Tag Archives: Richard Wilbur

For Charlotte

Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow. John Singelton Copley. 1773.


For Charlotte

Richard Wilbur


After the clash of elevator gates

And the long sinking, she emerges where,

A slight thing in the morning’s crosstown glare,

She looks up toward the window where he waits,

Then in a fleeting taxi joins the rest

Of the huge traffic bound forever west.


On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye—

Even this other pair whose high romance

Had only the duration of a dance,

And who, now taking leave with stricken eye,

See each in each a whole new life forgone.

For them, above the darkling clubhouse lawn,


Bright Perseids flash and crumble; while for these

Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief

And baggage, yet with something like relief,

It takes three thousand miles of knitting seas

To cancel out their crossing, and unmake

The amorous rough and tumble of their wake.


We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse

And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share

The frequent vistas of their large despair,

Where love and all are swept to nothingness;

Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love

Which constant spirits are the keepers of,


And which, though taken to be tame and staid,

Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,

A passion joined to courtesy and art

Which has the quality of something made,

Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,

Like a rose window or the firmament.


Witnessing the tumultuous end of a young relationship, Wilbur reflects thankfully on the beauty and artistry of a long marriage. Marriage involves not only love, but care and craftsmanship. It is a lovely reminder to a culture that prefers the fruit punch of transient romances to the fine wine of faithful marriage.


Don Quixote. Pablo Picasso. 1955.


Richard Wilbur


I read how Quixote in his random ride

Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose

The purity of chance, would not decide


Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.

For glory lay wherever he might turn.

His head was light with pride, his horse’s shoes


Were heavy, and he headed for the barn.


Picasso’s sketch is a submission of Fiona of Vista Court.


The Alexander Mosaic. House of the Faun, Pompei. 100 BC.



Richard Wilbur


For Alexander there was no Far East,

Because he thought the Asian continent

India ended. Free Cathay at least

Did not contribute to his discontent.


But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more

Serene. To him it seemed that he’d but played

With several shells and pebbles on the shore

Of that profundity he had not made.


The Greek historian Plutarch, in his “Life of Alexander,” wrote: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Isaac Newton, who would conquer more than this in his scientific discoveries of laws of motion and gravity, wrote, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

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>

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.