Friday 28 March 2014

Wilbur and Plath: 'How large is her refusal'

Browsing last night in Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems, I was startled to come across this one, which I hadn't noticed before, recalling an awkward meeting of two poets who could hardly be less alike: Wilbur himself and the tortured young poet-in-waiting Sylvia Plath. In a note, Wilbur explains that 'Edna Ward was Mrs. Herbert D. Ward, my wife's mother. The poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was the daughter of one of Mrs. Ward's Wellesley friends. The recollection is probably composite, but it is true in essentials.'

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 lemon, 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.

When this was published, it was snittily received by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (in their letters), Bishop describing it as 'very bad - really unfeeling' and 'smug', and Lowell (another poet very, very different from Wilbur) agreeing that  the poem 'annoyed me too. Which way is the irony meant?' etc. In hindsight, their reactions seems perverse, and the poem stands as a tender and touching memorial to a poet and a person Wilbur knew he could not understand, still less help. The irony is all, as Lowell could surely see, directed against himself, the 'published poet in his happiness' who finds himself reduced to helplessness, 'a stupid lifeguard'.
 For the record, Ted Hughes himself described Cottage Street, 1953 as 'the single truest best thing' written about his late wife.

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