During World War II the Allied forces in Europe had trouble maintaining a staff of cryptographers. There were few who could do the difficult work of deciphering enemy codes. Some got killed and others cracked up under the pressure of constant shelling and sleep deprivation.
Two who survived with their wits intact were Willard Van Orman Quine (1908– 2000), whom many consider the most influential American philosopher of the late twentieth century, and Richard Wilbur (born 1921), the lyric poet. In 1950 they found themselves sitting across the table from each other in the dining room of the Harvard Society of Fellows. The philosopher had distinguished himself by deciphering German submarine codes. Quine, a Senior Fellow, was obsessed with maps and spoke of obscure islands and canyons. As the Senior Fellow talked on, the Junior Fellow listened.
They did not discuss the war in those comfortable surroundings, nor did they discuss philosophy. Their polite silence on the topic typifies the rift between the newer schools of logical positivism and the fading practice of metaphysics. Quine—building upon the work of A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap—was publishing his doctrine of “naturalism,” claiming that philosophy rightly belonged to the natural sciences. His book Word and Object (1960) would drive the last nails into the coffin of metaphysics, which has only recently been resurrected.
Meanwhile the other cryptographer, Richard Wilbur, was publishing the poems that would assure his place as our finest metaphysical poet since Wallace Stevens. Despite the prevailing arguments consigning metaphysics to a branch of science, Wilbur persisted in feeling his way through the classical questions of ontology and cosmology. Just as Stevens was the preeminent metaphysical poet of the early twentieth century, Wilbur is our greatest since World War II. His new Collected Poems is now available from Harcourt.
We can only speculate on what might have transpired had these two exceptional minds engaged each other on these important issues. But in that relatively tranquil era the well-bred colleagues were not about to lock horns in the dining room of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
Metaphysics of Richard Wilbur
In an age that has abandoned metaphysics, how does society recognize or appreciate a metaphysical poet? It is a troubling question, as Saul Bellow showed in his novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975), which is based upon the tragic life of the poet Delmore Schwartz. Bellow’s allegory portrays the poet as an artistic martyr in a culture of materialism, where science has triumphed over the spirit.
Richard Wilbur’s fate has not been so cruel. He has been widely praised for the elegance of his verse: the beauty of his musical line, the brilliance of his imagery, and the ingenuity of his metaphors. But there is scant evidence that Wilbur has been appreciated for the life-giving function at the heart of that much-celebrated technique—that is, a man thinking deeply with his entire being, a man who thinks feelingly. For all that has been written about Wilbur you might believe he was William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but in things!”) framed in formal rhyme and meter, or Marianne Moore in a tuxedo, hypnotized by the pinwheel of particulars. Wilbur honors both, but resembles neither.
Critics who view modern poetry as a species of sensational journalism or as an art requiring constant formal innovation have complained that Wilbur “does not go far enough” to be considered a major poet. What they really mean is that his poetry is neither “confessional” in the operatic vein of Sylvia Plath nor is it “experimental” in the manner of Charles Olson.
That Richard Wilbur kept a sacred fire going for fifty years by blowing on it with his breath—the ancient fire of metaphysics that had nearly been drowned by Rudolf Carnap, Willard Quine, and the deconstructionists—this history has gone largely unnoticed.
If a metaphysician, say, Bishop Berkeley, falls over dead in the forest and there is nobody there to hear him, will he make a sound?
Berkeley did not foresee such misty weather,
Nor centuries of light
Intend so dim a day. Swaddled together
In separateness, the trees
Persist or not beyond the gray-white
Palings of the air. Gone
Are whatever wings bothered the lighted leaves
When leaves there were. Are all
The sparrows fallen? I can hardly hear
My memory of those bees
Which only lately mesmerized the lawn.
Now, something, blaze! A fear
Swaddles me now that Hylas’ tree will fall
Where no eye lights and grieves,
Will fall to nothing and without a sound.
