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Introduction to Piccola Commedia


Poetry readings: Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur Poet
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Derives its title - to some extent at any rate - from St Augustine. It's a poem that begins rather abruptly, but I don't know that that's proven to be too confusing for most of its hearers. One is waking up in a city apartment house somewhere and as one wakes up, the neighbor's laundry is being yanked across the window frame.

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,

And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul

Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple

As false dawn.

Outside the open window

The morning air is all awash with angels.


Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,

Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.

Now they are rising together in calm swells

Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear

With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;


Now they are flying in place, conveying

The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving

And staying like white water; And now of a sudden

They swoon down into so rapt a quiet

That nobody seems to be there.

The soul shrinks


From all that it is about to remember,

From the punctual rape of every blessed day,

And cries,

"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,

Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam

And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."


Yet, as the sun acknowledges

With a warm look the world's hunks and colours,

The soul descends once more in bitter love

To accept the waking body, saying now

In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,


"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;

Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,

And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating

Of dark habits,

Keeping their difficult balance."


One thing I like about that poem is that I managed to use the word 'hunks' in it. It's a word which is perhaps out of keeping with some of the rest of the language of the poem, but that's precisely why I'm glad that it's there and that I have apparently gotten away with it. In another poem that I wrote during that period in Rome, I was very pleased to be able to use the words 'reinforced concrete' in a line of verse. You'd think that would sink a line of verse absolutely, but I think it didn't quite in that case.


Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: Rome

Duration: 3 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008