Witty, sometimes pedantic but always perceptive and useful, these sixteen essays, written over a quarter of a century, enable the reader of Richard Wilbur’s poetry to hear his humanistic concerns spoken in prose. One turns from the poetry for the first time to the prose, wondering what the author will sound like. Calling these essays “some prose by-products of a poet’s life,” and making “no ingenious claims of unity for this book,” the arrangement being chronological except for two earliest pieces at the end, Wilbur says, “If the contents somehow hang together for the reader, I hope it will be because the voice, though changing with age and occasion, seems that of one person with certain persistent concerns and a mind largely his own.” He achieves that effect.
In the preface, Wilbur observes that “poets sometimes write verses in answer to a request or expectation, but most poems are wholly uncalled for.” That is true of his own poetry. But among his accumulated prose pieces, he found almost nothing he was not asked to write. Except for introductions to his translations of three verse-comedies by Molière, these pieces are responses “to invitations to give a lecture or speech, contribute to a symposium, compose a broadcast, introduce a work, interpret an author, or help mark an anniversary.” One is a commencement address, given at Washington University. Through examinations of poems by Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, Poe, Shakespeare, Housman, Burns, and himself, Wilbur has talked and written about the nature, the practice, the meaning, and the interaction of poetry.
At Harvard in the late 1940’s, Wilbur gave a seminar on Poe. He almost finished a book on Poe, discarded it, but wrote several other pieces, the three least accessible of which he includes in Responses (a principle of selection he employed when two essays deal with the same material). By including three on the same subject, he deliberately risked disproportion because “I regard my decodings of Poe with a frank satisfaction. They seem to me original and true, and the best excuse for this collection.” He spaces them throughout the book. The first is his introductory essay to Poe in Perry Miller’s college text Major Writers of America (1962), “a brief but comprehensive statement of my approach to Poe’s life and works.”
In summing up Poe’s vision of and response to the cosmos, Wilbur reveals to readers of his own poetry an affinity for the American poet whose life and material were romantic but whose method was classicist. “The one true response to the creation, then, is to take an imaginative delight in its beauty and harmony, seen and unseen.” Having told us the story of Poe’s life, Wilbur embarks upon a long, brilliant analysis of “Ligeia” thatwould be disproportionate were the story not so central to Poe’s thought, so characteristic of his method, and so much an index of his symbolism, that it opens up the fiction in general. The typical Poe story is, in its action, an allegory of dream experience: it occurs within the mind of the poet; the characters are not distinct personalities, but principles or faculties of the poet’s divided nature; the steps of the action correspond to the successive states of a mind moving into sleep; and the end of the action is the end of a dream.
Wilbur applies the dream theory to his long and even more perceptive discussion of Poe’s only finished novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. This essay introduced a new edition published in 1973. Defending the work despite its obvious faults, Wilbur argues that Poe achieved a “coherent allegory throughout; and that what Poe took from his many sources, forgetting, for the moment, his borrowings for mere authenticity’s sake—is made to coalesce, especially at the close, into a powerful vision which is Poe’s and nobody else’s.” Echoing the earlier essay, Wilbur concludes that “on the literal plane, then, Pym initiates very little action and is nearly—perhaps wholly—free of blood guilt. Yet on the plane of dream allegory and vision, Pym’s obviously must be the imagination that drives and determines the narrative. . . .” Wilbur delineates convincingly the many ways in which “Pym is latently a spiritual quest.”
Of his book reviews, Wilbur includes only one—a cursory overview of Poe criticism that “presumes by the way to expose one of Poe’s deepest-laid plots.” (Wilbur provides explanatory headnotes for each of his pieces.) Wilbur’s contribution to Poe criticism is to show that all his detective fiction, especially “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” have “an allegorical stratum.” Detective Dupin, “Though sometimes depicted as a reasoner,” is “the embodiment of an idea, strongly urged in Eureka and elsewhere, that poetic intuition is a supra-logical faculty, infallible in nature, which includes and obviates analytical genius.” Dupin’s logic is “really intuition in disguise.” “There is a decided duplicity, then, in Poe’s presentation of Dupin.” Wilbur’s conception of Dupin anticipates his analysis of Pym. “The implication is that the mastermind Dupin, who can intuitively ’fathom’ all the other characters . . . is to be seen including them all—that the other ’persons’ of the tale are to be taken allegorically as elements of one person, whereof Dupin is the presiding faculty.” And so Dupin “uses his genius to detect and restrain the brute in himself, thus exorcising the fiend.” Those who know the poetry of Wilbur, about whom Randall Jarrell said, “he obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” may wonder whether his interest in Poe’s paradoxical vision and method may not be his way of detecting and restraining, if not exorcising, the Poe fiend in himself.
But the Wilbur who is best known to readers of poetry and to himself is the one who can unblushingly include a commencement address in a collection of literary essays. “A Speech at a Ceremony” is as much about the kind of academic, formalist poetry of which Wilbur is the most accomplished practitioner as any of his other essays. He sees the commencement address as “an extremely difficult form” (this is his third) “demanding in respect of clarity, animation, appropriateness, and wide pertinence. . . .” The parallel with his poetry is delightfully obvious. “The function of any ceremony is to enable one to feel some appropriate emotion decisively . . . to punctuate our lives...
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