The “Cassocked Shadow” of Richard Wilbur

A New England poet of nature, indeed, but something must also be said for Wilbur’s Catholic vision of the poet.

(Photo: CosimoGiovanni/

When the poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) died, in October of last year, the first thing that needed to be said was that America had lost one of its greatest poets. In a century where the conventions of poetic style, form, and subject had gone off the rails, and poetry had come to seem a marginal art form of no interest to the sensible reader, Wilbur had stood as evidence to the contrary and a figure of hope for a long tradition’s renewal and perpetuation. A writer of such depth and mastery, his more radical or daring contemporaries gave him grudging respect. A stylist of suave, lucid, and witty lines, and a man of a humane, humble, and markedly Christian sensibility, Wilbur would eventually become the one living poet that the lay reader of serious mind and in search of a literature imbued with profound religious vision must know.

The most obvious way to characterize his career was as that of continuing the long New England Calvinist and Transcendentalist poetic tradition, one that includes the seventeenth-century minister, Edward Taylor, Thoreau and Emerson, as well as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. A concern with the meaning and mystery of the natural world, a desire to affirm the reality—the creative genius and freedom—of the soul and the goodness of the world in the face of the amoral mechanisms of the material order, found various expression in these earlier writers and in Wilbur too.

And yet, many readers saw something in Wilbur’s work that did not rest easily within that long, originally Calvinist, gradually “secularizing,” tradition. When Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943-2004 was published, the theologian David Paul Deavel went so far as to dub Wilbur a “Yankee Thomist Poet.” Just as, according to Yvor Winters, the later Dickinson moved from a wild Calvinist view of nature “in the direction of a more nearly Catholic Christianity,” so also Wilbur’s work in some ways had come to echo the metaphysics of Aquinas (at least as G.K. Chesterton understood that saint) with its awe and gratitude before the goodness and intelligible mystery of natural being. On Deavel’s account, Wilbur reminds one a little of Orestes Brownson, the great transcendentalist philosopher, who converted to Catholicism when he discovered that his love of nature and the American spirit found refinement and fulfillment in the thought of the Catholic Church.

As Robert and Mary Bagg note in their biography of Wilbur, published only a few months before his death, the poet’s work has always out for its substantial concern with the life, knowledge, and destiny of the soul. Although Wilbur himself resisted being identified as a Christian poet, his work had a depth otherwise wanting in contemporary American letters, and by the end of his career that was just what many of his readers most appreciated. But how may we best understand the vision expressed in his work? As a late chapter in the New England tradition? Or, as a poetic Catholicism given voice by a lifelong Episcopalian? Such a question cannot be answered by mere reference to a poem like his “Christmas Hymn,” whose music and devotion is perfectly achieved and yet whose explicit celebration of the incarnation of Christ is unusual in Wilbur’s poetry. We have to look deeper.

To revisit Wilbur’s first two books, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947) and Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), is to meet a poet enchanted by the complex wit of the metaphysical poets and the elaborate, deliberately gorgeous, artifice of Wallace Stevens. Much of this work tested the limits of aestheticism, of the mild scandal of art-for-art’s sake, in the context of a civilization that had just endured a devastating World War and was only beginning to grapple with the magnitude of the Holocaust. Insofar as Wilbur resembled Stevens, he seemed a poet committed to the gorgeous weavings of the mind at play, one characterized by a certain, incomplete resistance to moral seriousness and an assertion of art’s freedom as a product of its standing outside the laws of reality.

In those books and the eight to follow, one sees no less certainly a poet at home in the countryside and whose abiding theme is the moral meaning of the natural world. And so, in this respect, Wilbur has rightly been judged an heir to Dickinson and especially Robert Frost, whom he knew from his student days at Amherst College. That Wilbur spent his early and later years in western Massachusetts, and documented its landscape in such memorable poems as “Fern-Beds in Hampshire County” and “Hamlen Brook,” would seal the identification. An eye for scrutinizing the spirit amid the wilds of nature, in transcendentalist or more ironical Frostian fashion, appears from the earliest to the very last of Wilbur’s poems.

If it is in accord with the facts, then, to view Wilbur as a New England transcendentalist, it is fair, nonetheless, to spy something sacramental and Catholic sometimes gleaming out from his work as well. Beginning with his New and Collected Poems, published in 1988, Wilbur’s decision on how to reprint the body of his poetry would only strengthen that gleam. The volume placed the new poems at the start, and then reprinted his previous collections in reverse chronological order. To read them thus entailed reading the older poems through, or in light of, the more recent ones, all the way back to the beginning—and this could have an uncanny effect. The newer work displays a decidedly sacramental or Catholic imagination, just as Deavel claimed; and the earlier poems suddenly seem to bear anticipations of it within themselves.

