It is a sobering thought that Richard Wilbur, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (1957, 1989) who was named poet laureate of the United States in 1987, is now ninety years old. David Orr, in a recent Sunday book review in the New York Times, has aptly enough called him “the Grand Old Man of American poetry,” and it is hard to imagine who else could have plausible claim to such a title.
Born on March 1, St. David’s Day, 1921, his fruitful life has spanned the decades of America’s most illustrious rise, greatness, trial, and perhaps demise as an imperial power. Wilbur himself, despite his laurels, has been anything but an imperial poet; indeed, despite his youthful leftist views (during World War II he was removed from the intelligence service on suspicion of disloyalty), on balance he could hardly be said to be a political poet. Yet few, conceivably none since his friend and predecessor as laureate, Robert Frost, have so perfectly exemplified the natural and apolitical American voice—perhaps the quintessence of all that sets America apart among the literary cultures of the modern world—in poetry.
There are odd patrician ironies contesting with this apparently authentic vernacularity; Wilbur, though of modest means, was an eleventh-generation New Englander, and in that sort of remarkable coincidence that often attends intellectual life among the denizens of Harvard Yard, his friendship with the much older Frost at Harvard was aided by the unlikely fact that his wife’s father had been the publisher of Frost’s early poetry.
Wilbur’s latest volume, Anterooms, reflects in its title poem and several others the perspective of his own good old age, wise and full of years. That the tone of this work is free of strident egoism, cynicism, bitterness, or even the slightest hint of self-pity distinguishes it still further from the work of many another writer who has sensed the inevitable approach of mortal silence. The governing image in the title poem is archetypal: a garden in winter in which a sundial emerges from a snowdrift slowly, recrudescent as the returning springtime sun begins to warm the stone. Wilbur plays upon this image, reflecting the intersection of cyclical time with mortal limit, time, and eternity, a boundary not met here in our world except in dreams, he says, which foreshadow that ethereal intermingling
Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.
Wilbur’s tone throughout this volume is one of “reckoning,” as he calls it, less a retrospect than an examination of conscience that readily acknowledges the existence of words and deeds he might wish to take back, but seeing the futility of that desire chooses instead to consign them quietly to the vast and universal annals of life’s inevitable imperfections. As for his life’s work as a poet, he writes here no retraction in the manner of a Chaucer or Augustine, but rather a more placidly elegiac apologia, “Ecclesiastes 11:1,” in which he describes his own particular vocation as subject to the common lot, in which we all are obliged at last to cast “our bread / Upon the waters.” Shifting the image again to winter, and Qoholeth’s waters therefore to snow, he throws out his crumbs into the almost forgotten garden beneath the drifts and makes a less ambitious and more poignant wish: “That birds will gather, and that / One more spring will come.”
It is characteristic of the gentle but unmistakably Christian character of Wilbur’s poetry that he should include in this latest volume a “Psalm” of gratitude for life, both its joys and its sorrows. Even “House,” the exquisitely beautiful postmortem love poem to “Charlee” (his wife, Charlotte Hayes Ward, who died in 2007), conjuring as it does a longed-for future shared awareness, is poignant with the still-vibrant intimacy of a life lived out in love and unclouded by despair despite the magnitude of her loss. Such thankfulness, everywhere in his poetry, forbids morbidity. In his gently whimsical “A Measuring Worm,” in which an inchworm working its way up a window screen reminds him, in each ingathering, of the Greek letter omega, he is able to conjure with his own prospect of “Last Things.” He is unafraid: Hunched up with the accumulation of his own ingathered strength, he senses just beyond this window frame the light of an approaching universal metamorphosis of which this inchworm is a humorous sign: “He will soon have wings.”
Echoes of St. Paul’s citation of the poetry of Isaiah lie just below the surface of such deceptively simple lines: “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for those who love him,” and an attuned ear can catch their memorable phrasing, subsumed in the circumspect last lines of this poem:
And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
The balance of advantage and disadvantage in living long is tilted toward the good, most Christians have tended to think, when one has lived well, not clinging to some version or other of a desperate immortalism. This wisdom, expressed variously in other Christian poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wendell Berry, has emerged in Wilbur as a deep contentment pervading with convincing seamlessness the whole of his poetry, almost from the beginning. The very peaceableness of so much of his verse reminds us that Richard Wilbur has always been a wisdom poet.
There is a sense of consistency in his work that emerges not only from his craftsmanship as a poet but from his constancy as an affectionate observer of creation, both Nature and human nature. Thus, the masterful lyricism and theological clarity of his earlier masterpiece, “An Event,” a poem that appeared in 1956 in his volume Things of This World, finds a symmetrical recension in “Mayflies,” the title poem in his volume of 2000. The theme of both is the almost ineffable mystery of pattern, design in the life of things, as in the breathtakingly fluid art of winged myriads aloft:
As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled on.
In “Mayflies,” where he observes “a mist of flies / In their quadrillions rise,” the mystery is not lessened, but renewed: “It was no muddled swarm I witnessed,” he writes, for the patterns, as if choreographed in a “great round-dance,” lead him to characterize his poet’s calling in relation to the eternal cosmic jig or reel as “one whose task is joyfully to see / how fair the fiats of the caller are.” The unseen caller and tiny dancers cooperate to create a fluid, moving art at which normative observation and reflective thought can only be amazed.
Wilbur is not here debating the fine points of intelligent design, but in the manner of the Psalmist or the authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, simply marveling at an intricacy of wondrous beauty that makes his own art a species, as J. R. R. Tolkien once put it, of refracted sub-creation. The human artist will inevitably be limited in how he may respond to the glory that “the heavens declare” and the firmament proclaims (Psalm 19), but this hardly diminishes the pleasure in a poetry of call and response which, precisely because it overflows with gratitude for the gifts both of Creation and creativity, can, with a touchstone word or poignant phrase, bring tears unbidden to our eyes:
Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
No sensitive reader of Wilbur’s poetry from any stage of his long and productive life can fail to see that his wonder, crafted into art, is a kind of worship, often a hymn of thanksgiving.
Dana Gioia, who bids himself to have one day a claim to the distinction, has written that “Wilbur is America’s preeminent living Christian poet.” Wilbur’s unfussy residence within this distinctive aspect of the American heritage would by itself have seemed to make him marginal in a post-Christian literary environment such as that in which now we seem to find ourselves. But there is much more that is countercultural in his art, and Gioia has described this as well as anyone by speaking of Wilbur’s poetic effort as an “ironic achievement,” namely “to excel at precisely those literary forms that many contemporary critics undervalue—metrical poetry, verse translation, comic verse, song lyrics, and perhaps foremost among these unfashionable but extraordinary accomplishments, religious poetry.”
One of Wilbur’s poems has become a hymn, in fact; it appears as number 104 in the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church, there set to a musical setting by David Hurd. As with all of his poems in which the Bible plays a visible part, this one reflects an immersion in Holy Writ far deeper than any notion of mere allusiveness or portentous reference can suggest. The epigraph to “A Christmas Hymn,” for example, is a citation (from the King James Version) of that passage in Luke’s Gospel that describes a demand of some Pharisees near the gates of Jerusalem that Jesus should silence his exuberant disciples.
The point of Wilbur’s juxtaposition may be to say that in our time things are much the same. The moment in Luke’s text is freighted with a significance these Pharisees from their perspective quite reasonably construe as political, for entering Roman-occupied Jerusalem on that first day of what now we call Holy Week, Jesus’ disciples are strewing their cloaks and palm branches over the road, crying out before him, in the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!”
This introitus is not, however, in the worldly sense political, but an acknowledgement of transcendent and hence apolitical cause for rejoicing. It is clear to Wilbur that the words of the disciples’ reflexive acclamation, recalling as well the angels’ song to the shepherds in Luke 2, add a powerful frisson to Jesus’ reply, “I tell you, that if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:38-40). His poetic juxtaposition of these passages forms a beautiful meditation on the wondrous intricacy and beauty of the divine poet’s redemptive artistry, by which a lamp, lighted in a humble Palestinian stable for the improbable birth of the King of kings, the quaint and clichéd crèche at which we sing our carols, the Palm Sunday hosannas which declare “his kingdom come,” and, yes, the agony of that terrible Friday we dare to call Good all are woven together to charge the Bethlehem moment with a timeless significance:
But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.
This hymn articulates as well as anything in historical exegesis of the nativity account one central concern of Luke’s Gospel, namely to show how political power is inclined to suppress transcendence, to miss that the good in the evangel has to do with the reconciliation of fallen humankind with its divine Author. Wilbur’s poem, like the gospel itself, foregrounds the primacy of truth and love, qualities to which politics is often both deaf and blind.
Wilbur is no naive pietist. An explicitly biblical poem such as “Matthew VIII,” voicing the cynical rejection of Jesus by the Gadarenes following the loss of their swine, as each in its own fashion “Eve,” “Peter,” and “The Water Walker” (about St. Paul), readily reveal his deep appreciation for the irony of narrative voice so prevalent in the Bible itself. Nor does Wilbur retouch with some metaphorical airbrush the harsh angularities in his religious portraiture, even of the apostles. His Saul, converted to Paul, still “wasn’t light company,” he observes drily, and in his “Peter” the voice of the apostle himself reports a confession to the reader of the severest failings—his neglectful sleep at Gethsemane, his intemperate and misguided sword blow at the high priest’s servant, and the abiding ignominy of his denial of the Lord three times.