I sway and lean above the vanished ground.
This lyric psychodrama called “A Chronic Condition,” written in the early 1950s, is a perfect emblem of Wilbur’s fundamental predicament and the existential angst and terror that arise from it. George Berkeley (1685–1753) was the English proponent of Idealism, a theory of immaterialism based on the premise that to exist is to be perceived. Material objects are ideas in our minds, says Berkeley, and the whole of reality consists of ideas in God’s mind.
The allusion to Hylas in line thirteen is crucial, although Wilbur himself declines to gloss it. (His choice of footnotes is often puzzling.) Hylas was one of the Argonauts and a youth beloved of Hercules. Detained off the coast of Mysia after Hercules snapped an oar, the crew sent Hylas for water. He found a spring, but the nymphs were so smitten with his beauty they drew him into the water and kept him. Theosophists have long interpreted the Hylas myth as an allegory of the search into the truth of things (the spring water); the nymphs symbolize the allurements of metaphysical speculation. There is no “tree” in the Hylas story. Hylas’ tree is the poet Wilbur himself, his body swaying and leaning “above the vanished ground” of being at the end of the poem.
The sparrow in line nine is a recurrent image in Wilbur’s poetry, always alluding to Hamlet’s “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Whenever we see sparrows in these poems we are reminded of God’s providence, His divine guidance. Here the absence of their wings in the trees adds to the poet’s anxiety.
The “Chronic Condition” is the post-war malaise, the worldwide exhaustion of spirit in which little can thrive but literary cacti like Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, and Willard Quine is embalming metaphysics. What is there to be done? What can a poet do? He is not, strictly speaking, a philosopher. A poet’s duty—if he has any apart from making pretty verses—is to create images that express moods, states of mind, and emotions that might otherwise never be known or understood.
So what Wilbur has done here, in sixteen lines, is to provide a striking image for a complex psychic predicament and its attendant emotion. Equally important, he has created a precise metaphor for the border between the percipient (Wilbur and/or God) and the world perceived. “Swaddled together/ In separateness, the trees/ Persist or not beyond the gray-white/ Palings of the air.” Those gray-white palings pose fatal problems to the trees as well as to the poet if he cannot somehow see through them.
The gulf between consciousness to which the poet has introspective access, and the supposed world of concrete fact beyond, is one that the poet can only dream of bridging, and it is vanity to think one might succeed. Wilbur’s four-page poem “Walking to Sleep” (1968), and a poem in the collection under review, “The Sleepwalker” (2003), also deal with the gap between consciousness and the world of objects—in both cases by using the trance state between waking and sleeping as a metaphor for the gulf between matter and mind.
The relation of consciousness to the material world is a major topic of classical metaphysics. So is the question of substance and change. Do things maintain their identity through time and change? The title poem of Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947), announces his program to solve this enduring riddle. Wilbur is a magician (as you will have noticed by that blank space beneath the vanished ground at the end of “A Chronic Condition”), and nowhere is his sorcery more evident than in this ingenious title. With both words serving double duty—“beautiful” as noun and adjective, “changes” as verb and noun—the poet shows us in miniature what the poem will fully illustrate: his irenic approach to the problem. Beginning with stanza two:
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
Wilbur generally takes an irenic position rather than a polemical one. This presages the irenic theology of later poems where the poet’s Christian faith takes up the burden of the argument. The images of chameleon and mantis in the first stanza quoted seem to suggest that substance endures through change. But the last stanza is an exact image (fit for Professor Quine’s seminar) of discontinuity, the sundering of “things and things’ selves,” the momentary disruption of identity. “The beautiful” is kind; it intends to sunder us only for so long as it takes for us to wonder at finding ourselves again. The well-founded appearance of continuity of identity is most likely an illusion rather than a reality.
