Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and second poet laureate of the United States Richard Wilbur died on October 14. In memoriam, I provide the following walk-through of his poem “The Proof,” followed by some of his reflections on the influence his Christian faith has had on his work.
“The Proof” by Richard Wilbur
Shall I love God for causing me to be?
I was mere utterance; shall these words love me?
Yet when I caused his work to jar and stammer,
And one free subject loosened all his grammar,
I love him that he did not in a rage
Once and forever rule me off the page,
But thinking I might come to please him yet,
Crossed out delete and wrote his patient stet.
I am a proofreader by trade, so Richard Wilbur’s witty, eight-line poem “The Proof” delights me much. Filled with wordplay, it imagines God as the Cosmic Author, reviewing a set of book proofs (the typeset version of a manuscript; a still unfinal phase of production), considering a particular edit: there’s a word that’s discordant with the whole—delete it, or not?
Creative control is God’s to exercise over his manuscript of life, whose first chapter was conceived with the utterance “Let there be . . .”—light! Sky! Water! Land! Vegetation! Animals! And finally, “Let there be humankind.” Let there be Susie. Let there be Sal.
Our names belong to God’s story. He established us as characters at the very beginning. And yet he also made us “free subjects,” imbuing us with free will, with the power to follow his script or not. We decided NOT. Playing fast and loose with his “grammar” (his system of principles that make for right functions of and relationships among parts), we looked for life in all the wrong places. We introduced chaos, suffering. Now mired in this mess, we question whether or not “to be”—to exist—is a blessing or a curse.
The word “subject” in line 4 has a double meaning. First, it identifies us as being under God’s authority, as the word “rule” in the next stanza stresses. Maybe “free subject” sounds like an oxymoron, because how is it possible to be both free and subject to? Actually, our status as “free subjects” in relation to the divine has been amply teased out by moral philosophers like Kant. And before that, in the realm of politics, the term was used (without contradiction) to describe members of a state—people who submit themselves to the sovereign laws of the land, all the while possessing civil liberties. (“Citizen” has since replaced the term “free subject” in popular parlance.)
Second, a “subject” is a part of speech, an integral element of basic sentence structure. In grammar, the subject is the doer of the action. In his poem, Wilbur suggests that when we free humans do, we often do wrong. We jar God’s creation—wrench it out of harmony, destabilize it. We stammer—are repetitious in our sin. This displeases God, our author, who wonders whether, to preserve the integrity of the whole, he ought to remove us.
But God is a merciful author; he allows us to remain. In our imperfection he loves us. Even though we mar his work, he recognizes that we do add value to the story—in part, because we magnify his grace.
Stet is an industry term used by proofreaders. From the Latin for “let it stand,” it indicates that the person inputting the changes into the master document is to disregard a change that was previously marked.
Biblical history is full of God “stetting” those who have disappointed him. Israel stubbornly ignored God’s words of life for centuries, but “nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (Nehemiah 9:31). “The LORD your God . . . is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13; cf. Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; Jonah 4:2). “The LORD is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Although God vowed to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (Exodus 32:33), for all time he has been amazingly tolerant of human weakness, continuing to woo and, when we turn back to him, eager to embrace us. Numerous times in scripture we see God, in response to the prayers of his people, “repenting of the evil” he had formerly plotted against them: Exodus 32:14; Exodus 33:1–3, 14; Numbers 11:1–2; Numbers 14:12–20; Deuteronomy 9:13–29; Judges 10:13–16; 1 Kings 21:21–29; 2 Chronicles 12:5–8; Hosea 11:1–9; Amos 7:1–6; Jonah 3:10; cf. Jeremiah 18:7–10; Jeremiah 26:2–3; Revelation 3:5. (For a book-length discussion of the biblical basis and theological implications of a God who sometimes changes his mind, see God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God by Gregory A. Boyd.)
Praise God that, in Jesus, he crosses out our destruction and lets us stand!
Against the grain of much modern poetry, Richard Wilbur (1921–2017) wrote in formalist verse (that is, with rhyme and meter) all his life and in an optimistic tone, despite having served in the US Army during World War II. Some critics faulted him for not being transgressive enough, for writing “too prettily,” but Wilbur persisted in his approach, explaining,
I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that’s my attitude. My feeling is that when you discover order and goodness in the world, it is not something you are imposing—it is something which is likely really to be there, whatever crumminess and evil and disorder there may also be. I don’t take disorder or meaninglessness to be the basic character of things.
Besides the long list of mainstream honors and awards Wilbur received, he is also celebrated among Christians for his “poetics of testimony,” as Roger Lundin calls it. In 1992 the Conference on Christianity and Literature (CCL) presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award
because his life and attitudes bear witness to Christian virtue and because his work springs from and enriches Western religious art. His love for and sensitivity to his fellow creatures, his humility before the natural world, and his openness to the supernatural are all marked by a Christian sense of grace. He has insisted more than once that all great art is religious, that metaphor and simile by definition move toward the perception of an underlying unity. But his work is religious in a sense that the work of Yeats, for example, is not. Though certainly not propagandistic or Christian in a defiant way, it reflects a specifically Christian view of the nature of human life and of reality. In an early interview he said that the philosophers and theologians who have influenced him most are Augustine, Thomas Traherne in his Centuries, and Pascal. He also said that his “view of things, though not steady, is a Christian” view. He seems “called to praise,” as he put it in “Praise in Summer,” but he is also aware of evil and the irremedial duality of postlapsarian human existence, as shown by such poems as “On the Marginal Way,” “For Dudley,” “Children of Darkness,” and even “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” He enables us to hear the first birdsong and to realize our homelessness at home, for which we are grateful.
Wilbur served for years as a lector (reader of scripture during worship services) in the Episcopalian church, and indeed the many references in his poetry evidence his familiarity with the Bible. But his poetry directly engages with scripture texts only on occasion; more commonly, it more subtly affirms his Christian worldview, built on grace, hope, and joy. In his interview with the CCL, Wilbur said,
I do think, though my poetry is not obtrusively Christian, that the feelings of it have been shaped by Christianity. I suppose that the sort of insistence that you have in “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” on the ordinary, the everyday, the need to redeem those things, belongs more to Christianity than it does to other faiths. That’s one respect in which I suppose that I might well be called a Christian poet. . . . The desire to see the so-called spiritual in the ordinary is especially sanctioned by Christian thought and feeling. The Incarnation is the heart of it. I know that I have some religious vision and that it is not the world-renouncing kind; it’s a vision that hopes for reconciliations of the kind that Christian literature has always encouraged us to hope for.
Three years later after receiving the CCL award, Wilbur received the 1995 Milton Center Prize from Image journal for his “significant contribution to the tradition of Christian letters.” In a post-award interview by Paul Mariani, Wilbur said,
I’m the sort of Christian animal for whom celebration is the most important thing of all. I know that, as you say, there is terror in my poems, . . . [but] it’s countered continually by trust and by hope, by an impulse to praise. When I go to church, what doesn’t particularly interest me is the Creed, although I find that I can say it. . . . What I respond to is, “Lift up your hearts!” It’s lines like that in the Mass that belong to me, belong to my kind of religious experience.