After the Last Bulletins by Richard Wilbur is an eight stanza poem made out of quatrains, or four-line stanzas. The poem is written with a rhyme scheme of ABCB, DEFE… etc. with the second and fourth line of each stanza rhyming.
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The poem begins with the speaker, who is later revealed to be a newspaper deliveryman, describing how after an entire day is done, the newspapers of that morning have been read, and the world is tired, all fall into a deep “personal sleep.” While the people sleep, the city does not. Out in the streets, the “wind rises” and it blows the “day’s litter” in this case, newspapers, through the alleys. What was once important, that day’s news, is now worthless and considered “litter.” Breaking news so quickly becomes discardable history.
Continuing on the speaker describes how the papers bash themselves against historical statues in the park. These are objects of permanence representing the same things that the newspapers do, history. One is revered and preserved while the other is stepped on in the street and trapped in gutters.
Additionally, the speaker points out that personal “journals” have been discarded and their history also considered trash; it joins in the flight through the streets. Some papers get stuck in gutters and the scraps flutter up from the grates at the feet of on-duty patrolmen who walk the streets. Neither they, nor the public at large, take note of the history that is so wantonly discarding.
At this point, it becomes clear that not only is the speaker concerned with how the human race treats objects in our consumerist culture but also how we understand the importance of our own history.
The last stanzas of the poem restart the entire process over again. Those that deliver papers are once more called to the “emperors horse’s heels” and take their orders from the announcer. Together they travel through the subway and emerge from it’s “mouth.” They pass through the park and see the city workers cleaning up last night’s trash, that previous morning’s deliveries. They know that the bundles they carry will be subjected to the same fate. The last line of the poem describes how no one in the city is the wiser that this has gone on. The songbirds will sing and the public will wake up once more to their breaking news.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of After the Last Bulletins
After the last bulletins the windows darken(…)To the thronged Atlantis of personal sleep,
Wilbur’s speaker begins this piece by introducing, through a series of images, the setting of “After the Last Bulletins.” A day has ended and the “last bulletins,” or the last newspapers of the day have long since been read. The windows of the buildings are dark and the “whole city” is foundering, or sinking, down into a deep sleep. Each person is said to be slipping into their own “Atlantis” of sleep. Everyone has their own paradise to which they drift off.
And the wind rises. The wind rises and bowls(…)Soars and falls with a soft crash,
In the second stanza, the reader discovers that all is not still and quiet. The wind is blowing outside and is rising and blowing “The day’s litter of news” through the streets and alleyways. The “news” is immediately referred to as “litter” and “Trash.” The speaker is hoping to draw a contrast between the beginning and end of the day.
At the start of the day a newspaper holds a certain amount of value due to its new content, unread narratives, and breaking stories. By the end of the day that value has drained away and it becomes like any other piece of trash on the streets of a city.
It is clear that on this particular night in the city the wind is strong. The trash is said to be “Tear[ing] itself” to pieces on the railings. The wind is blowing it up off the ground and as it wraps around the railings of stairways and bus stops, it gets shredded.
The stanza concludes with the speaker describing how it “Soars” through the sky and then “falls” with a soft crash. This juxtaposition of something crashing softly once more emphasizes the delicate nature of worth. In one moment something can incur a cost, the next it is falling, drifting, and blowing to the ground.
Tumbles and soars again. Unruly flights(…)Batter and flap the stolid head
The trash is not done yet like it, “Tumbles and soars.”
The “Unruly flights” of the papers are jumping around the park as if “Scamper[ing]. They are flying around untamed, throwing themselves at statues they know to be dead. The papers “Strike” at the eyes and “Batter and flap” at the “stolid” or emotionless heads. Once more the weight of these newspapers is emphasized. They seem to fly with the wind without limit. They weigh and are now worth nothing.
And scratch the noble name. In empty lots(…)Or caught in corners cramp and wad
In the next set of four lines, the speaker continues describing the flight of newspapers through the city. They have battered the faces of sculptures and “scratch[ed] the noble name.” The poet’s choice to describe the newspapers as whipping around these sculptures is due to their historical significance.
Since it is made clear that these sculptures are of people it is safe for the reader to assume that they are representative of someone important to history. These historical markers are being attacked by what could also be called a representation of history, that day’s newspaper.
The newspapers immediately turn from important news to historical trash in a matter of hours and are left to float around other historical relics that are preserved and permanent
The speaker continues on to introduce another relic of history, written journals. These are also ways in which people have kept track of the present and they too immediately become the past once they are written.
The journals of the human race, the city, or of a single person, have been discarded and now “spiral” in a “noyade.” The word noyade is being used to represent the death of a person or object carried out without a weapon. The journals are being beaten to death by their own purpose, to record the present and become the past. They are filled with every thought “we thought to think” and pieces of the present we “caught” and crammed into the pages of “our” books. All the words of our lives are now being twisted in the wind.
And twist our words. And some from gutters flail(…)That cried beside his long retreat
Some of these papers get sucked down into the sewer system and then blown back up through the gutters. They have been torn ragged by these trails and now wave at the “patrolman’s feet” as he passes. Other papers, decaying in the drain ways, form “fisted snow” by which he passes.
Damn you! damn you! to the emperor’s horse’s heels.(…)Beat like a dove, and you and I
In the third to last stanza, the whole cycle starts over again. The newspaper delivery shift is beginning and the men and women are called to the “emperor’s horse’s heels” where they will receive their orders like soldiers. The “clear” voice of the announcer in the distribution facility tells them what to do, and “you and I,” (the first mention of any specific person) travel through the subways to start delivering the papers of the day.
From the heart’s anarch and responsible town(…)And cross the park where saintlike men,
The two new characters, the speaker and his companion emerge from the tunnels in the “heart” of the “town” and are once more part of the living world. They “Bear” their “morning papers” and travel through the park where other men are working.
White and absorbed, with stick and bag remove(…)The songbirds in the public boughs.
Those “absorbed” in their morning work in the park are there with a “stick and bag” to remove the litter from the previous day’s newspaper delivery. The deliverers pass this scene and continue on their way through the “confident” morning in which the whole city is awaking to the sound of songbirds.
This ending is meant to reinforce the idea that while we are active participants in this cycle of use we do not understand the impact it is physically and mentally having on one another. We build up waste in our world and deem history (world, and our own) waste when it should be taking a more prominent space in our personal narrative.
About Richard Wilbur
Richard Wilbur was born in New York, New York in March of 1921. As a young man, he was educated at Amherst College in Massachusetts and then at Harvard where he received a masters degree in Literature in 1947. This was the same year that his first book was published. He was quickly recognized as an important writer and spent time writing his own work as well as working on translations of a variety of Molière’s works, such as The School of Wives, and Tartuffe. In 1956 he published his volume, Things of This World: Poems, and the following year it won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Richard Wilbur died in October of 2017 having won two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, The Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the T.S. Eliot Award, along with many others. He would also serve as the second Poet Laureate of the United States.