“Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.


Richard Wilbur, one of our last brilliant poets born in the 1920’s died in mid-October.    He wrote “Year’s End” in 1950.  So long ago.  Only yesterday.  It’s a chilling thought, but a necessary one, that we could at any moment end suddenly.   History today is filled with frequent Pompeiis in the form of gunshots and crashing cars and devastating drugs.  Few poets have written so eloquently about how precarious life is as Wilbur.

We may be “wrangling with the snow” during the “dying of the year” but we also may be dying as quickly as the pets and people of Pompeii or, more slowly, like the mammoths.   It’s important to remember this is you are in a vicious feud with your niece or uncle about who finished the milk or who grabbed too much gravy.