Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Richard Wilbur and a Summary of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"
"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is one of Richard Wilbur's best known poems.
It has a simple theme: the human soul needs the body, the mundane becomes spiritual. That something as ordinary as washed clothes on a drying line can be experienced as angelic, numinous and mysterious.
The form and diction of this poem combine to produce a strong lyrical tension that carries the idea of the human soul bearing witness to a new day, inspired by the clothes drying on a line, before being shocked by reality.
Such an everyday scenario transformed by the metaphor of laundry as angel. Innocence clothed, influenced by the air, resembling water, touching heaven.
- The first line contains a simple pulley, yet the reader is then whisked away into an ethereal world awash with angels—God's employees sent down to earth to do specific tasks.
- At line 17, at the end of the third stanza, there is a turn as the soul descends back into the body to recommence its co-existence in the mundane.
Many commentators have remarked on this crucial change:
"The important thing about Wilbur's poem," writes Richard Eberhart, "is that it celebrates the immanence of spirit in spite of the 'punctual rape of every blessed day.' The conflict is between a soul-state and an earth-state. The soul wins. The soul, felt as a vision of angelic laundry on awakening, must still be incorporated into the necessities and imperfections of everyday reality. Man is redeemed by the angelic vision"
The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic: Eight Symposia ed. Anthony Ostroff (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1964)
The title of the poem seems to come from two sources: the Bible and Saint Augustine, Christian theologian who wrote the Confessions.
In 1 John, 2:15 - 'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.'
So, is the poem a refutation of this biblical passage?
And as Robert Bagg noted:
Now, in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” which he wrote after awakening to billowing white laundry outside his Roman apartment—“Outside the open window / The morning air is all awash with angels”—Wilbur began to reflect on the pursuits of ordinary people going about their mundane rounds, engaged in work and pleasure, until they arrive at destinations as blessed as any saint’s. (The poem’s title is taken from Augustine’s Confessions.) No longer were Wilbur’s Christian allegiances implied or low-key, as in his pre-Rome work—now they were central, providing structure, imagery, and passion for every poem he wrote that year.
"The Poet in Rome: Richard Wilbur in Postwar Italy" | The Common (thecommononline.org) October 1, 2012
That academic year in Rome (1954–55) was a turning point for Richard Wilbur. In 1956 his book Things of this World: Poems was published and it took the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, making his name as a leading poet of his generation.
Those who admire his poetry note the intelligence, irony, formal phrasing and traditional rhyme. There are Frost-like pastoral observations, show lyrics, neat folk-philosophies, religious stanzas and more on the subject of nature, especially plants.
And it should be noted that Wilbur translated many French and Russian poets into English during his career. He also drew cartoons and published children's verse. A versatile artist for over seven decades, his death coming in 2017 at age 96.
Broad-ranging, technically astute and quietly beautiful, Wilbur's poetry has an inner confidence to it, reflecting careful, solid composition. This endears him to many but some see his traditional crafted work as old fashioned—at the other end of the spectrum to say Ginsberg's funky, experimental street language or Frank O'Hara's dynamic spontaneity.
Is Richard Wilbur's poetry too formal? Poet Randall Jarrell observed, Wilbur 'never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.' The same poet also wrote that Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing." It is this faith in the world that shines through Wilbur's poetic language.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to the poet himself:
"I've always agreed with Eliot's assertion that poetry 'is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality'"
Richard Wilbur, in Poets in Progress (1966)
"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" by Richard Wilbur
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"
Six stanzas, 34 lines in total, taking the reader from a washing line pulley to the idea of the soul accepting the body (or vice versa?) as a vehicle for life on earth, back in the everyday routines, the mundane, the work to be done.
This poem is unusual in having a third person speaker twice quoting the voice of the soul as the man begins to wake to sun and white laundry—first time it wants an ideal world where it can remain free of the body; second it accepts the fact that it needs to live in a body in the real world, no matter how dark, how innocent.
Eyes are opening first thing and washing line pulleys are being used. They cry, personified cogs in the morning's laundry work. Are they made of metal, are they screeching? Could be.
The reader can conjure up an immediate image. Pulleys, the ubiquitous round wheels that allow a change of direction to smoothly take place. Where rope is placed, where weight and pressure balances out. They've been around for millennia.
As if to counteract this most obvious of objects the next three lines take off at a tangent. Someone has been asleep, they have a spirited soul that is somehow separated from the body momentarily.
No easy visual here, only the metaphysical idea that soul is awakening—out of the body. Here is a person waking up, being rudely woken up, shocked out of sleep, thinking that maybe this cannot be a real dawn?
