The Magazine

The Form of Poetry

Richard Wilbur's collected poems

Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By DAVID MASON
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A thrush, because I'd been wrong,

Burst rightly into song

In a world not vague, not lonely,

Not governed by me only.

Precisely because we don't govern it, the world is not vague. Wilbur has a gift for humility without obsequiousness, piety without self-righteousness--which links his vision not only to Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also to such skeptical Christians as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. (His debt to the knowledge games of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost is equally apparent.)

If Wilbur fundamentally celebrates the world rather than bemoaning it, perhaps this is because he has always felt our tenure here to be brief. We can see this as far back as his first book, The Beautiful Changes (1947), where the title poem notices, Your hands hold roses always in a way that says / They are not only yours. The paradox of Wilbur's career has been that the maker of such finely wrought poems believes all poetry will melt and go. His last volume of poems and translations was called Mayflies (2000), after creatures that live only a day.

BORN THE SON of a painter in New York City in 1921, Wilbur spent much of his childhood in what was then rural New Jersey. In a book-length interview with Peter Dale, he commented, "My childhood left me with a preference for living in the sticks, for long walks, for physical work and the raising of great crops of herbs and vegetables. It made me a fair amateur naturalist and gave me an ability--essential in a poet, I should think--to make something of solitude."

As a young man his political leanings were "ordinary leftish ones, Rooseveltian and entirely patriotic," confirmed by a pre-college year of tramping and rail-riding across nearly every state in the nation. That remarkable journey, alluded to in the first stanza of his elegy for Auden, is also the subject of a poem called, with typical irony, "Piccola Commedia."

After his marriage and graduation from Amherst College in 1942, he enlisted in the Army's 36th (Texas) Division. When the division cryptographer went mad, Wilbur talked his way into the job. Critics have often remarked on cryptography in relation to Wilbur's love of riddles, and, in fact, riddles are one of the many places in his work where his joy in the puzzle of the code shines through--for riddles are child's play with adult implications. Here, for example, is one of Wilbur's recent translations of an ancient Latin riddle: To make men weep, though griefless, is my lot. / I seek to climb, but in damp air can not. / Without me, my begetter's not begot. (The answer, given on another page, is smoke.)

Wilbur saw action in Italy and France, and he would later attribute his first poems to such experiences: "One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one's world somehow gets out of hand." After the war he did graduate study at Harvard on the G.I. Bill, then taught there, followed by a few years at Wellesley and twenty at Wesleyan University (1957 to 1977), finishing with another ten years as writer-in-residence at Smith College. With his wife, Charlee, he reared four children, one of whom "had the bad luck to be born autistic," writing, editing, or translating twenty-five books along the way.

THE FACT that Wilbur has not dwelt with a Confessional Poet's Sturm und Drang on domestic difficulties sets him apart from his contemporaries. For a while in American poetry, it seemed that bouts of madness and addiction were tickets to greatness, suicide merely the dues paid for one's laurels. If one lived dramatically, one wrote better. Not so, for Wilbur. Even the war gets scant notice in his work, especially if you compare him with James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, and other soldier poets. In Wilbur's first volume we do come across "Mined Country," "Potato," "First Snow in Alsace," and "On the Eyes of an SS Officer." But those poems are remarkable mostly for their distance: We thought woods were wiser but never / Implicated, never involved.

His second book, Ceremony, continued in the vein of deft irony, containing one of his most famous poems, "The Death of a Toad," in which the poor toad's passing apparently moves us Toward some deep monotone, / Toward misted and ebullient seas / And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies. The toad gets more baroque attention than the deaths Wilbur witnessed in war. Critics like Jarrell can be excused for wondering whether Wilbur's early skill with this sort of material would ever actually issue in something more.