Historical Context

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One way to study Wilbur’s “Beowulf” is by comparing the poet’s time with that of the epic hero’s period. Wilbur published “Beowulf” in 1950, just a few years after the end of World War II. During the war, he served as an Army cryptographer and soldier. His infantry division fought in Europe, and Wilbur was in active combat in bloody campaigns for three years. It is interesting to note that he has written few poems directly about the war, although he has said that the experience of battle caused him to become serious about writing poetry.

Americans in 1950 wanted to put the war behind them. Many people had lived through World War I (1914–1918), the Great Depression (from 1929 into the late 1930s), and World War II (1939–1945). Many young couples, including Wilbur and his wife, were having families. America was victorious and prosperous, helping to finance the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war. However, tensions arose between the United States and the communist Soviet Union, the two dominant world powers, causing the Cold War, which lasted nearly fifty years.

The epic Beowulf takes place during a period in Europe known as the Migration Age. After the World War II. According to critic Rodney Edgecombe, Wilbur takes the repetition of language that is common in epic poetry and conceives of it as the failure of language to capture inscrutable ideas. This view reflects the disorder and lack of harmony in modern life.

Literary Style

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“Beowulf” consists of seven six-line stanzas. Each stanza describes one part of the narrative, following chronological order. The tone is formal, in keeping with the account of a hero. However, Wilbur is not writing a story so much as a character study of Beowulf, or of all heroes. The most dramatic event—the battle with the monster—takes only two lines of the poem. The stanzas reveal the atmosphere of the hero’s experience, but they do not provide much detail about the actual adventures.

The rhyme scheme is the same for each stanza. Using the letters a, b, and c to denote the end rhyme of each line, the rhyme scheme is a, b, b, c, a, c. For example, in the last stanza the final words of each line are king, one, done, land, ring, and understand. This consistent pattern of rhyming helps create the formal effect of the poem. It also makes some language in the poem sound inevitable. For instance, in the fifth stanza the last line ends in “cold,” rhyming with the fourth line’s “old.”

The meter, or rhythm, of the poem is not quite as consistent as the rhyme scheme. A line of poetry can be divided into feet. Each foot has a pattern of light and heavy stresses, according to the way the words are read. In “Beowulf,” most of the lines are iambic pentameter; each foot has one light stress followed by a heavy stress, and there are five feet in each line. Line 17 is iambic pentameter: The_ he_ ro_, to_ his_ bat_ tle_ rec_ on_ ciled_. [NOTE: the scanning symbols follow the syllables they should be directly over.] However, other lines break out of this meter. Line 30, for example, has two almost-equal parts: “And the people were strange, the people strangely cold.” Here the rhythm is similar to the rhythm common in Old English poems, in which there is a pause in the middle of the line. The reader pauses between “strange” and “the.” Wilbur is paying tribute to the original poem in constructing some of the lines in this way.

Media Adaptations

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A Conversation with Poet Laureate Richard...

(This entire section contains 105 words.)

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Wilbur is an interview with the poet by Grace Cavalieri, the host of the national radio series “The Poet and the Poem.” This videotape is available in libraries or from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The videotape Richard Wilbur, produced by Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, CA, includes a reading by the poet at the University of Southern California in 1990, as well as an interview with Wilbur by poet David St. John.

A 1997 audio recording of “Beowulf,” translated by Francis B. Gummere and narrated by George Guidall, is available from Recorded Books Productions in New York.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bender, Todd K., et al., Modernism in Literature, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, p. 246.

Bennett, Joseph, Hudson Review 4, Spring 1951, pp. 131–145.

Bly, Robert, ed., The Best American Poetry 1999, Scribner, 1999, p. 213.

Bogan, Louise, Achievement in American Poetry 1900–1950, Henry Regnery, 1951.

Bradley, Sculley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long, eds., American Tradition in Literature, W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1967, pp. 1659–1660.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin and Bruce Mitchell, Beowulf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.

Deutsch, Babette, New York Times Book Review, February 11, 1951, p. 12.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Evans, Harold, The American Century, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Hill, Donald, Richard Wilbur, Twayne Publishers, 1967.

Hollander, John, ed., The Best American Poetry 1998, Scribner, 1998, p. 324.

Jarrell, Randall, The Third Book of Criticism Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965.

McMichael, George, ed., Anthology of American Literature, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974, p. 1678.

Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets, Oxford University Press, 1960.

Sacks, Peter, “Richard Wilbur,” in American Writers, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

Salinger, Wendy, ed., Richard Wilbur’s Creation, University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry Since 1945, Harper & Row, 1965.

Stern, Carol Simpson, “Richard Wilbur,” in Contemporary Poets, edited by Tracy Chevalier, St. James Press, 1991.

Swanton, Michael, Beowulf, Manchester University Press, 1997.

Wilbur, Richard, New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1988.

For Further Reading
Butts, William, ed., Conversations with Richard Wilbur, University Press of Mississippi, 1990. In these nineteen interviews and conversations with Richard Wilbur, ranging from 1962 to 1988, the reader has the opportunity to hear Wilbur’s “disarmingly open” voice and his views on poetry. A chronology of the poet’s life and Butts’ introduction trace changes in Wilbur’s poetry over his long career.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995. This book is meant to be perused with a copy of Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems at hand. Edgecombe discusses each poem in this collection, and gives his comments on Wilbur’s recurring themes over his years of writing.

Heaney, Seamus, Beowulf, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000. The Noble Laureate Seamus Heaney translates the original epic, using the four-stress line and heavy alliteration common to Anglo-Saxon poetry, in this Whitbread Prize-winning book. In The New York Times Book Review, James Shapiro writes that “generations of readers will be grateful” for Heaney’s accomplishment in translating this poem.

Salinger, Wendy, ed., Richard Wilbur’s Creation, University of Michigan Press, 1983. Salinger explores the critical reaction to Wilbur’s work throughout the changing literary views in the post-World War II years. While in the introduction Salinger makes clear her own bias in favor of Wilbur’s genius, she provides a balanced selection of reviews and essays by critics, incorporating dissenting voices along with more sympathetic ones.

Wilbur, Richard, New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1988. This volume contains all seven of Wilbur’s books of poetry published before 1988, including Ceremony and Other Poems, in which “Beowulf” first appeared. In addition, this book contains the text of the cantata “On Freedom’s Ground,” which Wilbur wrote in honor of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty and which was performed in New York City in 1986.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide