Richard Wilbur 1921–-
Twentieth-century poet, critic, nonfiction and children's literature author, and translator.
The following entry presents information from 1950 through 2001 on the life and career of Wilbur.
Richard Wilbur, a twentieth-century American poet and translator who writes in traditional poetic forms, is known for his attention to craft, his subtle wit, and intellectual rigor. Wilbur's poems concern the ways in which beauty transforms our lives and the need for imagination and inspiration to be grounded in everyday objects and experiences. In addition to his poetry, for which he has received two Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards, Wilbur is known for his definitive translations of Molière and Racine, for his playful poetry for children, and for writing, along with Lillian Hellmann, the libretto for Leonard Bernstein's musical setting of Voltaire's Candide. Wilbur has served as Poet Laureate of the United States and as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
The son of a portrait painter, Richard Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921, but moved to rural North Caldwell, New Jersey when he was two years old. Wilbur's maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were newspaper editors, and Wilbur showed an early interest in journalism. After graduating from Amherst College in 1942, Wilbur married Mary Charlotte Hayes Ward and joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps. He was sent to Italy and then Germany with the Thirty-Sixth “Texas” Division during the Second World War. After the war, Wilbur went to Harvard for graduate work in English. He received his master's degree in 1947, the same year he published his first volume of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems. Wilbur never completed his dissertation, a study of dandyism and Edgar Allen Poe, but after publishing a second book of poetry, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), he became an assistant professor at Harvard. In 1952, Wilbur received a Guggenheim Fellowship, with which he translated Molière's Le Misanthrope and began a career as an acclaimed translator. In 1954, he was awarded the Prix de Rome, which enabled him, his wife, and his four children to live at the American Academy in Rome. After returning from Rome, Wilbur taught at Wellesley College for three years. His third book of poems, Things of This World (1956), received the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. During this period, he was commissioned to write lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's Candide. From 1957 through 1977, he taught at Wesleyan University, served as an advisor for the Wesleyan Poetry Series, and published several children's books, translations, and volumes of poetry From 1977 through his retirement in 1986, Wilbur was a writer-in-residence at Smith College. From 1987-1989, he served as Poet Laureate of the United States. In 1989, Wilbur earned a second Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems. He received the gold medal for poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1991. He lives in Cummington, Massachusetts.
In “On My Own Work,” Wilbur writes that “what poetry does with ideas is to redeem them from abstraction and submerge them in sensibility.” Throughout his career as a poet, Wilbur, a skilled craftsman who writes in traditional verse forms, has grappled with maintaining a balance between the intellectual and the emotional, and between the world of things and the imagination. Wilbur's first book of verse, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), contains several poems that focus on his experience in combat and reflect his attempts to make order out of chaos. Favorite Wilbur themes—descriptions of nature, as well as metaphysical meditations—are evident in his first book, as is a sense of ironic detachment. Wilbur's second collection, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) considers the possibility of heroism in a chaotic world in “Still, Citizen Sparrow” and “Beowulf.” Ceremony also contains lighter poetry and epigrams. Wilbur's third volume of poetry, Things of This World (1956), takes William Carlos Williams' dictum, “no ideas but in things,” to heart. In poems such as “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” Wilbur demonstrates that spirituality and imagination are grounded in everyday objects. The title poem of Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961) envisions a world without familiar objects. Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969) concerns how to “walk”—or live—before sleep and death. In The Mind-Reader (1976), Wilbur broaches more personal topics. “A Wedding Toast” alludes to his son Christopher's wedding; “The Writer” observes his young daughter, Ellen, struggling to write a story. New and Collected Poems (1988) recalls Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in “The Ride” and pays homage to W. H. Auden, along with memory's lost moments, in “Auden.” Another collection, Mayflies, was published in 2000. Wilbur has also written several volumes of poetry for children and the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's Candide, as well as an extensive body of prose and criticism. He is highly acclaimed for his translations, especially of Molière and Racine.
From the publication of his first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, critics hailed Wilbur as an important literary talent, praising his craftsmanship, elegant verses, and wit. Despite the popularity in the 1960s of poets such as Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsburg, Wilbur continued to write in traditional poetic structures, leading Thom Gunn to note, “the public prefers a wild and changeable poet to one who has pursued a single end consistently and quietly.” The critic Leslie Fiedler lamented, “There is no personal source anywhere, … the insistent ‘I’, the asserting of sex, and the flaunting of madness apparently considered in equally bad taste.” But Donald Hall called “A Grasshopper,” one of the poems from Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems, “a minor masterpiece.” And Anthony Hecht wrote: “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, unrivalled.” The critic Bruce Michelson finds that Wilbur “goes beyond skillful wordplay and raises uncomfortable questions about the self and the world” and calls Wilbur “a serious artist for an anxious century.” Richard Wilbur's poetry and translations have been widely praised. He has received two Pulitzer Prizes, for Things of This World (1956) and New and Collected Poems (1988), as well as two Bollingen Prizes for translation. He received the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Other honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Frost Medal, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the T. S. Eliot Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, two PEN translation awards, and the Prix de Rome fellowship. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987-1988, and he was elected a chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and made a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.