Richard Wilbur

b. 1921
Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur “is a poet for all of us, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox,” announced Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin when the poet succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second poet laureate of the United States. Wilbur won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957 and a second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems. He has won the Wallace Stevens Award, the Frost Medal, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, two Bollingen Prizes, the T.S. Eliot Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Prix de Rome Fellowship and many more honors, fellowships and awards for his poetry. His translations of French verse, especially Voltaire’s Candide and the plays of Moliere and Jean Racine, are also highly regarded by critics; his translation of Moliere’s Tartuffe won the 1971 Bollingen Prize.

Wilbur’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both editors, and Wilbur showed an early interest in journalism. As a student at Amherst College in the early 1940s, Wilbur wrote stories, editorials, and poems for his college newspaper and magazine. His experience as a soldier in World War II, however, drove him to “versify in earnest.” He has described the influence of his experiences in war on his poetry: “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.” This emphasis on order and organization shapes Wilbur’s first collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), which “treat his war experiences in a style so elaborately formal that the most awful subjects are sublimated into irony, or even black comedy,” noted Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker. Wilbur’s concern with order and his restrained, formal touch opened him to charges of sacrificing real emotion for smoothness. James Dickey, in his book, Babel to Byzantium, wrote that one has “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.” Of Wilbur’s second book, Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), Randall Jarrell famously complained that Wilbur “never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.”

John Reibetanz speculated in Modern Poetry Studies that “for Richard Wilbur, the sights offered by World War II contradict and threaten his most basic beliefs, as we can infer them from his writings: that love is more powerful than hatred; that nature is a source of values and of reassurance; and that there is a strong creative urge in both man and nature which constantly seeks and finds expression in images of graceful plenitude . . . But in the 1940’s,” Reibetanz concludes, “the utter disparity between what he saw and what he wished to see made him run for cover.” But Wilbur himself has dismissed the notion that being a poet of praise and not complaint is a matter of running from reality. “I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,” he explained in an interview with Peter Stitt in the Paris Review, “that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that’s my attitude.” Robert B. Shaw comments in Parnassus: Poetry in Review that while “it is true that some of Wilbur’s earlier poems veer with disconcerting abruptness from the naturalistic to the esthetic. . . . He has never, in fact, avoided negative subject matter as completely as some critics have charged.” The critic later asserts that several poems in his third collection, Things of This World, deal directly with humane and political issues.

While Wilbur continued to produce composed, reflective, and largely optimistic poetry in collections like Things of This World, (1956), Advice to a Prophet (1961) and Walking to Sleep (1969) using traditional patterns of rhyme and meter, the poetic landscape of the times meant that his work was often judged harshly. “The typical ghastly poem of the fifties was a Wilbur poem not written by Wilbur,” wrote Donald Hall in 1961, “a poem with tired wit and obvious comparisons and nothing to keep the mind or the ear occupied.” Hall knowingly added: “It wasn’t Wilbur’s fault, though I expect he will be asked to suffer for it.” When the Confessional poets of the 1960s and ‘70s came into vogue, Wilbur’s reputation began to suffer. “Public taste,” Stephen Metcalf wrote in the New York Times, “courtesy of ‘Howl’ and Lowell’s ‘Life Studies’ and the phenomenon known as Sylvia Plath—edged away from Wilbur, and from his dedication to urbanity and metrical poise. Wilbur, it used to be said, coasted along a little too smoothly; he wrote the poem bien fait.” However, Wilbur’s work has always enjoyed critical acclaim, and his third volume, Things of This World, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1957. The volume contained one of Wilbur’s most famous poems “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” which Jarrell himself described as “one of the most marvelously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written.” Another poem from the same collection, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” is one of his most anthologized.

Wilbur’s collections from the 1970s and ‘80s continued his reputation as a formalist writing important work, though writing it somewhat on the fringes of contemporary poetry. Poems like those in The Mind Reader (1976) manage “to stand up against every kind of poetic chic,” said Bruce Michelson in Southern Review. As Wilbur has grown older, however, his work has become more personal—in a Paris Review interview, he admitted “I’ve begun to crumble a bit, and write more shamelessly of what is near to me.” He was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems (1988). His nomination for the poet laureate position came soon after. Analyzing New and Collected Poems, the Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Joshua Odell noted how the new poems “clearly show a continued evolution in style from an ornate elegance found particularly in Wilbur’s first collection, The Beautiful Changes, toward a simple, direct and crisp verse.” Still, as some critics have noted, the changes in Wilbur’s poetry have not affected the basic philosophy his verses have always shown: a belief that the “glorious energy” of the world tends toward “pattern and shape.” Wilbur’s detachment, his refusal to complain or “glamorize” the self, his formal brilliance and his reliance on meter and rhyme have helped him regain critical attention, and the publication of his Collected Poems in 2005 was met with much acclaim. Writing in Slate, James Longenbach wrote that “Wilbur’s poems matter not because they may or may not be stylish at any given moment but because they keep the English language alive: Wilbur’s great poems feel as fresh—as astonishing, as perplexing, as shocking—as they did 50 years ago.”

