A Summary and Analysis of Richard Wilbur’s ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’

‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ is a poem by the American poet Richard Wilbur, included in his 1956 collection Things of This World. In the poem, a man wakes one morning and is fascinated by the laundry outside his window, viewing it as a group of angels come down to earth. The title of the poem is derived from a quotation from St. Augustine.

You can read ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Wilbur’s poem below. The poem takes around one minute to read.

‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’: summary

Wilbur begins his poem by describing a man waking from sleep, his eyes opening to the sound of the pulleys of the washing line outside. He is confused and, for a moment while he gets his bearings, almost feels transported outside of his body. Outside of the open window of his bedroom, the air is filled with people’s washing hanging on the lines, which remind the man of angels.

In the second stanza, this conceit is developed: the bedsheets and blouses hanging on the clothes-line look to have angels in them. They rise with the swell of the gentle morning breeze, and there is something peaceful about the way they sway (‘halcyon’ is an adjective meaning ‘peaceful’, as in the phrase halcyon days). The swelling of the garments puts the observer in mind of angels breathing out, thus inflating the clothes.

The movement of the garments, when the wind gets up and they fly up where they hang, reminds the man observing them of their ‘omnipresence’: like God, they can be everywhere at once. They both move and stay still, remaining pegged to the washing line but flying up and then down again in time with the wind. And when the wind stops blowing suddenly, they stay still and are quiet so that it’s as if the angels are not there at all.

In a glorious piece of cross-stanza enjambment, Wilbur tells us that watching the action of the clothes on the line makes the man’s soul cower in fear, because he is about to recover consciousness as he fully wakes up (and then the dreamlike notion of the angels inhabiting the washing will evaporate as he gets ready to face the harsh realities of another day).

The man’s soul speaks, wishing that there could be nothing on earth but laundry like this outside the window, and the rosy hands of people washing clothes and the clear dances of the laundry on the clothes line, in sight of heaven and God.

But as the sun begins to rise and spreads its warmth across everything, the soul has to lower its sights and go back into the man’s body as he wakes up. In a different voice from before, the man’s soul admits defeat and sighingly accepts that the clothes must be brought down from the ‘gallows’ where they hang (i.e., the clothes line) so thieves can wear them, or lovers can wear clean clothes as they go and have their hearts broken, or ungainly nuns can walk gracefully in their fresh clothes or ‘habits’.

‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’: analysis

Much modern poetry tries to find the numinous or magical qualities within very everyday events or sights. And in this poem, Richard Wilbur offers a sublime example of how poetry can be found in the most mundane or unpromising material: in this case, a load of washing hanging out to dry on a clothes-line.

What might otherwise have struck us as a trite or sentimental premise – laundry being mistaken for angels dancing in the air – is prevented from such lapses by Wilbur’s decision to focus on a man on the threshold of consciousness. Although the numinous or even spiritual is present in the poem – the man’s soul even speaking twice – we are left uncertain whether this is the man’s literal (Christian?) soul or a metaphor for his unconscious, which is only partially aware of his surroundings and so able to mistake the laundry for heavenly messengers in those few brief moments before he becomes fully awake.

Similarly, there is a playful quality to Wilbur’s poem, and the faintly comical notion of something as ordinary as washing being ‘mistaken’ for, or merging with, beings as divine and otherworldly as angels, God’s messengers. This element of play is central to many of Wilbur’s poems, and here prevents his premise from striking us as heavy-handed or overly serious. Or to put it another way, it is neither wholly serious nor wholly frivolous: the poem succeeds by shuttling between these two modes at will.

Furthermore, as the final stanza of ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ implies, there is a logical link between laundry and angels, albeit a faint one: clean laundry might remind us, for instance, that cleanliness is proverbially next to godliness, and it is worth bearing in mind that the last group of people summoned by Wilbur in that closing stanza are nuns, who are made graceful (like the angelic washing?) by virtue of the clean habits, or clothes, they wear. Note also Wilbur’s knowing use of the word ‘awash’ in the first stanza: the air is ‘awash’ with angels, but it’s also awash with washing.

And even though such a glimpse – even a delusional glimpse – of the numinous (that is, the spiritual, quasi-spiritual, or divine) will fade as the man wakes up and becomes fully aware of his surroundings, Wilbur’s title suggests that such glimpses, however unreal they may be, have value in our lives. ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’: does love prompt us to notice the angels in the washing, or does the love the angels inspire enable us to return to this world, the world of getting up and going about one’s daily business, with a new sense of wonder?

‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ is an example of a lyric poem, because rather than telling a story or teaching us something (as narrative or didactic poetry does), it is concerned with the thoughts and feelings of a speaker – or, in this case, a man who may or may not be the speaker himself (is it is his own soul he’s discussing, and his own body? After all, Wilbur begins the poem by talking about how ‘bodiless’ the man is, as though he has been taken out of himself by this transcendent experience). The poem is mostly written in blank verse, with some irregularities.

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