Moles fly, and sparrows sweep the sky.

IMG_3260Preface:  I drafted this post yesterday, not expecting to publish it this soon, but today, the occasion of a statewide election day, I was pained to see public pleas and even poems put forth drawing attention to the needs of “art” and “artists” for money and support. I am all for supporting artists whom I admire, but I am also realizing that in the minds of some professional artists, art has become just another “spiritual practice” to support and be supported by that new religion of modernity, politics. So I decided to share this poem, and my short response, on behalf of all you creative people out there, who may or may not know that you are. Art will never not be, and that is a gift.


Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

-Richard Wilbur

This poem was part of Wilbur’s first collection published when he was 26, just returned from World War II. I read it in Poem A Day Volume 3, where it is accompanied by comments from Wilbur himself:

“Aristototle once said, ‘The making of metaphor is the peculiar gift of the poet, the mark of poetic genius.’ This early poem of mine — a Spenserian sonnet, by the way — begins as an impatient attack on metaphor, but by the close has capitulated and become helplessly metaphorical. That’s as it should be, because the likening of all things, the implication that all things are connatural, is of poetry’s essence.”

I like that in the poem, he refers to “uncreation,” i.e., the One who has made “all things visible and invisible,” and from which Source they also come by their likeness one to another. God is the supreme metaphorical Poet from whom we all receive this gift of making metaphors, and most of us think and speak in metaphors all day long. When in the poem we read, “summer calls,” is that not likening summer to a being that can beckon with a hand or voice? To think of our senses as “stale” links them in our mind to flat beer or dry bread. It’s part of the gift of imagination which has the same Source, and another way that we are made in the image of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

7 thoughts on “Moles fly, and sparrows sweep the sky.

  1. I rarely read Wilbur, partly because phrases like “it must needs derange” can stop me cold in my tracks, and leave me too impatient to either finish the poem or give it another try. But I managed to stay with this one, and finally enjoyed it a bit.


    1. Don’t you think he has less of that sort of thing in later poems? I probably haven’t read half of his poems, so I’m not very knowledgeable. I know what you mean, but this one pleased me so much overall, I did try to ignore that awkward line. I always appreciate your thoughtful responses!


  2. As soon as I read your title, I knew exactly what poem you would be presenting us with. I love this poem, and years ago it had a strong impact on my views of the overuse of metaphor in poetry, and in prose as well. It’s important to tell thinks plainly and directly when it’s useful to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a completely different take on this than Mary’s. At the poem’s end, the poet asks why isn’t it enough to say things plainly, without metaphor? And then in the very last line, in an attempt to simply present, the poet lapses into metaphor again (“And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?” As if trying to avoid metaphor, he can’t. There is something unavoidable about the need to speak/write in metaphor, at least to this poet. I find it wonderful that the poet ends by saying one thing (speak plainly) and doing another (using metaphor).

    Liked by 1 person

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