In 1936, just ten years prior to Wilbur's publication of The Beautiful Changes, New Critical proponent John Crowe Ransom, defined the modem period as the age which "recovered the admirable John Donne; that is the way to identify its literary taste" (The World's Body 78). It should not surprise anyone, then, that ten years later those New Critics who praised Wilbur's poetry also deemed it "metaphysical," frequently comparing it to the poetry of John Donne. Indeed, it is Richard Wilbur, perhaps more than any other twentieth century American poet, whom critics tag as "metaphysical." This paper analyses in what sense is Wilbur's poetry metaphysical?
Equal engagement with the material and spiritual is the overarching theme in Wilbur's poetry and we find it in nearly all his poems. In his essay, "On My Own Work," he assesses that "All my poems have to do (a critic might say) with the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit. They assume that such intuitions are, or may be, true: they incline, however, to favor a spirituality that is not abstracted, not dissociated, and not world-renouncing" (160). This search for correspondence is, of course, not unique to metaphysical poetry. The Romantic poets also explored the interplay between reality and imagination and between the material and the spiritual. What marks Wilbur as a metaphysical poet, however, is that he forges a poetic where the mundane and the miraculous easily cohabit and he achieves this balance through a rhetorical method, in which each word is tangible and immediately felt; a method which Eliot found in John Donne's poems and described an apprehension of thought felt at the fingertips (Eliot ‘Selected Essays’ 246). Wilbur employs the same seventeenth century metaphysical poets' rhetorical bag of tricks to assume, maintain, and shift an argumentative stance within a single poem. His rhetoric exploits the power of extended analogies, juxtapositions of extremes, a plain and colloquial style of speech and dramatic argumentation that includes argumentation through formal structure, association and punning word play to procure an emotional and intellectual response to experience. His poem "A Glance from the Bridge" renders the familiar sight ofa city's grime in winter into a new image infused with light and possibility (Wilbur ‘Collected Poems’ 384). The poem accomplishes this through its logical structure of mirror (yet contrasting) six lined stanzas that build off the single image of a person peering off a bridge. In the first stanza the city's river is a "black facade" (line 2) restricted as if "squeezed […] in a vice" (line 4), and gulls are immobile on the frozen and "sullied ice" (line 6). In the second stanza, the imagery turns to that of movement and light as the gulls "rise and braid their gliding, white and spare" (line 7). The river is no longer frozen, but "swirls" (line 10). These contrasts come to a head in the poem's final lines and its shocking resolution: [ ] the freshening river swirled As if an ancient whore undid her gown And showed a body almost like a girl's, (lines 10-12) The juxtaposition of extremes and vivid conceit