The Poet in Rome: Richard Wilbur in Postwar Italy

By ROBERT BAGG

I.
Richard Wilbur first visited Rome with the American Fifth 
Army that liberated the city, just behind the fleeing Germans, on 5 June 1944. 
By 10:00 p.m., his division, the 36th Texans, in trucks, in jeeps, and on mobile artillery, followed the tanks of the First Armored Division into the southern outskirts of Rome, where it paused, expecting to camp and rest within Cinecittà—then, as now, the sprawling center of Italy’s movie industry. Ever the explorer, Wilbur wandered into an abandoned viewing room and found, already loaded into an editing machine, a costume drama set in the Roman Empire. He turned the hand crank and watched a Fascist version of ancient history until his disgust overcame his curiosity. Around midnight, the 36th received an order to cross the city, mount the Gianicolo (Rome’s westernmost hill), and be ready to chase the Germans into Tuscany. But Wilbur’s signal company interpreted the order loosely, slept in, and didn’t cross Rome until the next day, setting up their Message Center inside the Vatican gardens.

Dawn on 6 June brought news of the Normandy landings, and the commander of the Fifth Army troops, Mark Clark, summoned the press corps to a moment of theatrical triumph on the steps of the Capitoline. While officers of several Allied divisions checked out resilient hotels and cafés on Via Veneto, Wilbur and tens of thousands of sleep-deprived but exuberant enlisted men joined hundreds of thousands of celebrating Romans to enjoy the pleasures of what had been declared, a day earlier, an “Open City.” Wilbur’s keenest visual memory of 6 June is a huge sign over an outdoor café advertising GRAPPA. He wrote what he experienced that day in a letter to his wife, Charlee, which she copied and sent to Wilbur’s parents:

I’m sorry not to have written during the last few days, but presume you can surmise the excuse. I just got around to shaving for the first time in days. . . . I took off my underwear with a chisel—and showered under a cascade of [warm water gushing from the wall of a bombed factory. . . .  
I have been kissed on both cheeks, fed tumblers of Vino, and hand-shook, pickpocketed, mobbed by candy-mad urchins, had grown men tell me they love me, been called “Liberator”; pounded on the back and so on. With a few draughts of wine in me I lost my northern restraint and commenced tossing children in the air. It was good to see clean people again. Such demonstrations are very jolly if untrustworthy—ca na dure longtemps.

I have recently been at the front lines, i.e., 200 yards from Jerry. It was exciting, educational, & scared the pants off me. The infantry are magnificent, individually and collectively. Calm, efficient, cheerful, loyal, & deadly. The things you see are obscene, but the spirit can transfigure them. My worst scare was having the roof shelled off the second floor of a house, on the first floor of which I was unhappily lying. I should like to shake the hand of the man who made that ceiling.

Charlee (who was in Maine for the summer) added her reaction to this passage: “I was so excited reading this that I could hardly hold the V-Mail in my hand and had to sit down as my knees were shaking so violently.”

Rome had become, overnight and for days thereafter, an immense convulsion of gratitudes: the cheering populace, the troops no longer under fire, bars, trattorias, brothels, and welcoming women competing to accommodate 
a victorious army flowing through its grand piazzas and avenues. Finding a
 willing signorina or signora was fairly easy, but not always free, and the process occasioned some dustups. “Hog Mouth” McCroy, Wilbur recalls, 
a driver with the Message Center, thought he had a sure thing in the works with a woman he picked up in the Piazza Venezia, but when Private Emmett “Boogie” Woods appeared, she defected to him. When Hog Mouth cussed him, Boogie responded, “Hog Mouth, you have no cause to bitch. Where pussy begins, friendship ends.”

Richard Wilbur circa 1944, standing near the 6 X 6 truck that 
transported gear for the 36th Texans Division during World War II.

Richard Wilbur circa 1944, standing near the 6 X 6 truck that 
transported gear for the 36th Texans Division during World War II.

As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Wilbur had written mostly light verse. In Italy, that changed. Before leaving the states, he had written to his mentor Theodore Baird that the poetry of World War II would differ sharply from that of 1914–18; it would be about “the one and the many.” Wilbur, whose politics were mostly pro-labor in the early 1940s, meant that war poets would write about civilians as well as the troops and their officers. In early January 1944, Wilbur began writing poems about suffering Italian villagers on his SIGABA code machine. Intended to frustrate the Nazi code-breakers, the machine also served as his typewriter throughout the fighting, printing out his poems and letters in ALL CAPS.

One constant in Wilbur’s career, as in the careers of most modern poets, has been a productive responsiveness to whatever is happening around him. The death of Corporal Lloyd Tywater, killed in a German ambush five hundred yards from where Wilbur was laying telephone wire, moved him to write his first distinctive and fully realized poem:

TYWATER

Death of Sir Nihil, book the nth,
Upon the charred and clotted sward,
Lacking the lily of our Lord,
Alases of the hyacinth.

Could flicker from behind his ear
A whistling silver throwing knife
And with a holler punch the life
Out of a swallow in the air.

Behind the lariat’s butterfly
Shuttled his white and gritted grin,
And cuts of sky would roll within
The noose-hole, when he spun it high.

The violent, neat and practiced skill
Was all he loved and all he learned;
When he was hit, his body turned
To clumsy dirt before it fell.

And what to say of him, God knows.
Such violence. And such repose.

The ten war poems in Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes, all react to immediate scenes he encountered as the 36th advanced through France and Germany, ending the war in Kitzbühel.

Wilbur returned from the war in late November 1945 and spent most of the next nine years in Massachusetts. A dozen or so poems of this era take off from the New England seacoast, putting the beach and its vistas, debris, waters, and wildlife to ingenious metaphoric use. He appropriates the natural world to carry his philosophical speculations to surprising and satisfying conclusions. Sometimes these poems seem more willed or worked-up than spontaneous 
and inevitable, but whenever the subject he’s pondering possesses an 
inherent magnitude, the poem responds in kind, drawing the reader more fully 
into its vision.

Nearly a decade after his first visit to the city, Wilbur was awarded a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome for the academic year 1954–55. These nine months would have a lasting impact on the poet and his work. Rome overflowed with art and ambiances from every era, but Christian churches, paintings, frescoes, statuary, and sacred music engaged the beliefs of Wilbur’s Protestant upbringing. Though Wilbur attended Sunday services with his family during childhood and at college, he did not become deeply involved in Christian spirituality until his war service. When a Catholic chaplain gave him a missal, he studied it throughout the fighting, and poems he wrote during the 36th Texans’ time in France began to reflect the confrontation between Christian doctrine and his own belief system.

The city’s equally present classical heritage evoked a world of fauns and satyrs, maenads and sirens, gods and saints that have never lost their appeal for Wilbur. All this, plus Rome’s dolce vita moment, its theatrical street life, thriving cinema, and postwar building boom, would find a place in his poems.

Soon after arriving in Rome, Charlee sent a letter to poet and biographer John Malcolm Brinnin, their close friend, recounting the Wilburs’ ocean crossing on the Cristoforo Columbo as “a trip never to be duplicated.” (“I have no notion of time,” she wrote, in lieu of a date.) The family traveled tourist class, but with only three “bona fide first-class children” on board, Ellen, Christopher, and Nathan Wilbur were invited to spend the mornings and late afternoons with a trained governess and evenings watching puppet shows and movies. Each noon, they joined their mother at the pool, where she sunned and swam thrice a day, acquiring, as she wrote to Brinnin, “the most becoming tan of my life . . . 
displayed fetchingly each night on the polished [dance] floor” with “at least fifteen superb [dance partners] and a tolerable five-piece kootchie band.” The Wilburs found much good company in tourist class: Italians returning home, American students heading for study abroad, two “educated and crazy pleasant Negros,” and a young Roman water engineer named Dino Rotundi.

Dino immediately became, during their first few months in Rome, their friend and devoted cicerone, conveying Dick and Charlee to historic vistas, out-of-the-way fountains, and cafés. Soon after their arrival in Rome, Dino drove them “in one of his three cars” on a four-hour tour of Rome’s neighborhoods. Dino had both a waterworks engineer’s and a bon vivant’s intimate knowledge of Rome. The trio’s final stop that first night was a trattoria named the Sagrestia (Sacristy) across the cobblestone square from the Pantheon, where, Dino promised, they would see another of Rome’s “wonders”: a “formidable clairvoyant” who read Charlee’s mind “like a book” and “narrowed in on Dick so accurately that he still hasn’t returned to normal.”

This clairvoyant (veggente in Italian) predicted that Wilbur would complete his translation of Molière’s Misanthrope while in Rome, as well as a third volume of poetry, and that this would be “the greatest year of self-discovery for him of his life.” It would prove an accurate prediction in every particular. Chain-smoking and charming, but inwardly tormented and ineluctably depressed, this mysterious gentleman would haunt Wilbur until, twenty years later, he finished and published “The Mind-Reader,” one of his finest and most ambitious poems.

The Wilburs moved into an apartment at 17 Via Sprovieri in Monteverde, a pleasant hilltop neighborhood with a large outdoor market, stores both chic and handy, and two movie theaters, one of them open to the skies. 
It was only a few minutes’ walk to the Academy, and the shortest route cut through the Villa Sciarra, between an enormous cage full of exotic birds and an ivy-covered wall fountain depicting a family of fauns. During their first days in Rome, the Wilburs took their meals in the Academy’s spacious, high-ceilinged dining room or outdoors in the open courtyard of this McKim, Mead & White–designed Roman palazzo, which filled every night between cocktail hour and post-dinner billiards with buzzing conversations.

Their companions were mostly grad students or recent PhDs in their early to mid-twenties; they were “bearded and predictable,” Charlee wrote Brinnin. The established artists she found more engaging, mentioning the painter Jack Zajac and the sculptor Robert White, the grandson of Stanford White. 
Soon the Wilburs found it more relaxing and pleasant to dine as a family in their own casa. “We play with the kids for three quarters of an hour, then Franca brings in Carpano. Then we go to the most heavily inlaid and encrusted table known and have a fine light brodo followed by . . . finochio parmigiano . . . 
baked dentice, a fine light fish, greens . . . with tarragon and wine vinegar. All this with Frascati . . . grapes . . . coffee . . . grappa. We have been drinking grappa like mad.”

Before dinner, Wilbur would give his young son Chris reading lessons using American comic books and then amuse all three children with stories he made up on the spot. Nathan was too young for school but saw a lot of the city. Once, at the Rome zoo, he yelled “TIGRE!” at an uncaged cat the likes of which he’d seen only in books. Eleven-year-old Ellen (already five feet, ten inches tall) was rapidly fluent in Italian and so feisty and assured that when a man in a movie theater put an unwelcome hand on her thigh, she rose to her full height and denounced him in his native tongue so pungently that he fled, and the crowd applauded.

Wilbur alternated eight-hour days in his rustic studio with excursions, guided at first by Augustus Hare’s Walks in Rome and later by the Academy’s resident experts, to historic destinations accessible by foot from the Gianicolo or an easy drive into the countryside. Charlee often went off by herself, seeking not destinations but experiences, getting deliberately lost, chatting with Italians at espresso bars and cafés and recovering the fluent Italian she had learned as a child on Capri. And there were a few more expeditions with Dino: “Another night Dick was partially sinusitic,” she wrote Brinnin, “and Dino and I walked approx. ten miles . . . around town, down the Espagna steps, drank from fifteen fountains, sat with our feet in the Tevere on the island—
a lovely place—ate mussels at three in the morning and rode until dawn in a carrozza. It is a good thing the man is very well heeled. Very much like André [du Bouchet, a French poet and Dick’s fellow Amherst grad] but infinitely less fragmented as a personality and far wittier.”

Charlee and Dino’s romp through the Roman night sounds like an episode from a Fellini film: the twin bell towers of Trinità dei Monti soaring behind her, Keats’s deathbed to her left, the woman on whom Tennessee Williams based his character “Mrs. Stone” alive in the penthouse on her right, and a leaking ship-shaped fountain submerged in a shallow pool in the street below. Perhaps because he regretted not witnessing something so cinematic and romantic himself, Wilbur replayed Charlee’s descent of the Spanish Steps in his first Roman poem, “Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning,” as if he had been there:

                             I can’t forget
How she stood at the top of that long marble stair
Amazed, and then with a sleepy pirouette
Went dancing slowly down to the fountain-quieted square;

Nothing upon her face
But some impersonal loneliness,—not then a girl,
But as it were a reverie of the place,
A called-for falling glide and whirl;

As when a leaf, petal, or thin chip
Is drawn to the falls of a pool and, circling a moment above it,
Rides on over the lip-—
Perfectly beautiful, perfectly ignorant of it.

Poised at the top of the steps, Charlee became a spirit of the place, 
not only a free-spirited young mother of three cavorting in one of Rome’s storied and magical places, escorted by a man who knew the settings, theatrical or charming, that would appeal to her exuberance.

Charlee also wrote that the intense intimacy of Academy life had diminished, because “everyone is embarrassed by knowing too much about everyone else.” Also, the season was changing. The weather of “All Souls is with us,” she lamented, “along with the first seizure of winter bugs, coughs, vapors.”

One feels the lack of central heating for the first time and tonight I shall make an extra couple of martinis. Don’t misunderstand the take off mood of this letter, for I feel anything but dreary. We have spent our first two months so violently that it is a distinct relief to begin the business of living here rather than pressing to devour the city in great heady gulps. I feel . . . satiated, languorous, and ever so slightly drowsy. I want now to be taken unawares by things, to move softly and slowly for a while, and to be surprised by tastes.

The Wilburs’ first trip to Frascati, which Charlee went on to describe to Brinnin in detail, offered a feast for all the senses: “In case you’ve never experienced [Frascati],” she wrote, “I shall spend the rest of this letter trying to nail it down for you.” The Wilburs and a few friends arrived midafternoon on a “blazing blue and gold day with that sky, that sky which brings the unbelieving eyes to actual pain.” There were more barrels standing in the town than people; on almost every corner stood a “weatherbeaten cart breaking with ripe grapes” awaiting the first press. “Within five minutes of entering the town, I was dizzy drunk from the fumes,” she continued. “Five of us finally settled in one of the many cantinas . . . large cavernous rooms slightly below street level . . . You order a litre of Frascati which is drawn from the mother barrel into a cool flask . . . One of the men with us told me that one tumbler of it would be equal to two good sized martinis. Naturally, I laughed and drained it off. With the residue of wine in my nostrils, I was easily levitated after the first glass.”

Looking out at the street from their table, Charlee wrote, they could see “workers . . . dressed only in a sort of breech clout and totally bathed and stained in wine, the smile and gladness of the work upon them. As the light faded, the [scene] became more and more understandable as a Brueghel painting of some sort of Kermess [peasant dance].” The Kermesse, a sixteenth-century painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, had inspired a William Carlos Williams poem, “The Dance,” which Charlee most likely knew: “ . . . the squeal and the blare and the / tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles / tipping their bellies (round as the thick- / sided glasses whose wash they impound) / their hips and their bellies off balance . . . ”

The proprietor then escorted the Wilburs and their friends down three flights of stairs into the lowest cavern, whose treasures included stalactites as well as generations of barreled and bottled Frascati. Someone in the party purchased a two-hundred-lire bottle of “very old champagne made from the same grapes and only used on [the owner’s] table for special occasions.” Charlee wrote that when they tried to leave, “the padrone all but cried at the notion of the wine traveling back to Rome in the car. The motion would ruin it, he said, so there was nothing left but to drink it on the spot. My God, what an elixir from Heaven. Home very late, and Dick and I, needless to say, spent the rest of the night with Frascati, Frascati, Frascati.”

Charlee’s letter ends with a handwritten postscript: “Dick is indignant that I didn’t include any message from him.” Wilbur immediately added a rejoinder in his italic hand: “Here’s one, though I cannot measure up to Charlee’s epistolary style, + almost wish she and I could have an amicable separation so that I could get letters like the above. We miss you + Joe; though I cannot say we have Cambridge-itis as yet. It wd be improper to feel such a thing before seeing Michelangelo’s Moses, which somehow we have managed not yet to do. Rome is bully.”

The Wilburs immersed themselves in Rome, its ruins, parks, shops, theaters, and nearly inexhaustible concentration of treasure-filled churches. They also made many day trips outside the city (usually organized by the Academy, but at least once by Dino) to towns such as the now-landlocked harbor at Ostia Antica—with its small, perfectly preserved theater and ancient wine bars stationed at every corner—and to archaeological sites: the Etruscan tombs near Tarquinia, whose colorful wall paintings reprised their inhabitants’ carousing and copulating with a lack of inhibition that charmed D. H. Lawrence; the necropolis of tufa-built, igloolike tombs at Cerveteri; and the fountains and garden of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. They visited Hadrian’s vast countryside villa with their close friend, architectural scholar William MacDonald, 
who, in impromptu lectures, could elucidate a statue or an eccentric-looking ruin and reconstruct a library or a temple from a bit of rubble or 
a column drum.

Such sites, along with dozens more within Rome, have challenged poets to conjure poems adequate to the awe and reflections they inspire. Wilbur’s own poems would be more lyrical and less overwhelmed by history than those of Byron and Shelley, but just as meticulously crafted and, most crucially, written with a believer’s conviction. He chose his subjects with care. During his nine months in Rome, he wrote or began just seven poems. Seven may not seem many for a nine-month stay, but the small number is understandable given the distinction of his Roman poems—and their length and complexity—and the fact that he was simultaneously finding rhymes for several hundred lines in the final two acts of his translation of Molière’s Misanthrope while seeing and enjoying as much of Rome and Italy as he could before sailing home.

Many of Wilbur’s earlier poems had been constructed around paradoxes, such as that between decorum and danger in “Ceremony,” the title poem of his second book, the leisure-class associations of which his early detractors were quick to deprecate. The final lines of “Ceremony” speak of the narrator’s reaction to an elegant lady painted by Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870): 
“And when with social smile and formal dress / She teaches leaves to curtsey and quadrille, / I think there are most tigers in the wood.”

