“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun,

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.

magi

source: wendythomasrussell.com

I love this poem. Especially for Advent.

It seems to me Wilbur is wrestling with a philosophical problem–maybe Bishop Berkley’s strange insistence on the priority of perception over “objective” things which I learned about only recently–a problem anyway that involves a sort of Gnostic emphasis on the “spiritual” over the material world. This is, indeed, a problem to which Wilbur continually returns. His poetry is often about the dignity and goodness of the world in all it’s messiness and decay–making him rather a literary brother to Flannery O’Connor, and rather an appropriate poet to read during this Season of the Incarnation.

Wilbur gets his title from Thomas Traherne who says “Life without objects is a sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing” (as quoted by Engel, here). Rather a strange sentiment for those of us who don’t want to be too materialistic during Christmas, no? Yet fleeing from “objects” is exactly what Wilbur wants us to avoid.

In this (Christmas?) poem, the “beasts of [his] soul,” dissatisfied with lowly corporeality, turn away from John the Baptist’s “shrill of the locust” in the “last groves” of trees, toward the golden “whole honey of the arid / Sun” (3-4). They  “long to learn to drink / Of pure mirage” and thus set out deep into the desert, often an image suggesting retreat from the world (10-11).

Alluding gently to the wise men from the East, here the “tall camels of the spirit” traverse the sands in search of some “sheer horizon” (1, 6).  It’s rather an understandable longing that we all feel–wanting to extract ourselves from the clutter and bustle of living, peeling away icky fleshiness so that we can wander peacefully in the clarity of intellect. Perhaps Wilbur is alluding to the common practice of Eastern religions and philosophies of trying to separate oneself from suffering and all forms of earthly attachment.

But Wilbur insists that such detachment is a horizon of impossibility. Such places of spiritual purity are nothing more than “fine slights of the sand”–the pun is rather irresistible–that “shimmer on the brink of absence” (19, 12-13).

He then turns, unexpectedly, to iconography: “Think of those painted saints” who were “capped” with halos (15-16). For the Eastern Church, icons are sensible ways to reach the divine. Yet you reach God by praying through them, not around them.

Similarly, Wilbur argues that going out into the desert of intellectual reverie is not the right way to arrive at truth: “[A]ll shinings need to be shaped and borne”–we should not look for the light apart from material things upon which it shines (14). And thus he calls back the “camels” of his own prodigal spirit from their arid deserts–go back the way you came, to the trees, to life, to the messy world you tried to escape:

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun

All natural, material things aglow (even halo-ed!) with the light you were looking for in the first place. This image of all things shining with heavenly light reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis’ oft-quoted saying: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Loving Christ does enable you to see everything–even the most mundane things–in new ways. All things, especially the things you used to overlook, suddenly become important.

I hope, this Christmas, I can similarly turn back toward the messiness of living in a new way.

Wilbur concludes with the image of the Star of Bethlehem over the stable and the “right oasis” for our thirsty spirits–a humble, earthly oasis in the desert:

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate. (24-28)

icone-noel

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1 Comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christ

One response to ““The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

  1. I’m enjoying your blog, Maura! It is thought-provoking.

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