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...
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Wilbur began his poetic career when a friend submitted some poems to a publisher. He continues, modestly writing poem after poem showing profound insights into how the human imagination delves into humankind’s relationship with nature and civilization. To this achievement can be added Wilbur’s skill in translation, especially in the area of French classical drama, an effort which has gracefully rendered these remote masters accessible to an American audience. Wilbur has probed the world with a keen, calm voice filled with wisdom and insight.
Born to Lawrence Wilbur and Helen Purdy Wilbur, Richard Purdy Wilbur was reared in a family that was moderately interested in art and language. His father was an artist, and his mother was a daughter of an editor with the Baltimore Sun. His maternal great-grandfather was also an editor and a publisher who established newspapers supporting the Democratic platform. In 1923, the family moved to a farm in North Caldwell, New Jersey, and Wilbur and his brother enjoyed their childhoods investigating nature, an activity that remains a strong focal point in his poems. His father’s painting and his mother’s link with newspapers led him at times to think of becoming a cartoonist, an artist, or a journalist. His love of cartooning continues, for he illustrated Opposites with bold line drawings. His interests were many, however, and he was encouraged by his family to explore any talents he wished. After graduating from Montclair High School in 1938, he entered Amherst College, where he edited the newspaper and contributed to Touchstone, the campus humor magazine. He spent summers hoboing around the country.
After graduation in 1942, Wilbur married Charlotte Hayes Ward (with whom he had four children), joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps, and saw active duty in Europe with the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division. At Cassino, Anzio, and the Siegfried line, he began writing poetry seriously, embarking on what he calls creation of “an experience” through a poem. He sent his work home, where it remained until he returned from the war to pursue a master’s degree in English at Harvard. The French poet André du Bouchet read the poems, pronounced Wilbur a poet, and sent the works to be published. They were released as The Beautiful Changes, and Other Poems in 1947; in 1952, the same year Wilbur received his master of arts degree from Harvard, he was elected to the Society of Fellows.
His status as a poet established, Wilbur began his teaching career. From 1950 to 1954, he was an assistant professor of English at Harvard. Then, from 1954 to 1957, he served as an associate professor at Wellesley College; during that time his award-winning Things of This World was published. In 1957, he went to Wesleyan University as a professor of English. He stayed there until 1977, when he accepted the position of writer-in-residence at Smith College, where he remained until 1986. In 2008, he returned to Amherst College to teach.
Richard Purdy Wilbur, the son of Lawrence Lazear Wilbur, an artist, and Helen Ruth Purdy Wilbur, was born in New York City but spent many early years in a rural area near North Caldwell, New Jersey. He has asserted that this country experience accounts for his earlier nature poetry. He wrote his first poem, “That’s When the Nightingales Wake,” at the age of eight. After graduating from Montclair High School, he attended Amherst College, where he edited the college newspaper and considered a career in journalism. He graduated in 1942 and that same year married Charlotte Ward, with whom he had four children, Ellen, Christopher, Nathan, and Aaron.
He wrote poetry from a young age, but it was the experience of the war that turned him toward writing as a serious endeavor. From 1943 to 1945 he served as an enlisted man in Europe at some of the major fronts. After the war he returned to school, and in 1947 he received an M.A. in English at Harvard University, where he remained as a junior fellow until 1950. In 1947 and 1950 his first two books of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Ceremony, appeared. In 1950, committed to an academic career, he became an assistant professor of English at Harvard, an unusual post for one without a doctorate. He took time out in 1952 to visit Mexico on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. During this time he won the Harriet Monroe and the Oscar Blumenthal prizes from Poetry magazine, and in 1954 he won the three-thousand-dollar Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His scholarly work was centered on Edgar...
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