Versecraft

"Trolling For Blues" by Richard Wilbur

August 10, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 4 Episode 5
Versecraft
"Trolling For Blues" by Richard Wilbur
Show Notes Transcript

Order Versecraft merch HERE

 

Topics discussed in this episode include:

 

-Varieties of Modernism: The Big Six

-Formalism and Cosmic Rebellion

-Wilbur's audacious sanity

-The Idea Of Literary Celebrity At Key West

-Accent vs. Stress 

-Measuring my stress levels 

-And isn't it ionic... don't you think? 

-The temptation to see ourselves in Nature

-"I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud" by William Wordsworth

-"The Garden" by Andrew Marvell

-Wilbur's version of Altered States

-Or maybe, Wilbur's version of Go Into The Water

-God dreams of fishes

-Nature itself is the strangest thing you could imagine

 

Read the text of the poem here

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 3-5: “Trolling For Blues” by Richard Wilbur

 

 

            In the last two episodes, we looked at two different varieties of Modernism: the quasi-mystical Neo-Romanticism of Hart Crane, and the allusive, fragmentary High Modernism of T.S. Eliot. In addition to these two approaches, I think there are four other main branches of American Modernist poetics: the modern traditionalism represented by figures like E.A. Robinson and Robert Frost, Imagism, centered around William Carlos Williams, and finally, two movements which appeared long after the others, post-World War II:  Confessionalism, as exemplified by figures like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and Beatnik Bohemianism, as exemplified by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There were of course other currents: the syllabic experiments of Marianne Moore, the Surrealism of Mina Loy, the neo-Whitmanism of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence, the Blues Balladeering of Langston Hughes. In terms of influence, however, these six: Neo-Romanticism, High Modernism, Modern Traditionalism, Imagism, Confessionalism, and Beatnik Bohemianism, have provided the most significant, fertile ground for the further development of 20th and now 21st century lyric. 

            We have already discussed the first two of these at some length recently, and the third is the bread and butter of this podcast. Imagism is a fascinating topic, but one that I will save for another time, since, at the moment, I’d like to continue to focus on metrical writing, something which is found rarely if at all in the work of this school. Metrical composition is also very rare in the work of Confessional and Beat writers, and to top it off, these two movements are so opposed to what I think poetry should be that I have no desire to feature them on my show. 

            Unlike those two movements, which I consider in some respects beyond the pale, I find aspects of Neo-Romanticism and High Modernism compelling, and I wanted to feature Crane and Eliot as a way to both grapple with the strengths and appeal of these approaches as well as to articulate some of my serious misgivings about them. Today, I’d like to do something a little bit different, and talk about a poet who actually exemplifies many of the artistic values I cherish, and whom I consider to be one of the most perfect stylists in the history of lyric poetry—a poet whose ear for melodious rhythm rivals Tennyson, whose sonorous diction rivals Stevens, whose clarity and good sense rivals Ben Jonson, whose elegance and craftsmanship rivals Pope, whose sensitivity to earthly beauty rivals Hopkins. He is, for many, the posterchild for mastery of formal techniques in the modern world, and he is, after Edgar Bowers and E.A. Robinson, my favorite poet in the lyric genre. He is Richard Wilbur, and I will get to him in a moment. 

            Before I do, let me remind you all that if you like what you hear, please consider supporting the show—it takes many hours of labor every week to put these episodes together, and while I always want to keep the show free, some recompense is always greatly appreciated, and helps make my devotion to the show more sustainable. You can leave a one-time donation or become a paying member of Versecraft at my link in the show notes, or show off your amazing taste in podcasts by picking up an awesome t-shirt at the Versecraft merch store, the link to which you can also find in the show notes. If neither of those appeal to you right now, please consider just telling a friend of yours about the show whom you think might like it. Podcasting is very much a grassroots effort, and that’s the main way that the show grows. I also offer poetry analysis and poetry commissions, a service which you can find on my support page, and a new thing, I’ve also started offering one-on-one poetry tutoring as well. If that’s something that interests you, please send me an email at versecraftpodcast@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to provide you a consultation. Thanks so much.

            Richard Wilbur, who lived from 1921 to 2017, was born in New York City and grew up in North Caldwell, New Jersey, the future stomping grounds of Tony Soprano. He began writing poems when he was only in 2nd or 3rd grade, and dabbled in journalism in high school and at Amherst College, where he received his undergraduate degree. Shortly thereafter, he served two years in the U.S. Army during the second World War, a traumatic experience which drove him to start taking poetry seriously as a career. As he put it: “one does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.” 

