Mayflies Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Mayflies is a brief book of new poems and translations by the distinguished American poet Richard Wilbur. Though nearing eighty at the time Mayflies was published, Wilbur demonstrates in this volume that his poetic skills and very perceptive eye are still sharp. Wilbur also retains his ear for the absolutely appropriate word and the precise rhyme. The poems are, for the most part, short lyrics that meditate upon a scene in nature or comment wittily on the glories of the natural world and humanity’s incomplete perception of it. The poems are beautifully structured, full of surprising words and images, and are a delight to read.

The first section is called “Changes” and consists of a number of brief lyric poems. The first poem in the sequence, “A Barred Owl,” is a meditative-descriptive poem on the theme of the wild and the domestic. In the first stanza, “warping” night brings, with its strange changes, the discordant “boom” of an owl into a child’s room. The child is now “awakened” and apparently receptive to that dark world. However, the parents comfort her by claiming that the disturbing sound was only “an odd question from a forest bird,” meaning “Who cooks for you?”

The second stanza comments on the implications of this parental reassurance in the face of the wild. First of all, “Words . . . Can also thus domesticate a fear.” This essential element of the civilized abates the natural fear of the wild, so that the child does not return to that night world in a dream. Without the word, she would be initiated into a world where “some small thing in a claw” is “Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.”

The poem cleverly contrasts the two worlds of Claude Levi-Strauss’s “the raw and the cooked.” Wilbur is usually classified as a “cooked poet,” but he acknowledges the “raw” and brilliantly describes it. However, there is in this poem a time for that acknowledgment. To make a young child aware of the “raw” too early would warp her view of the world and unbalance the relationship between the wild and the civilized.

“For C.” is a poem of contrasts, as are many of the poems in this collection. Wilbur first describes romantic love and then opposes it to a domestic and constant love. The romantic lovers, predictably, part with showy gestures and clashing sounds. They even disturb nature, and it takes “three thousand miles of knitting seas” to undo “The amorous rough and tumble of their wake.” Wilbur then contrasts “that long love/ Which constant spirits are the keepers of” to the brief and disturbing love of the romantics. This love may seem “tame and staid,” but it reconciles the opposites as “A passion joined to courtesy and art.” This love is finally depicted in four brilliant similes. It is “Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,/ Like a rose window or the firmament.” The similes expand from the evanescent sound of a “fiddle” to the smell of a “rose” to the rose window of the Gothic cathedral, such as that at Chartres, and finally to the stars and the immensity of the “firmament.” The poem once more contrasts the wild and the untamed to the made and civilized, and Wilbur exposes the brevity in the gaudy romantic love and redeems and glorifies the ordinary.

In “Zea,” Wilbur describes some stalks of corn in their changing states. After the corn has been picked, the stalks “lighten” in color, although they keep to “their strict rows.” Later, they will become sound images (“whistling”) and change color to the “lightest brown.” They transform themselves later into an up-and-down movement like “goose-wings beating southward.” The last stage is in days of “utter calm,” when they are “Oddly aflutter” and “The sole thing breathing.”

Wilbur sees nature as a living thing, as “Zea” makes clear; the stalks of corn may even have a soul. However, he does not romanticize it, but views it with a precision of observation and image that renews the most common scenes and objects. His use of the simile is especially noteworthy in this and many other poems in Mayflies. This figure seems to fit his sensibility and vision; he consistently prefers it to metaphor, since metaphor insists on identity, not likeness.

The title poem of the collection sees nature in religious terms after the usual precise description. The mayflies arise in “quadrillions,” with a glittering that is compared to “a crowd/ Of stars.” They then become dancers, rising and falling. That dance is seen not as “a muddled swarm,” but as a “figured scene.” Nature and art are reconciled here and not distinct as they are in some of Wilbur’s poems. The poem then takes a Wordsworthian turn, and it is no accident that Wilbur’s mayflies dance as Wordsworth’s daffodils did. The speaker of the poem...

(The entire section is 1990 words.)