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.
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.
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.
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."