I wrote this originally as a Facebook Note.
A personal hero of mine died yesterday. The great poet Richard Wilbur was 96.
He wrote beautifully, embracing form and tradition to plumb the truth of “the things of this world.” (The title of one of his books of poetry, taken from one of his most famous poems.) He described our world with all the innocence of a faithful eye:
“Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof …”
Even something as ordinary as peeled onion became transformed, or rather was seen in a higher light:
“How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.”
He was a poet of this world; he did not elaborate a mythic personal universe like Yeats, or turned personal experience into confessional poetry. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Like the Auden he paid tribute to, he too “sustained the civil tongue/In a scattering time,” and was “poet of all our cities”—which would continue to exist even if we, or the poets, failed to pay attention.
“…. All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look; there to be seen or not
By us, as by the bee’s twelve thousand eyes,
According to our means and purposes.”
His ode to St. Teresa of Avila offers the perfect summing up of his own work; perhaps that was one of the reasons this adventurous pioneer of the spirit meant so much to him. Like her, he too knew how to “lock the O of ecstasy within/The tempered consonants of discipline.”
Look at this beautiful snapshot of a moment, a precise portrait of the beautiful.
I can’t forget
How she stood at the top of that long marble stair
Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette
Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square;
Nothing upon her face
But some impersonal loneliness,—not then a girl,
But as it were a reverie of the place,
A called-for falling glide and whirl;
As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip
Is drawn to the falls of a pool and, circling a moment above it,
Rides on over the lip—
Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.
One of the few regrets I have from my fellowship year in Harvard was not having made the time to visit with him. I do not know if it was in fact possible to meet him, in his house in another part of Massachusetts, but every word of his I had read told me he would have welcomed a grateful reader.
His first collection of occasional essays, what he modestly called “the by-products of a poet’s life,” is the single most important book of criticism I’ve read.
In collecting his poetry, he had the unusual habit of starting with the latest poems, and ending with his first published poem. That meant that the last poem in both editions of his New and Collected and the last poem in the main section of his Collected was “The Beautiful Changes.”
It is an update of Keats. Beauty IS truth, we discover, because it allows us to make a “second finding” of the true nature of things.
“The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.”
And then comes the third, concluding stanza which, even today, after hundreds of rereadings, still takes the breath away.
“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.”
Richard Wilbur. March 1, 1921 – October 14, 2017.