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In "A Baroque Wall-Fountain," Wilbur uses a meditative voice to muse about different understandings of human nature and to focus on the relationship of ecstasy and order. The first possibility entertained by the meditative self is expressed by the baroque fountain mentioned in the poem’s title:

[. . . .]

Here the form is mimetically suited to the subject matter. Long sentences open the poem and are "an effort to imitate the trickling down of the water." The rhymes mime the repetition of the fountain's shell motif. The rhythm repeatedly pauses for caesura and then tumbles forward in anapests or "drips" regularly in iambics.

In the midst of these descriptive lines, there are several hints that contrasting visions of self and world will be debated more explicitly later on. Wilbur notes that the bronze crown is "too big" for the cherub in the fountain. A representative of heaven (the cherub) is being eaten by a representative of hell (the serpent). The water is described as sweet, perhaps meaning it is tempting and dangerous. It is falling, after all, and may be headed for the realm of sin and lawlessness. And yet these are only connotations. The tone is predominantly that of delighted description. The reader’s attention follows the water's descent and passes too quickly over the scene to be alarmed by these hints of trouble.

The lines that follow bring to the fore the question as to how to interpret the vision expressed by this fountain:

[ . . . .]

In these lines it is clear that the figures on the lower levels of the fountain are "happy," and more than happy--"in a saecular ecstasy." The scene is classically Dionysian: the water is in "ragged, loose / Collapse." The god has "shaggy knees," and his children are playing in "goatish innocence." The drama is in the conflict between the prevailing tone and the increasingly explicit hints of dissatisfaction with this particular vision of human nature: is the "saecular ecstasy" of the sculpted scene satisfying or spiritually impoverished? On the one hand, the rhythm and sonic devices, including rhyme, communicate an apparently pleasurable vision. On the other hand, certain words, laden with connotations drawn from Christian Scripture and Greek mythology, question this facade of happiness. The Oxford English Dictionary reports, for example, that "goatish" is a figurative expression for a "licentious man" and can mean "lascivious" and "lustful." (How innocent can "goatish innocence" be?) The fauness has "sparkling flesh" and flesh in the Paulinian lexicon can refer to that in this world which has fallen away from faith in God. The ecstasy is reported to be "saecular," "Belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the church and religion, … non-sacred." The fauness has a "blinded smile," blind being a common Christian metaphor for a lack of spiritual enlightenment. In addition, she is "addled" by the moving pattern of light and shadow, more deeply affected than if she were merely drunk with wine or taken up in sensual pleasure. In short, though the dominant tone of this passage is pleasurable, Wilbur’s imagery and vocabulary strongly suggest that this baroque fountain does indeed figure forth a profound disorder.

The next six lines provide the primary pivot for the poem, a transition from one possible vision of human nature to another:

[. . . .]

Wilbur’s word play is especially transparent here as he considers simplicity and intricacy. My reading has suggested that the baroque fountain is not simple at all. Furthermore, the questions as to how to take the sculptor's intentions and as to whether they truly represent human nature are anything but simple. And yet, if the fountain represents sensuality without spirituality, it truly distorts human nature by being simplistic. If the "plain" fountains to be described in the next ten lines include an exploration of the spiritual, then a more complete and complex understanding of human nature may emerge.

[. . . .]

Once again Wilbur's sentence structure mimetically represents the water’s movement. Quickly the water is propelled to the top of its trajectory. Nearly as quickly it will fall, "decline, / And patter on the stones." In between it seems to hang in the air precariously struggling to defy gravity for several lines. The lines contain caesura interrupting the rhythm, each one causing the reader to ask: will the water fall back to earth now? . . . now? . . . now? Suspense is built until, at last, the decline begins.

Whereas the baroque fountain had Dionysian characteristics, this fountain has clean lines and bears the character of an intellectually satisfying work of art. No part of it is "too big" or "ragged" or "loose." In these ways it is Apollonian. However, as a vision of the true telos of human existence, the fountains that Maderna set before St. Peter's are even more mystical than they are Apollonian. The water’s trajectory is an allegory for the ascent of a human soul--struggling perhaps through spiritual discipline, until it is "at rest" in a pattern of rising toward God. "The very wish of the water," that is, the natural (gravitational) "desire" to be earthly, is overcome, and the head is "clear, high" and "cavorting" in heavenly play, filled with the blaze of God's glory. As in some mystical experiences, the self is transformed into "a fine / Illumined version of itself."

This description, like that of the baroque fountain contains within itself seeds of doubt that it is entirely satisfactory as a vision of human nature. For example, in contrast to "Teresa," where sexual imagery communicated the "involvement of Teresa's whole self (including the erotic) in dedication to God,"' in this section of "A Baroque Wall Fountain" the phallic imagery seems to suggest that in an orgasmic blaze the body disappears. To what end? The genuine mystic would answer, "to participate in God's glory." But here, it is possible that the body’s disappearance finally may be self-indulgent. The "fine / Illumined version of itself" will "patter on the stones its own applause." Furthermore, also in contrast to Teresa whose spirituality led her to run "God's barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain," here there is no suggestion that mystical rapture leads to engagement with the world. The vision of human nature expressed in the fountains in front of St. Peter’s does not add spirituality to the secular scene or lead unambiguously to purification. It removes the secular and physical, replacing them with a vision of what is truly human that is entirely spiritualized, and possibly self-indulgent.

The final stanzas of this poem reveal that Wilbur is indeed uncomfortable in seeking a mystical escape into pure spirituality. He remains haunted by the baroque fountain:

[. . . .]

If mystical ecstasy, if losing the self in a blaze of God's glory, is what humanity should be committed to, the poet asks, what shall we make of the attractive characteristics present in the baroque fountain? What of accepting one's creatureliness? What of accepting God's gifts without "disgust" or "ennui"? What of being "at rest--in fulness of desire / For what is given" rather than at rest in striving for what is beyond?

The meditative voice in this poem finally seeks to resolve the dramatic conflict. With some tentativeness, Wilbur puts forward yet another view of humanity. His model is St. Francis--both spiritual and committed to creation, living fully in this fallen world and yet focused on the next. St. Francis does not deny pain but accepts this world as a "shade of bliss." Not paradise, this world yet enables him to know the world to come. Snow, flowers, grass, sunlight and water: truly one with these, he is at heaven’s gate. His experience of paradise is imaginative and proleptic.

It turns out, then, that the choice which the poem leaves with us is not so much between accepting the things of this world and trying to escape as between relating to the things of this world in the manner of St. Francis or settling for something less: spiritless sensuality or disembodied mysticism. The dramatic tension is resolved as the Franciscan vision emerges. As Martz’s description of interior dramatization would have it, the poet has recorded the creation of "a self that is ... one with itself, ... with created nature, and with the supernatural." Partial visions of the self have been projected onto a stage and brought into dialogue with the whole self. A new self or at least a greater self-understanding has emerged from the process.