Responses: Prose Pieces 1953 – 1976 by Richard Wilbur
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London)
There is nothing surprising in the fact that the most intelligent, fastidious and refined of contemporary American poets should produce intelligent, fastidious and refined prose, but it does no harm to have the likelihood confirmed. This collection of Richard Wilbur’s critical writings is an immediate pleasure to read. Beyond that, the book provides an absorbing tour of Wilbur’s preoccupations, which admirers of his poetry had already guessed to be of high interest. Beyond that again, there is the harsh matter, steadily becoming more urgent, of whether or not the study of literature is killing literature.
In America, the place where crises burst first, it has long been apparent that the output of critical works from the universities, most of them uttered by intellectually mediocre student teachers, has reached the proportions of an ecological disaster. Yet here is one book, written by a Professor of English at Wesleyan University, which would have to be saved from the holocaust if President Carter were to take the sensible step of rationalizing his energy programme by ordering all academic writings on the subject of English literature to be fed directly to the flames, thereby ensuring that useless books, inflated from only slightly less useless doctoral theses, would find at least a semblance of creative life by providing enough electric power to light a pig-sty, if only for a few seconds.
But then Wilbur is no ordinary professor. His university career has really been a kind of monastic hideaway, where he has been able to hole up and contemplate his principal early experience, which was the Second World War in Europe. Military service was Wilbur’s first university. If for ever afterwards he was a writer in residence, at least he was writing about something that he had seen in the outside world. In the deceptively elegant symmetries of Wilbur’s poetry could be detected a pressure of awareness which amply warranted his retreat to the cloisters.
While his contemporaries held the mirror up to chaos, Wilbur took the opposite line: The more extreme the thing contained, the more finely-wrought the container had to be. Berryman and Lowell went in for stringy hair, open-necked shirts, non-rhyming sonnets that multiplied like bacilli, and nervous breakdowns. Wilbur, on the other hand, looked like an advertisement for Ivy League tailoring and turned out poems built like Fabergé toy-trains. I think there is a case for arguing that by the time the 1960s rolled around Wilbur had cherished his early experience too long for the good of his work, which in his later volumes is simply indecisive. But earlier on he was not indecisive at all – just indirect, which is a different thing. The poems in The Beautiful Changes, Ceremony and Things of This World sound better and better as time goes on. Where his coevals once looked fecund, they now look slovenly; where he once seemed merely exquisite, he now seems a model of judicious strength; as was bound to happen, it was the artful contrivance which retained its spontaneity and the avowedly spontaneous which ended up looking contrived. There is no reason to be ashamed at feeling charmed by Wilbur’s poetry. The sanity of his level voice is a hard-won triumph of the contemplative intelligence.
Selected from twenty years of occasional prose, the essays and addresses collected in Responses combine conciseness with resonance, each of them wrapping up its nominal subject while simultaneously raising all the relevant general issues – the best kind of criticism for a student to read. A lecture like ‘Round About a Poem of Housman’s’ could be put into a beginner’s hands with some confidence that it would leave him wiser than before, instead of merely cockier. Previously available only in that useful anthology The Moment of Poetry, the piece gains from being set among others from the same pen. It is an excellent instance of close reading wedded to hard thinking. The general statements are as tightly focused as the specific observations, which from so sensitive a reader are very specific indeed. By attending patiently to Housman’s delicately judged tones of voice in ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’, Wilbur is able to show that the contempt superficially evinced for the hired soldiers is meant to imply an underlying respect. The casual reader might miss this not just through being deaf to poetry, but through being deaf to meaning in general. ‘A tactful person is one who understands not merely what is said, but also what is meant.’ But meaning is not confined to statements: in fact the sure way to miss the point of Housman’s poem is to a practical criticism that confines itself to paraphrase. A song like ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ and a poem like ‘Dover Beach’ can be paraphrased in exactly the same way. (This seemingly off-hand illustration is typical of Wilbur’s knack for the perfect example.) It follows that meaning embraces not just statement but sound, pacing, diction. Thus the subject expands to include questions of why poetry is written the way it is. How much can the poet legitimately expect the reader to take it?
Yeats, for example, overdoes his allusions in ‘King and No King’. It is one thing for Milton to expect you to spot the reference to the Aeneid when Satan wakes in Hell, but another for Yeats to expect you to know a bad play by Beaumont and Fletcher. For one thing, you can see what Milton means even if you have never read Virgil, whereas Yeats’s point seems not to be particularly well made even when you have Beaumont and Fletcher at your fingertips – in fact pride at being in possession of such information is likely to colour your judgment. (Says Wilbur, who did possess such information, and whose judgment was coloured.)
