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.
Hello David, I thought poetry’s mansion has many rooms. Loved the poem. Are you still writing? I’d like to catch up with you having loved your poetry and learned about six by heart. You can really get to know a poem when it snuggles down in the warmth of the heart.
Thanks Nigel. No, the biblical quote is ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.’ (KJV, John 14.2). I admit this always puzzled me as child, because I thought a mansion was a very big house, and I didn’t see how you could fit a lot of very big houses into one normal house. But it seems that ‘mansion’ in this biblical sense refers to a self-contained dwelling within a large complex, where the whole complex is regarded as ‘the house’. The OED explains this sense as ‘Each of a number of separate dwelling places or apartments in a large house, group of buildings, etc. Also in extended use. Now usually arch. as a translation of, or in allusion to, John 14:2’. And yes, I still write the occasional poem, and a manuscript of my ‘Collected Poems’ is currently with a publisher and should be appearing in due course, next year I hope. Thanks for your interest.