Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 110)
Richard Wilbur 1921–
(Full name Richard Purdy Wilbur) American poet, translator, critic, nonfiction writer, author of children's books, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of Wilbur's career through 1997. For further information on Wilbur's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 14, and 53.
The former Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987–1988, Richard Wilbur is respected for the craftsmanship and elegance of his verse, which employs formal poetic structures and smoothly flowing language to pinpoint and poeticize individual moments in modern life. Wilbur's English translations of the works of French dramatists such as Molière and Racine are also widely praised and considered to be the definitive versions.
Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921. The son of a commercial artist, Wilbur was interested in painting as a youth, but eventually opted to pursue writing, a decision he attributes to the influence of his mother's father and grandfather, both of whom were editors. Wilbur graduated from Amherst College in 1942 and Harvard University in 1947. During World War II he served in the Army, where he saw action in Italy, an experience that later helped form much of his poetry. Wilbur published his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, in 1947, the same year he became a junior fellow at Harvard where he taught English until 1954. Wilbur went on to teach at Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, and Smith College. In 1987 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States, the second person to hold the position since its inception in 1986. Finding the bureaucratic responsibilities of the post too taxing, Wilbur opted not to serve a second year, and returned to writing and lecturing at various colleges and universities.
Wilbur's first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, contains several pieces that focus on his experience as a soldier in World War II and reflect his attempts to instill a sense of order to an existence full of destruction and chaos. Other poems describe natural phenomena and include meditations on spiritual and metaphysical topics, recurring themes in Wilbur's work. In Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) Wilbur examines the relationship between the material world and the imagination, as he ponders mutability and death. Wilbur's next collection, Things of This World (1956), is widely regarded as containing his most mature work up to that point, and contains some of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, including "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" and "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." Wilbur received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Things of This World. In Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961) Wilbur continued his lyricism and his command of various traditional poetic forms. Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), which won the Bollingen Prize, contains pastoral lyrics, an elegy, a Miltonic sonnet, tributes, narratives, and a riddle. In The Mind-Reader (1976), Wilbur examines characteristic concerns by employing witty language within tight lyrical structures. Wilbur's previously unpublished poems contained in New and Collected Poems (1988) include a tribute to W. H. Auden, a fable, observations on nature and the imagination, and a cantata on which he collaborated with composer William Schuman to honor the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. In The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995 (1997), Wilbur collects many of his nonfiction prose writings, including book reviews, criticism, and essays. Wilbur is also highly acclaimed for his translations. Of these he is best known for his versions of the Molière plays The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, having shared the Bollingen Prize for translation for the latter drama. His renderings into English of works by eminent French, Russian, and Spanish authors have been included in several of his poetry collections.
While some critics have praised Wilbur's deft handling of formal conventions, others have asserted that his concern with form has led to thematic rigidity. Other commentators have noted that Wilbur's quiet conservatism is not likely to be well-received by an audience that expects poets to write personal and tormented explications of their own feelings rather than Wilbur's reserved metaphysical observations on nature. Thom Gunn wrote, after the publication of Advice to a Prophet, "The public prefers a wild and changeable poet to one who has pursued a single end consistently and quietly." Despite this bias, Wilbur's work has attracted wide admiration. Anthony Hecht commented on Wilbur's poem "Lying," "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, unrivaled."
The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (poetry) 1947
Ceremony and Other Poems (poetry) 1950
Things of This World: Poems (poetry) 1956
Poems, 1943–1956 (poetry) 1957
Emily Dickinson: Three Views [with Louise Bogan and Archibald MacLeish] (criticism) 1960
Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (poetry) 1961
Loudmouse (juvenile) 1963
The Poems of Richard Wilbur (poetry) 1963
Prince Souvanna Phouma: An Exchange between Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith (poetry) 1968
Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (poetry) 1969
Opposites: Poems and Drawings (juvenile) 1973
Seed Leaves: Homage to R. F. (poetry) 1974
The Mind-Reader: New Poems (poetry) 1976
Seven Poems (poetry) 1981
New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1988
The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995 (criticism, reviews, and essays) 1997
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Suburbia," in Partisan Review, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Fall 1956, pp. 545-53.
[Gregory is an American poet, critic, and translator whose works include Rooming House (1930) and Medusa in Gramercy Park (1960). In the following review, he praises the "charm" of Wilbur's poetry in Things of This World, but expresses reservations about its ability to retain a place in American literature.]
The recent Zeitgeist in American culture is of suburban colors, manners, dress. Those who are currently publishing verse are affected by its daily habits and ambitions, and more than a few have mistaken its presence for a visitation of the Muse. The importance of the suburban Zeitgeist may not be enduring, but since the end of the Korean War, its influence has spread cross-country from the suburbs of Boston to the state of Washington, far beyond the toll-gates of large cities; and it can be heard and seen as vividly on a college campus as in Westchester or nearby Long Island. It is nourished by the magazines I find in my dentist's office: The New Yorker, Life, and Time. It may seem strange that popular culture should invade, and so thoroughly and quickly, the landscapes of academic life; it may not (I am sure it does not) represent academic thinking at its centers, yet on the fringes of the campus it is very much alive, geared to the speed of a...
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SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur's Critical Condition," in Contemporary Poetry: A Journal of Criticism, Vol. II, No. 2, Autumn 1977, pp. 16-24.
[In the following essay, Woodard defends Wilbur's poetry against detractors who find his work "too happy."]
Critical commentaries on Wilbur's poetry have come to seem rather highly stylized and predictable, like bullfighting. First there is the ritual praise of his technical virtuosity (music, diction, imagery, metrics), to show that the critic is not devoid of the appreciation of beauty, followed quickly by the disclaimers which establish his awareness of its irrelevance to contemporary life. Objections to Wilbur's poetry, to phrase them in the simplest terms, take the following forms: (1) He thinks too much. (2) He does not suffer enough.
Strictly speaking, it is not Wilbur's thought so much as his imagination that is derogated. Clearly we cannot condemn him for his epistemological interests if we are to permit them to Wallace Stevens. It is Wilbur's use of the things of this world, his chosen poetic province, which gets him into trouble; he is not tough enough with them, not sufficiently insistent upon their thinginess, but persists in allowing them to pass through his mind, where his recalcitrant imagination may act upon them. Back of such criticism there hover the dicta and practice of William Carlos Williams, whose followers put their faith in an...
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SOURCE: "Master of Metaphor," in The New Republic, Vol. 3, No. 826, May 16, 1988, pp. 23-32.
[Hecht is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet whose works include A Summoning of Stones (1954) and The Hard Hours (1968). In the following review, he offers an overview of major themes and techniques in Wilbur's work and praises his New and Collected Poems.]
"The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis," observed Wittgenstein. And since today there are critics who maintain that art and criticism are indistinguishable from one another, it ought to follow that the critical work itself is seen from the same August perspective. Yet our experience of the history of criticism and the morphology of aesthetic theory fails conspicuously to support this view. Nothing is more familiar to us than the changes in the mode of taste that time itself seems to bring round in its course. Bach endured an eclipse of 200 years, and Richard Ellmann has recently told us that for the undergraduate Oscar Wilde, Keats and Swinburne (whom modern readers would only reluctantly identify with one another) were akin in the "effeminacy and languor and voluptuousness which are the characteristics of that 'passionate humanity' which is the background of true poetry." In the comparatively brief course of my lifetime, John Donne's reputation was virtually disinterred, and the Romantics are now enjoying a...
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SOURCE: "Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: The Loving Work of an Equilibrist," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer 1990, pp. 412-25.
[In the following essay, Harris surveys major themes in Wilbur's poetry and explains how his work in New and Collected Poems forms a cohesive whole.]
The publication of Richard Wilbur's New and Collected Poems 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 process of his search for an...
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SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur: An Interview," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, May-June 1991, pp. 45-55.
[Kronen is an American poet and critic. In the following interview, Wilbur discusses his influences, his thoughts on being poet laureate, and his opinions of contemporary poetry.]
[Steve Kronen:] For the past four or five years, there has been a range-war of sorts in the various journals between the so-called New Formalists and, ironically, the old free versers. What are your thoughts about this interchange?
[Richard Wilbur]: I'm aware that there is something of that sort going on, and I was recently sent an article from APR by Ira Sadoff, in which he was engaging in one side of the controversy at considerable length. I don't follow all of the poetry periodicals, turning all the pages, but I know that there is a lot of talk about the New Formalism. Some of the young poets whom I know and think well of are associated, by people who engage in this sort of taxonomy, with the New Formalism. Of course it makes them nervous. No one wants to be defined simply in terms of whether he uses meter or not, whether he makes rhymes and stanzas. I think that the best of our poets who work in traditional forms, who make use of traditional forms, would rather be approached, as Mr. Sadoff said, in terms of their vision than in terms of their technical means.
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's Beasts," in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 247-49.
[In the following essay, Green analyzes and discusses the images and metaphors in Wilbur's poem "Beasts."]
Richard Wilbur's "Beasts" depicts in striking imagery the anomalous place of man in Nature. This brilliant six-stanza lyric can be divided into three scenes: the harmonious world of Nature; the painful world of degenerating human nature; and the world of "superior" men who betray their calling and bring destruction on all the worlds. Man seems to be the only creature whose nature, form, and function are not fixed. Paradoxically, this freedom from definition leads him into obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. The vision of the poem is Calvinist.
In the first two stanzas, we are in a peaceful world, whose condition is reinforced by a motif of musical harmony. The elements of this motif are major (the major keys are happy ones), plucked, lyric, dulcet, and concordance. The water current "sleeps" (play on sweeps?) the sunfish. The deer's feet are "spotless," that is, immaculate, without the stain of sin, as well as unmarked. It is nevertheless a predatory world: the gull dreams in his "guts" of the fish that he has caught in the waves. And, most strikingly, the disembowelled mouse paradoxically sees the harmony of it all. Death is a feared occurrence, but a natural...
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'The Writer'," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 58-60.
[In the following essay, Ramanen explains Wilbur's use of form and contrasting imagery to create a unified poem.]
Richard Wilbur's "The Writer" (New and Collected Poems, 1988), a poem about his daughter writing a story, is an outstanding example of the poet's method of setting up a poetic debate within the terms of a single meditative voice. The debate becomes an occasion for the demonstration of the deft formal control the poet has over stanza and line, point of view, diction, and imagery, which are all forged into a unity clinched by strong poetic closure.
Wilbur sustains through the poems what Brad Leithauser, speaking of formal verse, calls the "prosodic contract" that a poet enters into with the reader. The nature of the contract is clear from the pattern of three-line stanzas that the poem compares. The first and third lines of each stanza are shorter than the middle line, and there is no rhyme. The absence of rhyme is more than made up for by a strong narrative joining the stanzas together. The plot in the poem is one aspect of its unity, and this plot has its climax in a turning point precisely in the middle of the poem. The turning point and the momentum in the argument are achieved through imagery.
Wilbur organizes the poem in terms of two sets of images—the one...
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Advice to a Prophet'," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 55-59.
[In the following essay, Frontain cites classical and biblical sources and influences of Wilbur's "Advice to a Prophet."]
In "Advice to a Prophet," the title poem in Richard Wilbur's 1961 collection, the poet addresses one of the most important social and political problems of the atomic/nuclear age—the danger of mankind's destroying itself and its planet. It also answers one of the most difficult questions addressed by the poets of his generation—namely, how to reach an alienated, uninterested, even apathetic audience grown deaf to the poet/prophet's voice of admonition and entreaty. The speaker's advice is that the anonymous prophet not emphasize the destruction that will result if the community continues on its present course; people have grown so incapable of imagining a world without them that the prophet's traditional scare tactics cannot serve any purpose. Rather, the prophet should employ a gentle, prophetic voice and, in a quiet celebration of passing beauty, remind the listeners of the poignant fragility of everything that is worth valuing in this world and thus of their own existence. Wilbur's "Advice" maps a new poetic program for an age no longer capable of being shocked out of its complacency by what Hungarian poet Endre Ady calls "the prophet's mad red rage / that storms against the seat...
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SOURCE: "One Definite Mozart," in Renascence, Vol. XLV, No. 1-2, Fall 1992–Winter 1993, pp. 81-96.
[Hazo is an award-winning American poet and critic. In the following essay, he surveys Wilbur's works and praises him as one of the greatest American poets.]
Ever since I first began reading Richard Wilbur's poems in the late 1940's, I think I've read only one negative review of his work. It was not Randall Jarrell's somewhat patronizing critique of Wilbur's second book, Ceremony. It was a review of The Mind-Reader by Calvin Bedient in The New Republic (June 5, 1976). Bedient contended that Wilbur was too safe a poet—that he rarely took chances. The reviewer was not referring to subject matter; he was taking Wilbur to task for deliberately choosing to remain within the limits of traditional metrics and prosody and yielding to "moral complacency."
I mention this now because one of my themes in this appreciation will be to demonstrate that Richard Wilbur's refreshing and refreshened traditionalisms along the lines of metrics and prosody are not a weakness but a strength. And I make this statement as one not fully enthralled by that tradition as it is literally defined but fully supportive of Wilbur's achievements within it. To say smugly that he rarely took chances is to betray a superficial reading of Wilbur's work to date. The nuances of diversity and experiment...
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra'," in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 4, Summer 1996, pp. 244-47.
[In the following essay, Wai provides an analysis of Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra."]
In his book of word games for children Opposites, Richard Wilbur speculates about the relativity between objects, or between ideas, and between objects and ideas. In his poems, he uses contrasts to explore the relatedness of two conflicting inclinations: spiritual aspirations and mundane commitments. Wilbur approaches the intangible dimension of a real object through its tangible appearance. He tends to juxtapose one character or object against another, balancing each against its "counterpoint." The opposed images show the inadequacy of one divorced from the other.
The rivalry between spiritual yearnings and a commitment to the imperfect world of objects inspires Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." The baroque fountain and its counterparts in St. Peter's Square represent two different views of happiness—participation in worldly pleasures and transcendence toward heavenly bliss. The poet favors a spirituality that is not world renouncing.
To comprehend His creation is to comprehend the Creator, Wilbur states:
I think a lot of my poems, instead of saying "isn't...
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SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Ceremony'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter 1997, pp. 98-99.
[In the following essay, Wai provides a brief explication of Wilbur's poem "Ceremony."]
In his poem "Ceremony," Richard Wilbur treats the paradox that man and nature may seem to be in combat with each other yet are in some respects basically akin. The poem demonstrates his respect for ritualistic forms in both nature and society. "I think that a lot of one's feeling of union with natural things is unilateral," says Wilbur, "and yet I persist in feeling that nothing, right down to the stone, is irrelevant to us, is not part of a family."
"Ceremony" begins with Wilbur's response to a painting by Bazille, a nineteenth-century French-Impressionist painter:
A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
Is, you may say, patroness of boughs
Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.
The reader immediately senses the poet's awareness of man's intrusion into nature and his perception of the contrast between civilization and wilderness.
Thus the girl in Wilbur's poem who seems to be "queenly kind," or supremely civil, must be alien to the wild, unruly life of the forest. But the second half of the first stanza contradicts this assumption. Although the formality of the...
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Bagg, Robert. "Merlin and Faust in Two Post-War Poems." In Merlin versus Faust: Contending Archetypes in Western Culture, edited by Charlotte Spivack, pp. 189-98. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Analyzes Wilbur's poem "Merlin Enthralled" as exemplary of the search for meaning amid chaos in the tradition of war poetry.
Schwartz, Joseph. "The Concept of Historical Form in the Poetry of Richard Wilbur." Renascence 45, No. 1-2 (Fall 1992/Winter 1993): 35-48.
Discusses Wilbur's "sense of history" evident throughout his work, but found particularly in his poem "Looking into History."
Turner, Alberta T. "About 'Cottage Street'." In The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995, by Richard Wilbur, pp. 147-52. New York City: Harcourt, Brace, 1997.
Interview in which Wilbur discusses his poem "Cottage Street, 1953."
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