now added to his six previous collections are as rich, varied, and accomplished as we have come to expect, and in addition he has risked, successfully, an admirable departure from his usual practice. Wilbur has written texts for musical settings before, and with great effect. Two very fine examples that come to mind are "A Christmas Hymn" and Pangloss's song about syphilis for the comic opera Candide. But now Wilbur has written a more extended text for a full cantata in celebration of the Statue of Liberty. It was written for the composer William Schuman, is divided into five sections, runs to a total of 102 lines, and is called "On Freedom's Ground." It seems to me to succeed wonderfully where anyone else I can think of would have failed. And the task was rife with potential pitfalls. There were the twin perils of jingoism and chauvinistic sentimentality on the one hand, and the symmetrical or compensatory danger of leaning over backward to avoid anything that looked suspiciously like "affirmation."
But over and above these was the problem of writing an extensive text for music. Many poets, and not a few composers, are likely to be obtuse in these matters. Poets incline to want to hang on to syntactical complexity and sinuousness, to resist end-stopped lines that these days are regarded as artificial, identified with 18th-century heroic couplets, verse epigrams, and plain lack of breath. Composers are sometimes too eager to find texts by poets of stature that are also short enough to set, and in consequence are likely to come up all too quickly with one of the more enigmatic and impenetrable of Emily Dickinson's poems, simply because it was written in the old hymnal quatrains, and thus seems eminently settable. Of modern poets Yeats may have been the most intuitive and plausible about writing for music, knowing somehow that he would have to simplify his ways if he wanted his auditors to grasp anything of what he wrote while having to attend to a vocal performance of music with accompaniment.
Wilbur has risked this kind of dangerous simplicity and straightforwardness, and has done so with great success. He has ingeniously made use of the device of the catalog, a genuine relief to a listener's need to follow the thread of an argument or a narrative, and he has cunningly and discreetly worked a famous phrase of Martin Luther King Jr.'s into the fabric of his text, where it is surely but unostentatiously resonant. The cantata stands at the end of this new collection, separated from the rest and intended to be recognized for what it is: something written in a special, ceremonial, accessible idiom that will give the composer room to do some creative work of his own, and command some part of the listener's attention.
Before addressing the admirable new poems that open this volume I must confess that I am puzzled by a passage in one of Wilbur's loveliest and most celebrated poems, "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." After presenting a contrasting set of fountains, the poet returns to his fons et origo and asks:
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui
With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
But the account of Saint Francis on which these lines depend, and which comes from the anonymous Little Flowers, does not confirm what Wilbur says in his poem. The relevant passage goes this way:
One winter day Saint Francis was walking with Brother Leo from Perugia to Saint Mary of the Angels, the Portiuncula. The very sharp cold made him suffer greatly, and he called to Brother Leo, who was walking ahead, and said: "Even though the Minor Brothers may set everywhere a fine example of holiness and edification, nevertheless write this down, and note carefully, that that does not make for perfect joy."
And a little farther on Saint Francis called to him again: "O Brother Leo, even if the Minor Brothers should make the blind see, straighten crooked limbs, drive out demons, and make the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dumb speak, and—the greatest miracle—raise to life the four days dead, write that therein does not consist perfect joy."
After still more of these repudiations of what might have been thought the grounds for perfect joy, poor Brother Leo impatiently breaks out with "Father, I beg you, for God's sake, to tell me wherein lies perfect joy," and Francis answers as follows:
When we arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, soaked by rain and frozen by cold, spattered with mud and tortured with hunger; if when we knock at the convent door, the porter comes angrily and says: "Who are you?" and we say: "We are two of your brothers"; and he says: "That is not true; you are a couple of tramps who go around fooling people and stealing the alms intended for the poor. So get out!" And when he won't open to us and he makes us stay outside till night, hungry in the snow and rain and cold—then if we bear all these rebuffs and cruel insults with patience, without answering back, and if we think with humility and charity that this doorkeeper really knows us, but God commands him to repulse us—then, O Brother Leo, write that there is perfect joy.
The new collection opens with a superb poem called "The Ride," which continues a kind of obsessional theme that Wilbur has made characteristically his own: the poem that plays on the delicate and tenuous relationship between dream and waking. Readers of his work will know how this subject has preoccupied him in such poems as "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," "In Limbo," "Walking to Sleep," "For Ellen," and "Marginalia," for example. The subtle changes between different states of consciousness are a rich source for poetry, and many of the best modern poets have worked the region with success, but none, I think, as successfully as Wilbur.
He also presents us with a translation of a poem by Joseph Brodsky called "Six Years Later," which Brodsky chose to open his most recent collection, A Part of Speech. It is a love poem of great formality, and with an ingenuity of metaphoric structure that is distinctly reminiscent of the poems of Donne. Brodsky was from very early in his career a great admirer of Donne, for whom he wrote an elegy. And it is no small accomplishment on Wilbur's part to have translated a poem from the Russian that allows the influence of the 17th-century poet to exhibit itself in a modern and modulated way.
I should add that Wilbur's translation, also included, of Apollinaire's "Mirabeau Bridge" is as miraculous in its poise and fragility as the original. There is a deftly funny poem called "A Fable," which is a blithe commentary on American foreign policy, and a beautiful elegy for Auden. Again and again these poems take away the breath by the stunning aptness of simile or metaphor, and almost always of something in motion:
Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street,
Leaving the stations of her body there
As a whip maps the countries of the air.
