Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 829
“The Mind-Reader” is a dramatic monologue in the tradition of Robert Browning, the nineteenth century British poet, written in blank verse. It is the statement of a mind reader, one perpetually ensconced in a café somewhere in Italy. He talks to the poet about how he came to be a mind reader, how he practices his “craft,” and how he feels about what he does.
The poem begins with nineteen lines exploring what it means when something is really lost. Not till the end of the poem does the reader really find out why he speaks of these things. He begins with an image of a young lady’s hat being blown off a parapet and sailing endlessly down into a vast ravine with a river at the bottom. He tells of a pipe wrench falling out of a pickup truck into a brook or culvert, then of a book slipping out of the hand of a reader on a cruise ship and into the sea. These things are “truly lost.” Four mysterious lines follow which declare that it is another thing to be caught inside the prison of someone’s head. (Was he so imprisoned? Was it traumatic?)
He explains in the next twenty-one lines that he, as a child, had a gift of finding things that others had lost. He tries to describe how it felt to be able to do this. He uses a metaphor of a moon bumping through a deep forest, through
paths which turnedto dried-up stream-beds, hemlocks which invitedThrough shiny clearings.
All of a sudden the lost object would be there, shining.
Perhaps he feels that this metaphor does not quite make the process clear, for he tries again. He says that it is like a train with fogged windows coming into a station where a young woman is waiting for you (his listener) to come, though she does not know what you look like. He alludes to the saying “out of sight, out of mind” and seems to imply that it is not precisely true. “What can be wiped from memory?” Nothing, he answers, no matter how mean or terrible the event. That is presumably why he, with his gift, can always find the thing that was misplaced. Everything is still there.
This arcane skill leads him to become the mind reader at the corner table of the café. He describes the credulous people who come to have their futures predicted, even though he cannot predict the future, and the skeptics who are afraid that if he can read minds, all the old superstitions will come rushing back. They are his “fellow-drunkards.”
He describes his method: They write a question on a piece of paper, and he lays his hand on theirs and goes into a frenzy; he describes his act (for so it is) in terms that resemble the routine of the Delphic Oracle, the smoke from his cigarette substituting for the incense in the oracle’s tripod. It is easy, he says, to know what they are thinking—everyone is the same. Sometimes he cheats, but remember, he says, every other skilled worker (a tailor, for example) can make a mistake and still be trusted. If he makes one, he is a fraud. Then he concludes with images of squalor: His mind is filled with anger, insomnia, mutterings, complaints, and “flushings of the race.”
His gift is to find in others’ minds their own misplaced questions, but, as he admits, he has no answers. He gives them answers that are the stock-in-trade of palm readers and astrologers everywhere, each bit of advice prefaced with a commonsense “if,” each prediction based on a commonsense understanding of how life is led. He describes his stock answers as lies and evasions, although he believes that his clients are happy that he read their desire. These people are filled with “selfish hopes/ And small anxieties.” True virtue and heroism are rare indeed. Maybe, he says, he simply cannot hear that part of them; maybe there is “some huge attention” which “suffers us and is inviolate,” which “remarks/ The sparrow’s weighty fall.” The speaker seems oblivious to the reference to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and he declares that he would be glad to know this if it were so.
The poem concludes with his own desire “for that place beyond the sparrow” and to find those things that are truly lost, which were mentioned in the opening of the poem—the falling hat, the wrench in the ditch, and the book in the sea. The listener apparently offers to buy him a drink, and he replies, perhaps smiling, “You have read my mind.” Perhaps Wilbur, in this poem, wishes to illustrate what the human mind and its desires are like, apparently trivial and squalid like those the mind reader finds in his clients, yet perhaps containing way down the true desires, the infinite desires, symbolized by the lost hat, wrench, and book.
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