One does not have to read long in any of Wilbur’s books to find love poems or nature studies that grapple with this issue. In Ceremony we find “Driftwood,” “these emblems/ Royally sane,/ Which have ridden to homeless wreck, and long revolved/ In the lathe of all the seas,/ But have in spite of it all their dense/ Ingenerate grain.”
In The Mind-Reader (1976) we find “In Limbo,” the fascinating self-portrait of the fifty-year-old poet trying to pull himself together to go to sleep.
Now I could dream that all my selves and ages,
Pretenders to the shadowed face I wear,
Might in this clearing of the wits, forgetting
Deaths and successions, parley and atone.
… … … …
Couched in the void, I hear what I have heard of,
The God who dreams us, breathing out and in.
… … … …
I am a truant portion of the all
Misshaped by time, incorrigible desire
And dear attachment to a sleeping hand
Who lie here on a certain day …
And in “Transit” (from New Poems, 1987) there is a woman so beautiful that “the staggered sun/ Forgets, in his confusion, how to run,” and as she walks out her door,
Nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street,
Leaving the stations of her body there
As a whip maps the countries of the air.
The same inner stillness and patience that allowed the cryptographer to solve ciphers under artillery fire and come home sane has brought about the slow creation of these poems. I have heard it said, to my astonishment, that Wilbur’s poetry is easy to read. Some anthology pieces like “The Juggler” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” and the newest poems, are indeed very clear. But much of Wilbur’s best poetry is subtle and cryptic, requiring and rewarding careful study; some of the greatest poems, such as “Advice to a Prophet,” teeter on the far edge of the comprehensible. This is no fault of Wilbur’s technique, but because the poet tackles difficult subjects and is never contented with an easy answer.
Wilbur and Edgar Alan Poe
To understand Wilbur’s art we must respect his fundamental approach to his subjects. This is a combination of quietism, and a homegrown gnosticism that the young poet found in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. In an interview with the poet Paul Mariani, Wilbur recounts his reading of Poe (also a famous cryptographer) in a fox-hole during the war.
I read it with a lively awareness of waking, drowsing, and slumbering, as well as an escapist intensity of focus. What I saw, by way of Poe’s repeated symbols and structures—his continual buildup, for instance, toward a terminal whirlwind or whirlpool—was that the stages of his narrative were based on the stages of the mind’s entry into sleep. I saw that his story “MS Found in a Bottle” was an account of the soul’s gradual transition from waking rationality to visionary dream. I didn’t then grasp what I later made out and wrote about—the gnostic myth which underlies Poe’s work in toto.
Wilbur’s essay on Poe, published in 1962, summarizes that gnostic myth as follows:
The universe, as Poe conceived it, is a poetic or artistic creation, a “plot of God.” It has come about through God’s breaking up of His original unity, and his self-radiation into space; it is presently at the point of maximum diffusion, and will soon begin to contract toward a final reassembly in—and as—God. Since God, in creating the universe, fragmented Himself into his creatures … it is they who must by some counter impulse, restore the original oneness of things… . And since the creation is a work of art, the counter impulse that can reunify it must be imaginative. In short, the duty of God’s creatures is to think God together again by discovering, through the fusing power of poetic imagination, the primal unity in the present diversity.
Wilbur observes that Poe’s literary meaning always lies “where he said it should, in an ‘under current,’” an aesthetic preference Wilbur himself states in “Ceremony,” a poem based on an illusory portrait by Bazille: “What’s lightly hid is deepest understood …”
Wilbur’s gnosticism is not Poe’s, any more than his quietism is the inertia of Michael de Molinos or a Buddhist monk. But the structure of dozens of Wilbur’s finest poems reflect the “counterimpulse” to restore the oneness of things, to think God together again by discovering, through the fusing power of poetic imagination, the primal unity in the present diversity. For the poet Wilbur, it is usually gnosis (knowledge) rather than faith, ritual, or good works that gathers the scattered universe again and may even lead to salvation.