Wilbur is also a gifted and prolific translator. His aptitude and facility with formal verse have benefitted his work translating French poetry and plays. Speaking of his “tactful, metrical and speakable translation of verse drama,” Hudson Review critic Alan Shaw comments: “Wilbur’s [translations] are almost the solitary example of this kind in English.”  The expertise and importance of the poet’s translations of plays by Moliere, Voltaire, and Racine has been little questioned by reviewers. “The rendition [of Moliere’s The Misanthrope], delightful and literate, made Moliere accessible for the first time to a wide American audience,” wrote David H. Van Biema in People. Comparing Wilbur’s version of The Misanthrope (1955) to other translators’, John Ciardi wrote that “instead of cognate-snapping, as the academic dullards invariably do, Wilbur has found English equivalents for the turn and nuance of the French, and the fact that he has managed to do so in rhymed couplets that not only respect themselves as English poetry but allow the play to be staged . . . with great success is testament enough.”

Wilbur has also published a number of works for children. These include a trio of word-play books devoted to synonyms and antonyms: Opposites (1973), More Opposites (1991), and Runaway Opposites (1995). Self-illustrated, these books offer amusing poems devoted to words with opposite meanings. A Game of Catch, another work for children, was first published in the New Yorker in 1953 and reprinted as a separate volume in 1994. Other books for children include The Disappearing Alphabet (1998) and The Pig in the Spigot (2000). Wilbur’s children’s literature often investigates language and words in a witty, inventive way. Jennifer M. Brabander of Horn Book noted that “Wilbur’s poems are filled with small, satisfying surprises.”

Richard Wilbur’s books of prose include Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976 (1976 / 2000) and The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995 (1997). Mary Maxwell, reviewing the book for the Boston Review thought that readers “may be surprised by melancholy undercurrents swelling below the book’s expectedly sane and sunny acumen.” Wilbur taught for twenty years at Wesleyan University and helped found the influential Wesleyan University Press poetry series in 1959, which first published important poets like James Wright, Richard Howard, and Roberty Bly. The press continues to publish important new and established contemporary poets to this day. After Wesleyan, Wilbur spent ten years as writer-in-residence at Smith College. He has also served as Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets.

Career

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Society of Fellows, junior fellow, 1947-50, assistant professor of English, 1950-54; Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, associate professor of English, 1955-57; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, professor of English, 1957-77; Smith College, Northampton, MA, writer-in-residence, 1977-86; Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Poet Laureate of the United States, 1987-88. Lecturer at colleges, universities, and Library of Congress. U.S. State Department cultural exchange representative to the USSR, 1961.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, Reynal, 1947.
  • Ceremony and Other Poems, Harcourt (Boston), 1950.
  • Things of This World: Poems, Harcourt, 1956.
  • Poems, 1943-1956, Faber (London), 1957.
  • Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems, 1961.
  • The Poems of Richard Wilbur, Harcourt, 1963.
  • Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations, Harcourt, 1969.
  • Seed Leaves: Homage to R. F. (poem), limited edition, David R. Godine, 1974.
  • The Mind-Reader: New Poems, Harcourt, 1976.
  • Seven Poems, Abbatoir Editions, 1981.
  • New and Collected Poems, Harcourt, 1988.
  • Mayflies: New Poems and Translations, Harcourt (New York City), 2000.
  • Collected Poems: 1943-2004, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2004.

