Rock ‘n Roll: The most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.  -Frank Sinatra

Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I can’t help it.  -Elvis Presley

We all know the iconic image of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, a poignant study of American teenage angst and rebellion in the 1950s. According to historian, James Gilbert, the reason why many Americans were “puzzled and distressed by the activities of post-war teenagers” was caused by much the same issues that teenagers face today. Because of growing prosperity and growing technology in the early 50s, Americans began to be able to see certain aspects of their culture as a unified phenomenon. More and more teenagers were able to attend high schools and they were able to become socialized more readily. Mass media exposed the problems of juvenile delinquency as a national problem; however, the media also gave teenagers a chance to know what was hip nationwide. Teenagers began to separate themselves from adult culture and adopted new fashions, new slang, and a new music called rock-n-roll.

Many adults began to fear that this new subculture might be antagonistic towards the accepted mores of proper American society. Gilbert states that many believed “the very creative energy that welled up in rock and roll, new words, fashions, and customs threatened the stability of American society. To some degree they were right. Teenagers, by erecting barriers of fashions and custom around adolescence, had walled off a secret and potentially antagonistic area of American culture. No doubt for some that was the intent” (15). But many were most likely simply wishing to express independence from their parents, a healthy desire for teenagers since they will soon become adults on their own. What teens need is healthy guidance and flexible boundaries from stable parents and other adults they can trust. In the typical post-war response of paranoia, fear of a generation of juvenile delinquents caused an uproar and many authorities tried to stomp out this new culture. This of course only fueled rebellion against the restrictions and we eventually got the 60s “revolution.” Unfortunately, now that that generation has grown up, it seems like they’ve removed any and all boundaries from their kids and we’ve got a new generation of kids thinking that they can act on any impulse they want and don’t consider the consequence for themselves or anyone else.

Those who reacted against rock-n-roll the most were squares with no soul in them, dig? The first in line were the racists, who are right about rock-n-roll being formed out of black music. Early rock really was just a bunch of white boys ripping off blues and soul music and not doing it as well, but it turned out the result was not so bad. As Muddy Waters puts it: “The Blues Had A Baby, And They Named It Rock-n-Roll.” The problem is, since these various “Citizen’s Councils” that campaigned against rock music were racist they considered that a bad thing. Really, if anyone should have been upset, it should have been the black musicians whose creative property was constantly being ripped off.

There were also crybabies like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. and other established musicians. They complained that rock-n-roll wasn’t as high a quality of music as what they produced. It has to be admitted that in general, rock isn’t as intricate an art form as many genres of music, but Keith Richards has proved to us all that groove is more important than skill: it’s the beat that moves the feet. But the real reasons these guys were complaining was that they were losing the spotlight and losing money. Frankie proved this when he kissed up to Elvis and did a show with him to get back in the public eye.

Finally, there was the self-righteous religious folk who had no understanding of how much of a ministry opportunity they were missing by not embracing this wonderful new style of music. They complained that rock-n-roll went straight to the heart and emotions of the youth and it did. But instead of allowing parish members to develop music that would praise God and go straight to the heart of America’s youth, they shunned it and ultimately shunned their youth, pushing out those who enjoyed rock. As Christian rocker, Larry Norman, says, they let the devil have all the good music. I am not saying all rock-n-roll is therefore evil, I am saying that for 40 years since this anti-rock campaign, almost all the music that came out of the Church stunk really bad. What would these perfect parishoners have done had they learned that most of their precious hymns where originally written to tune of popular drinking songs that their great grandparents enjoyed? But now we’re finally starting to get some really good grooves in our worship and contemporary music…

Teenage rebellion usually flows from two extremes: too much oppression with no outlet for self-expression, or too much freedom and relativism without a caring authority to lead and guide teens safely into adulthood. Rock-n-roll was born in a time when uniformity was encouraged and self expression was often denied, now it seems those who should be in authority roll over and defer to their children’s wishes out of a fear of damaging their self-esteem, but the truth is they are leaving them stranded in a sea of hopelessness and apathy only to be blown and tossed about by the wind of endless doctrines with no compass to lead and guide them, teens today have no way to interpret the stars. Music is not the cause of any rebellion; it is simply the expression of those searching for some kind of meaning. It would be well for parents and the Church to take heed and listen, and then respond with the proper wisdom and guidance. 

