Richard Wilbur’s poem “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” consists of a long meditation that springs from a careful examination of two types of fountains in Rome, the first constructed in a large public park, the second, the fountains placed at Saint Peter’s Basilica. The rhyme scheme used throughout fifteen stanzas is abba, with new rhymes occurring in each stanza.
The poem opens with a description of the fountain, greatly elaborating on the high degree of decoration, the qualities that make the fountain’s decor Baroque. The poet advances a mixture of Roman and Christian allusions, blending angels and fauns throughout. This combination produces a line of thought that the poet follows to the conclusion of the poem. The three stone cockles that collect and disburse the water from shell to shell establish the basic structure of the baroque fountain, not only physically but also thematically. A snake has begun to eat the feet of a cherub who acts as guardian of the first shell, from which water spills into the next shell. The water creates a tent of spray for a family of fauns, whose father holds the third shell.
At this point, the poet chooses words that forecast the thematic shift that transpires in the next several stanzas. Water covers the flesh of the fauness “In a saecular ecstasy,” a reference to the sheer physicality of a faun’s worldly concern. Half goat and half human, associated with merrymaking, fauns traditionally guarded crops and woods as part of the Roman pantheon. Wilbur then refers to the “trefoil” pool, its three-part structure, a reference to the Christian notion of the trinity. Wilbur makes double use of this image, in that the serpent bothering the angel in the first stanza alludes to the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.
Frequently in his poetry Wilbur poses rhetorical questions after having thoroughly developed one idea, in order to venture into areas of thought that perhaps contradict or complicate the rather easy conclusions reached earlier in the poem. After an elaborate description of the fountain, with its fauns, cherubs, and serpents, the poet asks his first question, wondering if “pleasure, flash, and waterfall” cannot adequately account for the longing of the human spirit. Human beings are too complex in nature to be easily classified as belonging solely to the world of the spirit or the world of the physical.
Consequently, the poet then considers the plainer fountains erected outside Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The poet asks his second question, speculating about the idea that these fountains more fittingly represent the struggle that inheres in human experience. While fauns and cherubs can dance and play under the water’s cooling spray, in spite of the serpent at the heel, humans cannot. The water in these fountains rises as if it reaches self-fulfillment, finding rest “in the act of rising,” as if the human goal to achieve peace occurs within the struggle to live a meaningful life.
Yet, Wilbur is not willing to cast a negative judgment on the fauns’ way of being in the world. Instead, asking “What of these showered fauns,” he concludes that they reach fulfillment as well, finding rest “in fulness of desire” for the things of this world. The poem takes an ironic twist at this point. The poet compares the satisfaction with the things of this world that the fauns celebrate with the attitude of acceptance that Saint Francis brought to bear in praise of creation, discovering in the natural order a beautiful reflection, albeit pale, of heaven.
Each of the fifteen...
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stanzas contains end rhymes that do not continue into the next stanza. As none of these stanzas use interlocking rhymes, the poet makes use of other devices rhetorically to draw the meaning through the lines. Most of the stanzas, for example, use enjambment, pulling images through several lines or stanzas before concluding. Only one stanza comes to a full stop, having asked the second question. Such a varied rhyme allows the reader to avoid premature conclusions about where the poet is proceeding with his thought. The discontinuous rhyme seems speculative in nature, as if even the structure of the poem itself is ripe for probing, as if the poet remains open to the possibilities of new discovery.
Although the poem does use end rhyme to strengthen the melody, the musicality of the lines does not completely depend upon that structure. Within each stanza, the repetition of vowel or consonant sounds echoes the rhyme, formulating the sense of the poem even deeper within the structure. For example, in the first stanza, whose second and third lines end with “feet” and “eat,” the fourth line begins with “Sweet.” In the second stanza, the short “i” sound in “tipped” in the second line repeats in “fills” and “spills,” which end the second and third lines. The eighth stanza concludes each line with “e” sounds, as if stylistically acknowledging the turn that occurred in the previous stanza. Wilbur’s use of a highly developed sound structure mirrors the play in dualities that becomes the center of thematic speculation within the poem.
Sometimes the words themselves sound like what they represent, adding another layer of melodic patterning, onomatopoeia. The seventh stanza ushers in liquid “l” sounds, ending the third line with “waterfall.” Yet in the ninth stanza, “The very wish of water is reversed.” The use of “s” and “i” sounds seems to suggest the sound of water flowing in an opposite direction from the previous stanza.
Wilbur sets up an extended comparison between two worldviews, using the two different fountains as the specific images upon which to build his argument. He establishes the first fountain in six stanzas, followed by his first rhetorical turn in which he questions his own conclusions. The second fountain requires only three stanzas for discussion, being less ornate. Thus, even the space that Wilbur devotes to each image reflects the nature of the ideas discussed. The second twist comes toward the end of the poem, when he compares the ideas represented by the first fountain with the ideas that Saint Francis came to embody. Therefore, while avoiding labeling his comparisons, Wilbur achieves a higher, denser use of the metaphor.
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.