‘Marginalia’ by Richard Wilbur is all about the parts of life that exist at the edge of our consciousness and how human beings are affected by the thoughts of their past.
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.
Summary of Marginalia
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 compares the edges of life and their importance to human lives. The second stanza details how one can 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 every day’s thoughts. In the third stanza, the poet talks about riches and how human beings drift back in hope of a good drowning.
Analysis of Marginalia
Things concentrate at the edges; the pond-surface
Is bourne to fish and man and it is spread
Inlaid ruddy twigs, becalmed pine-leaves,
Air-baubles, and the chain mail of froth.
The speaker of ‘Marginalia’ begins 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 coming 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 beautifully 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 these 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 can 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 its 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 the 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.
Descending into sleep (as when the night-lift
Falls past a brilliant floor) we glimpse a sublime
The crickets’ million roundsong dies away
From all advances, rising in every distance.
In the second stanza of ‘Marginalia’, 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 can see things and be amazed by them, which normally would go unnoticed while awake.
It is while asleep that one can hear “a complete music.” One can 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 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 this stanza by comparing the fleeting vision of the “edges” to that of the sound of crickets in a meadow at night. One is surrounded 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 something is missing that was never even spoken about before.
Our riches are centrifugal; men compose
Daily, unwittingly, their final dreams,
Past which we flog our sails, toward which we drift,
Plying our trades, in hopes of a good drowning.
In the third stanza of this poem, the speaker says the “riches” of men are centrifugal. It means that the thoughts about riches revolve around one’s desires. In the next part of the first line, the speaker compares riches to the final dreams of a person. Here, Wilbur talks about the dreams that men compose daily and unwittingly.
Thereafter, the speaker refers to the distant voices that ride on the whirlpool’s rim. Here, the “whirlpool” is a metaphor for the subconscious mind. The voices of human beings consummate in a manner that sounds like a chorus. However, human beings flog their sails to their past. Gradually they drift toward those old thoughts even if they are plying their present trades. Lastly, the poet remarks that human beings drift back to those old memories “in hopes of good drowning.” It seems that those thoughts can drown a person like waves. In this way, Wilbur clarifies how human beings cross the marginalia of the present moment and get solace in memories.
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 master’s 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 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.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the poem, ‘Marginalia’ by Richard Wilbur.
- Past Days by Anne Brontë – In this poem, the poet is nostalgic about the past. She explores the escapist concept to juxtapose the past with the present.
- Past, Present, Future by Emily Brontë – The poet explores the past, present, and future in this poem by using images and metaphors, easily relatable, and almost childlike in their simplicity.
- The Past is such a Curious Creature by Emily Dickinson – It’s one of the best Emily Dickinson poems. Here, the poet focuses on the past and personifies it as a female character.
- Memory by Christina Rossetti – In this one of the best Christina Rossetti poems, one can explore how the poet tries to establish a connection between earth and heaven. It is about the poet’s faith and the length she will go to devote herself.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Life here.