Peter L Richardson
8/12/2004

Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s.Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986.

“Rock n Roll is Here To Stay”
-Sha Na Na

Rock ‘n roll is here to stay, it will never die
It was meant to be that way, though I don’t know why
I don’t care what people say, rock ‘n roll is here to stay
(We don’t care what people say, rock ‘n roll is here to stay)
Rock ‘n roll will always be our ticket to the end
It will go down in history, just you wait, my friend
Rock ‘n roll will always be, it’ll go down in history
(Rock ‘n roll will always be, it’ll go down in history)
So come on, everybody rock, everybody rock,
everybody rock, everybody rock
Everybody rock
Now everybody rock ‘n roll, everybody rock ‘n roll,
everybody rock ‘n roll
Everybody rock ‘n roll, everybody rock ‘n roll
Rock ‘n roll will always be our ticket to the end
It will go down in history, just you wait, my friend
Rock ‘n roll will always be, it’ll go down in history
If you don’t like rock ‘n roll, think what you’ve been missin’
But if you like to bop and stroll, come on down and listen
Let’s all start to have a ball, everybody rock ‘n roll
Ah, oh baby, ah, oh baby, ah,
oh baby, ah, oh baby, rock!

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Richard Wilbur was the editor of his college newspaper. He graduated from Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in 1942 and enlisted in the United States army to fight in the Second Great War. He was being trained as a cryptographer, but because of his leftist views, federal investigators had him demoted to the infantry where he fought in the front lines. Wilbur fought in Italy, France and Germany; he was an observer of life, and he wrote down his reflections in his poetry. After the war Wilbur continued studying at Harvard and he graduated in 1947, the same year his first book, The Beautiful Changes, was released. During the 1950’s, Wilbur was regarded as one of America’s most important poets; in 1956 he won the Pulitzer Prize. In the sixties, the beat movement grew popular and Wilbur began to be criticized for being too formal and too clean. Though he lost his status of influence among young poets and scholars, Wilbur was not moved by these changes and he continued to write and publish poetry true to himself.

Wilbur’s poetry may not fall into despair or may not graphically describe the horrors of the world around him, yet to say that the reality of a depraved world is missing in his poetry, as many of his critics do, is failure to see the essence of his work. Wilbur does not ignore the trouble of the world, but rather he manages to come to terms with it. John Gery says “To read a poem by Wilbur…is to be pulled simultaneously toward anxiety and consolation, toward despair and hope, and ultimately to be deposited somewhere in between” (3). Wilbur is able to see a bigger picture being drawn, through his Christian faith he able to look beyond “the time’s fright” and hope for a means to an end.

This pulling “toward despair and hope” is revealed not only in Wilbur’s poems influenced by war, but it can also be seen in many of his simple nature poems. In fact, some of his poetry reveals a deep relationship between the horror of war and the beauty of nature. It is as if they are somehow intertwined and grown into each other like two different vines forming a seemingly whole plant. We can see this relationship most clearly in three of Wilbur’s poems. “First Snow in Alsace” was published in Wilbur’s first book only a few years after the end of World War II. It is a reflection of a moment in time from his experience in the war. “The Lilacs” and “On the Marginal Way”, both nature poems, were published in 1969 in Walking to Sleep. They are the first and second poems in the book and appear in a section subtitled In the Field, a title which brings together a sense of war and a sense of nature at the same time. These later poems were published during the height of the Viet Nam conflict of the United States.

