Printer Friendly

The light of the eye: the problem of Richard Wilbur's metaphysics.

OVER the course of its critical reception, Richard Wilbur's poetry has garnered both praise for its gracefulness as well as strong critique for its consistently hopeful thematic content. One of the points of contention for critics has to do with his problematic status as a religious poet. Indeed, Wilbur's poetic world offers something like enchantment to its readers, as the famous and striking poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" typifies. In it, a laundry line of garments floats and swells with a gleam that an awakening man perceives to be spirit-laden: "The morning air is all awash with angels." Indeed, Wilbur himself was fond of saying he got the title from St. Augustine, so it is clear that the poet locates his work in the theological heritage. But this sensibility (what I am calling Wilbur's "metaphysical" orientation) has won him appreciation from his Christian readership, and some readers have erred by too hastily labeling Wilbur as a "transcendent" or "metaphysical" poet with such terms as his "spiritual" sensibility, his "divine" orientation, and (unfavorably) his ability to achieve "salvation." I put all of these words in quotation marks not to disclaim Wilbur's religious heritage--for certainly these are all part of the Christian vernacular--but to call attention to the fact that the labels are often too sloppily applied. That is to say, phrases such as the "sacred mystery at the core of all physical reality" (Hall 71) or meditation that "leads the poet to salvation" (Epstein 9) speak in vague terms that in the end are impotent to really say anything meaningful. Moreover, Wilbur's sensibility and style, hinging as they do on precision and detail, is inimical to such vagueness. When I refer to the "problem of metaphysics" in the title of this essay, this is the problem to which I allude: alongside Wilbur's metaphysical tendencies is a stubborn materialism that is especially evident in imagery that delights in the natural world. Indeed, the interrelationship of the material and the spiritual emerges over and over again in the Collected Poems and is distilled in the theme of the artist's (specifically, the poet's) ability to enchant the world for a disenchanted age. At the same time, the poems both affirm and demur to the creative power of imagination to supremely order the natural world. This theme emerges over the course of Wilbur's oeuvre, and is exemplified in "The Beacon," a poem that has generally been overlooked and which deserves to receive greater critical attention.

Broadly understood, Wilbur's metaphysical vision emphasizes the world's materiality but is tempered by hints that a greater meaning permeates and enlivens all of the world's materiality. As John Crowe Ransom argues, it is metaphysics "or miraculism, informs a poetry which is the most original and exciting, and intellectually perhaps the most seasoned, that we know in our literature," and this ability to enchant the found world is precisely what makes Wilbur both a significant contemporary poet as well as an apt critic of modernism (Ransom 135). I choose the word "enchantment" quite specifically because the realm of the enchanted or magical figures prominently throughout Wilbur's poems. Two of his major poems, "The Mind-Reader," published in 1976 in his eponymous volume, and "Merlin Enthralled," from the 1956 volume Things of This World, both feature magicians and examine what magic might mean in a skeptical age: "In Wilbur's poem the magic that Merlin did is seen to be imagination, relating to will, to dream, to spirit, with their incredible power of overcoming the visible and natural world as it were by poetizing it full of spirits" (Nemerov, in Salinger 239). The desperate mind-reader seeks escape from the burden of his gift and his own mediocrity through conscious-dulling drunkenness, and Merlin's power fades in slumber. These characters embody the dilemma of a world whose skepticism would strip both types of spirit of power.

Wilbur refers to himself as "some sort of Catholic Christian," but is careful to avoid doctrine in his poetry and in this sense contrasts with Edith Sitwell or even T. S. Eliot, both of whose later poems have strong doctrinal elements manifested in traditional Christian symbols. Wilbur prefers poetry to be the mind's own work toward discovery, instead of a forum for presenting (even creatively) preconceived ideas or beliefs. (1) Indeed, specifically "religious" language is not prominent in his poetry. Moreover, although some critics would like to make much of his Christian commitment, it should also be noted that Wilbur's only explicitly doctrinal poem appears in his 1961 volume Advice to a Prophet. "A Christmas Hymn," appeals to the Incarnation as the singular event by which "The low is lifted high" and "By whose descent among us / The worlds are reconciled" (Wilbur 301). However, I would call attention to the poem's uniqueness, rather than, as Peter Stitt does, use it as conceptual warrant for reading all of Wilbur's poetry through an incarnational lens. (2) More persuasive is James Breslin's analysis on this point, that Wilbur evinces a kind of poetic insistence on enchantment: "the poet, an elusive figure adept at quick changes, creates illusions; he is a magician ... [and the poem] becomes a verbal conjuring" (Breslin 35).

