Hope permeates God’s creation, our natural world and the world of nature, as concrete images and as an enduring cycle, a complete and unrelenting season in itself…
Hope is not a finite thing as Emily Dickinson well knew. A thing of feathers it is, and few definitions could do it justice. Yet we can catch a glimpse of what hope is, almost an experiential knowing, through the poetic works of Richard Wilbur. This is not the type of hope that is an oversimplified antidote to the world’s ills or the type that’s an unrealistic ideal. For Wilbur, the sense of hope is a sense of goodness, a full awareness of a life beautiful that seeps through many of his poems. We feel it and see it. Through Wilbur’s contrasting imagery and a cyclical view of life, God’s sovereignty and the hope therein become clear.
With thoughts on man’s nature and his relationship with God, Wilbur paints an image of hope using a blend of stark contrasting imagery and human emotion. His “On the Marginal Way” describes mass death as figured in human history, yet Wilbur resolves with Joy for a moment . . . that all things shall be brought to the full state and stature of their kind and the vast motive wash and wash our own. The arrival of hope and joy wash over human tragedy, perhaps regardless of it. Wilbur also acknowledges the heart’s wish for life in “In the Field.” Though the night had brought a nip of fear and dark talk, the light of day and myriad flowers brought hope. He ardently calls it the one unbounded thing we know. In the same poem, Wilbur also contrasts the constellations of the night sky, once figments and legends in ancient cultures, to the daisies of the field, also images of light. Thus light and lucent details such as stars or daisies symbolize hope.
Light also appears as hope in “A Wood” where the sun’s rays reach each varied layer of tree type from oak to dogwood to witch hazel.
Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,
Proud heads conversant with the power and glory
Of heaven’s rays or heaven’s thunderstrokes,
And adumbrators to the understory,
Where, in their shade, small trees of modest leanings
Contend for light and are content with gleanings.
And yet here’s dogwood; overshadowed, small,
But not inclined to droop and count its losses,
It cranes its way to sunlight after all,
And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.
And here’s witch hazel, that from underneath
Great vacant boughs will bloom in winter’s teeth.
Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.
In this simple rhyme, each and every tree contend for light and are content with gleanings as they live and thrive and offer a different element of beauty to the woods: the oak displays its proud heads, the dogwood its flowers and Christic symbol, the witch hazel its winter blooms. The variance of trees suggests that there is hope and life for all mankind, regardless of purpose or station. Each has beauty, and none are excluded.
Part of Wilbur’s sense of hope also comes from a cyclical view of life and an acknowledgement of Christian faith, as in “Green.”
Tree-leaves which till the growing season’s done,
Change into wood the powers of the sun,
Take from that radiance only reds and blues.
Green is a color that they cannot use,
And so their rustling myriads are seen
To wear all summer an extraneous green,
A green with no apparent role, unless
To be the symbol of a great largesse
Which has no end, though autumns may revoke
That shade from yellowed ash and rusted oak.
The color green has no end, even at the end of a season. It returns faithfully, much like hope may come and go in our lives yet always, always returns. Yes, it is a sign of “a great largesse,” but this is not a vague allusion. It is a broad one. Creation, too, is Christian evidence of our hope in Christ, as Christ returned from the dead after a brief “season” of hopelessness, so the color green revolves and the seasons play their part. Wilbur alludes to this in “Mayflies” when he voices his loneliness after witnessing an organized and dancing cloud of these insects. He brings himself back from this temporary hopelessness and says
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be/Not fly or star/But one whose task is joyfully to see/How fair the fiats of the caller are.
His hope returns when he acknowledges that the caller—God—rules in fair or beautiful accord. Lastly, like “Green,” seasons’ end does not necessarily hint at death. “Then” validates the life and perpetuity of the season’s cycles where the leaves have no graves and no loss in the leaf.
Then when the ample season
Warmed us, waned and went,
We gave to the leaves no graves,
To the robin gone no name,
Nor thought at the birds’ return
Of their sourceless dim descent,
And we read no loss in the leaf,
But a freshness ever the same.
The leaf first learned of years
One not forgotten fall;
Of lineage now, and loss
These latter singers tell,
Of a year when birds now still
Were all one choiring call
Till the unreturning leaves
As personified, the leaves understand that seasons and years pass by. However, the leaves do experience a true fall, as in man’s Fall in Eden, where they do know loss that somehow the birds tell of, and the leaves now become unreturning. This eternal perspective delineates the existence of and the loss of hope by contrast.
Wilbur’s reliance on nature, and thus God’s creation, does affirm his eternal hope and perspective. As Wilbur narrates the puzzle of why four great rock maples [are] seemingly aligned in “In Trackless Woods,” it becomes apparent that his or man’s conjecture is incapable of deciphering the issue.
In trackless woods, it puzzled me to find
Four great rock maples seemingly aligned,
As if they had been set out in a row
Before some house a century ago,
To edge the property and lend some shade.
I looked to see if ancient wheels had made
Old ruts to which the trees ran parallel,
But there were none, so far as I could tell—
There’d been no roadway. Nor could I find the square
Depression of a cellar anywhere,
And so I tramped on further, to survey
Amazing patterns in a hornbeam spray
Or spirals in a pine cone, under trees
Not subject to our stiff geometries.
With lighthearted manner, Wilbur logically compares his theories to his observance without success and concludes that what he has noticed is not subject to our [man’s] stiff geometries. By implication, he asserts God’s design.
In the same way, Wilbur uses the imagery of a spider’s web, God’s creation, as a parallel to man’s architectural design in “Fabrications.”
Each day men frame and weave/In their own way whatever looms in sight . . . though there is much unseen as if man cannot literally grasp that God and His creation have inspired man to create and build. Wilbur contends that The world is bottomless . . . That we grasp nothing until we understand that God is in control, so then we grasp it all. He simplifies his view by poem’s end and returns to his first metaphor where man’s arch form, an architrave, is reflected by the spider’s web, or more veraciously, God’s design.
For Richard Wilbur, hope permeates God’s creation, our natural world and the world of nature, as concrete images and as an enduring cycle, a complete and unrelenting season in itself. Above all, hope persists as a recurring theme, one that strengthens our hearts as readers and one that lends to Wilbur’s assertion of God’s design and His sovereignty in this world of man.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.