Richard Wilbur was born in New York City on March 1, 1921, the son of Lawrence L. Wilbur, a portrait painter, and Helen R. (Purdy) Wilbur, a daughter of an editor of The Baltimore Sun. He attended public schools in Essex Falls, New Jersey, and North Caldwell, New Jersey, and attended Montclair High School, where he was editor of the school paper.
In 1938, he matriculated at Amherst College; there he wrote editorials for and was chairman of the student newspaper, The Student, and was a contributor to The Touchstone, the student magazine. He once said that there he submitted an awful poem about a nightingale, a bird that he had never seen. He received a dollar for it. He received his A.B. at Amherst College in 1942, but before he could continue his studies, he was drafted into the Army. He served until 1945, when he was discharged with the rank of technician third class. He then went on to get his A.M. in religion at Harvard University in 1947. He had married Charlotte Ward in 1942; they had four children, Ellen, Christopher, Nathan, and Aaron.
After he received his master’s degree at Harvard, he was elected junior fellow there from 1947 to 1950. In 1950, he became an assistant professor of English at Harvard, where he remained until 1954. In that year he became associate professor of English at Wellesley College, where he was promoted to professor in 1957; he taught there until 1977. Unlike many other poets of his generation, he did not look down on teaching as a job that spoiled his writing. Indeed, he pointed out in an interview given to Peter Stitt that the constant reading and the necessity of understanding one’s reading very clearly were good exercises for the mind. In 1977, he was appointed writer-in-residence at Smith College, a position he held until 1986. He has since retired from teaching.
In 1947, while he was at Harvard’s graduate school, a friend sent a sheaf of his poetry to Reynal & Hitchcock, whose editors liked it so much that they published it under the title The...
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