Richard Wilbur (1921 -)

Life and Works

Richard Wilbur may be considered as that rarity of the era, the cheerful poet. During World War II, his poetic voice emerged from experiences in southern France and Italy, where he first began writing with one purpose: to impose order on a world gone to pieces. He is notable for rejecting the confessional voices of some of his contemporaries, and he has divided his lyric perfectionism between original collections and award-winning translations of Voltaire's Candide and the plays of Jean Racine and Molière. Along with an extraordinary number of citations for excellence, he has earned his share of lumps for avoiding tragedy and concealing ambivalence. Most of all, critics seem intent on castigating him for skirting the modern and postmodern obsessions with politicized verse and stylistic experimentation. As Peter Davison puts it from a personal perspective:

Wilbur more than other poets of his generation was able to find, in the world as it was, drama, conflict, irony, and beauty, and he has continued to give himself over to that form of utterance for a lifetime. Unlike most of the work of his contemporaries, his is a poetry seldom given to the first person, to the revelation of interior states, to psychic or emotional agitation. Donald Hall has dubbed it 'invulnerable'. Wilbur shunned the high-profile self-expression of Jarrell, Berryman, Roethke, Lowell and others by retaining - with whatever inner difficulty - his balance, his equability, his willingness to convey, like his father the portrait painter, the inner states of other persons, other actors, and to avoid both the private and the aesthetic dangers of self-revelation.

Richard P. Wilbur is a native New Yorker, born on March 1, 1921. The son of a commercial artist, Wilbur was interested in painting as a youth; but the eventually opted to pursue writing as his avocation, a decision he attributes to the influence of his mother's father and grandfather, both of whom were editors. As a student, Wilbur wrote stories, editorials, and poems for his college newspaper and magazine, but, as the poet comments in Twentieth-Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature: "It was not until World War II took me to Cassino, Anzio, and the Siegfried Line that I began to versify in earnest. One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one's world somehow gets out of hand." Witnessing war firsthand has had a major effect on Wilbur's poetry. Because of this motivation, Wilbur's first collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, contains "more poetic exercises on how to face the problems of disorder and destruction than laments over the losses occasioned by the war," notes Calhoun. The poems in this book, according to Donald L. Hill in this Richard Wilbur, also demonstrate "a pervasive good humour, a sweetness of spirit, unusual among the major poets of the century." This approach that Wilbur uses in his poetry has caused some critics of his early work to charge the poet with avoiding tragic themes by covering them with purely aesthetic verse. James Dickey, for instance, writes in his book, Babel to Byzantium, that one has "the feeling that the cleverness of phrase and the delicious aptness of Wilbur's poems sometimes mask an unwillingness or inability to think or feel deeply; that the poems tend to lapse toward highly sophisticated play." John Reibetanz speculates in Modern Poetry Studies that this is because "for Richard Wilbur, the sights offered by World War II contradict and threaten his most basic beliefs, as we can infer them from his writings: that love is more powerful than hatred; that nature is a source of values and of reassurance; and that there is a strong creative urge in both man and nature which constantly seeks and finds expression in images of graceful plenitude." "But in the 1940's," Reibetanz concludes, "the utter disparity between what he saw and what he wished to see made him run for cover." With a touch of mock-heroic, Wilbur's "The Death of the Toad" (1950) ennobles a small being savaged by a lawn mower in a scenario as delicately interwoven as an impressionist painting. The meticulous shaping of line lengths - from four to six beats and back down to four, four, and three - suits the precise rhyming pattern of aabcbc. The purpose of so much discipline of language emerges from the lighthearted beats that elevate a dying amphibian to the all-seeying eye of nature. Hidden in green bower, he grows still as the life force drains away. Misinterpreted as a sage, the body gives up its life, but leaves the eye alert.

Wilbur carries the poem beyond the toad's death to the impression it leaves on the viewer. The poet tweaks the imagination with the multiple possibilities of 'dies/ Toward some deep monotone,' a suggestion of synesthesia in the pun die/dye, and the merger of monochromatic sound and the single colour that camouflages the maimed body. The compact action thrusts the expiring toad toward loftier destinations in the third stanza. Removed to an amphibian afterlife, the toad spirit leaves behind the still corpse, which seems to observe across cut grass in the middle distance the ignoble death of the day.

