Looking into History

By Richard Wilbur b. 1921 Richard Wilbur

Five soldiers fixed by Mathew Brady’s eye   
Stand in a land subdued beyond belief.   
Belief might lend them life again. I try
Like orphaned Hamlet working up his grief

To see my spellbound fathers in these men   
Who, breathless in their amber atmosphere,   
Show but the postures men affected then   
And the hermit faces of a finished year.

The guns and gear and all are strange until   
Beyond the tents I glimpse a file of trees   
Verging a road that struggles up a hill.   
They’re sycamores.
                            The long-abated breeze

Flares in those boughs I know, and hauls the sound   
Of guns and a great forest in distress.
Fathers, I know my cause, and we are bound   
Beyond that hill to fight at Wilderness.


But trick your eyes with Birnam Wood, or think   
How fire-cast shadows of the bankside trees   
Rode on the back of Simois to sink
In the wide waters. Reflect how history’s

Changes are like the sea’s, which mauls and mulls   
Its salvage of the world in shifty waves,
Shrouding in evergreen the oldest hulls
And yielding views of its confounded graves

To the new moon, the sun, or any eye   
That in its shallow shoreward version sees
The pebbles charging with a deathless cry   
And carageen memorials of trees.


Now, old man of the sea,   
I start to understand:
The will will find no stillness
Back in a stilled land.

The dead give no command   
And shall not find their voice   
Till they be mustered by   
Some present fatal choice.

Let me now rejoice
In all impostures, take
The shape of lion or leopard,
Boar, or watery snake,

Or like the comber break,   
Yet in the end stand fast   
And by some fervent fraud   
Father the waiting past,

Resembling at the last
The self-established tree
That draws all waters toward   
Its live formality.

Richard Wilbur, “Looking into History” from Collected Poems 1943-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Wilbur. Reprinted with the permission of Harcourt, Inc. This material may not be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: Collected Poems 1943-2004 (2004)

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Poet Richard Wilbur b. 1921

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Animals, Death, Trees & Flowers, Nature, War & Conflict, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Living

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 Richard  Wilbur


Richard Wilbur “is a poet for all of us, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox,” announced Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin when the poet succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second poet laureate of the United States. Wilbur won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957 and a second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems. He has won the Wallace Stevens . . .

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SUBJECT Animals, Death, Trees & Flowers, Nature, War & Conflict, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Living

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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