Now, in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” which he wrote after awakening to billowing white laundry outside his Roman apartment—“Outside the open window / The morning air is all awash with angels”—Wilbur began to reflect on the pursuits of ordinary people going about their mundane rounds, engaged in work and pleasure, until they arrive at destinations as blessed as any saint’s. (The poem’s title is taken from Augustine’s Confessions.) No longer were Wilbur’s Christian allegiances implied or low-key, as in his pre-Rome work—now they were central, providing structure, imagery, and passion for every poem he wrote that year.

Two fountains, each spectacular in its own way; those shirts flapping in the wind; the inner dome of a great cathedral; and a railway station’s jagged roof line become the arenas in which Wilbur’s divine and human awareness meet. His most ambitious Roman poems aim not for Frost’s “momentary stay[s] against confusion” but for clarities that remain when the book is closed. Wilbur is rare among twentieth-century poets in his ability to write undoctrinaire but religiously inflected poems that probe and organize both personal and shared cultural experience, render convincing approaches to spiritual certainties, 
and yet fully acknowledge the anxieties that accompany them.

 

II.

Many fellows and visitors to the Academy consulted the clairvoyant who astonished the Wilburs that first night in Vecchio Roma. One was the American classicist and Amherst College Professor John Moore, an Academy fellow in the mid-1950s, who included the following verbal portrait of the clairvoyant in a letter to his sister Betty Burford, dated 22 January 1956:

The Sagrestia. A well-known pizza joint, not notable for its food but for its mind-reader and fortuneteller. He’s a slender, sweet-natured, dignified old gentleman: (he’s also part of the music and plays 
the violin.) You write your question on a piece of paper, in Italian, and fold it up, all the while thinking very hard about the question you want to have answered. He takes the paper for a moment in his hands and gives it back again (he claims it’s important for him to touch the paper—I’m sure it is!) and then he goes into a trance, from which presently emerging he writes down the answer to the question on 
a piece of paper. He then asks (I forget on what pretext) to hold the question again, after which he restores to the client both question and answer. The question I asked was: “Where is my brother Dan?” The answer: “I can’t see where your brother Dan is right now; but do not be anxious, you will hear from him within the year”! I was taken to that place by Berthe Marti, one of the people at the Academy (there are several in all) who patronize this fortuneteller, some just for the game, others half or more than half convinced. According to their accounts he sometimes doesn’t ask to hold the question but only to touch it in the clenched hand of the client. But it seemed perfectly plain that the routine he used with me gave him opportunities for sleight of hand which any good magician should have found sufficient. But the odd part of it was that I didn’t want to believe that I was being imposed upon, because I liked him so much.

Charles Singleton, a Harvard Dante scholar, accompanied Wilbur several times to consult the veggente. In “The Mind-Reader,” dedicated to Singleton and his wife, Eula, Wilbur speaks in the voice of a clairvoyant whose uncanny power turns out to be an intolerable burden. The poem, not published until 1972, shares some of its qualities and scope with Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and Frost’s North of Boston poems, especially “Home Burial” and “The Death of the Hired Man.” Like these, “The Mind-Reader” sends shock waves of implication from a highly charged but realistic encounter between two people.

In a 1995 interview with Paul Mariani, Wilbur divulged an important detail reported to him by “a friend,” quite likely Singleton. The friend heard the mind-reader say, “It’s no fun to be a mind-reader, you know. It’s no fun to have a mind like a common latrine.” As Wilbur told Mariani:

The invadedness of the mind-reader’s mind was what appalled me and made it necessary to write the poem. Thinking about what it must be like to have a mind so vulnerable led me to seek, in vain of course, to imagine what the mind of God must be like, continually besieged by all of us, by all that we have to say, all that we have to confess. That’s at the center of the poem, really: a kind of amazement at the thought of what a mind must be like that can put up with all of us and still be inviolate.

The paranormal aspect first attracted Wilbur to this savant of the pizzeria, but the religious implications led Wilbur to shape the clairvoyant’s life story into a metaphysical parable.

The poem begins with an older Roman gentleman in his neighborhood trattoria telling a professor how his vocation descended on him. Speaking in oblique but arresting metaphors, the mind-reader muses on the mysteries of objects “truly lost”—a hat dropped from a rampart into a forest, a pipe wrench “catapulted” from the back of a truck, a book blown out to sea. He traces the origin of his calling to a childhood gift for discovering the whereabouts of his neighbors’ lost things and goes on to explain how he “got from that to this,” his current nightly modus operandi: the routine recounted in the poem is virtually identical to John Moore’s description. But this ability to penetrate another’s thoughts is not infallible; some ten percent of the time, the mind-reader estimates, he must cheat in order to access and answer an invisible or puzzling question. (Moore’s account hints at sleight of hand.) His gift, 
he tells us, impairs his emotional health: invasion of another’s privacy—
a limited version of divine omnipotence—is a cheerless experience and 
a source of immense distress:

The world usurps me ceaselessly; my sixth
And never-resting sense is a cheap room
Black with the anger of insomnia,
Whose wall-boards vibrate with the mutters, plaints,
And flushings of the race.

So summarized, the narrator’s predicament seems unenviable though hardly so unique as to be godlike. But Wilbur’s own sleight of hand gradually transforms this precocious retriever of lost objects turned adult mind-reader to a being whose clairvoyance approaches the infinite and infallible. Wilbur seeds his character’s ruminations with thoughts, images, and unspoken abysses that demand we take the portrait of this rueful clairvoyant as more than a tentative allegory for one who unhappily knows too much; the poem invites its readers to pursue more deeply, and perhaps “in vain,” the experience of an all-
knowing divinity.

Wilbur asks: If God truly possesses total access to our minds—access of the kind asserted in 1 Samuel and the Gospel of Matthew, highlighted in the Anglican communion service, and alluded to in the last act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—why doesn’t he intervene more often to keep us out of sin’s way? God’s own agenda is otherwise. He prefers to forgive and heal the sinner rather than prevent the sin. His forbearance demands of humankind a moral discipline that both he and the mind-reader find lacking among their respective flocks.

