Now nearly 80 years of age, Richard Wilbur has recently published Mayflies, a new book of poems and translations. This slim volume has attracted slight—and sometimes slighting—notice in most literary publications. America’s poetry establishment does not quite know what to make of its former poet laureate. For half a century, this eminent translator of 17th- and 18th-century French plays has persisted in writing measured yet passionate religious verse in the manner of Donne or Herbert. From his first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes, published in 1947, Wilbur has chronicled the permutations of an often-challenged yet resilient faith. Consider this early sonnet, “Praise in Summer”:
Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As summer sometimes calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savors in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceilings of our day?
With its deft rhymes and dazzling turns of phrase, “Praise in Summer” seems at first glance a confection of words as airy and elusive as the poems of Wallace Stevens, who had a substantial (and perhaps unfortunate) influence on Wilbur’s youthful work. Readers of Wilbur’s early books tended to regard him, in the words of the Oxford Companion to American Literature, as “classic, urbane, often witty, always intellectual.” However, they always avoided the alarming word “Christian.”
“Praise in Summer,” though superficially pagan, hints at the Christian themes that would come to dominate Wilbur’s later work. After the exuberance of his initial “I said,” the poet questions the premises of his own wordplay, and he implicitly criticizes fantastical poetry for pen’erting sense while pursuing sensation. Wilbur wisely perceives that such overreliance on novelty must, in the end, blight the commonplace upon which novelty depends for contrast. He anticipates, with “uncreation,” all the nihilism of late-20th-century art.
Throughout his career, Wilbur has returned to the perplexity that undergirds “Praise in Summer.” Sometimes he has couched it in riddling language. “Shall I love God for causing me to be?” (Wafting to Sleep, “The Proof). Or he has placed his questions in the mouth of a surrogate. “Is there some huge attention, do you think, which suffers us and is inviolate?” (The Mind-Reader, title poem). Such inquiries abound in Wilbur’s Pulitzer Prize-winning New and Collected Poems (1988). Perhaps they discomfit readers, since the volume finds little shelf space in comparison with the New Age ravings of Allen Ginsberg or the complaints of Adrienne Rich.
The poems that make up Mayflies have taken another decade to accumulate. Their sparsity intensifies them, like flowers in a xeric Alpine landscape. Late in life, Wilbur has largely abandoned the rhetorical question as a poetic device. Reflecting on the pleasures and losses of eight decades, he speaks more plainly, less obscurely; yet the authorial habits of a lifetime remain, and he achieves many of his aims by indirection. Sometimes he dons personae, as in this short poem, entitled “Once”:
The old rock-climber cries out in his sleep.
Dreaming without enthusiasm
Of a great cliff immeasurably steep.
Or of the sort of yawning chasm.
Now far too deep.
That once, made safe by rashness, he could leap.
Here, Wilbur the moralist chides Wilbur the daredevil grammarian, who is caught once more by the illusory challenge of his own convoluted conceit. “The Gambler” and “Bonds” are other cautionary character sketches which may contain elements of self-admonition. Several of the translations also afford Wilbur opportunities to examine himself from odd vantages, although the particular poems were suggested to him by friends who knew his inclinations, rather than by any deliberate rummages through the work of foreign poets.
Wilbur also toys with riddles and transformations. At one extreme, his playfulness has given rise to whole books of children’s verse such as The Disappearing Alphabet. At the other, it animates the translations from Dante’s Inferno and Moliere’s Amphytrion, which close the new collection of poetry. Midway between these extremes, we find “Crow’s Nests,” a play on literal and figurative senses of the title phrase, in which trees are seen as the masts of galleons. Wilbur has taken a lifelong interest in the way human senses construct the perceived world (the principal topic of “A Digression”) and in all manner of transmutations that trick the mind.
Though very much a moralist and metaphysician-manqué, Wilbur never strays from the particular and phenomenal. He does not lapse into mere philosophizing, the way Stevens did in his later work. In larger poems such as “Icons” and “Fabrications,” Wilbur contemplates artifice, artifact, and artificer; yet he eschews abstract language when he addresses these potentially numbing subjects. Instead, he communicates through startling juxtapositions of imagery. Consider the final stanzas of “Fabrications”:
Witness this ancient map
Where so much blank and namelessness surround
A little mushroom-clump of coastal towers
In which we may infer civility,
A harbor-full of spray,
And all those loves which hint of love itself.
Imagining too a pillar at whose top
A spider’s web upholds the architrave.
The astounding conclusion refers back to a spider web at the poem’s start, but it extends the metaphor to cathedral scale, depicting the universe as Creation, bound in an unseen silk of causality and intent. This trick of aligning microcosm and macrocosm, human and divine, is a favorite device by which Wilbur attempts to lift himself and his readers toward a transcendent consciousness. Though it is not spoken directly, and though Wilbur does not capitalize the phrase “love itself,” we can certainly infer, behind the “civility” of the poem and its calculated form, a kind of prayer.
A keen observer of plants, mites, midges, and stars, Wilbur is a descriptive poet nonpareil; yet he never idealizes the natural world. Instead, he unites poignancy with asperity, a rare combination in our sentimental culture. In the opening poem of Mayflies, “A Barred Owl,” he gazes unflinchingly at creature cruelty while reassuring a child against a night terror. One use of words is to “domesticate a fear.” This is certainly part of the poet’s calling; for many believers, it may also be the primary purpose of religion. But wonder outweighs fear in Wilbur’s universe, and his poems are most profound when most awestruck. In the title poem of Mayflies, Wilbur defines more distinctly that obscure call he heard so long ago. He answers the rhetorical questions he posed as a young man, as he sets a final challenge for his old age.
We can only hope that Wilbur is granted another decade, and another book as fine as Mayflies. Whether or not he enjoys such good fortune, he has fulfilled his promise as our foremost religious poet by offering a polite but firm rebuke to the intellectual vices of our time:
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.
It was no muddled swarm I witnessed, for
In entrechats each fluttering insect there
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.
Watching these lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much mv own.
More mortal in my separateness than they—
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.
[Mayflies: New Poems and Translations, by Richard Wilbur (New York: Harcourt Brace) 80 pp., $22.00]