Richard Wilbur 1921–-
Twentieth-century poet, critic, nonfiction and children's literature author, and translator.
The following entry presents information from 1950 through 2001 on the life and career of Wilbur.
Richard Wilbur, a twentieth-century American poet and translator who writes in traditional poetic forms, is known for his attention to craft, his subtle wit, and intellectual rigor. Wilbur's poems concern the ways in which beauty transforms our lives and the need for imagination and inspiration to be grounded in everyday objects and experiences. In addition to his poetry, for which he has received two Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards, Wilbur is known for his definitive translations of Molière and Racine, for his playful poetry for children, and for writing, along with Lillian Hellmann, the libretto for Leonard Bernstein's musical setting of Voltaire's Candide. Wilbur has served as Poet Laureate of the United States and as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
The son of a portrait painter, Richard Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921, but moved to rural North Caldwell, New Jersey when he was two years old. Wilbur's maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were newspaper editors, and Wilbur showed an early interest in journalism. After graduating from Amherst College in 1942, Wilbur married Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward and joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps. He was sent to Italy and then Germany with the Thirty-Sixth “Texas” Division during the Second World War. After the war, Wilbur went to Harvard for graduate work in English. He received his master's degree in 1947, the same year he published his first volume of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems. Wilbur never completed his dissertation, a study of dandyism and Edgar Allen Poe, but after publishing a second book of poetry, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), he became an assistant professor at Harvard. In 1952, Wilbur received a Guggenheim Fellowship, with which he translated Molière's Le Misanthrope and began a career as an acclaimed translator. In 1954, he was awarded the Prix de Rome, which enabled him, his wife, and his four children to live at the American Academy in Rome. After returning from Rome, Wilbur taught at Wellesley College for three years. His third book of poems, Things of This World (1956), received the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. During this period, he was commissioned to write lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's Candide. From 1957 through 1977, he taught at Wesleyan University, served as an advisor for the Wesleyan Poetry Series, and published several children's books, translations, and volumes of poetry From 1977 through his retirement in 1986, Wilbur was a writer-in-residence at Smith College. From 1987-1989, he served as Poet Laureate of the United States. In 1989, Wilbur earned a second Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems. He received the gold medal for poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1991. He lives in Cummington, Massachusetts.
In “On My Own Work,” Wilbur writes that “what poetry does with ideas is to redeem them from abstraction and submerge them in sensibility.” Throughout his career as a poet, Wilbur, a skilled craftsman who writes in traditional verse forms, has grappled with maintaining a balance between the intellectual and the emotional, and between the world of things and the imagination. Wilbur's first book of verse, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), contains several poems that focus on his experience in combat and reflect his attempts to make order out of chaos. Favorite Wilbur themes—descriptions of nature, as well as metaphysical meditations—are evident in his first book, as is a sense of ironic detachment. Wilbur's second collection, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) considers the possibility of heroism in a chaotic world in “Still, Citizen Sparrow” and “Beowulf.” Ceremony also contains lighter poetry and epigrams. Wilbur's third volume of poetry, Things of This World (1956), takes William Carlos Williams' dictum, “no ideas but in things,” to heart. In poems such as “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” Wilbur demonstrates that spirituality and imagination are grounded in everyday objects. The title poem of Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961) envisions a world without familiar objects. Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969) concerns how to “walk”—or live—before sleep and death. In The Mind-Reader (1976), Wilbur broaches more personal topics. “A Wedding Toast” alludes to his son Christopher's wedding; “The Writer” observes his young daughter, Ellen, struggling to write a story. New and Collected Poems (1988) recalls Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in “The Ride” and pays homage to W. H. Auden, along with memory's lost moments, in “Auden.” Another collection, Mayflies, was published in 2000. Wilbur has also written several volumes of poetry for children and the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's Candide, as well as an extensive body of prose and criticism. He is highly acclaimed for his translations, especially of Molière and Racine.
From the publication of his first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, critics hailed Wilbur as an important literary talent, praising his craftsmanship, elegant verses, and wit. Despite the popularity in the 1960s of poets such as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsburg, Wilbur continued to write in traditional poetic structures, leading Thom Gunn to note, “the public prefers a wild and changeable poet to one who has pursued a single end consistently and quietly.” The critic Leslie Fiedler lamented, “There is no personal source anywhere, … the insistent ‘I’, the asserting of sex, and the flaunting of madness apparently considered in equally bad taste.” But Donald Hall called “A Grasshopper,” one of the poems from Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems, “a minor masterpiece.” And Anthony Hecht wrote: “There is nobility in such utterance that is deeply persuasive, and throughout Wilbur's poetry we are accustomed to finding this rare quality, usually joined to wit, good humor, grace, modesty, and a kind of physical zest or athletic dexterity that is, so far as I know, unrivalled.” The critic Bruce Michelson finds that Wilbur “goes beyond skillful wordplay and raises uncomfortable questions about the self and the world” and calls Wilbur “a serious artist for an anxious century.” Richard Wilbur's poetry and translations have been widely praised. He has received two Pulitzer Prizes, for Things of This World (1956) and New and Collected Poems (1988), as well as two Bollingen Prizes for translation. He received the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Other honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Frost Medal, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the T. S. Eliot Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, two PEN translation awards, and the Prix de Rome fellowship. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987-1988, and he was elected a chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and made a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems 1947
Ceremony and Other Poems 1950
Things of This World 1956
Poems 1943-1956 1957
Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems 1961
The Poems of Richard Wilbur 1963
Walking to Sleep, New Poems and Translations 1969
The Mind-Reader 1976
New and Collected Poems 1988
More Opposites 1991
A Game of Catch 1994
Runaway Opposites 1995
Mayflies: New Poems and Translations 2000
A Bestiary (poetry) 1955
The Misanthrope [translator, of Molière] (play), 1955
Candide: A Comic Operetta Based on Voltaire's Satire (libretto) 1957
Poe: Complete Poems [editor] (poems) 1959
Emily Dickinson: Three Views [editor] (poems) 1960
Tartuffe [translator, of Molière] (play) 1963
The Misanthrope and Tartuffe [translator, of Molière] (play) 1965
William Shakespeare, Poems [editor, with Alfred Harbage] (poems) 1966.
The School for Wives [translator, of Molière] (play) 1972
The Narrative Poems and Poems of Doubtful Authenticity [editor, with Alfred Harbage, of William Shakespeare] (poems) 1974
Responses, Prose Pieces: 1953-1976 1976
Selected Poems [editor, of Witter Bynner] (poems) 1978
The Learned Ladies [translator, of Molière] (play) 1978
Andromache [translator, of Jean Racine] (play) 1982
Phaedra: A Tragedy in Five Acts. 1677 [translator, of Racine] (play) 1986
The School for Husbands: Comedy in Three Acts, 1661 [translator, of Molière] (play) 1991
The Imaginary Cuckold, or, Sganarelle [translator, of Molière] (play) 1993
Amphitryon [translator, of Molière] (play) 1995
SOURCE: Wilbur, Richard. “The Genie in the Bottle.” In Mid-Century American Poets, John Ciardi, pp. 1-7. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1950.
[In the following essay, Richard Wilbur, at the time a young poet, discusses his “working principles” in writing and understanding poetry.]
Before answering the present questionnaire, I should like to say that I have certain reservations about it. For one thing, I think artists do well not to talk too much about art, their natural language being that of their media, and not that of abstract analysis. A writer who talks too much about writing runs the risk of becoming a Literary Figure. For another thing, I mistrust...
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SOURCE: Southworth, James G. “The Poetry of Richard Wilbur.” College English 22, no. 1 (October 1960): 24-9.
[In the following essay, the writer argues that Wilbur's poetry, with its emphasis on craftsmanship, represents a “new conservatism” in American poetry.]
Richard Wilbur, born in 1921, is one of the youngest American poets whose work challenges attention and whose accomplishment merits careful appraisal. He is now at a critical point in his career. An able craftsman, working in the great tradition of English poetry, he has utilized the results of the older modern poets who were consciously experimental in their techniques. He represents, one might say, a...
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SOURCE: Faverty, Frederic E. “‘Well-Open Eyes’: Or, the Poetry of Richard Wilbur.” In Poets in Progress: Critical Prefaces to Ten Contemporary Americans, Edward Hungerford, pp. 59-72. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1962.
[In the following essay, the writer discusses how Wilbur's A Bestiary modifies and builds on the original medieval text Wilbur translated.]
