Wilbur, Richard (Purdy)

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WILBUR, Richard (Purdy)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1 March 1921. Education: Amherst College, Massachusetts, B.A. 1942, A.M. 1952; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.M. 1947. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1943–45: Sergeant. Family: Married Charlotte Ward in 1942; one daughter and three sons. Career: Member of the Society of Fellows, 1947–50, and assistant professor of English, 1950–54, Harvard University; associate professor of English, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, 1955–57; professor of English, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1957–77; writer-in-residence, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1977–86. General editor, Laurel Poets series, Dell Publishing Company, New York. State Department cultural exchange representative to the U.S.S.R., 1961. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1952, 1963; American Academy in Rome fellowship, 1954; Pulitzer prize, 1957, 1989; National Book award, 1957; Edna St. Vincent Millay memorial award, 1957; Ford fellowship, for drama, 1960; Melville Cane award, 1962; Bollingen prize, for translation, 1963, for poetry, 1971; Sarah Josepha Hale award, 1968; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1970; Henri Desfeuilles prize, 1971; Shelley memorial award, 1973; Harriet Monroe award, 1978; P.E.N. translation award, 1983; Drama Desk award, for translation, 1983; St. Botolph's Club Foundation award, 1983; Camargo Foundation fellowship, 1985; Los Angeles Times prize, 1988; Birmingham-Southern University Grand Master award, 1989; Aiken-Taylor award, 1988; Gold medal for poetry, American Academy of Arts & Letters, 1991; MacDowell medal, 1992; National Arts Club medal of honor for literature, 1994; Pen/ Manheim medal for translation, 1994; National medal of arts, 1994. L.H.D.: Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1960; Washington University, St. Louis, 1964; Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1975; Rochester University, Rochester, New York, 1976; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, 1980; State University of New York, Pottsdam, 1986; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1987. D. Litt.: Amherst College, 1967; Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1970; American International College, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1974; Marquette University, Milwaukee, 1977; Wesleyan University, 1977; Lake Forest College, Illinois, 1982. Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; president, 1974–76, and chancellor, 1976–78, 1980–81, American Academy of Arts & Letters; chancellor emeritus, Academy of American Poets; Chevalier, Ordre National des Palmes Académiques, 1983; United States Poet Laureate, 1987–88. Agent: Gilbert Parker, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019. Address: 87 Dodwells Road, Cummington, Massachusetts 01026, U.S.A.



The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems. New York, Reynal, 1947.

Ceremony and Other Poems. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1950.

Things of This World. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1956; one section reprinted as Digging to China, New York, Doubleday, 1970.

Poems 1943–1956. London, Faber, 1957.

Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1961; London, Faber, 1962.

The Poems of Richard Wilbur. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1963.

The Pelican from a Bestiary of 1120. Privately printed, 1963.

Prince Souvanna Phouma: An Exchange Between Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith. Williamstown, Massachusetts, Chapel Press, 1963.

Complaint. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1968.

Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1969; London, Faber, 1971.

Seed Leaves: Homage to R.F. Boston, Godine, 1974.

The Mind-Reader: New Poems. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1976; London, Faber, 1977.

Verses on the Times, with William Jay Smith. New York, Gutenberg Press, 1978.

Seven Poems. Omaha, Nebraska, Abattoir, 1981.

Pedestrian Flight: Twenty-one Clerihews for the Telephone. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1981.

A Finished Man. Cleveland, Bits Press, 1985.

New and Collected Poems. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1988; London, Faber, 1989.

Bone Key and Other Poems. West Chester, Aralia Press, 1998.

Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. New York, Harcourt Brace, 2000.

Recordings: Poems, Spoken Arts, 1959; Richard Wilbur Reading His Poetry, Caedmon, 1972.


The Misanthrope, translation of the play by Molière (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955; New York, 1956). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1955; London, Faber, 1958; revised version, music by Margaret Pine (produced New York, 1977).

Candide (lyrics only, with others), book by Lillian Hellman, music by Leonard Bernstein, adaptation of the novel by Voltaire (produced New York, 1956; London, 1959). New York, Random House, 1957.

Tartuffe, translation of the play by Molière (produced Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1964; New York, 1965). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1963; London, Faber, 1964.

School for Wives, translation of the play by Molière (produced New York, 1971). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1971.

The Learned Ladies, translation of the play by Molière (produced Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1977; London, 1981). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1978.

Andromache, translation of the play by Racine. New York, HarcourtBrace, 1982.

Molière: Four Comedies (includes The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, School for Wives, and The Learned Ladies). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1982.

Phaedra, translation of the play by Racine (produced Stratford, Ontario, 1990). San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1986.

On Freedom's Ground (cantata), with William Schuman (produced New York, 1986).

The School for Husbands, translation of the play by Molière. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Sganarelle, or The Imaginary Cuckold, translation of the play by Molière. New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1993.

Amphitryon, translation of the play by Molière. New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1995.

Don Juan, translation of the play by Molière. New York, Dramatists Play Service, 1998.


Emily Dickinson: Three Views, with Louise Bogan and Archibald MacLeish. Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst College Press, 1960.

Loudmouse (for children). London, Crowell Collier, and New York, Collier Macmillan, 1963.

Opposites (for children), drawings by the author. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1973.

Responses: Prose Pieces 1953–1976. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1976.

The Whale and Other Uncollected Translations. Brockport, New York, BOA, 1982.

On My Own Work. Portree, Isle of Skye, Aquila, 1983.

Conversations with Richard Wilbur, edited by William Butts. University, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

More Opposites (for children). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1991.

A Game of Catch (for children). San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1994.

The Disappearing Alphabet (for children). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Editor, with Louis Untermeyer and Karl Shapiro, Modern American and Modern British Poetry, revised shorter edition. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1955.

Editor, A Bestiary (anthology). New York, Pantheon, 1955.

Editor, Complete Poems of Poe. New York, Dell, 1959.

Editor, with Alfred B. Harbage, Poems of Shakespeare. London, Penguin, 1966; revised edition, as The Narrative Poems, and Poems of Doubtful Authenticity, 1974.

Editor, Selected Poems, by Witter Bynner. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Faber, 1978.

Translator, The Funeral of Bobo, by Joseph Brodsky. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ardis, 1974.


Bibliography: Richard Wilbur: A Bibliographical Checklist by John P. Field, Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1971.

Manuscript Collections: Amherst College, Massachusetts; Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York, Buffalo.

Critical Studies: Richard Wilbur by Donald L. Hill, New York, Twayne, 1967; Richard Wilbur by Paul F. Cummins, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1971; "On Richard Wilbur" by William Heyen, summer 1973, "Verse Translation and Richard Wilbur" by Raymond Oliver, spring 1975, and "Richard Wilbur: The Quarrel with Poe" by Bruce F. Michelson, spring 1978, all in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana); "The Motions of the Mind" by Anthony Hecht, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 20 May 1977; "The Cheshire Smile: On Richard Wilbur" by Mary Kinzie, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), May-June 1977; "Richard Wilbur's World" by Robert B. Shaw, in Parnassus (New York), spring-summer 1977; "Reconsideration: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur" by Frank McConnell, in New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 29 July 1978; Richard Wilbur's Creation edited by Wendy Salinger, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1983; Wilbur's Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time by Bruce Michelson, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991; Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide by Frances Butler, N.p., G.K. Hall & Company, 1991; The Happiest Intellection: Richard Wilbur's Poetry (master's thesis) by Harriet Milsted Doty, Wake Forest University, 1993; Richard Wilbur issue of Christianity and Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 42(4), summer 1993; To Tread Mind Fields: Controversy and the Poetry of Richard Wilbur (master's thesis) by Gus Pollock, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, 1993; Richard Wilbur and the Poetry of Apocalyptic Interstices (dissertation) by Randall D. Compton, University of North Texas, 1994; "Richard Purdy Wilbur: A Review of the Research and Criticism" by Frances Bixler and Jane Hoogestraat, in Resources for American Literary Study (University Park, Pennsylvania), 20(1), 1994; The Radical Integration of Science, Religion, and Poetry in theWritings of Loren Eiseley and Richard Wilbur (dissertation) by Betty Ritz Rogers, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1995; Ecstasy within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur by John B. Hougen, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1995; A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur by Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1995; "Modern Poetry after Modernism: The Example of Richard Wilbur" by James Longenbach, in The Future of Modernism, edited by Hugh Witemeyer, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997; "The Reflexive Art of Richard Wilbur" by J.M. Reibetanz, in University of Toronto Quarterly, 67(2), spring 1998; Richard Wilbur issue of War, Literature, and the Arts (U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado), 10(1), spring-summer 1998.

Richard Wilbur comments:

Poetry, for me, is an exasperating and clarifying play with certain images and themes that I cannot escape and prefer not to state here in prose. As the title of my selected prose (Responses) would suggest, I have generally written criticism on invitation, but also out of an appreciative involvement with the subject. My translations also have largely come about through a sense of affinity, a desire to put whatever knacks I may have at the service of some admired original.

