Richard Wilbur, “For C.”
After the clash of elevator gates
And the long sinking, she emerges where,
A slight thing in the morning’s crosstown glare,
She looks up toward the window where he waits,
Then in a fleeting taxi joins the rest
Of the huge traffic bound forever west.
On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye—
Even this other pair whose high romance
Had only the duration of a dance,
And who, now taking leave with stricken eye,
See each in each a whole new life forgone.
For them, above the darkling clubhouse lawn,
Bright Perseids flash and crumble; while for these
Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief
And baggage, yet with something like relief,
It takes three thousand miles of knitting seas
To cancel out their crossing, and unmake
the amorous rough and tumble of their wake.
We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,
And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.
Reading the first stanza one is presented with the image of a wisp of a girl leaving her lovers apartment after a night together. With a clash she sinks into the harsh frantic world of the city where she is lost in the “huge traffic bound forever west.” It is telling that she leaves in a taxi, hinting that it is not her apartment. One could suggest it was a one night stand except for the glance she casts back at the upper window where he waits, gazing down at her. The world they shared together came to an abrupt end with the “clash of elevator gates’ but in this brief glance some small reminder of it remains.
The first line of the second stanza succinctly states the unifying theme of the first three stanzas, “On such grand scale do lovers say goodbye.” The second image we are presented with is that of a couple dancing beneath the stars on a lawn in late summer. This couple is curious because it seems that they have only just fallen in love while at a summer dance. “for them . . . Bright Perseids flash and crumble.” It seems as if the breif duration of their dance is mirrored in the heavens as the meteors flare for but a moment before they disappear.
The third stanza begins with the words “Bright Perseids flash and crumble”, perhaps another motif of the first half of the poem? The third couple we encounter are a pair of lovers parting ways before a long ocean voyage. This stanza is a difficult one to read, especially the last three lines where Wilbur’s verbs and adjectives all run together to the point where you can’t tell if he’s talking about the lovers or the sea. Regardless, on the literal level, there they are on the dock, weighed down by greif and baggage and apparently three thousand miles of knitting seas is all it takes to cancel out these lovers crossing and unmake the amourous rough and tumble of their wake. I don’t know what it is seas knit exactly, but I expect Wilbur uses the term wake as it is generally used in relation to a funeral.
In all three of these examples there is a finality to the lovers parting, as if whatever they shared had come to an end; “the traffic bound forever west”, taking leave with stricken eye see each in each a whole new life foregone”, “cancel out their crossing and unmake the amourous rough and tumble of their wake.” It could be said that the most memorable thing about their love, at least as far as the poem goes, would be that it was, and now it is gone, and it is only through its absence that we come to realize what it was that we lost. It is only in the fourth stanza that all of this is drawn together, as we see what is most striking about their love, “their fine tristesse and bittersweet regrets . . . the frequent vistas of their large despair, where love and all are swept to nothingness.” All three of these vignettes deal in the fleeting unstable passions of star-crossed romantics.
It is telling that the first time the poet addresses the reader is at the start of the fourth stanza. This simple acknowledgment of another draws in the vast scope of the first three stanzas to the intimate space between a man and a woman as the speaker addresses his beloved. It is within this certain and constant space that a new kind of love is explored, ‘that long love, Which constant spirits are the keepers of.” This love allows for permanence like that of the firmament. Love as “passion joined to courtesy and art” allows for this space to exist like something crafted and defined. This love is architectural in its permanence and yet somehow infinite. The last two lines are absolutely amazing in his use of similes as he moves from the close and human scale of a fiddle or a rose scent or a rose window or . . . the firmament! How does this transition occurr?! This is absolutely amazing how Wilbur moves from the human scale to the universe without missing a beat and all of a sudden we see the transformation from “love and all swept to nothingness” to love encompassing all! IN these lines Wilbur crafts an amazing transition where at first the absolutely vast scope of the universe seems to negate love itself but then in eight short lines Wilbur turns this propostion on its head and demonstrates the absolute intimate vastness of love grounded firmly in the small things of the everyday.