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.
The young couple, however, were wed in the shadow of World War II, which the U.S. had entered after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Several of Wilbur’s Amherst classmates, who had enlisted before graduation, had already been killed in action. Wilbur hoped to become a cryptographer–a specialist in deciphering enemy codes–and he even spent part of his honeymoon practicing Morse code. Joining the U. S. Army, he briefly studied at a secret military installation in Virginia learning to transcribe and translate radio codes. Midway through this training, however, Wilbur was abruptly transferred to Infantry. He had been classified "Suspected of Disloyalty" after a security check discovered his leftist views and radical friends.
In his new unit, Wilbur joined the Allied Forces that invaded Italy and France to fight the German army. His division saw combat for three years from the dangerous amphibious landing on the beaches of Salerno and Anzio and the brutal assault on Monte Cassino to the final collapse of the fortified Siegfried Line guarding Germany’s border. Having seen many of his fellow soldiers killed in combat, Wilbur left the Army in 1945 with the rank of staff sergeant.
Early Critical Success
In September, 1947 Wilbur’s first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems appeared, The poet was twenty-six years old, a remarkably early age for so definitive a debut. The Beautiful Changes received excellent reviews with critics praising Wilbur as an especially gifted member of "the war generation" of writers. By the time his second book Ceremony and Other Poems arrived in 1950 Wilbur had become the poet of his generation. Babette Deutsch exclaimed in the New York Times Book Review, "Here is poetry to be read with the eye, the ear, the heart and the mind." (Richard Wilbur’s Creation, 37) Even the notoriously tough Joseph Bennett declared in The Hudson Review "Wilbur’s is the strongest poetic talent I can see in America below the generation now in their fifties." (Richard Wilbur’s Creation, 41) Heady praise for a poet not yet thirty.
Since the publication of Ceremony, Wilbur’s artistic stature has never been seriously challenged. His work not only demonstrated his unsurpassed individual gifts, but it also exemplified a new formal style emerging among the mid-century generation of poets. Sometimes called the "New Critical" style, this approach usually employed rhyme and meter, elaborate wordplay (especially puns and paradoxes), and intricate argument to create subtle and intelligent–but rarely highly emotional–poems. The poems were complex but comprehensible–and they often seemed to cry out for critical analysis, especially the line-by-line examination called "close reading" practiced by the New Critics.
One sees the features of the "New Critical" style in the opening stanza of "Ceremony," which describes a painting of a woman in a forest by the French Impressionist Jean-Frédéric Bazille. The dry wit and quiet control of the first five lines hardly prepare one for the magic of the stanza’s final line:
A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille
Is, you may say, a patroness of boughs
Too queenly kind toward nature to be kin.
But ceremony never did conceal,
Save to the silly eye, which all allows,
How much we are the woods we wander in.
(New and Collected Poems, 334)
Is it any wonder that critic Clive James has praised Wilbur’s genius for the "killer-diller line"? (Richard Wilbur’s Creation, 111).
If Ceremony cemented Wilbur’s reputation, it also began to raise what would become the central critical issue surrounding his work. There was no question that his poetry was immensely accomplished–musically phrased, intelligently conceived, and imagistically memorable. Wilbur seemed incapable of writing a bad poem. The real question was whether he was sufficiently ambitious. Did Wilbur achieve perfection on a small scale at the expense of larger accomplishment? Was he unwilling to risk failure by tackling big themes and extended forms? Poet-critic Randall Jarrell most succinctly expressed this creative quandary in an otherwise positive review of Ceremony. "Mr. Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough." (Richard Wilbur’s Creation 48-49) This critical reservation would follow Wilbur across his entire career.
Wilbur’s next volume, Things of This World (1956), however, momentarily silenced his critics and unquestionably dazzled his admirers. The collection won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. His academic career was also happily settled. In 1957 Wilbur accepted a professorship at Wesleyan University in Middletown Connecticut where he taught for the next twenty years.
A Poet in the Theater
While Wilbur wrote the poems that eventually made up Things of This World, he began to explore a new form of artistic expression–verse drama. In 1952 Wilbur had won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which provided funds for a year free from teaching to write full-time. Verse drama had experienced a huge revival in the years after World War II with successful productions in London and New York of poetic plays by T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. A new drama company, the Poets’ Theatre, had just started in Cambridge, Massachusetts dedicated to producing new verse plays or foreign classics in contemporary translations. Wilbur spent his fellowship year in New Mexico trying to write poetic plays. "They didn’t come off," he later admitted. "They were very bad, extremely wooden." (Conversation, 12). To learn the craft of verse drama, Wilbur began translating The Misanthrope, a classic comedy by Molière, the great seventeenth century French comic dramatist.
Wilbur’s fateful decision to create a rhymed English version of Molière’s The Misanthrope began one of the greatest literary translation projects in American literature. Over the next forty years he would produce lively, sophisticated and eminently stageworthy versions of all of Molière’s major comedies–The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), The School for Wives (1971), The Learned Ladies (1978), The School for Husbands (1992), Sganarelle or The Imaginary Cuckold (1993), and Amphitryon (1995) as well as two neo-classical verse tragedies by Racine–Andromache (1982) and Phaedre (1986). From the moment his first Molière translation was staged–at the Poets’ Theatre on October 31, 1955–his versions have delighted and impressed audiences. Widely produced from Broadway to college campuses, Wilbur’s versions not only helped create a Molière revival across North America, but the royalties they generated eventually enabled the poet to teach only half time.
The success of The Misanthrope also led Wilbur into another theatrical venture inspired by a different French literary classic. Composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman approached the poet to write song lyrics for their musical comedy Candide (based on Voltaire’s celebrated novel). Bernstein and Hellman had already been struggling with the project for five years when Wilbur joined the creative team. Candide became a notoriously difficult enterprise. Hellman proved temperamental, and Bernstein stubborn. Although the musical was positively reviewed with special praise for Wilbur’s sparkling lyrics, the lavish production did poorly when it premiered on Broadway in December 1956. (Ironically, a modest production of The Misanthrope, which opened in New York at the same time, was both a commercial and critical success.) Over the next thirty years, however, Bernstein and others repeatedly revised the musical and eventually replaced most of Hellmann’s dialogue. Very gradually Candide has emerged as a classic of American musical theater, and the Wilbur/Bernstein song, "Glitter and Be Gay," now occupies a special place in the repertory of American sopranos.
A Master of Verse Translation
Wilbur has not confined his interest in poetic translation to the theater. Every volume of his poems since Ceremony has contained verse translations. Sometimes accounting for a quarter of the book’s contents, these masterful English versions are usually drawn from French and Italian (two languages Wilbur knows well), but his translations also include poems from Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Latin, Hungarian, and Anglo-Saxon. A master technician, Wilbur almost always duplicates the original’s form in English, even when translating intricately rhymed sonnets, rondeaus, and ballades. Yet he never loses the literal sense or emotional force of the original.
His translation of early modernist Guillaume Apollinaire’s unpunctuated but complexly musical "Pont Mirabeau," for instance, reads as if it had originally been written in English. It begins:
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
Must I recall
Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again
Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay
(New and Collected Poems, 28)
It would be hard to overpraise Wilbur’s special genius for translation. He has no equal among his contemporaries and stands with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ezra Pound, and Robert Fitzgerald as one of the four greatest translators in the history of American poetry. Those critics who fault Wilbur for lacking poetic ambition ignore this essential and impressive part of his work.
A Religious Poet
It has been Wilbur’s ironic achievement to excel at precisely those literary forms that many contemporary critics undervalue–metrical poetry, verse translation, comic verse, song lyrics, and perhaps foremost among these unfashionable but extraordinary accomplishments, religious poetry. A practicing Episcopalian, Wilbur is America’s preeminent living Christian poet. No other author in this neglected field has written so much over so many years with such consistent distinction.
At least a third of Wilbur’s poems–light verse and translations aside–contain some conspicuous Christian element. Yet the nature of his accomplishments is both subtle and complex. Although Christianity provides the central vision of his work, he has written little devotional verse–overtly pious poetry, that is, that tries to replicate the act of worship. Instead, Wilbur characteristically uses the images, ideas, and ceremonies of the Christian faith to provide perspective on the secular world. Sometimes the literal subject of the poem is religious as in "Matthew VIII, 28ff." or "A Christmas Hymn." More often Wilbur subtly weaves his religious vision into a poem’s language and imagery as in this stanza from "October Maples, Portland," which describes the autumn foliage of New England as symbols of divine redemption in a fallen world:
A showered fire we thought forever lost
Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,
They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.
Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street.
Although this stanza can be read as a literal description of the October foliage in Connecticut, the natural world also becomes a sacramental means of revealing the divine order. Note how the descriptive image of "showered fire" and word choice of redeems simultaneously portray bright red maple leaves and suggest the Pentecostal flame the Holy Spirit placed on the heads of Christ’s Apostles. Indeed, as the townspeople converse on the tree-lined street where the trees form a metaphoric "temple," they both figuratively and symbolically "Parley in the tongues of Pentecost."
This stanza also demonstrates how Wilbur uses wordplay for serious ends. Few poets pun more frequently, but he rarely does so for purely comic effect. His creative obsession is to have important words serve double duty in a poem. Wilbur's best poems–like those of his mentor, Frost–often present a double structure. There is a surface plot or situation that unfolds in literal terms. Meanwhile underneath that accessible surface level is a subtext, an unstated but implied second meaning. "October Maples, Portland" literally presents a New England seasonal scene, but the subtext suggests a religious vision of life, death, and eternity. What connects these two levels of meaning are Wilbur’s masterful puns and wordplay.
A Sustained Career
Wilbur’s late career has been one of quiet but steady achievement. Wilbur retired from teaching in 1986, and in 1987 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second Poet Laureate of the United States. He now divides his time between two homes–one in Cummington, Massachusetts and the other in Key West, Florida. While many poets (like William Wordsworth) lose artistic vitality in middle age or (like Matthew Arnold) stop writing verse altogether, Wilbur is the rare poet who has maintained an unbroken high standard. His style and sensibility have not changed greatly after The Beautiful Changes–except for a slight darkening of tone in his poems of old age–but every volume has contained superb new work. The special consistency of his achievement was recognized when his New and Collected Poems (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize, making him the only living American poet to have won the award twice. His literary stature has even grown in recent years as a new generation of young poets interested in rhyme and meter have looked to him as mentor and model.
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.
Wilbur had the misfortune to come of age at a time when literary criticism was receding into the academy, and simple, repeatable liturgies involving ‘’originality'’ made the glamorously obscure poem easy to teach, especially to students with no inherited sense of poetic tradition. That era is thankfully at an end. The emergence of a poet like Wilbur as a hero to a new generation of critics is cause for hope: that readers, not gatekeepers, might rediscover poems written in the spirit of generosity and care, and disciplined by the idea of an uncaptive audience.
Poet and translator Richard Wilbur has won the 2006 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Established in 1986, the prize is one of the most prestigious given to American poets, and at $100,000 it is one of the nation's largest literary honors.
In announcing the award, Wiman said: "If you had to put all your money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years, Richard Wilbur would be a good bet. He has written some of the most memorable poems of our time, and his achievement rivals that of great American poets like Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop."
"No contemporary poet has brought so much lived experience into such formally perfect poems as Richard Wilbur. Entering a Wilbur poem is a deeply civil and civilizing experience, from which we emerge better human beings," said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation. "The Poetry Foundation is pleased to represent Ruth Lilly, once again, in giving this major award to a poet as extraordinary as Wilbur."
Among his honors are the Wallace Stevens Award, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Frost Medal, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Bollingen Prizes, the T. S. Eliot Award, a Ford Foundation Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the National Arts Club medal of honor for literature, two PEN translation awards, the Prix de Rome Fellowship, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He was elected a chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques and is a former Poet Laureate of the United States.
His many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Edna St Vincent Millay award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Chevalier, Ordre National des Palmes Academiques. He was the US poet laureate, 1987-88.
"Richard Wilbur is the wisest, wittiest, cleverest, finest of poets establishing their careers in this country."
- Paul Engle -
"Not a graceful mind - that's a mistake - but a mind of grace, an altogether different and higher thing."
- Theodore Roethke –
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."