The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

At 143 lines, “Walking to Sleep,” the longest of Richard Wilbur’s poems, is the title poem of Walking to Sleep, 1969, in which it was first collected. As the third part of that book, it concludes the section of original poems, with a number of translations following. In an interview with William Heyen (Conversations with Richard Wilbur, 1990), Wilbur confesses that the book represents eight years of work. Because poets give a great deal of thought to the placement and arrangement of poems, the placement of this poem implies that its ideas embody a sense of finality which transcends mere bodily sleep. The poem is written in the first person, and the speaker is barely distinguishable from Wilbur himself. The speaker assumes an air of authority and seasoned wit as he addresses the reader.

“Walking to Sleep” opens on a note of grave confidence which the speaker establishes and continues throughout the poem. Suggesting that the reader step off into the “blank of your mind,” he assures the reader that such confidence is absolutely necessary for the journey—which will be both imaginary and real. The journey begins in the realm of the imagination as shaped by the real. The speaker warns the reader, however, that frustrations occur, especially if the reader attempts to control the direction and outcome of the journey. What follows is an interplay of images and specific directions.

As if the speaker becomes aware that he may be frightening the reader, and finding the reader still awake, he suggests that the reader forget all that the speaker has said and begin again. The poem itself seems to begin again at this point; this time the reader starts in the real world, allowing the imagination freedom to shape experience. Finally, Wilbur ends the poem by averring that the most fruitful journeys are those which remain open to the real and the imaginative experience, with no attempt at control.

Walking to Sleep Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

By using direct address as the vehicle for advancing the poem, the poet establishes an intimate relationship between the speaker (essentially the poet himself) and the reader, involving the reader in the argument of the poem. The reader mentally hears the speaker, reacting as if the reader and the speaker were in close communication, indeed, in the same room. Wilbur reinforces this tone by stepping outside the flow of images to ask questions, give advice, or warn the reader. The effect of direct address is to strengthen the conversational resonance.

Wilbur is the master of the iambic pentameter line, which is composed of five poetic feet—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The lines “Detach some portion of your thought to guard/ The outside of the building; as you wind,” taken from well within the body of the poem, seem to sing with the strength of the iambic beat. Through the use of the five-stress line, the poem emphasizes the walking pace which the reader and speaker assume. To avoid a sing-song effect, Wilbur varies the placement of the stresses. For example, the first two lines of the poem end with an unstressed syllable, while the third line ends with a stressed syllable: “Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.” By emphasizing “mind,” the poet underscores the role that the mind plays in this journey, which the poem elucidates.

A formalist poet, Wilbur uses form adeptly, not as adjunct to the...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Walking to Sleep Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.

Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.