This remark points to an important truth which I think some critics outside the world of so called “formal verse” don’t always understand: modern poets who choose to write in a highly ordered, lucid, rational fashion, often in meter and rhyme, do not do so because they are trying to sugarcoat reality, or because their own minds are so naively undisturbed. On the contrary— they usually do so because they can intimately perceive how strongly irrationality and chaos are present in the world, sometimes even in their own minds, and therefore respond by heroically attempting to counteract that chaos through devoting themselves to the rigorous organization of thought and language. It is a labor on behalf of civilization, a noble expression of cosmic rebellion against the immortal forces of entropy, irrationality, cruelty, and destruction.

Throughout his career, though he did achieve mind-blowing critical success and considerable popularity, Wilbur was always belittled by some who found his formal polish and wholesome optimism suspicious. What right did a poet have to be healthy minded, cheerful, and artful in the 20th century? A true poet was supposed to be emotionally tortured, neurotic and morbid, whose inability to fully organize their language or even be coherent was a sign of rugged authenticity. Wilbur didn’t fit this mold, and so many assumed he must be artificial and superficial. The fact that serene well-adjustedness and painstaking craftsmanship could possibly be considered faults is merely more evidence that the Modernist movement did not eliminate or even combat Romanticism, but merely evolved it into stranger and sometimes more insidious forms. No doubt if Mozart himself had appeared in the mid 20th century, he would have received a similarly mixed reception. 

Furthermore, it’s clear when one reads Wilbur that though he staunchly believed in the beauty and even goodness of the world, he never flinched from considering the darkness of life. Unlike Romantic optimists like Wordsworth or Mary Oliver, or the countless vapid and saccharine monstrosities one might find in a book of so called “inspirational poetry,” Wilbur never glossed over or distorted reality in service to his worldview. In fact, his value as a poet largely comes from his ability to look long and hard at the objective reality of a situation, and find the grace, comeliness, or nobility which actually inheres in it. Many of his poems do follow the Wordsworthian formula of meditating on a situation in Nature until it provokes an experience of spiritual awe or insight. Unlike Wordsworth however, Wilbur achieves his awe not through the projection of his own egoistic speculations on his surroundings, but through a reverential attentiveness to what is before him. 

Following his military service, Wilbur attended graduate school at Harvard, and later became a professor at Wesleyan University, where he would stay for twenty years. In 1947, the same year he graduated from Harvard, he published his first book, The Beautiful Changes, and immediately established his reputation. Throughout the 1950’s he published more books, and his reputation leapt into the stratosphere: in 1956, his fourth book, Things of This World, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Over the course of his career, Wilbur won almost every top poetry honor in the book, including the U.S. Poet Laureateship in 1987, and yet another Pulitzer in 1989. 

Concurrent with his incredible success in original poetry, Wilbur also established himself as one of the greatest French-to-English translators in history. His translations of 17th century French playwrights are still often considered the best of their kind, and his celebrated renditions of Moliere in particular were largely responsible for introducing the works of this great French writer to a general Anglophone public and to the English and American stage. If you have ever seen an English language production of Tartuffe or The Misanthrope, it was almost certainly in Wilbur’s sparkling heroic couplet translation. 

As one might expect, Wilbur lived a long and stable life. He taught, he wrote, he went to Florida in the winter. In 2017, he died quietly in a nursing home at the age of 96—exactly three times the lifespan of Hart Crane. 

Today’s poem from 1987, “Trolling For Blues” is another testament—like “Fishing,” by A.E. Stallings, “The Fish,” by Elizabeth Bishop, or “The Fish” by Rupert Brooke— to the potency of the piscine muse. “Trolling” here refers not to online provocation, but to the technique of catching fish by attaching a fishing pole to the back of a moving motorboat. The line and lure are submerged in the water, and the movement of the boat drags the lure behind, simulating the movement and gait of a small injured fish, thereby tempting the large fish in the water to hunt the lure, and thence be caught. “Blues” refers to bluefish, a medium to large size game fish found in oceans all over the world. 

