Anna Evans is a British citizen but permanent resident of New Jersey, where she is raising two daughters. She has had over 100 poems published in journals including The Formalist, The Evansville Review, Measure and e-zines such as Verse Libre Quarterly.
Anna has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist in the 2005 Howard Nemerov sonnet award.
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Richard Wilbur’s The Ride
by Anna Evans
A poem succeeds if it names an almost un-nameable sensation in memorable words. Most people have awoken from a vivid dream with a sense of unease left over from tasks left unfinished in the subconscious. For me, the poem which best evokes this sensation is Richard Wilbur’s The Ride.
In this first person poem, the narrator dreams he is riding a good horse through a blizzard. On making it to an inn, the narrator awakes, which leaves him with a dilemma: psychologically he feels indebted to the horse that brought him through the storm, yet it is a debt he has no way to pay.
The poem is divided into seven quatrains, each exhibiting perfect rhyme in the form abab, and with the base meter of iambic trimeter. The first five stanzas describe the dream, and then the poem turns on the last line of the fifth stanza when the narrator awakes. The remaining two stanzas frame the question of the dilemma.
Initially the emotion is low-key as the speaker simply observes that the horse is keeping him from negative feelings or sensations (fear, cold). The emotional pitch rises toward ecstatic as the speaker senses invincibility—“I rode with magic ease…” and achieves the inn at last. Then the tone shifts into bewilderment and imagined guilt once the speaker has awoken.
Wilbur is playing with a lyric subtext here to a poem with an appealing narrative foundation: the classic tale of the hero overcoming difficulties with the help of a loyal animal companion to reach sanctuary. The lyricism concerns how dreams in general are perceived realities which persist in influencing our emotional state upon waking.
The first two stanzas are each complete thoughts and contained sentences. The next three stanzas comprise one long, enjambed sentence which speeds up the pace of the poem until it reaches its climax at “and I awoke.” Much of the imagery is very concrete (horse, breath, sweat, flanks, rein, mane, smoke, inn, stable-hands, hay, water, blanket, stall.) However the central stanza offers NO concrete nouns, fitting both the dream state and the blizzard of the dream “I rode…through shattering vacancies/ On into what was not.” This can be linked to the more abstract thread running through the poem (fear, death, ease, lack.)
The primary agent in the poem is the narrator, but the poem is framed by the actions of the horse, which in the first stanza “seemed to know what course to steer” and in the penultimate stanza “stands, burdened with every lack.” Wilbur could have ended the poem at the end of stanza five, but it is the narrator’s anguish that pulls the poem out of everyday dream retelling.
The basically iambic meter mimics the rhythm of the “quick, unstumbling trot.” Throughout the poem Wilbur tends to use anapestic substitutions in the first foot which has the effect of propelling the reader into the lines and providing a sense of urgency. This urgency is maintained by the way the final question of the dilemma is enjambed across the last two stanzas.
Only a master of poetic craft could end a poem satisfactorily on such a long question. After aching alongside this poem’s narrator, sitting bolt upright in bed, struggling to hold onto the fragments of the dream long enough to find the closure of rewarding his patient horse, I can only offer Richard Wilbur my deepest admiration for being such a master.