Richard Wilbur Richard Wilbur American Literature Analysis

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Richard Wilbur American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Summing up Richard Wilbur’s poetic achievement seems at first very easy. Throughout his career, he has excelled at writing beautiful short poems about the surrounding natural world. However, a close look at some of his poems and a glance at his translations and other interests will find a writer more important than a painter of pretty pictures. He does, certainly, enjoy the world of living creatures. “Cicadas,” the very first poem in his first book, is more than a clever rendering of the humming of cicadas. A close reading proves it to be about nature’s ironies: These insects fill the world with song but are themselves deaf.

Animal titles are sprinkled throughout his work: There is “Still, Citizen Sparrow” “The Death of a Toad,” “All These Birds,” “The Pelican,” and the delightful “A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys,” translated from the French of Francis Jammes, a modern French poet. Yet these animals are chosen because they provide a key to understanding the surrounding world. “Still, Citizen Sparrow” is really about how the vulture (and all it stands for) is needed in the world; “The Death of a Toad” shows how all death is tragic, and “Grasshopper” helps to distinguish the peace that is death from that which is contentment in activity.

Many critics think of Wilbur as a poet uniting flesh and spirit, discerning both, glorifying both. In “Running,” he describes a day when his body as a boy was in perfect shape and the run he had was a glory of perfect control. “Thinking of happiness,” he says, “I think of that.” In “The Juggler,” after lamenting the pull of gravity on a rubber ball, he praises the juggler for keeping the balls, brooms, and plates played by whirling in air. He discovers how people resent the weight that holds them to the earth, both physically and spiritually; he thereby discovers the reason for juggling, for dreams of flying, and perhaps for all the earth’s restless desires.

Perhaps Wilbur’s most characteristic poetic gift is his uncanny ability to pinpoint the essential interplay between humans and nature. “On the Marginal Way” begins, in a sedate six-line stanza ending with a final couplet, to describe a beach littered with boulders; they remind the poet first of naked women but then of a beach full of dead people, whose story he begins to imagine. He pulls himself short by exclaiming: “[It is] the time’s fright within me which distrusts/ Least fancies into violence.” He reminds himself that though it was “violent” volcanic action that created these boulders, it is a beautiful day, and joy comes with the faith, however momentary, that “all things shall be brought/ To the full state and stature of their kind.”

In the short poem “Seed Loves,” Wilbur patiently describes a phenomenon that every gardener knows: The first two leaves of every plant are always the same. The plant is in a state of pure potency, and it both wishes and fears to grow. Then the third and fourth leaves come out, and the plant resigns itself to be itself. A simple botanical fact echoes deep inside the human spirit.

There are more direct approaches, as in “Advice to a Prophet,” which counsels a doomsayer not to predict a nuclear holocaust or the end of humankind on earth: “How should we dream of this place without us?” Reach us instead, he says, by telling how all the beautiful things in nature will disappear. In “A Summer Morning,” he tells how the cook and the gardener, because their rich young employers got in late, enjoy the beautiful big gardens and house on a sunny morning, “Possessing what the owners can but own,” bringing a moral insight to a small incident that would gladden Saint Francis.

The critics insist that Wilbur is a classic rather than a romantic poet. While often used vaguely, the words “classic” and “romantic” can indicate general tendencies. If “classic” points toward public themes, wit, and an intellectual...

(The entire section is 4,454 words.)