It is important to note before reading “Marginalia” by Richard Wilbur, what exactly the title means. The word “Marginalia” is contemporarily defined as “marginal notes,” or ideas that are sketched out to the side of the main point. This definition is expanded in this piece to include all “Things” that live on the “edges” of life, the refuse and baubles that define who we are.
The poem is only twelve lines long, divided into two sestets, sets of six lines. The lines do not have end rhymes of any type, meaning the poem was written in free verse. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Marginalia
“Marginalia” by Richard Wilbur is concerned with the parts of life that exist at the edge of our consciousness and how we are, everyday, affected by them.
The poem begins with the speaker stating the simple fact that “Things concentrate at the edges.” He uses a pond to illustrate his point. Around the edges of the pond one can find beautiful things, such as “damask light” and also disheartening, “textile scum.” All parts of life wash up here and can be analyzed to see a fuller picture of one’s life.
In the second stanza Wilbur’s speaker compare the edges of life and their importance to human lives. The second stanza details how one is able to glimpse the edges while asleep, but how they slip away once conscious. Just like cricket sounds in a field, the edge is intangible. When it is gone one will notice even if it is not at the forefront of everyday’s thoughts.
Analysis of Marginalia
The speaker of this piece begins the poem by stating the main theme on which the poem will speak, the concentration of “things” around “the edges.” The poet’s narrator gives a poignant example of this phenomenon, the grouping of “Things” on the surface of a pond.
Before describing what the surface of the pond looks like, the speaker reminds the reader that all things
are “Bourne” from ponds. The world in it’s entirely came from the fertile breeding ground that is the surface of a pond. All that one knows owes it’s existence to the conglomeration of factors that spurned on evolution. “Fish” and “man” spread out from their original home and in their place, on the surface, one can find a variety of things washed to the edges.
There is “textile scum” and beautiful reflected, “damask light.” The word “damask” refers to a type of shimmering fabric, the pattern of which is replicated by the water. The speaker wants to make clear in this line that there are both things to be admired in the dregs of pond water and things one might wish weren’t there, such as pollution from textile mills.
On top of both of thees features, “textile scum and damask light,” sit “lily-pads.” These lovely, durable, plants are existing on the edge of all things, in amongst the good and the bad. This is an image of perseverance and strength that is representative of mankind and the situations that we are able to survive.
Around the edges of the pond’s surface one can also fin, “ruddy twigs” and “becalmed pine-leaves,” these items, from the surrounding woods have fallen into the pond, and been pushed out to the edges. There they have become stuck, “becalmed,” in the edges. Perhaps stuck in mud or reeds.
The final line of this stanza describes two more final items existing at the edge of life, “Air-baubles, and the chain mail of froth. These last features of the pond solidify it’s image as being made up of a jumble of different natural and un-natural items. The phrase, “Air-baubles” refers to the bubbles of air that collect along the edge of water. Wilbur’s choice to use the word “bauble” instead of “bubble” reinforces the notion that anything not central to life is worthless. Additionally the poet has mentioned “froth” that builds up and unifies into something that resembles “chain mail.” The years and years of build up has created a protective barrier.
This first stanza is meant to display to the reader that while the “edge” of a pond, or of life itself, may initially seem like the least important part, it can hold many of the most important features of our world.
In the second stanza of this piece Wilbur’s speaker discusses the importance of “Things” at the edges of our lives and their direct impact on us.
The stanza begins with the speaker describing the experience of falling asleep and how one is lifted, metaphorically and mentally, off the floor and into the night. This transition brings one out of their main life, and into one on their periphery. In this new state of being one can “glimpse [the] sublime,” or the awe inspiring grandeur of life. Particularly in this case, the sublime “Decor.” This once more references life on the exterior. One is able to see things, and be amazed by them, that normally would go unnoticed while awake.
It is while asleep that one can hear “a complete music.” One is able to see all of their life, not just the central parts around which a day revolves. They can comprehend all the instruments in a song, and hear their individual parts rather than just the main melody.
While one might see these things while sleeping, in the day “this evades us.” The commotion and chaos of normal waking life make it almost impossible to see what goes on at the “edges” of one’s existence.
The speaker finishes up the poem by comparing the fleeting vision of the “edges” to that of the sound of crickets in a meadow at night. One is surrounded on all sides by this sound but unable to see it. Additionally, it can disappear in an instant without warning.
This sudden lack of “edges” would be a shock, suddenly there is something missing that was never even spoken about before.
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 served as the second Poet Laureate of the United States.