The poem is dedicated to John and Barbara, Wilbur’s friends and presumed fishing companions. Those who know something of Wilbur’s history will know that this dedication refers to the famous journalist John Hersey, who wrote the definitive exposé of the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima, and his wife Barbara Day Addams, former wife of Charles Addams, creator of the Addams Family. Knowing these to be his companions, we can safely say that Wilbur has set his poem off the coast of his home in Key West, Florida. Wilbur and Hersey were neighbors and close friends at Key West, and frequently hung out together. 

Allow me to take a moment here and simply express to you what a ridiculously rich literary pedigree Key West has. In a previous generation, it was home to Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Tennessee Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost. In Wilbur’s time, it was home to Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and Truman Capote. Wilbur’s neighbors included not only Hersey, but John Ciardi and freaking Ralph Ellison. Truly insane. It was like the American equivalent of the French Riviera. 

In review then: we have a who—Richard, John, and Barbara. We have a what: trolling for blues. We have a when: a winter season in the late 80’s. We have a where: Key West, Florida. The poem goes like this: 

 

Trolling For Blues

 

For John and Barbara

 

As with the dapper terns, or that sole cloud

Which like a slow-evolving embryo

Moils in the sky, we make of this keen fish

Whom fight and beauty have endeared to us

A mirror of our kind. Setting aside

 

His unreflectiveness, his flings in air,

The aberration of his flocking swerve

To spawning-grounds a hundred miles at sea.

How clearly, musing to the engine’s thrum,

Do we conceive him as he waits below:

 

Blue in the water’s blue, which is the shade

Of thought, and in that scintillating flux

Poised weightless, all attention, yet on edge

To lunge and seize with sure incisiveness,

He is a type of coolest intellect,

 

Or is so to the mind’s blue eye until

He strikes and runs unseen beneath the rip,

Yanking imagination back and down

Past recognition to the unlit deep

Of the glass sponges, of Chiasmodon,

 

Of the old darkness of Devonian dream,

Phase of a meditation not our own,

That long mélée where selves were not, that life

Merciless, painless, sleepless, unaware,

From which, in time, unthinkably we rose.

 

 

The form is nearly identical to the Hart Crane poem from two weeks ago: Five five-line stanzas of blank iambic pentameter. Unlike Voyages II, we do actually achieve cubic symmetry here. There are no irregular lines and no feminine endings, so we have a perfect set of 125 feet: 5 feet times 5 lines times 5 stanzas. Very satisfying. 

Wilbur’s use of metrical substitution and enjambment here are both pretty mild and minimal. Instead, he relies on more subtle techniques to make his rhythm interesting. Let’s take the first line as an example: “As with the dapper terns, or that sole cloud.” The comma after “terns” establishes a strong caesura after the third foot, but more interesting than this is the way Wilbur monitors his stress levels in this line. Several times in passing I’ve mentioned the notion of strong iambs, and I hope it’s clear what I mean by this: an iamb where both syllables have noticeable stress, but the second syllable still exceeds the first in stress. We see this in the phrase “sole cloud.” 

Other than mentioning strong iambs, and giving a general overview of rhythmic modulation, I haven’t talked very much about the levels of stress which can appear in a line beyond the basic significations of “accented” vs. “unaccented.” As we know, whether we designate a given syllable as accented or unaccented depends upon its relationship to the syllables around it, how strong or weakly stressed it is in comparison, and we decide precisely which syllables to relate it to by framing the entire line of syllables within the particular pattern of rhythm which we hear predominate, usually an iambic one. This, however, is not the whole story. 

Besides deciding whether a syllable is accented or unaccented based on what surrounds it, we can also attempt to discern how much actual force it should be given when spoken—we can decide, that is, how much speech stress it has. I have spoken about speech stress before, in reference to identifying the rhythmic character of a line in relation to its meter—for instance, a line of iambic pentameter must have five accents, five syllables which are relatively stronger than the syllables which precede them, but only two of these may actually be strong speech stresses, and this distinguishes this line musically from another iambic pentameter line that also has five accents but four strong spoken stresses. 

I was speaking to Alice recently, and she was telling me that she finally understood the relationship between accent and stress through the method of assigning levels of stress to each syllable. This is a tried and true method, and I’ve only avoided talking about it on the show because I didn’t want to overcomplicate things, and also because it’s not something that I myself often use when I scan. However, in the interest of education, it may help to give an example of how assigning stress levels works, and how it can help reveal the rhythmic character of a line. 

