In a note attached to the poem, Wilbur explained that the Edna Ward mentioned was his wife’s mother (also known as Mrs. Herbert D. Ward). Edna was friends with Sylvia Plath’s mother, the famous American confessional poet. He noted that the “Recollection is probably composite, but it is true in essentials.” This suggests that the image he painted in this poem was based on loose facts but is likely true in a basic way.
Explore Cottage Street, 1953
‘Cottage Street, 1953’ by Richard Wilbur depicts an experience the poet had with the Plath family and focuses on the life and struggles of Sylvia Plath.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker describes meeting his wife, mother-in-law, and two members of the Plath family for tea. They are not great friends, so the meeting is slightly awkward and forced feeling. He’s made to talk about his career and fills the poem with allusions to Plath’s life and her short career. He also mentions how his mother-in-law would live for another fifteen years, outliving Plath, who died in 1963, ten years after the poem’s events.
Structure and Form
‘Cottage Street, 1953’ by Richard Wilbur is a seven-stanza poem divided into quatrains or four lines. These lines follow a very straightforward rhyme scheme of ABAB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poem is also written in iambic pentameter, which means that the poet used five sets of two beats in every line. In each set, the first syllable is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
Here are a few of the literary devices used in this poem:
- Allusion: one of the most important literary devices in this poem. It is seen through a reference to something that’s not fully explained within the poem’s text. In this case, the poet alludes to the Plath family, specifically the family of Sylvia Plath, the modern American poet who tragically committed suicide after publishing some of the most influential poems of the 20th century.
- Imagery: an especially effective depiction of an experience, emotion, or scene. For example, “The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me.”
- Juxtaposition: an intentional contrast between two unlike things. For example, describing the life and death of Edna Ward while alluding to what life has in store for Sylvia Plath.
Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me.
In the first stanza of this unique Wilbur poem, the speaker describes Edna Ward, the poet’s mother-in-law, pouring tea for Mrs. Plath, the mother of Sylvia Plath, the American writer. She’s “frightened,” the poem explains, and her “pale, slumped daughter” sits beside her. Nearby are also the poet (the speaker of the poem) and his wife (the daughter of Edna Ward). With the scene set, and the characters referenced, the poet moves into the second stanza, which still focuses on tea.
Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.
In this second stanza, the poet describes how Mrs. Ward asked everyone what kind of tea they wanted, if they wanted milk or lemon, and how the mundanity and lack of companionship felt among the gathering visited seem “strained and long.” They answer her, one at a time, but there is no joy in their voices. It’s as though the entire gathering was forced; no one seems to want to be there.
It is my office to exemplify
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes how it is his “office” or his job to show or “exemplify” what the happily published poet should look like. His attitude, he suggests, does “cheer” Sylvia Plath, who has, in the past and sadly to that moment, “wished to die.”
She is doomed, the speaker alludes, a depressing reality that permeates each line of this modern poem. While he does talk about his poetry in a way that suggests he’s happy, he’s also feeling “half-ashamed” by the discussion. It’s not entirely pleasant, perhaps because of his knowledge of Plath’s life and the generally awkward feeling during this gathering.
I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.
The speaker uniquely refers to himself in this stanza as a “stupid life-guard.” This is a slightly hard-to-understand allusion to how he considers his career and the role he’s meant to play at the moment he’s describing. While speaking about his career, he’s found himself with a girl nearby who, “far from shore, had been immensely drowned.” She sits in front of him and stares “through water now with eyes of pearl.”
There is both a great deal of beauty and sorrow in these lines. The young girl, Plath, is already struggling to deal with her day-to-day life, and now he feels, for a moment, responsible for uplifting the conversation and engaging with her. She’s “far from shore,” the poet wrote, suggesting that she’s already so deep in her depression that it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to return to shore.
How large is her refusal; and how slight
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.
The word “refusal” is used in the fifth stanza. It could relate to other factors but seems likely connected to the previous image of Plath far out at sea, refusing (in the way that depression forces one to withdraw) the help that’s offered. There is an excellent example of juxtaposition in these lines, something that the poet is very well aware of and played off of.
He describes the encounter and how on the surface, the talk was “genteel“ and light, discussing life on a summer afternoon but how in reality, there is a “brewing dusk which hints that it may end.” This is a beautiful and dark metaphor that alludes to death, specifically Plath’s death, but it also relates to the end of each person’s life who is sitting in on this gathering.
And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love.
Continuing the theme of death, the poet describes how his wife’s mother, Edna Ward, died fifteen years after eighty-eight years of life. She lived a good life, one that does not “permit…tears.” This suggests that the speaker felt that because she lived the way she did, there was no reason to cry over her passing. She had a good, long life. She lived with “grace and courage.” The last word of her life (which is a symbol for something by which she lived) is “love.”
Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
In poems free and helpless and unjust.
In the final stanza, the speaker returns to a discussion of Sylvia Plath, who lived only another ten years. She was “condemned to live” (alluding to the fact that throughout much of her life, Plath wanted to die) and study for a decade, doing what she was supposed to do, and putting her words to paper.
She died and wrote, the speaker says, in a way that was “free and helpless and unjust.” She struggled throughout life and put her feelings into writing, something that is now the only surviving depiction of her life.
The tone is direct but also sorrowful. There is a deep feeling of sadness regarding Plath’s life, that permeates this text.
‘Cottage Street, 1953’ is about a gathering the poet experienced in 1953 with his wife, his wife’s mother, and two members of the Plath family. It focuses on the life of Sylvia Plath while also discussing the gathering generally.
There are a few different characters referenced in ‘Cottage Street, 1953.’ They include the poet Richard Wilbur, his wife, and his wife’s mother: Edna Ward. Also in the poem are Mrs. Plath and her daughter, Sylvia, the famed American poet who died in 1963 (exactly ten years after the meeting described in the poem).
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Richard Wilbur poems. For example:
- ‘ A Late Aubade‘ – an ironic poem that enthralls readers from the very title itself. It is a modern poem taping in the form of an aubade or a morning song.
- ‘A Simile for Her Smile‘ – a poem about finding the right simile for a loved one’s smile.
- ‘After the Last Bulletins‘ – is about the human race’s ability to discard at night what was deemed important in the morning.