Everything in the world is strange and marvellous to well-open eyes. This faculty of wonder is the delight … which leads the intellectual man through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary. His special attribute is the wonder of the eyes. Hence...
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SOURCE: Wilbur, Richard. “On My Own Work.” Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Quarterly Review 27, no. 1 (autumn 1965): 57-67.
[In the following essay, Wilbur discusses his poem “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Schiarra.”]
Since the second World War, the American people have come to accept the poetry reading as a legitimate and frequently satisfying kind of artistic performance. Prior to the 1940's there were, to be sure, a few vivid or beloved figures to whom our audiences were glad to listen: Robert Frost, with his New England wit and accent; Carl Sandburg with his guitar; Edna Millay in her white dress; Vachel Lindsay with his camp-meeting...
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SOURCE: Monteiro, George. “Redemption Through Nature: A Recurring Theme in Thoreau, Frost and Richard Wilbur.” American Quarterly 20, no. 4 (winter 1968): 795-809.
[In the following essay, the author compares Wilbur's use of nature imagery with that of Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost.]
When Amherst College presented Frost with his twenty-first honorary degree in 1948, the poet was cited for having “taught generations of Amherst students that for gaining an insight into life, a metaphor is a sharper and brighter instrument than a syllogism.”1 This remark was meant to characterize the poet, as well as the teacher that Frost, try as he might, could...
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SOURCE: Weatherhead, A. K. “Richard Wilbur: The Poetry of Things.” ELH 35, no. 4 (December 1968): 606-17.
[In the following essay, the author explores the significance of the material object in Wilbur's poetry and juxtaposes Wilbur's work with poets such as William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.]
I think it a great vice to convey everything by imagery, particularly if the imagery is not interrelated. There ought to be areas of statement. … The statement should have obliquity, and congruence to the imagery, as Marianne Moore's does—not vitiating the objects, but rather finding in them another and ideal dimension.
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SOURCE: Reedy S. J., Gerard. “The senses of Richard Wilbur.” Renascence: A Critical Journal of Letters 21, no. 3 (spring 1969): 145-50.
[In the following essay, the writer considers Wilbur as a Romantic poet whose work celebrates the possibility of redemption through the sensual experiences of the world around us]
“Poetry does nothing,” Auden once wrote, but one does not have to search far in Auden's own work to find it taking controversial positions, subtly eliminating foes, and waging war against the tawdrier canons of contemporary taste. It is truer to say, as Auden himself might agree, that the poems of any man, taken as a whole, do say something about...
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SOURCE: Boyers, Robert. “On Richard Wilbur.” Salmagundi: A Quarterly of the Humanities and Social Sciences, no. 12 (spring 1970).
[In the following essay, the author reviews Walking to Sleep and finds aspects of Wilbur's poetry “fundamentally dishonest” while acknowledging Wilbur's important contribution to American poetry.]
Richard Wilbur's poetry has consistently provided us with so many pleasures that one must feel almost ungrateful to question the premises upon which he has founded his art. So serene and altogether orderly a style would hardly seem possible to us today were it not for his exemplary presence, and the epithet “classical” inevitably...
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SOURCE: Cummins, Paul F. “‘Here At the Fountainside’: The Human Condition.” In Richard Wilbur: A Critical Essay, pp. 30-8. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1971.
[In the following essay, the author considers the paradox of affirming life amid suffering and deprivation at the center of poems such as “Beasts,” “Still, Citizen Sparrow,” “Ballade for the Duke of New Orleans,” and “A Voice from Under the Table.”]
Although some critics have accused Richard Wilbur of preciosity, I think it is clear that his poetry reflects a tough-minded confrontation with the timeless problems of human experience. To Wilbur, the cycle of love begetting...
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SOURCE: Farrell, John P. “The Beautiful Changes in Richard Wilbur’s Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 12, no. 1 (winter 1971): 75-87.
[In the following essay, Farrell responds to the critical argument that Wilbur is insensitive to modern issues that modern poet’s like T. S. Eliot addressed, posing that if Wilbur “seems to have made peace with the modern world, he has not bargained blindly …”]
The time is past when Richard Wilbur could be dismissed as a poet who writes “prayers on pinheads.”1 But we still hear of his “ignoring of the dark,” and, in general, it may be said that he is not yet quite taken seriously even by readers who admire...
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SOURCE: Kinzie, Mary. “The Cheshire Smile: On Richard Wilbur.” American Poetry Review 6, no. 4 (March 1977): 17-20.
[In the following essay, the author writes about Wilbur's The Mind-Reader, the writer favorably compares Wilbur to Robert Browning.]
The title poem of Richard Wilbur's new book is a dramatic monologue spoken by a gifted but dissipating magus who tries to seem as much a charlatan as Robert Browning's Mr. Sludge, the medium. Both Wilbur's and Browning's personae have some deep, interior bonds (although Sludge's are more tenuous) with spiritual truths, with resemblances and analogues, and with that realm in which spirit and matter mingle,...
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SOURCE: Nadel, Alan. “Roethke, Wilbur, and the Vision of the Child: Romantic and Augustan in Modern Verse.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature 2, no. 2 (1978): 94-112.
[In the following essay, the author provides several close readings of poems such as “Juggler,” “The Beautiful Changes,” and “Boy At the Window,” among others, to suggest that Wilbur takes a neo-classical approach to children's verse and childhood.]
One of the oldest tenets of our literary tradition is that poetry ought to delight and instruct. From Horace to Matthew Arnold, implicitly or explicitly, the thread runs: art serves some function—moral,...
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SOURCE: Michelson, Bruce. “Richard Wilbur's The Mind Reader.” The Southern Review (summer 1979): 763-68.
[In the following essay, Michelson explicates the poetic themes of Wilbur's collection, The Mind Reader, focusing on how the collection will endure because the individual poems lend themselves so much to new readings.]
When in came out in 1976, The Mind-Reader didn't change any minds. As Richard Wilbur's latest collection of poems, the book was reviewed about eighteen times in predictable ways: people who had understood and liked his work before had more nice things to say (William Pritchard, for example, in the Hudson Review), and...
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SOURCE: Harris, Peter. “Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: The Loving Work of an Equilibrist.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 66, no. 3 (summer 1990): 412-25.
[This essay suggests that Wilbur's oeuvre “celebrates the power of metaphorical language to divine the human implications” of natural patterns.]
The publication of Richard Wilbur's New and Collected Poems (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ＄8.95) brings under one cover his six previous books, plus 27 new poems and translations. Reading through four decades of work, comprising almost 250 poems, invitingly arranged in reverse chronological order, ringingly emphasizes the justice of his reputation as the master...
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SOURCE: Michelson, Bruce. “Words.” In Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, pp. 36-60. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Michelson explores word-play in several of Wilbur's poems, including “The Regatta” and “Year's End”.]
While we acknowledge his erudition and urbanity, we regretfully liken his mildness to the amiable normality of the bourgeois citizen. Emergencies are absent in his poems; he is unseduced by the romantic equation of knowledge and power; he seldom rails at the world. Suspicious of grandiose gestures, of parading the ego, he mediates experience through...
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SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “Richard Wilbur's Difficult Balance.” The American Scholar (spring 1991): 261-66.
[In the following essay, Bawer explicates several of Wilbur's poems and attempts to position the poet's work against the context of Allen Ginsberg's anarchic poetry and the anger of Slyvia Plath.]
Some people were born to be poets; Richard Wilbur was born to be a Poet Laureate. Forget, if you wish, his distinguished good looks, his genteel manner in television interviews, the mellifluous yet authoritative voice in which he recites his work at poetry readings, and the tasteful tie and blazer he sports on the dust-jacket photograph of recently published New and...
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SOURCE: Davison, Peter. “Speak of the World's Own Change: Richard Wilbur, 1955-1957.” In The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, 1955-1960, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, pp. 58-79. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
[This biographical essay explores the influence of several Boston poets on Wilbur's poetry, including John Ciardi, Archibald MacLeish, and Sylvia Plath.]
“LOVE CALLS US TO THE THINGS OF THIS WORLD”
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple As false dawn. Outside...
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SOURCE: Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “The Mind-Reader, New Poems (1976).” In A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, pp. 122-38. Tuscaloosa Alabama, United States: The University of Alabama Press, 1995.
[The follow essay provides an overview of Wilbur's 1976 work, The Mind-Reader and considers “the strategic failure” of Wilbur's prophetic stance.]
Wilbur's 1976 volume is, like its predecessor, divided into sections, one of which is occupied solely by the eponymous poem. As before, I shall start with this, the dominant piece. Because it also deals with the control and shaping of consciousness, “The Mind-Reader” (NCP, p. 106)...