Wilbur marvels that our flawed mortality, despite such failures, can somehow come to reflect the greater glory of God (e.g., “Gnomons,” on the Venerable Bede, or “John Chrysostom”). Yet if we are to deduce a theology from his poetry (though it would be presumptuous to go too far in this direction), surely it would not mislead to say that his work is suffused with the spirit of Psalm 19, reflecting thus a deep pleasure with creation and yet, simultaneously, his resignation concerning the limits of poetic language to do much more than hint at its higher meaning. This does not lead Wilbur into abstraction, something he has said he “always turned from . . . at school and at church.”
In the 1995 interview in the journal Image with fellow poet Paul Mariani, in which he made this remark, he went on to say that as a poet he identifies more with Gerard Manley Hopkins than with T. S. Eliot because he is “the sort of Christian animal for whom celebration is the most important thing of all,” and that at Mass he prefers, even to the theology he affirms in the Nicene Creed, that simple responsive moment when the call comes to “Lift up your hearts!”
His use of the Bible in his poetry is a reflection of that celebratory exsurge!—it is responsive, not doctrinal, and refreshingly unpretentious. Wilbur shows himself to be keenly aware that even where Scripture is to be voiced, a prudent poet is gravely in need of self-restraint and the grace of a higher translation. Otherwise, there is a risk of telling lies. Three lines from his poem “Lying” might readily serve as an epigraph for much in his larger view on this matter of the poet’s merely apparent originality:
In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light.
His little poem “The Proof” in similar vein tactfully expresses in four couplets his gratitude for God’s patience with him.
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But, thinking I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
No one who is not a mature and contented poet, quite unashamedly indebted, personally and poetically, to the gift of Scripture and its tradition, could write in such whimsical self-effacement and gratitude all in the same breath.
What shall we say of his beautiful love poems to Charlee, or his lovingly funny verse for children, old and young, his playful riddles and his elegant though puckish whimsy? That he makes us laugh, and in our laughter learn once again to love things we ought not to have forgotten. And what shall we say of his superb translations, especially of so many French and Russian poets, by which he made much of his daily bread? That he is uncannily gifted (and patient), able to hear another’s voice, to love the art of another poet for itself, and to convey even its particular cadences to us so that we too can “hear” what many a lyrical prophet has spoken almost as if in that poet’s own accents.
This thoughtful attunement of the ear, for Wilbur, has been the obligatory response to all species of the prophetic voice, whether in sacred or in secular scripture. He has been the very opposite of the itinerant or television prophet he satirizes in “Advice to a Prophet”; he does not break in upon his readers, “mad-eyed from stating the obvious.” Rather, he tells us of the beautiful world created for our use and adoration, and how, by our re-emergence in it, we might come to be grateful, even as he is grateful, for the becalming Art of it all.
Perhaps this is no more than to say that all of Richard Wilbur’s poetry is, in some splendid sense, love poetry—poetry born of love for the things of this world, and love for things of a world unseen, somehow held aloft together by a voice so unmistakably authentic and unaffected that, were it not so beautiful, we might take to be that of an ordinary dear friend, speaking among us quietly, as if on our porch as the sun is setting over our own garden.
But we ought not to be so deceived. Richard Wilbur is not in the least ordinary. The great trick of a master poet such as himself is a wondrous misdirection of our leaden preconceptions, teaching us by precisely chosen words to see the golden echo in all that surrounds us, and to love it even as—being mortal it must—it changes before our eyes. The last stanza of an early poem, “The Beautiful Changes,” in this way anticipates an enduring virtue in all of Wilbur’s work, his gracious clarity of observation of the gift given, and, in a superlatively ordered form of words, his generous and persuasive gentleness of gesture in holding life out, like a bouquet from the original garden, freshly picked for us. Receiving his florilegium, the gift of his verse, we might, perhaps as in a birthday toast, say to him and of him what long ago he said to another:
Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
More than any American poet of our time, Richard Wilbur teaches us to open ourselves to wonder. In this he has been a prophet and more than a prophet; for those with eyes to see and ears to hear he has been and, pray God, will long hereafter be, a bearer of comforting words. Though he is indeed the “Grand Old Man of American poetry,” his voice remains that of America’s younger self, a self still open to the beauty of a world renewed and ever-new, and with the presence of mind to be thankful for it.
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities at Baylor University.