When Ceremony and Other Poems, the book in which “Beowulf” first appeared, was published, the critic Joseph Bennett called Wilbur the “strongest poetic talent” of his generation. He singled out “Beowulf,” calling it a “curious and disturbing vision which partakes of the nature of a poetic charm.” Others acknowledge Wilbur’s poetic workmanship; poet-critic Louise Bogan writes that he had proved himself a “subtle lyricist of the first order.” Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Babette Deutsch notes his “musicianly skill.” In further analysis, she describes the poems as “alive with light,” yet “apt to close upon a somber chord, to admit an intrusive shadow.”
Without denying Wilbur’s ability, some critics feel he was too cautious in his writing. Randall Jarrell, reviewing the book in the Partisan Review, remarks that the “poems are all Scenes, none of them dramatic.” He states that Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.” This perception of Wilbur as a master of meter and rhyme who is too subdued in expressing the dark side of existence has persisted throughout his career.
However, more in-depth criticism over time has revealed fuller dimensions of Wilbur’s work. Critic Stephen Stepanchev, writing in 1965, explores the poet’s celebration of the “individual imagination, the power of mind that creates the world,” seeing it as Wilbur’s speculation on the nature of reality. Stepanchev also suggests that while this view of human as creator makes people appear “heroic,” Wilbur has the twentieth-century writer’s awareness of man’s “roles as killer and victim.” This tension, between ideal and actual, reality and dream, is very apparent in “Beowulf,” as critic Donald Hill explains in his 1967 study of Wilbur.
In the years since the publication of Ceremony and Other Poems, American poetry has undergone radical changes. Many poets began writing in free verse, moving away from traditional forms. It became more common to write on personal and political subjects. Since Wilbur seemed somewhat apart from this movement, few extended critical commentaries have been written on his work of late. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Wendy Salinger, Bruce Michelson, and Rodney Edgecombe have reexamined Wilbur’s poetry, finding it more relevant to the turbulence of the times than earlier reviewers had realized. Michelson called him a “serious artist for an anxious century,” and claims his poetry “is many-faceted, personal, and intense in ways that have not been recognized.” As Deutsch comments, Wilbur’s apparent sunny view of the world has subtly realized shadows.