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Christopher Benfey
Published: Mon Nov 20 2017
Art: Paul TheriaultCascade (detail), 2021, acrylic and found paper on scavenged wood
October Light

The poet Richard Wilbur died on October 14, at age 96. Almost exactly two years earlier, on another beautiful October day, I had attended a lunch in Wilbur’s honor, in the venerable Western Massachusetts hill town of Ashfield. Hosting the gathering, in their 18th-century farmhouse in the woods, were Susan and Richard Todd, old friends of Wilbur’s, who lived nearby in Cummington. I had mentioned to Susan that I was writing a book about Kipling and America, and that Kipling had, in the company of his father, visited Charles Eliot Norton at his summer place in Ashfield. Soon after, Susan heard Wilbur mention his own fondness for Kipling. Hence the lunch. Among the other guests were Mary and Robert Bagg, Wilbur’s biographers, and David Sofield, who taught a verse-writing class at Amherst College with Wilbur, a 1942 Amherst graduate. The next day, a friend asked me for an account of the occasion. I sent him the following email:

A big calm presence, eyes awake but more inscrutably blue than twinkling, the way I imagine Emerson late in life, when the big empty spaces had moved into parts of his brain. Wilbur seems all there, but where there is isn’t always entirely clear. “Dick, how is your cat?” “You mean Leo?” “Yes.” “He’s fine.” “What kind of cat is he?” “Asiatic.” “Siamese?” “No.” “What’s he like?” “Well, what sort of attributes does one look for in a cat?” (I did like this last question of Wilbur’s.) At which point our host, Dick Todd, said, “Yes, how would a cat on the prowl advertise himself in the Cat Personals?”

The pretext for the lunch, which went on for four hours, with lots of good wine, was a brief conversation, at some party in the summer, between me and Susan Todd. Susan had said that Wilbur reads Kipling every night. So, there I was to pop the question. But Wilbur had about as much to say about Kipling as about Leo. “Yes, Kipling, he does have force, doesn’t he? He’s a good writer for children…. I wouldn’t say I read him every night. But Sofield says Kipling is all right.” Sofield happened to be at the lunch, too. He winced at my mispronunciation of “ignominy.” But I’m not sure how I pronounced it or how he did. Also, Chris Wilbur, a vague large friendly man of maybe 70 who lives in Arlington and has retired from “coding for Lotus” to work on Kabbalah and Tarot. My ears perked up. Turns out he’s a huge Alistair Crowley fan. I couldn’t follow him there, no sirree. Do you know Dick Todd? Tracy Kidder’s editor and close friend. They just put out a book together, Good Prose. Very nice guy. At the end of the lunch, we all went outside to right the steel trash container tipped over by bears.

So ends the email. Actually, at the end of the lunch there were toasts and tributes. When it was my turn, I told a brief story about my father-in-law, an Amherst classmate of Wilbur’s. Wilbur had heard that Duffy was quite the wag. When they were first introduced, Wilbur said, “So, I hear you’re supposed to be clever, Rathbun. Say something funny.” I told the gathering that after my mother-in-law died, Duffy named a racehorse he had bred “June Light,” since Wilbur’s sonnet of that title (in memory of his own wife, Charlee) reminded him of Sheilah. I then read the poem aloud, with its lovely opening: “Your voice, with clear location of June days,/ Called me—outside the window. You were there.” I’m always tempted to misread “location” as “locution.” And I hear Wilbur’s clear, slow voice and see his face, “as legible as pearskin’s fleck and trace.”

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke and author of numerous books of literary history, including A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin Press, 2008) and Degas in New Orleans (University of California Press, 1999). His latest book is a family memoir called Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. (updated 4/2012)

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