Reading Richard Wilbur’s “Mind”

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The Mechanics of Wilbur’s “Mind”

I’ve noticed several searches for this poem (off and on again) so I thought I’d take a look at it. The meter is Iambic Pentameter and the poem itself consists of three quatrains with an interlocking rhyme scheme. The first rhyme of the first quatrain is a slant rhyme – bat/wit. Other than that, everything else about the poem is conventional. There is nothing remarkable about Wilbur’s use of the meter. If I were to criticize the poem, I might call Wilbur’s use of meter perfunctory. Unlike Shakespeare or Donne’s inventive use of Iambic Pentameter, Wilbur’s meter only informs the poem in the most conventional ways. The poem’s three trochees are apt, putting the emphasis on Mind, Not, and Darkly, but the effect is hardly novel.

But metrical expressiveness is not Wilbur’s strong suit.

Rather, Wilbur’s use of meter adds elegance to his language – heightening and elevating his rhetoric. Whether one interprets that as a plus or minus depends on what one expects from metrical poetry. I’m content to accept Wilbur on his own terms, rather than criticize him for what he doesn’t attempt. His use of meter is elegant and accomplished. The “rhythm”, as Wilbur calls it, makes his poems memorable where other poems are less so.

Richard Wilbur: Mind - Annotated

Interpreting the Poem

In the third quatrain, Wilbur refers to his poem as a simile, and it surely is, but it is also a conceit. Wikipedia offers up the following definition of a conceit:

The term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets in contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardner[2] observed that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.”

So… Wilbur is being a little disingenuous in referring to his poem as a simile. That said, the whole of the poem is really no more than the working out of Wilbur’s initial simile, The Mind is like a bat – a genuine tour-de-force. Wilbur’s skillful use of the extended metaphor is the mark of his uniqueness (his particular gift) among nearly all other 20th and 21rst century poets.

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

RiddleThe first quatrain is, on the surface, very straight forward.  However, the only element of the simile that is spelled out is the bat. The bat is like the mind. The mind is like the bat. After that, the more one tries to discern the different elements of Wilbur’s  “simile”, the more one wonders exactly what each element is like. Besides having a predilection for simile, metaphor and analogy, Wilbur is also unique among modern poets for his delight in riddles.  If memory serves, the oldest surviving poem in the English language is a riddle. I doubt anyone would claim that all English poetry is descended from a riddle, but there is an element to the riddle in all poetry – and I’ve always noticed that strains prevalence in Wilbur’s poetry. What are the caverns?

  • Is the cavern like consciousness? – If so, then the mind is like the bat and the bat is like the cavern. The whole of it becomes an insoluble hall of mirrors.
  • Does the cavern represent uncertainty? – spiritual uncertainty? – Wilbur dispels this possibility in the next quatrain by writing: “[The bat] has no need to falter or explore”. Whatever else the cavern is, the bat is not uncertain about its contours.
  • Are the caverns “life”? – Possibly, but would anyone really accept Wilbur’s assertion that the mind has no need to falter or explore?

All that Wilbur gives us, by way of a hint, is “senseless wit”. In this quatrain, at least, Wilbur appears to be describing instinct. Or… there’s another possibility, but let’s see what he writes in the next quatrain.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

Again, the poem has more and more the feel of a riddle. There are apt words, but one gets the feeling that there’s a double meaning at work – Darkly, obstacles, weave, flitter, perfect courses, blackest air.

In the final quatrain, Wilbur will ask: “has this simile a like perfection?” I can’t help but notice a teasing, impish tone to this question. There’s something sly about it. In fact, the simile isn’t perfect at all. Bats don’t “know” where obstacles are. Their  “wit” isn’t “senseless”. They echo-locate, constantly…

Unless…

If a bat becomes lost in your house, don’t cringe in a corner. Here’s something you might not know. If a bat can’t escape from a room after a certain period of time, it will indeed assume that it knows all the obstacles. It has memorized your room. It will stop echo-locating and fly and fly and fly – no matter what windows you open. A memory is like an opinion. In a sense, the bat becomes trapped by its own opinion. The bat won’t falter. The bat/mind assumes that it has no need to explore. The most inflexible opinions are the loneliest ones and, as Wilbur tells us at the outset, the mind is like the bat that beats in its cavern all alone. The bat or the mind’s  wit seems more senseless than wit.

Darkly it knows.

That is, the mind remains in the dark of ignorance. Obstacles are perceived through ignorance. And yet, in the ruff of its opinion, the mind weaves its “perfect courses” through the blackest air. How does one interpret blackest air? I can’t help but read irony in these lines. We all know that the mind isn’t perfect.  It is subject to any variety of ailments, the worst of them being self-delusion – the blackest air. (After all, the double meaning of air is when one puts on airs.)

