Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)
The title of the poem in surface indicates that this poem is about the love, but the deeper study reveals that it is not about the love of couples rather about the love of the physical world, the love of life as lived here on earth. The speaker in this poem is waking up in the morning and looks outside through the window. He notices the laundry in the clothes line which have been just hung and he starts imagining that the laundry are moving and the moving force is not wind but the angels.
The speaker an awakened sleeper feels his soul is surveying around the world and its realities and freed from him like floating air. Though it is just the laundry that is hanging in the line, the speaker firmly says that ‘truly there they are’ means the soul is wandering there and moving ‘with the deep joy of impersonal breathing.’ Here, the speaker is metaphorically saying that the hanging clothes are free souls without any earthly duties and responsibilities. The use of extended metaphor or the conceit as the laundry is powerful throughout the poem. The breathing of the souls are impersonal because souls by nature are calm and serious, opposite to the passionate life of the body.
With the rise of the sun, they rush towards the body and the soul “shrinks from the punctual rape of every blessed day.’ The soul loses its freedom and feels it is being abused by the everyday sin of the body of human beings when it has to return to the body. So, the harsh use of word ‘rape’ is negative here because the soul comes back to the body for its ‘bitter love’. The love of the soul to the body is bitter in a sense that the soul cannot leave the body as its own wish. It has to be with the tangible body and it knows that man has to go through many sins.
The souls come down from the angelic height to the body of ‘thieves’ and ‘lovers’ who knowingly or unknowingly have to lose their innocence. The man has to bring balance between the needs of the soul and the desire of the body. And the soul is drawn to its bitter love because it is only the body that can truly feel the passion of the soul and express it. The soul wishes only for the ‘laundry’ that symbolizes for the free and sinless life of man and the celebration of the god. But, in the earth, it is not possible as everyone has to maintain the balance between the difficult situation of the soul and the body. Even the holiest nuns are walking here and there with bad habits and are balancing the life.
The poet in one hand celebrates the physical pleasures and the joys our bodies desire and on the other hand tries to feed the soul with its daily needs. He finds this is the most difficult task of mankind to bring equilibrium between the outside world of the body and the inside world of soul. The body wants mobility and the soul wants stability with peace. This difficult line of life is in fact very hard to walk through.
Through this poem, Wilbur justifies his notion of spirituality based on the earthly realities. To justify his concept, he juxtaposes the outside world with the inside world. The contrast between outside and inside worlds has been shown through the stanza layout. From the opening line to seventeen line, the poem focused on the words like 'angels' and their fanciful worlds through the image of laundry and its free movement in the air. The seventeen line is the transition point where ‘the soul shrinks’ and unwillingly comes back to the world of the bodies despite its wish to remain in the world of spirit. In line 29 to 34, the contrast between soul and the body deepens with conflict and paradox. The souls moves to the body for its ‘bitter love’ and accepts the fact that the balance between soul and the body is the perfect balance a man can make, and their lies exact happiness of life. Happiness lies in that point of balance with this realization the soul comes to accept the waiting body.
The journey of the soul in the poem is a quite figurative. It accepts the waking body means to say that the significance of both body and soul has been accepted. Simplicity lies not in renouncing the body, but accepting the body with its faults and features.
The laundry in the poem is the central conceit used in this poem. The trance like moment between sleeping and waking is described as the laundry hung in the line. The laundry here is a far-fetched image that forcefully connects the contrasting situation of the human soul and human body. The soul wants to be free like the hung laundry in the line, but no one can escape from the truth that the laundry finally has to be on the body of the human being. So, the conflicting situation of the soul and the body is beautifully presented through the conceit of laundry.
Richard Wilbur successfully creates the image in the mind of the reader by the use of imagery like laundry hanging in the line, steam, nuns, colors, eyes open, the cries of the pulley, open windows etc.