The Metaphysics of Richard Wilbur

By Epstein, Daniel Mark | New Criterion, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Metaphysics of Richard Wilbur


Epstein, Daniel Mark, New Criterion


During World War II the Allied forces in Europe had trouble maintaining a staff of cryptographers. There were few who could do the difficult work of deciphering enemy codes. Some got killed and others cracked up under the pressure of constant shelling and sleep deprivation.

Two who survived with their wits intact were Willard Van Orman Quine (1908-2000), whom many consider the most influential American philosopher of the late twentieth century, and Richard Wilbur (born 1921), the lyric poet. In 1950 they found themselves sitting across the table from each other in the dining room of the Harvard Society of Fellows. The philosopher had distinguished himself by deciphering German submarine codes. Quine, a Senior Fellow, was obsessed with maps and spoke of obscure islands and canyons. As the Senior Fellow talked on, the Junior Fellow listened.

They did not discuss the war in those comfortable surroundings, nor did they discuss philosophy. Their polite silence on the topic typifies the rift between the newer schools of logical positivism and the fading practice of metaphysics. Quine--building upon the work of A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap--was publishing his doctrine of "naturalism," claiming that philosophy rightly belonged to the natural sciences. His book Word and Object (1960) would drive the last nails into the coffin of metaphysics, which has only recently been resurrected.

Meanwhile the other cryptographer, Richard Wilbur, was publishing the poems that would assure his place as our finest metaphysical poet since Wallace Stevens. Despite the prevailing arguments consigning metaphysics to a branch of science, Wilbur persisted in feeling his way through the classical questions of ontology and cosmology. Just as Stevens was the preeminent metaphysical poet of the early twentieth century, Wilbur is our greatest since World War II. His new Collected Poems is now available from Harcourt. (1)

We can only speculate on what might have transpired had these two exceptional minds engaged each other on these important issues. But in that relatively tranquil era the well-bred colleagues were not about to lock horns in the dining room of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

In an age that has abandoned metaphysics, how does society recognize or appreciate a metaphysical poet? It is a troubling question, as Saul Bellow showed in his novel Humboldt's Gift (1975), which is based upon the tragic life of the poet Delmore Schwartz. Bellow's allegory portrays the poet as an artistic martyr in a culture of materialism, where science has triumphed over the spirit.

Richard Wilbur's fate has not been so cruel. He has been widely praised for the elegance of his verse: the beauty of his musical line, the brilliance of his imagery, and the ingenuity of his metaphors. But there is scant evidence that Wilbur has been appreciated for the life-giving function at the heart of that much-celebrated technique--that is, a man thinking deeply with his entire being, a man who thinks feelingly. For all that has been written about Wilbur you might believe he was William Carlos Williams ("No ideas but in things!") framed in formal rhyme and meter, or Marianne Moore in a tuxedo, hypnotized by the pinwheel of particulars. Wilbur honors both, but resembles neither.

Critics who view modern poetry as a species of sensational journalism or as an art requiring constant formal innovation have complained that Wilbur "does not go far enough" to be considered a major poet. What they really mean is that his poetry is neither "confessional" in the operatic vein of Sylvia Plath nor is it "experimental" in the manner of Charles Olson.

That Richard Wilbur kept a sacred fire going for fifty years by blowing on it with his breath--the ancient fire of metaphysics that had nearly been drowned by Rudolf Carnap, Willard Quine, and the deconstructionists--this history has gone largely unnoticed.

If a metaphysician, say, Bishop Berkeley, falls over dead in the forest and there is nobody there to hear him, will he make a sound? …

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