Use of Landscapes in Wilbur’s Poetry
Wilbur’s magnificent landscapes illustrate this “approach.” With preternatural patience and marvelous calm, the poet will behold rocks, trees, sky, and flowers; in this passive state (only the eye is active) the poet waits for the Divine Essence to reveal its secrets. It does, and the “secret” is invariably a unifying principle. Often it is clothed in sunlight, a conventional gnostic symbol for goodness and truth. In “The Terrace” the poet recalls a luncheon “High up a mountainside,/ On a terrace like a raft roving/ Seas of view.”
The tablecloth was green and blurred away
Toward verdure far and wide,
And all the country came to be
Our table too.
We drank in tilted glasses of rosé
From tinted peaks of snow,
Tasting the frothy mist, and freshest
Fathoms of air.
The sky, the bees, and the stream below all magically become part of the meal. “We dipped our cups in light;/ We caught the fine-spun shade of clouds/ In spoon and plate …” This delightful accord owes so much to sunlight, that despite “our gay readily said graces,/ The evening stole our provender and/ Left us there,”
And darkness filled the specious space, and fell
Betwixt our silent faces,
Pressing against our eyes its absent
Out in the dark we felt the real mountains
Hulking in proper might,
And we felt the edge of the black wind’s
And we knew we had eaten not the manna of heaven
But our own reflected light,
And we were the only part of the night that we
The key phrase here is “specious space.” The world that had appeared perfect, whole and plausible, has upon closer scrutiny proven deceptive. Nightfall and the black wind of oblivion have come to inform the poet that the unifying light he had believed depended upon the sun was actually generated by the human souls at the table. They cannot, and will not, believe in their own extinction.
The same theme inspires what is perhaps Wilbur’s greatest “landscape,” the long and apocalyptic meditation “In the Field” (from Walking to Sleep, 1969). The poet and his wife walk out into a field to study the constellations, “Our thrown-back heads aswim/ In the grand, kept appointments of the air.” While he is pointing out Andromeda, and the Dolphin “still flailing through a diamond froth of stars,” he recalls that the figures that the Greeks and Babylonians discovered have shifted.
The heavens jumped away
Bursting the cincture of the zodiac,
Shot flares with nothing left to say
To us, not coming back
Unless they should at last,
Like hard-flung dice that ramble out the throw,
Be gathered for another cast.
Fear seizes him as his imagination runs away with his “schoolbook thoughts.”
And faked a scan of space
Blown black and hollow by our spent grenade,
All worlds dashed out without a trace,
The very light unmade.
The chilling idea of this manmade void puts an end to the lovers’ stargazing. They retire for the night and awaken to find:
Today, in the same field
The sun takes all, and what could lie beyond?
Those holes in heaven have been sealed
Like rain-drills in a pond,
And we, beheld in gold,
See nothing starry but the galaxies
Of flowers, dense and manifold …
He is tempted to interpret the flowers as “some answer to the fright/ We felt for creation’s sake/ In our dark talk last night.”
Many a fine poet would be satisfied with that—but not Wilbur. With the patience of Fénelon he waits for a better answer. It is the human heart that comes to redeem him, “the heart’s wish for life, which, staking here/ In the least field an endless claim,/ Beats on from sphere to sphere,”
And pounds beyond the sun,
Where nothing less peremptory can go,
And is ourselves, and is the one
Unbounded thing we know.
This image of the pounding heart beyond the radiant sun is one more touch of the magician’s wand. Once again the hard-earned knowledge, accrued by patient meditation, leads the poet to salvation. It is a bold and curious notion, that the heart’s wish for life is vaster than the physical universe. One would have to go to Blake or Whitman to find a similar measurement.
