A Fire Was In My Head

Two Lines from Richard Wilbur
3 January 2009, 10:51 am
Filed under: Essay | Tags: , , , , , ,

I have admired Richard Wilbur’s poetry for some time now without ever truly having delved into it.  Recently, though, I found Mayflies, a collection of poems and translations at the Philadelphia Free Library, and for the last few weeks I have opened it without plan or regularity, seeing what I could see.  Yesterday, I saw this two-liner:

A Short History

Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame.

Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.

Wilbur’s poetry maintains a right-angled elegance, a sophistication that rather hides itself in plainness; the above piece proves no exception.  Rather than dazzle his readers with visual tricks or funky punctuation, he presents this couplet in a very traditional mold (iambic pentameter) and in mostly common language.  (I argue that the “thence” construction has become the sort of pervasive cliché that can be called “common.”)  Instead he makes his anthropological point by tipping ordinary phrases backwards.  The line “we planted corn; we made the cattle tame” hardly makes any kind of point, but by inverting the subject/object structure, Wilbur forces us to re-examine the causal relationship of farming and modern human civilization.  (Correctly, I think, as I doubt “early man” aspired to a future parade of huts, citadels, and kingdoms.)

While the first line gives pause, opens up a space for consideration, the second is where Wilbur unleashes his magic.  In a poem so short, it is difficult to manage any real transition, but here Wilbur has managed an extremely subtle and important one.  The three-building list functions as it should, detailing a progression of architecture we may take as synechdoche for the progress of civilization.  The transition, however, comes from the word “came,” which Wilbur uses to maneuver his history into the realm of the tidy phrase “kingdom come.”  Suddenly, we have moved from this world to the next.

The expression, at least in its widely disseminated form, originates in the Lord’s Prayer–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–which lends his short history the force of something incanted, spoken en masse to melt multiple individual spirits into one vociferous myth.  The poem uses that stock phrase in disguise, thereby lashing the common sentiment of humanity’s having arrived from its simpleton past to a paradise state of advancement to the Christian doctrine of eternal paradise.  I imagine that both Christians and Atheists easily understand the irony of that comparison, which calls into question a fundamental assumption of history that we have eternally advanced from a low state.    And he accomplishes the whole thing rhythmically, obliging the human ear, which craves order.  The second line, particularly, lilts.  It sounds like a lullaby.  In Richard Wilbur’s “A Short History,” human progress is the lullaby we use to convince ourselves that everything is alright.