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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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