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Analysis of Poem 'The Beautiful Changes' by Richard Wilbur

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

Richard Wilbur

'The Beautiful Changes' Analysis

'The Beautiful Changes' is a short poem that focuses on the ever-changing events in natural relationships. It is a subtle and quietly powerful creation that follows the observations of a speaker who is in raptures over the changes he witnesses whilst out in nature.

Richard Wilbur published this poem in 1947 in his first book and it made an instant impression. He went on to become one of the foremost American poets, known for his sophisticated elegance and technical mastery.

His explorations into nature and botany especially mark him out as a poet of outstanding perception. Whilst some have complained of an overly optimistic approach to life through his poems, others have praised his 'cleansing sanity and wit', noting that he 'sees the world as a place of joys, blessings and miracles.'

'The Beautiful Changes' relates these changes in nature to those in a person - it could be a lover, friend, close relative or anyone - and so allows the reader the space to explore the idea that all natural phenomena hold an essential beauty that goes on inspiring wonder.

'The Beautiful Changes'

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.

Overview of the Poem

'The Beautiful Changes' is a rhyming poem with a rhyme scheme of abacdc which means that the second and fifth lines of each stanza are non-rhymes sandwiched by full and vowel end rhymes. This, together with clever use of enjambment, helps tighten up the poem and make it more memorable and secure.

Internal rhymes help sound bond the lines together. The first stanza has wading/water/walker, the second stanza chameleon/green/greenness/deeper and the third stanza hold roses/only/moment.

There is a mix of metre, iambic feet dominating most lines which brings a steady rise and fall to the rhythm, whilst spondees slow things down with their consecutive stresses, for example:

Your hands / hold ro / ses al / ways in / a way / that says

The reader has to vary pace as the poem moves along, the different textures of each line and clause painting a rich tapestry. Alliteration here and there adds spice to the mix.

The syntax is carefully crafted, challenging the reader to get just the right tempo - the poem flows along a bit like a lazy stretch of river, bending here and there, growing deeper as it journeys on.

Note the early use of simile - Queen Anne's Lace lying like lilies on water - and metaphor - turns dry grass to a lake - which add interest and imagery to an already visual poem.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

First Stanza

The first line of this poem evokes an image of a person half in water, half in long grass, making their way through what is a common plant known as wild carrot, an umbelliferae with leafage that resembles fine lace. There is so much Queen Anne's Lace the speaker likens it to water, hence the 'wading' as he progresses through the grass.

And the references to a watery landscape continue with words like glide, lilies, water, lake, valley and Lucernes, an actual lake.

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  • The narrative starts off with an impersonal pronoun 'One', which kind of distances the speaker from the scene - why not use 'I' ? Is the poet wanting the reader to think that this 'One' could be anyone, any person at any time out in the middle of nature?

As the stanza moves along the effect of the speaker's motion sets up a chain reaction which is like the flow of water, reminding the speaker of a friend, a lover or a close relative. The parallel is that the shade experienced in the meadow is like that of a landscape created in the mind of the speaker by this mysterious other person.

The language used suggests that this is a beautiful landscape - fabulous blue Lucernes - spectacular lakes of blue.

  • Note the use of the noun valley which is turned into a verb in 'valleys my mind', a sense of beautiful transformation implied.

Second Stanza

The theme of profound change continues as the narrative moves into the world of animals, specifically a chameleon and a mantic. When a chameleon begins to transform his appearance it's as if the whole forest is changed by this one act of wonder.

The same goes for the humble mantis. Something as ordinary as a mantis on a leaf, or a mantis that is leaf-shaped, not only augments the green of the leaf but turns it into something completely different. Mantis and leaf become one. The green changes into something beautiful, and holds a new significance.

  • Note the phrase 'The beautiful changes' , how it becomes article/noun/verb - it is the thing that is beautiful that changes.

In this case, it is the awesome ability of the chameleon within the context of a forest that is beautiful; it is the green of mantis and leaf too. Both are subject to the forces of evolution, all is subject, and these changes could be easily described in scientific terms, but it is the freshness, the awesome dynamic, the speaker focuses on.

  • Beauty appeals to the emotions and heightens our awareness of the natural world in a way that science cannot.

It's interesting how the narrative moves away from the human world of the first stanza and gives the reader these objective insights into the ongoing environmental changes that are happening all around us.

Third Stanza

The third stanza moves back into the world of people and gets close up to possibly the friend or lover or close acquaintance from the first. Here is that person now holding a rose, a precious symbol of love and romance. When the rose is held it becomes of universal significance, or at least, it is no longer self-possessed; it is freely given to others (or to the speaker?).

The beautiful changes this time are generous and kind but above all, once the change is starting that beauty is restored, it is never completely lost. Something new and vital is kept, 'the second finding' and that is equally beautiful; life in its myriad aspects is able to produce variation on a sustained theme of beauty.

  • Time may ravish and destroy but death still leads to rebirth and that newly discovered unfathomable change can be experienced for its beauty again and again.


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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