“First Snow in Alsace” is a simple, straightforward poem. It is about the first snowfall of the season in Alsace, France, one of the places Wilbur fought at in the war. It is written in three-line stanzas; the first and third lines rhyming, and the second line creates the rhyme for the next stanza’s first and third rhyme and so on for eight stanza’s until the ninth, which is only one line that rhymes with the second line in the eighth stanza. The lines are all iambic tetrameter, with the exception of the second line in the fourth stanza and its rhyming first and third lines of the fifth stanza, which have an extra syllable at the end. These extra syllables occur right in the middle of the poem and these three lines are the most revealing of the imagery of a war torn town. The poem itself carries this pattern of eight stanzas with an extra line at the end, but the extra line does not emphasize the war, like the extra syllables do, rather it emphasizes the nature aspect of the poem. 

Judging by the title and the first stanza, we have very peaceful and poetic imagery of a simple snowfall; “The snow came down like moths / Burned on the moon.” We are pulled in to the poem with the beautiful image of giant white snowflakes falling at night, but underneath there is the image of greed causing destruction. We are reminded of the cliché,  “like a moth drawn to a flame” and the flame destroys the moths. The snow “fell till dawn / Covered the town with simple cloths.” A snow covering can make almost anything look beautiful and clean, but it is only a simple covering, a cloth hiding the dirt underneath. What we have is a poem of nature encroaching on the devastation of war.

The second stanza openly introduces the war. We have the images of “entangled railings, crevassed lawn…scattered and deranged” by “shell bursts.” Yet the “absolute snow” continues to fall upon “estranged…houses…as if it did not know they’d changed” right to the end of the poem. “Absolute snow” implies the purity of the new snow, as well as its permanence. Snow will continue to fall, the seasons will continue to change, nature will persist, no matter what the tangles of man are that it covers.

In the fourth stanza the snow covers and makes “ration stacks” and “ammunition piles” beautiful. In the fifth stanza, with “You think,” The poet brings us right into his mind and we recall with him the casualties of war; “…snowfall fills the eyes / Of soldiers dead a little while.” This is the last of the three lines with an extra syllable, Wilbur is emphasizing that “a little while” before this snowfall a bloody, violent battle has taken the life of men. The snowfall “fills the eyes” as if they could see, but also, since they have died suddenly their eyes are left uncovered by their lids and the snow is filling up their still open eyes. Nature buries the dead left on the field.

In the sixth stanza, “Persons and persons in disguise…Trade glances quick with shared surprise.” In wartime we have people who are free to walk about and those who need to be disguised. As they walk in “the new air white and fine,” they are able to share, however brief, a moment together. The seventh stanza is the most “benign.” It leaves behind the image of war and speaks only of “children’s windows” where “winter shines the most, / And frost makes marvelous designs.” The poet has taken us from a typical nature poem into the despair of a war and then leads us to the hope and joy that children possess.

In the eighth stanza Wilbur reveals himself as “The night guard coming from his post.” He is “Ten first-snows back in thought.” He is remembering when he was a child and he is able to remember his childlike hope which “warms him with a boyish boast:” and the poem ends with the simple statement, “He was the first to see the snow.” In the midst of a war in which a madman was leading a people gone mad from despair to try and take over the world, a first snow of the season inspires Wilbur to find a hope in mankind. Nature will continue its seasonal progress, just as children will continue to be born. New snow, pure and clean, will fall and cover the earth, just as new children, pure and full of hope, will be born and cover the Earth. 

“First Snow in Alsace” is a foreshadowing of Wilbur’s work published more than twenty years later. In the 1960’s Wilbur was criticized for more than his use of form and the simplicity of his poetry. As soldiers continued to go to Viet Nam, more and more anti-war groups began to rise up. Robert Bly headed a “poets against the war” group which was very vocal and very critical towards anyone who did not speak out against the war. Wilbur began to be highly criticized in the poetry press because of his silence about the war. Though he never openly spoke out against or in support of the war, Wilbur’s work in 1969 may have been a response to that criticism, at the least it shows that the war was certainly on his mind. Once again we have poetry that expresses the relationship between war and nature.

