C Minor

Breakfast Piece with Rib of Pork and Cheese Basket. Pieter Claesz.


C Minor

Richard Wilbur


Beethoven during breakfast? The human soul

Though stalked by hollow pluckings, winning out

(While bran-flakes crackle in the cereal-bowl)

Over despair and doubt?


You are right to switch it off and let the day

Begin at hazard, perhaps with pecker-knocks

In the sugar-bush, the rancor of a jay,

Or in the letter box


Something that makes you pause and with fixed shadow

Stand on the driveway gravel, your bent head

Scanning the snatched pages until the sad

Or fortunate news is read.


The day’s work will be disappointing or not,

Giving at least some pleasure in taking pains.

One of us, hoeing in the garden plot

(Unless, of course, it rains)


May rejoice at the knitting of light in the fennel-plumes

And dew like mercury on cabbage-hide,

Or rise and pace through too-familiar rooms,

Balked and unsatisfied.


Shall a plate be broken? A new thing understood?

Shall we be lonely, and by love consoled?

What shall I whistle, splitting the kindling wood?

Shall the night wind be cold?


How should I know? And even if we are fated

Hugely to suffer, grandly to endure,

It would not help to hear it all fore-stated

As in an overture.


There is nothing to do with the day except to live it.

Let us have music again when the light dies

(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it

Something to organize.


A Fine Picture—The Dutch Golden age glows in the still-lifes of Pieter Claesz. Here, a generous breakfast meal is spread artistically before us.

A Little Poetry—”Beethoven during breakfast?” the poet asks his wife in the opening lines. “You are right to switch it off. The day, yet un-lived, does not need an overture, he argues. Music is for organizing experience.

Sometimes I will turn on the classical radio to help me wake up in the morning. But often I find that Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and even Delius are too forcible for the first weak rays of light—instruction on how to feel about something that hasn’t happened yet. When I discovered “C Minor” in Richard Wilbur’s volume of New and Collected Poems, I experienced the pleasant shock of recognition. (And I loved the humor in the first stanza, where grand human suffering is juxtaposed with crackling cereal.)

Richard Wilbur, whose Pulitzer prize-winning poetry follows in the tradition of Robert Frost and W. H. Auden, is perhaps the finest American poet still living. The sophistication and formality of his poetry helps readers find sense and beauty in our present time even while they alienate Wilbur’s critics.