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Richard Wilbur's "Mind"

Updated on September 29, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Richard Wilbur



Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest of intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

Reading of "Mind"

Richard Wilbur's poem, "Mind," compares the human mind to a bat flying through a cave.

First Quatrain: "Mind in its purest play is like some bat"

Employing the poetic device known as simile, the speaker in Richard Wilbur's poem, "Mind," compares the human mind to a bat: "Mind in its purest play is like some bat." But the speaker is not referring to ordinary mind; he is comparing the mind in its purest play, that is, when it is relaxed and simply playing at thinking. He is likely influenced by his poet mind when it is musing about fashioning a poem.

Although the scientific mind could also be likened to the bat in certain stages of thinking, especially the early cogitations that are also musing on possibilities, this speaker is more likely focused on the artist's mind. This mind/bat is making its way through the dark confines of the cavern using its intuitive powers not to end abruptly: for the mind, such an end would mean simply having gathered a bunch of useless thoughts that lead nowhere, but for the bat, such an end would be his physical body slathered up against the wall of the cave.

Second Quatrain: "It has no need to falter or explore"

The mind rattling around in the cage of the brain possessing no eye to detect pathways is also like the bat that cannot see through the darkness in the cave through which it flies. Yet the mind moves easily through its space, and the bat flies through the cavern simply by the use of sound and air quality. Thus the mind because it is at purest play is not motivated by necessity; "it has no need to falter or explore."

The mind is merely searching the endless possibilities that exist in the unknown. Like the bat, it knows without being able to see logical pathways that obstacles are there. So the mind like the bat seems to "weave and flitter, dip and soar," and they both are able to navigate the sheer darkness in "perfect courses through the blackest air."

Third Quatrain: And has this simile a like perfection?

The speaker then turns from the bat/mind comparison to the aptness of his poetic comparison; he asks, "has this simile a like perfection?" Can he really succeed in fashioning a poetic simile that makes the bald claim, "The mind is like a bat." He decides in his simile's favor and says, "Precisely."

The simile works as far as it goes. But there is a major difference: if the mind, flying through its blackest air happens to make a graceful error, the result can be positive. He may, in fact, conclude with unheard of possibilities with the very happiest intellection. Scientific thought has pushed forward through error that turned out to lead to truth. Artistic truth may result from what at first seemed a graceful error. In both cases, the mind has been capable of something useful, whereas the bat's error would not be useful but could possibly be the bat's end were he to conclude against a wall of stone.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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