Wednesday, March 01, 2017

`By Trust and by Hope, by an Impulse to Praise'

“I felt from the beginning of my writing that to pay attention to objects, to what’s there outside you, was the exciting thing to do.”

Not merely true, Richard Wilbur reminds us, but exciting. Before the first gift is unwrapped Christmas morning, spoiled children are already bored and disappointed, and as adults the world’s bounty leaves them thankless. They flaunt world-weariness, ignore the feast and gaze longingly inward. Elsewhere in the same interview Wilbur says:

“I’m the sort of Christian animal for whom celebration is the most important thing of all. I know that, as you say, there is terror in my poems, not so much presented as a tangible scariness but as a feeling that the order of things is in peril or in doubt, that there are holes in things through which one might drop for a long distance. The terror is there and it’s countered continually by trust and by hope, by an impulse to praise.”

Selfishness, despair and ingratitude forever tempt us. In “A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness” (Ceremony and Other Poems, 1950), Wilbur embraces the sensory world. His is not the way of the Desert Fathers. The world has worth and should not be scorned. After all, the Incarnation occurred in this world, as Wilbur observes in the poem’s final stanza:

“Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.”

Wilbur’s title is adapted from a passage in Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation:

“You are as prone to love, as the sun is to shine; it being the most delightful and natural employment of the Soul of Man: without which you are dark and miserable. Consider therefore the extent of Love, its vigour and excellency. For certainly he that delights not in Love makes vain the universe, and is of necessity to himself the greatest burden. The whole world ministers to you as the theatre of your Love: It sustains you and all objects that you may continue to love them. Without which it were better for you to have no being. Life without objects is sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than Death or Nothing.”

In 1964, Wilbur told an interviewer: “As for myself, I read a lot of [George] Herbert, a lot of [Andrew] Marvell, I read the prose of Traherne; and I do this for simple pleasure, not at all in a scholarly spirit. Those are three people I never tire of.” Elsewhere he cites St. Augustine, Traherne’s Centuries and Pascal as the thinkers and theologians who chiefly influenced him.

Wilbur, the poet of celebration, was born on this date, March 1, in 1921. Happy ninety-sixth birthday, Mr. Wilbur.

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