Richard Wilbur stands out in the latter half of the Twentieth Century as one of the truly great poets in English. Because his work is endowed with a thriving, generous intelligibility, his poems have real meanings; their intentions are not lost in the ungrammatical quagmire, opaque language, and haphazard constructions that have been a way of life in poetry for some time.
When a poet’s work confuses, it is called “difficult.” Difficult, perhaps, but, more likely, careless, unfinished, or selfish. The truth must dazzle gradually, but it must dazzle. Over the years, creative writing programs seem to have cultivated a chic opacity of strange, obscure, fantastical language, aimed at achieving some sort of hybrid experience with the poem, as if poetry were a mind-altering drug, and the poet its pusher. Richard Hugo did a great disservice when he instructed young poets, “If you want to communicate, use the telephone.”
Poetry that prefers to be understood is refreshing. But luminous clarity is not all Richard Wilbur bestows on his readers. He also treats us to the natural grace of his formal stanzas. If poems were dance partners, we’d have bruised, sore feet from a good deal of what’s being printed today by our small presses and literary magazines. We’d swear off dancing, or we’d do what most dancing couples have been doing for the past forty years or so — dance apart, adapting our enjoyment to our own personal moves and steps. Wilbur’s fluid rhymes and rhythmically controlled meters remind us that dancing with a skillful partner is a superior delight.
Wilbur is a poet who seeks a balance in his subjects, an accommodation of mixed feelings. He is known for the ironic meditative lyric, what the Norton anthology calls, “the single perfect poem,” rather than the long narrative poem or extended dramatic sequence. A life-affirming philosophy, applied to poetry of refined compression and clarity, combined with metrical stanzas that rhyme, could, at a superficial glance, be mistaken for dogged optimism. Wilbur’s happiness, however, is far from simple. It has gravity; it can be almost somber.
In his essay, “On My Own Work,” Wilbur explains, “A good part of my work could, I suppose, be understood as a public quarrel with the aesthetics of Edgar
Allan Poe.” It’s a complex quarrel, illustrated to some degree, in his poem, “Cottage Street, 1953”
(The Mind-Reader: New Poems. 1976), in which Wilbur recalls, many years after her death, a saddening encounter at tea with a young Sylvia Plath, following her recently attempted suicide (ten years prior to her “successful” one):
It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,
I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.
The poem ends,
...Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.
In the mid-Seventies, after the suicides of John Berryman in 1972 and Anne Sexton in 1974, American poetry seemed to be in a solipsistic thrall with brooding bitterness. Wilbur noted, “Isn’t it odd that our American society, the most cosseted in human history, is now so given to petulance and dreary complaint...?” A glance at Daniel Halpern’s 1975
American Poetry Anthology gives a pretty good idea of what Wilbur must have meant, even though the copy I have includes, on the front cover, the excerpt of a diplomatically supportive statement from the ever-generous Wilbur. He is a profoundly tactful man with a gentle, unobtrusive temperament. Even dedicated detractors of formal verse don’t attack him. Stanley Kunitz, who remarked in a 1977 interview, “Non-metrical verse has swept the field, so that there is no longer any real adversary from the metricians,” seemed to erase this statement from his mind six years later when he introduced Richard Wilbur at a 1983 reading: “Wilbur’s mind has a cleansing sanity and wit that make it possible for him to view the world, despite its burden of suffering and tragedy and evil, as a place of fortuitous joys and blessings and miracles, not the least of which is the gift of life itself.” Wilbur says it best. In “On My Own Work,” he describes his poems as favoring “a spirituality that is not abstracted, not dissociated and world-renouncing...,” having to do with “the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit.”
Mayflies (Harcourt, Inc. $22), a collection of 25 original poems, in addition to a selection of translations of Dante,
Molière, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Petrov, and Cassian, is Wilbur’s first volume since the 1988 publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning
New and Collected Poems. Again, to quote his essay, “On My Own Work,” (from a book called
Poets on Poetry, published in 1966, and reprinted in Wilbur’s prose collection,
Responses, published in 1976 by Harcourt Brace; it has reissued with additional material this year, from Story Line Press), Richard Wilbur writes, “Every poem of mine is autonomous, or feels so to me in the writing, and consists of an effort to exhaust my present sense of the subject. It is for this reason that a poem sometimes takes me years to finish.”
Mayflies, therefore, is an undauntingly slim volume for the years it has taken to accumulate; the pages are pleasantly relaxed in their spaces between poems, and in the inviting compactness of each work.
The first thing we often do when picking up a new book of poems is to turn it over to see who has praised it. On the rear dust jacket of
Mayflies, the publishers have printed the opening poem of the book, “A Barred Owl,” as proof that Richard Wilbur’s achievement has surpassed the need for endorsement. His poetry does it for him.
(“A Barred Owl,” is one of eleven poems in Mayflies, published in the 1997
fine press edition, Bone Key, still available, from Aralia Press).
“A Barred Owl” is a poem of rhyming iambic pentameter couplets divided into two six-line stanzas. It has to do with calming a child’s nighttime fears, and the artful resources required to protect the child’s fragile innocence from the unsettling and harsh facts of life. When a poet is victorious, a pentameter line can be worth a thousand words. Wilbur often achieves such a victory, as in these opening couplets: “The warping night air having brought the boom/ Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,/ We tell the wakened child that all she heard/ Was an odd question from a forest bird...”
The owl of this poem is a barred owl, a particular breed; it is also, through Wilbur’s charming interpretation of its “odd question” (which I will let the reader discover), barred from frightening the child any further; it may also be regarded as a bard owl, a poet owl, whose purpose is to present “Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear.” I won’t give away the closing couplet of this
marvelous poem, but I will say the lines compensate “the sense of the subject” with a stark rhyme that illustrates the power of reality to overcome fantasy, even in a dream.
Wilbur’s trademark is “That slight uncertainty which makes us sure,” the closing line of his poem, “Advice from the Muse,” from the “new” section of the 1988
New and Collected Poems. In the poem, his muse advises that he write,
With facts enough, good ground for inference,
No gross unlikelihood or major doubt,
And, at the end, an end to all suspense.
Still, something should escape us, something like
A question one had meant to ask the dead...
...Some fadings of the signal, as it were,
A breath which, drawing closer, may obscure
Mirror or window with a token blur —
That slight uncertainty which makes us sure.
It’s excellent advice, the best I’ve heard since Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Wilbur strives consistently to obey it.
There is ironic discreetness in the title of the poem, “For C.,” which teases us into wondering if “C.” is a lover from the past. This seems unlikely, and yet the poem is written in “heroic sestets,” or
sesta rima in Italy— six-line stanzas with an abbacc rhyme scheme, which is a slight variation on the
ababcc form used by Shakespeare in his poem, “Venus and Adonis,” and has been entered as the “Venus and Adonis Stanza” in the Princeton Encyclopedia. Furthermore, “For C.” begins and unfolds as a lament for the ardent, short-lived love affair: “On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye.../ Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief/ And baggage, yet with something like relief,”... At the fourth stanza, however, the poem takes a turn, when the poet discloses his lover’s identity, by gratefully and slyly listing what their affair lacks in common with the others: “We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse/ And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share/ The frequent vistas of their large despair.” “C.” is Charlotte, Wilbur’s wife of over fifty years, and the poem pays tribute to a marriage “...though taken to be tame and staid,/ Is a wild sostenuto of the heart.”
“A wild sostenuto of the heart,” is unforgettable language.
Sostenuto , a musical term, directs a musician to prolong a note beyond its full value, or to prolong the phrases of an entire passage. A “wild sostenuto” is something else; it’s Richard Wilbur’s passionate invention, and, no doubt, the heart is the only instrument capable of performing it. The reckless, tragic fire of impossible love is legendary and magnificently destructive, but ultimately cannot hold a candle to a marriage that lasts for decades, “A passion joined to courtesy and art/ Which has the quality of something made.” Its music plays over the “fine tristesse” and “large despair,” of short-lived love, and leads to the poem’s finale, exalting the rapturous longevity of marriage with a host of sacred, almost funereal similes, that resound like a church organ. What began in church, ends in church. Wilbur has begun to unwind the thread that runs throughout
Mayflies, flavoring the poems, some more strongly than others, with the realization that life, for him, is closer to its end than to its middle; that he relies upon his heart’s “wild sostenuto” to sustain it beyond expectancy.
The title of the poem, “Zea,” Wilbur tells us in a note, “is one half of the botanical name (Zea mays) for Indian corn or maize,” and, after the opening line of the poem, “Once their fruit is picked,” we’re left with half the plant; the
zea without the mays. The nine haiku-form tercets of this contemplative work reflect on the aspects of what’s left over after harvest...or what’s left of life when its full contribution has been made. Wilbur depicts autumnal days “of an utter/Calm...,” in lines that, while adhering to the haiku’s syllabics, convey a sense of unevenness, like rows of fallen cane, or the physical undoings caused by age. There is, however, a more formal aspect to these stanzas. Each tercet is wrapped in supple outer rhymes, which, like the “...fabric sheathing/ A gaunt stem...” at the conclusion, “can seem to be/ The sole thing breathing.” As this breathtakingly organic union demonstrates, Wilbur is a quietly conscious, unexcelled master grafter of subject and form.
The group of poems, entitled, simply, “Three Tankas,” uses an ancient Japanese lyric form. The tanka precedes the haiku by several centuries, although its syllabic prosody resembles an extended haiku. The haiku’s stanza of seventeen syllables comes in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables each, while the tanka continues for two more seven-syllable lines, making a stanza of thirty-one syllables. In temperament, it is like the epigram. It suits the autonomous nature of Wilbur’s poems, by allowing a wide variety of subjects, while the haiku is traditionally limited to natural images and seasonal observations.
Wilbur’s tankas are haiku-like glimpses of the world (raindrops falling on leaves, trick-or-treaters at the door, a field of new asters), impelled to further perception in the final two seven-syllable lines. It’s as if the haiku’s Zen-like passivity was not satisfying enough for Wilbur, who adopted the more venturesome tanka, to provide extra space, spare as it is, for lyric irony, without which Wilbur’s poetry would fall short of his effort to exhaust his sense of the subject. Each of his fourteen-syllable distillations is a felicitous conclusion, like a sip of fine, rare brandy after a simple meal.
“A Wall in the Woods: Cummington” is a poem in two parts, each distinctively different in form, and each autonomously equal to their sum. Neither part relies on the other for connected meanings, but together, they leave the subject twice blessed.
A poet of great specificity, Wilbur locates his wall in Cummington, Massachusetts — though it could well be a timeless extension of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” a wall which divides Frost’s land from his neighbor’s. Each year it falls apart a little, and must be mended, maintained, put back together. The neighbor in Frost’s poem quotes the handed-down aphorism, “good fences make good neighbors,” while Frost observes that, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/ That wants it down.” He questions what the wall is for, even as he helps mend it, because he values his neighbor’s good will, and the two men work in harmony to replace the large, heavy stones.
In the first part of Wilbur’s poem, also in blank verse, no neighbors are left to mend the wall, yet “two whole centuries have not brought it down.” It is a dry-stone wall, designed to hold together by its own gravity (cement is a sin to a dry-stone waller). “Look how with shims they made the stone weigh inward,” Wilbur writes admiringly of the builders of this wall, and wonders, as Frost did, “What is it for, now that dividing neither/ Farm from farm nor field from field, it runs/ Through deep, impartial woods...”
One of Wilbur’s earliest poems, “Caserta Garden,” is dominated by a fascination with an old, forgotten wall: “None but a stranger would remark at all/ The barrier within the fractured lines./ I doubt they know it’s there, or what it’s for.” (In the end, Wilbur, as the remarking stranger, finds comfort and fulfillment in symmetrical containment: “How beauties will grow richer walled about!” He couldn’t have made a more eloquent statement in favor of metrical poetry).
In Cummington, the stranger is once again remarking on a particular wall’s purpose. This time, the wall seems to connect rather than separate. It has a sempiternal presence in the woods, no longer a mere wall, but the soul of itself, of all who descended from its builders and scattered across the land. Its appearance inspires a restful, synaesthetic composure: “It is a sort of music for the eye,/ A rugged ground bass like the bagpipe’s drone/ On which the leaf-light like a chanter plays.” The wall is an emblem of human thought.
The second part of “A Wall in the Woods...” is written in syllabic, rhyming quatrains, resembling haiku-form with an added seven-syllable line in the middle. The opening leads us on a chipmunk’s wild race: “He will hear no guff/ About Jamshyd’s court, this small,/ Striped, duff-colored resident/ On top of the wall,// Who, having given/ An apotropaic shriek/ Echoed by crows in heaven,/ Is off like a streak.” This is a good example of Wilbur’s ear for language he calls “ both exalted and vulgar.” In “On My Own Work,” he discusses a poem in which “the language...is at one moment elevated and at the next colloquial or slangy,” which is what we’re treated to here, with “He will hear no guff/ About Jamshyd’s court,” following the slangy “guff” with a reference to a legendary king of Persia; and, again, with “apotropaic shriek,” invoking the classical Greek reference to that which averts evil, then switching to the casual, conversational, “Is off like a streak.” Meanwhile, the wall, decorated in the first part with, “Rosettes of lichen,” evolves its own mythological and ecological system of “gap, ledge, niche/ And Cyclopean/ Passages...,”and untold species of birds, plants, snails and woodlice, which dwell within the chipmunk’s “long castle.”
In his attempt to imagine what the little fellow is saying in a vociferous “steady chipping/ Succinctly plucked and cadenced/ As water dripping,” Wilbur composes a series of spirited, homiletic speculations which elevate so endearingly the warm-blooded creature’s independence and nobility atop the fortress boundary of loose stones, we’re pretty nearly brought to tears with the beauty of the closing lines, when forest dweller and poet are of one mind, speaking to each other “Of the plenum, charged/ With one life through all changes,/ And of how we are enlarged/ By what estranges.”
Wilbur is interested in finding the eternal in the perishable, and the wall in Cummington, Massachusetts now seems connected to every wall in human history. Dense with crumbling matter, life’s electric continuum runs through it—from the fast current of a simple rodent, gloriously adapted to the settling stones, to the high-tension lives of human beings — the early builders, and the “remarking strangers.” Ultimately, fur and flesh are the changing, crumbling walls that connect us and increase our being. Good walls may make good neighbors, but they make great poems.
“This Pleasing Anxious Being” is a poem in three parts, each in one stanza of blank verse, which Wilbur spikes with subtle variations. The title is taken from a line in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Other writers have taken titles from such lines of Gray’s poem as, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” and “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” Its reflections on mortality and anonymity are timeless.
The stanza from which Wilbur has taken his title is particularly apt for his sequence, which lingers on “the warm precincts of the cheerful day” that is childhood, but progresses toward dark finality, and the eventual death of the author.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
The first poem of “This Pleasing Anxious Being” recalls in reverent tones, a candlelit family dinner, a scene far-removed from what we’re accustomed to nowadays, in which “Father has finished carving at the sideboard/ And Mother’s hand has touched a little bell,/ So that, beside her chair, Roberta looms/ With serving bowls of yams and succotash.” The poem asks its poet to “Rest for a moment in that resonance,” when, as a child, he kicks impatiently under the table, wishing the dinner over so he can get on with the distractions of his games.
The second part examines a snapshot taken during a day at the beach. It opens darkly, “The shadow of whoever took the picture/ Reaches like Azrael’s across the sand...” The subjects of the photo, who have most probably departed from life by now, are shielding their eyes and wincing “Against the sunlight and the future’s glare.” They are busy with their picnic, while two boys can be seen playing distractedly nearby. No one pays attention, as “...the surf behind them floods a rocky cove,” except, at the edge of the frame, with his back to them, facing the water, a painter working on a seascape. The artist, aware of mortality, watches each wave grow and die upon itself, waiting for one he can commit to the immortal language of the canvas, “...a wave/ That shall in blue summation break forever.” In Gray’s “Elegy...,” the melancholy poet imagines that lives and art will pass into oblivion. Wilbur sees life (the ocean) eternalized through art.
The third, and last, poem in the sequence, comes directly to terms with the subject, and, perhaps unintentionally, closer to Poe’s aesthetics, when it describes a winter automobile journey as, “Wild, lashing snow, which thumps against the windshield/ Like earth tossed down upon a coffin-lid.” The poem gives the year, 1928, and tells us a family is on their way to Baltimore for Christmas. “Father is driving; Mother, leaning out,/ Tracks with her flashlight beam the pavement’s edge.” Wilbur, born in 1921, is no doubt recalling an early memory of conscious awareness, when he describes a child, six or seven years of age, half-awake, tucked safely in the back seat, paradoxically “soothed by jingling chains” (the tires’ snow chains suggest sleighbells). Then, because he served in the U. S. Army from 1943-45, Wilbur is able to foresee, in the “dark hood of the car/ Ploughing the eddied lakes...,” the “steady chugging of a landing craft/ Through morning mist to the bombarded shore.” The poem, chugging steadily through the poet’s life, arrives at the moment of his own death, imagined as a shining blizzard, seen from “...the bedstead at whose foot/ The world will swim and flicker and be gone.”
There is none of Gray’s dejection as day departs, “And leaves the world to darkness and to me.” Wilbur makes an undiscouraged effort throughout the poems in
Mayflies, to stare into the deconstruction, the nothingness that awaits at the end of life, by seeking and preserving the natural order of existence, the breath and shape of things; by giving lasting meaning to what perishes in time. Some may feel the coffin-lid fits a bit too neatly, and would prefer at the end, something less ordinary and expected than a deathbed scene. And yet, what other ending could there be?
“A Digression” comes away with a different manner of contemplating the void. It is made of confident iambic quatrains in steady pentameter couplets. About form, Wilbur says, “The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” What astonishes about this poem is how easily it happens to us, how naturally it draws us into its world, and how helplessly unconscious the writer is, away from his work.
Having finished some great, scholarly study, the writer “...stands light-headed in the lingering clang...Having confided to the heavy-lipped/ Mailbox his great synoptic manuscript,” then turns, and, automatically, begins to take his customary route back home, walking with “...the tranced rhythm of a metronome.” On the way, because of the between-ideas state he’s in, and the weightlessness of his briefcase, “A giddy lack of purpose fills his mind,” and he wanders down a street he’s never noticed. The poem goes with him, and together they find themselves nowhere in particular, with no sense of perspective or focus. The lack of any relevant direction or particular desire becomes “an obstructive storm/ Of specks and flashes that will take no form” (perhaps reminiscent of Frost’s “Let chaos storm!/ Let cloud shapes swarm!/ I wait for form”), and the poet heads swiftly toward home again, “To ponder what the world’s confusion meant/ When he regarded it without intent.” The void, itself, becomes the writer’s subject, its lack of form, an obstruction to thought or wish, as difficult to grasp as the infinite, or a genie out of the bottle.
