Summing up Richard Wilbur’s poetic achievement seems at first very easy. Throughout his career, he has excelled at writing beautiful short poems about the surrounding natural world. However, a close look at some of his poems and a glance at his translations and other interests will find a writer more important than a painter of pretty pictures. He does, certainly, enjoy the world of living creatures. “Cicadas,” the very first poem in his first book, is more than a clever rendering of the humming of cicadas. A close reading proves it to be about nature’s ironies: These insects fill the world with song but are themselves deaf.
Animal titles are sprinkled throughout his work: There is “Still, Citizen Sparrow” “The Death of a Toad,” “All These Birds,” “The Pelican,” and the delightful “A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys,” translated from the French of Francis Jammes, a modern French poet. Yet these animals are chosen because they provide a key to understanding the surrounding world. “Still, Citizen Sparrow” is really about how the vulture (and all it stands for) is needed in the world; “The Death of a Toad” shows how all death is tragic, and “Grasshopper” helps to distinguish the peace that is death from that which is contentment in activity.
Many critics think of Wilbur as a poet uniting flesh and spirit, discerning both, glorifying both. In “Running,” he describes a day when his body as a boy was in perfect shape and the run he had was a glory of perfect control. “Thinking of happiness,” he says, “I think of that.” In “The Juggler,” after lamenting the pull of gravity on a rubber ball, he praises the juggler for keeping the balls, brooms, and plates played by whirling in air. He discovers how people resent the weight that holds them to the earth, both physically and spiritually; he thereby discovers the reason for juggling, for dreams of flying, and perhaps for all the earth’s restless desires.
Perhaps Wilbur’s most characteristic poetic gift is his uncanny ability to pinpoint the essential interplay between humans and nature. “On the Marginal Way” begins, in a sedate six-line stanza ending with a final couplet, to describe a beach littered with boulders; they remind the poet first of naked women but then of a beach full of dead people, whose story he begins to imagine. He pulls himself short by exclaiming: “[It is] the time’s fright within me which distrusts/ Least fancies into violence.” He reminds himself that though it was “violent” volcanic action that created these boulders, it is a beautiful day, and joy comes with the faith, however momentary, that “all things shall be brought/ To the full state and stature of their kind.”
In the short poem “Seed Loves,” Wilbur patiently describes a phenomenon that every gardener knows: The first two leaves of every plant are always the same. The plant is in a state of pure potency, and it both wishes and fears to grow. Then the third and fourth leaves come out, and the plant resigns itself to be itself. A simple botanical fact echoes deep inside the human spirit.
There are more direct approaches, as in “Advice to a Prophet,” which counsels a doomsayer not to predict a nuclear holocaust or the end of humankind on earth: “How should we dream of this place without us?” Reach us instead, he says, by telling how all the beautiful things in nature will disappear. In “A Summer Morning,” he tells how the cook and the gardener, because their rich young employers got in late, enjoy the beautiful big gardens and house on a sunny morning, “Possessing what the owners can but own,” bringing a moral insight to a small incident that would gladden Saint Francis.
The critics insist that Wilbur is a classic rather than a romantic poet. While often used vaguely, the words “classic” and “romantic” can indicate general tendencies. If “classic” points toward public themes, wit, and an intellectual acceptance of the human condition, “romantic” implies subjectivity, fierce emotions, and yearning after transcendent goals, then Wilbur is on the classic side. Even his choice of poets to translate is headed by the French classicists, Molière, Racine, and Voltaire, the eighteenth century satirist and political commentator. Perhaps a single Wilbur poem will illustrate. In “A Wood,” a parable emerges from Wilbur’s observation of the forest. It is an oak forest, an impressive place, but someone looking carefully, he points out, would notice dogwood and witch hazel fighting to keep their places in the forest. Classically enough, he provides a moral—“no one style, I think, is recommended”—but the true meaning in the poem is the feeling of sympathy for the underdog trees trying to survive in a forest of important oaks.
Wilbur’s later work reveals a willingness to dwell on the dark side of nature, as in “A Barred Owl.” His poetic diction has become less mannered and ornate than in his earlier work. His style now favors the simple and direct statement. Changes in style, however, only highlight a sense of continuity with earlier work. He still remains a poet drawing inspiration and insight from nature. Thus in “Mayflies,” the poet’s sight of a swarm of transient mayflies, “those lifelong dancers of a day,” leaves him feeling “alone in a life too much my own” until he realizes that he is “one whose task is joyfully to see,” to continue with his poetic calling.
Finally, at least occasionally, Wilbur is a Christian poet. Biographers list his religion as Episcopalian, but his overtly devotional works are few and very generic. “A Christmas Hymn,” for example, presents a brief history of salvation, with the refrain “And every stone shall cry” leading the reader from the stable through Palm Sunday and the crucifixion to Jesus’ presence in glory. Nevertheless, the whole of Wilbur’s poetry can be called, at least in a transferred sense, sacramental. Like a medieval poet, he reads the Book of the World, and all of its aspects—vegetable, mineral, animal, and human—are rife with meaning, which he, as a patient anatomist, discovers with care and love.
“A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness”
First published: 1950 (collected in Ceremony, and Other Poems, 1950)
Type of work: Poem
The poet tries to discern which is the true human goal, spirit or flesh.
The poem’s title is a quote from Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth century mystic and poet. The poem is written in a stanza form which would certainly be commonplace in the seventeenth century, with four-line stanzas rhyming abab, though some of the rhymes are slant rhymes. Line 1 is trimeter; line 2, pentameter; line 3, hexameter; and line 4, trimeter.
The central metaphor or conceit of the poem is that the search for Traherne’s “sensible emptiness” is a camel caravan, leaving the security of the oasis for a “desert experience.” It “move[s] with a stilted stride/ to the land of sheer horizon.” The camels search for a place where there is nothing but sand and sky. This central metaphor uses the ambiguous connotations of desert and oasis to structure the poem into a statement on the search for spiritual perfection. The desert is traditionally both a place where the ascetic goes to find God and the very image of hell, the dry place without rejuvenating water. Similarly, the oasis is the place of refreshment, the goal of the desert traveler, while at the same time it is the desert saint’s place of temptation, a return to the “Fleshpots of Egypt.” In fact, the archetype here is the exodus, the stately camels leaving the oasis to find God in the desert.
The speaker plays on the ambiguity of the imagery, however; the camels, the “Beasts of my soul,” are “slow and proud” and “move with a stilted pride.” He suggests that the camels are not ascetics but aesthetes, calling them “connoisseurs of thirst,” but what they thirst for is “pure mirage.” The goal of their quest seems to be an illusion.
The poet in stanza 4 refuses this goal of mirage and nothingness. He insists that “all shinings need to be shaped,” and he appeals to “painted saints” and “merry-go-round rings.” He exhorts these camels to turn away from the sand and the desert to (in stanza 6) “trees arrayed/ in bursts of glare,” and then names other green and substantial things—country creeks and hilltops illuminated by the sun. Stanza 7 advises the searcher/camels to watch “the supernova burgeoning over the barn” and then pronounces the true goal “the spirit’s right oasis, light incarnate.”
The poem, then, interprets the ambiguous associations in its own way. It takes the title’s quote as a mere description, which the “camels of the spirit” have mistaken for a spiritual goal. It rejects the desert as an ascetic goal, because to conquer it as the camels seek to do is not a humane act but an example of pride, an attempt to overrun the limits of human nature; a human cannot pursue a goal where there are no objects. The last line hints at the incarnational theology that honors both body and spirit. Each object to be sought at the end of the poem is bathed in the “spiritual” light of the sun.
“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
First published: 1956 (collected in Things of This World, 1956)
Type of work: Poem
The poet tries to describe and then deal with the moment between sleeping and waking, when life seems glorious and beautiful.
“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is one of a precious few poems in the English language that operates as a perfectly delightful rendering of an experience that rides joyfully just outside the rational world. It can be seen as a companion piece to some of the poems of Wallace Stevens, the great modern American poet, such as “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” or “That November off Tehuantepec.”
The stanza is of five lines of alternating trochaic and iambic patterns, with the second and fourth lines tending toward rhyme. The poem opens with a reference to a “cry of pulleys” as an unseen neighbor puts laundry out on the line; the pulleys may also be an allusion to the poem “The Pulley” by George Herbert, the seventeenth century English religious poet. In that poem, the pulley is an emblem of the means by which God draws humankind to himself—in that case, by making humans dissatisfied with life here on earth. In Wilbur’s poem, the moment being described is the moment between sleeping and waking, when the world is in a state of perfect delight. Fitting in with the slightly non-rational tinge of the poem, the central conceit used here is that the moment is like laundry.
(The entire section is 4454 words.)