But unlike God, Wilbur’s (or any human) mind-reader has no ready healing or forgiving power. As the mind-reader says of his clients: “It contents them / Not to have spoken, yet to have been heard.” Believers in an all-knowing God, the poem asserts, are more reassured than terrified to think that their hearts are open to divine inspection. Yet God, like the mind-reader, cannot escape from being constantly assaulted by human suffering, much of it self-inflicted:

                                                        . . . Not the least
Meanness, obscenity, humiliation,
Terror which made you clench your eyes, or pulse
Of happiness which quickened your despair.
Nothing can be forgotten, as I am not
Permitted to forget. . . .

This mind-reader “hankers” for his own oblivion, but such ease can come only from what is bought and consumed: vino rosso e bianco: “Ah, you have read my mind. One more, perhaps . . . / A mezzo-litro. Grazie, professore.”

What does the clairvoyant mean when he accuses, in the poem’s last lines, the professore of reading his mind? Is this veggente revealing he is wise to the poet, just as he always sees into the neediness of the customers who sit at his table? In the process of his sympathetic and detailed imagining of the clairvoyant’s abilities, miseries, and limitations, Wilbur himself receives a glimpse, a frisson, from a character he has partially created, of what it might feel like to enter the mind of God. Is God troubled, as the mind-reader is, by human squalor and sinfulness He can’t escape? Does His excruciating attention sometimes flag?

Handwritten NoteWilbur asked the veggente, “E buono l’apartimento?” [Is it a good apartment?] The mind-
reader scrawled his answer: “I can see that you’ll have useful information and within 
this month you’ll know if taking that house is good or not. I can see that the apartment 
is nice.” [Translated by Professor Ombretta Frau of Mount Holyoke College.]

So it seems. At one point, the mind-reader wonders if he might miss something that would reveal a hidden goodness in his trespassing “communicants.” Does God himself worry that He might miss something redeeming? Do the guilty and defenseless worry that He’ll miss 
something exculpatory? In the climactic riff of the poem (quoted here are only those lines that carry the argument forward, with italics for emphasis) Wilbur, through his Anglicized seer, imagines how God experiences us:

                                                          Faith, justice, valor,
All those reputed rarities of soul
Confirmed in marble by our public statues—
You may be sure that they are rare indeed
Where the soul mopes in private, and I listen.
Sometimes I wonder if the blame is mine,
If through a sullen fault of the mind’s ear
I miss a resonance in all their fretting.
Is there some huge attention, do you think,
Which suffers us and is inviolate,
To which all hearts are open, which remarks
The sparrow’s weighty fall, and overhears
In the worst rancor a deflected sweetness?
I should be glad to know it.

Wilbur intends the infinite attention of God’s mind as an alternative grace to the redeeming sacrifice of Christ. The word suffers recalls the New Testament Greek verb for the passion of Christ, pathein: “to suffer.” God “passions” humankind through the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But a God that imagines and endures universally sinning minds is a far less extreme, but perhaps more comprehensible, deity. This Father now joins his Son, according to the parable that “The Mind-Reader” works out, so that both “suffer” the entirety of human sin through total access to human consciousness.

By finding in this punctilious, musical, drunken, part-charlatan seer a local habitation, an analogy, for the openness of all minds to God, Wilbur joins the existential unhappiness of God to humankind’s own. In sympathizing with the gentle veggente, Wilbur invites the reader to sympathize with God. This trope may seem presumptuous, even risk blasphemy or suggest a possible Christian heresy, but its courage is breathtaking.

 

III.

Like “The Mind-Reader,” all of Wilbur’s Roman poems offer appreciations of a believer’s relation to God as an inescapably collaborative enterprise. Christ’s hand didn’t write the Gospels, for instance—his believers’ hands did. Wilbur’s rendering of human-divine collaboration raises the stakes of every poem in which he asserts it, especially in “For the New Railway Station in Rome” 
and “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.”

Wilbur makes splendid use of fugue form in the “Railway Station” poem; the God invoked in its first stanza returns to preside over humankind’s heavenly aspirations in its last. The poem begins by denying that pilgrims to the holy city should gloat at the triumph of Christianity over its pagan ancestor, whose imperial might lies collapsed in ruins. He denies that “God is praised / By hurt pillars,” or that the leveling of man’s ambitious structures is God’s way of reminding us of his preeminence and our futility and insignificance. Proof that there is something divine in purely secular architectural grandeur, Wilbur asserts, can be found in the new Stazione Termini, Rome’s post–World War II railway station (which replaced the one Allied bombers destroyed). 
He celebrates its startling jaggedness, and the rightness of its placement next to the ruin of an ancient wall, in stanzas whose inclusive, outreaching lines convey the physical forms of such inspired human creativity:

               See, from the travertine
Face of the office block, the roof of the booking-hall
Sails out into the air beside the ruined
Servian Wall,

Echoing in its light
And cantilevered swoop of reinforced concrete
The broken profile of these stones, defeating
That defeat

And straying the strummed mind,
By such a sudden chord as raised the town of Troy,
To where the least shard of the world sings out
In stubborn joy,

“What city is eternal
But that which prints itself within the groping head
Out of the blue unbroken reveries
Of the building dead?

“What is our praise or pride
But to imagine excellence, and try to make it?
What does it say over the door of Heaven
But homo fecit?”

The linking of human creative power with the imagining of heaven is supported by two facts of historical and metaphysical life: first, that mortals have really “made” heaven (“homo fecit”) as they understand it, just as they have written gospels that assert a world-transforming religious dispensation; and second, that because humankind is not divine, its imagined heaven, 
in all its splendor, is made of inspired guesswork. Nonbelievers may respond, pace Wilbur, that our efforts may be chimerical—may be, in fact, fake. 
But surely never intentionally so.

As he leads his readers toward those final two stanzas, Wilbur invokes the “building dead”—artists, particularly architects (like Bramante, who first conceived the vast dome of Saint Peter’s to mime the vaster one above it) and religious visionaries (like Dante, who maps the afterlife in burning, penitential, and finally glorious detail from the Aristotelian and Aquinian master plans)—artists whose “pride” in their work fuses with their “praise” of God. Though Wilbur has caught some grief for making so much out of so “pedestrian” a venue as a “booking-hall” and for what seems, to some critics, excessively clever wordplay in the final two stanzas, these stanzas are Wilbur’s most explicit and memorable aria celebrating human and godly collaboration: human beings have not only imagined an excellent heaven and prescribed the conduct that attains it, but they have created and populated that heaven by the sincerity of their belief—while beset with temptation they sometimes yield to—by living honorable and generous earthly lives.