This kind of critical lens is not intended to disallow the possibility of Christian poetry, nor does it deny metaphysical substance to Wilbur's poetic vision. However, rather than explicating theological themes or dogma, Wilbur's poems engage religious questions, most broadly conceived. To return to "The Mind-Reader," this dramatic monologue seeks to ask--not answer--the question of whether or not there exists a mind so broad it might contain and define the world. The character of the mind-reader, as he is burdened and overwhelmed by his gift for finding peoples' lost things, wonders thus: "Is there some huge attention, do you think, / Which suffers us and is inviolate, / To which all hearts are open, which remarks / The sparrow's weighty fall, and overhears / In the worst rancor a deflected sweetness? / I should be glad to know of it" (Wilbur 186). The poem itself must not be read as an argument for such a mind; after all, it is cast as a question, and not a declarative statement. Instead, it reveals a kind of agnostic stance in the implied poet, which is echoed through the tentative iteration "I should be glad to know of it," in which the plaintive tone of desire for belief lingers as an expressed wish. Thus the poem presents not a program for belief, but an attempted articulation of these questions of belief. This is, I think, exactly what David Daiches has in mind in his Gifford Lectures:
 As [poetry] weaves its cumulative meaning through the use of all
 the resources of language, with image, symbol, cadence, rhythm,
 pattern, structure, as well as propositional meaning all playing
 their part in building up the reverberating whole, it gets behind
 belief to the human dilemmas that belief arose to cope with, even
 though it may be ostensibly basing itself on a given belief.
 (Daiches 214)


Daiches's observation, made mostly in the context of his reading of the Psalms, insists that it is the poem's work to foreground ultimate questions of human experience. Thus, it is the effort of the artistic imagination to present the dilemma of human experience in a truthful way, and to the extent that it does so, its function is non-dogmatic even as its questions overlap with religious ones. (3)

As much of the history of Wilbur criticism has noted, at the fore of Wilbur's critical interest is the question he terms the "quarrel with Poe." That is not a specifically theological or religious question; rather it is the presentation Of a problem to which he returns throughout his work. Poe's understanding of the human predicament centers on the impulse to "reunify" a disparate and diffuse divinity; thus ultimately, in Wilbur's analysis, "His only means of escape is the suspension of outward consciousness, and a deliberate retreat from the temporal, rational, physical world into the visionary depths of his mind ... Poe's poet is thus at war with the external world" (Wilbur, Responses 49). This is precisely the problem for Wilbur, whose poetry seeks to maintain an unwavering fidelity to the external, found world. "Poe's aesthetic, Poe's theory of the nature of art," he says in 'the House of Poe,' "seems to me insane. To say that art should repudiate everything human and earthly, and find its subject in the flickering end of dreams, is hopelessly to narrow the scope and function of art" (Michelson 67). (4) This detraction from Poe helps to define Wilbur's distinctive voice as he attempts to reconcile human imagination, creativity, and spirit with a materially found world. The problem of Manichean duality of spirit versus matter pervades Wilbur, not as a viable option, but as a concern to be guarded against.

So Wilbur's metaphysical inclination also insists on an unflagging materialism. For this reason, some are inclined to trace his influences through the American transcendental tradition, indicating that he displays "an Emersonian relish of the visible world," which for all its visibility, "sometimes appears as a cipher or an encoded language that refers beyond itself" (Hecht 594). Nevertheless, it is still the found-ness, or thing-ness, of the material world that dominates his works. His descriptive attention to the natural world, including his intimate observations of flora and fauna, shows a passionate commitment to materiality. This central concern has inspired comparisons with Gerard Manley Hopkins, (5) and stylistically he is often linked with William Carlos Williams and the American Imagist tradition, since "he too is a believer in the credo: "no ideas but in things" (Salinger 4).

