ADMIRING LITERATURE: Wilbur and his Paintbrush

In literature, poetry on March 30, 2010 at 6:26 pm


Many a poet has enticed the reader with their word-pictures. Their creations transport the perusing mind from its concrete locale into a surreal world of color and sound; where ideas are embodied in beautiful similes and suggestive metaphors. Poets, themselves peeping into that vast vista of the “inward eye”, bring out such vivid depictions of what they have observed and saved that the reader easily follows in their lead and tastes the same profound pleasures.

Wordsworth’s Daffodils commonly suggests itself when discussing the power of the poet over the reader. But I here aim to share what I feel poetry can achieve whenever I read Richard Wilbur’s “In the Elegy Season”. Wilbur is a famous American poet known for an art full of grace and sensitivity. The poem I have referred to was published in Wilbur’s second collection of poems Ceremony (1950), later reproduced in his New and Collected Poems (1988).

But more on imagination first. That “synthetic and magical power”, in Coleridge’s words, that unifies the activity of the poet. For, as in Eliot’s view, poets must use their imaginative concentration to glean and weave and construct from their common and essentially ordinary experiences.

What the poet observes is indeed often ordinary. But the way she portrays it, the feelings that she discovers and evokes, the way she often invests these open-to-all observations with deeper meanings; and finally the way she makes use of the visual and acoustic forms of her creation, binding meaning in the very sounds those words produce… This is the power of the poet – the mysterious genius – of which source many have claimed is God himself!

Elegies are mournful poems, laments for the dead. Although Wilbur’s poem is indeed a lament for the ‘dead’, it is still not depressing or saddening to the heart. The poem entices the reader from the very first few words. He begins…

Haze, Char, and the weather of All Souls’:

A giant absence mopes upon the trees:

Leaves cast in casual potpourris

Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.

Notice how he captures his image of autumn in small, single-syllabled yet beautiful sounding words. If the reader is imaginative, s/he will at once enter the atmosphere of this autumn: fog mingling with the dust and debris of the last summer; the fallen leaves, broken twigs, and shreds of bark now blackening with old age. An average Pakistani reader – not aware that the festival of All Souls is a yearly Christian observance coinciding with autumn in the Northern hemisphere – is not at all disadvantaged by this lack of knowledge.

The second line will always be my favorite, representing a delightful poetical pun. The author refrains from a concrete reference to those ‘leaves’ whose absence he so mourns. He has created a more emphatic picture of this ‘absence’ through the ‘absence’ he here applies. The word ‘giant’ conjures up the right picture in its proper magnitude: rows upon rows of scarecrow skeletons devoid of their ordinarily lavish garments. Use of the word ‘mopes’ instead of its possible synonyms such as ‘broods’ and ‘sulks’ elicits a humorously delightful response to this giant absence. It shows us the writers’ attitude to this season. Although he envies the summer bygone as the next stanzas will show, there is no despairing melancholy. Instead, he seems to observe his present surroundings with a vivid and witty observation.

‘Potpourris’ and ‘scents’ in the subsequent lines confirm this attitude. The images created are not in the least depressing. Rather, they are colorful and involve all the aesthetic senses of the sensate reader. The poet continues:

Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells they spend

In chilly steam, their last aromas, yield

From shallow hells a revenance of field

And orchard air.…………………..

Beautiful images continue the atmosphere and the mood set in the first stanza. The poet captures the sense of time with the word ‘brewed’. The moping yet beautiful processes of autumn have been taking place for some time…. leaves gathering in natural openings and channels, browning and yellowing, cooking an amazing flourish of warm palette shades and simmering perfumes. [Note that cellar holes are sites where old houses once stood, with only root cellars now left; while gulleys refer to dried channels in the earth made by old running waters.] The mixed touches of temperature at the time of year are captured by the phrase ‘chilly steam’. Gathering and mixing in the chilled waters of the wells, the leaves loose their heat from the sun in aromatic vapors.

By the third line of this stanza, the poet has established an atmosphere so gratifying to the reader’s senses, that the ordinarily aversive reaction to the word ‘hell’ is not provoked. Rather, ‘hells’ – a hyperbole referring to the numerous potpourris – serves to contrast with the invigorating and wholesome atmosphere of the summer he has now alluded to. It is these very hells that call to his mind an image of the golden season past, like a haunting awakening of the dead – for this is the meaning of the word ‘revenance’. Note here the correspondence of hells with revenance. This poem has been referred to as an exemplar in word choice in texts on poetry.

After this hint, the poet now enters his actual theme of the longed-for summer, closing the above stanza…

…………And now the envious mind

Which could not hold the summer in my head

While bounded by that blazing circumstance

Parades these barrens in a golden trance,

Remembering the wealthy season dead,

And by an autumn inspiration makes

A summer all its own. ……………

At the very outset of this transition, the poet’s attitude to the “season dead” is revealed. Delving into the connotations of the word ‘envious’ reveals to us the true state of the poet’s feelings: A treasure which is beyond one’s possession and cannot be obtained keeps ignited an intense preoccupation and admiration for itself.