 

IV.

Since late 1947, The New Yorker’s poetry editor Howard Moss and his colleagues had been receptive to Wilbur’s output, every year accepting 
a few poems. Though Moss was personally impressed by almost every poem Wilbur sent during his time in Rome, he failed to persuade The New Yorker’s poetry committee to accept a single one. That fact suggests that Wilbur’s Roman style had clashed with either The New Yorker’s sophistication, or, more likely, its sense that religious belief should be an unspoken, private concern.

Besides Moss, the poetry committee included Harold Ross, the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief; Katharine White, whose grammatical and stylistic surveillance few escaped unscathed; the novelist William Maxwell; and Rachel MacKenzie, an assistant poetry editor. Though Moss was the chief poetry editor, acceptance was by consensus and sometimes by an up or down democratic vote. Moss could be, and often was, outvoted. Ross strictly enforced his obiter dictum: “I don’t want anything in this magazine that I don’t understand.”

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many first-rate poets were at work in the English-speaking world, and the committee had its pick of a great deal of distinguished and enjoyable work. There is no question that during Moss’s tenure The New Yorker published a significant number of the best American poems written in that era. If the magazine didn’t buy every masterpiece on offer, wariness toward extravagance, emotional or otherwise, was likely the cause.

A New Yorker poem’s minimum requirements were that it struck a fresh (or pleasantly nostalgic) note, displayed evident skill, contained no untrue factual statements, and would neither unsettle nor embarrass the magazine’s audience. Receptivity to prose reportage was not nearly so solicitous of its readers’ comfort. John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial, for instance, were published in their lengthy entirety.

When Wilbur began to send Moss the “glistening” new poems he had finished in autumn 1954, which Charlee immediately recognized as possessing “his best singing quality,” they were met with months of silence. “Piazza di Spagna, Early Morning,” “For a New Railway Station in Rome,” and “Sonnet,” which began “The winter deepening, the hay all in,” languished in foggy and chilly Manhattan.

When Moss didn’t respond with his usual promptness, Wilbur sent another poem in early November, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” He began his letter, “Dear Howard, I hope your silence indicates that something of what I’ve sent you has found advocates. Whatever the quality of my present efforts may be, and as I am writing too much to know, or too fast to know, this is a lovely place to write. I have a little brick house set up against an old Papal wall, with a high prospect of well-tended and geometrically ditched Italian gardens. Artichokes, fig trees, cabbages, onions, every conceivable lettuce. Nearby there is a convent, and the sisters sing badly but pleasantly every day at twelve.” Also at noon, announcing the sisters’ songs and that lunch and siesta were at hand, came a cannon boom from Piazza Garibaldi, a few hundred yards distant.

Wilbur’s “little brick building” had begun life as a potter’s studio; its forsaken wheel and kiln remained just outside its door. The garden side of the studio was all windows, and the wall tucked against the Pope’s was burlap-covered; to it Wilbur pinned inspirational verbal artifacts inscribed in his best italic hand, including, for instance, words such as reticulum, a variation of which would send its Latin waves through the great fountain poem he would soon begin in Rome and finish in Wellesley.

In December, Moss wrote rejecting all the poems Wilbur had mailed him that autumn, accepting only “All These Birds,” a poem Wilbur had sent to Moss before sailing to Italy. In some respects, The New Yorker editors’ objections, as Moss summarizes them, anticipate reservations that critics would later have about his work.

The final vote went against the [new] poems, though . . . there were some sharp differences of opinion. In brief PIAZZA DI SPAGNA seemed a little sentimental to us, and a little hazy, FOR THE NEW RAILWAY TERMINUS [later, STATION] IN ROME, which came close, struck us as enormously skillful, but with a faintly trumped-up exultation (I felt this one suffered from too many adjectives), 
and SONNET just didn’t make it, though it had strong pros and cons.

“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” also failed to win a place in The New Yorker alongside ads for Chanel, Cadillac, and other luxury goods. Moss explained: “Though we liked [it], the final and majority vote went against it. The general feeling was that the poem is a little too special for us, 
and I return it to you, with real regret.”

Nor taken was “Altitudes,” which celebrates two domes—a majestic, angel-filled one in Rome, supported by the “massed voices of continual prayer,” and Emily Dickinson’s silent cupola in Amherst. This poem was Wilbur’s 
last attempt to bring what he saw from Rome’s vantage home to sacred American ground.

Like the dark house below, so full of eyes
In mirrors and of shut-in flies,
This chamber furnished only with the sun

Is she and she alone,
A mood to which she rises, in which she sees
Bird-choristers in all the trees
And a wild shining of the pure unknown

On Amherst. This is caught
In the dormers of a neighbor, who, no doubt,
Will before long be coming out
To pace about his garden, lost in thought.

The rejections by The New Yorker did not depress or discourage Wilbur. He knew, and Charlee knew, that he was writing well and in a new vein. Not long after Moss and company turned down Dick’s poems, several appeared in an acclaimed, and very hefty, multilingual magazine recently founded in Rome by Principessa Marguerite Caetani, an American with excellent literary taste (she also published W. D. Snodgrass’s poem “Heart’s Needle” in its entirety) who had befriended the Wilburs. The magazine’s name, Botteghe Oscure (literally “Dark Shops”), was the name of the street where Caetani’s Roman palace was located, near the Tiber.

 

V.

