The case for Richard Wilbur.
Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By JOHN SIMON
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:
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:
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
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.”
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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