It is difficult to assess Richard Wilbur’s lyric poetry in terms of a developing career, a linear working-out and discarding of certain ideas, in the way in which we organize the production of Chaucer’s or Wordsworth’s poetry. He has said that he turned from playful writing to serious poetry because of the experience of potential chaos in the war; but the war is not overpoweringly present in his first book, THE BEAUTIFUL CHANGES, although the European Theater seems to loom in the background of many of these poems and the possibility of war remains behind some of his later work.
A comparison of two of the best poems may reveal another kind of development, not of ideas but of poetic power. “On the Eyes of an SS Officer” is one of the few poems in the 1947 volume directly related to the war. The poem is a syllogism in shape; its first two stanzas compare the eyes to ice and glaciers, then to fire and the sun. Clever things happen within the poem. In the first stanza a metaphor within a metaphor refers to fresh snows at the frozen end of the earth’s spit. “Spit” is first a reference to barbecuing, a link to the fire stanza, then to sputum: it is a clue to the tone of disgust. The second stanza tells of one blinded by the sun. The blind saint is glorified, for he has seen the Platonic truth, but the SS Officer is called mindless. The last stanza concludes the statement and is filled with ambiguity with references to ice, fire, and eyes. The eyes are oases in a wilderness face. The eyes devise their fire, but the poet asks his God to consign the eyes to hell. This type of ambiguity is not exactly the kind Empson admires; first of all it is too rapid, too quickly understood; again it is not finally ambiguous, only ambiguous as we read.
One of Wilbur’s best poems is “Advice to a Prophet,” the title poem of his 1961 volume. Where in the earlier poem we see a concern with the problems of tone, problems resolved by apparent syntactic ambiguity and puns, here we see much larger problems being handled. The advice is offered to a prophet of doom, of the Bomb. The prophet’s problem is to find a language by which he can communicate his message. He is evoking God’s name to cause us to feel self-pity. The advice is not to speak of the military power of weapons nor of the end of the people, for these ideas are inconceivable. Rather, he speaks of the changing world. The loss of nature would destroy humanity; animals and trees are things in which we ourselves are mirrored. They are the ground of our perception, our self-knowledge, as well as the elements of our language. Language and knowledge have merged; consequently the poet asks how we can communicate with nature when we can no longer speak. Wilbur’s use of concrete image and abstract noun is different. Finally adjectives themselves, bereft of nouns, must function in a bombed or otherwise emptied world.
The first poem solves the problem of how to express hatred in a poem by pressing language to its limits to equate and disequate traditional poetic subjects: ice, fire, eyes. In the second poem the language of association and the objects of the language are themselves examined. These are the poles of Wilbur’s poetry. This is not to say that language in itself is a new interest for Wilbur. His translations reveal him an expert in French. The poem “Junk” in ADVICE TO A PROPHET is written...
(The entire section is 1390 words.)