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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.