Richard Wilbur Analysis

Discussion Topics

How does imagery from the natural world shape Richard Wilbur’s poetry?

How does the poet’s “praiseful eye,” as Wilbur calls it, appear in his poetry?

Does Wilbur’s religious faith shape his poetic concerns? If so, how?

Wilbur is famous for avoiding literary trends, but what poetic influences seem important to his work?

How does Wilbur’s formal verse (rhyme, meter, and so on) enhance what he has to say?

Wilbur is sometimes thought to be an “easy” poet—too graceful, too formal, unwilling to accept risk or tragedy. How fair is this assessment?

Other literary forms

In addition to his success as a poet, Richard Wilbur has won acclaim as a translator. Interspersed among his own poems are translations of Charles Baudelaire, Jorge Guillén, François Villon, and many others. His interest in drama is most notably shown in his translations of four Molière plays: The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), The School for Wives (1971), and The Learned Ladies (1978). In 1957, Random House published Candide: A Comic Operetta with lyrics by Wilbur, book by Lillian Hellman, and score by Leonard Bernstein. Wilbur admits that he attempted to write a play in 1952, but he found its characters unconvincing and “all very wooden.” He turned to translating Molière, thinking he “might learn something about poetic theater by translating the master.”

Wilbur has edited several books, including A Bestiary, with Alexander Calder (1955), Poe: Complete Poems (1959), and Shakespeare: Poems, with coeditor Alfred Harbage (1966). In 1976, Wilbur published Responses, Prose Pieces: 1953-1976, a collection of essays which he describes as containing “some prose by-products of a poet’s life.” His essays and other prose pieces are collected in The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995 (1997). Most of his manuscripts are in the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. His early work is housed in the Lockwood Memorial Library at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Richard Wilbur has been the recipient of many awards and honors, including honorary degrees from colleges and universities. He received two Guggenheim Fellowships (1952-1953, 1963), the Prix de Rome(1954), a Ford Fellowship (1960-1961), and a Camargo Foundation Fellowship (1985). In 1957, Things of This World brought him a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, and he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He received the Bollingen Prize (with Mona Van Duyn) in 1971, the Shelley Memorial Award in 1973, and the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry in 1988. He served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets (1961-1995) and as poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (1987-1988). New and Collected Poems won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1988. In 1991, he was awarded a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. President Bill Clinton bestowed the National Medal of the Arts on Wilbur in 1994. In 1996, he received the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America and the Ingersoll Foundation’s T. S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing. He received the Corrington Award for Literary Excellence from Centenary College of Louisiana (1998-1999), the Wallace Stevens Award (2003), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2006).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. A useful bibliographical guide to Wilbur’s work and its criticism.

Cummins, Paul F. Richard Wilbur: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971. Defends Wilbur’s poetry against the charge of passionless elegance; argues that the poet uses rhyme and meter skillfully to enhance tone and meaning. A largely thematic study. Includes a primary and a secondary bibliography (both of which, naturally, are dated), but no index.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995. Edgecombe provides some worthwhile insights into Wilbur’s poems up to those included in New and Collected Poems (1988). He provides a brief but penetrating introduction, as well as an extensive bibliography and a serviceable index.

Field, John P. Richard Wilbur: A Bibliographical Checklist. Serif series: Bibliographies and Checklists 16. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971. For the student wishing to make further forays into Wilbur’s poetry and thinking, this volume provides a valuable detailed listing of the poetry collections and their contents, articles, stories, edited works, book reviews, interviews, and manuscripts. A list of secondary...

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