During the winter, the Wilburs attended what Charlee referred to as “State Dinners” hosted by Lawrence Roberts, the Academy’s director, and his wife, Isabel Roberts. Their palatial official residence, the Villa Aurelia, still showed the cannon wounds inflicted when Garibaldi invaded Rome along the Via Aurelia in 1870. Roberts, a China scholar, was a charmingly modest but exceptionally gifted administrator. He and Isabel made sure they got to know every Academy fellow and saw to it that each year’s cadre met their contemporary Italian counterparts as well as kindred international luminaries visiting Rome. Fellows invited to dine at the Villa Aurelia were rarely informed beforehand who the other guests might be and were sometimes startled to find themselves walking up the long gravel drive in step with, for instance, the novelist Alberto Moravia and later seated at a table between the biographer Iris Origo—who had, at great risk to herself, shielded downed Allied pilots on her estate during World War II—and Mario Praz, author of the international best-seller The Romantic Agony, who was reputed to have the malocchio (evil eye).

Rome was, of course, a very different place in 1954 than it had been when Dick arrived on 5 June 1944 with the 36th Texans. Sometimes his memories of what he experienced in 1944 and 1945 collided with the civility and security now around him. A moment of such disorientation seems to have happened when he and Charlee visited Elizabeth Spencer in her apartment on 
Via Flaminia.

Spencer was working, at the time, on The Light in the Piazza, her novella (later filmed) about a beautiful but mentally impaired young woman. Wilbur recalls the evening as one in which he suddenly felt he was making a fool of himself. Spencer, a gracious Southerner, had asked about his experiences during the fighting in Italy. Wilbur recounted two battlefield exploits: one demonstrated his inherently brave nature, but the other confessed his instinctive cowardice. Wilbur was both chagrined and disoriented. 
He suddenly blurted, “Elizabeth, I’ve been lying to you!” He and Charlee soon departed. As they began their trip across Rome, Wilbur realized he had left an excellent pipe behind, but he was too embarrassed to retrieve it. Both war incidents that Wilbur recounted to Spencer were true, but his declaration about lying expressed just how uncomfortable he was presenting an incoherent version of himself. The Wilburs did not see Spencer again in Rome, but their acquaintance, renewed when Dick and Elizabeth both became members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, soon blossomed into friendship.

Late one evening at home, having played too many sets of tennis on a sweltering spring afternoon, Wilbur suddenly staggered and fell, feeling sick and woozy and suffering severe heart palpitations. The first person to see him collapse was Franca, who ran into the children’s bedroom exclaiming, “Tua Papa e morto!” Wilbur was, in fact, conscious, but obviously stricken. Charlee immediately suspected a post-exertion heart attack. She phoned their American-trained doctor at nearby Salvatore Mundi hospital, who was able to call throughout the night with instructions. Charlee gave her husband 
a sedative and sat up with him until the doctor was free to examine him.

The doctor diagnosed Wilbur’s condition as “anginaloid syndrome”—neither actual angina nor a true heart attack, but a heart spasm caused by “extreme fatigue and tension” that, his doctor eventually suggested, had been building ever since his World War II experiences, and perhaps as well by the intensity with which he’d been writing and working all his adult life. Charlee concurred, fully aware that her “racehorse” (as she thought of him when they first met in college) had been driving himself in the belief that his body was indestructible.

For five days, Wilbur recuperated in the hospital. An electrocardiogram found no damage to his heart. His doctor’s recommendations for avoiding a more serious episode were harsh and not followed for long: No smoking. 
No tennis for a while. Take it easy and stop often when ascending Rome’s long and steep stairways. Don’t exhaust yourself writing. “He did allow me,” Wilbur remembers, “to continue having sexual relations with my wife.”

All of this had a “profound effect on Dick,” Charlee wrote to Brinnin on 26 May. “At first he felt the shock of being scared for the first time in his life. Now he is beginning to think of himself as being like all other people, capable of frailties of the body. He indicated real need of me, he looks at people very closely. I am very glad this has happened to him because I think he will live more naturally, closer to the ground, closer to people whom he will need and who will feel his need.”

As soon as his Roman doctor found Wilbur fit to travel, he and Charlee drove to Positano without the children for ten days of sun, sea, companionship, and isolation, before resuming the rough-and-tumble of city and Academy life. “It was wonderful for us both,” Charlee wrote Brinnin. “[H]e is better now than for a long time.” During the autumn, she had reported his happiness and exhilaration at becoming free to write; now she saw him relieved of the pressure to produce poems brilliant enough to justify his fellowship, because he already had. By spring, Dick had finished translating The Misanthrope and sent it off to a theater company that had been chafing for it. He and Charlee now felt several pressures simultaneously ease, releasing them to enjoy their last weeks in Italy.

An English couple they were friendly with, Wayland Young and his wife, Liz, who had helped them understand Baroque style on visits to exemplary churches around Rome, suggested a trip to attend a Mass conducted by Padre Pio, already a betting man’s candidate for early sainthood. Pio had been 
a Catholic celebrity for decades. Several remarkable cures had been attributed to him. His stigmata had been visible (except when he bound them in gauze when conducting holy offices) for thirty years. He was controversial, as his miracles and stigmata had not been verified by papal investigations. Yet his popular following was immense. The Wilburs and Youngs drove down to Foggia, in Southern Italy, and spent the night, setting their alarms to wake them for Padre Pio’s 4:00 a.m. Mass. Wayland, who intended to report the ceremony in The Observer, overslept. But the Wilburs, without the Youngs, made it to the church on time. They were standing toward the rear, but both, being tall, had a clear view. Wilbur was unable to make out Pio’s stigmata. Suddenly, 
a tiny nun leapt onto Wilbur’s back and shinnied up so her head was beside his. Wilbur and the Sister watched the Mass together to its conclusion.

 

VI.

Back in Rome, Wilbur continued to work on the poem called “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” which, like “For a New Railway Station,” took a fugue form. It begins with a playfully detailed verbal sketch of the eponymous fountain, its endlessly replenished water falling to create a kind of transparent tent for its mythical stone tenants: a faun and fauness and their pet goose—
a family rapt in an eternal “saecular ecstasy.” Their easy happiness seems too simple and untroubled to be useful to a world where such good times cannot be sustained. So Wilbur seeks an alternative model to which human beings should aspire. He finds one across town:

                                                  . . . Are we not

        More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
Before St. Peter’s—the main jet
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest

In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illuminated version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?

