Richard Wilbur Wilbur, Richard (Vol. 110) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Wilbur 1921–

(Full name Richard Purdy Wilbur) American poet, translator, critic, nonfiction writer, author of children's books, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Wilbur's career through 1997. For further information on Wilbur's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 9, 14, and 53.

The former Poet Laureate of the United States from 1987–1988, Richard Wilbur is respected for the craftsmanship and elegance of his verse, which employs formal poetic structures and smoothly flowing language to pinpoint and poeticize individual moments in modern life. Wilbur's English translations of the works of French dramatists such as Molière and Racine are also widely praised and considered to be the definitive versions.

Biographical Information

Wilbur was born in New York City in 1921. The son of a commercial artist, Wilbur was interested in painting as a youth, but eventually opted to pursue writing, a decision he attributes to the influence of his mother's father and grandfather, both of whom were editors. Wilbur graduated from Amherst College in 1942 and Harvard University in 1947. During World War II he served in the Army, where he saw action in Italy, an experience that later helped form much of his poetry. Wilbur published his first book of poetry, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, in 1947, the same year he became a junior fellow at Harvard where he taught English until 1954. Wilbur went on to teach at Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, and Smith College. In 1987 he was named Poet Laureate of the United States, the second person to hold the position since its inception in 1986. Finding the bureaucratic responsibilities of the post too taxing, Wilbur opted not to serve a second year, and returned to writing and lecturing at various colleges and universities.

Major Works

Wilbur's first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, contains several pieces that focus on his experience as a soldier in World War II and reflect his attempts to instill a sense of order to an existence full of destruction and chaos. Other poems describe natural phenomena and include meditations on spiritual and metaphysical topics, recurring themes in Wilbur's work. In Ceremony and Other Poems (1950) Wilbur examines the relationship between the material world and the imagination, as he ponders mutability and death. Wilbur's next collection, Things of This World (1956), is widely regarded as containing his most mature work up to that point, and contains some of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, including "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" and "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra." Wilbur received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Things of This World. In Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961) Wilbur continued his lyricism and his command of various traditional poetic forms. Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), which won the Bollingen Prize, contains pastoral lyrics, an elegy, a Miltonic sonnet, tributes, narratives, and a riddle. In The Mind-Reader (1976), Wilbur examines characteristic concerns by employing witty language within tight lyrical structures. Wilbur's previously unpublished poems contained in New and Collected Poems (1988) include a tribute to W. H. Auden, a fable, observations on nature and the imagination, and a cantata on which he collaborated with composer William Schuman to honor the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. In The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995 (1997), Wilbur collects many of his nonfiction prose writings, including book reviews, criticism, and essays. Wilbur is also highly acclaimed for his translations. Of these he is best known for his versions of the Molière plays The Misanthrope and Tartuffe, having shared the Bollingen Prize for translation for the latter drama. His renderings into English of works by eminent French, Russian, and Spanish authors have been included in several of his poetry collections.

Critical Reception

While some critics have praised Wilbur's deft handling of formal conventions, others have asserted that his concern with form has led to thematic rigidity. Other commentators have noted that Wilbur's quiet conservatism is not likely to be well-received by an audience that expects poets to write personal and tormented explications of their own feelings rather than Wilbur's reserved metaphysical observations on nature. Thom Gunn wrote, after the publication of Advice to a Prophet, "The public prefers a wild and changeable poet to one who has pursued a single end consistently and quietly." Despite this bias, Wilbur's work has attracted wide admiration. Anthony Hecht commented on Wilbur's poem "Lying," "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, unrivaled."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (poetry) 1947
Ceremony and Other Poems (poetry) 1950
Things of This World: Poems (poetry) 1956
Poems, 1943–1956 (poetry) 1957
Emily Dickinson: Three Views [with Louise Bogan and Archibald MacLeish] (criticism) 1960
Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (poetry) 1961
Loudmouse (juvenile) 1963
The Poems of Richard Wilbur (poetry) 1963
Prince Souvanna Phouma: An Exchange between Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith (poetry) 1968
Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (poetry) 1969
Opposites: Poems and Drawings (juvenile) 1973
Seed Leaves: Homage to R. F. (poetry) 1974
The Mind-Reader: New Poems (poetry) 1976
Seven Poems (poetry) 1981
New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1988
The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1963–1995 (criticism, reviews, and essays) 1997

Horace Gregory (review date Fall 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Suburbia," in Partisan Review, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Fall 1956, pp. 545-53.

