Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

by Richard Wilbur
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

“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...

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“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.

This strange moment is described in terms of the laundry hanging on the line outside the window. “Angels” in sheets, blouses, and smocks abound; they rise “together in calm swells/ Of halcyon feelings.” In stanza 3, they perform the astounding feat of flying at top speed while not moving— “staying like white water”—and then become so quiet that “nobody seems to be there.” The soul begins to be aware of its situation, however, and in stanza 4 it looks forward with fear to the prospect of waking up to “the punctual rape of every blessed day” and cries out irrationally, “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry.”

As stanza 5 acknowledges, the day must come, the sleeper must fully awake, and the soul must “in bitter love/ . . . accept the waking body.” What, then, can be gained from this pre-waking experience? The last stanza is a prayer—an eloquent one—asking that the laundry that bundles the angels in the vision become part of everyday life: “clean linen for the backs of thieves,” new clothes for lovers so that they may “go fresh and sweet to be undone,” and “dark habits” for “the heaviest nuns,” who are “keeping their difficult balance.” Significantly, love ends the dream of the angels and forces one to wake up from the insubstantial dream world. One is called now, to the things of this world, not to dreams of the next.

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