Let’s go back to the first line: “As with the dapper terns or that sole cloud.” The first foot, “as with,” consists of a conjunction and a preposition—neither of these are going to be very stressed. In fact, it is a bit uncertain which word should be given the stronger emphasis. However, we shouldn’t jump to say that they’re equally unstressed—the next word, the article “the,” is also quite unstressed, and yet if we go so far as to say that the first three syllables of this line are equally unstressed, we will end up with a very whacky scansion which corresponds neither to the intended meter nor the way we would actually say it. The line “as with the dapper terns or that sole cloud” sounds like iambic pentameter, and is clearly meant to be—therefore we should assign five accents to this line. I could see the argument of assigning “with” greater stress than “as” in the interest of accepting the norm of the meter when the stress is in doubt. However, I’m currently leaning toward favoring “as” as the stressed syllable, because it carries more semantic significance in the sentence. Therefore, I will identify the foot “AS with” as a trochee. But this is not a strong trochee—as we’ve said, both syllables are quite unstressed. This is where levels of stress comes into play. 

Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, that there are four levels of stress: 1 being the weakest and 4 being the strongest. If we want to say that “as” and “with” are both weak syllables, but that “as” is slightly stronger, we might assign a 2 to “as” and a 1 to “with.” In the next foot, we have a clear iamb that provides a lot of contrast: “the DA.” I would assign a 1 to “the” and a 4 to “Da.” The next foot, “per terns” is also a clear iamb, but “terns” is not quite as strong as the “da” in dapper. I’m therefore going to assign a 1 to “per” and a 3 to “terns.” The fourth foot, “or that” consists of a conjunction and a determiner—neither of these are particularly strong, but I think it’s pretty clear that “that” is slightly stronger. I’ll assign a 1 to “or” and a 2 to “that.” Finally, we have the strong iamb we mentioned: “sole cloud.” Both these words seem to be speech stresses, but “cloud,” the noun, is the slightly stronger of the two, making this an iamb. To show that syllables are quite pronounced however, we can assign “sole” a 3 and “cloud” a 4.

 Notice here that we now have a metrically unaccented syllable, “sole,” which has a higher stress score than our first accented syllable, “as.” This shows the discrepancy which is possible between metrical accents, which are measured relatively, and speech stresses, which are measured absolutely. I consider a speech stress, a stress that stand out in a line, to be one that has a stress level of 3 or 4. In this line, we have five accented syllables, but only four speech stresses: “Da,” “terns,” “sole,” and “cloud.” You’ll also notice that in the last two feet, we increase the level of stress with every syllable: “or that sole cloud” moves up the scale of stress 1, 2, 3, 4. Because we’ve taken the time to measure all the stresses, we can now see more clearly some of the dynamics of rhythm which Wilbur uses to make his line sound interesting. It’s a headache to do all this, but it can be useful for illustrative purposes, and is a good exercise for those to whom scansion does not yet come naturally. 

Now let’s look at something a little easier. In line 13 we have: “poised weightless, all attention, yet on edge.” The first thing we can remark here is the mimetic effect of the commas: the use of two caesuras to create a stop-and-start effect in the line illustrates the idea of coming to attention, of halting poised, ready to make a sudden leap forward. We should also notice though that these pauses make the line sound more exotic than it actually is. Read straight through, we can see that this is a line of iambic pentameter. Because the pauses split a couple of these iambs in two however, what we end up hearing sounds closer to an amphibrach, two trochees, and a cretic. Mentally toggling between the music of the meter and the music of the spoken rhythm, the pattern of accents and the quantity of stresses, and reckoning the complex counterpoint among all these things, is one of the many delights of well-written verse. 

I know you’re probably sick of hearing me talk about meter and rhythm and stress, but allow me to point out one more thing before we move on. If we look at line 20, we find a situation which is guaranteed to start a fight between different schools of prosody. I’m specifically talking about the first two feet: “of the glass sponge.” Some will say that this is two unaccented syllables followed by two accented syllables—in other words, a pyrrhic followed by a spondee, a combination known as a minor ionic. Some people however will argue that spondees, which are very common in quantitative verse, are not actually possible in the accentual-syllabic verse of English, because no two stressed syllables in English are of exactly the same weight. Such a person is likely to scan the first two syllables as a light trochee, and the second two syllables as a strong iamb. I incline toward the latter reading, but I can see the merit of both sides. 

