Richard Wilbur’s “The Terrace”

I’ve just started reading Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems: 1943-2004, and as usual I started with the earliest poems, though it meant I had to begin at the end of the collection. Although Wilbur does not entirely ignore the four years he spent fighting in World War II in the two volumes entitled “The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems,” 1947, and “Ceremony and Other Poems,” 1950, very few of the poems could be labeled “war poems.”

This poem, even though war is never mentioned, seems to me to accurately display the kind of alienation many soldiers experience after combat experience:

THE TERRACE

De la vaporisation et de la centralisation du Moi. Tout est là.
-Baudelaire


We ate with steeps of sky about our shoulders,
High up a mountainside,
On a terrace like a raft roving
Seas of view.

The tablecloth was green, and blurred away
Toward verdure far and wide,
And all the country came to be
Our table too.

We drank in tilted glasses of rosé
From tinted peaks of snow,
Tasting the frothy mist, and freshest
Fathoms of air.

Women were washing linens in a stream
Deep down below,
The sound of water over their knuckles
A sauce rare.

Imminent towns whose weatherbeaten walls
Looked like the finest cheese
Bowled us enormous melons from their
Tolling towers.

Mixt into all the day we heard the spice
Of many tangy bees
Eddying through the miles-deep
Salad of flowers.

When we were done we had our hunger still;
We dipped our cups in light;
We caught the fine-spun shade of clouds
In spoon and plate;

Drunk with imagined breathing, we inhaled
The dancing smell of height;
We fished for the bark of a dog, the squeak
Of a pasture gate.

But for all our benedictions and our gay
Readily said graces,
The evening stole our provender and
Left us there,

And darkness filled the specious space, and fell
Betwixt our silent faces,
Pressing against our eyes its absent
Fathomless stare.

Out in the dark we felt the real mountains
Hulking in proper might,
And we felt the edge of the black wind’s
Regardless cleave,

And we knew we had eaten not the manna of heaven
But our own reflected light,
And we were the only part of the night that we
Couldn’t believe.

This begins like a stereotypical love poem with a traditional romantic setting. The first eight stanzas are filled with the very language of love, “steeps of sky about our shoulders,” “verdure far and away,” “freshest fathoms of air” and poetic spellings like “mixt” and “betwixt.”

However, instead of the night bringing love’s fulfillment, as expected, it suddenly leaves the characters facing darkness’ “absent fathomless stare.” In the dark the mountains are “hulking,” and cold night winds “cleave” the two.

They conclude that any love they felt during the day must have been their “own reflected light,” a light that suddenly seems less believable standing there in the dark. Once having lost their “innocence, they seem incapable of believing the old myths. They are the equivalent of Hemingway’s “lost generation.” Having seen first hand what evil mankind is capable of, it’s hard to trust such “perfect moments.” They have lost faith in their very selves.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting essay by Dana Gioai calledRichard Wilbur: A Critical Survey of His Career that has some war history particularly relevant to this poem, but also includes several equally interesting ideas.

4 thoughts on “Richard Wilbur’s “The Terrace”

  1. I didn’t know the poet or the poem Loren. Once you know that the poet has been on a battleground then you can feel his inner turmoil in almost every line. I like the poem very much because it says so much more than what is written on the page. (That should be true of all poetry, I think, don’t you?)

  2. Thanks for sharing another good poem by a poet I don’t know! The emotional “black hole” at the end is almost prophetic of the light-swallowing “black holes” physicists talk about now.

    The sensation of turning off the light which it gave me reminded me of a short poem by Mervyn Peake, less good I think, but worth reading:

    Conceit

    I heard a winter tree in song
    It’s leaves were birds, a hundred strong;
    When all at once it ceased to sing
    For every leaf had taken wing.

  3. I think the essence of poetry is “understatement,” pat, where things stand for what they mean.

    Of course, I tend to like Chinese poets and Imagists an awful lot, so that might be a personal prejudice.

What do you think?