Richard Purdy Wilbur (1921-2017) was an American poet, translator, librettist,
Wilbur is generally considered to be one of the very best contemporary poets who
worked primarily in traditional meters and forms. His highly polished work is marked by "wit,
charm, and gentlemanly elegance." And yet the
urbane poet spent two summers as a hobo "riding the rails across Depression-era
America" and his early poems were greatly influenced by his experience as a
World War II infantryman. After the war ended, Wilbur took advantage of the G.I.
Bill to study English at Harvard, where he became good friends with the poet
Robert Frost. (But Wilbur had been a poet from the get-go, publishing his first poem at age eight, in John Martin's Magazine.
He was even paid a dollar, and thus became a professional or "hired" poet, as he
put it during an interview.)
In 1957 he accepted a professorship at Wesleyan University, where he taught for
the next twenty years while writing "on the side." But what a side job it was!
Wilbur's translations of Voltaire, Moliere, Racine and Brodsky have been called
either the best, or among the best, in the English language. His translation of
Moliere’s Tartuffe won the 1971 Bollingen Prize, and royalties from his
translations would one day allow him to work half-time as a teacher, giving him
more time to write. According to Dana Gioia, "It would be hard to overpraise
Wilbur's special genius for translation. He has no equal among his
contemporaries and stands with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ezra Pound, and
Robert Fitzgerald as one of the four greatest translators in the history of
American poetry." Such acclaim for his translations led to Wilbur
becoming the primary librettist for Leonard Bernstein's 1956 musical
version of Voltaire's Candide. Wilbur
provided the lyrics to a number of the show's songs, including "Glitter
and Be Gay," which has been performed by singers from Madeline Kahn to Kristin
Chenoweth and is still going strong. Highly regarded by the
literary world and by many of his peers, Wilbur was made the second American
poet laureate, following Robert Penn Warren, and he was twice awarded the
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1957 and 1989.
The Death of a Toad
A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
Low, and a final glade.
The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
As still as if he would return to stone,
And soundlessly attending, dies
Toward some deep
Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
To watch, across the castrate lawn,
I can't remember exactly where I first read "The Death of a Toad" by Richard Wilbur, but
a vague memory of the poem haunted me until I finally rediscovered it many years later,
while flipping through
the pages of a poetry anthology in a bookstore. I had forgotten the poem's title and
its poet's name, but I had never been able to forget its words' magic, so I kept
looking for it until I finally found it again. Now I'm
placing the poem first on this page to make sure other readers don't miss what I
missed out on for so many years. I don't use the term
"masterpiece" lightly, but I believe it is warranted here.―Michael R. Burch,
editor, The HyperTexts
A Barred Owl
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.
Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.
See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.
Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
This Pleasing Anxious Being
In no time you are back where safety was,
Spying upon the lambent table where
Good family faces drink the candlelight
As in a manger scene by de La Tour.
Father has finished carving at the sideboard
And Mother’s hand has touched a little bell,
So that, beside her chair, Roberta looms
With serving bowls of yams and succotash.
When will they speak, or stir? They wait for you
To recollect that, while it lived, the past
Was a rushed present, fretful and unsure.
The muffled clash of silverware begins,
With ghosts of gesture, with a laugh retrieved,
And the warm, edgy voices you would hear:
Rest for a moment in that resonance.
But see your small feet kicking under the table,
Fiercely impatient to be off and play.
The shadow of whoever took the picture
Reaches like Azrael’s across the sand
Toward grownups blithe in black-and-white, encamped
Where surf behind them floods a rocky cove.
They turn with wincing smiles, shielding their eyes
Against the sunlight and the future’s glare,
Which notes their bathing caps, their quaint maillots,
The wicker picnic hamper then in style,
And will convict them of mortality.
Two boys, however, do not plead with time,
Distracted as they are by what?–perhaps
a whacking flash of gull wings overhead–
While off to one side, with his back to us,
A painter, perched before his easel, seeing
The marbled surges come to various ruin,
Seeks out of all those waves to build a wave
That shall in blue summation break forever.
Wild, lashing snow, which thumps against the windshield
Like earth tossed down upon a coffin lid,
Half clogs the wipers, and our Buick yaws
On the black roads of 1928.
Father is driving, Mother, leaning out,
Tracks with her flashlight beam the pavement’s edge,
And we must weather hours more of storm
To be in Baltimore for Christmastime.
Of the two children in the back seat, safe
Beneath a lap robe, soothed by jingling chains
And by their parents’ pluck and gaiety,
One is asleep. The other’s half-closed eyes
Make out at times the dark hood of the car
Plowing the eddied flakes, and might foresee
The steady chugging of a landing craft
Through morning mist to the bombarded shore,
Or a deft prow that dances through the rocks
In the white water of the Allagash,
Or, in good time, the bedstead at whose foot
The world will swim and flicker and be gone.
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.
The Beautiful Changes
One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
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.
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.
Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.
Other poems of note by Richard Wilbur include (but are not limited to):
"To an American Poet Just Dead"
"A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra"
"Boy at the Window"
"Castles and Distances" (which has been called Wilbur's "most arresting early poem")
"Cottage Street, 1953"
"A Dubious Night"
"First Snow in Alsace"
"For K. R. on Her Sixtieth Birthday"
"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"
"On the Eyes of an SS Officer"
"Piccola Commedia" (a poem about Wilbur's "hobo" days)
"Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning"
"A Plain Song for a Comadre"
"Praise in Summer"
"Seed Leaves" (Wilbur's homage to his friend the poet Robert Frost)
"A Storm in April"
"A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness"