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On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"

St. Augustine

Insofar as "things of this world" derives from Augustine’s Confessions, it is a phrase that aims precisely at complicating the relation between the objective and the conceptual world, as in this passage: "I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all." (Book X, paragraph 27), trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin.

Donald L. Hill

The title "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World' is taken from St. Augustine. "Plato, St. Teresa, and the rest of us in our degree," says Wilbur, "have known that it is painful to return to the cave, to the earth, to the quotidian; Augustine says it is love that brings us back." The poem begins as the soul awakes in the morning:

[. . . .]

The immediate impression is that of the tone, the mock-seriousness or mock-astonishment conveyed by the high impersonality of the language, the fastidious eloquence accorded a low subject, the Quixotic caprice that takes laundry for angels. This is one of Wilbur's few unrhymed poems, but one in which the line movement is most sympathetically varied in accordance with the spontaneous yet orderly progress of the observations and reflections. Humor is everywhere in the diction: "spirited" means "carried away mysteriously or secretly"; but this time the agents are actually spirits, the angels in the laundry; "awash," itself a pun, is followed by the "calm swells" of line 9 and by the "white water" of line 14. And the proposal that angels are in the laundry is followed by a witty description, the tone of which is appropriately amazed:

        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 as it wakes is "bodiless" and wishes to remain so, like the laundry. The poem tells of its painful acceptance of the body, its descent to daily life. . . .

Here "as" means not only "while" but "in the same way as." Both sun and soul have been absent from the world in the night. The soul has a "false dawn" as the sun might, but both then come to acknowledge in a real dawn "the world’s hunks and colors," "the waking body" in all its substantial variety. "In bitter love," but nonetheless persuaded, the soul approves the use of the clean clothes not by angels but by men. . . .

The spirit’s progress in this poem is like that in "’A World Without Objects . . .’"; it moves away from the pure vision and back to the impure, "absurd," or paradoxical world in which "clean linen" is not for angels but for "the backs of thieves" and for lovers about to be "undone"; in which nuns, who may incongruously be heavy, must keep not only their feet but also the "difficult balance" at the heart of this poem, the balance of the spirit between the two worlds of angels and men.

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

Frank Littler

In the gospel of St. John, the adjuration to mankind is to "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world" (1 John 2:15). Man is thus counseled to seek the spiritual directly, avoiding the "things" of this world which presumably would lessen his capacity to exist on a spiritual plane. In Richard Wilbur's poem "Love Calls Us To Things of This World" (The Poems of Richard Wilbur [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963] pp. 65-66) however, this biblical notion is examined critically, and the paradoxical notion that man best seeks the spiritual through his participation in the actual or world of the body is put in its place. The poem is not, of course, overtly theological but does make a theological point. Wilbur uses structure and diction to create a highly refined presentation of the contrast between the spiritual and the physical and of the paradox of man's finding the spiritual through the actual—the theme of the poem.

The poem's two part structure is perhaps the most obvious indication of how the contrast of the spiritual and physical is presented. The first part of the poem, running to line seventeen, stresses a fanciful world of spirit, epitomized by the "angels," which to the "soul" are, in the light of false dawn, the transformed clothes hanging on a clothes line. The image of the angels, appearing in the midst of the wholly mundane setting of, perhaps, a tenement district, is a welcome contrast to the real world. Line 17 of the poem marks a transition point: the soul shrinks back from the actual world and desires to remain in its spiritual world of cleanliness and lightness, though the soul will "descend once more . . . to accept the waking body." This shrinking from the actual and desire for the spiritual is expressed in lines 21 to 23 where the soul wishes for "nothing on earth but laundry, . . . rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven." It should be noted, however, that even the content of these lines indicates a movement toward the actual. Instead of the strict personification of laundry as angels, the soul cries for laundry itself and the cleanliness it represents as it is being washed. The rosy hands and rising steam are, though desirable and pleasant to the soul, yet part of the actions of this world, not of the wholly spiritual world of angels.

