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...
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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 most “statements of principles” by artists, since they are necessarily in the nature of apologia. Works of art can almost never be truthfully described as applications of principles. They are not coerced into being by rational principles, but spring from imagination, a condition of spontaneous psychic unity. Asked to produce his “principles,” the average artist (fearful of being thought frivolous if he declares that he has none) studies his best work of the past for whatever consistencies he can find. From this post facto enquiry, which another might have made as well as he, the artist derives a list of constants in his performance, which he then formulates as “principles.” This self-codification may in some cases be...
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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 new conservatism. He is not a prolific poet, nor is he ever a careless, slipshod versifier, although some poems may be said to lack any genuine significance beyond that of technical competence. Although his subject-matter is in the humanistic tradition, his contribution to date lies essentially in his craftsmanship. This being the case, let us examine his craftsmanship first, reserving a discussion of his more controversial characteristics—a limited humanistic vision—to the last. A few figures will be necessary.
In the volume Poems 1943-1956 Wilbur has employed at least 66 different stanza forms, ranging from 2 to 16 verses. Although it is apparent that he makes most frequent use of the 4-verse stanza and...
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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 it was that the ancients gave Minerva her owl, the bird with everdazzled eyes.
(José Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses.)1
For a comparatively young poet, Richard Wilbur (b. 1921) has received considerable recognition from official quarters: the Harriet Monroe Prize in poetry, 1948; the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, 1950; the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, 1957; the National Book Award, 1957; and the Pulitzer Prize, 1957. In recognition of his promise as well as his achievement he has been granted fellowships by the Guggenheim Foundation (1952) and by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1945). Currently he is a professor of English at Wesleyan University....
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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 style and his tambourines. But the public attitude toward the verse recital has now so matured that any poet, whether or not he qualifies as a platform personality, is likely to find himself on a platform several times a year. Sometimes it will be in a university auditorium, sometimes in an art-gallery or community center, sometimes in a night-club or coffee-house. The audience may be ten or twenty; or it may be hundreds, even thousands; what matters is that it is now there.
The presence of all these listening faces has already, I think, affected the social posture of the American poet. He shows somewhat less of the conventional romantic defiance, somewhat less of the bitterness of the wallflower; he is increasingly disposed...
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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 never cease being. But the remark could have been made, and undoubtedly was made in some form or other, about other native poets: Emerson, for one, whose work, especially his finest essays and lectures, overwhelmed its audience by metaphor and image but spurned logic; and for another, Thoreau, who chose to argue and persuade not by line and number but through word-play, narrative, parable.
The last of these terms—parable—has been applied to Frost as well as Thoreau. Reginald L. Cook's paper at the Thoreau Centennial meetings in New York City in 1962 distinguishes usefully between Frost and Thoreau as “complementary parablists,” linking them in their devotion to making the parable an effective, and liberating, form...
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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.
—Richard Wilbur: “The Genie in the Bottle.”
The question that has most engaged poetry in this century concerns the image. To what extent, to what end, and with what success may the image stand alone, unorganized, unencumbered, or unassisted by connective rhetoric? In the beginning there was T. E. Hulme, and Imagism, and Pound going in fear of abstractions; later there was the qualitative progression of the Cantos; there was Eliot, whose use of the image was designed to restore poetry to the health it had enjoyed before the Revolution when, very curiously, “something” had “happened to the mind of England.” A little later there was Williams, the arch-priest of things—not necessarily...
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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 action-in-the-world. Eliot, for instance, warns us of the isolation of modern man and his need for an Incarnation, Yeats of the need to search ever deeper for adequate symbols of our condition. In their very selection of metaphor, or especially if they write a poetry of statement, all poets make a choice that implies a judgment of aesthetic if not moral value. This essay seeks to examine some of the values of Richard Wilbur, a task worth doing for two reasons. First, critical and classroom voices have faulted Wilbur, unjustly, I think, for a predilection for effect rather than depth. Secondly, the most avid reader of Wilbur, rightly engaged by his technical brilliance, may miss the judgments his poems make on the mis-en-scène he is so...
