Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

Richard Wilbur:
A Critical Survey of His Career

Richard Purdy Wilbur was born on March 1, 1921 in New York City. In a nation famously composed of immigrants, Wilbur had unusually deep native roots–he was an eleventh generation American descended from the original settlers of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. His family, however, was not especially affluent, and his parents reflected an unusual mixture of artistic and middle-class values. His Nebraska-born father, Lawrence Wilbur, had run away to New York City at sixteen to study art. He became a successful commercial artist and later a portrait painter. His mother, Helen Purdy Wilbur, came from a family of newspaper journalists. Not surprisingly, the future poet’s earliest ambitions combined his parents’ two backgrounds; the young Wilbur initially hoped to be a newspaper cartoonist.

Wilbur had an odd but idyllic childhood. In 1923 his family moved to North Caldwell, New Jersey where they rented a pre-Revolutionary stone house on a four-hundred acre estate owned by a charming but eccentric English millionaire. Few other children lived nearby, so the poet and his younger brother Lawrence amused themselves by wandering the farm and countryside. This pleasant rural boyhood surely helped form the imagination that later created such memorable nature poems as "Hamlen Brook" and "The Beautiful Changes."

The Amherst Radical

In 1938 Wilbur entered the then all-male Amherst College where he majored in English. The young poet was a self-styled radical. Although he once dutifully attended a Marx study group (where he fell asleep), his real political passions were for the progressive New Deal programs fostered by President Franklin Roosevelt. During two summers he hitchhiked and rode the rails across Depression-era America–once alone and once with two college friends–an adventure he recounts wryly in the poem, "Piccola Commedia." Today, no one looking at the exceptionally well-groomed and dignified adult poet would guess that he was the only U. S. Poet Laureate to have been a hobo.

At Amherst Wilbur became chairman of the student newspaper to which he contributed both drawings and articles. He also fell in love with Charlotte Ward, a student at nearby Smith College, an all-woman’s college then considered one of Amherst’s "sister schools." The poet often walked the nine miles separating the two schools to visit "Charlee." They married in June 1942 following the poet’s graduation.

War Years

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.

Coming to Harvard

After the end of World War II, Wilbur joined the millions of U. S. veterans who furthered their education on the G. I. Bill. Now with a small daughter (the first of four children–all the rest boys), he entered Harvard Graduate School to study English. After receiving his Master’s Degree in 1947, he spent three years as a Junior Fellow, the university’s highest academic honor for a young scholar, and then joined the Harvard faculty in 1950. In Cambridge Wilbur met many writers who would influence his intellectual development. He also served as a teaching assistant for two of Harvard’s most eminent literary scholars–F. O. Matthiessen, the distinguished intellectual historian of American Renaissance and editor of The Oxford Book of American Verse, and I. A. Richards, the influential literary linguist and author of Practical Criticism.

Wilbur’s most important literary friendship at Harvard, however, was with Robert Frost. Although there was nearly a half century difference in their ages, the two poets became fast friends. The often cantankerous Frost recognized the admiring younger poet’s talent, but what initially caught his attention was Charlee Ward Wilbur’s maiden name. Her grandfather had in 1894 been the first editor to publish Frost’s poems. This early friendship had a lifelong impact on Wilbur. Frost’s poetic style–with its balance of formal music and conversational tone, its engaging surface sense and disturbing depths–deeply influenced Wilbur’s notion of lyric poetry.

Soon Wilbur’s promising scholarly career took an unexpected turn. Although he had written poems since childhood, he had never thought of himself primarily as a poet. During the war he began writing regularly and sent the poems to his wife. She showed one poem to a friend who was an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, one of the nation’s biggest magazines, which published it. Wilbur published no other verse during the war (only a column for his Army Division’s newspaper). At Harvard, he continued writing and published a few poems in small magazines. One day he gave a group of his poems to an Amherst friend who worked as an editor. A few hours later the man returned, and according to Wilbur, "wrapped his arms around me, kissed me on both cheeks, and declared me a poet." (Conversations with Richard Wilbur, 20) The friend quickly convinced the New York firm of Reynal and Hitchcock to publish the manuscript. Few poets have had an easier debut.

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.

Selected Bibliography: Works by Richard Wilbur

Poetry

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.

Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961.

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

Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969.

The Mind-Reader: New Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976.

New and Collected Poems. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1988.

Children’s Poetry

Loudmouse. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1963.

Opposites, drawings by author. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973.

More Opposites. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1991.

A Game of Catch. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

The Disappearing Act. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1998.

Prose

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

The Catbird’s Song: Prose Pieces 1963-1995. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Plays

The Misanthrope, translation of the play by Molière (premiere Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955). New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955.

Candide (lyrics only, with others). Book by Lillian Hellman, music by Leonard Bernstein, adaptation of the novel by Voltaire (premiere New York, 1956). New York: Random House, 1957.

Tartuffe, translation of the play by Molière (premiere Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1964). New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963.

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

The Learned Ladies, translation of the play by Molière (premiere Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1977). New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978.

Andromache, translation of the play by Racine,. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982.

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

Other Translations

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

Interviews

Butts, William, ed. Conversations with Richard Wilbur. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

WORKS ABOUT RICHARD WILBUR

Bawer, Bruce. Prophets & Professors. Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line, 1995.

Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Cummins, Paul. Richard Wilbur. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.

Davison, Peter. The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston 1955-1960. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Hill, Donald L. Richard Wilbur. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.