Richard Wilbur Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 3) - Essay

Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilbur, Richard 1921–

A Pulitzer-winning American poet, critic, and translator, Wilbur writes elegant and sophisticated poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Richard Wilbur is a delicate, charming, and skillful poet. His poems not only make you use, but make you eager to use, words like attractive and appealing and engaging. His poems are often gay and often elegiac—almost professionally elegiac, sometimes; funny or witty; individual; beautiful or, at worst, pretty; accomplished in their rhymes and rhythms and language…. Mr. Wilbur seems to be a naturally lyric or descriptive poet….

Most of his poetry consents too easily to its own unnecessary limitations…. Mr. Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough. In the most serious sense of the word he is not a very satisfactory poet. And yet he seems the best of the quite young poets writing in this country…. But I can't blame his readers if they say to him in encouraging impatient voices: "Come on, take a chance!" If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries you will never look just right to posterity—every writer has to be, to some extent, sometimes, a law unto himself.

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 227-30.

[Wilbur's] impersonal, exactly accomplished, faintly sententious skill produces poems that, ordinarily, compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty—there is no eminent beauty without a certain strangeness in the proportion; and yet "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" is one of the most marvelously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written, and poems like "A Black November Turkey" and "A Hole in the Floor" are the little differentiated, complete-in-themselves universes that true works of art are. Wilbur's lyric calling-to-life of the things of this world—the things, rather than the processes or the people—specializes in both true and false happy endings, not by choice but by necessity; he obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing.

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.

Wilbur is a versatile craftsman, capable of assimilating to his own uses the techniques of poets as peculiar and difficult as Marianne Moore; and he controls, always with deceptive ease, whatever he sees (the cultivated countryside just out of cities), feels (the loveliness of the created world), imagines (Noah, dead heroes) or muses upon (the meaning of art). His language is never banal and never outrageous; his music never dull and never atrocious; he knows what he can do and is never tempted to exceed it. Most of his adult life he has spent teaching in a university, but he has a sense of his obligation to those outside it, and has tried to extend the range of his voice in the theater: translating, for instance, with astonishing fidelity and grace…. Wilbur has already had an effect on the work of younger poets, particularly in the universities, and has come to be spoken of widely as an influence on current poetic practice.

Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Waiting For the End (copyright © 1964 by Leslie A. Fiedler; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein & Day, 1964, p. 219.

No one has ever denied [Wilbur's] technical mastery; the only question is whether it amounts too often to mere virtuosity. The virtuosity is the more apparent because he writes almost always in strict forms, some conventional and some original, with rhyme, regular stanza forms, and traditional meters. When a poet accepts a clear set of rules, his technical success is easier to judge than when he takes a broader freedom. Even in his first poems Wilbur shows an astonishing ease and vigor within the most confining forms. His skills include the ability to achieve a poise and self-assurance beautiful in themselves—what earned his work the ambiguous epithet "elegant"; an almost unfailingly telling adjustment of thought to the sentence structure; and a constant word-play that is exciting because it requires a constant revaluation of familiar things….

One conspicuous feature of Richard Wilbur's first collection of poems, The Beautiful Changes, is its meditative, speculative disposition, evident both in the choice and in the treatment of subjects. It is a poetry of ideas, moderately learned and allusive, strict in its logic as in its phrasing, given to weighing alternative attitudes, fond of arguments and of their consequences. Intellectuality is common enough in modern poetry. In itself it has no merit at all, and in clumsy hands it may prove to be a blight…. This characteristic begins to be remarkable or distinctive only when we notice, as we must, that in some ways Wilbur is an unusually sensuous poet. In his early poems this sensuousness expresses itself partly in the constant appeal of his lines to the ear and partly in the sharpness, justice, and fullness of the descriptive detail. Another characteristic of the early poems is a pervasive good humor, a sweetness of spirit, unusual among the major poets of the century. There is no despair here, no prophetic warning, no denunciation, no fanaticism, no sourness or disgust, little satire, and not much violence. (pp. 17-19)

It is a fact worth noticing that even though satire or social criticism appear only in muted ways in Wilbur's poems, they are not absent entirely. Such strains in [his] poems do not comprise anything like a position on questions of the day, but they are evidence of a capacity for moral feeling and of a willingness on occasion to express it. It is necessary to insist upon the presence of these qualities in Wilbur's poems because his quietness and urbanity have led some readers to overlook his basic moral seriousness and to accuse him of frivolity or blandness. (p. 49)

When people want more from Wilbur than they think he offers, it is likely, I think, to be his playful tone that puts them off. They see that the theme is capable of more serious treatment, and they suspect him of being lazy, or too cautious, or even bland…. The tone of many of Wilbur's poems … is such that one is not inclined to take them as efforts to reveal an insight or a view of the world held seriously by the poet. Not that they do not deal with the most serious subjects, but they do so as if the poem were a game rather than a mortal struggle with truth…. But despite Wilbur's enjoyment of the poem as a verbal and intellectual performance, he does return to certain ideas that must be considered his, and one of these is the need to accept the world and to live in it while we may. This theme appears so often, and it is used with so much energy in his work, that it may reflect a strenuous inner struggle. Only a man with a strong ascetic impulse would be moved to so constant a reassertion of his joy in the world. (pp. 58-60)

While Wilbur's usual tone is that of amusement, praise, or delight, and while he seems in general among the least angry, frightened, or despairing of contemporary poets, there is in his work, nevertheless, a persistent concern about human shortcomings. No major progress toward discontent characterizes his development; even in his earliest work there is some protest, and in his latest he retains his old pleasure in man and nature. (p. 75)

Wilbur continues to be concerned with the power of imagination to shape the world and history; with the rival claims of the ideal and the actual; with certain threats to the welfare and freedom of the spirit; with the celebration of certain virtues, often humble or gentle, in men and even in animals; and with autobiographical episodes of several kinds…. The difficulty of some of the poems is produced or compounded by Wilbur's tone, in which a subtle irony makes for uncertainty about what he is saying. He is, of course, saying several things at once in the various ways of poetry. (p. 95)

A preoccupation with the power of the imagination informs many of Wilbur's poems, early and late. What the imagination brings to reality is as important as reality itself. The things of this world must be bathed in this active, transforming, and enriching light; otherwise, as in the theory of Wallace Stevens, by whom Wilbur seems influenced, they are of no use to the spirit. (p. 110)

High spirits, sheer exuberance, pervade all of Wilbur's best poems; and no doubt he would be willing to say with Stevens that "poetry is the gaiety of language." A number of poems in Things, as in the earlier books, cannot or ought not to be read solemnly. Some of them Wilbur has called "Games," for they play with ideas rather than testify to their truth or tenability. (p. 120)

Wilbur is not afraid of academicism, of a poetry of echoes and allusions. Instead he conceives of the poet as one whose "live formality" depends on establishing, through the necessary effort of study, a significant relationship with older poets and with other great spirits of the past…. Wilbur's poems … show an effort to extend his range; they deal more openly than before with the strains and hardships of the inner life. And two poems, "Advice to a Prophet" and "Another Voice," take up the theme of violence explicitly. But in general he has not shown much interest in writing about those crises of spirit or conscience that seem specifically contemporary. In technique also, as in the range of his subjects and themes, Wilbur has preferred to work so far within an established tradition rather than to break new ground…. One may ask why, if Wilbur is so successful within his chosen limits, he should be urged to move beyond them. There is no value in mere novelty, and from one point of view nothing matters in the end but good poems. If "making it new" will produce them, it then proves its value thereby; if not, it fails in the essential aim—though it may not fail to make conversation and even literary history…. I shall not record my guess as to whether Wilbur is likely in the future to renounce "elegance, grace, precision, quiet intensity of feeling" for something different—free verse or spontaneous effects, the most candid self-revelation or "free-floating images," "reporting the horror frankly" or whatever so far undreamed of. (pp. 169-72)

Donald L. Hill, in his Richard Wilbur (copyright 1967 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, Inc.), Twayne, 1967.

I have never liked Richard Wilbur for the reasons his reviewers have generally given: his lightness, grace, wit, the assuredness of his technique, and his delight in making complexities sound natural, amusing, and easy. If this were all I would long ago have tired of him, for there are plenty of other poets who have these qualities, if not to the extent that Wilbur does, at least sufficiently to be comparable….

[There] has been no development, or even change, in Wilbur's work, and there is something vaguely disturbing in this, even though you hear people on all sides saying that if someone is already the most charming and amiable man in the world there's no need for him to try to be something or somebody else. And yet it's hard to shake off, too, the feeling that the cleverness of phrase and the delicious aptness of Wilbur's poems sometimes mask an unwillingness or inability to think or feel deeply: that the poems tend to lapse toward highly sophisticated play. Yet even in this book [Advice to a Prophet] which is not Wilbur's best, there is, underlying the grace and negligent mastery, the thing that should eventually make him the truly important poet that he deserves to be: the thing which his superlative manipulation of verse forms, his continuous and unobtrusive skills never fully state but never lose sight of. This is the quietly joyful sense of celebration and praise out of which Wilbur writes: the kind of celebration that is done, usually, without anyone's being told, and of the things that cause joy to rise unexpectedly, excessively, and almost always voicelessly in the human breast….

Though there are grave shades in it, Wilbur's is not essentially a tragic mind, and the lack of this one quality will probably keep him, in the estimates of literary historians and other fossils, from being called a "major poet": one having made large Miltonic or Poundian flights. And yet his poems as they stand are as true and heartening a picture as we are ever likely to have of the best that the twentieth-century American can say of himself or have said about him. They are intelligent, good-humored, tolerant, imaginative, witty, resourceful, affectionate, candid, openhearted, and eminently responsible to and involved in their own business. These are the qualities that make Wilbur's kind of celebration possible, and if there is no other way for him to get this sense across to us, that is all right. I am only suggesting that there might conceivably be other ways, too, and that it is at least a little worth while to try to find them, considering the importance of what he has to give. Yet a new book by Richard Wilbur is surely an occasion for celebrating on our own in our own ways, which, as it turns out, are Wilbur's ways all the same.

James Dickey, in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 170-72.

Wilbur is … the most vocal antiromantic among established younger poets. Almost alone among poets under sixty, he continues to think of himself as writing "Impersonal" poetry in which not the poet but a persona speaks, or attitudes are set up and played off against each other….

Wilbur writes in traditional forms and places a high valuation on "classic"—a favorite word of his—wit and balance, and he never writes confessionally, but though he rejects romantic ideas about poetry, his own poems have very little in common with those of early Eliot or Pound. His Eliotic conception of the poet's role does not prevent his work from often being closer in theme, and occasionally even in style, to that of romantic and visionary poets of the past…. The affinities between Wilbur's poetry and that of Dickinson and Frost are often striking, but not, perhaps, altogether surprising. What we would not be prepared for if we had read only Wilbur's prose is his frequent affinity, thematically, with Hart Crane, with Cummings, and even, oddly enough, it may seem, with Emerson. This, I should suppose, is surprising in a poet more devoted to the anti-romantic stance than any poet who has emerged since Auden achieved his fame in the 1930's….

Wilbur's basic assumptions and attitudes and his recurrent preoccupations have much more in common with those of both the American Transcendental and the English Metaphysical poets than they have with the dominant patterns of assumption and attitude in Modernist poetry. When Wilbur sounds most like Stevens, he is likely to be saying something that either Emerson, or George Herbert, or both, might have said, and that Stevens cannot be imagined as saying….

Wilbur's "reconciling" position is the central fact about his work, not his Impersonal, autotelic theory or his other anti-romantic ideas, which often seem defensive in origin. His fondness for Emily Dickinson, his extremely perceptive and sympathetic interpretation of her work in his essay "Sumptuous Destitution," and his frequent closeness to her in sensibility in his poems are all further bits of evidence, if any more were needed, of his reconciling role.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, "Centering In: Richard Wilbur," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 596-604.

