“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun,

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.

source: wendythomasrussell.com

I love this poem. Especially for Advent.

It seems to me Wilbur is wrestling with a philosophical problem–maybe Bishop Berkley’s strange insistence on the priority of perception over “objective” things which I learned about only recently–a problem anyway that involves a sort of Gnostic emphasis on the “spiritual” over the material world. This is, indeed, a problem to which Wilbur continually returns. His poetry is often about the dignity and goodness of the world in all it’s messiness and decay–making him rather a literary brother to Flannery O’Connor, and rather an appropriate poet to read during this Season of the Incarnation.

Wilbur gets his title from Thomas Traherne who says “Life without objects is a sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing” (as quoted by Engel, here). Rather a strange sentiment for those of us who don’t want to be too materialistic during Christmas, no? Yet fleeing from “objects” is exactly what Wilbur wants us to avoid.

In this (Christmas?) poem, the “beasts of [his] soul,” dissatisfied with lowly corporeality, turn away from John the Baptist’s “shrill of the locust” in the “last groves” of trees, toward the golden “whole honey of the arid / Sun” (3-4). They  “long to learn to drink / Of pure mirage” and thus set out deep into the desert, often an image suggesting retreat from the world (10-11).

Alluding gently to the wise men from the East, here the “tall camels of the spirit” traverse the sands in search of some “sheer horizon” (1, 6).  It’s rather an understandable longing that we all feel–wanting to extract ourselves from the clutter and bustle of living, peeling away icky fleshiness so that we can wander peacefully in the clarity of intellect. Perhaps Wilbur is alluding to the common practice of Eastern religions and philosophies of trying to separate oneself from suffering and all forms of earthly attachment.

But Wilbur insists that such detachment is a horizon of impossibility. Such places of spiritual purity are nothing more than “fine slights of the sand”–the pun is rather irresistible–that “shimmer on the brink of absence” (19, 12-13).

He then turns, unexpectedly, to iconography: “Think of those painted saints” who were “capped” with halos (15-16). For the Eastern Church, icons are sensible ways to reach the divine. Yet you reach God by praying through them, not around them.

Similarly, Wilbur argues that going out into the desert of intellectual reverie is not the right way to arrive at truth: “[A]ll shinings need to be shaped and borne”–we should not look for the light apart from material things upon which it shines (14). And thus he calls back the “camels” of his own prodigal spirit from their arid deserts–go back the way you came, to the trees, to life, to the messy world you tried to escape:

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun

All natural, material things aglow (even halo-ed!) with the light you were looking for in the first place. This image of all things shining with heavenly light reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis’ oft-quoted saying: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Loving Christ does enable you to see everything–even the most mundane things–in new ways. All things, especially the things you used to overlook, suddenly become important.

I hope, this Christmas, I can similarly turn back toward the messiness of living in a new way.

Wilbur concludes with the image of the Star of Bethlehem over the stable and the “right oasis” for our thirsty spirits–a humble, earthly oasis in the desert:

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate. (24-28)


Happy Birthday, Flannery O’Connor!

ImageToday – March 25, The Feast of the Annunciation (and, fittingly, The Incarnation) – is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. I just love her.

Here are a few reasons why (in her own words, because no other words will do):

1. “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” 

2. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

3. “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

4. “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

5. “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”

6. “There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.”

and most of all, because:

7. “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. […] What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.

Here are some audio recordings of her reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”


Here is a wonderful article written about her by one of my favorite Catholic writers and bloggers, Amy Welborn:


As she would say at the end of her letters to Maryat Lee: