Richard Wilbur (born 1921) was a distinguished translator and the most accomplished formalist poet of his generation. In 1987 he became poet laureate of the United States.
The son of portrait artist Lawrence Lazear, Richard Wilbur took the surname of his mother, Helen Ruth Wilbur. He was born in 1921 in Manhattan, New York, but two years later his family moved to North Caldwell, New Jersey, at the time a rural village, where he spent his boyhood. Following graduation from Amherst College in 1942, he served with the U.S. Army in Europe, where he witnessed the World War II horrors of Anzio, Cassino, and the Siegfried Line. He later said that these experiences led him to be a poet.
For awhile he toyed with the idea of becoming a political cartoonist, but he soon turned to writing poetry full-time. Wilbur's first book, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, was published in 1947, the same year he completed his masters degree at Harvard. From 1950 to 1954 he was an assistant professor of English at Harvard. He later taught at Wellesley University (1955-1957), Wesleyan University (1957-1977), and Smith College (1977-1986). In 1987-1988 he was the second poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Robert Penn Warren.
Wilbur was a prolific poet who continued to write in traditional forms no matter what the current trend in poetry. His books include Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), Things of This World (1956), Poems, 1943-1956 (1957), Advice to a Prophet, and Other Poems (1961), Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976), Seven Poems (1981), New and Collected Poems (1988), and Runaway Opposites (1995).
Wilbur was also the premier English translator of Moliére, with acclaimed translations of The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), The School for Wives (1971), and The Learned Ladies (1978). The Whale and Other Collected Translations and his translation of Racine's Andromache appeared in 1982. He also wrote books for children, edited works by Shakespeare, Poe, and Witter Bynner, and collaborated with Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein on the operetta Candide. A collection of prose works, Responses, was published in 1976, and another collection, The Catbird's Song: Prose Pieces 1969-1995 in 1997. Wilbur won Pulitzer Prizes in 1957, for Things of This World, and in 1989 for his New and Collected Poems. He also won the National Book Award, Bollingen Prizes for poetry and translation, the Drama Desk Award, and innumerable other honors.
None of Wilbur's contemporaries equalled his mastery of traditional poetic form, but he insisted that none of his works was a formal construction for its own sake. Each arose from an ideal union of form and substance, though followed by years of exacting work as the poem assumed its final shape. Those who considered Wilbur to be merely a self-conscious craftsman and poet of ideas missed the point; he was essentially a visionary poet for whom traditional structure provided ideal forms of poetic expression. In his work the form is a kind of pressure chamber, which by constraining emotion intensifies it, giving it a contained force that would dissipate in less rigorous poetic forms.
Wilbur belongs to the tradition of New England transcendentalists and their immediate successor, Robert Frost. Nature is a frequent subject in Wilbur's poetry, and from Frost and Henry David Thoreau he seems to have acquired an ability to see the natural world with precision. Frost's poetic voice can at times be heard clearly and intentionally in Wilbur's verse, notably in "Seed Time: Homage to R.F." But his poetry also has an elegance and grace largely foreign to Frost and Thoreau.
Wilbur's verse can assume a baroque elegance and complexity that one might expect to find in the work of a European poet. His poetry is often a delicate movement of image, wit, irony, and sound. He can make highly complex syntactical statements seem airy and inevitable.
One of the finest translators of the late 20th century, Wilbur created highly regarded versions of works from Old English, Russian, Latin, Italian, and Spanish, but he was best known for his translations from French. His translations of Villon are perhaps the best in English. As a translator of Moliére he was unequalled, and he successfully adapted English verse to the high passion of Racine's Andromache.
From the beginning of his work (as the title of his first book, The Beautiful Changes suggests), Wilbur was concerned with a theme of change that obsessed the Romantic poets. During the course of his career he shifted from the personal lyric to the dramatic poem, but his obsessive concern with the inevitability of change remained.
Some critics accused Wilbur of ignoring political matters in his poetry, and he usually did, except for works such as "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarren Act" and "To the Student Strikers." His apolitical stance and his refusal to try experimental verse forms harmed Wilbur's reputation in the 1960s and early 1970s. But by the time he was named poet laureate of the United States, those criticisms were largely forgotten and the more traditional poetic forms were making a comeback. In a world forever changing, Wilbur did not try to use poetry to make political statements, but tried to find aesthetic perspectives in which chaos and confusion were momentarily outwitted and a higher, formal order took their place.
Reviewer William F. Bell, in America (October 15, 1994) called him "a poet of virtuosic skill, with remarkable sensitivity to melody and a true genius for metaphor." In the poem, "For Dudley," on the death of poet translator Dudley Fitts, Wilbur wrote, "All that we do/ Is touched with ocean, yet we remain/ On the shore of what we know."
Most of the studies of Wilbur's poetry and translations have been published in critical and scholarly journals. An impressive and well-balanced selection of these articles is available in Richard Wilbur's Creation (1983), edited by Wendy Salinger. Donald L. Hill's Richard Wilbur (1967) should also be consulted. A good, brief overview of Wilbur's work is William F. Bell, America (October 15, 1994). □