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Obscurely Called: Richard Wilbur at Eighty

Now nearly 80 years of age, Richard Wilbur has recently published Mayflies, a new book of poems and translations. This slim volume has attracted slight—and sometimes slighting—notice in most literary publications. America's poetry establishment does not quite know what to make of its former poet laureate. For half a century, this eminent translator of 17th- and 18th-century French plays has persisted in writing measured yet passionate religious verse in the manner of Donne or Herbert. From his first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes, published in 1947, Wilbur has chronicled the permutations of an often-challenged yet resilient faith. Consider this early sonnet, "Praise in Summer":

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As summer sometimes 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 savors in this wrenching things awry.

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