[Gregory is an American poet, critic, and translator whose works include Rooming House (1930) and Medusa in Gramercy Park (1960). In the following review, he praises the "charm" of Wilbur's poetry in Things of This World, but expresses reservations about its ability to retain a place in American literature.]

The recent Zeitgeist in American culture is of suburban colors, manners, dress. Those who are currently publishing verse are affected by its daily habits and ambitions, and more than a few have mistaken its presence for a visitation of the Muse. The importance of the suburban Zeitgeist may not be enduring, but since the end of the Korean War, its influence has spread cross-country from the suburbs of Boston to the state of Washington, far beyond the toll-gates of large cities; and it can be heard and seen as vividly on a college campus as in Westchester or nearby Long Island. It is nourished by the magazines I find in my dentist's office: The New Yorker, Life, and Time. It may seem strange that popular culture should invade, and so thoroughly and quickly, the landscapes of academic life; it may not (I am sure it does not) represent academic thinking at its centers, yet on the fringes of the campus it is very much alive, geared to the speed of a two-toned—strawberry-pink and gingham-blue—station wagon. It is well known that most of the verse published today is brought forth in the temporary shelter of universities. Suburban culture has spread its wings over all the activities that surround the campus, and verse written in this atmosphere cannot help reflecting the surfaces of everyday experience.

Another factor influencing the spirit of the verse written today was the belated "discovery" of Wallace Stevens. Of course, he had been "discovered" long ago; but in the postwar years it was not only the wit and inventiveness of Stevens' work, it was the image of his success, both as an executive of an insurance company and as a poet, that caught and held the admiration of young men and women who wrote verse. It was rumored that he was rich, very rich, rich enough to escape all minor economic misfortunes and turns of chance. In the United States there has never been any sustained disrespect for wealth; roughness and the "homespun" manner are often enjoyed, but always with the hope of finding "a rough diamond" or "a heart of gold." So far as the best of Stevens' verse revealed him, he was a pluralist and a skeptic; and certain external features of his legend had become attractive to emulate. The new Zeitgeist quickly absorbed whatever it understood of this legend; then it acquired an air of "difference" from the forty years that separated it from the first publication of Harmonium. It disregarded conscious bohemianism and "sexual freedom," as well as the Left Wing politics of the 1930's, and the "academic" irony fashionable in the 1940's that was best represented by the little magazine Furioso.

The conventions of the new Zeitgeist were being formed. The more "advanced" younger poets had become instructors and lecturers and behind academic facades embittered laurels were being watered and cultivated; old-fashioned excess (if any) and toasts drunk to the memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald were reserved for holidays, or discreetly converted into weekend faculty cocktail parties. These younger poets began to use the word "elegance" in praising each other's writings, and if twenty years ago it had become fashionable to be "proletarian" in spirit, in the early 1950's, it had become a virtue to say that one could not live on less than ten thousand a year, that if one did not have hidden sources of wealth, it was a disgrace to live at all. Stevens' "elegance" was...

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Charles R. Woodard (essay date Autumn 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur's Critical Condition," in Contemporary Poetry: A Journal of Criticism, Vol. II, No. 2, Autumn 1977, pp. 16-24.

[In the following essay, Woodard defends Wilbur's poetry against detractors who find his work "too happy."]

Critical commentaries on Wilbur's poetry have come to seem rather highly stylized and predictable, like bullfighting. First there is the ritual praise of his technical virtuosity (music, diction, imagery, metrics), to show that the critic is not devoid of the appreciation of beauty, followed quickly by the disclaimers which establish his awareness of its irrelevance to contemporary life. Objections to Wilbur's poetry, to phrase...

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Anthony Hecht (review date 16 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Master of Metaphor," in The New Republic, Vol. 3, No. 826, May 16, 1988, pp. 23-32.

[Hecht is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet whose works include A Summoning of Stones (1954) and The Hard Hours (1968). In the following review, he offers an overview of major themes and techniques in Wilbur's work and praises his New and Collected Poems.]

"The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis," observed Wittgenstein. And since today there are critics who maintain that art and criticism are indistinguishable from one another, it ought to follow that the critical work itself is seen from the same August perspective. Yet our...

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Richard Wilbur with Steve Kronen (interview date May-June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Richard Wilbur: An Interview," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, May-June 1991, pp. 45-55.

