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Richard Wilbur has long been recognized as a major literary talent and as an important man of letters—a poet, critic, translator, and editor. Wilbur, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, has said of his poetry that it was not until World War II ”that I began to versify in earnest. One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means of organizing oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.” His poetry published in Things of This World (1957) was honored with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Wilbur, additionally, has excelled as a translator of Moliere (1622-1673), a French dramatist celebrated for his comedies, and of Jean Racine (1639-1699), a preeminent French tragedian. His translation of Moliere’s Tartuffe (1964), televised in 1971 and 1978, has become the foremost of the English versions of the play.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Richard Wilbur was born in New York City, one of two children of Lawrence L. and Helen Purdy Wilbur. His father was a portrait painter. When Wilbur was two years old, the family moved to a pre-Revolutionary stone house in North Caldwell, New Jersey. Although he did not live far from New York City, he and his brother, Lawrence, grew up in rural surroundings, which, he later speculated, led to his love of nature.
Wilbur showed an early interest in writing, which he has attributed to his mother’s family, because her father was an editor of the Baltimore Sun and her grandfather was an editor and a publisher of small papers aligned with the Democratic party. At Montclair High School, from which he graduated in 1938, Wilbur wrote editorials for the school newspaper. At Amherst College he was editor of the campus newspaper, the Amherst Student. He also contributed stories and poems to the Amherst student magazine, the Touchstone, and considered a career in journalism.
Marriage and World War II
Immediately after his graduation in June 1942, Wilbur married Charlotte Hayes Ward of Boston, an alumna of Smith College. It was a time of war, the United States having just recently joined the Allied Forces as an active participant fighting against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. As a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps, Wilbur went on active duty in the army in 1943, in the midst of World War II, and served overseas with the 36th (Texas) Division, first in Italy at Monte Cassino, later at Anzio, then along the Siegfried Line in Germany. It was during the war that he began writing poems, as he later said, borrowing Robert Frost’s phrase, as ”a momentary stay against confusion” in a time of disorder. When the war ended, he found himself with a drawer full of poems, only one of which had been published.
Wilbur went to Harvard University for graduate work in English to become a college teacher, and he decided to submit additional poems for publication only after a French friend read his manuscripts, ”kissed me on both cheeks and said, ‘You’re a poet!”’ as Wilbur said in a 1970 interview. In 1947, the year he received his master’s from Harvard, his first volume of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947), appeared.
With the appearance of his second book of poems, Ceremony and Other Changes (1950), Wilbur was appointed an assistant professor of English at Harvard, where he remained until 1954, living in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with his wife and three (later four) children. He spent the academic year 1952-1953 in New Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a poetic drama. When his attempts at a play did not work out to his satisfaction, he turned to translating Moliere’s Le Misanthrope (1666) instead, beginning his distinguished career as a translator. A grant from the Prix de Rome permitted Wilbur to live at the American Academy in Rome for a year. On his return to America, his translation of The Misanthrope (1955) was published and performed at the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1954 Wilbur was appointed an associate professor of English at Wellesley College, where he taught until 1957. His third volume of poetry, Things of This World (1956) , was published and was his most honored book: he received the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. That same year a musical version of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), with lyrics by Wilbur, book by Lillian Hellman, and score by Leonard Bernstein was produced in 1957 at the Martin Beck Theater in New York City.
In 1957 Wilbur began a long tenure as professor of English at Wesleyan University and as advisor for the Wesleyan Poetry Series. He received a Ford Foundation grant in drama and worked with the Alley Theater in Houston. Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems, his fourth book of poetry, appeared in 1961, and his translation of Moliere’s Tartuffe (1963) earned him an award as co recipient of the Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize. The Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre brought his translation of Tartuffe to the stage in New York City in 1964. His collected poems, The Poems of Richard Wilbur, had appeared in 1963, and his fifth book of poetry, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations, followed in 1969. In 1976 his sixth volume of poems, The Mind-Reader, was published, and in 1977 he moved to Smith College as writer-in-residence. He won a second Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for New and Collected Poems (1988), next publishing a book of poetry in 2004, Collected Poems, 1943-2004. A Chancellor Emeritus of The Academy of American Poets, Wilbur currently lives in Cummington, Massachusetts.
