Tuesday 1 March 2016

Richard Wilbur: Love Calls Us

Today is the 95th birthday of the great American poet Richard Wilbur - an occasion to rejoice that he is still with us. I hadn't realised until today that he shared his birthday with Robert Lowell, born four years earlier (and dead nearly 40 years). When I was at university (as the Sixties became, with sickening inevitability, the Seventies) Lowell enjoyed an almost god-like status among contemporary poets; it was pretty well taken for granted that he was one of the greats and that his fame would endure, certainly outlasting the likes of Wilbur, who was seen as an irrelevant old-school formalist.  As it turned out, the intervening decades have not been kind to Lowell; though he is still respected, is he still read? The last time I tackled the Selected Poems (a few years ago), I was surprised to find how underwhelmed I was... Ah well, it is not a competition, but it is good to know that Wilbur is still alive and, I like to think, being read anew, now that the decades of unfashionableness no longer matter. Who could fail to enjoy a poet so in touch with the pleasures of being alive in this world, whose poems, so beautifully constructed, are such a delight to read? Here is one of his best-known works. Enjoy - and pay attention, and give thanks - that is all the world asks of us, and no living poet has better embodied those sweet imperatives than Richard Wilbur.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”


  1. Lovely. A lot of Herbert in the background?

  2. Oh yes - I'm sure he's read his Herbert (as any real poet should?)

  3. "Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
    Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam"
    I have no idea why, but I find those two lines - in this entirely beautiful poem - especially moving. Thank you