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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 forms at the lips when one thinks of his characteristic virtues, so often remarked by others: poise, tact, formal and metrical regularity, musicality of diction, ingenuity of phrasing, and a basic human decency that permits him to deal with a wide range of subjects without ever betraying a tendency towards unkindness or casual cynicism. Where he has been critical of people or views of one kind or another, of political expediency or middle-class timidity, he has been so in a way at once charitable and forgiving. Wilbur's is the sage, liberally earnest, slightly rhetorical voice of a fellow we should very much like to know, if we believed he really existed, an extremely intelligent, witty, and entertaining fellow who neither beats his wife...
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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 life followed inevitably by death is each man's inheritance, yet he is not bitter or despairing over this situation. It is man's imperfection which gives him the possibility of importance. It is both man's fate and his blessing that he must work out his destiny amid imperfection and ambiguity. This paradox, of affirming life amid suffering and deprivation, is at the center of poems such as “Beasts,” “Still, Citizen Sparrow,” “Ballade for the Duke of Orleans,” and “A Voice from Under the Table.”
“Beasts” divides into three sections. The first, stanzas 1 and 2, establishes the natural freedom of beasts. They are not cruel, evil, or corrupt: they are what they are. Their behavior is not inconsistent or...
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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 his work. The feeling has been that, in the long run, Wilbur’s poetry, for all its qualities, doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter in a large way. It has not that range and power that makes some poetry, as Eliot would say, part of the consciousness of one’s age. The doubts about Wilbur (whose craftsmanship has been universally commended) have always centered on the depth of his vision and, most particularly, on his apparent insensitivity to the issues of our time.2 The truth is, however, that while Wilbur is not a poet for the dark nights of the soul, neither is he a poet for the soul’s Sunday afternoons. If he seems to have made peace with the modern world, he has not bargained blindly: he knows with astonishing lucidity...
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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, psychology or memory. It is natural—perhaps it would be safer to say, it is a compulsion—on the part of many critics to wonder whether any poem about something else is really a poem about poetry. Browning is less amenable to such a synthesis because dramatic characters like Caliban, Fra Lippo Lippi, and Sludge are so peccant, garrulous, and small. The speaker of “The Mind-Reader,” by contrast, is less a stand-up performer than he is a true poeta vates, the witness / maker of magic.
As attested by the role of the spy in “The Agent” in Wilbur's 1969 collection Walking to Sleep, however, and by the monologizing floorboards in “A Voice From Under the Table” in Things of This World (1956), Wilbur's...
(The entire section is 5522 words.)
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, didactic, religious—and employs aesthetically pleasing devices of language and form so that the message is headed and understood. Harry Bailly, for instance, asks of the Canterbury Pilgrims tales with “sentence” and “solaas,” tales that instruct and please.
Rhyme and rhythm, particularly, have stood as exemplary methods for decorating ideas, making them more delightful. In Mother Goose, for instance, regularity of meter and rhyme made delightful the issues of the day.1 So successful, in fact, was this technique, that today we remember the rhymes long after their substantive references have been lost. All that remains is the nonsense sense in which Jack Sprat ate no fat, or Old King Cole was...
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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 people who were stuck on the old idea that Wilbur is a safe soul, somebody to be arch about, did their usual dance. Wilbur has spent thirty years sharpening our sense of irony and showing us that wit and passionate intensity can have everything to do with each other. That is the kind of cause that divides people for good—and so it is no surprise that some of The Mind-Reader's readers found there the same old Wilbur they expected.
There are, however, some new sides to the Wilbur who shows himself here. One thing that is new is the book's defiant surfaces. The poems are as witty and elegant and deadly serious as ever, but the collection, taken altogether, seems to stand up against every kind of poet-chic, as if Wilbur...
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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 of his craft. His poetry celebrates the power of metaphorical language to divine the human implications of natural patternment, and it affirms the capacity of strict metrics to contain both the dictates of civility and the promptings of joy.
While Wilbur has extended his range of topic, theme, and metrical form, and while he has gradually become more direct, he has never found it necessary to alter the fundamental cast of his poetry as did, for example, Robert Lowell or James Wright. He has remained steadfast in his commitment to formalism, or, more precisely, to the indissolubility of form and value. Wilbur, like his mentor, Frost, has always been an equilibrist, up on the tightrope performing feats of association in the...
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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 reason.1
He is a bell too conscious of its clapper, clapper-happy. Pert but proper, always safe rather than sorry, his poetry is completely without risks, a prize pupil's performance. His ideas are always cut exactly to the size of his poems; he is never puzzled. And the ideas are all sentiments, aware of their potential high-minded emotional value and determined to snuggle into it.2
After Richard Wilbur had won many of the major prizes, much fame, and the poetry chair at Wesleyan—one of the plum academic jobs for poets in the late fifties—this was the sound of a backlash that perhaps inevitably set in. Charges like these came out of a...
(The entire section is 11422 words.)
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 Collected Poems. He is, leaving all such things aside, the outstanding contemporary American instance of the type of poet who writes in strict forms about traditional themes, and whose poems—making, as they do, frequent, appropriate, and instructive use of meter, rhyme, imagery, alliteration, assonance, and even the occasional classical allusion—could serve as models in a textbook of prosody. (Poetry, Wilbur has written, “should include every resource which can be made to work.”) If one wanted to compile a résumé for such a figure, one could not do better than Wilbur's: service in the European theater during World War II, a B.A. from Amherst, an M.A. from Harvard, faculty positions at Harvard, Wellesley, Wesleyan, and Smith,...
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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 the open window The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, Some are in smocks: but truly there they are. Now they are rising together in calm swells Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving And staying like white water; and now of a sudden They swoon down into so rapt a quiet That nobody seems to be there. The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to...
(The entire section is 7012 words.)
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) bears some resemblance to “Walking to Sleep,” except that here it is not the poet who guides the reader half-hypnotically into ways of seeing, but a clairvoyant who tries to articulate the nature of his gift. Mary Kinzie has distinguished Wilbur's poem from Browning's Mr. Sludge, “The Medium” by pointing out that while Mr. Sludge is “peccant, garrulous, and small,” the mind-reader is a “true poeta vates, the witness / maker of magic.”1 But there is another important difference: while Browning is above all interested in the personality of his fraud, Wilbur is more concerned with a mode of consciousness than with character. The poems converge only when the seer confesses that his seizures are...
(The entire section is 8636 words.)
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 paradoxes and antitheses continually seek to display is the famous one at which all philosophies falter, the relation of the One with the Many, the leap by which infinity becomes finite, essence becomes existence; the commingling of the spirit with matter, the working of God in the world.
The opposites which need to come together for a celebration are of many kinds; heart and head, feeling and thinking; conscious and unconscious, critical intellect and intuitive intellect; experience of time, experience of eternity; individual and group, personal and social; myself and the world. For celebration the gulf between objective and subjective needs to be bridged....
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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 poem somehow prevents him from touching the suffering of the world around him. I propose to explore a characteristic signature of his wordscapes which, I think, pre-empts argument on the divergence of word from world, the supposed incongruence between the virtuosity of his verbal mastery and the ‘lived-in experience’ of the heart (Holmes, 75). It is true that Wilbur's is not what Wordsworth would call the ordinary language of men; Wilbur has not so much looked into his heart to write, as he has plumbed the verbal medium.2 His language declares its fabric, its material presence, in every word. It displays what he calls the ‘sure / And special signature’ of the poet as maker (129).3 It is self-referential....
