We lately lost the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017), who died last month. I have always admired him for the way he steadfastly refused to jump on the confessional bandwagon of the nineteen sixties along with the like of Lowell, Berryman and Plath, but continued to write his own restrained and lucid verse. This disinclination to give his time what his time thought it wanted may have made him temporarily unfashionable, but in the house of poetry there are many mansions and surely one of them has Richard Wilbur’s name on it.
I had always assumed that this particular poem was a ruefully affectionate tribute to the nineteenth-century cowboy of the kind who was such a standard in the ‘B’ movies of my childhood, godless, maybe, but possessing, along with his impressive physical skills, a rough decency and sense of fair play. However, it appears that the inspiration is more recent than that: Wilbur served in the Second World War, at Anzio, in France and in Germany, and the poem commemorates a fellow-soldier, Corporal Tywater, a one time rodeo man, who was killed while serving in the infantry after taking a wrong turn in his jeep and driving into German hands.
Death of Sir Nihil, book the nth,
Upon the charred and clotted sward,
Lacking the lily of our Lord,
Alases of the hyacinth.
Could flicker from behind his ear
A whistling silver throwing knife
And with a holler punch the life
Out of a swallow in the air.
Behind the lariat’s butterfly
Shuttled his white and gritted grin,
And cuts of sky would roll within
The noose-hole, when he spun it high.
The violent, neat and practised skill
Was all he loved and all he learned;
When he was hit, his body turned
To clumsy dirt before it fell.
And what to say of him, God knows.
Such violence. And such repose.