Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur's poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is one of the most frequently anthologized poems in the English language. The title refers to a passage from St. Augustine's Confessions, written in the fourth century, in which the saint laments that the beautiful things of the world have created distance between him and God. St. Augustine is responding to the gospel of St. John, who advises humans to "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world." In this poem, Wilbur presents a person waking up in the morning and looking outside at laundry that has just been hung on the clothesline and imaging, in a half-aware slumber, that the clothes and sheets hung there are moved by angels, not the wind. He examines the balance between the material world and the spiritual world. This poem's central image, of laundry waving on a line, opens up the poem to issues of existence, morality and religion.
Since its first publication in Wilbur's 1956 collection Things of This World, this poem has been considered a masterful achievement for its clear style, its authorial control of form and symbol as well as its clarity of meaning. Most recently, the poem has become available with all of Wilbur's most significant works in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1988 collection New and Collected Poems.
Richard Wilbur was born in New York City on March 1, 1921. His father was a commercial portrait artist and his mother came from a line of newspaper publishers, which led him, when he was in his teens, toward a career in newspaper cartooning. When he was very young, the family moved to a remote, rural area of New Jersey, where Wilbur spent his childhood wandering the countryside. After high school, he went off to Amherst College in Massachusetts, majoring in English. In college, he met Charlotte Ward, who was attending nearby Smith, and they fell in love. They were married in 1942 after he graduated, but very soon after that he was drafted to serve in World War II.
After the end of the war, Wilbur took advantage of the G. I. Bill, which paid college tuition for veterans, and attended Harvard University. As a scholar in English, he met the poet Robert Frost and, despite nearly a fifty-year difference in their ages, the two became close friends after Frost discovered that Wilbur's wife was the granddaughter of the first publisher to print his poetry. Though he had been writing poetry for some time, Wilbur started to consider publishing his works. He gave a few poems to a friend who was an editor, and the friend returned a few hours later with a proposal for a book. In September of 1947, Wilbur's first poetry collection, The Beautiful Changes, was published. Wilbur was only twenty-seven years old at the time.
Wilbur's next book of poetry, Ceremony And Other Poems, was published to critical acclaim in 1950. It was followed in 1956 by Things of This World: Poems (which includes "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"); this collection won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. With his reputation as one of America's most important poets established, Wilbur took a position at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he was to teach for the next twenty years.
In addition to his fame as a poet, Wilbur has proven to be one of the great translators of drama into the English language. His translation of French playwright Molière's The Misanthrope, published in 1953, set standards for the use of poetic sensibilities in translation. Wilbur went on to publish translations of all of Molière's comedies, to great acclaim.
Wilbur retired from teaching in 1986. He served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987-1988, and won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for New and Collected Poems, making him the only poet to ever win that award twice. Over the course of his life he has won most of the important prizes given to poets, including the Wallace Stevens Award, the Frost Medal, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two PEN translation awards, two Bollingen Prizes, the T. S. Eliot Award, a Ford Foundation Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Prix de Rome Fellowship, and the Shelley Memorial Award.
The first stanza of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" introduces readers to the poem's situation: a person waking up and, being acutely aware at that moment of the division between the spiritual and physical realities, sees the laundry on the clothes line outside of the window animated by wind, moving as if inhabited by otherworldly powers. In the first two lines, the waking person is "spirited from sleep" by the "cry of pulleys," which are used in a high-rise building to feed clothesline out between two buildings. The wet clothes on the line hang limp for a short time, "bodiless and simple / As false dawn."
In lines 4 and 5, the laundry comes alive with motion, lifted by the breeze. The spectral motion of the linens makes them look like angels, flapping as angels do with their wings. The poem retains the image of hanging laundry while talking about angels by using the word "awash" to describe the way the sky is filled with angels.
The poem goes on to describe the visual effect of the laundry items that are hanging on the clothesline. Wilbur lists "bed-sheets" and various items of clothes that move with the wind, rising and falling, as if they are alive. The motion that they make is described as being calm, first with the word "calm" itself to describe a wave-like movement and then with the word "halcyon," a synonym for "calm."
In the second stanza, the idea that the laundry is inhabited by angels is continued. In lines 7 and 10, the poem refers to the angels with the pronoun "they," granting them human identities. In line 10, they are given even more human personality with mentions of emotion, their "joy," and even a reference to the physical act of basic respiration as the angels that inhabit the clothes are said to be "breathing."
The third stanza is the last one focused on the motion of the laundry on the line. Wilbur indicates a change in the look of the things hanging there with the first word of line 11 ("now"), indicating that what he is describing is a new situation. While the previous stanza presented the laundry as swaying calmly in the breeze, this one opens with it swirling rapidly, with motions that make it look like it is "flying." Continuing the conceit that the laundry is moving due to the presence of angels, Wilbur attributes the speed with which it is whirling around to the angels' "omnipresence," their supernatural ability to be in all places at the same time.
In the middle of stanza 3, the tone of the poem slows down. This begins with the image of the laundry as water, which is said to be "moving" at the end of line 12 and then "staying" in line 13. After that, the clothes and bed sheets quiet down, lose their kinetic energy, and droop. After attributing their motion to the angels that inhabit them, the poet expresses surprise at this sudden immobility, stating, as if it is impossible to believe, that "nobody seems to be there."
At the same time that the laundry on the line quiets down, the poem's mood also becomes more quiet and reflective. Line 15 announces that "the soul shrinks," a foreshadow of the tone that is to pervade in the second half of the poem.
- "Love Calls Us To The Things of This World" is read by the author on The Caedmon Poetry Collection, a three-disc collection released by Caedmon in 2000.
- Wilbur also can be heard reading "Love Calls Us To The Things of This World" on Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work, 1888-2006, a four-disc collection edited by Rebekah Presson Mosby and released by the Shout! Factory in 2006.
The second half of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is marked by a somber mood that contrasts markedly from the thrill and wonderment that dominated the first half. In stanza 4, the speaker of the poem outlines the ways that humans use to avoid awareness of the physical world that surrounds them. The statement that ended stanza 3 continues, so that the word "shrinks," which on its own would denote a shriveling or loss of size, is linked with "from" to mean that it turns from or retreats from things that it finds upsetting. In line 17, waking, the new encounter with the physical world each morning, is characterized negatively as "the punctual rape of every blessèd day": the implication is that the day would be much better off if left alone from the sudden appearance of human consciousness.
The last half of stanza 4 represents the soul speaking, personifying the general attitude of the human situation. It gives a cry begging for simplicity in life, for the physical world to be nothing but physical motion, without any spiritual involvement. The mention of "the sight of heaven" in line 20 shows that the human spirit does not wish to believe that the supernatural beings do not exist, but is only uncomfortable with the idea of heavenly powers being involved in life on earth, interacting with and affecting the natural processes in the form of angels.
Stanza 5 acknowledges the complexity of the human situation. While the previous stanza showed how afraid the soul was of facing the physical world, this stanza reverses that equation, looking at what is heartening and inviting about the physical world. It starts with the sun, warm and bright, showing the shapes of physical objects (described, plainly but not negatively, as "hunks") and their colors.
In the middle of this stanza, the soul, which has been the observer since the end of stanza 3, is united with the body as it awakens. This union is described as being a common event, happening regularly. The mood of the union between soul and body is said to be one of "bitter love," a description that captures the entire poem's point about the begrudging alliance between the physical world and spiritual awareness.
In line 25, the poem refers to the observer who has been feeling all of these mixed emotions as "the man." In holding back this particular wording, Wilbur makes his point about the soul and body being separate, distinct entities, and the human being, the combination of the two, being a separate, third entity unto itself.
The entire last stanza of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is a quote that reflects the new attitude of the observer who has been brought to reconsider the moral nature of the world around him. A parallel is drawn between thieves who are on the gallows to be executed and angels, as the man thinks that the condemned criminals deserve linens just as much as the heavenly spirits. Lovers, who often represent a moral contradiction as they balance between the transcendent aspects of romance and the baseness of carnal relationships, are acknowledged to be simultaneously "fresh and sweet" and also "undone." Nuns, who are traditionally thought of for their spirituality, are at the same time considered "heav[y,]" with an emphasis on their physical presence.
The last line of the poem refers to the "difficult balance" that all of these people, from varied walks of life, need to strike in order to survive. Throughout its entire length, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" calls attention to how very different the physical world is from the spiritual world. In the end, it points to how that difference does not have to be a problem, how it can be accepted and celebrated, if it is handled with the right amount of care.
Flesh versus Spirit
Even a casual reading of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" will lead one to conclude that the central point the poem is investigating is the basic distinction between the physical world that can be experienced by the five senses and the spiritual world that can only be experienced through intuition. Wilbur uses two basic symbols to characterize these two aspects: laundry and angels.
When philosophers and theologians discuss the contrast between these two spheres of reality, they often use phrases like "flesh versus spirit" or "mind versus body." These common expressions reflect the most basic and personal cases in which most people face this issue. Everyone has a body and everyone has thoughts, but, though the two always exist together, there is no clear, definitive relationship between them. The mind seems to influence the body and the body, particularly the brain, seems to affect the mind, but no scientist has ever shown exactly how they are connected.
Instead of referring to the human body to represent the physical world, Wilbur starts the poem using laundry as the poem's central image. For one thing, making readers think about laundry removes the emotional attachment that comes with talking about being human: it is easier to think objectively about laundry because laundry is just not that important in most people's lives. On the other hand, the use of laundry can be telling about the dichotomy between flesh and spirit because it allows the poet to allude to moral judgments such as those commonly associated with thieves, lovers, and nuns, who are brought in later as examples. Laundry is a useful metaphor to raise such issues because, as a category, laundry is always considered as being some degree of "dirty" or "clean."
Wilbur removes the human identification from the "spirit" part of the equation by using angels to represent the nonphysical part of the world. These angels represent the forces that cannot be measured or experienced directly, but that are usually recognized as existing. While the existence of angels can be debated, they are used in this poem to stand for such commonly accepted ideas as "soul" or "personality."
After establishing the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds with the image of the laundry's phantom motion, the poem eventually introduces a human soul in line 15, its exact center. Two stanzas later, that soul is united with a physical body in the process of awakening. The combination of the two is referred to as a man, and the experience of their coming together, having been separated during sleep, leads the man to reflect on how he often pays too little attention to the distinction between flesh and spirit.
Revelation through Imagination
The revelation that comes to the man in this poem after imagining that the clothes and shirts are moved by angels is important. It changes the way he looks at the world to an uncomfortable degree. In stanza 4, he begs for his old perspective back, to be able to view reality as a world of mechanical motion that has no interaction with the spiritual world, where angels are in heaven and merely observe what humans do on earth. Having imagined the laundry filled with angels and then made the leap of imagination to the way the soul fills a body, the man is forced to reevaluate assumptions with which he had been comfortable. Imagination is not just a tool for entertainment, it is a force for expanding one's relationship to reality.
Spirituality and Dignity
At the end of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," the character being described draws some conclusions about social roles. For one thing, he recognizes the rights of thieves sentenced to hang on the gallows, calling for them to be comforted with clean linens. The linens, reminiscent of the laundry that led him to view the world in a new way, reflects his new realization that even thieves are blessed with the same spiritual force that animates everyone else, and should therefore be shown the same dignity that anyone else deserves.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Richard Wilbur is well known for his translations of classic plays. Adapt this poem and rewrite it as a play, and then perform it for your class.
- The branch of theology that studies the different types of angels is called "angelology." Do some research in angelology, and write an essay in which you explore possible theological roots that inspire the angelic imagery in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World."
- This poem presents waking up as a process of the soul joining the body. Narrate a video of someone waking up, with a voice-over to explain the scientific processes that are taking place at each step of the way.
- When this poem was published, Wilbur was considered to be one of a wave of Metaphysical Poets publishing in America, a group of poets in the mid-twentieth century emulating the original Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century. Their works appealed to the intellect over emotion, incorporating witty wordplay and extended metaphors. Read about the political and social history of the 1950s, and produce a chart that shows both the characteristics of the times and the corresponding characteristics of Metaphysical Poetry.
A more simplistic world view might reverse the dignity accorded to the thief by taking away some of the nun's dignity, judging her to be too honored for her spiritualism. Although Wilbur does emphasize the nun's physical nature by pointing out the darkness and heaviness of her clothing, he also calls for her to be able to float, in spite of the gravity of her presence. After offering lightness to the criminal, he does not go to the extreme of characterizing the nun as lacking angelic qualities. Rather than favor one side or another, the poem's point is that all sides of the social spectrum struggle equally to reach a balance that is, admittedly, difficult.
A "conceit" is the word used to describe the poetic technique of using one extended metaphor that serves as a touchstone for the entire poem's logic and sensibility. In "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," the main conceit is that of waking up and encountering the world anew. This situation is not only the poem's opening situation, it is continued through to the last stanza, adapting its significance in different parts of the poem: waking is used to suggest wide-eyed amazement in one place, a violent rape in another, and a descent into bitterness in still another. Similarly, laundry is used to remind readers of different things throughout the poem, from angels dancing in midair to the laborers who work over the washtubs to the "clean linen for the backs of thieves."
Poets use imagery when they invoke an emotion by referring to the experiences of the five senses. In this poem, Wilbur does not tell readers what they should think of the situation that he presents, but instead he provides images, such as laundry hanging on a line, steam, nuns, and colors. When poets choose their images carefully and place them with other poems that give them a context, readers will understand what the writer feels about a subject, even if ideas are never explicitly discussed.
Alliteration is the use of words that begin with the same consonant sound in close proximity to each other, with the end result that the reader feels, consciously or not, the cumulative effect. Often, alliteration makes use of soft sounds, like "f" or "s," to give the poem a quiet tone, while a cluster of harder sounds like "k" or "t" give the poem a machine gun-like staccato feeling.
In "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" Richard Wilbur uses alliteration freely to enhance the poem's musical qualities. In the second and third lines, for instance, there are four words starting with the letter s. These, in addition to the pronounced s sounds in the words "astounded," "bodiless," and "false," make this part of the poem flow by with a hushed smoothness. The build up of the alliterative words beginning with "s" is repeated in stanza 3, with "staying," "sudden," "swoon," and "seems," cumulating with the final words: "soul shrinks." This softness is reinforced in the middle of the stanza with the alliterative "white water." There are other uses of alliteration, such as "feeling, filling" in line 9 and "let lovers" in line 28, fulfilling the same function.
The term "assonance" refers to the repeated use of vowel sounds in a work. Assonance is usually considered to mean the sounds within words, like when Wilbur uses "steam" two words away from "clear" or the repetition of the "o" sound, slightly different but basically the same, in "swoon down into so." The definition of assonance accounts for vowel sounds within words, but that is because vowel sounds usually do appear within words. In the first stanza of this poem, though, Wilbur combines assonance and alliteration, presenting a cluster of words that start with the same vowel sound. Line 4 is broken at the words "outside the open," and line 5 ends with "air is all awash with angels," giving this part of the poem a particularly light, airy feeling that is appropriate for its discussion of angels. Though assonance in the first letters of words is rare, it fits well in a poem like this, which is dedicated to the contrast between the hardness of reality and the untouchable nature of the soul.
The phrase Metaphysical Poets originally referred to a group of poets in England in the seventeenth century. These poets, including John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, and Andrew Marvell, concerned themselves with understanding reality, and in particular how ideas manifest themselves in the physical world. Their works were characterized by clever wordplay that was intended to make readers think about the ways that the poet's words, and, in particular, the mechanical structure of the poem, reflected the complex mechanical workings of the observable reality. The use of wit in their poems, and particularly the use of the metaphor that was often extended to such a degree that its logic could strain the reader's reasoning faculties (referred to as a "metaphysical conceit"), helped to identify a writer as a metaphysical poet more than any particular declaration of artistic theory.
Historically, those who have been called Metaphysical Poets were not intimately associated with each other. The name was given to them by Samuel Johnson, who used the phrase "metaphysical poets" in his 1744 study The Lives of the Poets. While Johnson was referring to the philosophical connection between writers, this does not necessarily mean that the writers themselves read each other's works, let alone that they would have planned to participate in a school of poetry with one another.
In the early twentieth century, interest in Metaphysical Poetry was revived. Especially influential in this renewed interest was that literary criticism written by the poet T. S. Eliot, whose 1923 essay, "The Metaphysical Poets," along with other critical works, helped people see that the poets who were put in this general category were more than just clever, but actually based their witty conceits and wording on deep philosophical underpinnings. Many twentieth-century poets show the influence of metaphysical poetry in the way that they merge a poem's form with its ideas. Richard Wilbur, in particular, is often referred to as a twentieth-century metaphysical poet for his wit and his use of the metaphysical conceit: not only does the apparent lightheartedness of his approach belie a seriousness about existence, but he also is prone to use one extended metaphor in a poem in order to make readers think about a phenomenon from different angles.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: Catholic nuns wear the traditional habit that covers the entire body and head.
Today: Since the Second Vatican Council of 1962, nuns have been allowed to opt for more casual attire that makes it easier for them to fit in socially with their parishioners.
- 1950s: In the wake of World War II, the United States becomes an economic juggernaut. As a result, theologians and philosophers fear that the country's growing obsession with material goods will undercut spirituality.
Today: The United States, spurred on by a booming consumer economy, has become increasingly secular (nonreligious).
- 1950s: The gallows that Wilbur mentions in the poem are used less and less frequently. Public support for the death penalty in the United States is starting to decline. Mercy for criminals who have been sentenced to die is considered a sign of human compassion.
Today: The death penalty is becoming more and more uncommon worldwide, though its popularity in America has risen steadily since the 1970s.
Religion in the 1950s
American society during the 1950s is usually characterized as conformist, and in many ways this attitude applies to religious beliefs in social life. While America has always been considered a country that values religious freedom, the social forces at play during the 1950s steered religious practice toward collective thinking and away from individualism.
One of the most significant factors influencing American society during that decade was the fear of Communism. After World War II ended in 1945, the world was left with two major countries, or superpowers, with opposing social orders. The Soviet Union had a Communist social order, based roughly on the social principles first laid out by economist Karl Marx in his book The Communist Manifesto, published in 1841. While Communism is basically an economic theory, the Soviet empire was a totalitarian state that controlled many aspects of daily life, including religion. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union officially supported atheism, opposing belief in any God. American atheists therefore were suspected of being sympathetic to the Soviets at the least, and possibly even of being active supporters of America's Cold War opponents. Americans who did not want to fall under a cloud of suspicion were more likely to participate in organized religion: membership in a church or synagogue was the overwhelming standard for religious life.
