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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The desires of the heart, the constraints of creation

Roger Lundin on Richard Wilbur’s anti-Gnostic voice

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The desires of the heart, the constraints of creation

In 1993, on Volume 6 of the Mars Hill Tapes, I talked with Roger Lundin about his book The Culture of Interpretation (Eerdmans, 1993). It was the first of many conversations with Roger, who died in 2015 at the age of 66. In that first interview, Lundin suggested that television talk shows which feature bizarre and deviant behavior are a manifestation of the postmodern penchant for tolerant inclusiveness. He notes that the drive for absolute inclusivity undermines the notion of community, which necessarily involves the setting of limits and prohibitions. Lundin warned that when the Church markets the Gospel as a therapeutic tool that fulfills "felt needs," it robs the message of its redemptive power.

The hatred of limits — of embodied life within the order of Creation that precedes our choosing — is a theme in chapter 4 of his book, “Postmodern Gnostics.”

From the Montanists of the second century to modern fundamentalists, then, radical Christians have been prone to conceive of grace as the negation of nature and culture. In early Christian history, gnosticism led to the disparagement of the body, the Scriptures, and the life of the church. In the Western world since the Enlightenment, the gnostic impulse has prompted many to dismiss the idea of an order inherent in nature and to spurn that which has been given to men and women in their cultural and intellectual traditions. It is not so much embodiment that contemporary gnostics take to be the source of evil as it is the embeddedness of the self within the limits of nature and the constrictions of society.

In that chapter, three twentieth-century figures emerge as prophetic voices challenging the gnosticism of modern and postmodern culture: Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, and Richard Wilbur. The following paragraphs are from Lundin’s appreciative account of Wilbur’s poetry.

•     •     •

For more than four decades, Richard Wilbur has tried to bring words back to things in his po­etry. Although acknowledged as one of the finest technical masters of contemporary poetry, Wilbur has consistently resisted any temptation to think of language as a haven from reality or of verbal dexterity as an end in itself. Wilbur is “one whose Way in his dealings with the body of this world is not the Way of Rejection but rather the way of Affirmation,” explains Nathan A. Scott, Jr. For instance, in “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World,” Wilbur imagines himself in the uncertain world between sleep and waking, be­tween dream and fact. In the poem, the soul whose “eyes open to a cry of pulleys” is “as­tounded.” Hanging for a moment “bodiless and simple,” the

         soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day

The Neoplatonic image of the waking soul, with which Wilbur is working in this poem, is a rich one in the romantic tradition. In several of his most famous works, William Wordsworth de­picted the awakened soul as one that had been saddened and that sought through poetry the wonder it had lost upon entering the world of time. In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” for instance, Wordsworth wrote that “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting”; the soul within us “hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar”:

   Not in entire forgetfulness,
   And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
   From God, who is our home.

The goal of adult life, according to Words­worth’s poem, is to recapture childhood through mem­ory, to recall the time when the soul was as close to eternity as the waking mind is to the dreams from which it has just emerged. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World,” however, Wilbur has the waking soul renounce the desire to re­treat from the dawning world:

The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
              keeping their difficult balance.”

Desire allures us with its promises of purity of spirit and language, but love calls us incessantly back to the things of this world.

While many poets and critics since the ro­mantic age have conceived of poetic skill as a means of apprehending the wonders of imaginary worlds, Wilbur thinks of it as a way of striking a delicate balance between the desires of the heart and the constraints of creation. In a longer poem entitled “Walking to Sleep,” he addresses a per­son trying to drift into unconsciousness. Wilbur first advises the person to “step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.” But he also gives the fol­lowing warning:

Try to remember this: what you project
Is what you will perceive; what you perceive
With any passion, be it love or terror,
May take on whims and powers of its own.

“What you hope for” at the end of the “pointless journey” of the mind through its own labyrinths is that,

          when you least expect it,
Right in the middle of your stride, like that,
So neatly that you never feel a thing,
The kind assassin Sleep will draw a bead
And blow your brains out.

In the second half of the poem, when the aimless drift of the mind has failed to lead the person into sleep, Wilbur offers contrary advice:

          What, are you still awake?
Then you must risk another tack and footing.
Forget what I have said. Open your eyes
To the good blackness not of your room alone
But of the sky you trust is over it,
Whose stars, though foundering in the time to come,
Bequeath us constantly a jetsam beauty.

In this second journey, “if you are in luck, you may be granted . . . / A moment’s perfect care­lessness” and then

        sink to sleep
In the same clearing where, in the old story,
A holy man discovered Vishnu sleeping,
Wrapped in his maya, dreaming by a pool
On whose calm face all images whatever
Lay clear, unfathomed, taken as they came.

If there is in the heritage of the Enlighten­ment an implicit gnostic desire to spurn the cre­ated order — to shun nature in favor of a self-generated grace — then there is in Wilbur’s poetry a tendency to blur the distinctions between the self and the created order, that is, to turn nature into grace. In most cases, however, irony keeps Wilbur from succumbing to that temptation. As one of his witty short poems realizes, the self and nature cannot be in perfect harmony precisely because human transgression has “loosened the grammar” of God’s world:

Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance: shall these words love me?

Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,

I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,

But, thinking, I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.

Latin for “let it stand,” stet is a proofreader’s mark indicating that a passage marked to be changed or deleted from a text should be allowed to re­main instead. In a world that is both bounti­ful and cursed, nothing less than the patience of God is required to keep the self from ruin.

In a recent poem called “Lying,” Wilbur ponders the way we respond to the given world. Its opening lines describe a lie:

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.

To say that you have seen this most common of birds will neither damage “your reputation for saying things of interest” nor rupture “the deli­cate web of human trust.” Later, however,

You may enjoy a chill of severance, hearing
Above your head the shrug of unreal wings.

Why do we lie, then? The world is not “tiresome” in itself, but “boredom,”

        a dull
Impatience or a fierce velleity,
A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude,

makes it seem tiresome. Yet no matter how much we fantasize about our power to create and to redeem, the fact remains that

     In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles . . .
. . . . . . .

     All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look.

And the fact that “all these things / Are there before us”

     is what galled the arch-negator, sprung
From Hell to probe with intellectual sight
The cells and heavens of a given world
Which he could take as but another prison.

Satan, the “arch-negator,” was considered a heroic figure by some romantic poets because he refused to accept the limitations placed upon him by his creator. In refusing to accept them, he turned to the joyful pretense of creating by de­stroying. The first true gnostic, Satan was able to find in the “given world” nothing but “another prison.”