PLAYS AND TRANSLATIONS

  • (Translator) Moliere, The Misanthrope: Comedy in Five Acts, 1666 (also see below; produced in Cambridge, MA, by the Poet’s Theatre, October 25, 1955; produced off-Broadway at Theatre East, November 12, 1956), Harcourt, 1955.
  • (Lyricist with John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Leonard Bernstein) Voltaire, Candide: A Comic Operetta Based on Voltaire’s Satire (musical; based on adaptation by Lillian Hellman; music by Leonard Bernstein; produced on Broadway at Martin Beck Theatre, December 1, 1956; produced on the West End at Saville Theatre, April 30, 1959), Random House, 1957.
  • (Translator) Philippe de Thaun, The Pelican from a Bestiary of 1120 (poem), privately printed, 1963.
  •  (Translator) Moliere, Tartuffe: Comedy in Five Acts, 1669 (also see below; produced in Milwaukee, WI, at Fred Miller Theatre, January, 1964; produced on Broadway at ANTA Theatre, January 14, 1965), Harcourt, 1963.
  • (Translator) Moliere, The Misanthrope [and] Tartuffe, Harcourt, 1965.
  • (Translator) Moliere, The School for Wives: Comedy in Five Acts, 1662 (produced on Broadway at Lyceum Theatre, February 16, 1971 ), Harcourt, 1971.
  • (Translator) Moliere, The Learned Ladies: Comedy in Five Acts, 1672 (produced in Williamstown, MA, at the Williamstown Festival Theatre, 1977), Harcourt, 1978.
  • (Translator) Jean Racine, Andromache: Tragedy in Five Acts, 1667, Harcourt, 1982.
  • (Translator) Moliere: Four Comedies, Harcourt, 1982.
  • (Translator) The Whale and Other Uncollected Translations, BOA Editions, 1982.
  •  (Translator) Racine, Phaedra, Harcourt, 1986.
  • (Translator) Moliere, The School for Husbands (also see below), Harcourt, 1992.
  • (Translator) The Imaginary Cuckold (also see below), Dramatists Play Service, 1993.
  • (Translator) Moliere, The School for Husbands & Sganarelle, or The Imaginary Cuckold, Harcourt, 1994.
  • (Translator) Moliere, Amphitryon, Dramatists Play Service (New York City), 1995.
  • (Translator) Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage, or Invitation to the Voyage: A Poem from the Flowers of Evil, 1854, Little, Brown (Boston), 1997.
  • (Translator) Moliere, Don Juan, Dramatists Play Service (New York City), 1998, published as Don Juan: Comedy in Five Acts, 1665, Harcourt, 2001.

EDITOR

  • (With Louis Untermeyer and Karl Shapiro) Modern American and Modern British Poetry, revised abridged edition, Harcourt, 1955.
  • A Bestiary (anthology), Pantheon, 1955.
  • (And author of introduction and notes) Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Poems, Dell, 1959.
  • (Editor, with others) Major Writers of America, Harcourt, 1962.
  • (With Alfred Harbage, and author of introduction) William Shakespeare, Poems, Penguin, 1966, revised edition published as Shakespeare, the Narrative Poems and Poems of Doubtful Authenticity, 1974.
  • (And author of introduction) Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, David R. Godine, 1974.
  • (And author of introduction) Witter Bynner, Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus, 1978.

OTHER

  • (Contributor) Gygory Kepes, editor, The New Landscape in Art and Science, Paul Theobald, 1955.
  • Poems (recording), Spoken Arts, 1959. (With Robert Hillyer and Cleanth Brooks) Anniversary Lectures, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1959.
  • (With Louise Bogan and Archibald MacLeish) Emily Dickinson: Three Views (criticism), Amherst College Press, 1960.
  • Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems, Harcourt, 1961.
  • (Contributor) Don C. Allen, editor, The Moment of Poetry, Johns Hopkins Press, 1962
  • Loudmouse (juvenile), illustrated by Don Almquist, Collier (London), 1963,
  • Prince Souvanna Phouma: An Exchange between Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith (poem), limited edition, Phoenix Book Shop, 1968.
  •  Digging to China: Poem (Child Study Association book list; first published in Things of This World), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
  • (Self-illustrated) Opposites: Poems and Drawings (children’s poems), Harcourt, 1973. Harcourt (New York City), 1982.
  • Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976, Harcourt, 1976, expanded edition published by Story Line Press (Ashland, OR), 2000.
  • (Lyricist) On Freedom’s Ground (cantata; music by William Schuman), produced in New York City at the Lincoln Center for the Statue of Liberty Centennial, October, 1986.
  • Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
  • (Self-illustrated) More Opposites (children’s poems), Harcourt, 1991.
  • (Author of foreword) Rollie McKenna, A Life in Photography, Knopf (New York City), 1991.
  • A Game of Catch, illustrations by Barry Moser, Harcourt, 1994.
  • Runaway Opposites, selections illustrated by Henrik Drescher, Harcourt, 1995.
  • The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces, 1963-1995, Harcourt, 1997.
  • The Disappearing Alphabet (children’s fiction), illustrated by David Diaz, Harcourt (San Diego), 1998.
  • Opposites, More Opposites, and a Few Differences (contains Opposites and More Opposites), edited by Diane D’Andrade, Harcourt, 2000.
  • The Pig in the Spigot (children’s fiction), illustrated by J. Otto Seibold, Harcourt (San Diego), 2000.

