Explication of “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
by Obi Martin
“Awakening” is a metaphor often used to characterize the life lived fully. For many of us in techno-informational society, it’s too easy to spend too much of our lives walking around in a malaise of unclarity and apathy, hobbled by plethora-induced stupors. Often we hear the sigh that if we could “just wake up,” we would be so much better able to experience our lives as lived rather than merely passed-over. “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” by Richard Wilbur is poem of awakening, both set in the awakening of an individual day, and speaking to an awakening toward all “the things of this world” that takes for its completion more than a cup of coffee, a jolt of cortisol, or a line of laundry.
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
by Richard Wilbur
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
“Love Calls Us” explores the moments between sleeping and awaking, when consciousness is softened and changed from both its absence in sleep and its flattened focus of the wake-a-day world. In the first line, the eyes are open, but are not yet given the full-inhabitation of ownership. In the second line “the astounded soul” is “spirited from sleep,” which could read as being both “piloted out of sleep” and carry secondary meanings of being “ sleep”. In the breaths between sleeping and waking, the astounded soul of our speaker “hangs for a moment bodiless and simple/as false dawn” while “outside the open window/the morning air is all awash with angels.” Awash both carries the sensation for the movement and presence of angles and provides a cognate for the physical component of what is being seen.
“Some are in bedsheets, some are in blouses,/some are in smocks: but truly there they are.” The lines between laundry and other worlds are obscured in some wonderful mysticism of awaking, drawing dual and disparate worlds together into meaning which does not exclude either reality or its transcendence. “Now they are rising together in calm swells/of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear/with the deep joy of their impersonal breathing.” Whatever forms they inhabit, these angels animate beyond individuality, intention, and personification, filling them instead with pneuma and elation. “Now they are flying in place, conveying/the terrible speed of their omnipresence moving/and staying like white water.” A breath later and the angels and their fabricable counterparts have swooned into “a rapt so quiet” that it seems nobody is there, and now as if in deflation also, once abandoned by its vision, the soul shrinks from the barbarian world of full-waking, “from all that it is about to remember,/from the punctual rape of every blessed day.” In a plea for simplicity, for unity, and also in praise of the world that waked it the soul cries, “Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry/nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam/and clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet the unpreferential sun acknowledges all the “hunks and colors” of earth, not just the clear and rosy ones, and the soul sinks “once more in bitter love/to accept the waking body.” Bitter love describes so much of our self-acceptance, and of the awakening that actually persists in seeming as if it were awake. I hear in these lines a perhaps cortisol driven unswerving seizure of responsibility, personality, and intention. Heightened by its reluctance to reappear, and informed by its absence, the conscious mind returns in obdurate irascible rapture insisting not that all things be of one but simply that all things be.
Like the sun on all hunks and colors or the rain on the unjust and just, “the man yawns and rises” invoking the freshness of laundry for the backs of lovers and thieves alike. “Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;/Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone.” These lines suggest restoration and redemption, the freshness of linen gifted to all the stages of innocence.
Perhaps the most difficult lines of this poem to read into are its last three lines. “And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating/of dark habits,/keeping their difficult balance. In the line break between “habits,” and “keeping” there is a text placement, which is used elsewhere in the poem as well, of perhaps two tab spaces. The text placement slows down a reading of the lines, opening up more time between the ideas while still indicating that they could perhaps be read as the same line. Especially in the closing example, it seems as if the text placement could indicate a balance of disparate or even unequal parts.
Could “habits” in this usage be read with dual meaning? It may be that only a single interpretation is necessary for the full meaning of the poem, but a pun certainly does not hinder the meaning as well. The practice of nuns, as a religious order intending spiritual reality to shape internal growth, is a continual, lifestyle-acknowledgement of the transcendent, the spiritual, the Other. In the heaviness of dark habits, they seem to limit an acceptance of self, and yet in their pure floating seem to mimic the awaking soul, and its vision of calm swells, of blouses and bedsheets and angels.
Perhaps the awakening that “Love Calls Us” to is itself a difficult balance. A living that accepts simultaneously ourselves, the things of the world as they are, and our best visions of what these could be. Perhaps the awakening that love calls us to accepts the disparity between these selves and visions, and acknowledges the pure-floating and difficulty of transcendency which will bring them together.
Poem: Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43048/love-calls-us-to-the-things-of-this-world
Artwork: A Church Interior, Peeter Neeffs the elder, 1578-1656