Richard Wilbur was born in New York City on March 1, 1921, the son of Lawrence L. Wilbur, a portrait painter, and Helen R. (Purdy) Wilbur, a daughter of an editor of The Baltimore Sun. He attended public schools in Essex Falls, New Jersey, and North Caldwell, New Jersey, and attended Montclair High School, where he was editor of the school paper.
In 1938, he matriculated at Amherst College; there he wrote editorials for and was chairman of the student newspaper, The Student, and was a contributor to The Touchstone, the student magazine. He once said that there he submitted an awful poem about a nightingale, a bird that he had never seen. He received a dollar for it. He received his A.B. at Amherst College in 1942, but before he could continue his studies, he was drafted into the Army. He served until 1945, when he was discharged with the rank of technician third class. He then went on to get his A.M. in religion at Harvard University in 1947. He had married Charlotte Ward in 1942; they had four children, Ellen, Christopher, Nathan, and Aaron.
After he received his master’s degree at Harvard, he was elected junior fellow there from 1947 to 1950. In 1950, he became an assistant professor of English at Harvard, where he remained until 1954. In that year he became associate professor of English at Wellesley College, where he was promoted to professor in 1957; he taught there until 1977. Unlike many other poets of his generation, he did not look down on teaching as a job that spoiled his writing. Indeed, he pointed out in an interview given to Peter Stitt that the constant reading and the necessity of understanding one’s reading very clearly were good exercises for the mind. In 1977, he was appointed writer-in-residence at Smith College, a position he held until 1986. He has since retired from teaching.
In 1947, while he was at Harvard’s graduate school, a friend sent a sheaf of his poetry to Reynal & Hitchcock, whose editors liked it so much that they published it under the title The Beautiful Changes, and Other Poems (1947). Other books of original poetry followed: Ceremony, and Other Poems in 1950; Things of This World in 1956; and Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems in 1961. A paperback collection, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, put out by Harvest Books, came out in 1963. Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations was published in 1969 and The Mind-Reader: New Poems in 1976. In 1988, a collection of poems from all of his books was published under the title New and Collected Poems. A more recent book of poetry is Mayflies: New Poems and Translations from 2000. In 2004, Wilbur released Collected Poems, 1943-2004.
Wilbur has augmented his original poetry with his many translations from the French. In 1955, he translated Moliére’s Le Misanthrope (pr. 1666, pb. 1667; The Misanthrope, 1709). It was first played by the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955 and was performed Off-Broadway at Theater East in 1956-1957. Wilbur’s version is now the standard for performance. Later he translated Moliére’s Tartuffe (pr. 1664, revised pr. 1667, pb. 1669) in 1963, for which he was the corecipient of the Bollingen Prize. He published L’École des femmes (pr. 1662, pb. 1663) as The School for Wives in 1971 and Les Femmes savantes (pr., pb. 1672) as The Learned Ladies in 1978. More recent translations from Moliére include L’École de maris (pr., pb. 1661) as The School for Husbands in 1991; Sganarelle:...
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Ou, Le Cocu imaginaire (pr, pb. 1660) as The Imaginary Cuckold: Or, Sganarelle) in 1993; Amphitryon (pr. 1668; pb. 1668) in 1995; Dom Juan (pr. 1665; pb. 1682) as Don Juan in 2001; and L’Etourdi (pr. 1654?, pb. 1663) as The Bungler in 2000. Wilbur’s translations from Jean Racine, the seventeenth century classic French tragedian, include Andromaque (pr. 1667, pb. 1668) as Andromache in 1982; Phèdre (pr., pb. 1677) as Phaedra in 1986; and Les Plaideurs (pr. 1668, pb. 1669) as The Suitors in 2001. His more recent books of poetry include translations from Voltaire, Dante, and Charles Baudelaire.
Among Wilbur’s works for children are Loudmouse (1963), Opposites (1973), More Opposites (1991), Runaway Opposites (1995), The Disappearing Alphabet (1998), Opposites, More Opposites, and Some Differences (2000), and The Pig in the Spigot (2000). He wrote or rewrote most of the lyrics for Candide (pr. 1956) by Leonard Bernstein, the famous modern American composer, which was published by Random House in 1957, and the lyrics for a cantata, On Freedom’s Ground (pr., pb. 1986) composed by William Schuman, a prominent musician and educator. He produced an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry for Dell in 1959 and later edited the Selected Poems of Witter Bynner in 1978 and Shakespeare: Poems in 1966. He also published a book of literary criticism, Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976, in 1976 (expanded edition, 2000) and another prose collection, The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995 (1997).
Wilbur is the winner of many awards, the chief of which are the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (both for his book of poems Things of This World), the Bollingen Award for his translation of Tartuffe in 1971, a second Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems, and the National Medal for the Arts in 1994. He served as poet laureate of the United States in 1987-1988.