            Let’s now begin the poem again, starting with the first two stanzas: 

 

As with the dapper terns, or that sole cloud

Which like a slow-evolving embryo

Moils in the sky, we make of this keen fish

Whom fight and beauty have endeared to us

A mirror of our kind. Setting aside

 

His unreflectiveness, his flings in air,

The aberration of his flocking swerve

To spawning-grounds a hundred miles at sea.

How clearly, musing to the engine’s thrum,

Do we conceive him as he waits below:

 

Wilbur begins by observing the fact that human beings like to imagine that certain non-human things, especially those with desirable qualities, serve as fitting symbols or analogues for particular aspects or aspirations of humanity: they are seen as “mirrors of our kind.” The graceful appearance of a bird for instance, the “dapper tern,” reminds us of our own desires for order, refinement, and finesse; A solitary, shape-shifting cloud reminds us of our own journey through the cosmos, and our own mutability through time. Here, Wilbur is perhaps indulging a good-natured dig at Wordsworth, who famously claimed to “wander lonely as a cloud.” The fact that the cloud is described as a “slow-evolving embryo” foreshadows the evolutionary theme which Wilbur will pursue later on in the poem. 

As with the bird and the cloud, Wilbur says, so too we make this fish that we are trolling for an image of ourselves: it is “keen,” a word which can mean both eager and intelligent, both attributes which we value in ourselves. The fish’s fighting spirit is a sign of nobility and bravery; its beauty endears it to us, because we cannot help but feel, though the feeling is irrational, that what appears beautiful is somehow virtuous or holy, just as we ourselves aspire to be virtuous and holy. 

We project all these human qualities onto the fish, despite the fact that the fish, in many ways, is glaringly alien to us— the fish, unlike us, is unreflective, and because it is unreflective, it fails to be a mirror of ourselves—its unreflectiveness in one sense makes it unreflective in another. The fish flings itself wildly into the air, sometimes it bizarrely travels with its kind hundreds of miles away to spawning grounds—these are purely fish-like qualities that have nothing to do with human life. In our quest to romanticize the fish, we must suppress some of the most characteristic aspects of its actual fish-hood. Wilbur and his friends, sitting on the boat waiting for a tug and listening to the motor run, cannot help but contemplate their quarry, cannot help but subject the hapless fish to the fancies of the human mind. 

Let’s now begin the poem again, this time reading all the way through:

 

As with the dapper terns, or that sole cloud

Which like a slow-evolving embryo

Moils in the sky, we make of this keen fish

Whom fight and beauty have endeared to us

A mirror of our kind. Setting aside

 

His unreflectiveness, his flings in air,

The aberration of his flocking swerve

To spawning-grounds a hundred miles at sea.

How clearly, musing to the engine’s thrum,

Do we conceive him as he waits below:

 

Blue in the water’s blue, which is the shade

Of thought, and in that scintillating flux

Poised weightless, all attention, yet on edge

To lunge and seize with sure incisiveness,

He is a type of coolest intellect,

 

Or is so to the mind’s blue eye until

He strikes and runs unseen beneath the rip,

Yanking imagination back and down

Past recognition to the unlit deep

Of the glass sponges, of Chiasmodon,

 

Of the old darkness of Devonian dream,

Phase of a meditation not our own,

That long mélée where selves were not, that life

Merciless, painless, sleepless, unaware,

From which, in time, unthinkably we rose.

 

The mind imagining the fish below is itself like a pool of a water—a medium through which thoughts pass like fish, each of which, like the blue fish in the blue water, is barely distinguishable from the mind itself. The mention of blue being a shade of thought, the mind so absorbed in its imaginings that it becomes one with its surroundings, in tandem with the themes already presented, is so reminiscent of a passage from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Garden” that I suspect this passage might have been the inspiration for Wilbur’s poem. The stanza reads: 

 

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,

Withdraws into its happiness;

The mind, that ocean where each kind

Does straight its own resemblance find,

Yet it creates, transcending these,

Far other worlds, and other seas;

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green thought in a green shade.

 

I’ll note in passing that the line “to a green thought in a green shade,” is, as Timothy Steele has pointed out, one of the most metrically controversial lines in the English language. Is it two minor ionics in a row, or is it roughly iambic? 