This tendency toward a socially recognizable religious life was augmented in the 1950s by the postwar advent of television. Almost as soon as television became a popular consumer commodity in the late 1940s, ministers realized its usefulness as a way to reach nationwide congregations. Bishop Fulton Sheen, of Rochester, New York, is recognized as the first television preacher with a national audience, with programs that started in 1951 and continued, in various forms and on different networks, through to the late 1960s. Other ministers followed, expanding the homogenizing effect of television, which brings one shared experience to millions at a time, to religion.
It was within this context that Wilbur was writing about angels and one person's individual musings about them. While most of society was moving toward a religious hierarchy, listening to the words of specialists about the existence and order of angels and how unknown spirits affect daily life, Wilbur's poem represents the unmediated experience of an individual trying to understand religious significance in his own terms.
The poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" inspires the title of Richard Wilbur's 1956 collection Things of This World, which was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. This was the same year that Wilbur became a familiar name among people who do not read poetry, as his translation of Voltaire's comedy Candide, with music by Leonard Bernstein, appeared on Broadway. Indeed, Wilbur's fame was lasting. In a 1996 survey by Jed Rasula, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" was found to be the most often anthologized American poem between 1940 and 1990.
The poet Marjorie Perloff, writing in Poetry On & Off the Page, reports that the poem was given serious examination in a discussion by three poets in Anthony Ostroff's 1964 work The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. In the course of this discussion, Richard Eberhart considers the most important thing about "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" to be the way "it celebrates the immanence of spirit in spite of the ‘punctual rape of every blessèd day.’" May Swenson, in the same volume, concentrates on Wilbur's balance of the physical and spiritual, concluding that "the whole poem … is in fact an epitome of relative weight and equipoise," or counterbalance. Perloff, who provides these quotes from Eberhart and Swenson, has a more complicated view of the poem. Writing in the 1990s, Perloff is able to look back several decades to review the poem and its reputation over time; she concludes that the poem stands out from all the metaphysical poetry that was in vogue at the time of its publication.
While other critics have found flaws in the poem, the overall consensus has always been positive. Donald L. Hill, writing in Richard Wilbur, applauds Wilbur's lightheartedness in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." "It is good to follow this free and playful excursion of the mind," Hill says at the end of his discussion of the poem: "so unbound by anxiety, so unhurried, serene, and good-humored. Good humor—once again, let it be said—is one of the primary aspects of Wilbur's charm." Bruce Michelson, in his book Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, echoes the emphasis on the poem's lighthearted demeanor: "People who apparently enjoy little else in Wilbur's work delight in ‘Love Calls Us’ for its gusto and its
easy, spontaneous air … The poem marks an important development in Wilbur's relationship with words, for here he succeeds as never before in making wordplay look easy."
Kelly is a professor of literature and creative writing. In this essay on "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," he explores the poem's structure, focusing on the particular function of the fourth and fifth stanzas.
Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is not only one of Wilbur's most admired poems, it is one of the most admired and reprinted poems of the twentieth century, and for good reason: it has something for everybody. The poem satisfies realists with its style—it is calibrated to almost mathematical precision—but its overall theme is a testimony to the transcendent spirit.
For readers who view the universe as basically a series of mechanical processes, Wilber offers not only praise for the things of this world (as opposed to the view of, say, the gospel of St. John, which warns that worldly objects are a distraction) but also the poem's mechanical regularity: its consistent five-line stanzas, its easily understood metaphors, its even progression from talking about a "soul" to talking about a "man."
For those who view the world as a phantom place, the imagined realm of the spirit, the poem acknowledges that unseen forces control the physical nature of the world with its supposition of the intangible angels. The poem's structure reflects its freedom from strict form in several ways. The most obvious of these is, of course, the use of the split line. Not only does this serve to obscure the strict consistency of the five-line stanzas, but Wilbur uses the split line in no regular pattern throughout the poem—fourth line of stanza 1, fifth line of stanza 3, third line of stanza 4 and the last line of the last stanza. This throws any sense the reader might have of the poem being strictly regulated off track. In the same way, the lines do not seem as if they are mostly written in the ten-syllable, five-foot pentameter standard (though they are). This is because Wilbur is not strict, allowing the lines to swell to twelve or thirteen syllables at times. And the meter, predominantly iambic, is riddled with exceptions as well. As much as the poem seems to support the idea of a physical world, it also undermines that idea by allowing the poetic style to swing freely. Everyone can be happy with this poem because form and freedom, body and soul, are all presented with equal, balanced attention.
Examples of how well order is balanced against mystery in this poem are nearly countless, starting with the obvious, the central metaphor of the mundane laundry being animated by the heavenly hosts and going on to the personalization of angels ("filling whatever they wear") and the final image of nuns, who balance their heavy habits on their heads in exactly the same way they balance their transcendent spirits against the physical requirements of their worldly bodies. One aspect of the poem that reflects this balance, but does so in such a subtle way that it would be easy to overlook, is the work's overall structure.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Readers can gain a sense of what everyday life in America was like at the time that this poem was published from The 1950s, written by William H. Young and Nancy K. Young. It was published in 2004 as part of the "American Popular Culture Through History" series by Greenwood Press.
- This poem is such a familiar piece of American literature that writer Sherman Alexie uses it as a springboard for his own poem entitled "Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World." The poem is included in Alexie's collection Thrash, which was published in 2007.
- Wilbur is often associated with the poet Anthony Hecht, his contemporary. Hecht's poem "Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love" has quite a few similarities in form and subject matter to "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." It can be found in Hecht's collection The Light (2001).
- Conversations with Richard Wilbur (1990) contains a dozen interviews with the poet. Subjects discussed range from poetic form to current events.
- Richard Wilbur is as famous for his translations of plays as he is for his poetry. In particular, his translations of the works of the comedies of the French writers Molière and Voltaire are considered definitive. Most notable among his many exceptional accomplishments in translation is his version of Molière's Tartuffe (1963).
Wilbur's use of six stanzas, along with the line-by-line consistency of shape, invites readers to look for patterns, since six divides evenly into segments of two or three. In fact, such a pattern emerges when studying "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." The first three stanzas concern themselves with the central metaphor, laundry on a clothesline. Throughout these lines, visual imagery of sheets and shirts waving in the breeze, mildly then wildly, impresses upon readers the relationship between that which can be observed and that which can only be known through speculation. As much as this image is drawn with specificity, however, it stops at the end of line 15. Wilbur uses a full half of the poem to set up his idea without comment, and does not even begin to touch upon what all of this action means until the second half.
The second half of the poem can be read as two different styles. The most obvious one is the style used in the sixth and final stanza. As the conclusion of the poem, this stanza carries the weight of announcing its moral message to its readers, a task that it completes with logic and clarity. As a result of the preceding meditations on how physical and spiritual aspects interact, condemned criminals are put on the same level as lovers and nuns, all of them accorded the upbeat comforts of clean linen, pure, floating walking, and the sanctity to "go fresh and sweet." While some of the language of this stanza can be obscure, such as the meaning of how, exactly, the lovers are going to be "undone," most of it shows a return to a level of concrete imagery that marked the poem's first half. One final stylistic element that sets stanza 6 off from the ones that precede it is the fact that it is made from one single long quote. Even though the poem has used a quotation before, in stanza 4, this one is different because of its length and because, coming at the end, it represents the culmination of how the events of this poem have affected the character in it. Though not a return to the style of the first half, and certainly far from it in subject matter, stanza 6 still has more in common with the first three stanzas than it does with the two that precede it.
The two remaining stanzas are the traditional ones, bridging the event that motivates raised awareness and the heightened awareness that ensues. It is in this part of the poem that understanding is born, and it is a difficult birth. Thematically, what is notable about stanzas 4 and 5 is how much darker they are than the others. Stylistically, what is most notable is how much they resemble each other, almost to the point of redundancy.
The first half of the poem is mostly characterized by the sense of wonderment that comes from seeing things in a new way when the conscious mind is disoriented by sleep. This buoyant feeling only fades in the third stanza, when the angels' speed, which could be exhilarating to them, is described negatively as "terrible." At the end of the third stanza, as it segues into the next phase of the poem's inquiry, stands the phrase "the soul shrinks": darker but still not very threatening, it is a harbinger of the mood to come, standing apart from line 15 in a neutral zone. Nothing in the first half of the poem prepares the reader for the use of the phrase "punctual rape" to describe the mechanical regularity of the rising sun, or the sourness of "bitter love" to explain the soul's reluctance to join its body after a night of sleep. This is more than the resentment of someone who is not a morning person: in using such strong wording, Wilbur presents the basic division between mind and body as being overtly hostile. The gentle tone that is to follow in stanza 6 is not just the result of someone following his observations of the laundry moving to its logical conclusions, it is the synthesis that comes out of a battle by two conflicting forces.
Taking stanzas 4 and 5 as an independent unit, the parallels between them jumps out. Some phrases are repeated, others are mirrored with their opposites, but all show a special bond between these two stanzas that does not connect them with any others. In the first line of stanza 4, for instance, the soul does "remember," and in the first line of stanza 5 the sun does "acknowledge." The sun's acknowledgement "with a warm look" of the world is paralleled, in its placement in the stanza, to its "punctual rape of every blessèd day" in the stanza before. In stanza 4, the steam is "rising," while in stanza 5 the soul "descends." The "clear dances done in the sight of heaven" could easily be seen as an idealization of how speaking "in a changed voice as the man yawns and rises." In all, the theme that is explored throughout the poem, of the similarities and differences between the real and ideal, is magnified within the space of these two stanzas.
Readers who look only at the subject matter of a poem are missing much of its message, obviously: the way the author organizes ideas on the page is used to magnify what the author is trying to say. Ideally, every detail should be working to make the poem's point. In the case of a poem like "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," readers can understand the main idea easily enough from one quick reading: the imagery is striking enough to identify the dichotomy (or contrast) between the physical and spiritual worlds. The poem's conclusion, regarding the equality of all, seems reasonable enough. These basic concepts become even clearer, though, as one reads deeper. In this poem, the fourth and fifth stanzas seem like they could represent a lull in the case that Wilbur is putting forth: instead, they represent the refinement of his ideas.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Richard J. Calhoun
In the following essay, Calhoun gives a critical analysis of Wilbur's work.
Richard Wilbur has always been recognized as a major literary talent and as an important man of letters—poet, critic, translator, editor—but he has never quite been ranked as one of the two or three best contemporary American poets. Early in his career he was overshadowed as a poet by Robert Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle in 1947 (the year Wilbur's first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, was published) and whose Life Studies (1959) was given principal credit for important new directions in poetry that Wilbur chose not to take. In the 1960s comparisons between Lowell and Wilbur as important new poets became comparisons between Lowell and James Dickey as the country's most important poets. Since the 1970s more critical attention has been given to such poets as John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, James Wright, W.S. Merwin, and James Merrill than to Wilbur.
For more than four decades Wilbur's poetry has remained much as it has always been—skilled, sophisticated, witty, and impersonal. In 1949 when Philip Rahv in Image and Idea divided American writers into two camps—"Palefaces," elegant and controlled, and "Redskins," intense and spontaneous—Richard Wilbur was clearly a "Paleface." After Lowell made his break in 1959 with modernist impersonality in poetry, he revised Rahv's distinction in his National Book Award comments by specifying American poets as either "cooked" or "raw." Wilbur's "marvelously expert" poetry was undeniably one of the choice examples of "cooked" poetry. In Waiting for the End (1964), at a time when poetic styles were moving away from impersonality, Leslie A. Fiedler, one of the advocates of the reemergence of the "I" at the center of the poem and of a neo-Whitmanesque rejection of objectivity, found the influence of T.S. Eliot's formalistic theories especially strong on Wilbur: "There is no personal source anywhere, as there is no passion and no insanity; the insistent ‘I,’ the asserting of sex, and the flaunting of madness considered apparently in equally bad taste."
Wilbur has seldom likened his poetry to that of his contemporaries. Instead, in "On My Own Work," an essay collected in Responses, Prose Pieces: 1953-1976 (1976), he described his art as "a public quarrel with the aesthetics of E.A. Poe," a writer on whom he has written some significant literary criticism. In Wilbur's view, Poe believed that the imagination must utterly repudiate the things of "this diseased earth." In contrast, Wilbur contends it is within the province of poems to make some order in the world while not allowing the reader to forget that there is a reality of things. Poets are not philosophers: "What poetry does with ideas is to redeem them from abstraction and submerge them in sensibility." Consequently, Wilbur's main concern is to maintain a difficult balance between the intellectual and the emotive, between an appreciation of the particulars of the world and their spiritual essence. If he is explicit in his prose about his quarrel with Poe, it might also be said that he had an implicit quarrel with the "raw" poetry in Donald Allen's New American Poetry 1945-60, an anthology recognized in the 1960s as a manifesto against the "academy," and also with the extremely personal, seemingly confessional poetry of Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, and Anne Sexton. Wilbur as a poet clearly accepts the modernist doctrine of impersonality and does not advertise his personal life in his poetry. "I vote for obliquity and distancing in the use of one's own life, because I am a bit reserved and because I think these produce a more honest and usable poetry," he commented in a 1967 questionnaire in Conversations with Richard Wilbur (1990).
Richard Purdy Wilbur was born in New York City, one of two children of Lawrence L. and Helen Purdy Wilbur. His father was a portrait painter. When Wilbur was two years old, the family moved into a pre-Revolutionary War stone house in North Caldwell, New Jersey. Although not far from New York City, he and his brother, Lawrence, grew up in rural surroundings, which, Wilbur later speculated, led to his love of nature.
Wilbur showed an early interest in writing, which he has attributed to his mother's family because her father was an editor of the Baltimore Sun and her grandfather was both an editor and a publisher of small papers aligned with the Democratic Party. At Montclair High School, from which he graduated in 1938, Wilbur wrote editorials for the school newspaper. At Amherst College he was editor of the campus newspaper, the Amherst Student. He also contributed stories and poems to the Amherst student magazine, the Touchstone, and considered a career in journalism.
Immediately after his college graduation in June 1942, Wilbur married Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward of Boston, an alumna of Smith College. Having joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps in 1942, he went on active duty in the army in 1943 in the midst of World War II. He served with the Thirty-sixth "Texas" Division in Italy at Monte Cassino and Anzio and then in Germany along the Siegfried Line. It was during the war that he began writing poems, intending, as he said in a 1964 interview with The Amherst Literary Magazine (borrowing Robert Frost's phrase), "a momentary stay against confusion" in a time of world disorder. When the war ended he found himself with a drawer full of poems, only one of which had been published.
Wilbur went to Harvard for graduate work in English to become a college teacher. As he recalled in his 1964 Amherst interview Wilbur decided to submit additional poems for publication only after a French friend read his manuscripts, "kissed me on both cheeks and said, ‘you're a poet.’" In 1947, the year he received his A.M. from Harvard, his first volume of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, was published.
The Beautiful Changes contains the largest number of poems (forty-two) and the fewest number of translations (three) of any of his collections. Although he began writing his poetry to relieve boredom while he was in the army, there are actually only seven war poems; and they are more poetic exercises on how to face the problems of disorder and destruction than laments over the losses occasioned by war, as in the traditions of the World War I British poet Wilfred Owen and the World War II American poet Randall Jarrell.
The first of Wilbur's war poems, "Tywater," presents the paradox of the violence illustrated in a Texas corporal's skill in killing the enemy [….] The compassion of Jarrell's war poetry is clearly missing. Instead, there is an ironic detachment somewhat like John Crowe Ransom's but without the meticulous characterization that distinguishes Ransom's best poems: [….]
Another war poem, "First Snow in Alsace," suggests the theme implied by the title of the volume, The Beautiful Changes. The beautiful can change man even in times of duress. War is horrible because man permits it in spite of such simple childlike pleasures as a night sentry on being "the first to see the snow." "On the Eyes of an SS Officer" is a poetic exercise on the extremes of fanaticism. Wilbur compares the explorer Roald Amundsen, a victim of the northern ice that he desired to conquer, and a "Bombay saint," blinded by staring at the southern sun, with an SS officer, a villain of the Holocaust. The SS officer in his fanaticism combines what is evident in the eyes of the first two fanatics, ice and fire, for his eyes are "iced or ashen." The persona stays detached and does not explicitly condemn this terrible kind of fanaticism. The poem ends a bit tamely[….]
If there is a prevailing theme in Wilbur's first volume, it is how the power of the beautiful to change can be used as a buttress against disorder. The initial poem, "Cicadas," suggests the necessity for and the beauty of mystery in nature. The song of the cigales (better known as the cicada) can change those who hear it, but the reason for the song is beyond the scientist's analytical abilities to explain. It is spontaneous, gratuitous, and consequently a mystery to be appreciated as an aesthetic experience and described by a poet in a spirit of celebration.
"Water Walker" postulates an analogy between man and the caddis flies, or "water walkers," which can live successfully in two elements, air and water. A human equivalent would be the two lives of Saint Paul, described as "Paulsaul." He serves as an example of a "water walker," a person who was converted from service in the material world to service in the spiritual but who remained capable of living in both. The speaker in this poem desires a similar balance between two worlds, material and spiritual; but he is kept from transcendence, like the larva of the caddis held in the cocoon, by the fear that he might be unable to return to the material world.
In his first book imagination is a creative force necessary to the poet, but Wilbur also touches on an important theme developed more thoroughly in his later poetry, the danger that the imagination may lead to actions based entirely on illusions. His interpretation of Eugène Delacroix's painting, the subject of the poem "The Giaour and the Pacha," seems to be that in his moment of victory the giaour realizes that by killing his enemy he will lose his main purpose in life, which has been based on a single desire that proves valueless and illusory.
Another poem, "Objects," stresses what is to become a dominant theme for Wilbur, the need for contact with the physical world. Unlike the gulls in the poem, the poet cannot be guided by instincts or imagination alone. His imagination requires something more tangible, physical objects from the real world. The poet must be like the Dutch realist painter Pieter de Hooch, who needed real objects for his "devout intransitive eye" to imagine the unreal. It is only through being involved in the real world that the "Cheshire smile" of his imagination sets him "fearfully free." The poet, like the painter, must appreciate the "true textures" of this world before he can imagine their fading away.
One of the best lyrics in the collection is "My Father Paints the Summer." It has an autobiographical basis because Wilbur's father was a painter, but it is not a personal poem. The lyric develops the second meaning implied by the title The Beautiful Changes—the existence of change, mutability. It praises the power of the artist to retain a heightened vision in a world of mutability. The last stanza begins with the kind of simple, graceful line that is to become characteristic of Wilbur at his best:[….] Again the concern is balance in the relationship of the imagination and the particulars, the physical things of this world. The imagination needs the particulars of a summer season, but the artist needs his imagination for transcendence of time[….]
