I’m not sure what kind of knuckle-dragger one would have to be not to enjoy Richard Wilbur’s polished verse, whether or not one thinks its virtues amount to “a little too regular a beauty” [Randall Jarrell, quoted in today’s Guardian obituary]. I too prefer the rough magic of Lowell, Berryman, and Plath—but, as Robert Creeley famously wrote, “Love is dead in us / if we forget / the virtues of an amulet / and quick surprise.” These are the chief virtues of Wilbur’s poetry. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
The Prisoner of Zenda
At the end a
“The Prisoner of Zenda,”
The King being out of danger,
(As Rudolph Rassendyll)
Must swallow a bitter pill
By renouncing his co-star,
It would be poor behavia
In him and in Princess Flavia
Were they to put their own
Concerns before those of the Throne.
Deborah Kerr must wed
The King instead.
Rassendyll turns to go.
Must it be so?
Why can’t they have their cake
And eat it, for heaven’s sake?
Please let them have it both ways,
The audience prays.
And yet it is hard to quarrel
With a plot so moral.
One redeeming factor,
However, is that the actor
Who plays the once-dissolute King
(Who has learned through suffering
Not to drink or be mean
To his future Queen),
Far from being a stranger,
Is also Stewart Granger.
To the Etruscan Poets
Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mothers’ milk the mother tongue,
In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind
Like a fresh track across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.
Advice to a Prophet
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?
Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,
If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip
On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken
In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.
Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.
[Click here to hear Wilbur reading “Advice to a Prophet”]
No poet needs to aspire to this kind of writing in order to enjoy it—unless we’re all beyond enjoyment now.