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat.

The word perfect shows up again. What is Wilbur really asking? If one reads a certain impishness in this question, then the word perfection takes on a very different tone. In case the reader missed it the first time, it mocks the perfection of the bat or the mind’s perfect courses.

If, having read this far, I’ve spoiled the poem for you, consider this: The most famous analogy  in all of Western Literature is that of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Given Wilbur’s erudition, I find it hard to believe he didn’t have this in the back of his mind.  The Allegory of the Cave is all about the human mind so confined within the cave of its opinion that it ceases to consider other possibilities or realities. The denizens of Plato’s cave never faltered in their beliefs and never felt the need to explore.  The denizens darkly understand what they perceive to be reality. Their wits are senseless in that they lack the one sense only appreciated by leaving the cave.

Consider the double meaning hidden in the word conclude – line 4 of the 1rst Quatrain. It was precisely by looking against a wall of stone that the denizens of Plato’s gave drew their conclusions. And they were wrong. They contrive with a “senseless” wit not to “conclude” against a wall of stone, and yet this is precisely what the human mind does in the act of contrivance.

Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

The simile is “perfect”, except for the happiest (which also means fortunate) intellection (or perception). A graceful error “may correct the cave.” Though Plato, speaking through Socrates, doesn’t reveal how one of the trapped men came to be released from his cave, the moment might be described as fortunate and a moment of grace – perhaps, even, a gracefull error.  Whatever the reason, the moment of happy intellection, of grace, of graceful error, “corrects the cave”.

Note: I just recently reviewed a collection of poetry by Robert Bagg, his book Horsegod. As it turns out, Bagg knows Wilbur and is presently writing a critical biography on the poet. I was pleased that he approved of my interpretation and also pleased by his suggesting a facet I had missed. The “graceful error”, he suggested, refers to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. And it is through this error that “we are offered an even better garden than Eden”. This is a convincing interpretation. To paraphrase Bagg, Wilbur has “fused” the concerns of Plato and Paradise Lost.

I think it’s no accident that Wilbur closes with the word cave, rather than cavern.

If my interpretation is correct, then the final word is also our final hint as to the true meaning of the poem – the poem itself is like the cave, waiting to be corrected by the happiest intellection of the reader. The graceful error of the perfect simile will be corrected.

Or, in the case of the bat, if you open the window, the bat will be freed to correct its false conclusions.

Then again, Richard Wilbur is still alive, migrating seasonally between Massachusetts and Florida. Send him a letter and ask him what he meant!

If you enjoyed this post, let me know!

26 responses

  1. Patrick, do you take requests?

    One of my favourite poems of all times is “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Macneice. I love it as much as for its rhyme and meter, as for its content. Id be fascinated see you analyse this one.

    Take care.

    Dalloway

  2. //thanks for the cogent explanation//

    You’re welcome. It’s a little bit of a mystery to me why so many readers are pursuing this poem (not that the poem isn’t a good one), but this remains one of the more popular posts.

  3. This interpretation was great. I was having trouble deciphering the meanings behind some of the words but your thoughts seemed to really make sense. Thanks!

  4. That was not a bad reading, but as informed by Plato and Milton as this poem is, the simile’s origin is in large part I think Aristotle’s Metaphysics:For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all. It seems to me that this quotation gets to the irony you detect.

    • Thanks Ajax. You may be right as to the simile’s origin.

      However (and if so), then Wilbur doesn’t seem to exploit Aristotle’s analogy. Whereas Aristotle places the bat in broad daylight and compares our ability to perceive truth to the bat’s day-struck eyes, Wilbur’s bat never leaves the cavern. Or if it does, as when he writes that “a graceful error may correct the cave”, then it follows that the bat would be doubly confused were it to leave the cave. It’s hard to square a correction with the blinding escape implied by Aristotle.

      So, if Wilbur was inspired by Aristotle’s quote, then it seems only insofar as the bat was compared to reason (or the mind)?

    • Oh, I don’t disagree with any of that, but I would add a few cents. No one escapes the cave described by Plato, neither do those who escape their bonds in the cave look on the good without being entirely dazzled. The Good is too much for any direct gaze for both Plato and Aristotle, who refers too continuously to his teacher not to be doing so in the Metaphysics.

      Second, it seems to me that Wilbur’s poem points out the limitations of reason most precisely at “in perfect courses through the blackest air.” Of course, I admit that I cannot read the line without also reading “air” as “err.” The limitation of both mind and the simile itself are corrected at the the last moment, which puts me in mind of Falstaf’s: diced not, less than seven days a week.

      I don’t think that the cave is escaped at any point in either the philosophers or the poem. It is merely corrected by being correctly known. For escape, one must turn to another of Wilbur’s fine offerings:”The Writer.”