The “obstructive storm” the writer sees is similar to the snowstorm described in “This Pleasing Anxious Being,” thus, linked with a vision of death’s undoing force, and, perhaps, with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It has been suggested that, when Frost stares into the snowy woods, and finds them “lovely, dark and deep,” he’s momentarily seduced by death’s promise of peace. “A Digression,” it seems to me, might be regarded as an urban echo of Frost’s poem. When Wilbur’s writer stares into the unknown, it becomes a “roiled mosaic of a teeming scrim/ That seems to have no pertinence to him,” and promptly urges him to “take his bearings” and return home where life is. There, he may make something of his encounter with nothingness. Poems, it turns out, are the “promises” that must be kept, before the poet surrenders to sleep.
Pondering “what the world’s confusion meant...,” Wilbur might have written the title poem of the book, “Mayflies,” which happens in a forest animated by a swarm of insects. It is made of three intricate stanzas, whose end-rhymes, abbacdcd , are syncopated to the measure of their lines. The stanzas each have eight lines; three pairs of iambic pentameter, the first pair followed by a line of trimeter, the second pair, by a line of dimeter. The effect achieves a lilting, dance-like rhythm, which, of course, is not accidental.
In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies
In their quadrillions rise
And animate a ragged patch of glow
With sudden glittering — as when a crowd
Of stars appear
Through a brief gap in black and driven cloud,
One arc of their great round-dance showing clear.
Why did Wilbur choose “quadrillions” as a number, over quintillions, septillions, or octillions? There’s something very apt about “quadrillions,” and it doesn’t take long to associate it with “quadrille,” a highly regimented square dance for four couples. By the end of the stanza, the dance vocabulary establishes itself as the organizing force in the poem.
“It was no muddled swarm I witnessed,” Wilbur says at the opening of the second stanza, praising the aesthetic virtues of formal patterns in the choreography of these “lifelong dancers of a day,” as they “Rose two steep yards in air,/ Then slowly floated down to climb once more,/ So that they all composed a manifold/ And figured scene,/ And seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold,/ Or the fine pistons of some bright machine.” His knowledge of dance, and fluency in French, allow him to find the engaging term, “entrechats,” with which to describe the hovering flight of the insects. It refers to a ballet technique, in which a dancer’s leap in air appears to be suspended by the quick, repeated crossing or beating of legs and ankles, like the fluttering of wings.
An irresistible comparison arises between “Mayflies” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of this
World,” a poem from Wilbur’s first Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Things of this World (1956). The title is a quotation from Saint Augustine, and the poem’s wonderfully unexpected subject is the clean laundry which has been hung out to dry on an especially brilliant morning, in the chasm between a city’s apartment buildings. Instead of “In somber forest when the sun was low,” the significantly younger poet is looking “Outside the open window” where “The morning air is all awash with angels;” but notice the similarity to “Mayflies” in these “clothes-lines”: “Now they are rising together in calm swells...Now they are flying in place.../...and now of a sudden/ They swoon down into so rapt a quiet/ That nobody seems to be there.”
When the mayflies, which remind the poet of clusters of stars, fade with the light, Wilbur feels himself “alone/In a life too much my own,” at a loss to know what his place is in the universe, or understand the purpose for his being, until he somewhat tentatively leads himself to believe that he is “one whose task is joyfully to see/ How fair the fiats of the caller are.”
The poet’s sense of aloneness is like Adam’s; he is alone...literally...in a world of mayflies and stars. When he questions the reason for his presence, his thoughts turn to the “caller,” or Creator. “Fiat lux,” in the Latin Bible, means, “Let there be light.” The “fiats” are God’s commands during the Creation, the litany of “Let there be’s.” “Let there be lights in the vaults of the heavens to divide the day from the night” (stars); “Let there be living creatures of each kind” (mayflies). “And God called the light Day.” God calls the “fiats” what they are, “Day, Night, Heavens, Earth, Seas.” The human task is to notice the fair — beautiful and just— nature of God’s design. That, “Mayflies” tells us, is why we’re here.
Randall Jarrell once said that “Richard Wilbur obsessively sees, and shows, the bright side of every dark thing.” The adverb is questionable, indeed, but if Wilbur has an obsession, it’s the healthiest one known to psychology.