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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 relieve boredom, to cope with anxiety, to “forget how frightened and disoriented” he was (Conversations 37, 196). “My first poems were written in answer to the inner and outer disorders of the Second World War and they helped me, as poems should, to take ahold of raw events and convert them, provisionally, into experience” (Responses 118). Two years after his return from duty, he published The Beautiful Changes (1947), his first volume of verse, and not surprisingly, it includes a few poems written in Europe during the war and sent home to his wife. Because the poet himself has indicated that these poems are in some ways the fountainhead of his work, it is useful to examine them for continuing concerns, for themes...
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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 to exercise his/her descriptive talents or a mode of meta-discourse for exploring the nature of different artforms. Recently, however, and in keeping with a general concern with what is involved in the representation of another—be it person, event, or object—ekphrasis has come to be regarded as a far more serious activity. Thus tracing the history of the genre from Homer to present times, James Heffernan has argued that ekphrasis stages “a struggle for dominance between the image and the word” that is reflective of other kinds of power relations (1). Focusing more specifically on the “visual turn” that characterizes contemporary culture, W. J. T. Mitchell has similarly drawn attention to the many forms that ekphrasis can take,...
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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 a warm nod from T. S. Eliot, that most young poets only dream of.
Those two attractive books, The Beautiful Changes (1947) and Ceremony (1950), pulsed with a young man's self-aware, athletic delight in technical prowess. He performed in a variety of forms, both traditional and of the moment, and—sometimes abruptly within the same poem—ran through a range of tones, from the opaque to the pellucid. His various influences (Marianne Moore, Stevens, the metaphysical poets) were worn openly, with a sense of proud affiliation. Had Mr. Wilbur departed the world at this point—had he met up with a Mack truck—it would have been difficult to say just where his reputation might have headed.
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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 rank with the best of Wilbur's New and Collected Poems, awarded the Pulitzer Prize (his second) in 1989.
Typically, a poet's powers dwindle with age. Do fewer new poems of the first water appear in this book compared with the last? Possibly, though to point it out sounds churlish, as if numbers were all. While certain critics have placed the summit of Wilbur's achievement as far back as his third collection, Things of This World (published in 1956, when he was thirty-five), it would be more accurate to observe that, starting in 1947 with his début, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, each of Wilbur's collections has been slim, each has contained lesser efforts, yet each has added significantly 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 tiresomeness. But for Molière we have but one indispensable translator in English, who has not merely outdistanced any contemporary rash enough to attempt the task, but has quite simply made all previous translations obsolete. I own a Modern Library edition of six Molière plays that I picked up in an army camp in Japan in 1945. Waldo Frank, the editor, carelessly or cunningly fails to reveal the identity of the translators, who have uniformly turned Molière's verse into prose. And it's a good thing for their reputations and their souls that they remain unknown. I seem to remember from college days a play of Molière's translated by Louis Untermeyer into something like doggerel verse. But the completeness of Richard Wilbur's preeminence, his...
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Hill, Donald L. Richard Wilbur, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967, 192 p.
A book-length literary study of the author.
Barnard, Nancy K. “Wilbur's ‘A Late Aubade.’ Explicator 46, no. 4 (1988): 37-9.
An explication of a poem by Wilbur.
Cox, Joseph T. “‘Versifying in Earnest’: Richard Wilbur's War and His Poetry.” War, Literature and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities 10, no. 1 (spring/summer 1998): 37-48.
This essay analyzes several poems from The Beautiful Changes, which arose out of Wilbur's experience in World War II.
Curry, David. “An Interview with Richard Wilbur.” In Conversations with Richard Wilbur, William Butts, pp. 3-16. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 1990.
This interview with Richard Wilbur was first published in The Trinity Review.
Dillon, David. “Richard Wilbur.” In American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work, Joe David Bellamy, pp. 285-95. Chicago Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
A substantive interview with Richard Wilbur.
Dinneen, Marcia B. “Wilbur's Teresa.” The Explicator 49, no. 3 (spring 1991):...
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