This is evident in a poem such as "Praise in Summer," in which the poet confronts the world and feels beckoned to write about it--to create a world of metaphor, in which "The hills are heavens full of branching ways /... I said the trees are mines in air, I said / See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!" (Wilbur 461) Against this impulse, though, the speaker goes on to critique the artistic drive to metaphorize by calling it "this mad instead" (emphasis, original). By the poem's conclusion, a right "praise" would be a valuation of the there-ness of the world, a recognition of things as they are before the moment of imaginative engagement or evaluation. The poetic moment, in this evaluation, must be informed by the simple act of observation or naming, of allowing the found world to stand in its ontological purity: "Should it not be enough of fresh and strange / That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, / And sparrows sweep the ceiling, of our day?" Nevertheless, the poem brings us to consider Wilbur's understanding of artistic engagement. Paul Cummins argues that the above lines claim a materiality that should be paired with a sense of spirituality pervading other Wilbur poems. However, I believe these lines reveal a stronger tension--even an irresistible contradiction--signified by the very existence of the lines, which, had they taken the implicit injunction "should it not be enough," would not have been written. So, the answer to the ostensibly rhetorical question is, apparently, no. It is not enough for the trees simply to exist. And this evaluation is evident even at the end of poem, whose last line cannot resist employing a descriptive metaphor, as sparrows "sweep the ceiling of our day:" "So the desire to reify experience, to possess objects, becomes another form of absolutism which the poems expose to ironic scrutiny" (Breslin 32).

Artistic engagement, the desire to reify experience, seems to be a key for understanding the relationship between physicality and metaphysicality in Wilbur's poems. The supposed there-ness of the found world is reiterated by Wilbur himself, who writes, "It is the province of poems to make some order in the world, but the poets can't afford to forget that there is a reality of things which survives all orders great and small. Things are. The cow is there. No poetry can have any strength unless it continually bashes itself against the reality of things" (Wilbur, "Bottle" 217). Here, Wilbur detracts from Stevens's vision of a totalizing imagination that is ultimately responsible for formulations of perception, a point to which I will return in my reading of "The Beacon."

This brings to the fore the question of mind in Wilbur's poetry. The fact of the world's existence is not quite enough, for it requires the imaginative engagement of human beings. This is the strength, and the purpose, of poetry in Wilbur's understanding: to create a provisional and aesthetic ordering of experience. The creative mind engages the found world, and in so doing, offers a powerfully sustaining kind of narrative coherency. (6) Wilbur's epistemology thus insists on the ontological precedence of the material world. It is in encountering and observing the world that it becomes possible to construct intelligible meaning. For this reason, it is tempting to read much of Wilbur as a meditation on the poetic endeavor itself. (7) Such an approach is obviously self-limiting (if poetry only comments on poetry it ceases to be relevant); however, it may shed light on Wilbur's stylistic commitment to formalism in an age of experiment, confessionalism and free verse. (8)

The ordering mind is present through metaphors in many of Wilbur's poems: the eye and the mind are two images that consistently attempt to define the landscape of their surrounding world. Paired with these, the sea and the cave are two images that are consistently used to figure the found world and the unintelligibility of chaos and death the mind must confront. Regardless of how one understands Charles Altieri's claim that it was the resurgence of Wordsworthian Romanticism that catalyzed many post-war American poets, his description is apt for Wilbur's project as I have been defining it: "The central commitment of this tradition is to the creative, form-giving imagination and its power to affect society, or at least personal needs for meaning, by constructing coherent, fully human forms out of the flux of experience" (Altieri 17). "The Eye" and "Mind" are two poems in which Wilbur wrestles with precisely these issues. In "Mind," the human mind is represented as a bat that flies about in a cave, the darkness of which seems to signify the fundamental inscrutability of the world. An allusion to Plato's allegory causes the reader to wonder whether there is an external reality, an enlightenment of a kind that should be sought or reached. However, this bat's "senseless wit" enables it to "weave and flitter, dip and soar / In perfect courses through the blackest air." Like the bat, the mind is somehow sensible, despite its obvious limitations, to the conditions in which it finds itself. In the last stanza, the visibly working mind of the poet enters the uttered text:
 And has this simile a like perfection?
 The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
 That in the very happiest intellection
 A graceful error may correct the cave.