The new poems begin with the short, Dantesque dream-allegory, “The Ride.” The poem following is called “Gnomons,” and even this title has an oddly Catholic suggestiveness. In James Joyce’s early short story, “The Sisters,” the young narrator identifies the “gnomon in the Euclid” with the arcane and extensive theological vocabulary taught to him by a retired priest and which liberates his mind and imagination from the provincial philistinism of Dublin. The glimmering intellectualism of the Catholic tradition becomes a means of freedom and discovery for the boy amid otherwise dim circumstances. “Gnomon,” that is, is one of those words by which we recognize that the small, superficial life of sensible being conceals within it the vasty depths of the intellect; the world is a sacrament, where what we can see with the eye and feel with the hand awakens us to intellectual mystery within and beyond it.

Wilbur’s poem makes no direct reference to Joyce. Rather, the first stanza recounts a famous experiment which the eighth century monk, the Venerable Bede, conducted to measure the length of the day by use of a sundial: a “gnomon” being the triangular blade that casts its shadow on a sundial. Bede studies his “cassocked shadow on the ground” and discovers, “That a man’s shade, at the third hour from dawn, / Stretches eleven feet upon the lawn.”

In the second stanza, Wilbur depicts himself walking in “April sunlight toward a wall,” in the Massachusetts countryside. He measures the distance from which his shadow would reach the wall. Time, the sun, and mathematics are governed by the same principles now as they were “thirteen centuries ago.” The shadow of Bede’s head and Wilbur’s—separated though they are by time—make “a dusky rhyme.” In lines both light and playful, Wilbur suggests that the world is governed by an invisible but intelligible—mathematical—order. With Plato and Saint Augustine, he holds that number and geometry are instances of the Eternal Logos giving form, order, and intelligibility to the sensible world. Number discerned in material things, Augustine said, is a disclosure of God’s reality. So also, with St. Paul and Augustine, he suggests that the events of history rhyme, they repeat unbounded by the chronological procession of time itself. Christ is the second Adam. Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice in Jerusalem “rhymes,” or repeats itself in full, in every sacrifice at the altar of the Mass. Wilbur’s Yankee body casts a medieval Catholic shadow.

A few poems on, Wilbur recounts an experience he had with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, in “On Having Mis-Identified a Wild Flower.” It runs in full:

A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

The transcendental poetic tradition, from Emerson on, focuses primarily on the experience of subjectivity as a rich realm of freedom. Wild nature reminds the soul that it is called to more than tending the animal frame; its thinking or feeling or imagining transcends the objective world. Frost’s poetry is best known for its ironic undercutting of this affirmation: the natural world’s indifference to our feelings is intended to shock us out—or partly out—of our naïve romanticism. Wilbur’s quatrain does something categorically different. On being told he is wrong about the name of a flower, the natural world represented by a thrush bursts into song. Contra Frost, human beings are not lonely subjectivities wandering through an indifferent natural world; nature itself celebrates our communion and participation with it, a communion made possible by the intellect as a faculty of knowing, of entering into relationship with, being. Truth is not a subjective concept in us, but rather a constitutive property of the world itself. When we run up against it, by making a mistake, we are reminded that the world is “governed” by a Logos greater than the logic of “me only.” As the Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper often argued, such intellectual confrontation with reality indicates that we belong to it in a spiritual and intimate way, and this is the cause of all rite, ritual, and rejoicing.

Between these two poems appears a long, tangential meditation in blank verse, called “Lying.” And here, Wilbur offers a consummately sacramental or metaphysical realist vision of the purpose of poetry. Art does not reveal the transcendental creative genius of the poet, as Emerson once proposed. The world is already created, and we with it, so that,

                    In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
The grass and grackles or, at the end of town,
In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter. All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look . . .

The world is created, and created as at once prosaic detail and intelligible mystery, rising up to meet our sometimes observant, sometimes blinded, eyes. The poet’s task is not to create or invent, but to rediscover and reflect what is already there. Or, rather, that is part of the task. The other, Wilbur continues, is to offer likenings—metaphor, simile, all figures of speech—which are our sole means to draw out of being’s mystery some portion of its meaning. Such figures do not make something new but, again, reveal to us what was already there, but by their striking or surprising power allow “a thing” to be “most itself.” A metaphor is an circumnavigating entrance into the depths and heights of things as they really are.

No wonder, then, that in one of Wilbur’s best known early poems, “The Writer,” the poet depicts himself as conceiving a metaphor for the sound of his daughter typing a short story in an upstairs room—her clack-clack is like the chain of a ship running over a gunwale—only to abandon it when she pauses in her typing, “As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.” Metaphors are no less accountable to reality than literal language, indeed more so, and the responsibility of the writer is, in consequence, “a matter . . . Of life or death.” How well we learn to express the world by figure will determine how well we can perceive what is truly, literally there. All this reminds one of Dante, who, as he descends with Virgil into Hell, and then mounts the slope of Purgatory, is rebuked again and again for failing to see the order of the world as it actually is. Truth dwells not in us, but in the essences of things, and human life is a pilgrimage along the path of being, toward conforming ourselves to what is most real.