 

Also recorded Richard Wilbur Reading His Own Poems, for Caedmon, and additional readings for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, Library of Congress. Translator of The Funeral of Bobo, by Joseph Brodsky, for Ardis. Work represented in anthologies. Contributor of critical reviews to periodicals. General editor, “Laurel Poets” series, for Dell; former member of poetry board, Wesleyan University Press.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Bixler, Francis, Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide, Macmillan, 1991.
  • Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale (Detroit), 1998.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 53, 1989.
  • Cummins, Paul F., Richard Wilbur: A Critical Essay, Eerdmans, 1971.
  • Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus, 1968.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980.
  • Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur, University of Alabama Press, 1995.
  • Hill, Donald L., Richard Wilbur, Twayne, 1967.
  • Hougen, John B., Ecstasy within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur, Scholars Press, 1994.
  • Hungerford, Edward, editor, Poets in Progress, Northwestern University Press, 1962, new edition, 1967.
  • Jarrell, Randall, Poetry and the Age, Knopf, 1953.
  • Jarrell, Randall, The Third Book of Criticism, Farrar, Straus, 1969.
  • Kunitz, Stanley, and Vineta Colby, Twentieth-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, H. W. Wilson, 1955.
  • Michelson, Bruce, Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
  • Nemerov, Howard, editor, Poets on Poetry, Basic Books, 1966.
  • Salinger, Wendy, editor, Richard Wilbur's Creation, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 1983.
  • Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets, Oxford University Press, 1965.

PERIODICALS

  • America, October 15, 1994, p. 18.
  • Booklist, November 15, 1998, Michael Cart, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 585; March 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Mayflies, p. 1190.
  • Boston Review, summer, 1998, review of The Catbird's Song.
  • Christian Century, May 24, 2000, Pelaez Jill Baumgaertner, review of Mayflies, p. 607.
  • Hollins Critic, April, 1977.
  • Horn Book, September-October, 1998, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 618.
  • Hudson Review, summer, 1969; summer, 1987.
  • Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of The Disappearing Alphabet.
  • Library Journal, April 15, 1997, Barbara O'Hara, review of The Catbird's Song, p. 83.
  • London Magazine, July, 1957.
  • Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1983; April 18, 1987; October 13, 1987.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 31, 1988; October 9, 1988.
  • Modern Poetry Studies, Volume 2, numbers 1 and 2, 1982.
  • Nation, November 3, 1956.
  • National Review, September 2, 1988.
  • New Republic, June 5, 1976; March 24, 1982, Brad Leithauser, "Reconsideration: Richard Wilbur—America's Master of Formal Verse," pp. 28-31.
  • New York, February 13, 1995, p. 102.
  • New Yorker, December 12, 1994, p. 122.
  • New York Times, January 28, 1983; April 18, 1987, Irvin Molotsky, "Richard Wilbur Is Named Nation's Poet Laureate," p. 26; March 14, 1999, David Sacks, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 30; April 16, 2000, David Kirby, review of Mayflies.
  • New York Times Book Review, December 14, 1969; December 26, 1982; April 18, 1987; May 29, 1988; August 27, 1995, p. 27.
  • Paris Review, winter, 1977.
  • Parnassus: Poetry in Review, spring/summer, 1977.
  • People Weekly, October 5, 1987.
  • Publishers Weekly, August 2, 1991, p. 60; March 13, 1995, p. 68; February 10, 1997, review of The Catbird's Song, p. 72; August 17, 1998, review of The Disappearing Alphabet, p. 70; February 7, 2000, review of Mayflies, p. 69.
  • Saturday Review, August 18, 1956.
  • School Library Journal, September, 1992, p. 272; April, 1994, p. 132; May, 1995, p. 117.
  • Sewanee Review, spring, 1978.
  • Shenandoah, fall, 1965.
  • Southern Review, summer, 1973; April, 1975, Raymond Oliver, "Verse Translation and Richard Wilbur," pp. 318-330; July, 1979.
  • Southwest Review, summer, 1973.
  • Time, November 19, 1984.
  • Times (London), July 15, 1989.
  • Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1977; September 15-21, 1989, p. 999.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago), July 24, 1988.
  • Twentieth Century Literature, winter, 1995, Philip White, "'Walking to Sleep' and Richard Wilbur's Quest for a Rational Imagination," pp. 249-265.
  • Variety, January 3, 1994, p. 58; May 30, 1994, p. 58; February 16, 1995, p. 82.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1990, Peter Harris, "Forty Years of Richard Wilbur: The Loving Work of an Equilibrist," pp. 412-425.
  • Wall Street Journal, April, 2000, p. W10.
  • Washington Post, July 25, 1976; October 6, 1987.

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    Richard Wilbur talks about his translation of Mallarme's "The Tomb of Edgar Poe."

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POET’S REGION U.S., New England

LIFE SPAN 1921–

Richard Wilbur

Biography

Richard Wilbur “is a poet for all of us, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox,” announced Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin when the poet succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second poet laureate of the United States. Wilbur won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957 and a second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems. He has won the Wallace Stevens . . .

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