For all the continuities with the previous four collections, Richard Wilbur's new book [Walking to Sleep] involves a considerable shift of emphasis. The poet is now much less devout a servant of that late-Symbolist literary faith which sees artifice as the sole God redeeming man from nature. Wilbur has always been friendly to the New England landscape, and it seems to me that he is the very best equipped, wittiest traveler in that land of indigenous artifice in which Wallace Stevens is certainly the Columbus, at least for New England writers….

Walking to Sleep is full not only of crisp visual description, but of the kind of music that ensues when a poet pulls all the stops out of a technically perfect instrument. The sounds are grand, yet inclusively allusive….

Wilbur says enthusiastic things about Emerson; and it is indeed as if, reversing the usual procedure, he had moved from a late-Symbolist concern for redemption through artifice, to an early-Symbolist concern for transcendental details, for intimate "correspondences" between man and earth, more or less in the manner of Swedenborg—whom Emerson, in one essay, introduced to these shores.

Michael Benedikt, "Witty and Eerie," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1970, pp. 422-25.

The time is past when Richard Wilbur could be dismissed as a poet who writes "prayers on pinheads." But we still hear of his "ignoring of the dark," and, in general, it may be said that he is not yet quite taken seriously even by readers who admire his work. The feeling has been that in the long run, Wilbur's poetry, for all its qualities, doesn't matter, or doesn't matter in a large way. It has not that range and power that [make] some poetry, as Eliot would say, part of the consciousness of one's age. The doubts about Wilbur (whose craftsmanship has been universally commended) have always centered on the depth of his vision and, most particularly, on his apparent insensitivity to the issues of our time. The truth is, however, that while Wilbur is not a poet for the dark nights of the soul, neither is he a poet for the soul's Sunday afternoons. If he seems to have made peace with the modern world, he has not bargained blindly: he knows with astonishing lucidity both the terms of his compact and its attendant perils….

Wilbur does not suppose, as Poe does, that the intellect and the moral sense are inimical to the apprehension of beauty. Quite the contrary. In Wilbur's poetry beauty is realized only upon the exercise of man's intellectual and moral faculties. This condition has much to do with Wilbur's style and tone. The poems have, characteristically, a moral design, and this design is, if anything, emphasized rather than merely insinuated. Similarly, the poems and deliberate meditations. They rely heavily on argument and debate and they use much intellectual irony, paradox, and ambiguity. These techniques are not employed in slavish imitation of what was, in Wilbur's formative years, a fashion in poetry. They reflect, rather, the value he places on the life of the mind.

John P. Farrell, "The Beautiful Changes in Richard Wilbur's Poetry," in Contemporary Literature (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 74-87.

[Richard Wilbur] has exquisite control of verbal patterns, the sounds of words, the rhythms of speech; he has intelligence, learning, and moral wisdom. But to these he must still add something like the ambition and self-assurance of his inferiors.

The truth is that Mr. Wilbur has never allowed his gifts the freedom they deserve. He has shortened the leash whenever the creatures ran too near the onlooker…. But his brilliant descriptive powers [in Walking to Sleep] are never stretched so far as to indulge the poet at the risk of tiring the reader. Perhaps they might be. Mr. Wilbur's humour (two attempts at satire fail) irradiates his wit and word play. In "Seed Leaves", a poem that Herrick could not improve, it gives the most benign humanity to the birth of a plant. But sometimes wit should run wild. These hints are not meant to say that the poet should transform himself into another person. Rather they mean he should be more himself. He should let his audience find him, whoever he decides to be.

"In Search of an Audience," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), May 21, 1971, p. 580.

[For] years I have been wanting to clear my throat, stand up straight, and explain why and how so many Wilbur poems move and delight me and ought to impress everyone the same way….

Wilbur's poetry, we often hear, is not natural, is forced and artificial, controlled by the upper mind….

His poems are graceful and sure. But the language to his taste, and mine, is heightened. Poetry is never common speech…. Richard Wilbur's voice strikes me as individual, powerful, undeniable, and in poem after poem he makes his taste and feeling for language mine. That taste is for raised, uncommon speech. Sophisticated, yes; fastidious, yes; occasionally even elegant, yes. Sophistication and fastidiousness and elegance are traditional virtues. I am not willing to throw them away in the name of some sort of truer truth. Formal, yes. I'd even go so far as to agree with Wilbur when he says, as he did in an interview, that "for some of us unity is still a virtue"….

[We] do seem to be obsessed with separating the major from the minor poets. I hear myself saying that Cummings and Housman are minor poets, or major-minor poets; that Stevens and Hopkins are major poets. And while I am saying and defending these classifications I know that what I want from a poem, simply, is to be moved, to see, hear, feel something not seen, heard, felt before, that for me Housman is a major poet, one who has given me a great deal. The thing is that Wilbur's gentle sort of skepticism, his good-natured balance in the face of not-knowing, has kept him from amalgamating all of heaven and earth into a "grand pronunciamento," in Stevens' phrase. Wilbur's individual poems embody moments of clarity and unity, but a title like Harmonium for a volume or for an eventual collected poems would never occur to him…. Wilbur's poems are the right and inevitable outgrowth of a poetic morality whose integrity is beyond question. For me, his poems will continue to give major satisfactions….

One of the consistent and unifying themes of Wilbur's poetry is what he has called "the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit." Since the Enlightenment man's mind has begun to tell him that things are things; his spirit has felt more, needed more, believed that the objects of this world were involved, somehow, with a greater truth, an encompassing truth…. Throughout his career, it has been Wilbur's genius to invest the quotidian with holiness, to conceive of reality (or one perhaps satisfying, sufficient sense of reality that would allow the possibility of happiness) as, in Scott's words, a "sacramental economy," a world of presence, possibility, beauty; a world shimmering with reciprocity; a world in which man, in the words of Wallace Stevens, could bear the burden and glory of recognizing his "unique and solitary home." Nor, I think—since I believe that poetry, all literature, is essentially moral and that the dilemma of the modern condition is a feeling of positivistic helplessness in trying to defend traditional virtues ("Thou shalt not kill") once we have lost our capacity for figural thought, once we have realized we are not sponsored—nor, I think, is it to Wilbur's discredit that the thrust of his life's work has not degenerated to the epicureanism of so much of Cummings', the Weltschmerz of so much of Berryman's, the seeming contempt for humanity of so much of Robinson Jeffers'….

Wilbur is a poet who conceives of balance as a means. When the chain of human humility is broken, when mind and heart, soul and body do not muse and gambol together, the inevitable result is pain and sorrow. Humility: "God keep me a damned fool, nor charitably/Receive me into his shapely resignations" ("A Voice from under the Table"). Balance….

One of the marks of Wilbur's own balance is his humor in the poems ("A Problem from Milton," "Lamarck Elaborated," "A Chronic Condition"—this last one beginning "Berkeley did not foresee such misty weather") which most directly deal with the difficulties of not-knowing, with the sweet disorders of the mind's dress….

There is for me in the poetry of Richard Wilbur something always just past the threshold of realization, something elusive, something toward which his formal structures edge and with which they bump shoulders, something that criticism can only hope to graze. This something, I think, is feeling, passion. It is a passion intricately involved with the tension that results from the clash between his language, his rage for the right word with the right sound, the right movement, and the knowledge manifested, embodied in those words and structures that the mind's graceful errors and the heart's unreasonable joys and sorrows and the losses that time has dealt us enable a man to go just so far. It is a passion involved with a poem's reaching for as much as possible while it knows that the distance between it and the stars is staggering. It is a passion of acceptance, and more: of a whole spirit's agonizing for something that will suffice, and of that spirit's joy in finding that in its world there is something that sometimes will.

William Heyen, "On Richard Wilbur," in The Southern Review, Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 617-34.