Dec 19, 2011

Richard Wilbur's "The House": Elegy and Sensibility

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think anyone working on an elegy for a deceased lover can stop now. Go watch TV; eat some potato chips. Richard Wilbur’s “The House” has been written. 

The House- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Less extravagantly, I suggest again that fixed form adds elegance to a poem only if the poet has the ear, the intelligence, and the will to control it. In “The House” the very subject matter screams,  “Load me down with sentiment; weep, wail, keen, wallow in grief!” Instead, Wilbur gives us calm and dignity, along with the sense that the speaker genuinely knows the dead wife, her dreams, her longings, her sense of where peace is. He knows her mind and cares enough about her to offer some details; there’s no need for shouting.

A white house? A white gatepost? A rock-lined shore with pines? Won’t someone argue that wife or speaker or both are lovers in a postcard clich√©? For all I know, someone has already said that, but I hardly feel a hint of it. Or maybe I mean that Richard Wilbur walks right up to that line of sentimentality, excess and triteness, then spits in its eye. It’s as if someone’s dared him to over-write; he’s accepted the challenge and triumphed.

Wilbur honors his subject by quietly, thoroughly knowing it, by showing how intimately and completely he has understood the now absent bride. He achieves this by gracing her with his restraint in language and emotion, which are more powerful and more beautiful because they are restrained.

At the end of  “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas writes about time, mortality, and aging. He concludes, “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

At the end of Act II of King Lear, in a different kind of mourning, the aged, deeply flawed, and even more deeply betrayed king tries to grit his teeth:

                                                            You think I'll weep;
            No, I'll not weep:
            I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
                                                                    (Storm and Tempest.)
            Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
            Or ere I'll weep.   O, Fool!     I shall go mad!

In a way, that’s how I hear “The House,” though it’s even more subdued than Dylan Thomas or King Lear. This is a time in America when intimacy, for most, means sex—how many orgasms? how intense? on a scale of one to ten? how many inches? is less really more? what positions? how creative? after how many dates? Surely Playboy's advice column has vanished?—everything those editors might offer is now revealed in TV sit-coms and Comedy Channel stand-up performances, and it's all about math, measurement, and seismographs, not intimacy, that quaint old notion. Or vulnerability. Or loss. Or shared pleasure, shared secrets, good company, conversation or silence on a two-lane road or a boat.

Richard Wilbur—who has always written from a perspective of elegant restraint, high above such casino, whorehouse stuff—gives us this poem about love.  Probably he’s just sharing, grieving aloud, which is one of the purposes of poetry and song. Or maybe he thinks we need a reminder about other kinds of intimacy, kinds of grace, or even a definition of love, and all the ways of knowing another person. 

The House- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More 


Brenda's Arizona said...

Pretty dang depressing. Is he trying to sneak into her past? He has NO RIGHT there!

gothpunkuncle said...

It's not depressing at all. We should all be so lucky to keep a lover's dream alive after his/her passing, let alone understand anything of our intimates' inner life.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

uh oh - you've given us a binary to choose from. Elegant restraint or Vegas whorehouse overkill.

The widows walk of a home she described to the living "him". The idea of locating it when the beloved "her" is no longer within reach.

Everyone is a bit foolish when it comes to how death effects us.

Anonymous said...

oh, the ABBA, ABBA. And I don't mean the Swedish group.

A deft, gentle, firm hand. Someone who wept, screamed, and shouted and then flattened his grief into these few perfect, pragmatic phrases.

Anonymous said...

As tombstones are given to quotes by our betters, I'm not sure why most don't say this: "Night after night, my love, I put to sea."

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I had the idea that she had GIVEN him that dream info--as a gesture of intimacy. But your point is interesting, even provocative, on a general level, outside the poem. Do we ask partners to take us as unknowns? As a pig in a poke? (Love that old expression--wonder if I've ever seen that poke). Yet we'd surely admit we all keep secrets, maybe also that we have a RIGHT to keep them, as you say.

PA, Love that binary, whether I said it or not (and I probably did!). And yes, how do we know how to behave around Mr. D. until he's in the room? And then we most likely don't know, we just do it. (Hence some rather asinine ceremonies, as I've opined before. But I guess that's just people trying to find and hang on to some guidelines).

AH, good idea for tombstones! And sparkling word choice before that. I didn't know they were Swedish, tho' I got conned into going to hear them once (if memory serves, the . . . energy? . . . was impressive).

Brenda's Arizona said...

Amazing interpretation differences. Inspite of being lead to feel the writer is thinking of his dead lover, I read it all different.

The woman is alive. Sleeping next to him - he is the new lover in her life. And he wonders, is she thinking of her old love, her ONE TRUE love - the one who isn't him? She sighs, thinking of her old house she shared with a that one love. And this new guy, her companion now, tries to remember what she has said about her old love, her old house, her old life. This new guy will never reach the status of the former lover, but she accepts him none the less. And he accepts her, even if she sighs when she thinks of her old life.

He wants to know more. She has shut that door to him. It is only open to her, her sighs.
OR something like that.

I'll go put my head back in my sighs now.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, that is REALLY interesting, and it explains why you're adamant about his having NO RIGHT there (though that's a whole other, huge, messy discussion).

What if I was casually reading Wilbur's life and age (he's around 90) into the poem, violating my quasi-New Critical perspective on things? If that happened, can I ever go out in public again?

Banjo52 said...

I just re-read the poem. GPU and I might be in trouble . . .

Will others weigh in on this? Is the woman dead or alive? In either case, is the house of her dreams merely an idealized place, or is it the site of a previous relationship with a man other than the speaker?

Notice it's a house "she held no title to" but that doesn't entirely prove anything.

In any of these cases, how much of, what parts of, her past does the speaker have a right to? How much info has she offered him, as opposed to how much he's pushing for?

Brenda's Arizona said...

Or maybe I am in trouble. sigh...

Anonymous said...

No matter how close you are to someone, you can't share their sleep and you can't share their death.

gothpunkuncle said...

There's no other man, and Wilbur is poet enough to have put one there had he intended one. Though we're, of course, forbidden the biographical read by Dr. Banjo, this IS a recent poem, written since the poet lost his wife of 64 years in 2007. Biography aside, the language in the poem is profoundly elegiac: the shift in verb tense, the "widow's walk," from the shore, at least, this must appear as a mansion on the hill. Significant? Check your hymnal.

Notice below that the Wall Street Journal isn't reading this as a vindictive against his wife's former lover:

"He believes over time, though, that the joints in his verse have loosened up even as those in his body have stiffened. Whereas his family once seemed off-limits as a subject, last year's "Anterooms: New Poems and Translations" opened with a tribute to his wife ("The House") that was heartbreaking in its reticence."

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjo and GPU, you two are great teachers! MORE!

Lovers' Lane