It is worth pausing at this juncture to say that in a few paragraphs Wilbur has not only raised, but to a large extent settled, theoretical points which more famous critical savants have pursued to the extent of whole essays. In Lectures in America Dr Leavis argues, with crushing intransigence, that Yeats’s poetry needs too much ancillary apparatus to explain it, so that when you get right down to it there are only two poems in Yeats’s entire oeuvre which earn the status of a ‘fully achieved thing’. Wilbur takes the same point exactly as far as it should be taken, which is nowhere near as far. Possessing tact himself, he can see Yeats’s lack of it, but correctly supposes this to be a local fault, not a typical one. If Dr Leavis is unable to consider such a possibility, perhaps it might be of interest to Professor Donoghue, who in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books was to be heard complaining about Yeats’s limitations at some length. It is a bit steep when an academic who devotes half his life to a dead poet starts doubting the poet’s merits instead of questioning the effects of his own bookishness.
As for Wilbur’s reference to Milton, well, it is very relevant to some of the positions adopted by Dr Steiner, whose important gift of transmitting his enthusiasm for the culture of the past seriously overstepped itself in Milton’s case. Perhaps goaded by the misplaced self-confidence of a student generation who not only knew nothing about the history of civilization but had erected their doltishness into an ideology, Dr Steiner declared that you couldn’t tell what was going on in Paradise Lost unless you were intimate with the classical literature to which Milton was alluding. Wilbur’s fleeting look at this very topic helps remind us that Dr Steiner got it wrong two ways at once. If you did have to know about those things, then Milton would not deserve his reputation. But you don’t have to know, since the allusions merely reinforce what Milton is tactful enough to make plain.
Such matters are important to criticism and crucial to pedagogy. For all Dr Steiner’s good intentions, it is easy to imagine students being scared off if they are told that they can’t hope to read an English poet without first mastering classical literature. Wilbur’s approach, while being no less concerned about the universality of culture, at least offers the ignoramus some hope. Anyway, Wilbur simply happens to be right: poets allude to the past (his essay ‘Poetry’s Debt to Poetry’ shows that all revolutions in art are palace revolutions) but if they are original at all then they will make their first appeal on a level which demands of the reader no more than an ability to understand the language. Which nowadays is demanding a lot, but let that pass.
‘Poetry and Happiness’ is another richly suggestive piece of work. Wilbur talks of a primitive desire that is radical to poetry, ‘the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things’. Employing the same gift for metaphysical precision which he demonstrates elsewhere in his essay on Emily Dickinson, Wilbur is able to show what forms this desire usually takes and how it affects the poet’s proverbial necessity to ‘find himself’. I don’t think it is too facetious to suggest that this might be a particularly touchy subject for Wilbur. Complaining about the lack of unity in American culture, he seems really to be talking about his own difficulties in writing about the American present with the same unforced originality – finding yourself – which marked his earlier poems about Europe.
In the following essay, a fascinating piece (indispensable for the student of his poems) called ‘On My Own Work’, he rephrases the complaint as a challenge. ‘Yet the incoherence of America need not enforce a stance of alienation on the poet: rather, it may be seen as placing on him a peculiar imaginative burden.’ It is a nice point whether Wilbur has ever really taken that burden up. I am inclined to think that he has not, and that the too-typical quietness of of his later work (‘characteristic’, in the sense Randall Jarrell meant when he decided that Wallace Stevens had fallen to copying himself) represents a great loss to all of us. But we ought to learn to be appropriately grateful for what we have been given, before we start complaining about what has been taken away.
‘It is one mark of the good critic’, Wilbur observes, ‘that he abstains from busywork.’ Except for the essays on Poe, which tend to be repetitive, this whole collection has scarcely a superfluous sentence. When Wilbur’s critical sense lapses, it is usually through kindness. He makes as good a case as can be made for Theodore Roethke’s openness to influence, calling admirable what he should see to be crippling. But even full-time critics can be excused for an occasional disinclination to tell the cruel truth, and on the whole this is a better book of criticism than we can logically expect a poet to come up with. If there is a gulf between English and American literature in modern times, at least there are some interesting bridges over it. The critical writings produced by some of the best American poets form one of those bridges. Tate, Berryman, Jarrell, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson – those among them who were primarily poets have yet managed to produce some of the most humane criticism we possess. With this superlative book, Richard Wilbur takes a leading place among their number.
(New Statesman, 1977)