Essay / Literature

Nothing to Praise

If you’ve never encountered the poetry of Richard Wilbur, one of the most distinguished living Christian poets in the U. S., you might consider picking up his recently published Collected Poems 1943-2004. While much of twentieth century poetry contemplates the anxieties of our age or confesses the tumult of the individual psyche, Wilbur’s lyrics are often marked by a delight that is neither sentimental nor superficial. One of his earliest poems, the sonnet Praise in Summer, caught my eye recently.

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said,
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur opens by turning the world topsy-turvy with metaphors, emphasizing in his reversals the way things are not. He proceeds to reproach himself for this, asking sharp questions of his imagination, aspiring to purify his praise. And in his final lines, as resolution, he offers a celebration of things as they are.

But even in these final lines Wilbur, though more subtly than before, expresses the nature of things in poetic figures. So doing, he now celebrates things as they are according to their fullness, freshness, and strangeness, which obtains simply in their being and not in the “mad instead.” Sparrows do sweep, glide, and sail. The sky is not only the ceiling of our day but also our star-fretted roof in the night.

Still, our senses grow weary, and we forget to taste, touch, smell, and see that the world is good. Poetry that reminds us to do ought be shared, pondered, and praised. Wilbur’s reminder extends further, to suggest that poetry is the very thing that will jog our memories. He shows us that the words with which we articulate the world can both capture and cause our praise.

The poem’s discovery reminds me of a strain of thought I often encounter in G. K. Chesterton’s work. In one instance he writes that for Saint Francis, whom he calls a poet-saint, “the noble thing that is called praise” arises out of an “almost nihilistic abyss.” Because he is persuaded that the whole universe hangs, as if by a thread, upon the will of God, such a poet can really praise creation, in sense of the act of creation. He not only appreciates everything but also the nothing out of which it was made. The thought and threat of nothingness–that things could have been otherwise or, even, not have been–excites gratitude, celebration, and praise.

Here is cause for praise: that things are as they are. Nectarines need not have been the perfect amount of juicy and sweet, nor the earth carpeted with grasses. Women need not have been fair, nor men valiant. Neither is it of necessity that my father is tender-hearted and my mother vivacious.

And in addition to all of these particular need-not-have-beens, creation itself need not have been. As Chesterton reminds us in Orthodoxy, all that is stands as a “Great-Might-Not-Have-Been.” The doctrine of creation ex nihilo suggests to us that everything has existence by the sheer bounty of God. Latin was right to call “good,” bonus.

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