The title poem of the volume is also the concluding poem and serves at this stage of Wilbur's poetic career as an example of his growing distrust of Poe-like romantic escapes into illusion and of his preference for a firm grasp of reality enhanced by the imagination. In "The Beautiful Changes" Wilbur gives four examples of how the beautiful can change: the effect of Queen Anne's lace on a fall meadow, the change brought about by the poet's love, a chameleon's change in order to blend in with the green of the forest, and the special beauty that a mantis, resting on a green leaf, has for him. The beautiful changes itself to harmonize with its environment, but it also alters the objects that surround it. The ultimate change described is the total effect of the changes of nature on the beholder, worded in Wilbur's most polished lyric manner: [….]
Wilbur's first volume was generally well received by the reviewers, and it was evident that a new poet of considerable talent had appeared on the postwar scene. Many of his first poems had a common motive, the desire to stress the importance of finding order in a world where war had served as a reminder of disorder and destruction. There were also the first versions of what was to become a recurring theme: the importance of a balance between reality and dream, of things of this world enhanced by imagination.
Wilbur spent three years between the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1947 and the appearance of his second in 1950 as a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, working on studies of the dandy and Poe that he never completed. What he did complete, though, was Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), continuing his concern with the need for a delicate balance between the material and the spiritual, the real and the ideal. In finding order in a world of disorder, poetry as celebration of nature is a "Ceremony," something aesthetically and humanly necessary. The concept of mutability, secondary in his first volume, is now primary, leading to a consideration of death, both as the ultimate threat of disorder and chaos and as motivation for creating order in the human realm. One of the poems concerned with facing death has come to be among Wilbur's most frequently anthologized poems, "The Death of a Toad." Wilbur finds in the toad a symbol for primal life energies accidentally and absurdly castrated by a tool of modern man, a power mower. The toad patiently and silently awaits his death with his "wide and antique eyes" observing this world that has cost him his heart's blood. His antiquity mocks a modern world that is already in decline.
"Year's-End," another poem on the threat of death, even more clearly contrasts the death of natural things, in their readiness to accept it, and the incompleteness and discord that death brings in the human realm[….] This poem demonstrates Wilbur's skill in describing objects but also reveals his sometimes functional, sometimes not, desire to pun….
"Lament" is a poem about death, about expressing regret that the particulars of the world, what is "visible and firm," must vanish. This time a pun is functional:[….] "Still, Citizen Sparrow" is one of Wilbur's best known poems and, along with "Beowulf," introduces a new and important theme: whether heroism is possible in a world of disorder. In "Beowulf" the stress is on the loneliness and isolation of the hero. In "Still, Citizen Sparrow," in contrast to the common citizens (the sparrows), the hero appears as "vulture," a creature the sparrows must learn to appreciate. The poem is tonally complex, beginning as an argument between Citizen Sparrow and the poet over a political leader as a vulture and ending with an argument for seeing the faults of leaders in a broader perspective because they perform essential services, accept the risks of action, and are capable of dominating existence. The "vulture" is regarded as heroic because he is capable of heroic action: he feeds on death, "mocks mutability," and "keeps nature new." Wilbur concludes: "all men are Noah's sons" in that they potentially have the abilities of the hero if they will take the risks.
Another poem, "Driftwood," illustrates what some of Wilbur's early reviewers saw as a possible influence of Marianne Moore: finding a symbol or emblem in something so unexpected that the choice seems whimsical. In this poem the driftwood becomes an emblem for survival with an identity[….] It is isolated but has retained its "ingenerate grain."
In Wilbur's second volume, as in his first, the need for a balance between the real and the ideal that avoids illusions and escapism is a significant theme. In "Grasse: The Olive Trees" the town in its abundance exceeds the normal and symbolizes reaching beyond the usual limits of reality, the overabundance of the South, that can become enervating and illusionary: [….]
Only the "unearthly pale" of the olive represents the other pole of the reality principle and "Teaches the South it is not paradise."
"La Rose des Vents" is the first dialogue poem for Wilbur, a dialogue between a lady and the poet in a format reminiscent of Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning." The lady argues for the sufficiency of accepting the reality of objects, while the poet desires symbols removed from reality. In Wilbur's version the lady has the last word: [….]
"‘A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness’" is a poem with perhaps the quintessential Wilbur title. Visions, illusions, and oases are the objects of quests for people in a wasteland world, but the questing spirit, "The tall camels of the spirit," must also have the necessary endurance to turn back to the things of this world as a resource: [….]
Extravagant claims are made for visions that are firmly based on life. A supernova can be seen "burgeoning over the barn,"[….]
In Ceremony Wilbur exhibits greater versatility than is evident in his first book. He can now express his major themes in lighter poems, even in epigrams. The importance of a delicate balance between idealism and empiricism, speculation and skepticism, is concisely and wittily expressed in the two couplets of "Epistemology." Samuel Johnson is told to "Kick at the rock" in his rejection of Berkeleyan idealism, but the rock is also a reminder of the molecular mysteries within it:[….] Man's occasional denials of the physical world he so desperately needs are mocked in the second couplet: [….]
With the appearance of his second book of poems, Wilbur was appointed an assistant professor of English at Harvard, where he remained until 1954, living in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with his wife and four children—Ellen Dickinson, Christopher Hayes, Nathan Lord, and Aaron Hammond. He spent the academic year of 1952-1953 in New Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a poetic drama. When his attempts at a play did not work out to his satisfaction, he turned to translating Molière's Le Misanthrope instead, beginning his distinguished career as translator. A grant of $3,000, the Prix de Rome, permitted Wilbur to live at the American Academy in Rome in 1954. After his return to America his translation, The Misanthrope (1955), was published and performed at the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1954 Wilbur was appointed an associate professor of English at Wellesley College, where he taught until 1957. His third volume of poetry, Things of This World, was published in 1956. In his September 1956 review of the collection for Poetry magazine Donald Hall concluded: "The best poems Wilbur has yet written are in this volume." His judgment was confirmed, as the collection remains Wilbur's most honored book; it received the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The same year the musical version of Voltaire's Candide, with lyrics by Wilbur, book by Lillian Hellman, and a score by Leonard Bernstein, was produced at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City.
Three poems in Things of This World should certainly be ranked among Wilbur's best, "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra," "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," and "For the New Railway Station in Rome." The last two reveal the influence of his year spent in Rome on a Prix de Rome fellowship. As the title would suggest, there is even a greater stress on the importance of the use of the real in the poems in this volume. If the imagination does create a world independent of objects, it is made clear in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" that love always brings one back to the world of objects. Even nuns move away from pure vision back to the impure, "keeping their difficult balance."
It is not always the simpler forms that are the most inspiring. Wilbur remarked in the anthology Poet's Choice (1962) that "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" was based on his daily observation of a "charming sixteenth-or seventeenth-century fountain that appeared to me the very symbol or concretion of Pleasure." The elaborate baroque fountain is described as an artistic embodiment of the pleasure principle. Human aspiration may be more clearly seen in the simpler Maderna fountains[….]
It is indicative of Wilbur's penchant for impersonality that he ends the poem not by indicating the personal delight he feels in the fountain but by imagining what Saint Francis of Assisi might have seen in the fountain:[….]
The final poem in the volume is one of the best, "For the New Railway Station in Rome." The impressive new station becomes a symbol of how man's mind must continually work on things of this world for the imagination to have the power to re-create and to cope with disorder: [….]
Donald Hill has said of Wilbur's early poetry that he has seemingly taken William Carlos Williams's slogan "No ideas but in things" and altered it to "No things but in ideas." Beginning with his third volume, Things of This World, Wilbur still recognizes the importance of the imagination, but his emphasis has clearly shifted toward Williams's concept in his stress on the need for things of this world, both for effective endurance in a world of death and disorder and for creativity.
In 1957 Wilbur began a twenty-year tenure as professor of English at Wesleyan University and as adviser for the Wesleyan Poetry Series. He also received a Ford Foundation grant in drama and worked with the Alley Theater in Houston. Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems, his fourth book of poetry, was published in 1961. It is a larger volume of poetry than Things of This World, with thirty-two poems, including four translations and a passage translated from Molière's Tartuffe, as well as "Pangloss's Song" from the comic-opera version of Voltaire's Candide. The collection received favorable comments from such critics as Babette Deutsch, Dudley Fitts, M.L. Rosenthal, William Meredith, and Reed Whittemore. But the praise for Advice to a Prophet was tempered by criticisms that it had an academic, privileged, even ivory-tower perspective. The title poem is vaguely topical, suggesting the threat of the ultimate atomic holocaust that became a near reality in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even here Wilbur might be accused of aesthetic detachment: his poem is not humanistic in its concerns but aesthetic and phenomenological, envisioning a world without its familiar objects, without things rather than without people: [….]
Perhaps still showing the influence of Marianne Moore's passion for oddities, Wilbur stresses in this volume what the imagination can do with apparently mundane things. In "Junk" he suggests that intimations of the ideal can be found in the rubbish, the junk of the world, and in "Stop," in the grim everyday objects at a train stop. In "A Hole in the Floor" Wilbur even compares the potentials of his discoveries in the floor with those of a great archeologist:[….]
In "A Grasshopper" Wilbur adds to the poetic bestiary that he had collected in his volume A Bestiary (1955). He admires the grasshopper for having achieved a delicate balance between stasis in its pause on a chicory leaf and action in its springs from the leaf. Hall in his Contemporary American Poetry (1962) calls the poem "a minor masterpiece," but some reviewers believed that Wilbur seemed too content with "minor masterpieces," both in form and in subject matter. He showed an unwillingness to undertake major experiments in form or to introduce new and socially relevant subject matter at a time when that was becoming expected. To some reviewers and critics, he seemed a poet reluctant to take risks of any sort. In fairness, one must say that Wilbur does experiment with "new" lines in his poetry, such as his use of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line in "Junk." But in comparison with what such poets as Lowell and John Berryman were then doing, the experimentation is comparatively minor.
Wilbur seemed almost to be writing his poems in a cultural and political vacuum. By the time of the publication of Advice to a Prophet the tremendous impact that Lowell had made in Life Studies by apparently confessing disorder in his own family life had been felt. Two years after Life Studies Wilbur opened his volume with what he intended to be a dramatic poem, "Two Voices in a Meadow," a dialogue between two objects from the world of the mundane, a milkweed and a stone. The drama in this poem and in the title poem, "Advice to a Prophet," seemed humanly insignificant compared to Lowell's more personal approach. Wilbur seemed to fail in his attempts to indicate more dramatically and more positively how order might be restored and what his personal "stays against confusion" are, much as Robinson Jeffers's attempt at a tragic poetry had failed before, because he seems too exclusively concerned with symbolic things rather than with people. Wilbur's message appears to be that when man becomes more familiar with the world's own change, he can deal with his own problems as something related to the reality of things. Wilbur calls those who do not respond to the things of this world, those who prefer their dreams and who move to illusions, "the Undead"—vampires.
In "Shame" Wilbur defines the kind of human behavior that disturbs him—irresoluteness, a failure to deal with reality. He attempts to provide positive examples of heroic behavior, but he fails to create convincing examples as Robert Lowell does with his symbol of the mother skunk, "refusing to scare," in "Skunk Hour." In Wilbur's dialogue poem "The Aspen and the Stream," the aspen is the positive heroic example because it seems to escape its existence by delving into flux, experience—symbolized by the dream—even if the result is only "a few more aspen-leaves."
It was eight years before Wilbur's fifth volume of poetry, Walking to Sleep, appeared in 1969. In the interim he published a children's book, Loudmouse (1963); his collected poems, The Poems of Richard Wilbur (1963); and his translation of Molière's Tartuffe (1963), which earned him an award as corecipient of the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize. The Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre brought his translation of Tartuffe to the stage in New York City in 1964. Walking to Sleep is a slim collection, with fewer original poems (only twenty-two) and more translations (eleven) than in previous collections. What overall unity there is in the four sections of the volume is suggested by the title: these are poems on the subject of how to "walk"—symbolically, how to live before sleep and death.
As in "Junk," Wilbur experiments with the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line divided by a caesura. In "The Lilacs" the flowers are used as a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth, the "pure power" of nature perhaps compensating for the "depth" of death….
A kind of balance between life and death may be seen if one can appreciate "the pure power" of life. "In the Field," the title poem of the first section, also suggests that the power in life may be sufficient to compensate for the ultimate disorder, death….
Wilbur also believes that in man's desires lies the answer to his questions. "Running" is, like "In the Field," a longer poem than Wilbur usually writes. It is divided into three parts and describes the act of running at three different times in the poet's life. The poem is intended not only as an affirmative statement about human aspiration but also as an assertion of the ultimate meaning of human activities. Wilbur's running becomes a symbol of aspiration at different stages in life. What keeps man running? It is human aspiration: [….]
"Running" is by Wilbur's own admission one of his most personal poems. It also implies the middle-aged poet's belief that his own life is satisfying and worthwhile.
The title poem, "Walking to Sleep," begins with a discussion of going to sleep that soon becomes a meditation on how to live and a warning against a life of illusion. It is also an argument for accepting death without illusions by literally staring it down. This might be regarded as a climactic poem on a major thematic concern. What is recommended is once again a balance, a life in which reality and "strong dream" work together.
One of the few poems in the volume to be almost immediately anthologized, "Playboy" describes the imaginative response of an adolescent stockboy to the impact of a centerfold in Playboy showing a beautiful naked woman[….]
Other poems are also atypical of Wilbur's usual themes. He even includes a protest poem addressed to President Lyndon Johnson; the occasion is not the Vietnam War but Johnson's refusing the official portrait painted by the artist Peter Hurd. The protest is more artistic than political. The poem makes a contrast between Johnson and the culture of Thomas Jefferson with his Rotunda and "Palestrina in his head." Although the poems were published in the midst of the Vietnam vortex, Wilbur is once again primarily concerned with maintaining "a difficult balance" between reality and the ideal as the way to personal fulfillment.
Wilbur's sixth volume of poetry, The Mind-Reader (1976), contains twenty-seven new poems (nine previously published in The New Yorker) and nine translations. The reviews were again mixed, with some reviewers praising his craftsmanship and defending him from what they regarded as unfair attacks on his conservatism as a poet; others found his new volume to be simply more of the same and lamented his not taking risks by seeking new directions. The translations provide new examples of Wilbur's superb ability to translate from the French and the Russian, especially the poems by Andrei Voznesensky.
There are new things in the volume, especially in Wilbur's clearly discernible movement toward simpler diction and more direct poems. Except for the title poem there are no long poems in this book. Wilbur seems to enjoy working with shorter poems, as in the six-line, three-couplet "To the Etruscan Poets," on the theme of mutability exemplified by the Etruscan poets[….]
Some reviewers found "Cottage Street, 1953" to be provocative. It is an account of Wilbur's meeting a young Sylvia Plath and her mother at the home of his mother-in-law, Edna Ward. A contrast is made between Plath's destructive tendencies and Ward's power of endurance. A few reviewers read the poem as if it were a personal attack on Plath by a poet hostile to confessional poetry. The poem is undoubtedly intended as a variation on Wilbur's theme of a need for balance, which he later came to realize that Plath had always lacked. He opposes love as a principle of order to the "brilliant negative" of Plath in her life. What makes this poem exceptional is that Wilbur is dealing with real people characterized rather brilliantly: [….]
In this poem Wilbur deals with the human problem of survival and death without his usual detachment and with a directness his poems usually lack.
More representative of his usual type of poem is "A Black Birch in Winter." It could have appeared in any of Wilbur's first five volumes. A symbol (the black birch) is found for nature's ability to survive and grow to greater wisdom each year. Except for slightly simpler diction, the poem is a variation on a usual theme, and the conclusion seems a parody of the conclusion of Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses": […]
One poem would seem on the surface to be atypical, Wilbur taking the unusual risk of involving his poetry in the political protest against the war in Vietnam. "For the Student Strikers" was written for the Wesleyan Strike News at the time of the Kent State shootings. Wilbur's support is not, however, for student protests but for their canvassing programs, house-to-house visits to discuss the student point of view about the war. Typically, he urges dialogue—order—instead of protests—disorder: [….]
There is an evident difference in emotional perspective, in dramatic intensity, and in contemporary relevance between Wilbur in this poem and Lowell in Notebook 1967-68.
Whereas Lowell, Anne Sexton, W. D. Snodgrass, Plath, and even James Dickey have told much about their families, until The Mind-Reader Wilbur did not mention his family. Two poems about his children mark a change. His son Christopher's wedding is described indirectly in "A Wedding Toast." But "The Writer" is one of Wilbur's most personal poems and perhaps one of his best. As a father and as a writer he empathizes with his daughter's attempts to write a story. He describes her creative struggles […] and he is reminded of another struggle that he saw before at the same window: [….]
Wilbur's slightly more personal approach is apparent in a few other poems. The engaging persona Wilbur creates in the title poem, "The Mind-Reader," helps that poem achieve more dramatic intensity than is apparent in much of his earlier work. He seems to be seeking even firmer and more affirmative statements of the need for order and responsibility; and his tone in these poems is more confident, as if he is assured that his own artistic life has been worthwhile, that he has himself maintained a balance between reality and imagination. Wilbur's perspective is concisely stated in "C-Minor," a poem about switching off "Beethoven at breakfast" to turn back to the reality of the day: [….]
In 1977 Wilbur moved to Smith College, where he remained as writer-in-residence until his retirement in 1986. While continuing his translating of Molière's work, he also produced translations of John Racine's Andromache (1982) and Phaedra (1986). In 1987 Wilbur was honored by an appointment as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress and poet laureate.
New and Collected Poems (1988) earned Wilbur the Pulitzer Prize for 1989. The new poems include twenty-six short lyrics and "On Freedom's Ground," the lyrics for a five-part cantata by William Schuman. This long poem was a joint project written to mark the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty on its centennial in 1987. Wilbur may have had in mind memories of Robert Frost's impromptu reciting of "The Gift Outright" at the John F. Kennedy inauguration, for he offers a variation of Frost's theme that Americans have gradually become worthy of the land: [….]
In several of the newly collected poems Wilbur creates a persona who ruminates on his life and achievement. He clearly has Frost in mind in "The Ride," an extension of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in which the journey of the rider and his horse continues through the night:[….] The poem seems a consummation of a life-journey of creating and drawing on intuitions and dreams that one must believe in or fall victim to the grief that comes from thinking "there was no horse at all." "Leaving" is an indictment of the comforts in modern life. The people at a garden party resemble the stone figures that border the scene. The question raised is whether or not knowledge of the future would have influenced the people's decisions in life: [….]
Auden is a poem written earlier and published only when Wilbur thought it was finished. It is an impressive poem on memory's lost moments as much as a personal lament for Auden: [….]
In "Lying" Wilbur begins by lightly invoking a "dead party," where a white lie "can do no harm" to one's reputation. The poem evolves more seriously as the speaker explores the nature of lying and reality, the imagination and illusionary truth:[….]