Wilbur begins his book, Walking to Sleep, with “The Lilacs.” In response to the call for him to become more contemporary, Wilbur decides instead to reach back to a form of poetry from Old English. “The Lilacs” is written in alliterative-stress Anglo-Saxon verse which uses lines with four stresses. The first two stresses and one of the last two stresses need to be alliterated. Unlike “First Snow in Alsace,” this nature poem, about a group of lilacs’ first bloom, never explicitly speaks about war, yet the metaphor of war is all over it. It is as if war and nature were fused together as one.

The poem begins “Those laden lilacs at lawn’s end.” From the first lines our flowers are burdened as the word “laden” implies. Yet we could also use the word loaded, which implies ammunition; a loaded gun. As the poem continues, the lilacs “Came stark and spindly, and in staggered file, / Like walking wounded from the dead of winter.” Here we see the lilacs coming up from the ground at the end of the winter season, but the language more appropriately speaks about soldiers marching back from battle; as “in staggered file, like walking wounded.”

The poem continues to speak of these flowers’ struggle for life as they “waken in brusque weather” in violent terms. The lilacs waken “To rot and rootbreak, to ripped branches,” they “shiver as the memory swept them / Of night and numbness and the taste of nothing.” The flowers, in hibernation all winter, remember nothing and feel nothing as they waken in the midst of struggle. Soldiers in the “rot and rootbreak” of war, whose experience of life and limb being “ripped” need to become numb and feel nothing for a time in order to survive “the dead of winter” and the despair “of night.”

The lilacs waken “Out of present pain and from past terror.” The soldiers begin to wake from their “present pain;” physical and emotional, and from the “past terror” of the battle behind them. The lilacs are now “bullet-shaped buds [which] came quick and bursting, / As if they aimed to be open with us!” Once again we have the imagery of ammunition; “bullet-shaped, bursting, aimed.” However, these buds are not aiming to shoot us, but simply “to be open with us.” The language provokes war imagery, but also speaks of the lilacs or soldiers wanting to convey some information to us, “as if they intended to be honest with us.”

This line occurs right in the center of the poem, Wilbur uses assonance instead of alliteration and the mood of the poem changes here from a violent battlefield to a peaceful hospital of healing and hope. The second half of the poem speaks of the healing that occurs after warfare. Right before the lilacs are about to speak, “the sun suddenly settled about them, / And green and grateful the lilacs grew, / Healed in that hush, that hospital quiet.” After a long winter, flowers inevitably bloom; after the war, healing inevitably comes to the world.

Over the next few lines the lilacs bloom but they “Have kept their counsel, conveying nothing / Of their mortal message.” These lilacs, or these soldiers, healed from their experience, prefer to keep silent about what they know of mortality. Richard Wilbur, a war veteran, prefers to remain silent about the war his country is now involved in. The poem continues, however, and ends with “unless one should measure / The depth and dumbness of death’s kingdom / By the pure power of this perfume.”

What is the mortal message? Flowers bloom and die, youth passes away, beauty fades and death comes to us all. Yes, but there is something more. The dead are silent, they cannot speak; “the…dumbness of death’s kingdom” but if “one should measure the depth…of death’s kingdom by the pure power of this perfume” that one would learn that the power of life is through the passion by which it is lived, and the more powerful the perfume, the longer the scent lingers. The lilacs mortal message is to live life to its fullest because it is frail and subject to trial and war. Maybe, even that war is inevitable in a world of “brusque weather.”

But the lilacs are also a testimony that life carries on, we move through the winter of war and if we survive the sun comes out and we are “healed in…that hospital quiet.” The lilacs leave us the message that after a long cold winter, some will survive and break through the frozen ground, and bloom again and leave with us “the pure power of [their] perfume.”  The scent, and hope, of life is more powerful than the silence, and despair, of death.