Works in Literary Context
The Poetry of Everyday Experience
Wilbur’s vigorous defense of traditional patterns, metrics, and rhyme early on achieved accolades for him as he poeticized to express ”the splendor of mere being.” As the chaotic times of the 1960s evolved, there was less critical approval of his ”controlled” poetry. He continued, though, to compose his delicate verse, making poetry of the mundane—as in ”A Hole in the Floor,” which alludes to the archeological discovery of Troy. Wilbur’s praise for being and nature is heard in his tributes to crickets (”Cigales”) and love (”Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”). A reviewer for the Washington Post comments, ”Throughout his career Wilbur has shown, within the compass of his classicism, enviable variety. His poems describe fountains and fire trucks, grasshoppers and toads, European cities and country pleasures.”
American Realists and Experimentation
Following World War II, American writers and poets began to create innovative and self-aware works reflexively shaped by and shaping the texture of popular culture. From stylistic abstractions of matters elite, poetry increasingly employed exactness of observed detail that reflected influences of lives of the masses. Wilbur’s poetry, though maintaining elements of traditional poetic form, echoes this realism in aspects of his poems, such as ”The Pardon” (1947) where he recounts the death of his dog.
Works in Critical Context
Wilbur has always been recognized as a major literary talent but he has never quite been ranked as one of the two or three best contemporary American poets. Early in his career he was overshadowed as a poet by Robert Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary’s Castle in 1947 (the year Wilbur’s first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, was published) and whose Life Studies (1959) was given principal credit for important new directions in poetry that Wilbur chose not to take. In the 1960s comparisons between Lowell and Wilbur gave way to comparisons between Lowell and James Dickey as the country’s most important poets. Since the 1970s, more critical attention has been given to such poets as John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, James Wright, W. S. Merwin, and James Merrill than to Wilbur.
Things of This World
Things of This World (1956) is widely regarded as containing Wilbur’s most mature, popular, and critically acclaimed work. Wilbur received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the collection. Horace Gregory, in his critique for Partisan Review, concludes with his conviction ”that Things of This World will be regarded by many as the best single book of poems published this year; and I believe that Wilbur’s charm should not be underrated.” Anthony Hecht of the New Republic writes, ”Wilbur’s government of his enormous resources” is what makes these poems triumph. Further analysis of Wilbur’s poems by William Bell written for America emphasizes that Things of This World exemplifies Wilbur as ”a poet of far-ranging and intriguing ideas, and one who practices the fusion of thought and feeling. The reader who takes up Wilbur embarks on exciting adventures of both mind and heart.”
Anthony Hecht of the New Republic writes the following about ”The Mind-Reader,” the long title poem of Wilbur’s collection of the same name: ”This new work bears all the hallmarks of excellence that have stamped Wilbur’s previous work: a kinetic imagination that is rare among poets, as well as an unusually rich and fertile gift for metaphor.” Charles Woodward writes of the work in Contemporary Poetry, ”Between the two poles of sensation and knowledge, Wilbur’s mind functions as mediator.” Wilbur’s poetry recalls that the mind’s reflections are not less ”substantial or valid than the objects of its perceptions.” To the critics who fault the classicism of Wilbur, Rebecca Faery writes, ”The technical virtuosity is dazzling . . . his polish and craftsmanship enable him to use traditional forms without their seeming stale or dated. It is a delight to read Wilbur’s work, and to discover that pleasure is still a legitimate aim of poetry.”
- Ellmann, Doug and Robert O’Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973, pp. 1000-1010.
- Engle, Paul and Joseph Langland, eds. Poet’s Choice. New York: Dial Press, 1962.
- Rosenthal, M. L. The Modern Poets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960.
- Bell, William F. ”At Play on the Shore: Richard Wilbur” America 171 (October 15, 1994): 18-21.
- Faery, Rebecca B. ”The Mind Reader: New Poems.” Hollins Critic 14.2 (April 1977): 15-16
- Gregory, Horace. ”The Poetry of Suburbia.” Partisan Review 13 (Fall 1956): 545-553.
- Hecht, Anthony. ”Master of Metaphor.” The New Republic 2 (May 16, 1988): 23-32.
- Woodward, Charles R. ”Richard Wilbur’s Critical Condition” Contemporary Poetry: A Journal of Criticism 2 (Autumn 1977): 16-24.
- org: from the Academy of American Poets. Richard Wilbur. Retrieved November 29, 2008 from http:// www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/202.
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