This possibility of effecting change within the cave itself--not escaping it, but altering it--is echoed in "The Eye," a poem whose voyeuristic premise is a fundamental flaw in a philosophically interesting poem (Kinzie 17-20). Nevertheless, it exemplifies exactly this kind of curious wondering about the relationship of the imagination to the world and ends on a note of unarguable if moralizing beauty: "Let me be touched / By the alien hands of love forever, / That this eye not be folly's loophole / But giver of due regard." "Under Cygnus" and "A Black November Turkey," although quite different from one another stylistically and in their objects of contemplation, each poses the question of how the ascriptions of a beholder might drive "the flight that heaven turns awry," or alter desperation and "with vulgar joy /Acclaim the sun." In both cases, there is a described shift at the moment of perception; in the first case gravity reverses itself and the stars are momentarily governed by the order of the imagination; in the second, death is definitively, if temporarily, toppled by the vision of dawning light. (9) Such images give primacy to the perceiving mind for shaping what it finds.

The relationship between the perceiving mind and the broad observations of what I have called Wilbur's metaphysics can be seen at work in "The Beacon" (from the 1956 volume, Things of This World). "The Beacon" examines the interrelationship of the mind, the found world and metaphysical experience and so a careful reading will shed light on the problem as I have outlined it. The prominence of the imagery of light and darkness limns the efforts of the ordering mind in response to a found reality. Tracing this imagery through the poem will illuminate the tentativeness of Wilbur's metaphysical figurations.

The poem begins with the image of a blinking beacon "founded on rock and facing the night-fouled sea," and this arresting initial image establishes a conflict that will pervade the poem's remainder: it is against the pressing darkness of the sea that the "brilliance" of the light shines out. Two aspects of this image require closer attention: first, the ocean is a recurring image that embodies timelessness, insensibility, and death. In "For Dudley," an elegy on the death of a friend, a similar juxtaposition of light and darkness figures the island spark of human hope in the weltering ocean: "As if we were perceived / From a black ship--/... All that we do / Is touched with ocean, yet we remain / On the shore of what we know" (Wilbur 211). This image seems to draw on a rich tradition of metaphorizing the ocean as a personification of chaos, as in the first biblical creation account, when the ordering light is brought to the face of the waters. (10) Bruce Michelson points out that both the sea and the abyss emerge in Wilbur's poems as uncontainable and capricious amalgamations of eternal and temporal realities (Michelson 71). These two senses of ocean establish a dark and potentially threatening backdrop against which the beacon must shine; indeed, inherent in the image of the beacon is the sense of warning against danger. Second, the brilliance of the beacon's light strikes the ocean with "cutlass gaze / Solving the Gordian waters." The "cutlass" is a small, curved sword that is associated with maritime fighters. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "cutlass" also has a verbal sense, meaning "to hew with a cutlass." So, from the outset, the beacon's task is combative as well as visionary, since it calls up associations of weaponry as well as light. The ocean is then the complexity or a mystery to be "solved," reinforcing the inscrutability that darkness elicits. Moreover, the knot recalls the knot tied by Gordius, the legendary King of Phrygia, which could be undone only by the future ruler of Asia. Alexander, unable to untie the knot, cut it with a sword; likewise, the beacon's light is destined not to fulfill its final goal and the best it can do to "solve" the mystery of the waters is to cut through them: a provisional solution. As much is suggested by the fact that its gaze must do the solving "over and over."

So the lighthouse's beam, personified by its "gazing," "blinking," "solving," "making," and "finding," suggests an active mind in an encounter with a reality that is "as deeply mysterious as the blackness of the sea at night" (Salinger 36). This bright eye, the eye of the perceiving imagination, is powerful to make "the sea-roads out," and illuminate the meadows full of "the buxom, lavish / Romp of the ocean daughters." These lines anticipate the mythological allusion at the end of the poem, where "it is the Nereid's kick endears / The tossing spray." Not all of the sea is darkness and mystery; the beacon's gaze finds the enlivening and light-hearted "romp" of the sea-nymphs who attend Poseidon to be a stark contrast to the "night-fouled sea." From this second stanza through to the end, the question of how the imaginative eye relates to and is responsible for the enchantment of the waters remains.

