Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Wilbur RIP

This link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog alerted me to the sad news that the great American poet Richard Wilbur has died. He lived a long (96 years), productive and largely very happy life, which ended peacefully – and yet the news hits hard, I think because of what died with him: a surely unrepeatable combination of technical perfection, deep poetic knowledge and respect for tradition, wit and elegance, reticence and grace. Truly we shall not see his like again.
 I've posted many of Wilbur's poems here over the years (as a quick search will confirm). How to mark his death? Surely with this, perhaps his greatest, the poem that even Randall Jarrell (who had mixed feelings about Wilbur's work) called 'one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written' – A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra...

Under the bronze crown 
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat, 
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down 

            Past spattered mosses, breaks 
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills 
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes 

            A scrim or summery tent 
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose 
Collapse of water, its effortless descent 

            And flatteries of spray, 
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease, 
      Watching, about his shaggy knees, 
The goatish innocence of his babes at play; 

            His fauness all the while 
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh 
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile 

            Bent on the sand floor 
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come 
      And go in swift reticulum, 
More addling to the eye than wine, and more 

            Interminable to thought 
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not 

            More intricately expressed 
In the plain fountains that Maderna set 
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed, 
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill 

            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine 
      Illumined version of itself, decline, 
And patter on the stones its own applause? 

            If that is what men are 
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre, 

            Spangled, and plunging house? 
They are at rest in fulness of desire 
      For what is given, they do not tire 
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse 

            And riddled pool below, 
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety. 
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow 

            Before the wealthy gate 
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss— 
That land of tolerable flowers, that state 

            As near and far as grass 
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land 
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

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