In his imagination, Wilbur indulges in the aforementioned fantasy of likening nature to human virtues. He imagines the fish at the hunt: focused, graceful, and calculating, an embodiment of cool intellect. This spell is broken however once the bluefish actually strikes and bites the lure, and the animal’s savage physicality and desperation become un-ignorable. The bluefish yanks down on the fishing line, plunging beneath the rip current, and because the fish is the mind’s mirror, Wilbur’s imagination goes down with it— far below it in fact, below the mesopelagic realm of the bluefish to contemplate bathypelagic creatures who live where light no longer reaches, such as the Chiasmodon, a fancy name for the Black Swallower fish, and the glass sponge, which is sometimes considered the longest living animal in the world, with an estimated lifespan of up to 15,000 years. The ocean is now the mirror of the mind, and as the depths of the ocean become inscrutable, beyond the reach of sunlight, so too the mind reaches depths which can no longer be accessed by the light of reason and intelligibility. In the mind’s conception, the spatial plunge becomes a temporal plunge as well, as the haunting longevity of the glass sponge suggests. Wilbur imagines that the deeper into the ocean he looks, the deeper into his own primitive mind, the deeper he looks into the timeline of life itself—his primal, irrational instincts are his connection to the millions of years of evolution that came before. He enters into a realm of “dark Devonian dream.” The Devonian period was the period of Earth’s history known as “the age of the fishes,” the time when fish came to be the primary form of life on earth. 

            Going beyond the span of his own mind to encompass deep geologic time, Wilbur says that this Devonian dream is a “phase of a meditation not our own.” Even this primordial setting, so far removed from his own mind, he seeks to frame as a phase in the meditation of some grand mind—the mind of nature perhaps, or God. This phase of meditation consisted of a “long melee where selves were not—” a brutal struggle for domination among species that were not even aware of themselves or what they were doing— that were unreflective. In seeking to imagine the bluefish, Wilbur has bottomed out at a singularity, at the depths of alien, non-human existence which are sublime and unfathomable: Life that is merciless, painless, sleepless, unaware. And yet it was from such life that we, human beings, unthinkably rose— “unthinkable” suggests the unreflective creatures which were our origins, and that the evolutionary process happened seemingly without thought. As we will remember however, Wilbur challenges this view by describing evolutionary history as a meditation, a sort of cosmic thought process. More directly, the rise of humans from sea creatures is unthinkable in the sense that it is unbelievable, unfathomably terrifying and awe-inspiring. 

            At the end of this poem, we get a good sense of Wilbur’s style of insight. He is aware of and has experimented with Romantic fantasies of Nature, and found them wanting. Instead, he discovers the real sublime in the actual scientific truths of Nature—the unthinkable process of savage life rising from the ocean to become, among other things, the human race. It is this fact, this actual kinship with the fish, rather than any imagined kinship, which creates a sense of religious awe. This is a far cry from the beautiful ending of Hart Crane’s poem, where Crane imagines the “seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” Lovely as that is, the notion that the seal is pining for heaven, thereby making the seal a “mirror of our kind,” is a fantasy. What Wilbur gives us by contrast, like the Book of Job, is the savage, bewildering, wondrous, unfathomable revelation which is the reality we actually live in, a truth stranger than any fiction. 

            With all that we’ve learned and explored, let’s encounter this poem one last time, as an old friend: 

 

Trolling For Blues

 

For John and Barbara

 

As with the dapper terns, or that sole cloud

Which like a slow-evolving embryo

Moils in the sky, we make of this keen fish

Whom fight and beauty have endeared to us

A mirror of our kind. Setting aside

 

His unreflectiveness, his flings in air,

The aberration of his flocking swerve

To spawning-grounds a hundred miles at sea.

How clearly, musing to the engine’s thrum,

Do we conceive him as he waits below:

 

Blue in the water’s blue, which is the shade

Of thought, and in that scintillating flux

Poised weightless, all attention, yet on edge

To lunge and seize with sure incisiveness,

He is a type of coolest intellect,

 

Or is so to the mind’s blue eye until

He strikes and runs unseen beneath the rip,

Yanking imagination back and down

Past recognition to the unlit deep

Of the glass sponges, of Chiasmodon,

 

Of the old darkness of Devonian dream,

Phase of a meditation not our own,

That long mélée where selves were not, that life

Merciless, painless, sleepless, unaware,

From which, in time, unthinkably we rose.