By Jimmy Maher
In "Year’s End," poet Richard Wilbur first draws an evocative portrait of a small town slumbering in the snow on a winter’s evening. He then compares this hushed atmosphere to time-stopped snapshots of fossilized plant and animal life, and to the frozen remains of the village of Pompeii. In doing so, he delivers a compelling message about the nature of time and change.
Wilbur conveys the universal through the particular, using specific language and concrete word choices throughout the poem. Even an abstract notion like the passage of time is written in terms of the tangible and real. "We fray into the future, rarely wrought / Save in the tapestries of afterthought." His descriptions are very rich and evocative, but constructed in middle diction that allows the reader to focus on the poem’s imagery and meaning rather than puzzling over overly complex vocabulary. Still, Wilbur does not hesitate to alter the syntax of his sentences from that of typical written English when doing so allows him to better fit his chosen meter and rhyme scheme and his desired effect. One can see this in the very first line. Wilbur writes, "Now winter downs the dying of the year," in place of a more typical English construction such as "The year is now dying down in winter."
The sounds of the words Wilbur chooses are as important to him as their meanings. For instance, in that first line he creates alliteration through the repetition of the beginning ‘d’ sounds in "downs the dying." These sounds, while basically euphonic, nevertheless have a lugubrious sound that perfectly suits the atmosphere of a dying day descending into a cold, still winter evening. In the final line of the first stanza, the "st" alliteration has a harsher, cacophonic sound perfectly suited to the restless motion being described. Assonance is used in places as well, such as "people incomplete" in the fourth stanza.
Both the speaker and the listener are outside of this poem. There is no narrative here, only description, for the wintry setting is the real star of the piece, and provides the inspiration for the poet’s musings about time.
That description is made up of rich imagery of several types. Visual imagery is everywhere in the poem. Some of the more evocative descriptive passages speak of "gray and changeless lands of ice" and "the loose unready eyes of men," conveying vivid pictures to the reader with very few words. Wilbur’s auditory imagery is not as prevalent, but equally effective where it appears. "Barrages of applause / Come muffled from a buried radio." There is tactile imagery here as well, as when Wilbur writes of "ferns / Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone." Perhaps more unusual and interesting is Wilbur’s occasional use of kinetic imagery, in spite of the frozen stillness of the scenes he describes, as in the leaves that "fluttered all winter long" and the New-year bells that are "wrangling with the snow."
Wilbur uses metaphor, stating that "Night is all a settlement of snow," and makes repeated use of simile. Often these similes are extremely unusual. For example, the leaves "are held in ice as dancers in a spell," and the fossilized mammoths are "like palaces of patience." Anaphora is used to add emphasis – "More time, more time." Personification is also frequent – "And Night is all a settlement of snow."
The tone Wilbur creates through all of these stylistic choices can perhaps best be described as brooding. There is certainly no joy here, but no overt despair either. The reader is allowed to make his or her own value judgments for the most part. One might see the poem as a lament over the endless, unstoppable march of time, and the fact that only dead things can escape and be preserved. However, one could just as easily read the poem as a thoughtful but unjudgemental portrayal of the interconnectedness of all things under the sun.
Structurally, the poem consists of five stanzas of six lines, each with a rising rhyme scheme of A-B-B-A-C-C. Interestingly, Wilbur abandons his rhymes in the last two lines of the poem. This sudden change brings the reader to an abrupt halt and serves to drive the final image of the radio in the snow home. An iambic pentameter meter is used, although this rhythm is quite understated. The reader will most likely need to study a few lines to discern the rhythmic flow.
In the first two stanzas, Wilbur describes the frozen countryside around the small town. With the first line of the next stanza, "There was perfection in the death of ferns," he suddenly enlarges his perspective enormously. He then proceeds in these next two stanzas to describe the frozen-in-time shapes of fossilized animal and plant life, and the ancient town of Pompeii, preserved still today exactly as it was when Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered it in ash. Wilbur obviously desires for the reader to draw a parallel in his or her mind between this ash and the snow he has so evocatively described in the first two stanzas. He spends the first half of the last stanza in a brief commentary on the nature of time and change. This is the only part of the poem that is not pure description of tangible, physical objects. Instead he creates a striking metaphor for time as a tapestry of which we can only see the few threads immediately around us and a few loose ends, such as fossils and the remains of Pompeii, that have been strangely preserved for us. The heart of the poem’s theme is presented in these few lines. Finally, he returns to a descriptive mode and to the winter scene where the poem began, where New-years bells, symbolizing the passage of time, can now be dimly heard.
The reader is left to ponder the fleeting nature of each moment of time. Some few are preserved by chance, but only as dead facsimiles, and some, such as the winter scene where the poem begins and ends, may momentarily seem still and unchanging, but this is only an illusion. Time will march on, and change, the universal constant, will continue. The snow will melt, the seasons will pass, and the people celebrating the New Year in their little houses will perish, just like the mammoth and the poor souls who were trapped in Pompeii.
Wilbur, Richard. "Year’s End." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing (7th ed.). Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 912-913.