Similarly luxuriant in image, rhyme, and sibilance, "A World Without Objects Is a Sensible Emptiness" (1950) is a poetic interpretation on a line by English metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne. In grandly measured beats, the poet contrasts the aridity of the spiritual desert to the soul-nourishing light of the real world. With double address to the mounted magi, grandly upraised and borne away at a stately gait, the poet calls to his wandering spirit, represented by the camel train. The call serves as a retort to critics who reject Wilbur's disdain of dense, emotionally twisted verse. Rather than search for illusory gold, he impels his imagination to richer rewards in the real world as opposed to the outward reach for 'fine sleights of the sand,' a pun on 'sleight of hand' or trickery. Unlike the mirages that 'shimmer on the brink,' the 'light incarnate' of Bethlehem's star over Christ's manger suits the spirit's need. From 1952 to 1953, Wilbur settled in Sandoval, an artists' enclave northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After teaching English at Wellesley, he moved on to Wesleyan University, where he served on the faculty for twenty years. Early in his writing career, he earned the Harriet Monroe prize, Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial award, Oscar Blumenthal prize, and two Guggenheim fellowships. He completed a masterwork, Things of This World: Poems (1957), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and followed with Advice to a Prophet (1961) and Walking to Sleep (1969). In his mature years, he collaborated with playwright Lillian Hellman and composer Leonard Bernstein on a musical setting of Voltaire's utopian fantasy Candide (1957) and translated three of Molière's comedies: The Misanthrope (1955), Tartuffe (1963), and The School for Wives (1971). The second of these earned him the Bollingen Prize for translation. At a mellower stage of artistry, Wilbur composed his famous dramatic monologue, "The Mind-Reader" (1976). In the tradition of Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto", the speaker muses on loss. From a drifting vision of a sun-hat cartwheeling over a wall, the speaker moves to a more mundane pipe-wrench jolted off a truck and a book fallen from the reader's hand and slipped over the side of an ocean-going steamer. In each action, the objects are lost during a forward motion, which contrasts the static pose of the mind-reader. At line 20, the clairvoyant inserts four lines to differentiate between objects that slip from consciousness and others imprisoned in deliberate forgetting, a hint that his own psyche chooses oblivion over memory. The poem moves inward in line 24 to a lengthy recall of how, in childhood, the mind-reader earned a reputation for locating lost objects. To explain the art, the speaker enlarges on the mental landscape, a difficult sweep of ground over which memory searches for misplaced items. Employing three models - eyes searching a crowd, a key enwebbed in tangled threads, and a faded snapshot in an album - the speaker asserts that nothing good or bad is truly forgotten, neither ?Meanness, obscenity, humiliation / Terror' nor 'pulse / Of happiness.'

The poem grows more intimate in line 68 with a description of the mind-reader's daily fare. Seated in a café and identified by grey hair and persistent smoking, he drinks away the day and night while assisting a stream of questers searching for answers to their problems. The mind-reader's method calls for the seeker to write the question on paper. While the speaker smokes and plays the part of Delphic oracle, he uses practical wisdom of human nature to locate an answer. Implicit in the explanation is the speaker's unstated misery. Confessing to fakery and to his own hurt is the truth of the mind-reader's act, 'I have no answers.' In the falling action, his retreat into free drinks suggests that skill in reading other's sufferings is a carefully staged hoax. Beyond the facts that he recovers, he presses his own consciousness to observe nothing but oblivion.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Wilbur remained active as teacher and poet. He served Smith College as writer in residence and the Library of Congress as its second Poet Laureate of the United States. His more recent publications include New and Collected Poems (1988) and A Game of Catch (1994), children's verse in More Opposites (1991) and Runaway Opposites (1995), and two additional translations, The School for Husbands by Molière (1992) and The Imaginary Cuckold (1993).

Analyzing the laureate's book New and Collected Poems, Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Joshua Odell believes these newer poems "clearly show a continued evolution in style from an ornate elegance found particularly in Wilbur's first collection, The Beautiful Changes, toward a simple, direct and crisp verse." Still, poems like those in The Mind Reader manage "to stand up against every kind of poetic chic," according to Bruce Michelson in Southern Review. And as some critics have noted, the changes in Wilbur's poetry have not affected the basic philosophy his verses have always shown. "He seems to be seeking even firmer and more affirmative statements of the need for order and responsibility; and his tone in the later poems is more confident, more self-assured," asserts Calhoun. This is a need that Wilbur feels all poets should attempt to meet in their work. In his book, Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976, the laureate declares: "Every poet is impelled to utter the whole of the world that is real to him, to respond to that world in some spirit, and to draw all its parts toward some coherence." Wilbur's insistence on formalism, critics soon found, was naturally suited to his work in translating French poetry and plays. Speaking of his "tactful, metrical and speakable translation of verse drama," Hudson Review critic Alan Shaw comments: "Wilbur's [translations] are almost the solitary example of this kind in English. And it is precisely, I think, because he has stood somewhat apart from the tradition on English-language poetry in this century . . . that he has been able to achieve this." He concludes that "Richard Wilbur's translations of classic French drama are among the undiscovered treasure of our recent literature." The expertise and importance of the poet's translations of plays by Moliere, Voltaire, and Racine has been little questioned by reviewers. "The rendition [of Moliere's The Misanthrope], delightful and literate, made Moliere accessible for the first time to a wide American audience and was the start of a lucrative sideline for the poet," writes David H. Van Biema in People. Compared to other translators, Saturday Review contributor John Ciardi believes that "instead of cognate-snapping, as the academic dullards invariably do, [in his translation of The Misanthrope ] Wilbur has found English equivalents for the turn and nuance of the French, and the fact that he has managed to do so in rhymed couplets that not only respect themselves as English poetry but allow the play to be staged . . . with great success is testament enough."