This section contains 5,827 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Samuel Hazo
SOURCE: "One Definite Mozart," in Renascence, Vol. XLV, No. 1-2, Fall 1992–Winter 1993, pp. 81-96.
Hazo is an award-winning American poet and critic. In the following essay, he surveys Wilbur's works and praises him as one of the greatest American poets.
Ever since I first began reading Richard Wilbur's poems in the late 1940's, I think I've read only one negative review of his work. It was not Randall Jarrell's somewhat patronizing critique of Wilbur's second book, Ceremony. It was a review of The Mind-Reader by Calvin Bedient in The New Republic (June 5, 1976). Bedient contended that Wilbur was too safe a poet—that he rarely took chances. The reviewer was not referring to subject matter; he was taking Wilbur to task for deliberately choosing to remain within the limits of traditional metrics and prosody and yielding to "moral complacency."
I mention this now because one of my themes in this appreciation will be to demonstrate that Richard Wilbur's refreshing and refreshened traditionalisms along the lines of metrics and prosody are not a weakness but a strength. And I make this statement as one not fully enthralled by that tradition as it is literally defined but fully supportive of Wilbur's achievements within it. To say smugly that he rarely took chances is to betray a superficial reading of Wilbur's work to date. The nuances of diversity and experiment are everywhere, and they serve to re-create rather than merely perpetuate the set patterns of quatrains, couplets, sonnets, pentameters, trimeters or the alliteratively linked linear segments that Wilbur adapted from the Anglo-Saxon scops. That he has done so with almost Elizabethan elegance is what has distinguished his poetry among that of all his contemporaries from the time of the publication of The Beautiful Changes in 1947 to the appearance of New and Collected Poems in 1988, for which he received his second Pulitzer Prize. That he has been criticized by some who lack his consistent virtuosity within the chosen disciplines that he has embraced and with which he feels most at home is perhaps inevitable. But to me this is not unlike criticizing a tennis player for playing tennis (also an activity governed by fixed rules) exceptionally well on, of all things, a tennis court. Even if one does not like the game or the rules, one at least can respect the talent of one who has mastered them, re-created them in his own style and advanced and enriched the tradition by performing well within its strictures.
On the other hand, the aforementioned reviewer may not have been impressed by how a poem by Wilbur reads, i.e., how it evolves from first word to last word. Those who believe that poetry is a mere stream of consciousness or that the language of poetry is nothing but the language of associated meanings and not, as Maritain claimed, of "intelligenciated sense" or that poetry is a kind of imaginative ink blot whose destiny is simply to expand to the limits of exhaustion will assuredly not read Wilbur with pleasure. His work does not accommodate such frivolity. As a poet he has a definite syllogistic way of thinking; his poems have a beginning, a middle and an end. Not all of them follow the "If … but … therefore" mode of syllogistic logic, but a good many of them do, and the imprint of this way of thinking is characteristic of a mind that does not meander but concludes. Shakespeare's sonnets impress us with a similar way of thinking, which further accentuates my use of the adjective Elizabethan vis-à-vis Wilbur's style. Wilbur's poems seem to obey an inner imperative that is intellectual rather than emotional, or perhaps I should say emotionally intellectual. We sense that the poet is actually thinking through his feelings to their inevitable and ineluctable conclusion.
So much then by way of apologia. It is not my intention to defend Richard Wilbur against mere carping but to appreciate and admire his poetry that consistently rewards every moment of attention devoted to it. Rather than concentrate on Wilbur's evident technical virtuosity, I propose to focus on his artistic restraint, his genuine mirth, his sense of the tragic and his overall—for lack of a better word—felicity. By felicity I mean language that is happy with itself in the circumstances that this poet has created for it. As a rule Wilbur is such a felicitous poet except in those rare instances when he seems to will a poem into being because something rouses his indignation before his inspiration or talent can fully digest it. I will discuss this at greater length shortly.
To call Richard Wilbur a formalist, as he has been identified throughout his career, is simply to state that he writes within the established traditions of English and American poetics. But formalism is too pat a label to paste on any poet, and it clarifies little. (The same thing could be said about Anthony Hecht, Peter Taylor, and George Bradley.) Isn't it more helpful to speak about Wilbur's restraint as a poet, his peculiar aesthetic reserve that eschews the "let-it-all-hang-out" approach in favor of the minuscule detail that is capable of being the key to everything? For example, he does not flail at war's barbarity (which, as an infantryman in World War II, he must have seen at close quarters) but concentrates on the lonely sentry in "First Snow in Alsace" who is momentarily distracted by snowswirls and snow designs so that he ignores the whitening shell-holes, the snowdrifts on the ammunition stacks and, ineradicably, the "snowfall [that] fills the eyes / Of soldiers dead a little while." Nor in another poem called "Place Pigalle" does he moralize about the whores and stripshows but somehow intermingles the lust and loneliness of soldiers on leave from the front who search out "their ancient friends" with the poignancy of a midsummer night's dream-like respite from a war that makes murderers out of young men who might otherwise be lovers:
Ionized innocence: this pair reclines,
She on the table, he in a tilting chair,
With Arden ease; her eyes as pale as air
Travel his priestgoat face; his hand's thick tines
Touch the gold whorls of her Corinthian hair.
"Girl, if I love thee not, then let me die;
Do I not scorn to change my state with kings?
Your muchtouched flesh, incalculable, which wrings
Me so, now shall I gently seize in my
Desperate soldier's hands which kill all things."
This poem illustrates Wilbur's restraint at its finest. The result is that the theme is strengthened by what is held back. I do not find this to be the case with "On the Eyes of an SS Officer," which ends with this explicit final stanza:
But this one's iced or ashen eyes devise,
Foul purities, in flesh their wilderness,
Their fire; I ask my makeshift God of this
My opulent bric-a-brac earth to damn his eyes.
The rhetoric of hate is here, but the directness of its expression makes the poetry vanish. Wilbur does not suffer such lapses often, but they do occur. Perhaps this is because his basic optimistic and open nature does not easily transmute rage and indignation into the stuff of poetry. Dante, of course, could do it. Neruda did it when his inspiration and indignation fused; otherwise he simply versified a lot of personal propaganda. Wilbur is capable of the right indignations, which means he gets angry at the right times, but his moral umbrage often strips him of the restraint that is the fertile growing ground of his poetic talent, and the difference is immediately noticeable as in the aforementioned poem as well as in the concluding sestet of his "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd's Official Portrait."
Rightly you say the picture is too large
Which Peter Hurd by your appointment drew,
And justly call that Capitol too bright
Which signifies our people in your charge;
Wait, Sir, and see how time will render you
Who talk of vision but are weak of sight.
I suppose a case could be made for this poem as a re-creation of the Miltonic spirit in our time, but Wilbur's language has too direct an indebtedness to Milton for me to see it as more than an exercise in adaptation, despite the contemporaneity of the subject matter. The fact remains that Wilbur's formidable talent does not appear at its best when he is moved to write like this. It is not that one disagrees with his moral or political position (agreement or disagreement is not relevant here) but with the way it is stated. Knowing him less than casually, I would say that certain social or political issues affect him deeply and that he sincerely would like to take issue with guile or chicanery or plain wrongdoing through a poetic vision rather than through other means i.e., speeches, letters, and the like. But such poems fail as poems more often than they succeed, despite his efforts to place them in a tradition of righteous anger, as with the just quoted Miltonic sonnet. Take his "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act" as another example. Wilbur invokes Mercian figures as the basis for his central metaphor, but his rhetorical impulses still get the better of his poetic ones. In short, the style of his utterance in this hectoring vein seems to be adapted, not natural. And I attribute it to temperament. Some poets can make poems out of spleen; their poems seem a logical extension of their talent. But Wilbur's poems in this genre seem willed into existence; they lose in similitude what they gain in directness, and the poetry is in the similitude. I'll rest my case by quoting a few lines in evidence from a poem Wilbur wrote in 1970 entitled "For the Student Strikers."
Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you.
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.
It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound in our street be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
Having expressed what is probably my only reservation about Wilbur's talent, I now feel free to praise. And I have no intention of being stingy in my praise of a man who, in poetic terms, is possibly the Mozart of our time. What Mozart achieved in music has a counterpart in Wilbur's achievement in poetry, particularly in his sense of symmetry, his uncanny precision of word choice and his almost infallible ear, his sense of humor as well as his sense of the tragic within a historical and literary tradition that he knows well and, finally, his basic Christian ethos and the worldview that it nurtures.
To speak of Wilbur's sense of symmetry means more than the appearance of the poem on the page, although even from that perspective the basic shape of a Wilbur poem gives one an immediate impression of entirety—an impression that a reading instantly confirms. His poems end in conclusions, not confusions. The conclusions may flow from an idea advanced early in the poem, or, as in "Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning," the elaboration of a single image:
I can't forget
How she stood at the top of that long marble stair
Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette
Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square.
Nothing upon her face
But some impersonal loneliness,—not then a girl,
But as it were a reverie of the place,
A called-for falling glide and whirl;
As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip
Is drawn to the falls of a pool and circling a moment above it,
Rides on over the lip—
Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.
He does something similar in "A Glance from the Bridge."
Letting the eye descend from reeking stack
And black facade to where the river goes,
You see the freeze has started in to crack
(As if the city squeezed it in a vise),
And here and there the limbering water shows,
And gulls colonial on the sullied ice.
Some rise and braid their glidings white and spare,
Or sweep the hemmed-in river up and down,
Making a litheness in the barriered air,
And through the town the freshening water swirls
As if an ancient whore undid her gown
And showed a body almost like a girl's.
The most regular poetic progressions in Wilbur's work appear in the riddle-poems or the what's-my-name poems that have been part of his writing from the very beginning (they spilled over delightfully into a book called Opposites whose meters challenge and rhymes please adult and young adult and children equally). These poems are not mere puzzles to be solved; they have about them a wit and whimsy that keep them enjoyable even after the solution is known. The poetry is in their very structure and resolution with each poem ending, as Yeats once said of good poems in general, like the snap-shut lid of a box. Here, for example, is one of the riddles of Symphosius—a three-liner describing coinage:
First I was earth and deep in earth retired;
Another name I gained when I was fired;
I'm earth no more, but through me earth's acquired.
Another example of Wilbur's sense of symmetry, though somewhat atypical, is the following single image entitled "Sleepless at Crown Point":
All night, this headland
Lunges into the rumpling
Capework of the wind.
This symmetry in Wilbur's poetry is never imposed. It seems to proceed from the poetic seed out of which each poem grows, and Wilbur is artist enough (negatively capable enough, to use Keats's term) to go with the flow of this poetic energy until the poem has completed itself at his hands. If his poem were chairs or tables, one would always be convinced that their sutures and fastenings were secure and that they could stand on their own. At least this has been my experience. I know from my reading of his work over almost forty years that he has never permitted himself to release something that is not complete. At a time when some of his contemporaries regard opaqueness as a virtue and not a sign of immaturity, this is no small triumph. And, of course, Wilbur's ongoing concern with the exact meaning and connotation and sound of words is a further aspect of his talent that places him in direct (and, for me, happy) opposition to some modern poets described by E. M. Cioran in his recently translated and published Anathemas and Admirations as follows:
Poetry is threatened when poets take too lively a theoretical interest in language and make it into a constant subject of meditation, when they confer upon it an exceptional status…. If we are truly to think, thought must adhere to the mind; if it becomes independent of the mind, exterior to it, the mind is shackled from the start, idles, and has but one source left—itself—instead of relying on the world for its substance or its pretexts. The writer must guard against reflecting obsessively upon language, must avoid making it the subject of his obsessions, must never forget that the important works have been created despite language. Dante was obsessed by what he had to say, not by the saying of it. (Cioran 105)
I do not think it presumptuous to claim that these words might have been written by Wilbur himself; in any case, I doubt if he would take violent exception to them. He is concerned with language the way a landscape painter is concerned with paint. He constantly searches for the right word as an artist might search for the right (the exactly right) color to express his vision. He identifies the song of bells, for example, as the "selfsame toothless voice for death or bridal." He alludes at just the right moment in "The Melongene" to the "purple presence" of an eggplant, and, presto, we see it. In "Potato" he is able to distill in two lines the essence of potato smell: "Cut open raw, it looses a cool clean stench, / Mineral acid seeping from pores of prest meal." His poetic obituary to Phelps Putnam ("To an American Poet Just Dead") contains the "ssshh of sprays on all the little lawns" and an allusion to immortality as a "higher standard of living." In "Driftwood" he writes of "the great generality of waters" and the "warped" wood having the look of "excellence earned" by retaining "their dense / Ingenerate grain." In "An Event" he perceives in the zigzag of clouds of birds in flight "By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt." And "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" contains one of the best re-creations of the sound and sight of fountaining water that I have ever encountered in any literature:
Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent
And flatteries of spray.
