On Having Misidentified a Wildflower

Ruben Peale with a Geranium. Rembrandt Peale. 1801.


On Having Misidentified a Wildflower

Richard Wilbur


A thrush, because I’d been wrong,

Burst rightly into song

In a world not vague, not lonely,

Not governed by me only.


A Fine Picture—This is a portrait of Rembrandt’s youngest brother Rubens, who was a gardener, naturalist, and artist. This particular work may have been influenced by the 17th-century Dutch artist David Teniers the Younger. Artist names were popular in the Peale family, many of whose members were themselves artists. Besides a Rembrandt and a Rubens, there was a Raphael, Rosalba, and a Michael Angelo.

A Little Poetry—Richard Wilbur explained to an audience how this quatrain came about. “Shortly after he came to America, Joseph Brodsky came out to visit us in Cummington, Massachusetts. [W]e went for a walk in the woods, and I was amazed at a Russian exile’s ability to identify in English (or Latin, at need) just about everything that was growing in our woods. [A]s we approached a pond that was out there in the distance, I said, ‘Oh, there’s a blue flower in bloom by the pond. Perhaps it’s what we call Quaker Ladies.’ And he said, ‘No, I think it is what we call Do-not-forget-me.’ [laughter] And he was right, which I think was very offensive of him, you know, [laughter] to come from overseas and tell me what was blooming in my own wood. [laughter]” Listen to a recording at iBiblio of Wilbur introducing and reading his poem. <http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/audio/wilbur/on_having_misidentified_a_wild_flower.mp3>

2 thoughts on “On Having Misidentified a Wildflower”

  1. I cannot help but think of Roger Hamley (from Wives and Daughters) when I look at this painting! Where is Molly …? ;)

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