He then turns the poem to the ordinary experiences of a summer's day metaphorically likened to all days:[….] The poem concludes by alluding to The Song of Roland, implying the superiority of the lie of the romance to the ordinary fact of history[….]
Wilbur's long tenure in academia is still evident in some poems. "A Finished Man" is a portrait, perhaps wryly autobiographical, of a man who has completed his career and is being honored by the university. The enemies, friends, and colleagues who knew his fears and faults now either dead or fading in his memory[….] "Icarium Mare" is clearly an academic poem with arcane references to the mythical figure Icarus, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, and St. John the Divine's "geodic skull."
The short poems in the "New Poems" section often seem to be merely sketches, but there is always depth to a Wilbur surface. "Wyeth's Milk Cans" records the lucid simplicity of an N.C. Wyeth scene but at the same time raises doubts about the landscape's beauty. "Shad-Time" examines two events, the spawning of shad and the blooming of the shadblow tree along a river's banks, and raises the old question anew of how to make sense of nature's bounty and waste. The critic Bruce Michelson judges this poem to be proof that Wilbur could produce a postmodernist poem that goes beyond skillful play and raises uncomfortable questions about the self and the world.
Despite Wilbur's achievement as a poet and his many awards, including the gold medal for poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1991, many critics would argue that he has not become the major poet he seemed destined to be when Things of This World was so celebrated. Even if this arguable judgment is accepted, Wilbur's poetry alone is not the measure of his significance as a man of letters. For a balanced view of his literary importance it should be acknowledged that he is a discerning critic and an accomplished translator of poetry and drama in verse. Wilbur's view of translating is unquestionably an extension of his poetry writing. Viewing translation as a craft, he has consistently set for himself the goal of authenticity in translating not just the language but the verse forms as well. The importance of including Wilbur's translations in an evaluation of his talents as a poet has been neatly summed up by Raymond Oliver: "His degree of accuracy is almost always very high and his technical skill as a poet is just about equal to that of the people he translates." Wilbur's versions of Molière's works not only read well as verse but have been staged with great success. He has followed success in comedy with highly regarded translations in the 1980s of two of Racine's tragedies.
Wilbur has also had considerable importance as a literary critic. One could contend that he has surpassed, with the possible exceptions of Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro, his contemporaries as a poet-critic. He has written perceptively on his poetic opposite, Edgar Allan Poe, and he has delivered a major essay on Emily Dickinson. He has edited the poems of Poe and coedited the poems of William Shakespeare. The sixteen reviews and critical essays collected in Responses, Prose Pieces: 1953-1976 (1976) and the interviews and conversations in Conversations with Richard Wilbur show Wilbur's perception on other writers as well as on his own work. His insights into his own work compare in quality, if not quite in quantity, with James Dickey's attempts in Self-Interviews (1970) and Sorties (1971) to describe his own creativity.
Certainly, a trenchant defense of Wilbur as a poet is to be made on the grounds that many critics have overlooked the stylistic and tonal complexities of his poetry, much as the New Critic formalists had earlier failed to recognize complexities in Robert Frost, a poet Wilbur has always admired. Wilbur has evidenced a craftsman's interest in a wide variety of poetry—dramatic, lyric, meditation, and light verse. His wit, especially his skillful rhymes and the puns found even in his serious poetry, has not always been treated kindly by critics, but it has often captivated readers. He has been recognized by children's literature specialists for his volumes of light verse—Loudmouse, Opposites (1973), More Opposites (1991), and Runaway Opposites (1995)—all written with grace, wit, and humor.
In John Ciardi's Mid-Century Poets (1950) Wilbur identified what has remained his constant goal as a poet, whatever type of poem he has written: "The poem is an effort to articulate relationships not quite seen, to make or discover some pattern in the world. It is conflict with disorder." Wilbur's confrontation with disorder has led him to be satisfied with established patterns and traditional themes, old ways to solve old problems. Consistently a poet of affirmation, he has reacted against the two extremes of disorder: chaos and destruction on the one hand and illusions and escapism on the other. His response as both poet and humanist is to maintain a firm focus on reality as represented by objects, by the things of this world. As a poet he must be modestly heroic, see more, and range further than the ordinary citizen….
Nevertheless, the question raised earlier in Wilbur's career in regard to his development remains in the 1990s: Does his adherence to formalist principles preclude his consideration as a major poet during a postmodernist period in which poets were expected to respond to a changing social and literary landscape?
In Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time (1991) Michelson avoids reviving all the old arguments about formalism versus experimentation, closed versus open forms, and academic poetry versus postmodernism, from which Wilbur emerges as a reactionary, if not a heavy. Michelson goes instead directly to the poems to argue not only for evidence of the stylistic range and variety of Wilbur's artistry but also to affirm his sensitivity to the major moral and aesthetic crises of his times. As Lionel Trilling found in Frost, Michelson finds in Wilbur a darker side. He is to be redeemed as not only the acknowledged master of light verse but also of some less acknowledged dark, meditative poems. Michelson does not find Wilbur to be a "terrifying poet" as Trilling did Frost but rather reckons him "a serious artist for an anxious century." He identifies in many of the poems not just "safe creeds and certainties" but, significantly, a tone of "skeptical virtuosity" that has gone largely unrecognized.
If one is satisfied to judge Richard Wilbur in terms of his intentions, he has achieved them well. Nonetheless it is clear he has not been a poet for all decades. In the 1950s his view of poetic creation was compatible with that of the dominant critical view of his generation of emerging poets, the "rage for order view" of creativity promulgated by the formalistic New Criticism. By the 1960s formalism was no longer the dominant critical approach, and man's rage for order was balanced by an interest in man's rage for chaos. In the 1970s modernism had been supplanted by a neo-Romantic postmodernism. Critics discovered the virtues of political correctness by the 1980s and Wilbur seemed relatively lackluster as a poet who was neither politically correct nor notably incorrect.
What Wilbur's critics and his readers must not disregard is his mild irony, sophisticated wit, effective humor, and, as Michelson has appended, his seriousness. His craftsmanship and skill with words and traditional poetic forms should also be considered. Wilbur is a formalist who at his best manages to make formalism seem continually new. For many readers, his poetic art always was, and still is, sufficient.
Source: Richard J. Calhoun, "Richard Wilbur," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169, American Poets Since World War II, Fifth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 297-311.
In the following excerpt, Gatta provides a straightforward interpretation and explication of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World."
… Wilbur's early classic, "Love Calls us to the Things of this World," remains an essential statement of affective response to this volatile world.
The poem begins, of course, with a homely scene: a man awakens suddenly at the sound of clothesline pulleys to see God's own plenty of laundry flapping outside in the breeze. Yet Wilbur's speaker is no passive observer but a freshly revitalized "soul." Lately "spirited from sleep," he entertains a kind of transcendent vision albeit one tethered firmly in facts of this world. Wind and the moment's shock of inspiration conspire to turn laundry pieces into spirit bodies:
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
With the deep joy of their impersonal
This sudden apprehension of enspirited matter in flow, conveyed poetically with the help of enjambment, initiates the soul's movement toward encounter with a world that is at once volatile and bodily. And yet the speaker's first ecstatic but dazed response—"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry"—is only preliminary. The soul still needs to in-corporate the "deep joy" of this transcendent epiphany within the quotidian light of day, to progress inwardly toward acceptance of a carnal and self-contradictory world. We can even suspect a naive immaturity in the speaker's first impulse to resist the progress of dawn, which he conceives for the moment as a "punctual rape of every blessed day."
But following the sun, which "acknowledges / With a warm look the world's hunks and colors," so also the soul eventually "descends once more in bitter love / To accept the waking body" of self and world. After tasting the "bitter" mystery of incarnational love, the man intones a new word of hortatory blessing:
"Bring them down from their ruddy
Let there be clean linen for the backs of
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."
Uttered in a "changed voice" of authority beyond either euphoria or bitterness, this blessing partly "undoes" the previous "rape of every blessed day." It reflects not only an achieved recognition of earthly actualities, of the need to balance claims of the material and spiritual realms, but also something like a divine charity of acceptance and forgiveness for the whole range of characters enacting the human comedy. In its playful aspect, the poem ends up displaying on the same washline, so to speak, a colorfully promiscuous variety of loves—material, erotic, charitable, and sacred.
Within the context of seventeenth-century meditative literature familiar to Wilbur, a soul's final response to the openings of divine love—whether found in scripture tropes or laundry—takes the form of personal colloquy. Such is likewise the case in Wilbur's poem, whose compassionate conclusion registers one soul's answer to the call of Love.
By the same token, Wilbur was clearly affirming the incarnational beauty and necessity of the material world when he insisted in verse of a few years earlier that "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness." Here, in fact, the historical moment of a particular barn-birth, haloed with "Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts," becomes the central paradigm for discovering "the spirit's right / Oasis, light incarnate." And yet, without attending closely to the poem's originative context in Thomas Traherne's Centuries, we are not apt to see how much its rejection of ideality has to do with Traherne's own overarching theme of love.
Across the desert landscape of Wilbur's poem, the soul's "tall camels of the spirit" start off walking in pride toward a desolation of thirst and absence. For until this soul descends in loving humility toward a world whose "shinings need to be shaped and borne," it is chasing a cursed mirage. Traherne points out about souls that "till they love they are desolate; without their objects … but when they shine by Love upon all objects, they are accompanied with them and enlightened by them" (Traherne 80).