The third through fifth stanzas take place during the momentary "blink" when the beacon's brilliance ceases and darkness prevails. During this instant, "it is all gone ... and the dark of the eye / Dives for the black pearl." This image, occurring as it does at the end of both line and stanza leaves us hanging for a moment in what Mary Kinzie terms a "half meaning": for a moment or a split moment, the reader must wrestle with the uncertainty of what the poet could mean by this "black pearl" (Guide 59). Reading across the "tug" of the enjambment to the full sense of the sentence, the black pearl is "the sea-in-itself." It is too much of a stretch to argue, as Cynthia Cavanaugh does, that this is the diving of the conscious mind, through the pupil of the eye, into the abyss of the unconscious. (11) Indeed, this evaluation, in seeking to align Wilbur with Poe, seems unaware of the extent of Wilbur's critique of his predecessor. A black pearl, also called a "Black Tahitian Pearl," is a rare and tinted pearl that is impossible to culture. Its wildness recommends both its value and its connection to an untamable ocean. The Oxford English Dictionary also notes that the pearl, in transferred senses, refers to either the pupil of the eye, a kind of film or cataract over the eye, or a teardrop. In all of these senses, the association with the eye is clear--and this is complemented by the insistent visual qualities of the beacon in stanzas one and two. I suggest that this "black pearl," if it is the eye, is the darkened pupil behind the closed lid. The beacon's eye, like the eye that according to ancient Greek belief cast light wherever it shone its gaze, illuminates the darkness with the power of its beam, and so the closing of the metaphorical lid is tantamount to darkening the eye itself, even as it simultaneously darkens the ocean. The closed eyelid in other of Wilbur's poems represents the desire to escape from the responsibility to order and know. So it is that the mind-reader drinks "studiously until my thought / Is a blind lowered almost to the sill" (Wilbur 186), and the speaker in "The Eye," finally comes to recognize the need to "Correct my view ... that the lid's closure frees me" (Wilbur 132). In Wilbur's estimation, the power of the eye to shine out against the chaos of the world is threatened not only by the sea, but by its own failure to remain open to the ocean. When it fails to shine it becomes no less chaotic and inscrutable than "the sea-in-itself."

The following stanzas take this theme and develop it in imagery that recalls the "grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling" of Matthew Arnold's famous "Dover Beach":
 Watching the blinded waves
 Compounding their eclipse, we hear their
 Booms, rumors and guttural sucks
 Warn of the pitchy whirl

 At the mind's end. All of the sense of the sea
 Is veiled as voices nearly heard
 In morning sleep; nor shall we wake
 At the sea's heart. Rail

 At the deaf unbeatable sea, my soul, and weep
 Your Alexandrine tears, but look:


Like the desolation of "Dover Beach," Wilbur's beacon stands at the limits of human endeavor, at "the mind's end," a place where the mind must strive for sense at the limit of sensibility, not simply at the brink of mystery, but at the brink of a vastly hostile and impersonal ocean of death and chaos. The limit of sensibility is mimetically evoked by the closure of the beacon's eye and the resultant confusion between aural and visual sense perception: we hear the "booms, rumors, and guttural sucks" as we are "watching the blinded waves"; the sea's sense is "veiled" (a visual effect) "as voices" (an aural one). Moreover, in these stanzas the beacon and the ocean-daughters both become invisible, and the primary descriptors are of the ocean. We are literally awash in the confusion of ocean, with no point of reference. It is no surprise that the speaker invokes his soul's lament against the "deaf unbeatable sea," and this cry is heightened by the reference back to the ultimate failure of Alexander's kingdom foreshadowed by his inability to untie the knot, hence the soul's tears are tears of impotence, despair, and failure. (12) The lament, however, is abruptly halted with "but look," a performative utterance that effectively lifts the reader's eyes, reopening the beacon's light onto the dark surface of the sea:
 but look:
 The beacon-blaze unsheathing turns
 The face of darkness pale

 And now with one grand chop gives clearance to
 Our human visions, which assume
 The waves again, fresh and the same.


