Richard Wilbur (b. 1921)
Contributing Editor: Bernard F. Engel
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
1. Compare Wilbur's vigorous defense of traditional patterns, metrics, and rhyme with Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse" or similar arguments for "open form." Early comments on Wilbur's tight artistic discipline appear in M. L. Rosenthal's The Modern Poets (Oxford University Press, 1960). Rosenthal admires Wilbur's technical skill but argues that his work is overly traditional. A strong defense of Wilbur as a "darker" poet, one "more complex, passionate, and original" than critics sometimes take him to be, appears in Bruce Michelson's book. A number of critical views are summarized in Engel's Research Guide article.
2. Donald Hill's Richard Wilbur (1967) has several passages discussing critics who compare Wilbur's work with that of Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, and others. Useful comparison could also be made with Richard Eberhart--a poet who is equally convinced that the flesh is poetry's environment but is nevertheless more willing to move into mysticism and exclamation.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
"'A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness'"
1. This poem expresses Wilbur's repeated conviction that "mirages" are not enough, that "all shinings" must be worked out in the world of sensory reality. Compare Ralph Waldo Emerson's insistence in "The American Scholar" on knowing "the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan."
2. The quotation used as the title is from Meditation 65 in Thomas Traherne's Second Century. Asserting that one lacking someone or something to love would be better off having "no being," Traherne says: "Life without objects is a sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing." Donald Hill discusses the poem in Richard Wilbur, pages 62 through 65.
3. In the first two stanzas, the "spirit" of the speaker is attracted to the supposed "vast returns" of a world without objects. Students might be asked what the speaker thinks such a world would be.
4. In stanzas 3 through 5, the speaker warns the spirit to beware the enticing but "accurst." Students might consider what it is that is cursed.
5. Stanzas 4 and 5 cite as examples two "shinings," the painted saints of medieval days, and "Merry-go-round rings." Ask what these objects represent.
6. After again telling his spirit to turn away from "the fine sleights of the sand," the speaker advises that the true oasis is not to be found in grand imaginings. Students might be asked to explain how and where the speaker would have his spirit look for grandeur.
"Pangloss's Song: A Comic-Opera Lyric"
1. Though this lyric was deleted from the New York production of Wilbur's "comic operetta" based on Voltaire's Candide, Wilbur has since published it as a separate poem.
2. Students should note how Wilbur uses humor to avoid the distasteful in this lyric. Wilbur also does not use the word "syphilis," though that obviously is the disease Pangloss suffers from. Written in 1961, the poem assumes that Columbus's men brought the disease back to Europe from the New World. Students should know that there is now much controversy over the origin of syphilis, with people of the Caribbean maintaining that Europeans brought it to them.
3. Without attempting to impose too much philosophical freight on this jeu d'esprit, one might ask how it satisfies Wilbur's insistence that the idealist must be aware of sensory realities.
4. Does the poem express a celebration of love? Is it in any way a burlesque?
"In the Field"
1. In mythology, Andromeda (stanza 3) was rescued from a sea monster by Perseus; Wilbur has observed that Euripedes's lost play Andromeda may have told of her transformation into a constellation.
2. In stanzas 5 to 8, Wilbur's speaker recognizes that "none of that"-- ancient myths about the stars--"is true." The speaker knows that the stars are in motion, with the result that constellations imagined by the ancients are now often "askew." Stanza 6 gives an example of the effects of motion: the north star is now Polaris, but 2,500 years ago Alpha Draconis (the brightest star in the constellation Dragon) was in that position. Stanza 7 observes that because of star motion the "cincture of the zodiac," the astrologer's fancied order, is now outmoded, has "nothing left to say/To us."
3. Students should note the change from the mythological view of the heavens in the first four stanzas to the dismissal of that view in stanza 5 and the discussion of scientific ideas in stanzas 6 to 10. They also should be aware of the difference between astronomy and astrology.
4. The seventh stanza apparently refers to the "Big Bang" theory, the idea that the universe began as an infinitely tiny blob of "matter" that exploded outward, producing all that our senses show us; the stars are believed to be still traveling away from the point of origin at incomprehensible speeds. Stanza 8 refers to the hypothesis of some astronomers that eventually the energy of the original "bang" may become so weak that the motion will be reversed, with all "matter" rushing back until it is once again compressed into a minute object.
5. Stanza 10 notes that astronomy has made Antares, one of the brightest stars, "only a blink of red." In stanza 11, the speaker concedes that he and his friends can still feel the power of the myths they have read about in schoolbooks, and may even for a moment let imagination seem to show them a sky emptied of all objects by their "spent grenade" (perhaps the science that has blown away the world of myth).
6. Students might consider why the speaker in line 69 says that it would be a "mistake" to assume that flowers are an answer to the "fright" he experienced in contemplating the stars.
7. Students might also consider how the idea that the flowers give an answer, though said to be in error, nevertheless leads to the faith expressed in the last two stanzas.
8. Discussion might focus on the assertion of the last two stanzas that "the one/Unbounded thing we know" is "the heart's wish for life.
1. For the foreign words and phrases in this poem, see the footnotes.
2. Students should be able to explain the contrast in lines 20 to 23.
3. What do lines 64 and 65 ("I am not/Permitted to forget") reveal about the speaker's idea of himself?
4. Students should be aware of the meaning of "vatic" (line 67), "magus" (line 74), "trumpery" (line 90). How does the speaker make his living?
5. Students should know that the archangel Michael (lines 80 to 81) is said to have led the forces of God to their triumph over the rebellious Satan.
6. Why does the speaker in line 121 ask "What more do they deserve"? What might be the "huge attention" he speculates on in line 131?
7. In the last stanza, are the speaker's "habit of concupiscence" and his "hanker" for the places of the lost presented in order to destroy any view of him as a wise adviser? Are they meant rather to support such a view of him? Consider Wilbur's insistence on the importance of the sensory.
8. Does the poem as a whole suggest that the speaker is wise? Merely a weary or cynical faker? One of the "truly lost" mentioned in line 1?