Richard Wilbur’s “A Milkweed” has been haunting me all week. It’s a useful exercise in interpretation: Short, accessible, memorable, and profound. Today’s text:
Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.
What is the poem “about”?
A plant in a field, whose seed pod is burst so that the plant reproduces. From the first line, though, we have hints of something bigger. It’s a manger scene, God in his crib with cherubs hovering over. Does Wilbur know that there are cherubs over the ark of the covenant? Even if he doesn’t, the milkweed takes us immediately beyond itself to the event that for Christians marks the center of history - the Word of God made baby flesh.
Why anonymous? This seems to anticipate the end of the poem, where the milkweed possesses the field. The silent seeds float away, they seem not to make a name for themselves. Yet they triumph.
But what is like cherubs over the crib of God? Grammatically, the answer is the “white seeds.” A troop of milkweed seeds moves through the air like angel hosts. It’s an arresting image, but it’s more than imagery. Watching milkweed seeds in the air, we are like the shepherds to whom myriads of angels sing to announce the coming of God in swaddling clothes. In Wilbur’s imagination, the milkweed bursts out to become more than a milkweed. Perhaps it’s only a bit too grand to call it a cosmology.
Can we push the analogy: If the white seeds are the anonymous cherubs, is the broken pod the crib of God? Is there a hint of the later story of the cribbed God, a touch almost too light to be felt concerning the later breaking of the pod of flesh to release a host of seeds? Is the crib of God a seed in the ground that dies to make much fruit? Or is the pod the earthy flesh in which God comes?
The milkweed speaks - or is it the poet? Does it matter? Who or whatever he is, the speaker of the second stanza reflects on the power of yielding, which appears to be nearly the only power available. Yielding has to be learned. It does not come naturally; it is nurture not nature to yield. The pod wants to stand firm, protect its vulnerable seeds, resist the great wind. Yielding seems to be a renunciation of power. But the speaker suggests the opposite, and we again, it seems, see the passing shadow of a cross.
If you yield, you get shattered. But Wilbur, channeling Donne (“Batter my heart”), invites the shattering. Only the shattering will release the cherub host. Only by being shattered will the milkweed reproduce. It’s the great wind that shatters: Does Wilbur know the etymologies of wind and spirit in Greek, Hebrew, and other languages? I think we can safely assume so. The great wind is the Great Spirit, a Spirit of shattering, to which everything must yield, or be destroyed.
And those that do yield possess the field. That is, fill the field: Milkweed is, after all, a weed, and weeds are notoriously fecund. But “possess” is also “own,” and with “the field,” possess is also “win.” There has been no hint of battle (or perhaps a slight hint in “power”), but there is a victory. Anonymous cherub seeds, released by the wind from the pod-crib, form a triumphant army.
It works as meta-poetry too: The poem is about the poem and the power of poetry. The great wind is also the spirit of poetic inspiration, by which Wilbur bursts open the milkweed so that the seeds posses the field of my mind - if I yield. From here on out, every time I see milkweed, it’ll burst out anew.
So: A “cosmology”; also an “eschatology” and a “theory” of poetry. All in eight simple lines. It’s nearly miraculous.