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An Analysis of Wilbur’s Mayflies

An Analysis of Wilbur’s Mayflies

Richard Wilbur’s recent poem ‘Mayflies’ reminds us that the American Romantic tradition that Robert Frost most famously brought into the 20th century has made it safely into the 21st. Like many of Frost’s short lyric poems, ‘Mayflies’ describes one person’s encounter with an ordinary but easily overlooked piece of nature’in this case, a cloud of mayflies spotted in a ‘sombre forest'(l.1) rising over ‘unseen pools'(l.2),’made surprisingly attractive and meaningful by the speaker’s special scrutiny of it. The ultimate attraction of Wilbur’s mayflies would appear to be the meaning he finds in them. This seems to be an unremittingly positive poem, even as it glimpses the dark subjects of human isolation and mortality, perhaps especially as it glimpses these subjects. In this way the poem may recall that most persistent criticism of Wilbur’s work, that it is too optimistic, too safe. The poet-critic Randall Jarrell, though an early admirer of Wilbur, once wrote that ‘he obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing’?something Frost was never accused of (Jarrell 332). Yet, when we examine the poem closely, and in particular the series of comparisons by which Wilbur elevates his mayflies into the realm of beauty and truth, the poem concedes something less ?bright? or felicitous about what it finally calls its ‘joyful . . . task’ of poetic perception and representation (l.23).

In this poem about seeing from the shadows, the speaker?s revelations are invariably ironic. What could be a more unpromising object of poetic eloquence than mayflies, those leggy, flimsy, short-lived bugs that one often finds floating in the hulls of rowboats? Yet for Wilbur…

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…vocal statement about the ?organic? possibilities of poetry than optimistic readers might have expected. ?Mayflies? forces us to complicate Randall Jarrell?s neat formulation. Here Wilbur has not just seen and shown ?the bright underside of? a ?dark thing.? In a poem where the speaker stands in darkness looking at what ?animate[s] a ragged patch of glow? (l.4), we are left finally in a kind of grayness. We look from darkness into light and entertain an enchanting faith that we belong over there, in the immortal dance, but we aren?t there now. We are in the machine-shop of poetry. Its own fiat will not let us out completely.

Works Cited

Jarrell, Randall. ?Fifty Years of American Poetry.? The Third Book of Criticism. NY: Farrar, Straus

Richard Wilbur, God, and Christianity

Richard Wilbur, God, and Christianity

A recurring theme in the poetry of Richard Wilbur is one of God and Christianity. Biblical references can be found throughout his work, even in poems that have little to do with religion. However, this theme is quite prominent as there are several poems contain more than passing references. Wilbur provides in these poems ideas that Christians can identify with, either in the Christian lifestyle or straight from the Bible.

Richard Wilbur was raised by a Presbyterian father and an Episcopalian mother. Because his mother was closer to her own faith, they attended an Episcopal church. When Wilbur’s parents opted to not go to church, a neighbor took him to a Baptist Sunday School. When he was in high school and college, he was involved in organizations such as Amherst’s Christian Association. It was during the war that Wilbur says he had some “inwardness” because he “carried everywhere” a missal that a chaplain gave to him (Image). Wilbur’s religious background is steeped in Christianity and different denominations. This gave him familiarity with scripture and doctrine.

In “Peter,” Wilbur writes about the well-known apostle of Christ. The speaker is Peter himself, and the reader is shown his perspective during the last week of Christ’s life. He confesses that they had drank “new wine” and had fallen asleep (line 3). This refers to Matthew 26:36-45 where the apostles, Peter included, kept falling asleep while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. This was a time of distress for Jesus, and Peter knew that their own problems of drowsiness were minor compared to the impending weight of the cross on the shoulders of the Savior “at the story’s close” (line 1). He also know…

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… Wilbur.” Poets in Progress. Ed. Edward Hungerford. Northwestern University, 1962. 59-72.

Hill, Donald. Richard Wilbur. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1991.

Wilbur, Richard. Interview. Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. .

Wilbur, Richard. New and Collected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

Wilbur, Richard. “Peter.” New and Collected Poems. 67.

Wilbur, Richard. “The Proof.” New and Collected Poems. 152.

Wilbur, Richard. “Matthew VIII, 28 ff.” New and Collected Poems. 154.

Wilbur, Richard. “A Christmas Hymn.” New and Collected Poems. 225-26.

Wilbur, Richard. “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” New and Collected Poems. 233-34.

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