The contrast is deepened in lines 29 to 34 at which point the soul finally accepts the actual world with its conflicts and paradoxes. This subdivision of the second part of the poem completes the movement from the soul's perception of a spiritual world, through its desiring that that world can remain "unraped" by the descent into the actual, to its final rueful acceptance of the world where, paradoxically, "angels" perform the functions of clothes which in turn are presented in terms of paradox.

The poem's two part structure clearly indicates the overall contrast intended between the desire for the spiritual and the necessity for the acceptance of the actual, but the use of intricately chosen diction gives concrete form and definition to the contrast. The diction is, in fact, so refined and precise that the reader perceives the texture of the two worlds of the poem.

The first part of the poem is dominated, as would be expected, by the use of words which convey a spiritual texture, but part of the poem's complexity is in its natural but intricate selection of words which remind the reader of lightness or airiness, cleanliness especially as related to water, and to laundry itself. In the first stanza, for example, as the "eyes open to a cry of pullies," the soul is "spirited" from sleep and "hangs" "bodiless." In describing the movement of the angels in the morning air, a number of verbal forms are used which further portray the airiness and lightness of the world of the spirit. The angels are seen as "rising," "filling," "breathing," "flying," and "moving and staying"; all of these word choices denote and connote either free movement or the action of the wind in relation to movement. The laundry is thus "inspired" in the root meaning of that term, that is filled with the breath of spirit. Finally, "swoon" and "nobody" enhance the airy-light texture, denoting respectively a gentle faint and the absence of body.

A second pattern of diction associates the angels with the cleanliness of laundry. In the first part of the poem, the morning air is "awash with angels"; the angels rise together in "calm swells of halcyon feeling," the latter phrasing containing an allusion to the legendary bird who calms wind and waves; the angels move and stay "like white water." In the second part of the poem as the soul longs to remain in its spirit world, the "rosy hands" and the "rising steam" associated with the washing of laundry further establish the cleanliness of the spiritual state. Even more intricate is Wilbur's use of key terms from the common language of laundry to establish the identification of the clothes on the line with the angels the soul sees in the light of false dawn. The air is "awash" with angels which are "in" the literal bed sheets, blouses, and smocks, but "the soul shrinks . . . from the punctual rape of every blessed day." The key term "shrink," denoting as it does the literal shrinking up of washed clothes as well as figuratively a movement away from something unpleasant, thus concretely emphasizing the theme of the soul's desire for a spirit world, the "blessed day," but with this is its realization that the actual will punctually, even violently, intrude on that spirit world.

The diction in the second part of the poem, from line 17 on, though containing several word choices which are akin to the pattern of lightness and cleanliness of the first part, tends to stress the actual. The already mentioned "punctual rape," the "hunks and colors," "the waking body," the "bitter love" with which the soul descends, the "ruddy gallows" are examples of word choices which emphasize the actual world. In the poem's final stanza, however, the diction underscores the paradoxical nature of "this world." As the man "yawns and rises," the angels are to be brought down from "their ruddy gallows." In other words, the angels tinged by the sun are "hung" in the sense of being executed; the clothes line is now a gallows and they have died as angels, have become clothes, and have entered the world of contradiction and paradox, where clean linen covers the "backs of thieves" and lovers put on their finery only to remove it in consummation of their love. In contrast to the traditional symbolism of light and dark, which has been implicit in the first part of the poem, it is the nuns who have the "dark habits" while the thieves wear white linen. In one sense, the "dark habits" are the clothes worn by the nuns, while in another sense, the phrase indicates that nuns too participate in the world's conflict of good and evil. In a final paradox, the nuns, though heavy, still float and retain a balance between things of this world, the work they do in the here and now, and the spiritual world to which they have given allegiance. They particularly need to keep a difficult balance between the things of this world and those of the world of the Spirit.

The carefully expressed paradoxes of the last stanza of the poem are the key to the poem's theme. Wilbur presents an affecting version of the ideal world through his images of angelic laundry, but this world is evanescent, seen only for a moment under the light of false dawn. Though man desires and needs the world of spirit, he must yet descend to the body and accept it in "bitter love" (another apt paradoxical phrase) because this is the world in which man has to live. In contrast to St. John's plea, to avoid the world and the things of it, Wilbur would have us accept them, though we should also retain the capacity to perceive the world of the spirit in the everyday.

from The Explicator  40:3 (Spring 1982), pp. 53-55.

Bruce Michelson

People who apparently enjoy little else in Wilbur’s work delight in "Love Calls Us" for its gusto and its easy, spontaneous air – and I want to look at the careful wordplay in it for precisely this reason. … One readily notices the puns on "spirited," "awash," "blessed," "warm," "undone," "dark habits"; but less attention is paid to "astounded," "simple," "truly," "clear," "changed," and other words which suggest an enduring yet changeful harmony of matter and spirit which the waking man sense in his hypnagogic state, and which the poet celebrates with his wakeful imagination. The sleeper’s first look at the morning is giddy, solipsistic – but "simple" and follish as he is in his drowsiness, he is worthy of some affectionate treatment, groping as he does for "simple," pure realities beyond the coming maculate and turmoiled day. The angels on the wash line are "truly" there only to someone not quite awake – or is that they are "truly" there, in some dimension to which wakeful minds cannot find their way? The soul is "astounded" in every sense of the word: it is both stupefied and struck with wonder; the dance of the laundry-angels in the sight of heaven is likewise "clear" in all ways: simple and pure the dancers are, as well as transparent to the point of nonexistence. The poem is full of affectionate word jokes, all of which are "serious," all of which explore a theme of the duality of human existence and the balanced, dual consciousness one might need to see one’s place in the world.

… The poem is at once perfect seriousness and festivity, its language-founded ironies being play much as [historian and medievalist John] Huizinga defines it in its highest state, play as the exuberant celebration of mystery. The gaiety of the play heightens the reverence; it does not profane the ceremony. The words we have looked at are more than expressions of contrast between worldly and unworldly realities. The energy and music here are as well suited to holy festivity as their spreads of meaning are to the analytical mind. If the poem’s reconciliation of playfulness and seriousness, energy and intellect is a trick, it is a trick which hearkens back to the very beginnings of literature.

From Bruce Michelson, Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time (Amherst: U Massachusetts P, 1991), 51.

Marjorie Perloff

… Wilbur’s laundry-as-angel metaphor strikes me as no more than an elaborate contrivance, characterized by its curious inattention to the "things of this world" of the poet’s title. "The incident," writes May Swenson, "is so common that everyone has seen it, and … the analogy is … fitting in each of its details: a shirt is white, it is empty of body, but floats or flies, therefore has life (an angel)." But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which "the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky," the reality would be that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan high-rise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire escapes under the newly-installed television aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.

But of course the awakening poet might not notice this because the laundry is certainly not his concern; the poet, after all, is represented as having been asleep when it was hung out to dry. … [W]oman is she who only dreams of better detergents – a dream, by the way, the affluent fifties were in the process of satisfying – whereas man dreams idealistically (and hence hopelessly) of "clear dances done in the sight of heaven," dances that might allow him to escape, at least momentarily, "the punctual rape of every blessed day."

"Punctual rape": it is the alarm clock going off, violating one’s delightful daydreams, even as Donne’s "busie old foole, unruly Sunne" intrudes, through windows and curtains, on the sleeping lovers in "The Sunne Rising." But in Wilbur’s poem the intruding daylight is not chided, evidently because to be alive, however difficult, is to be blessed. The metaphor will not withstand much scrutiny, for here, as in the case of the laundry metaphor, the drive is to get beyond the image that serves as vehicle as quickly as possible, so as to talk about the relation of soul to body, spirit to matter – those great poetic topoi introduced by the Augustine-derived title, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." The actual "things of this world," in 1956, are studiously avoided. The poem refers to "rosy hands in the rising steam" – no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, al allusion to Homer’s "rosy-fingered dawn" – but where were the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had envisioned as "listing dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms"?

from Marjorie Perloff, Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays on Emergent Occasions (Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1998), 85-86.

Edward Brunner

Marjorie Perloff’s recent description that heavily emphasizes its negative features brings forward its oddity. The poem begins as its third-person speaker wakens in a bright morning suddenly to believe that the air is "awash with angels." This is not a fleeting impression: it is pursued over two of the 5-line stanzas that make up the poem. But the notion, of course, cannot be sustained. When the wind suddenly dies, it is revealed that the angels are mere laundry lent temporary animation by the wind, and the illusion is broken. A sense of loss, regret and anger spills over into the fourth stanza in which the poet yearns for there to be "nothing on earth but laundry … clear dances done in the sight of heaven." But as the sun rises and the poet more fully awakens, "in a changed voice" he brings the poem to a close by distributing advice that is suffused with a sense of largesse. The idea of angel-laundry is no longer held tightly, as one clings to the last remnants of a lovely but fading dream: it is imaginatively distributed to all in a celebratory spirit in which Wilbur is nonetheless poking fun at himself or at the need to furnish a "climactic" ending to his poem. His seriocomic pronouncements mix wryness with pomposity:

"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."

The poem may be said to move "dialectically" with this final statement presenting itself as the earned resolution, the harmonious product of the process unfolding as the work moved from idealism to realism to this pragmatic compromise in which real bodies wear real clothes. But the poem’s charm lies in the half-smile Wilbur wears throughout the performance. As correct as the poem is, there is something slightly foolish and even trivial about it – laundry as angels? The rising sun solving all? Then the closing benediction and the zany distribution of the laundry – clothes for the backs of thieves who should be punished on their backs, sweet clothes for lovers who will just take them off right away, and dark habits for nuns who should not find their balance difficult to keep?

… It is notable, as Perloff observes so sharply, that that the laundry-experience is so blissfully intangible. Richard Eberhart, one of the poets commenting on the poem for Ostroff’s 1957 symposium, nearly undoes the whole poem with a single down-to-earth remark: "I ought to add that it is a man’s poem. Certainly not all women would like a laundry poem which pays no heed to hard work and coarsened hands. They might say, poet, have your ruddy dream, but give us better detergents" (5). Yet it seems essential for the opening vision to be as remote and unreal and other-worldly as possible. It opens with a fantasy that is rich with an unvoiced guiltiness – a longing to be free of the messy individuality of persons, to be the single subject in a world of things in which all the objects are graceful and dance in the light. The poem’s first half performs its freshening, illuminating false-dawn recovery of the world of the angelically unreal in order that we may turn out from it to accept the chastening discovery of the "truth" of the morning world in which clothes are worn by humans, not inspirited by angels. The essence of this poetic is to offer first refreshment, then reality. The artist’s world is here linked to the ephemeral, the marginal, to the world of women’s work and children’s games. When that world is withdrawn, the effect is shattering: there is a sense of emptiness that overwhelms, and there is rage in the heart. "Blessed rape" resembles a curse that the disgruntled figure hurls at the world. It is what happens next, however, that is the central point of the poem. The poet does not remain cast down, for the reality is that this is not just a dream or a daydream in which the loss of a moment of supernal loveliness is truly shattering, even embittering. It is, instead, a poem that is very much staged: Wilbur as (in Perloff’s words) "producer" now goes on to demonstrate the advantage of the poetic turn, which is that it is possible to take up that pure moment of origin with which the poem opened, even to lose it for a moment or to find that it has become utterly intangible, but then to invoke that opening instant, in a new way and on a new level, wherein what is lost is recovered and what had been overturned as empty is now understood as filled.

