James Longenbach: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"

"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" or "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" are as full of the joy of language as they are of the joy of the physical world: especially in the latter poem, language becomes a physical presence, the syntax so intricate, yet so plainly apprehensible, that it begs to be turned over in the mouth. The quieter "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is, famously, a poem of immanence: angels exist because, for a moment, the mind imagines them in laundry hanging on the line. But this argument against a world-denouncing spirituality is only half of the poem's purpose. A more violent, urgent world is registered in Wilbur's diction: words like rape and hunks slip into his elegant vocabulary, and their prominence has sometimes troubled the poem's admirers. Wilbur's point is that a devotion to laundry alone--to the world's sensual pleasures, physical and linguistic--may be as world-denying as the most ascetic spirituality. While the soul cries, "let there be nothing on earth but laundry," the language of the poem has suggested that this desire is unrealistic even before the poem's final lines (spoken by the soul as it descends into the awakening body) make Wilbur's position clear.

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;

Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,

And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating

Of dark habits,

                        keeping their difficult balance."

The balance here is not only between the physical and spiritual, but between a state of mind that dallies with physical pleasures and a necessary awakening to a sterner, even more challenging ground.

I wouldn't argue that "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" has much of (in Wilbur's phrase) "an implicit political dimension." But I do think that the poem became possible because of Wilbur's earlier meditations on wartime loss and postwar deprivation.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title James Longenbach: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Longenbach Criticism Target Richard Wilbur
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Modern Poetry after Modernism
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