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On "A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra"

Richard Wilbur

It is, in the first place, a minutely descriptive poem, in which I portray a wall-fountain in one of the public gardens of Rome, and then proceed across town to describe the celebrated fountains in St. Peter’s Square. At the same time the poem presents, by way of its contrasting fountains, a clash between the ideas of pleasure and joy, of acceptance and transcendence. [Wilbur reads the poem.] It may be that the poem I have just read arrives at some sort of reconciliation between the claims of pleasure and joy, acceptance and transcendence; but what one hears in most of it is a single meditative voice balancing argument and counterargument, feeling and counterfeeling.

From Richard Wilbur, "On My Own Work," Poets on Poetry, ed. Howard Nemerov (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 163, 165.

Donald L. Hill

Another poem from Wilbur's Italian journey, "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra," shows him again, as in "Altitudes," considering rival attitudes to life and weighing their merits. The poem consists of fifteen stanzas of the same construction as those in "Altitudes" (3a 5b 4b 5a); the long sentences run through the line-ends and stanza divisions in the same way; all but one of the sentence endings fall within the stanza. In his film interview Wilbur spoke of some of the special virtues of this form: "I think one reason why one finds in a lot of poetry nowadays very long sentences trickling down through the stanza is that in the long sentence you can have a more complex grammar and hence more freedom in placing the important words where you want them, at the beginnings and ends of lines. Of course, a lot of the length in this poem--a lot of the length of sentence--has to do with an effort to imitate the trickling down of the water."

The first six stanzas describe the Roman fountain referred to in the title. Nowhere else in his poems is Wilbur's descriptive talent more evident; the sounds of the language suggest at every point the flashing, splashing pattern of light, shade and sound that he wants to convey:

[. . . .]

Beginning with stanza seven Wilbur moves easily into the question at the heart of the poem: what human ideal this fountain expresses and now it compares with a different, more strenuous ideal implicit in another set of fountains described with equal brilliance in these lines:

[. . . .]

We see in the following stanzas what Wilbur has in mind: that the fountains of Maderna, unlike the wall fountain, express human aspiration upward, away from the actual toward the ideal, away from earth toward heaven: "If that is what men are/Or should be, if those water-saints display/The pattern of our areté [virtue] . . ." But he immediately supplies an apology for the fauns as an emblem of a different set of virtues equally Christian--not the yearning for what is not, but gratitude for what is:

[. . . .]

The Maderna fountain is shown "struggling aloft until it seems at rest/In the act of rising, until/The very wish of water is reversed . . . ," but the fauns "are at rest in fulness of desire/For what is given. . . ." The repeated phrase "at rest" serves to make the contrast sharper, and the ease with which this true and significant contrast is expressed is elegance.

Now, at the end of the poem, where another poet might say "As for me, I choose . . . ," Wilbur characteristically stays out of sight; but his voice continues, rapt, contemplative, and visionary as he refers us back to Saint Francis of Assisi for the tradition in which the wall fountain belongs:

[. . . .]

This final allegation is tentative ("Francis, perhaps, . . . might have seen in this"), but the vision of a blessed world in which we are perfectly assimilated and at home, "a shade of bliss" ("shade" meaning dream, ghost, shadow, copy, adumbration)--the vision inspired by the wall fountain is authentic and compelling. Despite the tentativeness, this is not a weak conclusion, but a strong one, in which the wall fountain in all its distracting glitter and homeliness is suddenly seen in perspective, its charm explained and justified. There are two opposite modes of sainthood--one lying in a perfect rejection of the world, the other in a perfect acceptance. The way of St. Francis may be no less difficult and blessed than the other. The last two stanzas show a heightened rhetoric, a subtle extravagance in the terms, that suggest both the dream and the consciousness that it is a dream, both its powerful charm and the ironic regret that it can never be realized; but the dream itself is real.

Do the descriptive passages in this poem show too much ingenuity? Do they distract us from the theme, which, as I have said, seems to me serious and important? I do not think so. I think the poem needs the fully detailed presentation of both fountains so that the contrast is well established. This is a highly elaborate poem; but if it were somehow cast in a more severe form, renouncing the pleasures of sound and sight, giving up rhyme perhaps, and refusing to play its high-spirited game with its formal hurdles, I cannot think it would be a better poem. The very central point of the poem is a rejection of a spare and severe ideal.

From Richard Wilbur. New York: Twayne, 1967. Copyright © 1967 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

John B. Hougen

In "A Baroque Wall-Fountain," Wilbur uses a meditative voice to muse about different understandings of human nature and to focus on the relationship of ecstasy and order. The first possibility entertained by the meditative self is expressed by the baroque fountain mentioned in the poem’s title:

[. . . .]

Here the form is mimetically suited to the subject matter. Long sentences open the poem and are "an effort to imitate the trickling down of the water." The rhymes mime the repetition of the fountain's shell motif. The rhythm repeatedly pauses for caesura and then tumbles forward in anapests or "drips" regularly in iambics.

In the midst of these descriptive lines, there are several hints that contrasting visions of self and world will be debated more explicitly later on. Wilbur notes that the bronze crown is "too big" for the cherub in the fountain. A representative of heaven (the cherub) is being eaten by a representative of hell (the serpent). The water is described as sweet, perhaps meaning it is tempting and dangerous. It is falling, after all, and may be headed for the realm of sin and lawlessness. And yet these are only connotations. The tone is predominantly that of delighted description. The reader’s attention follows the water's descent and passes too quickly over the scene to be alarmed by these hints of trouble.

The lines that follow bring to the fore the question as to how to interpret the vision expressed by this fountain:

[ . . . .]

In these lines it is clear that the figures on the lower levels of the fountain are "happy," and more than happy--"in a saecular ecstasy." The scene is classically Dionysian: the water is in "ragged, loose / Collapse." The god has "shaggy knees," and his children are playing in "goatish innocence." The drama is in the conflict between the prevailing tone and the increasingly explicit hints of dissatisfaction with this particular vision of human nature: is the "saecular ecstasy" of the sculpted scene satisfying or spiritually impoverished? On the one hand, the rhythm and sonic devices, including rhyme, communicate an apparently pleasurable vision. On the other hand, certain words, laden with connotations drawn from Christian Scripture and Greek mythology, question this facade of happiness. The Oxford English Dictionary reports, for example, that "goatish" is a figurative expression for a "licentious man" and can mean "lascivious" and "lustful." (How innocent can "goatish innocence" be?) The fauness has "sparkling flesh" and flesh in the Paulinian lexicon can refer to that in this world which has fallen away from faith in God. The ecstasy is reported to be "saecular," "Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion, … non-sacred." The fauness has a "blinded smile," blind being a common Christian metaphor for a lack of spiritual enlightenment. In addition, she is "addled" by the moving pattern of light and shadow, more deeply affected than if she were merely drunk with wine or taken up in sensual pleasure. In short, though the dominant tone of this passage is pleasurable, Wilbur’s imagery and vocabulary strongly suggest that this baroque fountain does indeed figure forth a profound disorder.

The next six lines provide the primary pivot for the poem, a transition from one possible vision of human nature to another:

[. . . .]

Wilbur’s word play is especially transparent here as he considers simplicity and intricacy. My reading has suggested that the baroque fountain is not simple at all. Furthermore, the questions as to how to take the sculptor's intentions and as to whether they truly represent human nature are anything but simple. And yet, if the fountain represents sensuality without spirituality, it truly distorts human nature by being simplistic. If the "plain" fountains to be described in the next ten lines include an exploration of the spiritual, then a more complete and complex understanding of human nature may emerge.

[. . . .]

Once again Wilbur's sentence structure mimetically represents the water’s movement. Quickly the water is propelled to the top of its trajectory. Nearly as quickly it will fall, "decline, / And patter on the stones." In between it seems to hang in the air precariously struggling to defy gravity for several lines. The lines contain caesura interrupting the rhythm, each one causing the reader to ask: will the water fall back to earth now? . . . now? . . . now? Suspense is built until, at last, the decline begins.

Whereas the baroque fountain had Dionysian characteristics, this fountain has clean lines and bears the character of an intellectually satisfying work of art. No part of it is "too big" or "ragged" or "loose." In these ways it is Apollonian. However, as a vision of the true telos of human existence, the fountains that Maderna set before St. Peter's are even more mystical than they are Apollonian. The water’s trajectory is an allegory for the ascent of a human soul--struggling perhaps through spiritual discipline, until it is "at rest" in a pattern of rising toward God. "The very wish of the water," that is, the natural (gravitational) "desire" to be earthly, is overcome, and the head is "clear, high" and "cavorting" in heavenly play, filled with the blaze of God's glory. As in some mystical experiences, the self is transformed into "a fine / Illumined version of itself."

This description, like that of the baroque fountain contains within itself seeds of doubt that it is entirely satisfactory as a vision of human nature. For example, in contrast to "Teresa," where sexual imagery communicated the "involvement of Teresa's whole self (including the erotic) in dedication to God,"' in this section of "A Baroque Wall Fountain" the phallic imagery seems to suggest that in an orgasmic blaze the body disappears. To what end? The genuine mystic would answer, "to participate in God's glory." But here, it is possible that the body’s disappearance finally may be self-indulgent. The "fine / Illumined version of itself" will "patter on the stones its own applause." Furthermore, also in contrast to Teresa whose spirituality led her to run "God's barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain," here there is no suggestion that mystical rapture leads to engagement with the world. The vision of human nature expressed in the fountains in front of St. Peter’s does not add spirituality to the secular scene or lead unambiguously to purification. It removes the secular and physical, replacing them with a vision of what is truly human that is entirely spiritualized, and possibly self-indulgent.

The final stanzas of this poem reveal that Wilbur is indeed uncomfortable in seeking a mystical escape into pure spirituality. He remains haunted by the baroque fountain:

[. . . .]

If mystical ecstasy, if losing the self in a blaze of God's glory, is what humanity should be committed to, the poet asks, what shall we make of the attractive characteristics present in the baroque fountain? What of accepting one's creatureliness? What of accepting God's gifts without "disgust" or "ennui"? What of being "at rest--in fulness of desire / For what is given" rather than at rest in striving for what is beyond?

The meditative voice in this poem finally seeks to resolve the dramatic conflict. With some tentativeness, Wilbur puts forward yet another view of humanity. His model is St. Francis--both spiritual and committed to creation, living fully in this fallen world and yet focused on the next. St. Francis does not deny pain but accepts this world as a "shade of bliss." Not paradise, this world yet enables him to know the world to come. Snow, flowers, grass, sunlight and water: truly one with these, he is at heaven’s gate. His experience of paradise is imaginative and proleptic.

It turns out, then, that the choice which the poem leaves with us is not so much between accepting the things of this world and trying to escape as between relating to the things of this world in the manner of St. Francis or settling for something less: spiritless sensuality or disembodied mysticism. The dramatic tension is resolved as the Franciscan vision emerges. As Martz’s description of interior dramatization would have it, the poet has recorded the creation of "a self that is ... one with itself, ... with created nature, and with the supernatural." Partial visions of the self have been projected onto a stage and brought into dialogue with the whole self. A new self or at least a greater self-understanding has emerged from the process.

From Ecstasy within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by The American Academy of Religion.

Isabella Wai

In his book of word games for children, Opposites, Richard Wilbur speculates about the relativity between objects, or between ideas, and between objects and ideas. In his poems, he uses contrasts to explore the relatedness of two conflicting inclinations: spiritual aspirations and mundane commitments. Wilbur approaches the intangible dimension of a real object through its tangible appearance. He tends to juxtapose one character or object against another, balancing each against its "counterpoint." The opposed images show the inadequacy of one divorced from the other.

The rivalry between spiritual yearnings and a commitment to the imperfect world of objects inspires Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra."(1) The baroque fountain and its counterparts in St. Peter's Square represent two different views of happiness - participation in worldly pleasures and transcendence toward heavenly bliss. The poet favors a spirituality that is not world renouncing.

To comprehend His creation is to comprehend the Creator. Wilbur states:

I think a lot of my poems, instead of saying "isn't this a marvellous world permeated by divinity," say instead "come on, let's not be too spiritual, let's get down to earth." That of course implies the possibility of being spiritual. That kind of attack on a too-unworldly spirituality could be seen as a way of affirming the possibility of any kind of spirituality.(2)

The structure of many of Wilbur's poems is dialectical, corresponding to the rival claims of the actual and the ideal. His dialectics usually take the form of a succession of examples through which the poet examines the complexities involved in the conflict. The arrangement of the arguments is usually a juxtaposition of the thesis against the antithesis. Sometimes this is followed by a synthesis, which may be a poetic resolution ("difficult balance" in the poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" [233-34]) or a paradoxical image ("light incarnate" in "A World without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" [283-84]). The religious allusion to St. Francis in "A Baroque Wall-Fountain" serves as a concluding argument.

The ornate Baroque wall fountain in a public garden of Rome, meticulously described in the first seven stanzas of the poem, is a scene of fallen Eden, of "saecular ecstasy." A stone cherub wears a bronze crown that is too big for its head. "A serpent has begun to eat" the cherub's feet. The water trickles down over the three shells in "effortless descent." The descent is "effortless," for it is in harmony with the natural law of gravity. Beneath the third scalloped shell live "a faun-menage and their familiar goose." The presence of a serpent and the descent of water recall the Fall of Adam into the world of experience. The faun, expressing a possible view of happiness, accepts his condition with ease.

The faun's "babes" are heirs to their parents' attitude toward life. The happiness of the faun-menage consists in their total acceptance and enjoyment of what they are allowed. Sensuous delights are conveyed throughout the description of the wall fountain: the water is "Sweet," the flesh of the "fauness" is "sparkling," and the "ripple-shadows" are "More addling to the eye than wine."

Trickling down through the seven stanzas, the lengthy sentences imitate the downward movement of water from the stone cherub to the "trefoil pool," where "ripple-shadows come / And go in swift reticulum." Certain words are strategically placed at the beginning of a line to heighten the intensity of the fall or movement of the water. The word "Collapse," for example, sends the water, sustained by the adjective "loose" in the preceding line, plunging downward at full speed. And the phrase "flatteries of spray" is a kinetic and graphic description of the water after "its effortless descent." The language suggests the dance of light and shadow associated with the music and patterns of splashing water.

Juxtaposed against the elaborate wall fountain are the plain Maderna fountains in St. Peter's Square. Compared with the wall fountain, they are less intricate in design, but more intricate in their expression of human ideals.

The Maderna fountains are depicted in one sentence, manifesting the effort that sustains the upward movement of the water in defiance of the natural law of gravity. Again Wilbur captures the kinetic motion of the water, "struggling" and balancing itself "aloft until it seems at rest / In the act of rising." Yet the world-renouncing struggle of the Maderna fountains toward spirituality seems to be indistinguishable from the desire for personal glamor. The words "cavorting" and "display" imply that the ascent itself is a showy performance, which is applauded by the descent of the water pattering "on the stones." The water of the main jet is only "at rest" after a glimpse of heaven and after self-glorification, whereas the fauns "are at rest in fulness of desire / For what is given."

The poet wonders whether men should model their lives on the "water-saints" who "display / The pattern of our arete" or on the "showered fauns" who "do not tire / Of the smart of the sun." It is through the example of St. Francis that the poet suggests a subtle, ambiguous resolution for the dilemma between the two human tendencies: restless spiritual yearning and "humble insatiety."

Although St. Francis abstained from worldly pleasures, he might be enlightened by seeing the virtue of the fauns: their humbleness. The virtue of humility, according to the saint, can be the key to celestial riches. Yet this revelation that the saint may have experienced is only a possibility, and the "bliss" he "might have seen" only a "shade."

Unlike the fauns, who have fulfilled God's command to multiply, St. Francis at Sarteano scourged his recalcitrant body because of his desire for a family.(3) But the saint differs from the water saints, whose struggle for spiritual bliss is tinted by a desire for secular applause. St. Francis believed that perfect joy consists in humility and acceptance.(4)

St. Francis, who provides a contrasting parallel to both the water saints and the fauns, might have achieved a balance between the two sets of virtues: the fauns' humility and the water saints' aspiration toward transcendence. Yet the achievement of that balance would have been contingent upon his respect for and acceptance of "That land of tolerable flowers, that state / As near and far as grass / Where eyes become the sunlight. . . ." The word "flowers" recalls the title of the book The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Flowers ordinarily are emblems of the short duration of existence, but these flowers are "tolerable" because they are perceived as enduring. In St. Francis's case, the flowers are his virtues and his worldly religious accomplishments. The "eyes" or lights of the soul "become the sunlight," the life-giving force. And the "hand," meaning physical labor in general and the flower tender in particular, "Is worthy of water," which is associated with both Baptism and irrigation. The "tolerable flowers" (immortal mortality) are nourished by the lights of the soul and the sun and by water from both spiritual and physical sources. In this "dreamt land / Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass," spirituality is world nourishing rather than world renouncing.


1. Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems (San Diego: Harcourt, 1987) 271-73. All further quotations of Wilbur's poems are from this collection.

2. Richard Wilbur, personal interview, 28 November 1979.

3. Father Cuthbert, Life of St. Francis of Assisi (London: Longmans, 1912) 154.

4. St. Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis (London: Dent and Sons, 1910) 16.

from The Explicator 54.4 (Summer 1996)

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