Richard Wilbur, American poet, died two days ago. He was 96 years old.
I first became aware of Wilbur’s poetry about six decades ago when I read his “Epistemology” in a paperback anthology of new American verse.
I.Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.II.We milk the cow of the world, and as we doWe whisper in her ear, 'You are not true.'
I didn’t (couldn’t, perhaps) at the time articulate why I liked the poem; it was, I assume, its wittiness and its concreteness, however, that made me intuit its philosophical underpinnings (which would become clearer in time).
A few years later, in graduate school, we used an anthology of classical French plays which included Wilbur’s translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. The French alexandrines rendered into English rhymed couplets, Wilbur’s translation became my standard text whenever I taught that play in a drama or satire course.
I also regularly taught Wilbur’s poem “Place Pigalle” in my freshman English course.
About two decades ago I was fortunate to meet Wilbur after he gave a reading at my university. It was an opportunity that I relished, for there was in my mind one sticking point in “Place Pigalle” that I couldn’t work out. But here, I hoped, was the poet himself to help me. The poet was a tall, well-dressed man and very friendly when I approached him. I told him of my affection for his Misanthrope and then explained that I couldn’t work out the phrase “with Arden ease” in “Place Pigalle.” (I had always wondered whether, as the setting was indoors, the reference was to some kind of furniture. Certainly not Elizabeth Arden—and so I toyed with that Arden for years, but what was it? I could not contextualize it.)
Wilbur hesitated for just a moment. “I think,” he replied, “that I was referring to the Forest of Arden.”
Of course! Of course! I shriveled inside my clothes and glanced at the poet, hoping he was not tilting his head to one side with his eyes searching for the heavens and thinking, “What kind of moron have we here?”
And so my search for enlightenment was successful. But to this day I—who taught As You Like It approximately every other semester in my Shakespeare course—occasionally look in the mirror and remember a big dummy who couldn’t put two obvious pieces of information together, or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say, “Couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”