A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra

by Richard Wilbur

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Themes and Meanings

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Many of Wilbur’s poems reflect his having spent time in Italy during World War II. This poem describes fountains constructed in Rome, with classical and Christian allusions as it contrasts two different ways of approaching life. The highly decorated first fountain represents the more physical, earthbound connection that the speaker feels as one way of being in the world. This fountain, set in a public park, illustrates an easier, more accessible path to take. The plainer second fountain, set outside a church, exemplifies a more challenging path. Wilbur, however, does not completely dismiss either idea, seeing in both the possibilities for fulfillment, ironically by referring to Saint Francis and his relationship to nature.

The use of flowing water adds to the spiritual-physical dialectic inherent in Wilbur’s comparison. As a symbol at the heart of many religions, water represents baptism into a given way of thought. Certainly ancient peoples saw water as a primary source of life itself, ascribing various gods and goddesses as protectors of rivers and streams upon which the people relied. This poem is consistent thematically with other poems in this collection, in which Wilbur celebrates the physical world while longing for the clarity of vision that meditation on the sacred can provide.

While not overtly religious or sectarian, this poem addresses the nature of the human spirit when confronted with what seems to be a choice between the sacred and the profane, each perceived as being mutually incompatible. The waters spewing forth from the plain fountains are “water-saints,” teaching humans how to struggle against a tendency to fall. The fauns, however, represent the need to celebrate the world in all its complexity. Wilbur suggests that people should look beyond the simplicity of such a dichotomy in order to discover and experience the world in all its fullness.

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