The next poem in Wilbur’s 1969 book is one of war encroaching on nature; yet along with the poets darkening thoughts in this work, he is once again able to find hope for some kind of meaning in it all. “On the Marginal Way” begins as a typical landscape poem, Wilbur is actually walking on the Marginal Way, a physical path along the shores of Maine. Yet the title also suggests to us that Wilbur is looking at life from a different perspective, from on the edge. Wilbur suggests in “The Lilacs” that he, as a war veteran, may choose to remain silent and let his life and work speak for him. It is possible here that Wilbur is making the statement that he is able to see “the time’s fright” of the current war from a different perspective; through his veteran status and through his faith. As Wilbur walks along the coast and takes delight in this “perfect day,” thoughts of war darken the experience, but Wilbur again returns to a place of hope.

Wilbur once again conforms to formal convention. The poem is made up of eleven stanzas, each stanza has six lines with an a-b-a-b-c-c rhyme scheme. The first line of each stanza is written in trimeter, the third in tetrameter and the remaining lines are all iambic pentameter.

The poem begins with “Another cove of shale,” as if to say this is simply another poem about a beach, “But the beach here is rubbled with strange rock / That is sleek, fluent, and taffy-pale.” The beach here is filled with rocks which in Wilbur’s eyes take the shape of various kinds of people throughout the poem. For the rest of the first stanza and the second, Wilbur is reminded of an amusing experience of George Borrow, a minister and travel writer who received a bit of a shock. While he was on the beaches of Spain, he observed a large group of women sunbathing in the nude. These rocks take the form of “A hundred women basking in the raw.” Wilbur thinks that the women, “–a too abundant view…must have looked like this,” like the rocks strewn on the shore. Wilbur amusingly imagines that these women “Could not have waked desire in Borrow’s eye.”

But at the third stanza the mood darkens, as does the sky, and Wilbur sees these rocks in a different light. It begins, “Has the light altered now? / The rocks flush rose and have the melting shape / Of bodies fallen anyhow.” In the third and forth stanzas the rocks become a vivid vision of bodies in a Gericault painting “of blood and rape, / Some desert town despoiled, some caravan / Pillaged, its people murdered to a man.” and the ocean waves’ spray turns into the dust from the murderers galloping away and making their escape.

Before the fourth stanza ends, the weather shifts again and Wilbur moves out of the realm of images from art into visions from his own experiences. He states “But now the vision of a colder lust / Clears, as the wind goes chill and all is greyed / By a swift cloud that drags a carrion shade.” Clouds move in and the sky becomes darker still, everything becomes cold and this group of rocks turned bodies, turned into bodies murdered, now becomes bodies which are rotten and putrid.

The fifth stanza takes Wilbur back to his own experience in World War II:

               If these are bodies still,
     Theirs is a death too dead to look asleep,
          Like that of Auschwitz’s final kill,
     Poor slaty flesh abandoned in a heap
     And then, like sea-rocks buried by a wave,
     Bulldozed at last into a common grave.

The beautiful sight of waves bursting and flowing upon a rocky shore, becomes for Wilbur the vivid image of mankind’s most heinous of crimes; the Holocaust.

In the sixth stanza we find out what is really troubling Wilbur. He begins with, “It is not tricks of sense / But the time’s fright within me which distracts / Least fancies into violence.” So it is really not the changing light which made these haunting and violent images from such beautiful scenery, it is not a trick of the eyes, but rather it is “the time’s fright.” It is the conflict of the Viet Nam War and the conflict of his country becoming divided over that war which turns his thoughts violent. But Wilbur does not linger in despair, instead his “thought[s] take cover in the facts” as Wilbur looks upon “the bed of layered rock two miles above [his] head.” He sees the grandeur of the cliff rising up on one side and Wilbur thinks back to the creation of the world. He spends the next two and a half stanzas describing the world’s creation and stating “the facts.”