[Kronen is an American poet and critic. In the following interview, Wilbur discusses his influences, his thoughts on being poet laureate, and his opinions of contemporary poetry.]

[Steve Kronen:] For the past four or five years, there has been a range-war of sorts in the various journals between the so-called New Formalists and, ironically, the old free versers. What are your thoughts about this interchange?

[Richard Wilbur]: I'm aware that there is something of that sort going on, and I was recently sent an article from APR...

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John M. Green (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wilbur's Beasts," in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 247-49.

[In the following essay, Green analyzes and discusses the images and metaphors in Wilbur's poem "Beasts."]

Richard Wilbur's "Beasts" depicts in striking imagery the anomalous place of man in Nature. This brilliant six-stanza lyric can be divided into three scenes: the harmonious world of Nature; the painful world of degenerating human nature; and the world of "superior" men who betray their calling and bring destruction on all the worlds. Man seems to be the only creature whose nature, form, and function are not fixed. Paradoxically, this freedom from definition leads him into...

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Mohan Ramanen (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'The Writer'," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 58-60.

[In the following essay, Ramanen explains Wilbur's use of form and contrasting imagery to create a unified poem.]

Richard Wilbur's "The Writer" (New and Collected Poems, 1988), a poem about his daughter writing a story, is an outstanding example of the poet's method of setting up a poetic debate within the terms of a single meditative voice. The debate becomes an occasion for the demonstration of the deft formal control the poet has over stanza and line, point of view, diction, and imagery, which are all forged into a unity clinched by strong poetic closure.


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Raymond-Jean Frontain (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Advice to a Prophet'," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 55-59.

[In the following essay, Frontain cites classical and biblical sources and influences of Wilbur's "Advice to a Prophet."]

In "Advice to a Prophet," the title poem in Richard Wilbur's 1961 collection, the poet addresses one of the most important social and political problems of the atomic/nuclear age—the danger of mankind's destroying itself and its planet. It also answers one of the most difficult questions addressed by the poets of his generation—namely, how to reach an alienated, uninterested, even apathetic audience grown deaf to the poet/prophet's voice of...

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Samuel Hazo (essay date Fall 1992–Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "One Definite Mozart," in Renascence, Vol. XLV, No. 1-2, Fall 1992–Winter 1993, pp. 81-96.

[Hazo is an award-winning American poet and critic. In the following essay, he surveys Wilbur's works and praises him as one of the greatest American poets.]

Ever since I first began reading Richard Wilbur's poems in the late 1940's, I think I've read only one negative review of his work. It was not Randall Jarrell's somewhat patronizing critique of Wilbur's second book, Ceremony. It was a review of The Mind-Reader by Calvin Bedient in The New Republic (June 5, 1976). Bedient contended that Wilbur was too safe a poet—that he rarely took chances....

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Isabella Wai (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra'," in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 4, Summer 1996, pp. 244-47.

[In the following essay, Wai provides an analysis of Wilbur's poem "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra."]

In his book of word games for children Opposites, Richard Wilbur speculates about the relativity between objects, or between ideas, and between objects and ideas. In his poems, he uses contrasts to explore the relatedness of two conflicting inclinations: spiritual aspirations and mundane commitments. Wilbur approaches the intangible dimension of a real object through its tangible appearance. He tends to juxtapose one...

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Isabella Wai (essay date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wilbur's 'Ceremony'," in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter 1997, pp. 98-99.

[In the following essay, Wai provides a brief explication of Wilbur's poem "Ceremony."]

In his poem "Ceremony," Richard Wilbur treats the paradox that man and nature may seem to be in combat with each other yet are in some respects basically akin. The poem demonstrates his respect for ritualistic forms in both nature and society. "I think that a lot of one's feeling of union with natural things is unilateral," says Wilbur, "and yet I persist in feeling that nothing, right down to the stone, is irrelevant to us, is not part of a family."

"Ceremony" begins with...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bagg, Robert. "Merlin and Faust in Two Post-War Poems." In Merlin versus Faust: Contending Archetypes in Western Culture, edited by Charlotte Spivack, pp. 189-98. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

Analyzes Wilbur's poem "Merlin Enthralled" as exemplary of the search for meaning amid chaos in the tradition of war poetry.

Schwartz, Joseph. "The Concept of Historical Form in the Poetry of Richard Wilbur." Renascence 45, No. 1-2 (Fall 1992/Winter 1993): 35-48.

Discusses Wilbur's "sense of history" evident throughout his work, but found particularly in...

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