Review by Michael Angel Martín
The poet Richard Wilbur died October 14 at age 96. Known for his formal virtuosity and masterful translations of Molière and Racine, Wilbur is considered not only one of the best poets of the mid-20th century generation — a milieu that included luminaries such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman — but one of the best American poets to ever work the language.
The news of his death came as a surprise as I was reading Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study, a comprehensive, deeply researched, and admiring account of his life. Working from personal journals, years of interviews, letters, and accounts from across the world of American letters, literary scholars Robert and Mary Bagg tell the story of a man and a mind; Wilbur’s contemporary, poet Theodore Roethke, called it “not a graceful mind … but a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing.“
Though Roethke likely referred to aesthetic grace, Wilbur’s personal and artistic milestones reflect a man and mind for whom God’s creative grace was of ultimate concern. Let Us Watch delivers more than a deeply sympathetic telling of Wilbur’s life, including his precocious boyhood, his marriage to muse Charlotte Wilbur (whose personality is so exuberant in these pages, one hopes for a biography all her own), his dutiful service as a cryptologist in World War II, his fatherhood of four, including one autistic son, his winning a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and his tenure as the nation’s poet laureate. What readers also learn in Let Us Watch, thanks to the authors’ close readings, is a subtle account of the religious convictions that animate almost every poem he wrote.
Little known is that Wilbur was a lifelong Episcopalian. Most recently, he and his family were weekly communicants at St. Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Wilbur — with his deep and melodious reading voice — was a lector. In fact, if you pull your Hymnal 1982 off the shelf and turn to Hymn 104, you will find “A Lamp is Lighted,” originally published as “A Christmas Hymn” in his 1961 collection Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems. A delightful video shows Wilbur reading the poem and recalling the delight he took in the formal challenge orthodoxy poses to hymn-writing. The seriousness with which the authors of Let Us Watch handle the poet’s faith is rare among literati, even in his generation.
In spite of Wilbur’s laurels and friendships, his influence is often overlooked in today’s literary world. Critics rightly attribute Wilbur’s muted legacy to his committed use of poetic form and his resistance to the confessional movement of poetry, which stresses a personal tell-all approach that emerged while Wilbur honed his less fashionable craft. No mention of Wilbur’s literary career can neglect the legendary poetry critic Randall Jarrell’s famous complaint that Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.” Jarrell’s unfair assessment often comes up to contrast Wilbur’s poetry with the open exploits and despair of his many friends’ poems. But Wilbur never needed to go to too far.
Wilbur’s poems spring from a life-affirming contemplative desire to watch the world, indulge in the music of language, and allow both these approaches to disclose the createdness of creation. Though the authors of Let Us Watch never explicitly make the connection, I suspect that Wilbur’s Christianity — which shines through poems like “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” “Two Voices in a Meadow,” and the Thomas Traherne-inspired “A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness” — is the reason his work often is passed over by spiritually bereft contemporaries. As today’s intelligentsia secularizes further, his loss will only deepen. Still, poetry enthusiasts will be charmed reading how exasperated Elizabeth Bishop became upon Wilbur’s casual mention of churchgoing, just one revealing moment among countless accounts about that golden age of American poetry.
Wilbur’s poetry is one of reserved ecstasy. His speakers always turn away from the self and into the “things of this world,” a thoroughly sacramental vision. Wilbur’s poetry, unlike that of his contemporaries, rarely calls attention to the poet. Rather, his poems insist we look at the world and revel in the revelation that we are made. His clear theological conclusions and his almost Benedictine balance of temperament are no doubt influenced by a lifelong friendship with the prayer book. His poetry’s ability to hold traditional form in tension with the free-spoken music of the language and the material world is, if liturgically applied, not a tension unknown to Anglicans.
Wilbur, as a teacher, soldier, father, poet, and friend, was a man of his word and of the Word. After the death of his beloved Charlotte in his old age, the authors relate a moving note about the poet’s habit of saying grace as written in the prayer book, at a time in which his poems began to probe questions about the afterlife:
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,
And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
(“A Measuring Worm”)
With the help of the trustworthy biographer-critics behind Let it Watch, we see Wilbur wonder about our open hearts before God in one of his finest long poems, “The Mind Reader.” Taking advantage of the rhetorical persona of a jaded clairvoyant, Wilbur discloses to us the mystery and assurance of prayer:
Is there some huge attention, do you think,
Which suffers us and is inviolate,
To which all hearts are open, which remarks
The sparrow’s weighty fall, and overhears
In the worst rancour a deflected sweetness?
I should be glad to know it.
We should be glad to know Richard Wilbur. And if you do not know him, Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur is a fine start. Let light perpetual shine upon him.
Michael Angel Martín has poems and reviews in or forthcoming in Dappled Things, Swamp Ape, Anglican Theological Review, Presence, Pilgrim, St. Katherine’s Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Miami.