*  *  *

Richard Wilbur's poetry is graceful, at times elegant, and it is highly literary and deeply felt. It awakens the child or the lover in the reader and shows, with an unerring sense of language and image, the sturdiness of nature and the mystery of the world and love. He knows his craft, and metered poetry and rhyme seemingly come effortlessly to him. His subjects—human relationships, nature, tradition, and divinity—are ones he has explored many times in his poetry, indeed, using his favorite images to see anew a moment in time or a scene in nature. Anyone who admires Frost's poetry or who takes pleasure in a poet who can imbue a stalk of corn, a spider web, a stand of trees, a gambler, and a bully with both an immediacy and transcendence will want to read Wilbur's verse. For readers bred on Shakespeare and fond of Molière, Mallarmé, and the Greeks, Wilbur is a must read. He is steeped in literary traditions but is unostentatious in his use of metaphor and allusion. In 1987 Wilbur became the second U.S. poet laureate, succeeding Robert Penn Warren. Wilbur was well suited to the role, skilled at rendering occasional poems that escape the ceremonial pomp so often marring such ventures.

Wilbur's verse meets the criteria he set forth in an essay in 1966 by which poetry should be judged. In "Poetry and Happiness" he wrote, "When the sensibility is sufficient to the expression of the world, and when the world, in turn, is answerable to the poet's mind and heart, then the poet is happy, and can make his reader so." Wilbur has often been accused of wanting passion in his poetry, of writing a poetry that is too academic and that lacks the scope and grandeur of subject that distinguishes the greatest poets. Nonetheless, Wilbur has held to his own standard while at the same time defending his practice. He continues to strike the difficult balance between solipsism and the scientific objectivity upon which his best poetry depends.

Wilbur's poem "Cottage Street, 1953" (The Mind-Reader) answers the critic who holds that the play of the mind upon an object has become unfashionable, that only the noisy iconoclasm of the beats or the naked outpourings of the psyche by the confessional poets can excite emotions proper to poetry. The poem also implicitly sustains Wilbur's belief that even in this day a baroque fountain in the Villa Sciarra, a Delacroix painting, or a boy grown into a man asking forgiveness of his dead dog are as significant subjects for verse as man's passions or private confessions.

"Cottage Street, 1953" recalls a gathering shortly after Sylvia Plath's unsuccessful suicide attempt. It takes place in the Cambridge kitchen of Edna Ward, Wilbur's mother-in-law, and Wilbur and Plath's mother are present. In an atmosphere of strain Ward, Wilbur, and Plath's mother struggle to cheer up Plath. Wilbur concludes his poem by affirming the love of Ward over the denial of Plath:

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love.
Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Wilbur's poems acknowledge pain. His early poems protesting World War II and his occasional poems on the Vietnam War decry war's disorder. The complex and infinitely rich "Castles and Distances" brilliantly knits blood and love together:

	Oh, it is hunters alone
Regret the beastly pain, it is they who love the foe
That quarries out their force, and every arrow
Is feathered soft with wishes to atone;
Even the surest sword in sorrow
Bleeds for its spoiling blow.

Some of the lines in the poem make us feel the "harpoon's hurt," the piteous eyes of the "hounded stag," the seeming wantonness of slaughter, but others recast the pain, not softening but altering it, reminding us that pain and joy can exist together. Neither can be eliminated; experience will not allow the simple, albeit brilliant, denial of Sylvia Plath.

To complain that Wilbur is "shy" or "restrained" or "too charitable" is to misunderstand the intent of his poems, which is not to distort but rightly to see the tensions that inform our sense of the world, to set isolated moments in perspective. Wilbur's is a world of balanced discord.

In "Poetry and Happiness" Wilbur acknowledges his debt to John Crowe Ransom and defends his choice to write stanzaically formal verse, full of practiced metrical irregularities that set forth contrapuntally thesis and antithesis and that reach a resolution appropriately ironic to suit the disordered world mirrored in the poems. He observes that his poetry has grown plainer over the years, more direct and less precocious, with fewer of the jaunty verbal techniques of a poet-juggler. His manner moves slightly away from the ironic meditative lyric of "Caserta Garden" and "A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra" toward the dramatic poem, as in "Two Voices in a Meadow," which presents the speaking voices of a milkweed plant and a stone. The common theme of his poetry has to do with "the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit."

The poems in Walking to Sleep and The Mind-Reader evolve in the direction Wilbur described in his earlier essay while remaining constant to his themes and sensibility. Most often he is fascinated by a highly kinesthetic poetry. In "Grace" he writes of the pause and the leap, saying, "And Nijinsky hadn't the words to make the laws / For learning to loiter in air; he 'merely' said, / 'I merely leap and pause.'" Wilbur's poetry searches for the words Nijinsky lacked. Frequently Wilbur develops his poems by arresting the reader's eye and taking it through a minute study of the object—be it from nature, history, legend, or his personal past—that the poem contemplates. As he unfolds the object to the seer, he uses a language of such studied movement and rest that we delight at the variety of ways in which a thing can move, and we marvel at the final figure of the poem that balances the conflicting motions. Poems such as "Lightness," "The Juggler," and "On the Marginal Way" typify this method.

Thinking about the relationship between ideas and poetry, Wilbur writes, "What poetry does with ideas is redeem them from abstraction and submerge them in sensibility." "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" discovers the corporeal in the spiritual and makes us marvel at the poet's fanciful meditation on a line of laundry hanging in the sun. "The Eye" and "The Fourth of July," both in The Mind-Reader, make ideas live. His diction in this collection remains academic, but he experiments more with a colloquial speech. "Piccola Commedia" can be seen to have descended from "A Black November Turkey" (Poems, 1943–1956). He demurs from speaking directly of his life; his personal poems speak obliquely, and he mostly relies on humor and the fanciful to distance himself. "The Writer" is an excellent illustration of how Wilbur depicts a private family moment with affection, light humor, and candor. The blank verse poems "In Limbo" and "The Mind-Reader," along with "Walking to Sleep," depart from most of Wilbur's verse in their length and sustained characterization of himself, but their concern with perspective, irony, minute detail, and a speech of varied kinds immediately relates them thematically and tonally to the body of his writing.

Wilbur's New and Collected Poems contains a collection of all of his earlier volumes of poetry—arranged, unaltered, and with no omissions and in reverse chronological order—along with twenty-seven new poems, including the lyrics for the cantata "On Freedom's Ground." The cantata was done in collaboration with William Schuman and performed at Lincoln Center in 1986 in celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. Wilbur's new poems are somewhat plainer in style. "The Ride," "Lying," "Leaving," "A Finished Man," and "For W.H. Auden" represent the range and accomplishments of the best of them. "The Ride" is beautiful and haunting in its simplicity, recalling the speaker's dream ride on the back of a horse through a snowstorm and "shattering vacancies" and

On into what was not,
Till the weave of the storm grew thin,
With a threading of cedar-smoke,
And the ice-blind pane of an inn
Shimmered, and I awoke.
How shall I now get back?
To the inn-yard where he stands,
Burdened with every lack,
And waken the stable-hands
To give him, before I think
That there was no horse at all,
Some hay, some water to drink,
A blanket and a stall?

The mythopoetic qualities of the dream and the care of the speaker for the horse and, in even stranger ways, for himself are deeply affecting.

"Lying" captures another aspect of Wilbur's poetic sensibility. It expresses his belief that finally there is no invention but only a "bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light." This poem sums up Wilbur's artistic credo, using words and images and discursive turns that show him at his best, an exact witness of nature and man's changing ways. "Leaving" casts the poet's eye upon the ending of a garden party and his leave-taking, seeing the hostess and her guests and the gamboling children and himself as if they were figures in a charade or a masque in which all have briefly taken on a larger self, a part they would not have played had they glimpsed themselves as he does in his moment of parting. "A Finished Man" echoes some of the language and rhythms of Yeats's "The Tower" and mocks the learned, ceremonial public man who is brought back to a campus to dedicate a monumental gym. "For W.H. Auden" demonstrates Wilbur's technical mastery and offers an elegiac verse in praise of Auden. Many of the new poems show Wilbur's humility, his humor, his deep connections to nature and people, and his love of words.

Mayflies, a slender volume published in 2000, gathers together all of the poems Wilbur has written since New and Collected Poems, published twelve years earlier, along with some new translations. The volume continues the trend toward greater simplicity and grace. Poems such as "A Barred Owl," "Zea" (a poem on cornstalks), "For C." (written for his wife), and "A Wall in the Woods: Cummington" have all of the elegance and beauty and poignancy so characteristic of Wilbur. "Bonds" and several exceedingly short poems display the acuity of his mind in a playful but serious way. Most of the poems in the collection have a striking simplicity, a quietly witty turn, a sense of deep moral fiber, and great personal caring for people and nature. Critics will undoubtedly complain that this brilliant, elegant poet has always worked in much the same range and has lacked the scope and daring of the greatest poets. The poetry of his late period has none of the lust and force of Yeats's late verse or the religious turn of T.S. Eliot, nor does it show the wrenching emotions of a soul in pain. His poetry is quieter, more firmly planted, but it is also quizzical and full of wonder for the world he inhabits and the people most dear to him, his wife and daughter. And finally the notes at the end and the translations again show us the man of learning who painstakingly keeps educating his reader to past traditions, older meanings, and other poets in his craft. He continues to demonstrate that he has one of the finest metrical ears and best sense of the musicality in language of any poet writing today.

—Carol Simpson Stern