Religion in Wilbur’s poetry
It may seem unfair to accuse the good Anglican Richard Wilbur of heresies such as quietism and gnosticism when he has made himself at home in St. Paul’s Church. But remember that Wilbur is a poet and magician practicing an art that predates Christianity by several thousands of years. In his art the artist may be forgiven for transgressions that might not be tolerable in the man. In poems the Christian may be encouraged to throw off the old garment of repentance. And then, Wilbur’s actual religion is apparently a complex matter, as he once stated in an interview: “I’m afraid I’m not very catechistic,” and “what doesn’t particularly interest me is the Creed, although I find that I can say it.” Well. This doesn’t sound like T. S. Eliot or some other paint-by-the-dots Episcopalian, but a man with an idiosyncratic spiritual life.
Wilbur’s poetry has developed over the years. And one of the interesting ways it has changed is that divine forces such as grace and providence shoulder more and more of the burden of salvation. Wilbur has not neglected that other Gordian knot of metaphysics, namely fate versus free will. In his poem “The Proof,” he solves the dilemma with a typographic metaphor.
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But, thinking I might come to please him yet
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
“Stet” is editor’s jargon for “let it stand.” The poet’s solution is characteristically irenic: within the strict grammar of God’s will (destiny) the poet remains a “free subject;” by God’s grace Wilbur may continue to act freely in the prospect that his will and God’s will coincide.
One of Wilbur’s finest recent poems, “Mayflies” (2000), presents “a mist of flies” that dance with such unified grace they “seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold.”
Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they—
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.
The great gift of Providence to mortals—the divine spark—permits them to recognize God’s goodness, and then charges them to rejoice in it.
Wilbur’s development over his long career has been subtle, deliberate, and distinct. His style emerged almost fully realized in his first book The Beautiful Changes (1947). There are only faint traces of his antecedents: the syllabics and enjambment of Marianne Moore, the blank-verse paragraph of Robert Frost; there are distant echoes of John Crowe Ransom’s feminine rhymes and mock chivalric tone, in these lines by Wilbur:
So sun and air, when these two goods war together,
Who else can tune day’s face to a softest laugh,
Being sweet beat the world with a most wild weather,
Trample with light or blow all heaven blind with chaff.
There are small debts to Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, but Wilbur seemed destined to make more plain sense than either of those students of Mallarmé. According to Ezra Pound’s useful taxonomy of poets (Inventors, Masters, Dilutors, Starters-of-Crazes, etc.) twenty-five-year-old Wilbur was a master. He took the invention of Marianne Moore’s syllabic stanza and imposed upon that flat grid the stress-metric of Ransom, Frost, and every other wizard of accentual verse and rhyme back to Alexander Pope and John Donne. The result was a powerful and commodious style that is at once traditional and completely his own. Like Brahms, he poured new wine into old bottles. With occasional enhancements that style has served the poet for sixty years.
What has changed is the voice. It is in this dimension that one marks an important difference between Richard Wilbur and Wallace Stevens. Allan Tate once said that there were “no people in Stevens’s poems,” and if I understood him correctly he meant that there were no people including Stevens. Tate was not judging the great author of Harmonium, he was making an innocent observation. The speaker of Stevens’s poems is a preposterous construct, a sophistical carnival barker, Parmenides on acid. He is not a human being and when he does refer to persons (with two very famous exceptions: “Sunday Morning” and “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”) they appear as no more human than Picasso’s late cubist portraits. This imposes severe emotional limits on Stevens’s verse.
Wilbur has admitted that his own poems are “not very populous,” but as any reader can see, there is always one warm body present at the center of the action, and that is Richard Wilbur himself. He is consistently generous, curious, fair-minded, and passionate. Sometimes he gets angry, as in his early poem “On the Eyes of an SS Officer:” “I ask my makeshift God of this/ My opulent bric-à-brac earth to damn his eyes.” He is easily amused: “We milk the cow of the world, and as we do/ We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’” He is wide-eyed with wonder at the world around him, and eager to share it with us.
