Marjorie Perloff: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"

… 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"?

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Title Marjorie Perloff: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Marjorie Perloff Criticism Target Richard Wilbur
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poetry on & off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions
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