Studied carefully, however, I find “Mayflies” to be an apprehensive poem. The poet’s loneliness lingers at the end, along with his uncertain conjecture about joy. The bright side Wilbur purportedly always sees is seldom shown without a shaded outline to complete its character.
“Crow’s Nests” may be an exception to Jarrell’s complaint, and it’s my favorite poem in
Mayflies. More than any other, I hear Wilbur’s speaking voice in it, as I read its long, halting, but fluid sentence of five flawless heroic couplets. I don’t know another poet who could, with such exquisite grammar, so excitingly sustain and transform a metaphor.
“Crow’s Nests,” starts out about a row of deciduous trees. The ship imagery serves to reveal their change in appearance from summer to winter, which also provokes a change of mood in the poem. In summer, the trees stand blowing beyond a field, like “a great fleet of galleons,”...“Full-rigged and swift, and to the topmost sail/ Taking their fill and pleasure of the gale.” Now, “in this leafless time,” stripped of the energetic possibility of raised sails, the ships, or trees, stand still in their harbor. They are neither ships nor trees anymore, but, “A roadstead full of naked mast and spar/ In which we see now where the crow’s nests are.” Perhaps the aging poet feels some kinship with these naked trees he imagines as schooners. A ship’s crow’s nest harkens back to lost adventures, to the lore of the sea; it’s the place, in boys’ stories, where ‘Thar she blows,’ ‘Ship ahoy,’ and ‘Land ho,’ were cried; the place men fell from, in rough seas.
At the end, the apostrophe in “crow’s nests” lets us know the ship metaphor has superceded what it set out to modify, and yet its image has intensified the trees’ living presence. This is more than lyric grace; it’s lyric magic.
In an interview with William Packard, the editor of The New York Quarterly, Richard Wilbur said, “One thing I do when I find that nothing is coming out of me, is to turn to translation — a risky thing to do, of course, because translation is easier to do than your own work...”
One of the luckiest beneficiaries of Wilbur’s dry spells has been the 17th Century French playwright,
Molière. Wilbur’s translations of Molière’s verse-comedies carefully preserve the arrangements of rhyme and rhythm, which are vital to the wit and meaning of the plays. By remaining faithful to the prosody of the originals, Wilbur writes, in his introduction to “The Misanthrope,” which he published in 1955, he has bridged the “great gaps between high comedy and farce, lofty dictions and ordinary talk, deep character and shallow. Again,” he goes on, “while prose might preserve the thematic structure of the play, other ‘musical’ elements would be lost, in particular the frequently intricate arrangements of balancing half-lines, lines, couplets, quatrains, and sestets. There is no question that words, when dancing within such patterns, are not their prosaic selves, but have a wholly different mood and meaning.”
Mayflies includes a translation of “The Prologue to
Molière’s Amphitryon ,” in which the messenger of the gods, Mercury, resting on a cloud, engages in a dialogue with Night, who has been passing by in her chariot, drawn through the air by two horses. Wilbur has reproduced
Molière’s rhyme scheme, as well as the system of vers libres, a 17th Century French form in which, Wilbur’s note tells us, ‘one is free at any moment to alter line length or rhyme pattern for expressive reasons.’ This was a precursor to the 19th Century
vers libres, and Rimbaud’s revolt against all rules of French meter and rhyme, which led to free verse in English. (It’s interesting to me, that the French, who invented tennis, also invented tennis with the net down).
In Wilbur’s translation of Molière’s “Prologue,” Mercury must persuade Night to prolong her nocturnal darkness so that his lord, Jove, may have more time to enjoy an evening interlude with another man’s wife.
MERCURY: That you rein in your horses, check their speed,
And thereby satisfy his amorous wishes,
Stretching a night that’s most delicious
Into a night that’s long indeed;
That you allow his fires more time to burn,
And stave the daylight off, lest it awaken
The man whose place he’s taken,
And hasten his return.
The pleasure of reading Moliere is amplified in Wilbur’s fluent fidelity to rhyme. This is also true in his translation of Canto XXV of
The Inferno. With unfaltering ease, Wilbur preserves, in his iambic pentameter tercets, Dante’s graceful, exacting terza rima form. This work was published previously by Ecco Press in its 1993 edition of
The Inferno, in which several poets were invited to contribute their own translations of various Cantos (—as an amusing aside, Carolyn Kizer’s submission of Canto XVII, entitled, “In Hell with Virg and Dan,” was rejected). In his 1994 translation of
The Inferno, Robert Pinsky received high acclaim for preserving Dante’s terza rima form, but the rhymes Pinsky employs throughout the book are of so slant a nature, I like to call his version, “Pisa rima.” The near-rhymes call attention to themselves, almost as if Pinsky had gone out of his way to reject exact ones. It’s gratifying to see Wilbur’s uncompromising Canto reprinted here, as a glorious reminder of the possibilities English has to offer when fully committed to rhyme.
The two Baudelaire poems that appear in Mayflies were originally published in 1955 in a New Directions editon of
The Flowers of Evil. Wilbur has apparently revised his translations slightly, something he seldom does. Once again he has remained faithful to Baudelaire, who was a consummate rhymer. It has always seemed strange to me that Richard Howard’s translation is so widely used in classrooms. Howard abandons the rhymes utterly, and impoverishes the experience of reading Baudelaire for the non-French-speaking student.
In Mayflies, “The Albatross,”appears in iambic pentameter quatrains, sticking to Baudelaire’s
abab rhyme scheme. The great sea-bird, magnificently at home in the air, is a pitiful, unsightly captive on the deck of a fishing boat, mocked by ignorant fishermen. The albatross reminds the poet of himself:
The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds,
Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by giant wings.
The integrity of rhyme and meter in the poem are the very elements that restore the bird, or poet, to power, in the midst of his helpless plight.
Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” is a sonnet, which Wilbur has translated as a Shakespearean one. It is a sensually lush poem, whose presence further extends the task in “Mayflies,” for humans not only “joyfully to see,” but hear, taste, smell, and touch the delights of nature.
“Sea Breeze,” by Stéphane Mallarmé, seems part of the consciousness which pervades
Mayflies, of a being who realizes life’s voyage is approaching its destination. It does so with the high
spirit of one who is not coming ashore, but about to embark on new voyages of discovery:
The flesh grows weary. And books, I’ve read them all.
Off, then, to where I glimpse through spray and squall
Strange birds delighting in their unknown skies!
...Come, ship whose masts now gently rock and sway,
Raise anchor for a stranger world! Away!
The poet gains nerve at the end, turning from those he leaves behind to those he joins:
In seas where many a craft has met its end,
Dismasted, lost, with no green island near it...
But hear the sailors singing, O my spirit!
Wilbur’s translations perform the miracle of bringing the original fully back to life in its unchanged body, same face, same lips, same heartbeat; all the physical beauty stays. In Wilbur’s hands, poetry is the universal language.
May the voice of this sure-thinking, clear-sighted poet of uncertainties, with his balanced vision of ineluctable shadow and undiscouraged shining (to borrow Auden’s phrase about Freud), remain with us well into the new century. Wilbur’s work embraces the rich exchange of pleasure and reward that accompanies the writing and receiving of great poetry. In his own words,
“There’s nothing so wonderful as having constructed something
perfectly arbitrary, without any help from anybody else, out of pure
delight and self-delight, and then to find out that it turns out to be
useful to a few others. You have it both ways, if you’re lucky: you do exactly as you want to do, you’re as lonely
and as happy as a child playing with his toy trains, and then it turns
out that people are grateful to you...”
Wilbur has been lucky for a very long time; he remains a predominantly lonely, happy poet, for which we, his readers, are increasingly grateful.
The author is grateful to Timothy Steele
for his valuable contribution to this article.