The stocky god upholds the shell with case,
Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh
Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more
Interminable to thought
Than pleasure's calculus. Yet since this all
Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,
Must it not be too simple? Are we not
More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
Before St. Peter's—the main jet
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear high, cavorting head, to fill
With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stone its own applause?
It is in stanzas like these that one can detect how Wilbur's ear rarely fails him. The matching of sound and pace to the fall of fountaining water is so unobtrusively true that we actually hear as well as see the "wish of water" in the language. I for one admire the subtlety here of Wilbur's musical sense much more than some of the onomatopoetic stanzas in "On Freedom's Ground" (Part IV) where he attempts to capture the rhythm of waltzes, polkas, cakewalks, and jigs. Subtlety gives way to the obvious, which is by definition a less suggestive alternative, and the result is verse. True, it is verse of a rather high quality, but it does not have the poetry of the aforementioned lines of the Villa Sciara fountain.
As he has grown older, Wilbur has not abandoned the formal hallmarks of his earlier style (as has Karl Shapiro, for instance) but adapted them to different subjects with the same jeweler's eye and musician's car for the right word in the right place at exactly the right moment. Poems like "The Fire-Truck" and "The Undead" from Advice to a Prophet (1961) testify to this as does the book's powerful title poem. Nor does Wilbur's basic style change in Walking to Sleep (1969) in such poems as "For Dudley," "Playboy," and "A Late Aubade."
The poem called "Shame" in Advice to a Prophet is a happy aberration. True, the lines are basically iambic pentameter, but they are certainly not in the tradition of Pope's ten-syllabled pentameters. Wilbur hues to five-feet per line, but he plays fast and loose with the count, and the poem is the better for it because the fastness and looseness match the theme. This is one of the few poems in which Wilbur just lets himself go, and his sense of mild sarcasm, his basic good humor and his almost Rabelaisian swagger here and there (usually hidden to the point of invisibility) fuse and flourish to the plain delight of any fairminded person who reads the poem. Anyone familiar with the poem knows how the unspecified country of "Shame" achieves its ultimate and decisive victory over its occupiers. Wilbur informs us early in the poem that this is a nation with "no foreign policy," an unfathomable grammar, a national sense of its own unimportance and a geography "best described as unrelieved." the people's chief weapon seems to be self-deprecation wedded to self-disdain. Left alone, they turn these weapons upon themselves and manage thus to perpetuate their own mediocrity and undisguised mendacity. After all, this is a country whose "national product" is sheep and whose people truly believe that "they do not count" and who confirm this by announcing that the population total is "zero." Yet, their very vices make them invincible when they confront the "hoped for invasion" with "complete negligence" and "overwhelming submission." The result is that they conquer their conquerors by slowly imbuing them with their own vices:
Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission.
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.
Further confirming Wilbur's sense of artistic restraint during the sixties were two touchstone poems—one from Advice To a Prophet (1961) and the other from Walking to Sleep (1969). The title poem from Advice to a Prophet is not a direct but a slantwise comment on the nuclear apocalypse, but Wilbur eschews the apocalyptic tone and pose so readily adopted by numerous other poets dealing with the same subject. He asks not to be informed about "the weapons, their force and range," nor does he want to be told for the zillionth time about the possible extinction of humanity ("Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race"). Instead Wilbur considers the realizable desolation we would immediately know if certain specific animals and birds would disappear from the world as we know it. He is not speaking in general terms of the death of mankind but of finite, definite absences, and the sense of loss that the poem describes grows out of a consideration of these very absences:
Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt world crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and very torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin's arc, the dove's return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld.
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
The power of this poem derives from how we respond to these enumerated losses and the effect their absence will have on how we define ourselves. The extent of this loss is left to our imaginations. In terror as in art, less proves to be more, much more.