The seventh stanza is a vivid and even violent description of the making of the Earth. He thinks of how the cliff beside him broke through the Earth’s skin, fueled by fire and magma. The description continues into the eighth stanza as the magma is “Welled up, as here, to fill / With tumbled rock meal, stone-fume, lithic spray, / The dike’s brief chasm and the sill.” Wilbur is thinking about the violence that first formed the beautiful landscape he now views. The next lines moving in to the ninth stanza brings Wilbur to creation; “Weathered until the sixth and human day.” In the creation story of Genesis, man was formed on the sixth day. Yet it is “By sanding winds and water, scuffed and brayed / By glacier’s heel, these forms were made” (italics mine). It took centuries of erosion to form the rocks before Wilbur “That now recline and burn / Comely as Eve and Adam.” Adam was formed out the ground and these rocks which were formed by the elements remind Wilbur of his Creator; Wilbur is able to “take cover in the facts” that we are created beings, and that violence is sometimes part of what the Creator uses to shape and form the beautiful images that we become.

As Wilbur reflects on these “facts” the sea is once again “transfigured by the sun’s return” and Wilbur is back on a typical beach where “three girls lie golden.” But the war has not left his mind. Wilbur understands that “high above the shore / On someone’s porch, spread wings of newspaper flap / The tidings of some dirty war.” We cannot ignore the times that we live in, we are forced to deal with them, even when “It is a perfect day,” that day will be tainted by “the time’s fright.” But on that day we are not forced to fall into despair for still “the waters clap / Their hands and kindle, and the gull in flight / Loses himself at moments, white in white.” The world is still full of beauty and there is still room for hope as Wilbur explains in the next and final stanza of the poem.

In this last stanza Wilbur explains how he is able to live in such troubled times and still be at peace. Just like the waves are breaking on the shore “like a breaking thought / Joy for a moment floods into the mind,” and this joy is “Blurting that all things shall be brought / To the full and stature of their kind.” Wilbur has confidence that all things will be worked out in the end, that the purpose and reason for every struggle will be revealed. These preceding lines are reminiscent of the scripture; “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV). Though Wilbur never uses his poetry to preach, his faith, no doubt, permeates through it. “All things shall be brought / To the full state and stature of their kind, / By what has found the manhood of this stone.” All things will be brought to fullness by the founder, the one who shapes the stones which are before Wilbur to look like people. In other words, the founder is the Creator; God.

The last line of the poem is even a prayer; “May that vast motive wash and wash our own.” Wilbur’s revelation of his confidence that he can trust his Creator leads to the breaking moment when joy floods his mind. Trust and joy provoke faith and hope. “That vast motive” is confidence and joy in our Creator. “May that vast motive wash and wash;” may that great hope in God break in and consistently wash our thoughts as the waves consistently wash over the shore. “May that vast motive wash and wash our own [motives];” May everything we do be done through the motive of a hope and a confidence which brings joy, in our Creator. May God, himself, be the motivator of our actions.

It is ironic that Wilbur is criticized for not being vocal about the war and for his poetry being too straightforward with its meaning being right on the surface, because as we take a look underneath the surface of his work, we discover Wilbur’s subtle views on war. Wilbur’s experiences in World War II seem to influence much of his work. He even uses military terms in describing the writing of poetry; Wilbur states, “every poem begins, or ought to, by a disorderly retreat to defensible positions. Or, rather, by a perception of the hopelessness of direct combat, and a resort to the warfare of spells, effigies, and prophecies” (from Gery 3, italics mine). In this statement Wilbur affirms that his work often begins with a sense of hopelessness, or despair, and must resort to the use of things supernatural to be resolved. Wilbur’s path to the supernatural is often through nature. Wilbur never vocally speaks out against war because war is a part of nature as much as mankind is. War and nature truly are intertwined together, and Richard Wilbur is able to come to terms with “the time’s fright” of any time because he has a confidence in “what has found” the Earth and mankind and even time itself.