In the poem's closing quatrain, then, the true "sight" celebrated is the light of love, which momentarily reveals divine glory in the surrounding trees, creeks, hills, and steaming beasts. If Traherne states that "Life without objects is sensible emptiness," so also he goes on to reflect in the same passage that "Objects without Love are the delusion of life" because "The Objects of Love are its greatest treasures: and without Love it is impossible they should be treasures" (86). Rejecting ideality as a desolating delusion, Wilbur's poem ends up endorsing once again the return to incarnate relation.
Still, the soul's recovery of an illuminative oasis within this world cannot permanently satisfy its longings for the infinite. Restlessness, incompletion, the imperfection of all earthly loves—these Augustinian motifs have been and remain persistent in Wilbur's writing. As recently as "Hamlen Book," the poet is wondering "How shall I drink all this?" or how carry on the lips that "ache / Nothing can satisfy?" Or as he writes earlier, "The end of thirst exceeds experience" ("A Voice from under the Table"). According to Wilbur, both Traherne and Emily Dickinson had discovered that infinite desire of the soul which, unlike mere appetite, could never rest content in finite satisfactions. This thwarted desire for completion also characterizes a second form of love discernible throughout Wilbur's writing: the love of human beings …
Source: John Gatta, "Richard Wilbur's Poetry of Love," in Renascence, Vol. 45, No. 1-2, September 1992, pp. 3-15.
In the following article, Littler critiques "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" from a theological perspective.
In the gospel of St. John, the adjuration to mankind is to "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world" (1 John 2:15). Man is thus counseled to seek the spiritual directly, avoiding the "things" of this world which presumably would lessen his capacity to exist on a spiritual plane. In Richard Wilbur's poem "Love Calls Us To Things of This World" (The Poems of Richard Wilbur [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963]) however, this biblical notion is examined critically, and the paradoxical notion that man best seeks the spiritual through his participation in the actual or world of the body is put in its place. The poem is not, of course, overtly theological but does make a theological point. Wilbur uses structure and diction to create a highly refined presentation of the contrast between the spiritual and the physical and of the paradox of man's finding the spiritual through the actual—the theme of the poem.
The poem's two part structure is perhaps the most obvious indication of how the contrast of the spiritual and physical is presented. The first part of the poem, running to line seventeen, stresses a fanciful world of spirit, epitomized by the "angels," which to the "soul" are, in the light of false dawn, the transformed clothes hanging on a clothes line. The image of the angels, appearing in the midst of the wholly mundane setting of, perhaps, a tenement district, is a welcome contrast to the real world. Line 17 of the poem marks a transition point: the soul shrinks back from the actual world and desires to remain in its spiritual world of cleanliness and lightness, though the soul will "descend once more … to accept the waking body." This shrinking from the actual and desire for the spiritual is expressed in lines 21 to 23 where the soul wishes for "nothing on earth but laundry,… rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven." It should be noted, however, that even the content of these lines indicates a movement toward the actual. Instead of the strict personification of laundry as angels, the soul cries for laundry itself and the cleanliness it represents as it is being washed. The rosy hands and rising steam are, though desirable and pleasant to the soul, yet part of the actions of this world, not of the wholly spiritual world of angels.
The contrast is deepened in lines 29 to 34 at which point the soul finally accepts the actual world with its conflicts and paradoxes. This subdivision of the second part of the poem completes the movement from the soul's perception of a spiritual world, through its desiring that that world can remain "unraped" by the descent into the actual, to its final rueful acceptance of the world where, paradoxically, "angels" perform the functions of clothes which in turn are presented in terms of paradox.
The poem's two part structure clearly indicates the overall contrast intended between the desire for the spiritual and the necessity for the acceptance of the actual, but the use of intricately chosen diction gives concrete form and definition to the contrast. The diction is, in fact, so refined and precise that the reader perceives the texture of the two worlds of the poem.
The first part of the poem is dominated, as would be expected, by the use of words which convey a spiritual texture, but part of the poem's complexity is in its natural but intricate selection of words which remind the reader of lightness or airiness, cleanliness especially as related to water, and to laundry itself. In the first stanza, for example, as the "eyes open to a cry of pullies," the soul is "spirited" from sleep and "hangs" "bodiless." In describing the movement of the angels in the morning air, a number of verbal forms are used which further portray the airiness and lightness of the world of the spirit. The angels are seen as "rising," "filling," "breathing," "flying," and "moving and staying"; all of these word choices denote and connote either free movement or the action of the wind in relation to movement. The laundry is thus "inspired" in the root meaning of that term, that is filled with the breath of spirit. Finally, "swoon" and "nobody" enhance the airy-light texture, denoting respectively a gentle faint and the absence of body.
A second pattern of diction associates the angels with the cleanliness of laundry. In the first part of the poem, the morning air is "awash with angels"; the angels rise together in "calm swells of halcyon feeling," the latter phrasing containing an allusion to the legendary bird who calms wind and waves; the angels move and stay "like white water." In the second part of the poem as the soul longs to remain in its spirit world, the "rosy hands" and the "rising steam" associated with the washing of laundry further establish the cleanliness of the spiritual state. Even more intricate is Wilbur's use of key terms from the common language of laundry to establish the identification of the clothes on the line with the angels the soul sees in the light of false dawn. The air is "awash" with angels which are "in" the literal bed sheets, blouses, and smocks, but "the soul shrinks … from the punctual rape of every blessed day." The key term "shrink," denoting as it does the literal shrinking up of washed clothes as well as figuratively a movement away from something unpleasant, thus concretely emphasizing the theme of the soul's desire for a spirit world, the "blessed day," but with this is its realization that the actual will punctually, even violently, intrude on that spirit world.
The diction in the second part of the poem, from line 17 on, though containing several word choices which are akin to the pattern of lightness and cleanliness of the first part, tends to stress the actual. The already mentioned "punctual rape," the "hunks and colors," "the waking body," the "bitter love" with which the soul descends, the "ruddy gallows" are examples of word choices which emphasize the actual world. In the poem's final stanza, however, the diction underscores the paradoxical nature of "this world." As the man "yawns and rises," the angels are to be brought down from "their ruddy gallows." In other words, the angels tinged by the sun are "hung" in the sense of being executed; the clothes line is now a gallows and they have died as angels, have become clothes, and have entered the world of contradiction and paradox, where clean linen covers the "backs of thieves" and lovers put on their finery only to remove it in consummation of their love. In contrast to the traditional symbolism of light and dark, which has been implicit in the first part of the poem, it is the nuns who have the "dark habits" while the thieves wear white linen. In one sense, the "dark habits" are the clothes worn by the nuns, while in another sense, the phrase indicates that nuns too participate in the world's conflict of good and evil. In a final paradox, the nuns, though heavy, still float and retain a balance between things of this world, the work they do in the here and now, and the spiritual world to which they have given allegiance. They particularly need to keep a difficult balance between the things of this world and those of the world of the Spirit.
The carefully expressed paradoxes of the last stanza of the poem are the key to the poem's theme. Wilbur presents an affecting version of the ideal world through his images of angelic laundry, but this world is evanescent, seen only for a moment under the light of false dawn. Though man desires and needs the world of spirit, he must yet descend to the body and accept it in "bitter love" (another apt paradoxical phrase) because this is the world in which man has to live. In contrast to St. John's plea, to avoid the world and the things of it, Wilbur would have us accept them, though we should also retain the capacity to perceive the world of the spirit in the everyday.
Source: Frank Littler, "Wilbur's ‘Love Calls Us to Things of This World,’" in Explicator, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 53-55.
"1 John 2:15," in The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Kjv1Joh.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=2&division=div1 (accessed August 31, 2007).
Hill, Donald L., Richard Wilbur, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 117, Twayne Publishers, 1967, p. 122-23.
Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Michigan Press, 1991, p. 51.
Perloff, Marjorie, Poetry On & Off the Page, Northwestern University Press, 1998, p. 85.
Rasula, Jed, American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990, National Council of Teachers of English, 1996, p. 509.
Wilbur, Richard, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," in New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, pp. 233-34.
Brahm, Jeanne, "A Difficult Balance," in The Light within the Light, Godine, 2007, pp. 21-40.
This chapter of Brahm's short study of major American poets combines a personal look at Wilbur's life with an overview of the critical responses to his work over the years, making it a good starting place for students who are familiarizing themselves with the poet and his work.
Cummins, Paul F., Richard Wilbur: A Critical Essay, William B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Written from a Christian perspective, this short, forty-four-page pamphlet uses the "difficult balance" mentioned in the last line of this poem as a touchstone for examining all of Wilbur's poetry.
Epstein, Daniel Mark, "The Metaphysics of Richard Wilbur," in the New Criterion, April 2005, pp. 4-11.
Epstein's essay, written on the occasion of the publication of Wilbur's Collected Poems, 1943-2004, traces the poet's world view over the course of his long career.
Kirsch, Adam, "Get Happy," in the New Yorker, November 22, 2004, pp. 94-97.
Kirsch's overview of Wilbur's career is resplendent with references to other poets, from Randall Jarrell to Sylvia Plath to James Merrill, giving the reader a context in which to place Wilbur's poetic range.
Reibetanz, J. M., "The Reflexive Art in Richard Wilbur," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Spring 1998, pp. 592-612.
Reibetanz examines Wilbur's poems, including "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," for the ways in which the metaphors contained in them reflect Wilbur's ideas about the art of poetry in general.
Stone, Karen, Image and Spirit: Finding Meaning in Visual Art, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003.
In the same way that Wilbur finds spirituality in laundry, Stone examines the visual arts and reveals religious implications that are not readily apparent.