Wilbur wrote ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of the World’ in 1956 and is a perfect example of his moving, Pulitzer Prize-winning verse. One of the best things about Wilbur’s poetry, specifically poems like this one, is how relatable the content is. In this particular piece, he talks about waking up in the morning, something that everyone experiences every day. But, what makes this poem special is how deep Wilbur dives into the process and the focus on the soul.
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The poem starts with the soul waking up before the body. The speaker describes how the soul rises, looks outside, and gazes on the angels around it. They’re a beautiful sight, one that the soul knows is fleeting. As the poem progresses, it gets close to the time for everyone to wake up. The soul mourns this fact but knows that there’s nothing it can do to stop the sun from rising. The poem concludes with the soul rejoining the body but speaking openly about its admiration for human beings despite their flaws.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ by Richard Wilbur is a lyric poem separated into six stanzas of uneven lengths, between four and six lines in length. The poem is written in blank verse. This means that the majority of the lines are in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter refers to the number of beats per line and the orientation of the stresses. The lines, mostly, contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second is stressed.
Wilbur uses several literary devices in ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and imagery. The first of these, enjambment, is seen in the transition between lines. For example, Wilbur does not end line two of the first stanza at the end of the line; instead, readers have to go down to line three to find out how it ends.
Alliteration is one kind of repetition. It is concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “spirited from sleep” in line two of the first stanza and “feeling, filling” in line four of the second stanza.
Imagery is one of the essential techniques at work in ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.’ It can be seen throughout the piece as Wilbur uses phrases like “And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul” and “Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam.”
The poem ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ centers around the main themes of life, consciousness, and spirituality, although there are hints of love, religion, and immortality (with the angles and soul) too:
- Life – This poem is full of life and the afterlife too. For the majority of the poem, the man is asleep. However, it is a fitting image that life still exists and, can be seen to be, more full of life, when he is asleep. There are two worlds explored in this poem, with the second spiritual world being something that is yet to be discovered., and quite separate from the real world, For this reason, it is fitting the way Wilbur has described such a world, adding to a religious aspect to the poem too.
- Consciousness – The ability to explore a scene whilst the man is asleep explores the realm of consciousness. Whilst one world sleeps, another one awakes, more powerful and omnipotent than one can imagine.
- Spirituality – The connection between the body and soul cannot be underestimated in this poem, with the soul seemingly a separate entity, as the poems explore the soul and angels.
You can explore the many different types of themes that can be found in poetry here.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
The morning air is all awash with angels.
In the first stanza of ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ the speaker begins with a description of someone waking up. It’s a beautiful and image-rich process as the speaker sees it with the soul waking up before the body does. It “Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple / As false dawn.” Wilbur’s speaker is broadly describing someone waking up rather than focusing on someone specifically. This is yet one more way that the poet makes this poem relatable.
The soul is energized from its night of sleep and is ready to get moving. It comes away from the body for a moment. The phrase “false dawn” relates to this feature of the waking up process. The body is not quite awake, just like the dawn is not quite true. When the soul looks outside, there are angels filling the air.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
The next stanza is dedicated to describing the angels. The speaker talks about what they’re wearing, from blouses to smocks, as well as how they move. He uses these details to confirm for the reader that these angels are truly there. They aren’t just a figment of his imagination. The angels are moved and rising together “in calm swells” by small gusts of wind. The entire scene has a “halcyon feeling” or a feeling of peace and calm. There is also joy at this moment. Because the scene is human-less, and there’s no real breathing, the poet describes it as “impersonal.”
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
The soul shrinks
Things change in the third stanza of ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.’ Rather than swaying peacefully, the angels are “flying in place” and conveying their “terrible speed” and “omnipresence”. They are everywhere at once, and incredibly mighty. They can go anywhere at any time; there are no rules or laws that govern their actions. They’re moving; they’re staying, they’re all over the place. They’re like white water that rages when it chooses.
Then, all of a sudden. The angels “swoon down into so rapt a quiet / That nobody seems to be there”. This beautiful sentence describes how the angels descend and then, perhaps, head back to heaven as the world wakes up. Readers should also take note of the word “rapt” in these lines. It refers to something all-consuming but also the religious Rapture. The last line of the stanza is a great example of enjambment. To find out exactly what Wilbur’s speaker is getting, the reader has to go to the next stanza.
From all that it is about to remember,
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
It turns out that Wilbur’s speaker was describing how the soul shies away from “all that it is about to remember.” It knows what’s coming and it’s not something pleasant. It’s something that happens every day as the body wakes up. It is trying to avoid the “the punctual rape of every blessèd day”. The true dawn comes every day and takes away the “false dawn” and the time of the angels. The soul cries out in agony about the return of the human presence in the world. There is another reference to clothes in these lines, suggesting that the pieces of clothing the angels were wearing in the previous stanza were elevated images of clothes on a line.
The images in the next lines are rather ephemeral, without a true source. The speaker, the soul, wants to stick to the world before the return of human beings. Everyone should, in the soul’s opinion, stay asleep.
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
In the fifth stanza of the poem, the speaker acknowledges that the sun will rise no matter what anyone says or does. The sun lights up the world and shows off the “hunks and colors”. Simultaneously, the soul descends “in bitter love” for life and the living world. The “man” it belongs to “yawns and rises,” and everything works as it always does.
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
The final lines of ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ include some of the soul’s words as a conclusion. The soul speaks out, telling someone or a group of someones to “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows”. The soul is using figurative language to acknowledge the flaws in human beings and asking that they be taken down from the metaphorical gallows. The next line presents another wish, this time for clean laundry on the backs of thieves and “fresh” moments for lovers. These moments of cleanliness and godliness go along with the dirty, very human world.
In the next lines, the speaker makes another wish that burdened nuns keep their balance. These women, who are so close to God and the angels of the pre-waking world, have a difficult life. The contrasts in these lines are examples of how Wilbur brings together various juxtapositions and striking comparisons. It also emphasizes the fact that although the soul loves the pre-waking world, it also loves and accepts the multifaceted human beings with it surrounded by.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some of Richard Wilbur’s other poems. These include ‘Marginalia,’ ‘After the Last Bulletins,’ and ‘The Death of a Toad’. ‘After the Last Bulletins’ is about the human race’s ability to discard what we once deemed important while Marginalia’ is concerned with the parts of life that exist at the edge of our consciousness and how we are, every day, affected by them. Some other related poems include ‘A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body’ and ‘I Know My Soul’ by Claude McKay and ‘My Soul is Dark’ by Lord Byron.