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...
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