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Critical Essay by John M. Green
SOURCE: "Wilbur's Beasts," in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 247-49.
In the following essay, Green analyzes and discusses the images and metaphors in Wilbur's poem "Beasts."
Richard Wilbur's "Beasts" depicts in striking imagery the anomalous place of man in Nature. This brilliant six-stanza lyric can be divided into three scenes: the harmonious world of Nature; the painful world of degenerating human nature; and the world of "superior" men who betray their calling and bring destruction on all the worlds. Man seems to be the only creature whose nature, form, and function are not fixed. Paradoxically, this freedom from definition leads him into obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. The vision of the poem is Calvinist.
In the first two stanzas, we are in a peaceful world, whose condition is reinforced by a motif of musical harmony. The elements of this motif are major (the major keys are happy ones), plucked, lyric, dulcet, and concordance. The water current "sleeps" (play on sweeps?) the sunfish. The deer's feet are "spotless," that is, immaculate, without the stain of sin, as well as unmarked. It is nevertheless a predatory world: the gull dreams in his "guts" of the fish that he has caught in the waves. And, most strikingly, the disembowelled mouse paradoxically sees the harmony of it all. Death is a feared occurrence, but a natural one; it is not horrifying. Hunting for survival is what beasts are supposed to do; their instincts make them behave this way. Their behavior is not immoral. At the end of the second stanza, we switch to the world of man, entering a scene of much more horrifying "harm and … darkness." In this switch, we focus on the moon, which acts as a beneficent overseer in the first two stanzas, and even contributes its influence to the harmonious movement of the tidal waters ("the moon-plucked waves"). But in the world of man, the light of the moon is "warped in window-glass," a synecdoche for civilization.
Civilized man is still, uneasily, a prey to the influence of Nature; he is not completely at home in either world. Seeing himself as "above" the other animals, he nevertheless inevitably ("as always") slides back toward Nature. His painful situation becomes apparent; he can never fully revert to the animal. The werewolf is not an animal but a monster. The peacefulness of the world of Nature is closed to him. It holds a deep attraction, but consciously he draws back. Instead of "slumbering in peace," he turns his head away on "the sweaty bolster"—a pillow that is also a support, because it is manmade—trying to resist the inevitable metamorphosis into a monster. When the change takes place (as in the old Lon Chaney movies), his ears become "sharper" (more acute, as well as more pointed). Although sharp is another element in the motif of music, it represents not a full note, but something in-between.
In this sequence, "sponsors" suggests the godparents in the rite of baptism, in which the soul passes from the corruption of original sin to the innocence of sanctifying grace. Here the process is more-or-less reversed. Another word that reverberates is "minors," obliquely echoing "major" in the first line of the poem. The minor keys in music are melancholy. Another instance of verbal texturing is "panic," derived from Pan, god of Nature. Like the werewolf, he is an amalgam of man and beast. He is said not only to cause panic fear, but to send nightmares—like the werewolf's. The "degradation of the heavy streams" may be not only (polluted?) water flowing downhill and eroding the earth, but also the once-human bloodstream of the werewolf.
Next comes perhaps the most difficult phase of the poem. I am inclined to agree with Charles R. Woodard in his Explicator article in spring, 1978 (vol. 36, no. 3, 6-7) that the "suitors" are not scientists, as Donald L. Hill had maintained they were in Richard Wilbur (1967). Woodard holds that the more satisfactory reading would be to see them as "poets, philosophers, creators of myth, who have always been quite as much students of evil as suitors of excellence…." But would the phrase not also suggest mystics, ascetics, and founders of religions, such as Christ and Buddha? In any case, their ambience is somewhat Platonic, inasmuch as they are at "high windows / Far from thicket and pad-fall." They are far from the beasts and the werewolf. Thus their vision is limited. In addition, they seem to undergo an experience similar to that of the werewolf: he "turned his head away" (presumably from human nature); they "turn from their work." Their work seems to have to do with "raising" man's nature by rejecting the body. (I do not see how their work could be "the contemplation of hell," as Woodard puts it.) Inasmuch as it is night, however, when the libido is in the ascendant, they are drawn, despite themselves, to contemplate what are for them projections of man's "baser" nature: the "painful / Beauty of heaven" (Venus), the "lucid moon" (Diana), and "the risen hunter" (Orion). All are aggressive (Venus also, through her archer son). In addition, man himself, as a product of evolution, can be seen as the "risen hunter."
As they turn from their work, the suitors "sigh" because they realize that their sublimated ideals are impracticable. As "suitors" they themselves are lovers, however Platonic. That is, they come to realize (as Plato himself did in the Phaedrus) that their drive for perfection originates in the libido. As a result, an uneasy amalgam of the intellectual/spiritual and the emotional/physical results, "making such dreams" as those that produce the chaos in the last stanza.
Another way of looking at the ordeal of the suitors is that they are experiencing what Freud calls "the return of the repressed." The physical/emotional rises up to play a largely unrecognized role in the dreams made by the suitors. It may be suggested that the work of the suitors—questionably perfecting themselves and mankind—is further perverted into a pursuit such as astrology (inasmuch as they are contemplating the heavens). Astrology is a perversion because it sees man as determined, and places the blame for his condition and actions on forces beyond his control. Compulsion rules.
But astrology is only a synecdoche. Any pseudo-science or dogma (Manifest Destiny, the Master Race, dialectical materialism, or the rightness of any orthodoxy) makes dreams that lead to the warlike chaos of the last stanza. Many religions, too, tend to create abstract beliefs and rules that hold up a "heavenly" standard of conduct, a standard that man consciously strives to attain, but which he unconsciously knows that he cannot. In the resulting "heartbreak," he projects his failure onto the external world in the form of violence. With the slippage of rationally sensitive control, men become sleepwalkers, in effect, and as Ralph Ellison maintains, there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers (prologue to Invisible Man). When the "suitors of excellence" create their meretricious dreams, the inevitable ("as always") degeneration occurs. So finally, there is little to choose between the threat represented by the werewolf, and that represented by the suitors themselves. If anything, that of the werewolf is more limited in scope. In any case, "as always" connotes a tragic denial and fear of freedom.
Perhaps also the exaltation of the hunter-killer aspect of man represents the fatal compromise by men of intellect and taste (like the Poet in Giraudoux's The Trojan War Will Not Take Place) who feel that they must be "tough-minded" and construct apologias for the warriors. Christ and Buddha did not, but their doctrines were almost instantly so perverted. The result is that, instead of having pigeons (doves) on the "public statues" (themselves usually commemorating former wars) we have crows, scavengers of death. Ships are torpedoed ("fish" is Navy slang for a torpedo). Nature itself is troubled and out of control ("unbridled"). The contrast with the opening stanza is handled beautifully.
The poem is a reminder of Sartre's sardonic dictum, "We are condemned to freedom." Being human is a precarious undertaking.
This section contains 1,344 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)