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Richard Wilbur’s ‘Apology’ attempts to articulate the inexpressible



Anna O'Neil - published on 08/08/17

These images would just be pictures, if not for the second stanza, which shows us why the poet has even brought them up.

Apology A word sticks in the wind’s throat; A wind-launch drifts in the swells of rye; Sometimes, in broad silence, The hanging apples distil their darkness. You, in a green dress, calling, and with brown hair, Who come by the field-path now, whose name I say Softly, forgive me love if also I call you Wind’s word, apple-heart, haven of grasses. — By Richard Wilbur

I was lucky enough to have a stomach-bug when I first read this poem, and since I didn’t think I could summon the energy to turn the page, I lay there, reading it over and over. In the end, what I’d probably have dismissed as vague and romantic now strikes me as unusually precise and specific.

Wilbur’s first three images are not just random pretty pictures, and you can’t understand the second stanza without them. It’s worth looking at them one by one.

“A word sticks in the wind’s throat”–the wind hasn’t said anything. It almost has; it seems to want to, but it can’t find the right word. It’s not what’s being said, but what hasn’t been said, that matters here.

“A wind-launch drifts in the swells of rye.” Wind is invisible, but you know where it’s blowing by the parting of the tall grass, by the gaps in the field’s uniformity. Again, it’s not something you see that he’s focusing on, but something you don’t see, which yet exists.

Then there’s the hanging apples. “Sometimes, in broad silence, the hanging apples distil their darkness.” I think it’s fair to say that if the hanging apples only “distil their darkness” in “broad silence,” then this image takes place in the late evening, when the bright green or red of an apple fades to a dark shadow in contrast with whatever light is left in the sky. As for the distillation of the apples’ very darkness, well, the word distill has two distinct meanings. Distill can mean to purify, or it can mean to extract the essence of a thing. Here, the apples are shown without all the details that the daylight would illuminate, so that only their dark shapes remain; their essence has been concentrated, distilled, into the simplicity of shape alone.

These images would just be pictures, if not for the second stanza, which shows us why the poet has even brought them up, so leaving them be for a minute, let’s turn with Wilbur to the woman whose name we are not told.

She is walking towards him. He describes her by the details which he takes in, as he can make them out. First, “you.” He sees that it is she, even from a distance. Then the color of her dress comes into focus, and then her voice. Now he sees her features, her hair, so familiar to him, and finally her surroundings–she is coming “by the field-path.” He speaks her name, not to her, but softly, to himself.

“Forgive me love if also I call you
Wind’s word, apple-heart, haven of grasses.”

He knows he doesn’t actually need forgiveness, of course, but it’s a bold thing to give somebody a new name. Actually, the title of this piece is a sort of a pun. An apology could be asking for forgiveness, but it could also be the opposite–think of Apologetics, or Plato’s Apology. There, an apology is a defense of one’s deepest belief.

He’s seen something unidentifiable in her that he’s grasping to describe. When he calls her “wind’s word,” it’s because the wind has not found the word it needs. She is “apple-heart” because he knows her, not because of the myriad details of her features, like an apple in the daylight is known, but by her simplest form. Even the sight of her from far in the distance speaks to him of her essence, the core of who she is. She is “haven of grasses” because in the grass, the invisible wind can find form, and its indistinct shape is given dimension. In her, his unspoken indescribable love is given form.

Besides these three new names, let’s not forget the fourth that Wilbur’s slipped into the last stanza: love. It’s a simple word, an everyday word, which we often use without thinking, but at the same time, without being any less ordinary, it is a word for the inexpressible delight that he has in his beloved, too powerful to be articulated by language.

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