As the original frame of the poem is assumed, the light of the beacon once more is a cutlass, "unsheathing" to "chop" through the sea and give "clearance to / Our human visions." The visions to which the speaker refers are visions of order and coherence, including the ordering mythos of the "ocean-daughters." Even the "Alexandrine tears" which, now that the waves are "fresh and the same," and not "blinded" and "eclipsed," might be construed as constructive instead of impotent. The renewed sense of order is reflected in the meter as the sixth stanza achieves, for the first time in the poem, a perfectly regular iambic pentameter. This regularity persists through the final two stanzas in a striking contrast to the irregular and halting pentameter that dominates the middle section of the poem. (13) With this renewed sense of stoic optimism, the poem moves into its final conceit:
 Let us suppose that we

 See most of darkness by our plainest light.
 It is the Nereid's kick endears
 The tossing spray; a sighted ship
 Assembles all the sea.


Rodney Edgecombe points out that the "dark sea, shapeless and vast, is another version of the deserts in 'A World Without Objects,' and as in the case of those deserts, its abstraction is better comprehended by the human markers that measure its void" (Edgecombe 76). On this point, that the human markers impose intelligible order on chaos, I think he is right. He goes on, however, to charge that the Nereids are a figure for the Incarnation, a possibility that this poem does not admit. There is not a special confluence of divine and human here, nor do these mythological sea nymphs make "infinity accessible" (76). Rather, the mind, by continuing its necessary task of cutting the chaos of the waves and inscribing provisional meaning into their insensibility, encounters a world enchanted with mythologies which make it both intelligible and welcoming. It should be noted that Wilbur is making a much more nuanced point than Wordsworth who, in his quintessentially romantic poem "The World is Too Much With Us," suggests that humanity has strayed too far from nature to properly perceive its significance; the poet can only yearn to "have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; / Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; / Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn" (Arnold 68). Contrary to Wordsworth's sea-gazing poet, Wilbur's vision evinces no sentimental vision of magical ancient creeds and beliefs. Likewise, he implicitly critiques Arnold, who would insist that the disenchanted world is as "a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight," and therefore, that true joy is never possible. Rather, "The Beacon" is consonant with the view offered throughout his body of poems: the mind must engage reality, and in so doing will see flashes of enchantment that "endear" the mystery of the found world to itself. Perhaps a more fruitful comparison might be drawn with Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar." In "Anecdote," the speaker "placed a jar in Tennessee," a metaphor for the ordering human imagination. The result of this placement determines the landscape: "It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill / It took dominion everywhere" (Stevens 25). The parallel to Stevens is quite clear: the artistic imagination seeks to govern nature by instilling order into wildness. However, for Stevens, this imagination is unbounded and has full authority for determining the shape of the world. Wilbur's beacon does not have quite this power. While it can "make the sea-roads out," yet it does not conform the waves in the way that Stevens's jar does, suggesting that Wilbur mistrusts the imagination that believes itself to be a world to itself (Hougen 41).

The originality of Wilbur's treatment of these themes is at least partly determined by his choice of metaphor. The beacon is not a cold, unseeing jar that forces the wilderness into its own designs. Neither is the sea destitute of the loveliness of its creatures. Rather, like a human eye, the mind proceeds in fits and starts, blinking and opening, constructing the stories that make it intelligible, but struggling too against the temptation for despair by succumbing to "blindness." In this sense, Wilbur's dominant paradigm is one of vision, and light and darkness can be construed not as pure categories, but respective of the eye that sees and orders or falters and fails. In the last stanza, a ship is "sighted"--a human artifact in motion in the midst of the sea. The sighted ship gives a point of reference to the beacon as much as the ship orients itself by the "sight" of the beacon's light. It is not the mind's eye, the beacon, that "assembles all the sea." If it were then we would be hard-pressed to find a distinction between this and Stevens's vision. Rather, it is the ship sighted in the momentary scan of the beam, which is constantly attempting to find provisional solutions to the Gordian waters, that lends constructive ordering to the surrounding chaos. If the beacon is the human mind and the sea-in-itself is the found world, the ship is the brief hope in the ordering existence of other people--in this Wilbur is careful to guard against the solipsism of ecstatic or imaginative experience that is a facet of his disagreement with both Poe and Stevens.

