The eyes open to a cry of pulleys/And spirited from sleep the astounded soul hangs for a moment/ Simple and bodiless
These are the opening lines of the poem “Love Calls US to the Things of this World” by Richard Wilbur. I encourage you to read it, because the following will make much more sense if you’re familiar with the lines.
My job hosts several seasonal events which I set up, but during which I stand unoccupied in the back of the room. I decided to use this time to memorize some poetry. Wilbur’s poem was one of the poems I chose, and as I started memorizing it, the poem began to haunt me. Lines buoyed up to the surface of my thoughts in odd moments.
At first I thought this poem was simply a longing for freedom from sin and regret, from conscience. The cry, “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,” resonated with the feeling I often have of committing the same mistakes over and over again.
But lately, the poem has become less obvious, less simple, and I have begun to think there is a further darkness underlying it: the dissatisfaction with the nature of the world; the belief that we could imagine it more perfect; and the rebuttal to that belief.
Consider how a common idea of beauty is something scrubbed clean and abstracted from the idiosyncrasies, abnormalities, and imperfections which naturally occur in the physical world. We somehow think that barnacles and dust and rust and scabs are all things that shouldn’t be, when the truth is that they are in and are a part of the nature of this world.
Wilbur’s poem begins with a mind between waking and sleeping, offering an image of laundry drying on the line as if clothing angels or incorporeal spirits. The action of the wind becomes the movement of these spirits. He pulls your vision from a memory or feeling of the spirit unencumbered by flesh, free from imperfection, only to wake you up to the imperfect and unsatisfying world: “the punctual rape of every blessed day.”
When you’re asleep, you forget that you’re pinned by gravity, routines, failures, and disappointments. Your soul is caught between waking and sleeping with the tantalizing dance of the unfettered angels in the laundry before it:
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
It’s as though you’re free from flesh and decay, from the limitations of the physical world. You’re fresh, unsullied, eternally sweet. And then you wake up and take down the laundry, putting on the clothes that were hung out to dry. There’s “clean linen for the backs of thieves,” and “lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone.” Your soul wears a physical form again. The brightness fades and the freshness dampens, and you’re confronted by the limited perfection of reality.
And the line that resonates with me most, the last line of the poem, lingers even after you leave Wilbur’s lyrical reflections:
And the heaviest of nuns walk in a pure floating/ Of dark habits,/ keeping their difficult balance
Isn’t this the true state of the soul? A life lived on a tightrope, balancing the longing for a perfection unlimited by the physical with the actual world it lives in? A world which is, in fact, more perfect than the ideals the soul can dream of?
Because the world is true, it is actual, it exists, and we must learn to reconcile our longings to it. We must learn to see this world as beautiful and perfect.
In Wilbur’s poem, love draws the soul back from its dreams into the world:
The soul descends once more in bitter love/ To accept the waking body.
Love is the moving force which disengages us from our attachment to ideals, from the ephemeral images that we can control and manipulate, that we can make tidy and clean up. Only love and acceptance of reality will allow us to see the perfection of the world that is. To see the beauty of the present moment.
The impulse to sanitize and pietize the world limits our ability to discover it, to receive it. But love allows us to see truly. Love does not impose beauty where there is none—love discovers beauty though it is obscured. Love sees more rightly and recognizes more truly what is. It is not consumed with what we would wish it would be.
(By the way, “pietize” is not actually a word, as the internet and Microsoft Word tell me, but I believe it’s a real thing: the impulse to divorce piety from reality and to clean up human emotions and human character and to try scrub out their flaws. There is a link between the secular desire to sanitize and the religious desire to pietize, I believe, and it proceeds from an unwillingness to appreciate the perfection which is found, in accordance with its nature, in incarnation. This perfection does not accord with our own vision and so we do not recognize or value it for what it is.)
Regardless of the faith system you ascribe to, I think we can all agree, this is an imperfect world. I don’t intend to consider or inquire into how we should strive for, or whether it is good to strive for, our idealized understandings of perfection. Instead, what I would like to do in this short thought project, is simply to consider the proposition that we should refresh, or rediscover, or realign ourselves with an appreciation and acknowledgment of the type of perfection that does exist in our physical world.
The Influential Premise
Here are a few premises that have informed my reflections on Wilbur’s poem and the beautiful imperfection of reality:
First: the original definition of perfection as a thing completely made, or “made through,” as it is derived from the Latin. So, a thing is perfect if it fulfills the purpose for which it was made.
Second: the metaphysical rule that a thing actualized (a thing that exists) has a further perfection, a further completeness, than a thing that merely has being as a concept in the mind (a unicorn, while wondrous, is actually less perfect than a dog, because it does not exist in the real world). Keep in mind that I’m only reflecting on the perfection we formulate for the things of this world in our minds versus their actual reality.
If you follow this logic, then, it means that existence is a greater perfection, is more perfect, than non-existence. Often an idea of something seems more perfect than the things realized, because those always seem to fall short of what we had planned.
Or, if those existing things do satisfy, it is always in a way we had not expected. Relationships are a good example of this. They’re messier, involved, difficult, and often disappointing when compared to the romantic, soft diffusion of happiness we had envisioned.
And yet, people who find happiness and joy will tell you that if you choose to accept life in all its convolutions, contortions, and complications … if you can set aside your desire to have a clean and controlled and personally pre-approved life … you’ll find the real world is better. Real marriages that are refined through sacrifice, perseverance, and commitment are more real than the shiny, Disney fairytale we had anticipated. They’re more interesting, more fulfilling, and they stretch us in ways we didn’t know we could be (or needed to be) stretched.
If we can’t see this, it’s because we get hung up on our sterile conceptions of what is perfect and what is perfect for us, and we are reluctant to embrace the loose ends of reality.
Image by Dawn Endico via Flickr.