A little more reality follows in the fifth line. There are windows—and outside in the morning air there are lots of angels.
The speaker goes on to give details—this is ordinary washing on a line but the bed-sheets, blouses and smocks are now performing as angels. They're having a great time as the breeze animates them.
That word halcyon suggests a time of peace and happiness as experienced in the past.
As the air fills the garments and makes the bed-sheets rise these angels appear to be breathing, so inspiring is the effect.
Now they appear to be flying at a rate which enhances their being. Note the word omnipresence meaning all around (and perhaps has a biblical connection as God is said to be omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent).
The angels are a product of the speaker's imagination but they also rely on the breeze for their existence. When the breeze drops it is as if they are now not there—yet they are rapt, as if caught in a divinely inspired trance.
Line 17 is the turning point of the poem. The line is short, just three words long. Enjambment takes the verb shrinks on into the next stanza. The reader hangs on, waiting for the next line as the soul prepares for something altogether different.
Line 18 is perhaps the most curious as it implies that the soul might not remember the angelic vision it has witnessed. That verb shrink means also to move away because of fear or trepidation. Why?
The reader is given a clue, a strong clue. The soul shrinks from ordinary time, every day spent in reality, in the material, the world of living human experience, which it needs, which it cannot survive without.
Note the word rape which comes like a total shock, especially when coupled with blessèd which suggests a biblical influence? This certainly contrasts strongly with what has gone before and underlines the idea of the soul being subject to the violence of bodily co-existence. Each day.
The soul cries (an echo of those first line pulleys) for laundry, rosy hands and dances near heaven. If only earthly life was like this. Simple! It's an inner expression that can never be realised in day to day living.
As the man wakes up the soul has to accept its descent into the corpuscular. Into the reasoning world. The sun, personified, warmly shapes things—hunks—as morning light increases and bitter love causes the change in voice and mindset.
The soul has to be in its darker place, the body, in order for it to be experienced. From the pure to the impure.
This is the new voice of the soul putting clean clothes on the sinful—thieves, the executed, lovers and nuns. They all are potentially angelic, they all have to exist as souls in the mundane world.
Love becomes a kind of go-between, interpreting, the universal emotional language that allows the soul to grasp the nature of things, however down to earth, however worldly.
When two or more consonants similar sounding are close together in a line:
sleep, the astounded soul
air is all awash
some are in smocks
whatever they wear/With
with a warm
Similar sounding vowels close together in a line:
Now they are flying in place, conveying
A pause in a line caused by punctuation or naturally:
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
Angels as laundry: bed-sheets, blouses and smocks.
The sun acknowledges
staying like white water
What Is the Meter in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"?
Better not to take the meter for granted in this poem—it is NOT all iambic pentameter, it does not have a plodding daDUM daDUM rhythm and each line does not contain 10 syllables!
A quick scan of the form tells the reader that some lines are very short and that the syntax is anything but straightforward. So there will be variation in the stresses across each line.
To gain a proper insight into the meter of this poem let's take a close-up look at the first stanza:
The eyes / open / to a / cry of / pulleys, And spi / rited / from sleep,/ the ast / ounded soul Hangs for / a mo / ment bod / iless / and simple As false dawn. Outside / the o / pen window The mor / ning air / is all / awash / with angels.
First line: 10 syllables, five feet, trochees dominant, (trochee = stressed-unstressed syllable) trochaic pentameter.
Second line: 11 syllables, mix of pyrrhic and spondaic, iambic and anapaest in last foot. Iambic pentameter.
Third line: 11 syllables, mix of trochee, iamb, pyrrhic and amphibrach (daDUMda)
Fourth Line: 3 syllables, amphibrach.
Fifth Line: 7 syllables, mix of spondee, iamb, amphibrach
Sixth line: 11 syllables, iambic pentameter, with amphibrach foot.
- Note that the last syllable of five of the six lines is unstressed, which is said to fall away, and traditionally is a feminine ending. Some would scan an amphibrach, others an extra syllable or hyperbeat.
- Throughout the poem the meter varies considerably line to line. There is a real mix of stresses which, in such a curious syntax, results in a lilting, changeable beat.
- Poetry Foundation
- Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
- "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" | Modern American Poetry
- BAWER, BRUCE. “POETRY: Richard Wilbur's Difficult Balance.” The American Scholar, vol. 60, no. 2, 1991, pp. 261–266. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41211905. Accessed 31 May 2021.
- FIELD (oberlin.edu) No 83, 2010, Desales Harrison
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Spacey