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Modern Master

The case for Richard Wilbur.

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By JOHN SIMON
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To be sure, Wilbur is also a poeta doctus, a learned poet unashamed of his erudition. Take a poem like “Trismegistus,” which refers to the 42 Hermetic Books attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-great Hermes), the name given by the medieval Neoplatonic philosophers to the Egyptian god Thoth, concerned with the life and lore of the ancient Egyptians. The final octave reads:

Still, still we summon him at midnight hour

To Milton’s pensive tower,

And hear him tell again how, then and now,

Creation is a house of mirrors, how

Each herb that sips the dew

Dazzles the eye with many small

Reflections of the All—

Which, after all, is true.

The words in emphasis are, of course, quotations. It helps if we recognize in “Milton’s pensive tower” the lines from “Il Penseroso”: Or let my Lamp at midnight hour, / Be seen in some high lonely Tow’r, / Where I may oft out-watch the Bear, / With thrice great Hermes .  .  . Such help, though, is not mandatory. Note for example the interplay of the two “stills,” each with its own meaning, and of the capitalized “All” with the lower-case “all” in the wonderfully breezy, laconic last line.

Wilbur is also a splendid love poet, as witness “Galveston, 1961,” which includes a learned reference to the Nereid Panope, the one sea nymph among her 50 sisters whom sailors invoke for protection. It is a beach poem, first reveling in the charm of the beloved swimming in the sea. When she comes out, the poet urges her:

Shake out your spattering hair

And sprawl beside me here,

Sharing what we can share

Now that we are so near—

 

Small-talk and speechless love,

Mine being all but dumb

That knows so little of

What goddess you become

 

And still half-seem to be,

Though close and clear you lie,

Whom droplets of the sea

Emboss and magnify.

Wearing a related but different hat, Wilbur is also the best translator of lyric poetry and verse drama in our language. He has magisterially rendered, into metrical and  rhyming, exactly corresponding, English verse many lyric poems from various languages, and numerous plays by Molière, Racine, and Corneille. In Anterooms there are fine verse translations from Mallarmé, Verlaine, and the Latin of Symphosius.

In 1963, Randall Jarrell wrote that 

Petronius spoke of the “studied felicity” of Horace’s poetry, and I can never read one of Richard Wilbur’s books without thinking of this phrase. His impersonal, exactly accomplished, faintly sententious skill produces poems that, ordinarily, compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty—there is no eminent beauty without a certain strangeness.

But he promptly went on to praise sundry Wilbur poems, calling one of them “one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written.”
Wilbur elicits this kind of ambivalence. I think it is really a case of perfection unconsciously scaring us, making us feel envious or inadequate. Certainly I am in awe of the liminal poem in Anterooms, “The House,” which I take to be about Wilbur’s lovely deceased wife, Charlee:

Sometimes on wakening, she would close her eyes

For a last look at that white house she knew

In sleep alone, and held no title to,

And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

 

What did she tell me of that house of hers?

White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;

A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;

Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

 

Is she now there, wherever there may be?

Only a foolish man would hope to find

That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.

Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

This is the house of the dead to which the living, no matter how loving, have no access. But as Wilbur has said, “One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by a clear, precise confrontation.” The pursuit of poetic perfection is not unlike seeking contact with the dead: It may be impossible, but you persevere.

John Simon is the author, most recently, of John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).

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