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… writes Richard Wilbur in the poem Year’s End; and let’s consider the point he’s making in his stately, nicely rhymed stanzas as we stare December 31 in the face.

At the very end of Sunday Morning, Wallace Stevens describes us – well, describes “casual flocks of pigeons” symbolically us – flying in a downward direction at night:

And in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Down we go to death; but on the other hand our wings are “extended” — our arms open out to “More time, more time,” Wilbur writes.

And: As we sink down, we create beautiful, complex “undulations.” Formal grace, and mystery, express themselves in the patterns of our existences.

*********************

Evening’s one thing; evening on December 31 packs mortality-intimation awfully tightly. Stevens’ poem after all is about morning, Sunday morning, the way Sunday morning can be dreadful if you’re suspended somewhere between secularity and belief, if you’d like to believe in some form of soulful immortality. Wilbur has us at night, and the night of December 31 at that; so questions of our mortal fragility and the shape – make it the undulating shapeliness – of our lives – are perhaps even more urgent.

Both poets in any case want to capture the peculiar tenterhooks we’re on – brightly appareled in our lives, we stretch our wings. Yet our true condition is, writes Wilbur, like that of leaves trapped in ice: “Graved on the dark in gestures of descent.” We’re “flutter[ing]” still, but down under the ice. We’re gesturing still, but always in postures of descent. Downward to darkness on extended wings.


These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.

The patterns, if patterns there are, in our frayed lives, express themselves only after we’re dead. Or maybe something of a pattern occurs to us while we sit, in the isolation of the evening sky, prodded into contemplation by a sudden end of time.

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5 Responses to ““Now winter downs the dying of the year…””

  1. cloudminder Says:

    Dear UD,
    Couple things–

    Please pass this post along to your friend on his birthday and extend best wishes:
    http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2010/12/lat-regents-and-conventional-wisdom.html
    would love to read his thoughts on it – does he blog?

    also, wondering what you think of programs like these:
    http://academicaffairs.ucsd.edu/aps/partneropp/

    –with programs like that how does one maintain one’s own professional identity?

    Do you think e.g Dean Edley considers Maria Echaveste working at Boalt to be a benefit for him or vice versa? or separate? how do faculty look at it? how should others look at it. is it part of remuneration? It is a real question given his comments about his family etc. here:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article/article?f=/c/a/2010/12/30/BA861H22EA.DTL

    I consider pigeons flying rats- prefer to be an owl,dove, seagull, eagle– and I think sometimes folks need a SADD light, vitamin D and sunshine. Yet, the season does produce great poetry.
    Happy New Year!

  2. A J Says:

    In the wintertime, I watch the Belt of Orion as it progresses across the night sky. Finally seeing it in the far West immediately after sunset is enough to make one weep. It is Spring.

  3. University Diaries » Yesterday was Richard Wilbur’s Ninetieth Birthday. Says:

    […] still writing poetry. We’ve already considered a couple of his poems on this blog, but let’s go ahead and do yet another to mark the big […]

  4. Bob Simmons Says:

    I love the music and the melancholy of this poem but have been stuck always with the third word of the first line. Risking exposure as the dummy that I am — help me with “downs” the dying of the year. Downs as “takes down?” That winter somehow “takes down the dying of the year” seems nonsensical. I have the uncomfortable feeling that it fits perfectly if only I could understand what he’s saying.
    Bob Simmons
    Bellingham WA

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Bob: I would say “downs” as drinks – one downs a whiskey, whatever. The liquid aspect of snow, sleet – the world is literally being swallowed…

    Margaret S.

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