A process of projection follows. Personified, the envious mind has been infused with a quality of independence from the poet. The current environs of denuded trees and hellish (hence ‘blazing’) leave-gatherings are deemed too limiting. This sense of being restricted stimulates visions of the coveted summer. The mind then achieves relief by implanting these visions onto the limiting ‘circumstance’. Thus a barren walk is transformed into a wealthy, golden trance.

………………. Green boughs arise

Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,

And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.

I personally feel that Wilbur’s pen is at the height of its power in the opening phrase of this quote. As you read “Green boughs arise” you virtually watch lush and laden twigs rising from the ground and occupying the foreground of your imagination. The seduction of the reader is complete. First, into the hazy, aromatic atmosphere of the seething autumn. Now – a dream in a dream – the reader follows into the wonderlands of the poet’s ‘envious mind’.

The envy of the poet does not seem to be of the greedy kind. Rather it may have a sacred devotional quality, as I deduce from the sacred-ritualistic association of the phrase “the soul bathes”. Another possible meaning of these words is that the poet recognizes the abstract quality of his pseudo-gratification. The lakes are not real, and the feeling of warmth and the sensation of bathing are all conceived by the stimulated mind. ‘Bathing’ also accompanies a sense of willing and fulfilling immersion. Fantasized though this summer may be, the deprived soul is gladly involved.

With these acknowledgements of the unreality of his mind’s escape, the poet now describes a more earthy response to autumn:

Less proud than this, my body leans an ear

Past cold and colder weather after wings’

Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,

The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,

This stanza is composed of so many ingenious allusions that I’m not sure how to begin. Firstly, the poet acknowledges the earthiness of his latter response by associating it with his body: Our bodies are necessarily rooted in the physical reality whereas our minds can make whatever leaps they wish. He presents another contrast with the earlier fantasy by recognizing the majesty, stateliness and the distinct superiority of that vision in the word ‘proud’. His body’s response is an optimistic yet humble discernment of the ultimate return of summer. But this far away ‘hope’ must be inferior to the more three-dimensional sense of the summer’s imagined presence.

The poet realizes the time distance yet to be borne before the joyful comeback. He depicts each phase of the intervening seasons through beautiful imagery. His reference to the annual migration of birds at the approach of winter will be delightful to any reader in the single word ‘commotion’. Because of its literal meaning, the word suffices to create an image of a great flock of birds, wings toiling. Their undulating strokes will indeed remind one of a pulsating but gentle turbulence, something like that of the waves.

The migration will be followed by “cold and colder weather” with flighty spring on its heels soon spent. And only beyond that is held the promise of the summer: an awe-inspiring deity slow-entering the stage of the day with small regal steps. This final image seems to confirm the devotional quality of the poet’s sentiments. Wilbur is known for weaving religious images and meanings into the subtext of his poetry.

In the final stanza the poet

Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells

Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight

Of green leaves building into the light

And azure water hoisting out of wells.

The poet has gone through the phases of a mind that revolts to the bared surroundings and revels in the abandon of fantasy and a body which discerns the coming of the beloved beyond all the succession of the days between. Now the poet plainly acknowledges his simple wish. Summer has traditionally symbolized the full vigor of life, where energies are at their peak and expressions of youth and passion reach their zenith. It is this liveliness of earth, air and water that he so craves.

With a tinge of nostalgia, he is enumerating all the sweet remembrances which quicken his yearning. The gentle caress of an air loaded with the smells of an erupting landscape. The “cordial lilac”, not only welcoming with a familiar friendliness, but also reviving to the spirit. [As a noun, the word cordial refers to any drink, food or medicine which gives strength to the weak body]. The “green leaves” forming patterns like filigree woven into a background of clear light. And finally, waters as blue as the intense unclouded sky of the summer, pouring forth from springs with such energy as if they are being raised and lifted through some force.

In this essay, I have focused only on the content – the words and their meanings. I have tried to illustrate how the choice of words with many shades of meanings creates the images with the right sentiments the poet wishes to evoke. An image is never a brain copy of the perception of a real object. It has many layers of feelings and associations, combining the acoustic, tactual and other contextual properties of the imagined object, thus giving rise to a picture that is very personal, and private, and suffused with a sense of being lively.

Richard Wilbur spent a pleasant and carefree childhood roaming with his brother about his family farm and the acres of landscape surrounding the old stone house that his family had hired. The second U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a long lasting friend of Robert Frost, he now spends his time between his two homes in Florida and Massachusetts. He has collected all his poems including translations of other poets in a neat publication called Collected Poems 1943 – 2004.


*[Note: 1. A substantially different and summarized version of this article was published in Daily Dawn’s 20th December edition of Books & Authors.

2. Click on pictures to view original sources.]


Interested in more literature? Here’s another article from this blog:

ADMIRING LITERATURE: The Mysterious Sestina

  1. this is Beautiful MashaAllah…..specially the pictures and the entire explanation of the poem !

  2. Thanks, jazakAllah.

  3. Thank you for very informative post, that expands the horizons and thus enables to accept the beauty of the poetry with the new awareness. I wish my joy would be the mutual thus dare to invite you to my Art by Tomas world

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: