Another good thing about retirement is that if your schedule gets screwed up, you don’t have to sweat it so much; most tomorrows are open. So it was this week in flying back from a visit to China. I had a two-hour window to make a connection at O’Hare but received notice well before take-off in Beijing that my flight would be delayed 75 minutes. Hence, no chance of getting home on time; rather, an unexpected stay at a faceless hotel in a nowhere suburb of Chicago. Yet there was nothing pressing on the morrow, so I accepted the opportunity to explore fifty channels of cable. Note to self: Pat Robertson is not looking any better, especially in those tight, earnest close-ups. Do not let that be the last thing you see before switching off the lights.
My reward turned out to be the early-morning flight the next day. Lifting out of the fog blanketing Chicago, we saw the sky clear over Lake Michigan and then had a picture-perfect view of the shoreline and the forests and the fields of West Michigan on a brilliant autumn day. Thomas Jefferson’s linear-cut Northwest Ordinance map overlaid with a more generous Mondrian color scheme of russet, greens, yellows, tans, and orange. I could identify the towns, roads, barns and homes of what remains a remarkably rural landscape. I had missed most of my favorite autumn season, being on the road so much this October, so my native state kept the colors going longer this year to give me a sweet welcome home.
That got me in the mood for reading some poetry for the season, which led me to this previously unknown (to me) beauty by Richard Wilbur. I’ve commented on a Wilbur poem before in this space, his profound “A Christmas Hymn” which revisits the venerable connection between Christ’s birth and passion in lines fit for modern understanding. But this time it’s “The Beautiful Changes,” the title poem of his first published collection. It opens on the seasonal note I was looking for and addresses the dynamics and dimensions of change. Or so it looks on first reading. But then it strikes you that he’s playing with grammar for a deeper revelation. “The beautiful changes” turns out to be not (just) article-adjective-noun but article-noun-verb. Likewise “valleys” in line 6 is not the noun we expect but a verb.
Other striking considerations. The chameleon in “tuning his skin” to the forest changes the forest. The mantis “grows into” the leaf, making it “leafier”—and revealing that green has depths beyond our ken. A meadow conjures a lake which calls up a valley in mountainous Switzerland. “Dry grass” is changed to “fabulous blue” water via lilies imaged by Queen Anne’s Lace and giving over to roses held loosely in the lover’s hands. All these changes, and changes in the season too, are beautiful in unexpected ways, making the more important point that beauty itself changes. Best of all, it changes “in such kind ways” of generosity which restores to us what we had and have come to miss: “Wishing ever to sunder / Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose / For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.”
Severances open up new stages; flight delays open up new visions, second viewings of the familiar that recover an apprehension from before first reflection. Beautiful changes mean that the beautiful changes.
The Beautiful Changes, and Other Poems was published in 1947 by Harcourt, Brace and Co. in New York. Wilbur was 26 years old at the time, a recent veteran of the European theater in World War II. He went on to a distinguished career of teaching and writing at Wellesley, Wesleyan, Smith, and currently at Amherst. His collection of prizes and awards is long and distinguished, perhaps capped by his being named the second U.S. poet laureate in 1987-88.
“The Beautiful Changes,” by Richard Wilbur
One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.