The philosophical rigor and urgency of the first four books gradually relax, as if the primary mission had been accomplished. The voice that had existed mainly in service of his ideas, becomes, in the late 1960s, more personal, more intimate and domestic. The poems become more open to whimsy, welcoming to other characters, and the philosophical problems, as I have noted, are more likely to yield to the persuasions of Christian theology.
His faithful wife and muse, a presence from the first, makes more frequent appearances as a fully realized character. Here she is in “The Catch,” trying on a dress the poet has given her.
With a fierce frown and hard-pursed lips
She twists a little on her stem
To test the even swirling of the hem,
Smooths down the waist and hips,
Plucks at the shoulder straps a bit
Then turns around and looks behind,
Her face transfigured now by peace of mind.
The poet’s daughter makes an entrance in 1976, as a fledgling writer, “a commotion of typewriter-keys like a chain hauled over a gunwale.” He lightly wishes her a lucky passage before recollecting at length that her enterprise is a matter of life or death, whereupon he says, “I wish what I wished you before, but harder.”
He portrays the stock-boy reading Playboy Magazine on his lunch hour, fantasizing about the naked girl and how “her soul,/ Grown sweetly faint, and swept beyond control,/ Consents to his inexorable will.”
The poet even gives five pages (his longest poem) to a dramatic monologue in the guise of an Italian psychic, “The Mind-Reader,” in order to raise the question, “Is there some huge attention, do you think,/ Which suffers us and is inviolate,/ To which all hearts are open, which remarks/ The sparrow’s weighty fall …”
There are a dozen new poems in Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943–2004, and they engage the same themes that have always concerned him. These lyrics do not break new ground, but they maintain the poet’s high standards while carrying on that progress toward a greater intimacy and more fully defined personality. He portrays his wife re-reading books “that charmed her younger mind.” Knowing the characters, “She sees their first and final selves at once,/ As a god might to whom all time is now.” There is a poem about the kaleidoscope, which gives us hope because “prophets claim/ That Heaven’s joys, though endless,/ Are not twice the same …” He offers an ingenious meditation on the color green, the only color of the spectrum that is useless in nourishing tree leaves which “wear all summer an extraneous green” that has “no apparent role, unless/ To be the symbol of a great largesse/ Which has no end …”
We are fortunate to have “Blackberries for Amelia,” surely one of Wilbur’s most poignant lyrics on the theme of mortality and seizing the day.
Fringing the woods, the stone walls, and the lanes,
Old thickets everywhere have come alive,
Their new leaves reaching out in fans of five
From tangles overarched by this year’s canes.
In describing the June flowers of the bushes he reprises the star imagery of his earlier magisterial poem “In the Field,” blossoms as loosely strewn.
As the far stars, of which we now are told
That ever faster do they bolt away,
And that a night may come in which some say,
We shall have only blackness to behold.
“I have no time for any change so great,” says the old man. But he will see August when there will be “Dark berries, savage-sweet and worth the wait.” When the time rolls around, he must be quick.
And I shall need
Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
And a grandchild to talk with while we pick.
Does that last line spill over from intimacy to the forbidden realm of the sentimental? If so, after fifty years of heroic stoicism, irony, and metaphysical distance, this poet has earned the right to wring a tear from a stone.
The publication of this Collected Poems in a new century offers an occasion for us to look at Richard Wilbur’s work with a fresh eye. He is in no present danger of being overlooked, but we do him and ourselves an injustice by reading his poetry as if this were still 1970. The world that pegged Wilbur as a clever wordsmith more concerned with style than substance has changed. We must begin to read Richard Wilbur as a metaphysical poet in the grandest sense. Metaphysicians are renewing their discipline to challenge the uncritical assumptions that pervade the fields of neuroscience and psychology; they have entered the debate over the limits of Artificial Intelligence, and over fundamental freedom and determinism. Wilbur’s poetry is an invaluable record, preserved in concrete imagery, of a man’s magnanimous struggle with the eternal questions.
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.