Richard Wilbur was born on this date, March 1, one-hundred years ago. By teasing happenstance, George Herbert died on this date in 1633 – a coincidence one hopes is significant. Both poets were Christians, Herbert a priest in the Church of England. Not diving too deeply into literary taxonomy, both were metaphysical poets. Wilbur once told an interviewer: “I read a lot of Herbert, a lot of 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.” Without getting into matters of “influence” – a mug’s game – I sense the spirit of Herbert in a number of Wilbur’s poems. Take “April 5, 1974” (The Mind-Reader: New Poems, 1976):
“The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.”
The poem hinges on “A fact as eerie as a dream” – a phrase suggesting the miraculous, the rationality-defying. The final three lines bring to mind Bill Evans’ performance of “You Must Believe In Spring.” They also recall the opening stanza of Herbert’s “The Flower”:
“How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.”