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SOURCE: Hougen, John B. “Seeking the Invisible Through the Visible: Celebrative, Metaphysical Poetry.” In Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur, pp. 97-121. Atlanta Georgia, United States: Scholars Press, 1995.
[In this essay from a book-length project on religious themes in Wilbur, the author contends that Wilbur is a metaphysical poet]
Now there is, I conceive, one duality that underlies a great deal of poetry, especially the kind of poetry that is called (aptly, I think) ‘metaphysical’: it is, in largest terms, the duality of the One and the Many. Metaphysical poetry is a poetry of the dilemma, and the dilemma which...
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SOURCE: Reibetanz, J. M. “The Reflexive Art of Richard Wilbur.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67, no. 2 (spring 1998): 592-612.
[In the following essay, Reibetanz posits that Wilbur “has not so much looked into his heart to write, as he has plumbed the verbal medium” in authoring poetry that is aware of, and even addresses, itself.]
Richard Wilbur's critics have charted his ‘distinctive voice-print’ (Leithauser, 286) with considerable, though divided, commentary on what is agreed to be at the heart of his craft—his handling of language.1 The debate has revolved around the question of whether Wilbur's delight in the urbane wordscape of the...
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SOURCE: Brooker, Jewel Spears. “Mind and World in Richard Wilbur's War Poetry.” War, Literature and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanties 10, no. 1 (spring/summer 1998): 49-70.
[In the following essay, the author considers several early poems that Wilbur claims were written “in answer to the inner and outer disorders of the Second World War.”]
From 1942 to 1945, Richard Wilbur served with the United States Army in Africa, Italy (Cassino and Anzio), and southern France. On a number of occasions, he has said that this war experience was formative in his work as a poet. He began writing poetry in foxholes for “earnest therapeutic reasons”—to...
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SOURCE: Jessar, Kevin L. “Angels by Way of and in the Laundry: Richard Wilbur's Sacramental Ekphrasis.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 32, no. 4 (December 1999): 91-110.
[Arguing that Wilbur's career-long preoccupation with locating the relationship between the tangible and intangible leads him to put ekphrasis—the verbal depiction of a visual object—to new uses, the following essay examines the struggle between image and text in six poems.]
Insofar as ekphrasis is usually defined as the verbal depiction of a visual object or artwork it would seem to constitute little more than either an attempt on the part of a poet or writer...
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SOURCE: Leithauser, Brad. “Gaiety Redeemed.” The New York Review of Books 47, no. 11 (29 June 2000): 59-60.
[In the follow review of Wilbur's Mayflies, the author reviews Wilbur's career and especially praises Wilbur's eulogistic poems, which “draw much of their beauty from precise, painterly evocations of the natural world.”]
Sometime in the early Fifties, Richard Wilbur apparently cut an advantageous deal with whatever committee of muses or daemons or egos and ids lies in charge of his poetic inspiration. Freshly thirty at the start of the decade—he was born in 1921—he already had two books behind him, which had drawn the sort of acclaim, including...
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SOURCE: Yezzi, David. “A Passion Joined to Courtesy and Art.” Poetry 177, no. 4 (February 2001): 337-44.
[The following essay reviews the later work of Richard Wilbur, noting that Wilbur has followed Yvor Winters' dictum, “Write little; do it well.”]
“Write little; do it well,” Yvor Winters advised. Nearly eighty, Richard Wilbur has long taken this dictum to heart, and what acumen that elusive well suggests in Wilbur: masterly poetic technique, a dynamic poise between thought and feeling resulting in memorable speech. Although Wilbur's production has slowed in recent years, paucity should not be mistaken for poverty; Mayflies contains poems to...
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SOURCE: Hecht, Anthony. “Richard Wilbur.” The Sewanee Review 109, no. 4 (fall 2001): 593-97.
[In this brief essay, the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, argues that Wilbur's success as a translator of Molière is due in large part to his skills as a poet.]
It was once asserted by a drama critic that Richard Wilbur's translations of Molière are so good we don't deserve them. Extravagance in this matter is not at all out of place. Consider the following indisputable facts: among the modern translators of the Homeric epics one must name T. E. Lawrence, Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and Robert Fagles to head a list that would be long to the point of...
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