Week 417: Advice to a Prophet, by Richard Wilbur

This poem was written when the dominant fear for mankind was the threat of nuclear war: that threat may have receded a little, in our consciousness if not necessarily in reality, but only to be replaced by the realisation that when it comes to inflicting irreparable harm on our natural environment, attrition in the end works just as well as Armageddon. It’s a fine poem, but the problem I have with it now is a feeling that this may be one occasion where Wilbur’s restraint, his cool elegance of diction, work against him: that the time for the courtly elegiac is past and what we need now are words of fire and rage.

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.

Richard Wilbur

Week 355: The Pardon, by Richard Wilbur

Another of the American poet Richard Wilbur’s elegant, compassionate poems.

The Pardon

My dog lay dead five days without a grave
In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine
And a jungle of grass and honey-suckle vine.
I who had loved him while he kept alive

Went only close enough to where he was
To sniff the heavy honeysuckle-smell
Twined with another odor heavier still
And hear the flies’ intolerable buzz.

Well, I was ten and very much afraid.
In my kind world the dead were out of range
And I could not forgive the sad or strange
In beast or man. My father took the spade

And buried him. Last night I saw the grass
Slowly divide (it was the same scene
But now it glowed a fierce and mortal green)
And saw the dog emerging. I confess

I felt afraid again, but still he came
In the carnal sun, clothed in a hymn of flies,
And death was breeding in his lively eyes.
I started in to cry and call his name,

Asking forgiveness of his tongueless head.
… I dreamt the past was never past redeeming:
But whether this was false or honest dreaming
I beg death’s pardon now. And mourn the dead.

Richard Wilbur

Week 264: Tywater, by Richard Wilbur

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.

Tywater

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 he fell.

And what to say of him, God knows.
Such violence. And such repose.

Richard Wilbur

Week 144: Cottage Street, 1953, by Richard Wilbur

A characteristically humane and accomplished piece by the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-), with a slight sting in the tale as it reminds us by its own example that good poems don’t have to be, like Sylvia Plath’s, ‘helpless and unjust’ – they can also be helpless and just.

Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or sugar, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love,

Outliving Sylvia, who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Richard Wilbur

Week 29: To The Etruscan Poets, by Richard Wilbur

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.

Richard Wilbur

Some poets can say more in six lines than others manage in six hundred…