The poem entitled "Running" from Walking to Sleep is structurally a typical Wilbur poem—a series of introductory descriptions in each section, each ambience counterbalanced by the poet's reaction to it, the gradual evocation of the reality beneath the mere appearance asserting itself. All three sections of the poem deal straightforwardly with the joyful exhilaration of running or of observing runners in action. In the first section Wilbur remembers running in Caldwell, New Jersey, in 1933. The lickety-split run becomes an absolute in his memory—"Thinking of happiness, I think of that." Skipping the second section for a moment, we find in the third section a self-description—Wilbur running as an older man and coming upon two boys running in the opposite direction. As they prepare to pass one another, they rhyme for a moment simply as runners, and Wilbur senses the exhilaration of youth from that passing moment. But it is in the second section that we find the correlative that is (possibly) an inadvertent profile that Wilbur actually gives of himself. Watching marathon runners from the sidelines, Wilbur, now a non-participant, focuses on one of the runners in the pack:
Dark in the glare, they seemed to thresh in place
Like preening flies upon a window-sill,
Yet gained and grew, and at a cruel pace
Swept by us on their way to Heartbreak Hill—
Legs driving, fits at port, clenched faces, men,
And in amongst them, stamping on the sun,
Our champion Kelley, who would win again,
Rocked in his will, at rest within his run.
The style of Kelley's run is a perfect match for Wilbur's style as a writer—a man sure of his skills and strengths, secure within his own skin, husbanding his known resources and then pitting them against nothing but the challenge before him, confident that he is equal to it.
It may not seem important to some to identify humor as one of Wilbur's poetic assets, but I certainly believe it is. Levity is also a sign of a person with a sense of balance. Although Robert Lowell was and is a poet of genuine stature and was often regarded as a more cosmic poet than Wilbur in some quarters, one must look long and hard to find a Lowell poem with a smile on its face. This does not prevent us from taking Lowell seriously, despite Mark Van Doren's admonition that one should not take seriously someone who always takes himself and the world seriously. Nonetheless, a sense of lightness goes a long way to acquaint a writer's readers with his very humanity and not merely with his personal demons. Wilbur's humor, whether ribald enough to provoke a good guffaw or subtle enough to coax a good chuckle, is never mean-spirited or silly. Its aim seems to be pure fun whether it has a satirical edge or not. And this is true of his earlier poems ("Superiorities," "Parable," "Museum Piece") as well as his later ones ("Shame," "Matthew VIII, 28ff," "A Late Aubade," "The Prisoner of Zenda." "To His Skeleton"). The spirit of humor in "Matthew VIII. 28 ff," is a typical example:
Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions,
Love, as you call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.
We have deep faith in prosperity,
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross national product, the practice of charity
Is palpably inessential.
It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.
We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If you cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather you shoved off.
The barely concealed criticism of the smugly rich in this poem somehow does not get in the way of the roystering, and by the time we get to the last line we are smiling our way into a good laugh.
To move from Wilbur's humorous poems to such master-pieces as "The Writer," "Cottage Street, 1953," and "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is to realize that Wilbur is not a man who, like some of the confessionalists of his generation, eschews the lightsome in order to be "properly" glum. Not at all. His is a sensibility which permits him to respond to and then re-create in his poetry the light as well as the weighty, the smile as well as the frown. And who can deny that a complete vision of human life does, after all, include both?
Now to a consideration of the ethos of Wilbur's talent. That Wilbur has a theocentric view of life is traceable not only to those poems of his that have liturgical or theological themes, i.e., "A Christmas Hymn," "A Wedding Toast," "For Dudley," "John Chrysostom," to name but a few of the many, but to a deeper and unmistakable spirituality that infuses his entire corpus and is unfeignable. Since tracing this thread is impossible in a short paper such as this, I will concentrate on only three poems since they represent to me the three salient aspects of this spirituality. The first is "The Proof," a crypto-poem that is both a prayer and, in its succinctness, a further variation on his more telegrammic poems, i.e., riddles etc. The second is "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" a poem which, in its acceptance of the given world and its transfiguration of it, is as consummate a realization as I know of what the calling of poet as seer really means. And the third is "Cottage Street, 1953," primarily because of all that stands behind the judgment of the final line.
The tone of "The Proof" (with tone defined as the author's attitude toward his subject, his audience, even toward himself) is as revealing of Wilbur's sensibility as the subject. From first word to last the author reveals himself as a trusting and humble man who is willing to abandon himself to the mercy and generosity of God. It is as if Wilbur has taken the Bible's injunction that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and made it the very soul of this poem. I have detected this same tone in numerous poems of Wilbur (and in some of his translations as well), and it is neither forced nor fictitious. Somehow one senses when one is in the presence of genuine feelings of this nature, and the feelings in "The Proof" impress me in this way.
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But, thinking that I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
This poem has the unmistakable resignation and deference of personal prayer. It is this deference that appears again and again in Wilbur's poetry—a deference to things as they are in their God-created or man-created uniqueness, a deference to the beautiful and its changes, a deference to love itself and a willingness to allow it the spaces it needs (which is the very proof of anyone's respect for love itself) to manifest itself and grow.
Perhaps no poem in all of Wilbur's writings affirms his wonder in the presence of God-created and man-created things than his much (and deservedly) anthologized "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." Rather than quote the poem in its entirely since it is one of the most well known of Wilbur's works, I will allude only to the basic circumstance of the poem and how Wilbur, presumably the persona of the poem, finds in that circumstance a reason to affirm and bless it.
A sleeper is slowly coming awake. He imagines that the laundry hanging on a line outside his window is like a flight of seraphim. This angelic laundry seems to float and dance in the "false dawn" of semi-wakefulness.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing.
But such a Platonic view has only a limited lease on the observer's life, and, no matter how much he wants the illusion to persist in defiance of the upcoming "punctual rape of every blessed day," he knows that the soul must descend "once more in bitter love / To accept the waking body." And, of course, form and function are destined to exist in consonance, which means that the laundry, which is destined for use as clothes, must come down from the "ruddy gallows." It must clothe thieves, lovers and nuns; the world must go on being the world. The fulcrum image of the lovers ("Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone") provides the ironic balance between thieves and nuns, since lovers go dressed only to that point where they must undo their clothes so that they can become lovers in fact. Regardless of the irony, the entire poem ends on the side of life and "the things of this world" where only love can humanize us, not in otherworldly but in this-worldly terms. Like Frost, Wilbur believes that "earth's the right place for love." Thus the "waking body" offsets the bitterness of its dream-ending moment of false bliss by quite literally blessing (what is an affirmation but a blessing?) the real world where theft, loving and devotion are ongoing and co-existent.
"Cottage Street, 1953" is Wilbur at his lyrical and perspicacious best. The setting could not be simpler—a tea on Cottage Street hosted by Edna Ward, Wilbur's mother-in-law. Present are Wilbur and his wife, Sylvia Plath and her mother. Wilbur admits to having been invited so as to serve as a role-model for the despondent Sylvia:
It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,
I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who far from shore has been immensely drowned
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.
The ongoing "refusal" of Sylvia Plath to do anything but drown is contrasted sharply with the quiet courage of Edna Ward, destined to die a decade and a half later (the poem was obviously written after 1968) but doing so with tearless dignity and speaking of love to and at the very end. Against the example of Edna Ward's graced and graceful end at the age of eighty-eight, Wilbur describes Sylvia Plath as one who in her despair seemed "condemned to live" and whose poem's "brilliant negative" was on balance "free and helpless and unjust." It is the mention of injustice that tells us how Wilbur perceives the lives of these two radically different women—the elder, a valiant example of keeping faith with life in extremis; the younger, a victim, not so much of life as of her twisted vision of it. Weighing Edna Ward's bravery against the spiritual self-betrayal of Sylvia Plath who, at the time of the writing of the poem had already taken her own life, Wilbur comes down on the side of justice—justice to life itself. This transmutes the poem into a double elegy, and, as elegies tell us more about life when it is touched by death than they tell us about death itself (since death is actually unknowable), they reveal the human values of the elegist. He pities Sylvia Plath; he is edified by Edna Ward.
This then completes the range of my appreciation of this immensely talented writer. (I should add that he is an equally talented reader of his own poems and translations. Whoever has listened to Richard Wilbur read his work has experienced what Wilbur himself once ascribed to the work of Degas—"Beauty joined to energy.") My few reservations, which I felt obliged to include in the spirit of absolute candor, are but quibbles in the balance. Far exceeding them is the wealth of poems by Richard Wilbur that will be part of our literature as long as it lasts. For that we can only be quick to praise and, above all, grateful.
This section contains 5,827 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)