    • No one escapes the cave described by Plato…

      However, Plato’s whole allegory is premised on the notion that the “prisoners are released and disabused of their error.” If you’re drawing an analogy to real life and the notion that none of us escape it (we, unlike the premised prisoners, must always remain in the cave), then perhaps ‘yes’. But then again, perhaps no. What does one say to the Zen Buddhist who experiences enlightenment? It’s possible that while Wilbur is using Plato’s allegory as a touchstone, he is also saying something different, going beyond it. Perhaps he is asserting that one can escape the cave?

  5. thank you sooooo much, it all comes together! it made sense. we have this poem for school, and i’m a sophomore. it was a bit confusing because of all the meanings, but you cleared it up.

  6. I had a CD of Wilbur’s poems read by the author I’d bought in a sale in the UK with me in France. I used to listen to them at night. The Mind stood out from the rest. It seemed, like Cohen’s songs, to be full of hidden meaning. Thanks to the contributions here I now know what some of them may be. It’ll make futher listening more enjoyable. Thankyou.

  7. Pingback: Day 17 – 30 Days, 30 Readings: “Mind” by Richard Wilbur « The Dad Poet

  8. This is an excellent reading, thank you. I have a few questions. What would you say is Wilbur’s purpose of this poem? How do the elements of the poem help define that purpose?

    • Hi Anon. Wow, that’s one of those homework questions that only an academic could ask. The only person who can answer that question — what is Wilbur’s purpose in writing this poem? — is Richard Wilbur. Tell your teacher that’s a ridiculous question. The best way to ask and answer it is as follows: If you want to read the poem again, and if it inspires you to remember it, what’s your purpose in wanting to read and remember it? Once a poet writes a poem, he or she gives it to you. Whatever purpose you find in it, comes from you. :-)

  9. Academic would be correct. This poem is one of my favorites, thus i have a good grasp on its concepts. However, i cannot seem to understand the use of the oxymoron… “senseless wit”. You’re reading has certainly help, but a further explanation of “senseless wit” would be much appreciated. Thank you for time

  10. I like most of your response to the poem, but I don’t think that an open window is a possibility in the poem. Neither the bat nor the mind escapes the cave. The bat and the mind learn how to operate and survive in the cave; that is, they learn how “not to conclude against a wall of stone.” Thus they stay away from boundaries that either they or others have established: Don’t sail far from shore or you’ll fall off the earth. Don’t try to fly. Tomatoes are poison. So “conclude” can presume that you “end” by splattering yourself against the wall, or it can lead you to “discover” that the “wall of stone” isn’t where or what you thought it was. And when you make the latter “happiest intellection,” you correct the cave, you move the boundaries of the wall. We all soar about in caves that Plato or Edison or Einstein or Jefferson and Madison have enlarged for us when they assumed that the walls weren’t where we thought they were.

    My favorite word in the poem is the word “save.” Here, of course, it means “except.” It’s a persistent Wilbur device that can be seen in many of his poems such as “The Writer” or “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” Suddenly, the poem turns back on itself and everything that the opening lines of the poem have conventionally laid out is now called into question. Wilbur delights that way.

    • Hi Anon, your interpretation works; and I don’t argue for mine as authoritative, only as a possibility. Really, I think we’re saying the same thing; it’s only a matter of how one interprets “graceful error” and “correct the cave”. Correct me if I’m wrong, whereas I interpret the “graceful error” as liberating oneself from a given cave, you interpret it as ‘moving the boundaries of the wall’. And that difference boils down to a matter of preference, I think. :-)

  11. Vermont, does this make any sense to you?—I wrote it after reading the last comment plus your post on Wilbur’s “Mind” again. Don’t know whether to title it “Genius” or “Schizophrenia.” Your thoughts????

    Cave
    But not a shadow
    On the wall
    Nor sonar
    Like the bats
    Just
    Imagination
    To know
    A world
    Outside
    The facts.

    • No, I like that. Very nice. Alludes to Plato and Wilbur and so depends on knowing those allusions for full effect, but all that said: Very Nice. “Just imagination to know a world outside the facts” is good.

  12. Thanks for your feedback—I saw a new comment had been posted last night, then read your blog on Wilbur, otherwise the poem would not exist. I’m still thinking about the arrangement of the lines and what title to use—tentatively “Dreamer.” Also, check out “The End of Vanity,” written shortly afterward.

    Dreamer

    Cave
    But not a shadow
    On the wall
    Nor sonar
    Like the bats
    Just
    Imagination
    To know
    A world
    Outside
    The facts.

    The End of Vanity

    The nothing I am
    Is the something I was
    The something I was
    Was all in the mind
    Thank God for that.

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