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By Richard Wilbur


Five soldiers fixed by Mathew Brady’s eye   
Stand in a land subdued beyond belief.   
Belief might lend them life again. I try
Like orphaned Hamlet working up his grief

To see my spellbound fathers in these men   
Who, breathless in their amber atmosphere,   
Show but the postures men affected then   
And the hermit faces of a finished year.

The guns and gear and all are strange until   
Beyond the tents I glimpse a file of trees   
Verging a road that struggles up a hill.   
They’re sycamores.
                            The long-abated breeze

Flares in those boughs I know, and hauls the sound   
Of guns and a great forest in distress.
Fathers, I know my cause, and we are bound   
Beyond that hill to fight at Wilderness.


But trick your eyes with Birnam Wood, or think   
How fire-cast shadows of the bankside trees   
Rode on the back of Simois to sink
In the wide waters. Reflect how history’s

Changes are like the sea’s, which mauls and mulls   
Its salvage of the world in shifty waves,
Shrouding in evergreen the oldest hulls
And yielding views of its confounded graves

To the new moon, the sun, or any eye   
That in its shallow shoreward version sees
The pebbles charging with a deathless cry   
And carageen memorials of trees.


Now, old man of the sea,   
I start to understand:
The will will find no stillness
Back in a stilled land.

The dead give no command   
And shall not find their voice   
Till they be mustered by   
Some present fatal choice.

Let me now rejoice
In all impostures, take
The shape of lion or leopard,
Boar, or watery snake,

Or like the comber break,   
Yet in the end stand fast   
And by some fervent fraud   
Father the waiting past,

Resembling at the last
The self-established tree
That draws all waters toward   
Its live formality.

Richard Wilbur, “Looking into History” from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted with the permission of Harcourt, Inc. This material may not be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: Collected Poems 1943-2004 (2004)

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Poet Bio

Richard Wilbur
Richard Wilbur began to write poetry in earnest only after experiencing the horrific chaos of battle during WW II service as an infantryman in Italy. No poet of his generation was more committed to careful, organized expression or more thoroughly mastered the forms and devices of traditional poetry; this conservative aesthetic and his deep love for “country things” link Wilbur to the Roman poet Horace and to his fellow American Robert Frost.  See More By This Poet

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