By foregrounding these poems, Wilbur caused Dante to seem more his great poetic ancestor than Frost. His philosophical master seems not Emerson but (with Dante) Aquinas. From such a vantage, one looks back to Wilbur’s finest single volume, Things of This World (1956), the best poems of which were written during a year in Rome, and sees something odd. New England history is full of young “Puritans” abroad who discover the aesthetic and spiritual splendors of Catholic Europe and try to fit some of its vitality into their dry, austere souls; we see something of this in the writings of Henry James, Henry Adams, and above all T.S. Eliot.

Wilbur’s poems set themselves down in the middle of just that narrative. “Altitudes” opens the volume by contrasting the “brilliant place” of a cathedral dome with “fault- / Less figures” on its “painted vault” with “Emily Dickinson’s father’s house in America,” with its narrow spiral stair and cupola. Wilbur offers no direct comment, but the interiorized, subjective religion of New England seems cramped and claustrophobic compared with the objective expressivity, the hammered gold and sacramental brilliance, of Roman Catholicism.

“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” which borrows a phrase from Augustine, tells us indeed that our encounter with signs of heavenly transcendence and perfection illuminates and elevates the lowly quotidian things of life in the world, imbuing them with meaning. “Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning,” depicts Wilbur’s wife as a lonely innocent abroad, not at home in “the fountain-quieted square” but awakened to the mystery of her own existence by its foreign splendor. The next poem, “John Chrysostom,” suggests the fruit of such awakening: conversion, and a power to draw upon the crude details of the world to fashion a golden-tongued speech that elevates. “A Plain Song for Comadre” celebrates a woman Wilbur knew during a stay in New Mexico. There, in the American West, he found a more homely version of the Catholic splendor and sacramental vision of Rome, as if to suggest that the cathedral and the Dickinson house are not so opposed to one another as they first appear. America too has its Catholic roots.

All these poems prepare us for “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” a poem where Wilbur’s language at its most elaborate stands not at deliberate odds with its subject, as was sometimes in the case in the first two books, but in perfect harmony with it. “Wall-Fountain” begins by depicting a lush and lusty pagan fountain, where Silenus the satyr romps among the “goatish innocence of his babes at play.” It is a vision of “saecular ecstasy,” where the fountain’s overflowing shells symbolize pleasure’s continuous satiety, emptying, and renewal.

“Must it not be too simple?” Wilbur asks, and turns to “the plain fountains that Maderna set / Before St. Peter’s.” The single, upward rising of water comes to represent the true measure of the human being, his struggling desire to ascend to heaven, to arrive at a vision of the simple glory of pure spirit. But Wilbur does not leave us—as he did in “Altitudes”—with mere antitheses. He recalls Saint Francis, “who lay in sister snow,” and whose illumination in Christ enabled him to see all creatures as made and loved by God. Neither Francis nor Wilbur rests with a mere affirmation of the things of this world, however. Created being, rather, is “a shade of bliss,” a foreshadowing image of

That land of tolerable flowers, that state

As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand
Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

Life in the creative intellect of the divine Logos is the soul’s true pasture, but it also endows the things of this world with their own truth and goodness. These qualities affirm created being as having an integrity and dignity even as it always remains a vicar, a worldly anticipation, of the pleasure that fulfills and surpasses all our hungers. The temporal is a foretaste of eternal life. This is indeed Dante’s vision, that pilgrim who moved so swiftly between worlds, and the vision of the Catholic Church, which has as the source and summit of its life a sacrament that joins body and soul, surface and symbol, form and splendor, time and eternity, suffering and joy, into one real presence. Other early poems complicate this picture and its religious vision, but in retrospect these are the poems that seem to govern the meaning of Wilbur’s work.

In his last decades, Wilbur’s sacramental vision became even more pronounced. The title poem of his penultimate volume, Mayflies (2000), describes Wilbur amid the New England woods of his native poetic tradition and, as he stares upon mayflies, seeing “their quadrillions rise / and Animate a ragged patch of glow / With sudden glittering,” he perceives not merely a strange beauty or an alien symbol of natural beauty. On reflection, Wilbur concludes that this “great round-dance” is a symbol of the cosmos, of the order of creation, as it departs from God into being and returns to him as its final cause. For a moment, Wilbur fears himself as unable to participate in this pageant of being, “alone / In a life to much my own,” before he realizes—with Augustine, Aquinas, Pieper, and most strikingly, here, the Pseudo-Dionysius—that it is precisely in our knowledge of being, that is, through our intellectual participation in the created order, that we do indeed join that pageant and in the highest possible way:

                      I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.

A New England poet of nature, indeed, but something must also be said for Wilbur’s Catholic vision of the poet as one whose task is not to commune with and transcend the natural order or to create a world of imagination, but rather to represent created being in all its depth and to summon us all by way of the altar of metaphor to the great sacrament of the world.

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About James Matthew Wilson 25 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).

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