And in "Trolling for Blues" Wilbur returns to the subject of "An Event," the problem of capturing in words or in the mind some fleeting hint of what is called "reality." This topic is also the focus of one of the very best, wittiest, and most thoughtful poems in the new groups, "All That Is." The poem begins with the mootness and growing obscurity of dusk, beautifully described, and with the uncertainty that this blurred hour engenders. As the night darkens the stars come out and we follow "a many-lighted bus" making its way through a city, and a passenger who has turned to the cross-word puzzle, as have, at that hour, many others in the kitchens and parlors of their homes.
And somehow, strangely, suddenly, the poet invites us to raise our eyes above these heads bent over their puzzles to behold "a ghostly grille / Through which, as often, we begin to see / The confluence of the Oka and the Aare." We have moved wonderfully into a region of some obscurity, partly because of the approaching night, and partly because the language of crossword puzzles has, as it were, taken over. That grille we have focused upon is partly perhaps the gridwork of a celestial map, but much more surely the checkerboard of squares of a typical crossword puzzle in which we might find that two rivers, the Oka and the Aare, which in prosy geographical fact are located in Russia and Switzerland, can nevertheless form a confluence where their letters intersect. Their very names, perhaps, produce in the poet a kind of crossword reverie of exotic words, in which he giddily proceeds to indulge:
Is it a vision? Does the eye make out
A flight of ernes, rising from aits or aeries,
Whose shadows track across a harsh terrain
Of esker and arete? At waterside,
Does the shocked eeler lay his congers by,
Sighting a Reo driven by an edile?
And does the edile, from his runningboard,
Step down to meet a ranee? Does she end
By reading to him from the works of Elia?
This charming fantasia of unanswered questions, this visionary excursion into the realm of the linguistically obscure, is not, in my view, the sort of text for which notes ought to be supplied or demanded. If it sends you, as it sent me, to the dictionary, and even to the Britannica, that is merely to acknowledge that the poet's mental life has gone off on a delightful toot of its own, and that we should take a puzzler's pleasure in tracking it down, just as he has attempted to trace, "Between the street-lamps and the jotted sky," a grille of crosswords that will resolve everything. There follows a passage I have not yet unravelled, in which the poet presents us with a vision of "A lambent god reposing on the sea, / Full of the knitted light of all that is." And he continues:
It is a puzzle which, as puzzles do,
Dreams, that there is no puzzle. It is a rite
Of finitude, a picture in whose frame
Roc, oast, and Inca decompose at once
Into the ABCs of every day.
A door is rattled shut, a deadbolt thrown.
Under some clipped euonymus, a mushroom,
Bred of an old and deep mycelium
As hidden as the webwork of the world,
Strews, on the shifty night-wind, rising now,
A cast of spores as many as the stars.
Witty and complex and lovely as this poem may be, I nevertheless feel that another blank verse poem of meditation, titled "Lying," is, at least in my present view of things, the best poem in the collection. It begins with distinct modesty this way:
To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven't of late, can do no harm.
Your reputation for saying things of interest
Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics.
Nor will the delicate web of human trust
Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.
The poem then goes on to speculate about what it is that prompts us to these little acts of mendacity. Perhaps, initially, an impatience or boredom with the dailiness, the sheer routine, of things, and even with the more miraculous of things, "the horse's neck / Clothed with its usual thunder," in an echo of the majestic words of God in the 39th chapter of the Book of Job. That biblical catalog of divine wonders is always before us, as are other, still more uncommon, wonders, "And so with that most rare conception, nothing."
Since evil is only the absence of good, and since Satan is the Prince of Lies, he makes his sinuous entrance into the poem with almost unperceived skill, as "the water of a dried-up well / Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador." He then approaches us, "pretending not to be," and appears, in the words of Milton from the ninth book of Paradise Lost, as a "black mist low creeping," which, when it rises, turns to a rainbow. But perhaps because of the invocation of Milton, the poem now finds itself confronting the axiom that art itself is a lie of sorts, and, in the words of Shakespeare's Touchstone, "The truest poetry is the most feigning." All of it is, according to Aristotle, a form of imitation, which is a kind of lie. Wilbur continues:
Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird's tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray,
Its light, up-tilted spine; or, lighter still,
How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadows like a flapping sail.
Odd that a thing is most itself when likened: …
And now we have come to the very heart of metaphor itself. It is metaphor that allows us to contemplate a great deal that might otherwise be intolerable, and, like tragedy, it "Finds pleasure in the cruellest simile." We return to the catbird, which, like a mockingbird, or a poet, is distinguished as a mimic, gifted in the art of imitation. The bird's song is characterized as "a chant / Of the first springs," and as a "tributary / To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut / That have the truth in view: …" There follow three such lies, all of them masterpieces of the imagination. The first is the pagan tale of Chiron, who "Instructed brute Achilles in the lyre," another of Wilbur's serious puns. The second is the biblical image of faultless Eden, and the third the concluding sacrifice and valor of Roland:
who to Charles his king
And to the dove that hatched the dove tailed world
Was faithful unto death, and shamed the Devil.
There is nobility in such utterance that is deeply persuasive, and throughout Wilbur's poetry we are accustomed to finding this rare quality, usually joined to wit, good humor, grace, modesty, and a kind of physical zest or athletic dexterity that is, so far as I know, unrivaled.
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