Wilbur would have been alerted to fountains as sources of poems by Anthony Hecht, who had written his own spectacular fountain-and-garden poem during his Rome fellowship in 1950–51, a poem set in that highly sexualized mountainside symphony of rising and falling water, the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Hecht had returned to Rome in 1954–55, supported by a Guggenheim and accompanied by his wife, Patricia.

Roman fountainOn the Wilburs’ walk between their apartment and the Academy, they cut through 
the park of the Villa Sciarra past this baroque wall fountain, whose ménage of fauns, 
cupids, and geese became the subject of Dick’s most ambitious Roman poem.

Wilbur and Hecht, who, at this stage in their careers, composed mostly in formal stanzas and with a skill in rhyme and versification unmatched by their contemporaries, were astute auditors of each other’s poems. Hecht once said (in a personal communication with the author in 1957) that this close exposure to Wilbur’s work habits, his deliberate development of an idea into a poem, made him aware that Wilbur composed a poem not by running willy-nilly with an inspiration, but by accreting into it, line by line, ever more nuance, surprise, and significance. Hecht, on the other hand, was proud, though a little wary, of what he called his own “sailing present tense,” which is on full display in “The Gardens of the Villa d’Este,” whose first stanza and next few lines make the poem’s dynamic abundantly clear:

         This is Italian. Here
Is cause for the undiminished bounce
Of sex, cause for the lark, the animal spirit
To rise, aerated, but not beyond our reach, to spread
Friction upon the air, cause to sing loud for the bed
Of jonquils, the linen bed, and established merit
Of love, and grandly to pronounce
Pleasure without peer.

Goddess, be with me now;
Commend my music to the woods.
There is no garden to the practiced gaze
Half so erotic . . .

The last of this poem’s seventeen stanzas addresses not a goddess but “Susan,” who appears on cue, apparently from behind a cypress or a statue, and who, whenever or wherever she reads it, will not miss Hecht’s drift:

               Therefore, some later day,
Recall these words, let them be read
Between us, let them signify that here
Are more than formulas, that age sees no more clearly
For its poor eyesight, and philosophy grows surly,
That falling water and the blood’s career
Lead down the garden path to bed
And win us both to May.

Ebullient, inventive, convincing throughout, Hecht is nevertheless content to ring changes on his theme that water is sexual inspiration, rather than offering further exploration or transformations of its power. Wilbur’s loyalty to Christian realism led him, in his own fountain poem, not to forsake the pagan pleasures of the Villa Sciarra, but to find, in two divergent (and historically warring) ways of life, a celebration of water itself and its unfailing life-giving and deprivation-quenching flow.

The quietly magical lines of “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” condense the inner feeling of an aspiring life into a brilliant yet precarious (and finally losing) battle with the law of gravity: We are the water! Wilbur seems to say here. Were those drenched fauns and their uninterrupted pleasures nothing more than a delicious myth? he wonders, and takes a second look. This time, he sees their “humble insatiety” and interprets it as Saint Francis might have, who saw the natural, physical phenomena of this world—
from birds and animals to water and stones—to be as much God’s children as we are:

       If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display
The pattern of our areté,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,

Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse

And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui
With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow

Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state

As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand
Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

This “bliss” is as truly “humble” as the “shade of” Saint Francis who imagined it: human beings accepting kinship with the blameless but God-created “things of this world,” the water and grass and sunlight that might mistakenly be dismissed as “inanimate.” Analogous use of Saint Francis’s sense of kinship had previously animated “For a New Railway Station,” where the “least shard of the world sings out / In stubborn joy” at the astonishing rebuilding project that culminates in the “construction” of heaven from human materials. Both endings move quietly through well-prepared (and well-argued) revelations toward final resolutions, in which seemingly hostile ways of living reconcile. Wilbur imagines his paradise, but the materials with which he builds are, 
as he insists, things of a world he shares, not imposes.

After returning from Rome, Wilbur and Charlee spent most of the summer of 1955 in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Wilbur would begin teaching in the fall. There he finished “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” and in August, Howard Moss accepted it for The New Yorker. “[It’s] 
a beauty and we’re glad to have it. It seems to me one of your very best new 
ones, and wonderfully worked out from start to finish. We have some queries, 
as usual.” The committee’s set of queries was on target, and most found their way into, and perfected, the poem.

With this final poem begun in Rome, Wilbur lifted his own poetry, 
and contemporary American poetry, to a new place, from which the world’s resilience and bounty are not suspect but manifest. His poems establish bonds of pleasure and exhilaration with his readers; squalor, failure, pain, and misery occur, as they must, but within a cosmic order that augurs we are not alone. His third book, Things of This World, containing all his Roman poems except “The Mind-Reader,” was published in 1956. It won him a large and loyal audience, as well as a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

 

Acknowledgements: To Richard Wilbur and Ellen Wilbur for graciously allowing me to access and reproduce Wilbur family letters and photos; to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for permission to reprint poems and excerpts by Richard Wilbur; to the staff of the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College, for their expert help in locating documents in the Wilbur Collection; and to Mary Bagg for indispensable editorial assistance.

 

 

Robert Bagg taught English at the University of Massachusetts from 1965 until 1996. He is currently completing a critical biography of Richard Wilbur.

Click here to purchase Issue 04.

Julia PikeThe Poet in Rome: Richard Wilbur in Postwar Italy

Related Posts

blurry sardines in the ocean

My Life as a Sardine

BENIGNO TRIGO
My grandfather was the third governor of Puerto Rico and the founder of the Pro-Statehood Party. When I was little, he used to say it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a sardine in the big blue sea. It was a reminder of how good we had it on our little island.

Campus Aerial

Honoring Amherst Writers

For Amherst College's fourth annual LitFest, The Common put together a Literary Landmarks tour of Amherst College, highlighting locations on campus with special connections to literary figures affiliated with the college, from Robert Frost to Lauren Groff. Building on that effort, we've compiled a list of pieces published in The Common that were written either by or about Amherst professors, alums, and even current students.

Family Photo

Land Not Theirs

MADISON DAVIS
I have just a few weeks to come up with eight thousand dollars in order to register for spring classes. The most obvious resolution would be that I take the semester off, move back to Ohio… But I know that the likelihood of returning to school after a long break is small.