When considering poems appropiate for Valentines day, my thoughts first turned to Richard Wilburs powerful Love Calls Us to the Things of the World because of the title. However, a closer review revealed it isnt really about romantic love, that staple of Valentines Day. Instead, its about a far deeper love, the love of the physical world, the love of life as lived here on earth.
Wilburs use of conceits is reminiscent of my favorite metaphysical poets, while his use of the pulleys in the first line reminded me of Herberts poem The Pulley. Like the metaphysical poets, Wilbur combines humor and seriousness to create a complex poem that reflects our own contradictory view of the relationship between the soul and our body:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"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.’
Like the awakened sleeper in the poem, it took me a minute to realize exactly what Wilbur is describing at the beginning of this poem. Because the soul is freed from the body at night, when the body is startled awake in the morning, the soul sees itself, and other souls, floating in the air.
Though this appears to be just laundry hanging on a line outside the window, the narrator assures us truly there they are, filling whatever they are wearing with the deep joy of their impersonal breathing, impersonal because the soul, in its natural state, lives a calm, meditative existence, not the passionate life of the body.
Returning to the body, the soul shrinks from the punctual rape of every blessed day, because to the souls impersonal breathing any bodily activity must seem like rape. Still, the soul sees each day as a blessed day, hardly a term I would use to describe rape. The soul wishes there would be nothing on earth but laundry, unsoiled souls, repentant hands trying to wash the stains away, and a celebration of heaven.
Still, the soul descends with the warm sunshine in bitter love. Bitter because the soul knows that man must invariably sin, but still with love because the soul is drawn to the passion that only the body can truly feel and express. The souls descend from their angelic heights to the backs of both thieves and lovers who daily go forth to lose their innocence. Even the saintly, the nuns walking around with bad habits, like all of us, are trying to strike the difficult balance between the needs of the soul and the desires of the body.
Wilburs delightful poem celebrates the joy we all find in our bodies while still trying to stay true to our soul, that difficult line we all find so hard to walk while intoxicated with life.