Richard Wilbur on W. H. Auden

“The soul shrinks from all that it is about to remember.”

“… but for that look of rigorous content.”

“… the fountain-quieted square …”

“… gust of grace …”

” … having taught hell’s fire a singing way to burn …”

These are just a few of the many delightful and haunting lines from the poetry of Richard Wilbur, a former national poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer Prize  winner who turned 91 last month.

Those of you who have been reading for a while will have gathered that W. H. Auden is a poet I hold in high esteem. In light of that, here is Richard Wilbur’s “For W. H. Auden” which first appeared in The Atlantic in 1979:

   Now I am surer where they were going.
The brakie loping the tops of the moving freight,
The beautiful girls in their outboard, waving to someone
As the stern dug in and the wake pleated the water.

   The uniformed children led by a nun
Through the terminal’s uproar, the clew-drawn scholar descending
The cast-iron stair of the stacks, shuffling his papers,
The Indians, two to a blanket, passing in darkness,

   Also the German prisoner switching
His dusty neck as the truck backfired and started—
Of all these noted in stride and detained in memory
I now know better that they were going to die,

   Since you, who sustained the civil tongue
In a scattering time, and were poet of all our cities,
Have for all your clever difference quietly left us,
As we might have known that you would, by that common door.

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