Peter L Richardson
20th Century Poets
12/9/2003

Gery, John. Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

Modern American Poetry “Richard Wilbur: Biography and General Commentary” http://www.english.uniuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/wilbur/bio.htm p.1-4. 12/4/03.

First Snow in Alsace
-Richard Wilbur

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they’d changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.

At children’s windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.

The Lilacs
-Richard Wilbur

Those laden lilacs
                         at the lawn’s end
Came stark, spindly,
                         and in staggered file,
Like walking wounded
                         from the dead of winter.
We watched them waken
                         in the brusque weather
To rot and rootbreak,
                         to ripped branches,
And I saw them shiver
                        as the memory swept them
Of night and numbness
                        and the taste of nothing.
Out of present pain
                        and from past terror
Their bullet-shaped buds
                        came quick and bursting,
As if they aimed
                        to be open with us!
But the sun suddenly
                        settled about them,
And green and grateful
                        the lilacs grew,
Healed in that hush,
                        that hospital quiet.
These lacquered leaves
                        where the light paddles
And the big blooms
                        buzzing among them
Have kept their counsel,
                       conveying nothing
Of their mortal message,
                       unless one should measure
The depth and dumbness
                       of death’s kingdom
By the pure power
                       of this perfume.

On the Marginal Way
-Richard Wilbur

          Another cove of shale,
But the beach here is rubbled with strange rock
     That is sleek, fluent, and taffy-pale.
I stare, reminded with a little shock
How, by a shore in Spain, George Borrow saw
A hundred women basking in the raw.

          They must have looked like this,
That catch of bodies on the sand, that strew
     Of rondure, crease, and orifice,
Lap, flank, and knee–a too abundant view
Which, thought he’d had the lenses of a fly,
Could not have waked desire in Borrow’s eye.

          Has the light altered now?
The rocks flush rose and have the melting shape
     Of bodies fallen anyhow.
It is a Gericault of blood and rape,
Some desert town despoiled, some caravan
Pillaged, its people murdered to a man,

          And those who murdered them
Galloping off, a rumpling line of dust
     Like a wave’s white, withdrawing hem.
But now the vision of a colder lust
Clears, as the wind goes chill and all is greyed
By a swift cloud that drags a carrion shade.

          If these are bodies still,
Theirs is a death too dead to look asleep,
     Like that of Auschwitz’ final kill,
Poor slaty flesh abandoned in a heap
And then, like sea-rocks buried by a wave,
Bulldozed at last into a common grave.

          It is not tricks of sense
But the time’s fright within me which distracts
     Least fancies into violence
And makes my thought take cover in the facts,
As now it does, remembering how the bed
Of layered rock two miles above my head

          Hove ages up and broke
Soundless asunder, when the shrinking skin
     Of Earth, blacked out by steam and smoke,
Gave passage to the muddled fire within,
Its crannies flooding with a sweat of quartz,
And lathered magmas out of deep retorts

          Welled up, as here, to fill
With tumbled rockmeal, stone-fume, lithic spray,
     The dike’s brief chasm and the sill.
Weathered until the sixth and human day
By sanding winds and water, scuffed and brayed
By the slow glacier’s heel, these forms were made

          That now recline and burn
Comely as Eve and Adam, near a sea
     Transfigured by the sun’s return.
And now three girls lie golden in the lee
Of a great arm or thigh, and are as young
As the bright boulders that they lie among.

          Though, high above the shore
On someone’s porch, spread wings of newsprint flap
     The tidings of some dirty war,
It is a perfect day: the waters clap
Their hands and kindle, and the gull in flight
Loses himself at moments, white in white,

          And like a breaking thought
Joy for a moment floods into the mind,
     Blurting that all things shall be brought
To the full state and stature of their kind,
By what has found the manhood of this stone.
May that vast motive wash and wash our own.