In this analysis, "The Beacon" offers a microcosm of a problem that pervades Wilbur's work: how the material world, the artistic mind, and the possibility of metaphysical experience interrelate. Throughout his oeuvre, the constant recourse to the details of particularity, including his insistence on the precedence of the natural world complemented by the precise diction of his poetic voice, make the enchantment he offers critical of a "spiritual" reading that would claim Wilbur for a slew of vague notions. Rather, his vision is both careful and inquiring. The metaphysical world in "The Beacon" is represented by the Nereids whose presence is both charming and elusive. That the beam casts light upon them does not suggest that it creates them; neither is it their presence that "assembles the sea." Instead, Wilbur simply rests satisfied with the fact of their existence, which nevertheless does not dominate the sea (or, for that matter, the poem). The light of the mind is charmed or eased by them insofar as it construes the joyful presence they offer in the midst of a dark ocean, and the structure of the poem suggests that occasional glimpses are all the light can hope to achieve. The real brunt of constructive effort is effected as the light consistently re-opens upon the waters in the hopes of sighting another ship. In this way, Wilbur's metaphysics is gracefully reticent to make bold religious claims, insisting instead that in the face of darkness, the eyes of the imagination must continue to wrestle to construe meaning in an otherwise unintelligible world.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions ill American Poetry during the 1960s. London: Associated UP, 1979.

--. "From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics," Boundary 21.3 (1973): 605-42.

--. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1984.

Arnold, Matthew. "Dover Beach" The Mentor Book of Major British Poets. Oscar Williams, ed. New York: Penguin, 1963.

Breslin, James E.B. From Modern to Contemporary. American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1984.

Cavanaugh, Cynthia A. "Wilbur's The Beacon," The Explicator 61.4 (2003): 231-234.

Cummins, Paul E Richard Wilbur: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1971.

--. "Questionnaire to Mr. Wilbur (1967)," Conversations with Richard Wilbur. William Butts, ed. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Daiches, David. God and the Poets: The Gifford Lectures, 1983. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1984.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: The U of Alabama, 1995.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. "'The Metaphysics of Richard Wilbur," The New Criterion 23.8 (2005): 4-11.

Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Hall, Dorothy Judd. "Narrowing Our 'Soul-From-Soul Abyss': Inward Journeys of Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, and William Jay Smith." In Wilcox, Earl J., ed. His "Incalculable" Influence on Others: Essays on Robert Frost in Out Time. English Literary Studies. No. 63. Victoria: U of Victoria, 1994.

Hecht, Anthony. "Richard Wilbur." Sewanee Review. 109.4 (2001): 593-98.

Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars P, 1995.

Hutton, Joan (1968) "Richard Wilbur." Conversations with Richard Wilbur. William Butts, ed. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1990.

Kalaidjian, Walter. Languages of Liberation: The Social Text in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Columbia U, 1989.

Kinzie, Mary. A Poet's Guide to Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1999.

--. "The Cheshire Smile: On Richard Wilbur." The American Poetry Review 6 (1977).

Lazer, Hank. "The Politics of Form and Poetry's Other Subjects: Reading Contemporary American Poetry." American Literary History 2.3 (1990).

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1991.

Mikolajczak, Michael Allen. "Inscriptions of Wonder: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur," Renascence 45.1-2 (1992-93): 115-25.

Nelson, Cary. "Modern American Poetry." In The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. Ed. by Walter Kalaidjian. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Nemerov, Howard. "The Current of the Frozen Stream: An Essay on the Poetry of Allen Tate," Furioso (Fall 1948).

Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry: Contemporary Poetry and Its Traditions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

Ransom, John Crowe. "Poetry: A Note on Ontology." The World's Booty. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Edited and translated by K. McLaughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur's Creation. Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan P, 1983.

Schwartz, Joseph. "The Concept of Historical Form in the Poetry of Richard Wilbur," Renascence 45.1-2 (Fall 1992 / Winter 1993).

Schwartz, Regina. "Milton's Hostile Chaos: '... And the Sea Was No More.'" ELH, Vol. 52. No. 2. (Summer, 1985).

Shaw, Robert B. "Richard Wilbur's World," Contemporary Poets, Harold Bloom, ed. New Haven: Chelsea House, 1986: 103-12.

Stevens, Wallace. "Anecdote of the Jar," and "Sunday Morning." Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. by Helen Vendler. Cambridge: Harvard U, 1985.

Stewart, Stuart. "Lyric Possession." Critical Inquiry 22.1 (1995): 34-64.

Stitt, Peter. "The Sacramental Vision of Richard Wilbur." The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Wilbur, Richard. Collected Poems: 1943-2004. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2004.

