In his introductory note to this handsome and in every sense weighty volume, Richard Wilbur, surveying the fruits of sixty-one years of poems, announces with some pride that “nothing has been thrown out, and any changes of wording are too few and too slight to mention.” Nothing need be thrown out, we might add, because from the outset of his career Wilbur has never published a poem that was merely tossed off, hoping somehow to catch the eye of a sympathetic reader. Once he had submitted words to the authority of print, few further changes of wording were needed, since the poem had attained what Robert Frost called its “figure”-“a clarification of life,” “a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost also said, in his brief manifesto, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” that the figure was the same as for love. So it makes wholly appropriate sense that this edition begins and ends with poems clearly occasioned by the presence of Charlotte Ward Wilbur, to whom the collection is dedicated. (They were married in 1942 and Wilbur went off to war the following year.)
Since Collected Poems follows the current common practice of printing the work in reverse order of appearance, it ends with the title poem to Wilbur’s first volume, The Beautiful Changes, and begins with “The Reader,” published in the New Yorker not long ago. Without simplifying his career and achievement unduly, these two poems juxtaposed say something about the nature and value of that achievement. “The Beautiful Changes” consists of three six-line stanzas in loose iambics with an anapestic lilt. The first stanza observes such changes in nature: a meadow of Queen Anne’s Lace suddenly becoming, to the viewer’s eye, a lake; a forest changing and deepening its color because of a mantis’s presence on a single green leaf. The third stanza observes similar effects as produced by an unnamed you:
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.
This is a love poem about losing one’s self, and the things of nature and human nature, to a new finding-a sundering that results in wonder, as the woman’s hands make the roses new, enlarged in their beauty and power. Paraphrase doesn’t work well to convey the suggestion and implication of such a poem, which shows, in matchless fashion, Wilbur’s early and unswerving commitment to the corresponding figures of love and poetry.
“The Reader” more directly and fully imagines a woman who is rereading the “great stories that charmed her younger mind.” The poet looks on and, seeing the pages turn, imagines the characters who appear once more to her, such as, perhaps, James’s Isabel Archer and Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, “The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly, / The sly one who aspires to marry so.” He compares the woman as reader to a god who knows both the “first and final selves” of these heroes and heroines she engages with, then ends at the heart of the matter:
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door-
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.
Wilbur saves his blank verse for special occasions, often for longer poems, like “The Mind-Reader” or “Lying,” which propound and elucidate large human experiences. In “The Reader,” the challenge, splendidly met in my judgment, is to enter the mind of a beloved without violating it by simplifying or sentimentalizing. Rather the approach to “true wonder” (that final word from “The Beautiful Changes” reappears) is effected in lines that make up an original sentiment, something truly found only when the poem has found its end. “It is a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last,” said Frost. Wilbur’s art lies in bringing us into the presence of the genuine article: “Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent, / Like a rose window or the firmament,” as another late poem, “For C.,” ends.
Since the publication of his last collected volume in 1987, Wilbur has produced relatively few new poems, thirty or so, many of them short, a few of them slight as well (one thinks again of Frost and his penchant for brevity in the work of his late volumes). The contrast with such fluent ease, as was revealed in the hundred and more poems that appeared over a nine-year period of his first three books-from The Beautiful Changes through Things of this World-is patent but not to be regretted. Aside from the steady translation of poems and plays Wilbur has pursued from early on (this volume contains the prologue to his 1995 translation of Moliere’s Amphitryon), he has also latterly written a good deal of light verse, illustrated by himself. Wilbur takes these poems seriously enough to conclude his Collected with a hundred pages of them, and he once remarked in an interview that he wished some critic would connect those “playful books with the rest of me.” Anyone who reads, say, “The Disappearing Alphabet,” perhaps the most delightful of these books, will be rewarded by one feat of witty association after another, as the poet imagines consequences of each letter disappearing: “Hail, letter F! If it were not for you, / Our raincoats would be merely ‘WATERPROO,’ / And that is such a stupid word, I doubt / That it would help to keep the water out.” Or there is U: “Without the letter U, you couldn’t say, / ‘I think I’d like to visit URUGUAY,’ / And so you’d stay forever in NORTH PLATTE, NEW PALTZ, or SCRANTON, or some place like that.” These efforts are priceless but, in one sense no more, or no more merely, “playful” than the serious books. It’s all serious play, as Hamlet, for whom the play’s the thing, was perhaps the first to inform us.
After the deaths of James Merrill and most recently Anthony Hecht, American poetry is left with its one elder formalist master, Richard Wilbur (no one writing in England bears comparison with any of these three). Yet although his genius as a maker of rhyme and stanza or the sheer inventiveness of his way with words has been conceded, some have found less than appealing his determination to say yes to life, indeed yes to life in America. In an interview he once mildly defended himself from the charge of thinking too well of things: “I have an inclination to be positive, but I hope that in most of my work I’m not a cheerleader for the universe but a describer of how it feels to be in it.” In this respect the American contemporary he most brings to mind is John Updike, whose unwavering determination that we were put in the world to pay attention and to give praise has also not elicited unanimous assent. Like Updike, Wilbur thinks of himself as a Protestant Christian, although the moral nerve of his poems is wide and unsectarian.
Readers of this rich volume are invited to test out that nerve by reviewing some of Wilbur’s early poems, then turning to the front of the book and reading ones as densely satisfying as “The Reader,” “Man Running,” “The Sleepwalker,” “For C.,” and-perhaps the finest of the late ones-“This Pleasing, Anxious Being.” For my purposes, the conclusion of “Mayflies” provides the right gloss on Richard Wilbur’s contribution as a poet: there a man in a forest, after watching a glittering mist of flies and comparing them in their dance to a crowd of stars, suddenly feels himself alone, “more mortal in my separateness than they.” The poem’s closing lines, though, effect an enormous and gratifying reprieve:
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
Just one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.