The ending, of course, is not supposed to be the least bit sober. Thieves, lovers, nuns are thrown together quirkily, as if they all might find things to say to each other – and from Augustine’s view (as a one-time libertine whose writings were foundational for the Catholic church) they surely do. If Perloff is in some way right, then, to accuse Wilbur of silliness, and even unreality, why then was the work so welcome in its time? While Perloff’s theory that the poem exemplifies an interest in "equipoise" and "universality" goes along with a dismissive narrative that paints Wilbur as a bland craftsman in an era committed to deliberate acts of forgetfulness, it is unlikely that so abstract a project would have the deep appeal of this poem. In its time, the poem accomplished a task more arduous and more pointed, nicely demonstrating the distinction between the world of dreams like daydreams (which is also the world of mass culture), and the world of dreams which is the world of poetry (if not also Augustinean idealism). When a daydream-like dream is over, the resulting plunge back into reality resembles the collapse in which angels are exposed as just a mistake: emptied out, the spirit is downcast, the absence of its once-glittering vision disorienting and dismaying. As daydream, the vision cannot be reconstituted. And were Wilbur not producing a poem, the experience would end in the darkness of this plea that also resembles a curse: "Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry …" But the turn that Wilbur makes transforms his experience into poetry – it is that displacement and repossession of the vision by conceiving its local application. Poetry’s real dreams down-size deep dreams and accommodate them to actuality. Of course the possibility that the turn cannot be taken is also explored in the poem, long enough for us to recognize those feelings of loss and disorientation that accompanies the recognition that something wonderful which we had thought to have made our own turned out to have been just as impossible as it had seemed. That moment of despair and loss is what the poem plays off and moves against. What is most "real," then, in the poem is just that sensation of having been cheated or left behind: not the wild belief that the air is filled with angels, which of course must be proven to be a fantasy, but rather that sharp pang of loss in which the fantastic turns out to be merely what it was – the fantastic. That is not a moment that is particularly limited to the 1950s, though the sense that abundance is not enough, that the combination of wealth and free time did not necessarily deliver happiness, was an important discovery that seems to have been made over and over in the course of the postwar years. When Wilbur demonstrates how to recoil from that keen disappointment, how to recover by inventively assuming the role of someone who drolly distributes feelings of largesse and pleasure, then he is not only modeling how to act but he is also acknowledging the negatives and positives of a world in which the abundant is continually presenting us with moments of intense pleasure that may just as abruptly turn fleeting.

Here as in other poems, Wilbur continues in his role as the postwar poet whose sense of audience encompasses those still new to poetry. He can recognize and address the experience of feeling aesthetically cheated by a vision too impossibly-alluring, but what is more, he can responsibly point a way beyond the moments of dislocation and anger. Perloff’s claim that "the actual ‘things of this world,’ in 1956, are studiously avoided" (86) is only true if those "things" are limited to "the real hands of laundresses, hands that Eliot," Perloff adds, "half a century earlier, had envisioned as ‘lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms.’" (86) But Wilbur has long advanced past that half century, and when Wilbur sighs over "Rosy hands in the rising steam" he is mocking himself and his longing for an unreal perfection. Remarkably suited to the limits of a culture of abundance, few poems dealt more smartly with worldly things circa 1956.

From Edward Brunner, Cold War Poetry (Urbana: U Illinois P, 2000).

James Longenbach

"Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" or "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" are as full of the joy of language as they are of the joy of the physical world: especially in the latter poem, language becomes a physical presence, the syntax so intricate, yet so plainly apprehensible, that it begs to be turned over in the mouth. The quieter "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is, famously, a poem of immanence: angels exist because, for a moment, the mind imagines them in laundry hanging on the line. But this argument against a world-denouncing spirituality is only half of the poem's purpose. A more violent, urgent world is registered in Wilbur's diction: words like rape and hunks slip into his elegant vocabulary, and their prominence has sometimes troubled the poem's admirers. Wilbur's point is that a devotion to laundry alone--to the world's sensual pleasures, physical and linguistic--may be as world-denying as the most ascetic spirituality. While the soul cries, "let there be nothing on earth but laundry," the language of the poem has suggested that this desire is unrealistic even before the poem's final lines (spoken by the soul as it descends into the awakening body) make Wilbur's position clear.

"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."

The balance here is not only between the physical and spiritual, but between a state of mind that dallies with physical pleasures and a necessary awakening to a sterner, even more challenging ground.

I wouldn't argue that "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" has much of (in Wilbur's phrase) "an implicit political dimension." But I do think that the poem became possible because of Wilbur's earlier meditations on wartime loss and postwar deprivation.

From Modern Poetry after Modernism. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Copyright 1997 by James Longenbach.

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