--. Responses: Prose Pieces: 1953-1976. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

White, Philip. "'Walking to Sleep' and Richard Wilbur's Quest for a Rational Imagination." Twentieth Century Literature 41.4 (1995): 249-65.

Wordsworth, William. "The World is Too Much With Us." The Mentor Book of Major British Poets. Ed. by Oscar Williams. New York: Penguin, 1963.

Notes

(1) "I don't as you note make much use of Christian symbol or doctrine. This is because 1 cannot bear to borrow the voltage of highly charged words ... [which being] full of ready-made emotional value will also not represent the movement of the mind and heart toward understanding and clarification, and poetry has to be discovery rather than the celebration of received ideas." (Cummins 42)

(2) "Through Christ, the Christian God gave physical manifestation to pure spirituality, thus uniting the two contrasting realms. And this is the way Richard Wilbur would have the two appear in his poetry, as in the universe he inhabits--together, in interaction with one another, neither one alone." (Stitt 15)

(3) Wilbur affirms this possibility: "I know a lot of people, poets, who are not consciously religious, but find themselves forever compromised by their habit of asserting the relevance of all things to each other. And poetry being a kind of truth-telling ... I think that these people must be making, whether they like it or not, what are ultimately religious assertions." (Hutton 53)

(4) Philip White points up Wilbur's inclination to dialogue with figures from earlier centuries, instead of his contemporaries, as evidence of an entrenched conservatism. Whether or not this conclusion is warranted, it nevertheless highlights Wilbur's self-understanding with respect to modernism (White 249-65).

(5) While some see stylistic affinities to Hopkins, I suspect that they are more likely thematic--although it should be noted that Hopkins has a greater affinity for ascribing specifically religious content to tactile experience, and therefore Shaw's conclusion is suspect: "The poems at their deepest level are acts of sacramental perception, with similarities of thought ... to Hopkins, which also treat of the created universe as an outward sign and token of an inward and spiritual grace." (Shaw 105)

(6) To clarify, I am using "narrative" in the loose sense of an ordering integrity. What I have in mind is Paul Ricoeur's notion of narrative coherence: "Making a narrative resignifies the world in its temporal dimension, to the extent that narrative, telling, reciting is to remake action following the poem's invitation." (Ricoeur 81)

(7) "Imagination most appropriately precedes the sacrosanct moment of perception with mental preparation and follows it with active reflection that leads to careful writing. The whole encounter involves the poet in a sort of dialogue with his environment." (Hougen 42)

(8) Hall's analysis is once again dubious in this regard: "Wilbur remains dedicated to formal discipline precisely because it is capable of moving beyond order to evoke the threat of chaos, vitality, mystery, and transcendence" (Hall 74).

(9) Another example is the brilliant little poem "A Fire Truck," in which without the mind, sheer verbs have no capacity to register their significance (Wilbur 283). Hecht uses this poem to point compellingly to Wilbur's use of "kineticism" (Hecht 593-98).

(10) See also Psalms 89:7-14, Job 36:12-13, Daniel 7:2. This theme is also prominent throughout the canon of English literature; See Schwartz (337-74).

(11) "The pursuit of this knowledge [of one's own fears, motivations, and dreams] is like a dive into the center of the pupil, "the black pearl", that leads to the internal mental sea of the conscious and the unconscious" (Cavanaugh 233).

(12) It may be possible to conclude, as Edgecombe does, that "Alexandrine" signifies doubly as the imagination's--specifically, the poet's--struggle for order as it refers to hexameter. Unfortuantely, as it is an impossible scan of Wilbur's meter (which is as follows: in each stanza, a line of pentameter is followed by two lines of tetrameter, finished with a strong trimeter line), it seems like a fragile connection (Edgecombe 75).

(13) This seems to be consistent with Paul Fussell's analysis that accentual-syllabic meter is "employed by conservative prosodic practitioners in English ... committed to a sense of human limitation and order" (10). See also Stewart (34-63).
COPYRIGHT 2008 Marquette University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:James, Elaine
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:6554
Previous Article:The artist as peacemaker: "Babette's Feast" as a narrative of reconciliation.
Next Article:Doing penance in the old west: "Sisters" as Andre Dubus's final word on suffering rape.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters