In 1969 Richard Wilbur published this fine poem in Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations. It has three parts, set in 1933, 1957 and 1969 respectively. These three parts correspond to Wilbur’s childhood (age 12), adulthood (age 36) and middle age (48).
A close reading brings many rewards. I have added some notes and also an analysis that tries to bring out some of these rewards.
(North Caldwell, New Jersey)
What were we playing? Was it prisoner’s base?
I ran with whacking keds
Down the cart-road past Rickard’s place,
And where it dropped beside the tractor-sheds
Leapt out into the air above a blurred
Terrain, through jolted light,
Took two hard lopes, and at the third
Spanked off a hummock-side exactly right,
And made the turn, and with delighted strain
Sprinted across the flat
By the bull-pen, and up the lane.
Thinking of happiness, I think of that.
“Keds” refers to an old make of sport shoe or gym shoe
II. PATRIOT’S DAY
Restless that noble day, appeased by soft
Drinks and tobacco, littering the grass
While the flag snapped and brightened far aloft,
We waited for the marathon to pass,
We fathers and our little sons, let out
Of school and office to be put to shame.
Now from the street-side someone raised a shout,
And into view the first small runners came.
Dark in the glare, they seemed to thresh in place
Like preening flies upon a window-sill,
Yet gained and grew, and at a cruel pace
Swept by us on their way to Heartbreak Hill—
Legs driving, fists at port, clenched faces, men,
And in amongst them, stamping on the sun,
Our champion Kelley, who would win again,
Rocked in his will, at rest within his run.
“fists at port”: 1. Fists at rest—like ships in a port. 2. Fists close to position of military port-arms.
III. DODWELLS ROAD
I jog up out of the woods
To the crown of the road, and slow to a swagger there,
The wind harsh and cool to my throat,
A good ache in my rib-cage.
Loud burden of steams at run-off,
And the sun’s rocket frazzled in blown tree-heads:
Still I am part of that great going,
Though I stroll now, and am watchful.
Where the road turns and debouches,
The land sinks westward into exhausted pasture.
From fields which yield to aspen now
And pine at last will shadow,
Boy-shouts reach me, and barking.
What is the thing which men will not surrender?
It is what they have never had, I think,
Or missed in its true season,
So that their thoughts turn in
At the same roadhouse nightly, the same cloister,
The wild mouth of the same brave river
Never now to be charted.
You, whoever you are,
If you want to walk with me you must step lively.
I run, too, when mood offers,
Though the god of that has left me.
But why in the hell spoil it?
I make a clean gift of my young running
To the two boys who break into view,
Hurdling the rocks and racing,
Their dog dodging before them
This way and that, his yaps flushing a pheasant
Who lifts now from the blustery grass
Flying full tilt already.
Richard Wilbur, 1969
“swagger”: walk proudly
“frazzled”: worn out
“debouches”: emerges into the open
I. 1933 (North Caldwell, New Jersey)
Here Wilbur relives a distant memory (hence the initial questions). He is 12 years old and running flat out, free from the “prisoner’s base.” He uses action verbs (leapt, sprinted) and words to capture the sound of his keds on the ground (whacking, spanked off). The poem, except for the two short opening questions and the final summary line, is one sentence. In speaking the poem out loud, the reader becomes breathless—like the young runner. Speed is captured by the short words and predominance of K’s and hard C’s (whacking keds, cart-road, Rickard’s, tractor-sheds, took, spanked, hummock-side, exactly). Even the last line maintains this sound (thinking, think). The “breathless” sentence is held together by a significant number of prepositions describing the boy’s journey (down, past, out, through, off, across, by, up). All these dynamic prepositions also enhance the feeling of speed.
A few points on some of Wilbur’s words. “Bull-pen,” apart from the baseball term, has a strong association with enclosure, prison. This is the opposite of the freedom that the boy is experiencing: he goes straight past the bull-pen. ”Jolted” and “blurred” deal with the visual experience of the Wilbur-boy, who is so focused on his footing that the terrain is a blur in his peripheral vision. I take “jolted light” to refer to his experience of coming into the sunlight after being in the shade of the tractor sheds. Finally, I find “lopes” a bad choice, especially since it is modified by “hard.” A lope is a long and easy stride; it isn’t the right word for the hectic spanking off a hummock.
Apart from the idea of play in the first line, Wilbur avoids any mention of the happiness until the last stanza. There he hints at pleasure with “delighted” in the first line. This does not undercut the impact of the last line, but it does prepare the reader for the final statement that abruptly returns the reader to the present. The last simple, repetitive line has great impact: “Thinking of happiness, I think of that.”
II. Patriot’s Day (Wellesley, Massachusetts)
This time Wilbur, now 36, is not running this time. He gives a very different perspective on his relationship with running. As a father he witnesses the 1957 Boston Marathon with his son(s). His manhood is “put to shame” as he is not participating. To highlight his shame, he paints a scene of nobility: it’s Patriot’s Day, which celebrates the early battle of Lexington and Concord that was the start of the American Revolution in 1775. Note that “flag” and the “glare” echo two words in the American national anthem. In this context of military and athletic courage, Wilbur is merely a spectator “littering the grass.”
Wilbur’s description of the marathon runner is brilliant and original. When the leaders first appear in the distance they are “small runners” who at first don’t move (“they seemed to thresh in place”). He uses a wonderful simile to describe them: “Like preening flies upon a window-sill”--the image of fast-moving legs going nowhere.
As the runners pass by, the pace is “cruel,” a reference to the courage of the runners. They are on their way to the famous Heartbreak Hill, where courage again will be required. Heartbreak Hill comes just past the so-called wall at the 20-mile mark of the Boston Marathon, at the point where a marathon runner’s courage is put to the ultimate test.
The last stanza has more fine description of the marathon runners, significantly referred to as “men.” Their “fists” are “at-port,” a military drill term; their faces, rather than their fists, are “clenched”; and they are “stamping on the sun”—on the sunlight on the road.
The final two lines acknowledge the “champion” John J. Kelley. Wilbur captures the seemingly contradictory aspects of Kelley’s running: he is solidly determined (“rocked in his will”) but also relaxed (“at rest within his run”).
However, Wilbur makes one mistake in his depiction of Kelley. John J. Kelley won the Boston Marathon only once—in 1957. So it’s wrong for Wilbur to write “who would win again.” He is clearly mixing up this 1957 winner with another famous Boston runner, John A Kelley, who did win the race twice, but in 1935 and 1945. Wilbur could not have attended the 1945 Boston as he was in the army; as well, his sons had not been born.
III. Dodwells Road (Cummington, Massachusetts)
This final poem finds Wilbur ascending his own Heartbreak Hill. This is his running achievement: he “slows to a swagger” at the crown of the road. He is now middle-aged and presumably not in great shape (“I run, too, when mood offers”), but he enjoys the burn in his throat and the “good ache in my rib-cage.” While he surveys the valley below, his out-of-breath panting creating steam, he watches the (“frazzled”) sun setting into the treetops. The sun’s worn-out rocket (“rocket” is another reference to the USA national anthem) reminds him of his own mortality (“that great going”). Only middle-aged, he is not sinking as fast as the sun (“I stroll now”) and is careful (“watchful”) over his health. Mortality is in the back of his mind as “the land sinks westward” soon to be in shadow.
At this low point in the poem, he hears “boy-shouts,” which remind him of his experience in the first poem and lead him to realize he still regrets never having taken advantage of his youth when he could have run like Kelley. These are universal what-could-have-been thoughts or regrets about that are expressed everywhere—in “roadhouse” and “cloister,” for example. Wilbur has in his middle-age lost the urge to run well—“the god of that as left me.”
He concludes by letting go of these regrets—“why the hell spoil it?” Rather he will relive his joy of running as a 12-year-old through what he sees in the valley: the boys (“hurdling and racing”), the dogs (“dodging before them this way and that”) and even the pheasant (“flying full tilt”). Living vicariously in others is one of the compensations of middle age.